Peace and happiness

Ted Hawkins' music isn't about his difficult past, but his promising future

Ted Hawkins was born in 1936 to a father he never knew and an alcoholic mother in Lakeshore, Mississippi, a speck of a town defined by its desolation and poverty. He spent most of his teens bouncing in and out of reform schools, then jails, and on chain gangs picking cotton. When he was released, Hawkins rode the rails, landing in Philadelphia, Chicago, Buffalo, then finally Los Angeles, a place where the cold wouldn't find him.

It was 28 years ago that Hawkins bought a guitar and began playing on the streets of L.A. and the sandy sidewalks of Venice Beach, busking for spare change, trying to raise enough dough to feed himself and the family he had acquired. He would record for a producer in 1971, wind up in jail after that, then watch as those tapes were released as an album in 1982 (Watch Your Step) to five-star critical acclaim in Rolling Stone Record Guide; three more albums followed, only one gaining U.S. release. Twelve years after that, so the story goes, he would be discovered and release his "debut" album for Geffen Records, garnering the sort of critical acclaim reserved for lost legends and new-found geniuses.

What it took Hawkins, now 58, a lifetime to experience only takes a few words to recount in a record company biography. Hawkins now has no desire to go through the story one more time with another writer. Since last spring's release of The Next Hundred Years, a record that lays bare its pain and pride with unflinching candor, Hawkins has read dozens of writers' interpretations of his life, and even been judged against them.

No more, he insists, saying he doesn't "jump at the chance to milk my personal problems for the media," and that "the music is about where I'm going, not about where I've been."

"I just want to get on with living what's left of the rest of my life," he says. "I'm not interested in pulling skeletons out of the closet or raising the dead, and I'd appreciate it if everybody would respect that option. I'm not running for president. I'm just trying to sing a few songs.

"I don't care how people hate me or what they say about what happened in the past, we can't change it by a whole lot of talkin' or a whole lot of writin' against a person."

And besides, if it's the life story that draws the audiences, it's the music that nails them to their seats. To listen to Hawkins sing is to hear a voice that recalls the legendary dead: Sam Cooke, Wilson Pickett, Otis Redding, Mississippi John Hurt; it's a voice that strains and soars, one that echoes his past without being trapped in it. He's no more a blues artist than Sam Cooke was a gospel singer; he exists somewhere in that boundaryless musical world where genres and styles merge into a nameless one, where country sounds like blues sounds like soul sounds like Ted Hawkins.

His is a voice that bores under your skin and into your heart, reminding you of what it was about music that made you love it in the first place. To say Ted Hawkins' music is personal and intimate would diminish the point; one does not dangle over the precipice only to return to tell of false moments, just as one doesn't sing to stay alive and then go through the motions. He speaks of a need for more "tear-jerkers" and "songs that tug at your heart," but he covers all the bases, as unrelentingly depressing as he is cheerfully optimistic. It's like the title says: The Next Hundred Years, what's to come over the long haul and what's come to pass over a brief lifetime that has seemed like an eternity.

"I've got big things to do," Hawkins sings two songs into the record, "Too soon my life will be through / Got no time to stop / And pick no flowers." He writes and performs like a man possessed, as though he's constantly aware that something--once the law, now probably time and inevitable death from his diabetes--is gaining on him, trying to shut him up. For someone who never went to school and only learned how to read and write much later, Hawkins crafts perfect lyrics strewn with metaphors and crystal-clear images. When he sings of needing to "know somebody that knows somebody" to climb the "Ladder of Success," he isn't referring to the record-label honchos who rescued him from obscurity but of God--that is, "the maker" who "will help you make it."

"The Good and the Bad," though, is perhaps his finest moment, subverting our notions of what's good and bad till he has turned expectations inside-out. "Laughter is bad when there's no one to share it with," he proclaims, and "dying is good when the one you love grows tired of you." It's only halfway through the song that the listener realizes it's a song about spousal abuse, with Hawkins trying to convince a woman to "get out and find you someone new."

"My songs first come to me as a melody," Hawkins explains. "All I need is just my Walkman, that tape player where everybody else uses all this great big stuff. I just have my Walkman because I'm not able to buy the big studios and stuff like that. I just put my Walkman where I can get it when the spirit brings it to me. Let me tell ya, if I'm in this room and something hits me and I have to walk to the kitchen to get my Walkman and come back, I've forgotten it. Do you know they don't come back no more. No more. If I don't get it then, I ain't got it.

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