Peace and happiness

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

"I don't know why. It comes one time. That's why I keep my Walkman in hand at all time. Some people have the ability to write the music; they don't need no Walkman, they write it down and know how it sound. I have to sit with my mouth. I have to climb this mountain with worn-out tools."

Hawkins, though, does not take credit for his songs, insisting that he doesn't actually write them--no more than Moses wrote the Ten Commandments. He explains that he is merely an empty vehicle for the expressions and thoughts of dead songwriters who have not yet completed their work on this earth, who come when called to help Hawkins say what's pent up in his heart and in his soul. Among those who Hawkins calls upon are Sam Cooke ("I want his ability") and Elvis Presley ("and I want his charisma").

"There are songwriters, great songwriters, who are dead and would love very much to come to somebody like me or like you or whoever would invite them to do it," Hawkins says. "It's a spiritual thing, and you wouldn't understand that, I don't think, because the few people that understand spirituality you can count on one hand and still have a few fingers left over.

"See, when you die, the body is what dies. You're not going to never die. You're going to live forever somewhere. These people goes to writers, and they write for those people through their hands. They can't even explain how or why they write so good and write such great stories or compose such great songs...

"I knew that 'Big Things' was all about me. It hit me real good. The words come to me from someone who knows me quite well and knows what I want them to do with me. 'Green-Eyed Girl'? I had no idea about no green-eyed girls. It was something that had never been heard before on this earth. And 'The Good and the Bad.' You have to think there's nothing as hauntingly beautiful and as true as 'The Good and the Bad.' It's a message to women--or to battered women, you might say, a message to abused women 'cause I have been guilty of treating women that way in my lifetime."

Even when Hawkins speaks of success, he speaks of it in terms of spiritual rewards. Before he dies, he says he would like to "fill a few hungry bellies" and build a shelter "about six blocks long and about six blocks wide" that would feed and clothe the homeless. After all, it wasn't so long ago that he was among their ranks, living in towns where it was so cold his hands were too sore and achy to button his tattered jacket, learning how to live in "flophouses" in Philadelphia and choke down day-old bread and "coffee that tasted like chicken." Hawkins may not like talking about his past, but those memories inform every single thing he says and does.

"I know how it is to pass by people's houses and see their Christmas things hanging on their windows and you can hear them having such a good time, and it's cold out there and your feet are cold and you're walkin' in the snow," he says. "I know how it is, and there's a lot of folks out there right now that ain't got nowhere to sleep, and I wonder what do they do in the wintertime. They can go to the park and live on the grass in the summer, and it's nice and warm, but where do they all go in the wintertime when the snow is falling and the rain is falling and we're in our houses nice and warm and cozy and full. Where do they go?

"It's a personal thing to me. And hurtful. And I wish that I could do something for them. Although there was nobody to do those things for me, I wish I could do something for them...It's a personal thing because of the fact that by me comin' up as a child and not havin' nobody to help me and fendin' for myself and stuff like that, it's a personal thing. I think somebody somewhere spiritually wants me to make it because they've looked down on me and said, 'Hey, man, this man has suffered enough.' That's exactly what Geffen said: 'You've suffered enough.'"

Hawkins has often recalled to journalists a story that made him realize how powerful his music--well, the music that came through him--could be. He has said that during his 16-year stint playing on Venice Beach curbs and corners that he could stop a jogger mid-stride and force him to run in place, his "mouth open with a funny look on his face." And he has recalled the moment a woman stepped through the crowd surrounding the musician--and there were often enormous throngs of fans and passers-by--and whispered in his ear, "Don't stop playing, you're healing me." Hawkins didn't turn around to face the woman because to have done so would have forced him to lose the beat.

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