Saturday, May 30, 2015

Douglas Messerli | "The Thrill" (on B. B. King)

The Thrill
by Douglas Messerli

What might I possibly offer to the long and distinguished commentary and praise of Blues artist B. B. King, who died on May 14, at the age of 89? I saw him only once in concert, early in Howard and my relationship, probably in 1971 or 1972, when I had just begun graduate school at the University of Maryland. He performed in the Terps’ huge basketball stadium, where Howard had also seen him play years earlier as an undergraduate at the university.

      I didn’t truly understand Blues music back then; I was a lover of classical musical, Broadway musicals, and some jazz. I was just beginning to learn about opera, and developing—years after most of my generation—an appreciation for the popular music with which I’d grown up but had attempted, quite successfully, to block out of my consciousness. Sure, I knew the Beatles, but I didn’t truly appreciate them. I knew and loved folk music, I loved nearly all the choral compositions I’d sung in university and church choruses. I loved most symphonic music. I’d loved Nina Simone, Bessie Smith, Lena Horne, the young Ethel Waters. But I was narrow-minded, still a square. Fats Waller, he was okay. Scott Joplin was a spirited delight. Pearl Bailey was wonderful. Frank Sinatra, however, did not impress me. Bing Crosby was ridiculously passe. I knew music but I didn’t understand it the way a true connoisseur might.  What was this grunting, groaning music that I experienced on that long ago night?
      When I look back to that evening’s performance, I always think of Eudora Welty’s beautiful story, “Powerhouse,” a story of a late-night Black singer in a Southern White bar, where he and his band (she based the story on a concert by Fats Waller) entertained the folk, but found little solace in their breaks and after-performance evenings, when they were forced to go elsewhere to drink and eat. The wide-open howl of Waller she describes is not exactly B. B. King’s style, but the sorrowful songs he sung certainly shared some of the same sensibility.
     No, the series of hissing sibilants I just mouthed do no justice to the primal lyrics of “The Thrill Is Gone” where trumpets and trombones blare out a brief fanfare before King’s instrument throbs out a tremolo for about 40 seconds before the singer rasps in a somewhat declarative voice his pain and disappointment, hinting, nonetheless, of a deep resignation of the truth: 

                          The thrill is gone
                          The thrill is gone away
                          The thrill is gone, baby
                          The thrill is gone away
                          You know you done me wrong, baby
                          And you’ll be sorry some day

The large lush strings of his back-up band—more in the style of Count Bassie’s big band than in the manner of his Blues peers such as Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf—reiterate the plaintive fretting of his guitar. 

                           The thrill is gone
                           It’s gone away from me
                           All the thrill is gone, baby
                           The thrill is gone away from me
                           Although, I’ll still live on
                           But so lonely I’ll be

We can see the big man’s hurting, he’s sweating, wiping his face with a rag as if he were washing away his tears. But if he’s suffering, he won’t allow it to take him over personally except through the shaking fretwork of the guitar strings. 
      Nearly every day, so it appears, the singer wakes up sad. In “Woke Up This Morning,” not only is the thrill gone, but so is his “baby”:

                         I woke up this morning, my baby was gone
                         Woke up this morning, my baby was gone
                         I’ve been so bad, I’m all alone

                         I ain’t got nobody stayin’ home with me
                         I ain’t got nobody stayin’ home with me
                         My baby’s she’s gone, I’m in misery

        In “Stormy Monday” he is just as blue:

They called it stormy Monday, but Tuesday is just as bad
Oh, they called it, the called it stormy Monday, but 
Tuesday is just as bad
Oh, Wednesday is the worst and Thursday oh so sad

“The eagle flies on Friday”—and suddenly, as if freed by that flight, the mournful growler gets sassy, almost sashaying through Saturday as he goes “out to play.” Just as quickly, and inevitably, he seems to become stopped in his tracks as Sunday comes round, when he falls “on [his] knees” to pray.
       In truth, we now know, performing nearly every night of year on the road, this great Blues Boy was the one who, seldom home, had “gone away,” and if his wives walked out on him it was surely with good reason. No, King’s true love was his guitar Lucille—everyone knows his many guitars all bore the name of a woman over whom men were fighting one night before a fire begin, forcing the singer to flee before returning to reclaim the high-strung love of his life, —and us, the audience to whom he sang of his ordeals.. And as sad and bad as he may have been in real life, he was never these things to us, who were just thrilled by the generous growl of his suffering voice.
      That night with B. B. King, for the first time in my life I think, I felt I knew what it was like to “be blue.”

Los Angeles, May 30, 2015