During this time I witnessed two tragedies. The first was an ex-Chicago session player named Luther Allison who had fled to Europe and made a name for himself playing blues festivals in France. I saw him at the House of Blues in the midst of what the blues world was calling his big comeback. I’m not sure there was actually much for him to come back to, but it made a good story: bluesman flees American philistinism to make good, returns in triumph. It was made for the advertising men.
I knew nothing about Allison’s music, but I was drawn by the growing hype around him. The man himself as he appeared onstage was not at all the picture of the bluesman; he wore a loose silk Hawaiian shirt that shimmered under the lights, playing a gold Les Paul that looked like a toy in his enormous hands. He had fingers like the legs of a tarantula, long and angled slightly at the joints, so you felt you could almost glimpse the bones at work beneath the flesh. His hair was cut down to peach fuzz, touched with flecks of gray. His second guitarist was short, white, and freakish looking. He wore all black; black jeans, black collared shirt, and a black sombrero perched atop his head. His teeth were non-existent, nothing but a mass of black stumps and yellowing gums. He wore an eyepatch over his right eye, which gave him the appearance of a comic book villain or perhaps a man trying desperately to appear to be a comic book villain.
Allison’s playing was not at all what I expected. It was rough and frenzied, very sloppy and loud. It lacked any precision or subtlety, more Buddy Guy than BB King, but lacking even Guy’s skill at imitation. But there was something extraordinary in Allison’s impact. He had immense energy, the only performer I ever saw who equaled it was Bruce Springsteen, and Springsteen had had a stadium full of people to egg him on. Allison had a club audience of less than two hundred, but he played for three hours and with a ferocious pace and intensity. He sweated like a man in delirium tremens and had a surprisingly beautiful voice, more akin to Otis Redding than a conventional blues singer. It was loud, rough, fast and played with the ferver of a revival meeting. I thought I sensed a longing desperation in the heart of the fury; for he played with the ferocity of a sailor returned at last from the sea.
Afterwards I shook his sweaty hand, which dwarfed my own like a giant’s, and, with the callowness of a teenager, told him that I would jam with him someday. He smiled and said: “We’ll do that.” Looking back on it, I realize how extraordinary was his response, and that Allison was probably that rarest of things among guitar players: a nice guy. He was business too: “Tell your friends to come tomorrow,” he said. He was well practiced. Any card he could get up his sleeve, any gods he could get on his side, he wanted them. I was put off a bit by it, although it was naïve of me; I should have understood what it is to be hungry, and how hungry he must have been for a very, very long time.
A few days later a friend told me that Allison had died of a massive brain tumor which had lain undetected for years. I thought back on the way his hands had shaken violently with perceptible tremors when he wasn’t playing. At the time I had put it up to nervousness or excitement. The fact that a demon was coursing its way through his flesh had never occurred to me. Perhaps it should have.
The second tragedy had no consolation of penultimate triumph, there was no blaze of glory. It was the darkest thing I ever saw, and its name was Otis Rush. Otis was no comeback, he was a genuine legend; a guitar player of distinctive originality and violence, who had influenced everyone from Buddy Guy to Eric Clapton and Stevie Ray Vaughn. He had written a jagged, cutting minor-key blues called “All Your Love” which almost everyone from stadium acts to club jammers had covered at one time or another. There was menace in its longing, and a guitar riff which came up out of the depths with a thudding, swampy resolution. He was one of the famous left-handers like Albert King who played a right handed guitar upside down, pulling down instead of pushing up on the strings, picking with downstrokes of his massive thumb, giving him a snaky, out-of-phase sound that no one adequately imitated. Even more impressive was his voice, a distinct howl with could fly upwards to a falsetto and then resolve back into something plaintive and pitiable. His song “So Many Roads” was something to behold, a slow blues transformed into an epic oration on loneliness and love’s despair: “It was a mean old foreman/And a cruel old engineer/That’s took my baby/And left me standing here” played with a 12/8 rolling rhythm that thrust the song forward and gave it an ominous inexorability utterly different from the normally contemplative haunting quality of the typical slow blues. Otis was a guy you had to see, whatever the consequences; and the consequences were heavy.
It was well known years before I saw him, and known to me as much as to anyone else, that Otis Rush was one of the worst casualties in the blues world. A manic-depressive alcoholic, he hadn’t recorded in years and harbored a dire reputation as, to put it mildly, an erratic live performer. Nonetheless, he was a legend, and when legends are involved, for better or worse, you don’t let such things deter you.
He played at the House of Blues, with what looked like a pick-up band, and from the beginning things were disconcerting. Otis looked nothing I had imagined him. He wore his trademark cowboy hat and played the red ES-335 turned upside down that I recognized off a dozen album covers, but he was distinctly older than I had anticipated, his enormous arms and shoulders barely concealing the stark fraility of his stick-figure legs and sagging eyelids, his cheeks sagged and his face looked haggard. His hair was conked, and its unnatural straightness, combed straight back so it hung down the back of his neck, gave him an almost ghoulish look. The first thing he did was demand “some red wine in a red glass”, a half joke and half demand he proceeded to repeat a half dozen times that evening. The second thing he did was to stop the band and yell at them. Shake his fist to get them to play a furious drumroll, and then do it again, and then again. He played a half a song and then stopped. Played a quarter of another and then sat down in a chair, noodled for a moment, then stopped the band and stared daggers at the sax player. By the time the set ended he hadn’t played a single complete song and people were already beginning to demand their money back. I spoke to the sax player as he came off, a tall black guy with an expression of ardent unconcern, and he only shook his head and muttered; “Its rough up there.”
The break was abnormally long, and I fell into a long conversation with a college girl who was traveling with the Allman Brothers band and who, though she seemed have intimate knowledge of their traveling arrangements and inter-band feuds, including that one of the members was something of a drunken wife beater, insisted she wasn’t a groupie. She was pretty and seemed wild enough to be worth a try, but I got nowhere with her; she seemed mostly insistent on berating those who were leaving. “Its Otis Rush!” she admonished, “You don’t walk out on Otis Rush!” Now, I loved Otis the legend more than anyone, but I found it hard to muster up much sympathy. These people had paid to see a performer and instead they were getting a train wreck. I had only anger for whoever it was who was pushing what was clearly a sick old man into those unforgiving lights.
But what was truly tragic was this: at the moments when he did play, in those brief seconds when the clouds broke and he managed to dash off a guitar line or the verse of one of his famous songs, it was magic. Pure, undiluted, earth-shaking magic. Underneath the decay it seemed like it was all still there, fighting to come out. The silvery knife-like sound, the ferocious, frightening immediacy of his tone, the distinctive impact of the unique way he moved his fingers, the way he pulled the strings in a fashion of which no one else seemed capable. Most guitar players imitate a handful of universally known stylists. You heard one, you heard them all. This wasn’t so with Otis Rush. He knew how to play things no one else would ever know how to play; and when he went, they would go too. He was it, the one repository, the sole executor, the last. And it pained you to see it, bursting up for a moment through the alcoholic haze, like a drowning man breaking the surface of a stormy ocean.
By the time the second set began, it was clear that things were in meltdown. Apparently, Otis wasn’t coming out till he was good and ready, so they commandeered Ronnie Earl, a local guitarist I admired greatly, to play two or three songs. I think he was just coming out to see the show when he was corralled and looked flummoxed by the proceedings. He didn’t sing, so he was forced to fire out a few instrumentals on Otis’s Stratocaster. Even sounding competent at the time would have welcome, but Ronnie was a talent, and when Otis came on, he shook his fist at Earl and muttered about him “stealin’ all my stuff” which didn’t improve the evening’s atmosphere. Nonetheless, Ronnie was a blues lover, and he had too much love in him for the talent of the broken thing before him to take it to heart; though he did look worried for a moment, Ronnie was all of five feet five and Otis was, after all, and for all his collapsing self, still a very big man; so Ronnie sat off to the side on a stool and played rhythm for the rest of the night, looking over at Otis like a concerned grandchild. It would have been touching if not for the fearful edge in Ronnie’s eyes. “Get this guy on and get him off,” it seemed to say. There was desperation in it, “don’t let him do something really bad.” It was the look you give something wounded and dying. It was heartbreaking. No doubt about that.
And then something extraordinary happened. Maybe it was because he had called up his wife, a slight Japanese woman who he dwarfed with an almost comical surrealism, to the stage. Maybe it was because the crowd had dwindled to almost nothing and the pressure was off. Maybe it was because he already knew the evening was a wash and he had nothing left to lose. Maybe it was because something cracked through that demented haze of his. But Otis Rush suddenly came back. For the last twelve minutes of a two hour set his guitar ripped open like a sieve and that gigantic, slicing sound erupted up out of the strings; a bright orange tone but sharp like razor blades, bursting up like flashes of ball lightning from under his fingers. The band caught it too, and for a brief moment he stalked the stage like the monster he must have been in his youth; Otis Rush, the man.
Then it was over. His wife coaxed him off, alternately pushing and prodding like you would with a recalcitrant child, and the band, exhausted more by the ordeal than by the playing, slowly stalked off the stage. The cramped room seemed suddenly enormous, abandoned by a disappointed flock. On the way out, the kid selling tickets told me that people had asked for their money back on the grounds that Otis was grotesquely incompetent. They were right, but they hadn’t come to see a performance, they had come to see a legend, and they got that, whether they liked it or not.
In some ways, it shocks me that Luther Allison, with all his ferocious, exuberant energy, is dead and Otis Rush, a broken, lost wreck of a man, is still alive. We aren’t given, I suppose, to know the reckoning of these things.