By Devon “Doc” Wendell
I can still see and feel it as if it were yesterday. Lost in a daydream in the final stages of some pre-pubescent heaven or hell was this long, slender goddess walking past me as I sat on a stoop on Henry Street in Brooklyn. She wore a tan short skirt and high heels. Her hips moved from left to right in a rhythmic pattern that I would be lost in for the rest of my life. And there it was, the sound that went with it. Muddy Waters belting out “Just To Be With You” that I had recorded off a radio show broadcast out of Newark, N.J. at 3:00am a month earlier.
The tempo, the bass thumping, the screaming harmonica, the languid but blistering guitar lines and Muddy’s voice all felt as if he were right there next to me, watching her every move in front of that old brown stone. If I could only speak to her or sing like Muddy with that sense of pleading, desperation, experience, and power, she might look back and smile. Of course, there was more than a desire for just a smile, but I had to be realistic.
Before I knew it, she had turned a corner and was gone forever, the start of a frustrating pattern for me — but that music stuck around. It stayed through all of the missed opportunities for dates due to a crippling shyness, through all of the stacks of nudie magazines and viewings of Charlie’s Angels, through my first break up to my last. The blues was there.
I knew from the affect it had on me — that this was not kiddy music.
From that time — when I was about eleven years old, gawking at that beauty of Brooklyn — to the present age of 37, the blues, for me, has always been synonymous with sex. Rock n’ roll tried too hard. Mick Jagger prancing around onstage, trying to sound American was so forced, and that rhythm wasn’t there. Mick acted like he knew and labored to prove to everyone that he did.
But it didn’t feel the same as it did with a true bluesman. It didn’t seem as though they had to put that much effort into it. If anything, they had to struggle to tame the flames as they rose to their heights, to control the powerful, commanding force that has taken down empires. It’s all right there. Howlin’ Wolf’s ethereal moans on “Moanin’ At Midnight,” with its one hypnotic chord, felt sweaty, giving me a delightful anxiousness, along with flashes of the girls who attended Catholic School with me, and the parts of their bodies not hidden beneath their drab uniforms (as close as I would ever get). It happened instantaneously when I’d hear that sound.
It still does. I could just look at footage of Muddy Waters or Ray Charles, at their facial expression and body language, and I knew that they understood something so sweet that I didn’t fully at eleven. I would get it later on in high school and when I did, it felt as if I finally got something right about the world.
During my initial carnal baptisms, I would often get hit with quick images of Ray Charles smiling and singing “My Bonnie,” which I had seen when I was seven or eight on a PBS fundraiser. That smile spoke volumes. Even before those written clichés about the forbidden relationship between gospel, blues, and rock n’ roll, it was clear that Ray’s higher power wasn’t always God.
B.B. King painted the picture with his guitar Lucille (aptly named after a woman). His big thick bright tone, string bending (sometimes fast, sometimes slow) and his vocal-like phrasing were this wonderful assault on the libido. He knew to take his time so you’d get the full picture undistorted. B.B.’s steady vibrato mimicked a woman’s voice crying out in sheer pleasure.
At the time I first discovered B.B.’s sound, the popular guitarists of the day played a million notes at once and with a thin, shrill tone. Those heavy metal shredders played like they had never seen or touched a good (or bad) woman in their lives. It wasn’t even “quickie” music with its fast tempos.
B.B.’s band would lock into that gutbucket slow soul and, mixed with what he was (and wasn’t) playing on Lucille, it was all over for me. I could see Parades of Playboy bunnies dancing around my unmade bed while I sat there with a pair of earphones plugged into my cheap cassette player.
Also in my teens, I remember watching a film of the late great Freddie King in 1966 when he appeared on a television show called The Beat. A friend inquired “Why is he sweating and why are his eyes closed so tight?” and I felt sorry for my pal. He didn’t have access to the key to that kingdom. It was so obvious that Freddie had been there and back and would die right there on stage for it while singing “I Love The Woman” with every ounce of energy, ecstasy, sorrow, and regret — and he made it all seem worth it.
I knew if I could summon that kind of power, I could enter the kingdom and be a part of this exclusive club of mighty misogynists (which only seemed cool in my twisted youth). And that became my primary focus. Once I had my first guitar, as often as I constantly practiced along with records by Muddy, B.B., Albert King, Son House, and Lightnin’ Hopkins, I also worked on the attitude. That “Come here, baby, and sit on daddy’s knee” swagger gave me the much needed confidence that finally demolished all shyness.
During my senior year in high school, I was lucky enough to meet the late John Lee Hooker at The Beacon Theater in NYC after his performance. He spoke freely of women and the blues. He also called me “Doc” a few times and I would rename myself that to go with this new sense of self. Devon wasn’t really a cool blues name and everything had to fit or I might end up looking as foolish as Mick Jagger.
I was also hearing the mythical stories of Robert Johnson and how he had women all over the Mississippi Delta, cooking for him, giving him their bodies, money, places to stay, words of encouragement, and anything he desired. I failed to look at where his confidence and behavior would ultimately lead him after he was supposedly given some poisoned whiskey by a jealous man after having a tryst with the wrong woman. Those kinds of consequences meant nothing to me as a teen, for I had no prior experiences with making such bad decisions, but they frighten me to the core today.
Today you can hear Howlin’ Wolf’s “Smokestack Lightnin’” on a commercial for Viagra. Sure, the message is less than subtle, but that image of sexual potency in the blues still lives on. I can’t help but think Viagra would not be needed if a steady dose of Muddy’s and Wolf’s music were initially part of the diet, but some of us learn later than others. I’m glad I got a head start.