Out & About

As far as the blues go, I might as well have just heard Robert Johnson for the first time last week. It's a form I'm just getting familiar with, having just discovered the Howlin' Wolfs and the Willie Dixons and the John Lee Hookers. Dunno why it took so long to capture my attention; I suppose the Blues Brothers had always lurked around my brain, blinding me to what made the blues interesting and keeping me full of images of fat men in shiny suits playing hotel bars for large sums of money.

R.L. Burnside and the bunch of crusty old guys making records for Oxford, Mississippi's, Fat Possum Records were among the first to convince me that Dan Aykroyd was not the be-all and end-all. A cantankerous 73-year-old in suspenders and an eternal five-o'clock shadow, Burnside seems to me to be the "real blues," an elusive grail perpetually obscured by the crowd-pleasing antics of the shiny-suit-wearing fat men. His records crackle with the current of what I imagine to be a life of pain and disappointment occasionally brightened by an hour of onstage exorcism. I don't really know, of course--I just believe the record company when they say Burnside hates suits--but the music is good enough that I'm willing to believe.

So it is with Wish I Was in Heaven Sitting Down, Burnside's new album, which sounds a lot like the real-life version of Moby's Play. It's not the first of Burnside's records to feature beats and scratching alongside his ancient electric guitar and wounded moan: Fat Possum has sort of made him their crossover poster man, hooking him up with the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion (with whom Burnside toured and made 1996's popular Ass Pocket o' Whiskey) and Beck collaborator Tom Rothrock (on 1998's remix project Come On In). I've got some philosophical hang-ups with the whole thing--I can just hear the Fat Possum camp plotting: "Let's pair this old black man with these young white guys and sell the blues to a new generation of ignorant Anglo-Americans,"--but I suppose I'm one of those ignorant Anglo-Americans, so I usually let them simmer on the backburner and instead soak in Burnside's tales from the crypt. There's a lot to learn here: R.L.'s Chicago--the one in which his dad, brothers, and uncles were murdered within a few weeks of each other, as he croaks on "R.L.'s Story"--is as unlike the city I went to college in as Atlantis, and the run-ins with the law he describes in "Nothin' Man" outstrip my speeding tickets by more than a lot. Which just serves to remind me that I don't know shit about the blues. But the finding-out is growing within, and I think I can see R.L. right there, grinning at me from the inside out.