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.

"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.

"If I thought I could do that--heal somebody--I would go to hospitals and play for free," he says. But the man who believes in spirituality and the handiwork of the dead, doubts the power of his music.

"Heal somebody by singing?" He is startled by the thought, at once skeptical and hopeful. "That would really be spiritual, wouldn't it? Well, why should she lie? I mean, to go through all that trouble just to get to me. It was almost impossible for her to get through the crowd. It might have been the truth. First time I've ever looked at it like that. What I've got to learn to do is learn to give myself a little credit.

"My self-esteem has been down for so long, and when something outstanding happens it's kind of hard to believe. You keep a dog outside in the cold all his life and then tell him to come in the house, he'll look at you like you're crazy and he won't come in."

Ted Hawkins performs November 13 at Poor David's Pub.

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