John Lee Hooker Jr.’s drug addiction almost killed
him, but it also gave him the blues
by Arjuna Orland
The streets of downtown San Francisco’s Tenderloin neighborhood (named for the choice meat policemen supposedly used to receive as hazard pay for taking the district’s beat) are lined with homeless men and women, prostitutes of many genders, drug addicts, drug dealers, and a sizeable population of rich, white hipsters living ironically. For almost three decades, John Lee Hooker Jr., son of the late Detroit blues legend John Lee Hooker, was nearly indistinguishable from the plethora of drug addicts wandering, or sleeping on, the streets of the Tenderloin.
While his father enjoyed his golden years as a walking American music treasure by leisurely touring the world and opening a blues club (The Boom Boom Room) in San Francisco, his son was mired in drug abuse and the derelict reality of living on the streets. However, in an amazing turn of events since the beginning of this millennium, Hooker Jr. is now a respected, Grammy-winning blues and R&B artist who preaches against the debauchery of his past, partly because he was “resurrected by faith in the Almighty.”
“I was one of the no doubt disgusting people you may have seen on those streets,” Hooker Jr. told me recently when I recounted my six years living just south of the Tenderloin. “I was a part of the problem. And to rid myself of the dark days of the Tenderloin, I write and sing about them. It minimizes my nightmares and it educates those who listen — to beware.”
But long before his dark days in San Francisco, Hooker Jr. was a teenage vocalist touring as a member of his father’s heralded band, prepping for his own successful career in music. At 18 years old, he was even a featured vocalist on his father’s thoroughly badass 1972 Live at Soledad Prison album, but the lengthy bout with drug abuse meant that Hooker Jr.’s debut album (the Grammy-winning Blues with a Vengeance) wasn’t released until 2004, when he was 52 years old. According to Hooker Jr., his music is “two parts R&B, one part jazz and one part down-home blues,” and that’s a pretty spot-on description, although with his latest album, 2008’s All Odds Against Me, replacing “one part jazz” with one part dirty Oakland funk might also make sense. The lyrics and delivery of songs like “Extramarital Affair” and “Blues Ain’t Nothing But A Pimp” fall somewhere between Hooker Sr. classics like “House Rent Boogie” and George Clinton, with a little hint of George Jones for character.
But it’s all about soul for Hooker Jr., who was nominated for a Grammy once again for All Odds Against Me but lost to a group of aging Delta bluesmen who came together for a much-celebrated live album. While his father was known for wearing dark shades and a famously foreboding fedora, singing in a deep narrative voice and performing while sitting on a chair, Hooker Jr. prowls the stage like Al Green or Buddy Guy, belting out cautionary tales of drinking, drugging and carousing. And Hooker Jr.’s music is more directly funky and aggressive than his father’s more traditional (but always edgy and soulful) blues. “[It’s] funkier, more innovation, matured in lyrics,” he says. “There’s a bit of science to this product — there’s more focus on the technicalities.” He cites Johnny “Guitar” Watson and Stevie Wonder as inspirations for his on-stage persona, saying, “Watson was a lyricist, as is Stevie Wonder…
My thing is a message in my music, a laugh from my music, education from my music. Stevie was, and is, an educator.”
Hooker Jr. also mentions “The Almighty Creator” as a major influence on his life and music. He bristled when I asked whether he thinks his songs that discuss drug use, adultery and pimps are, in the end, glorifying those things or preaching against them.
“That’s a no-brainer, my friend. After being shot twice, stabbed almost to death, overdosed more times than I can remember, one would be a fool to romanticize the poison that just about took my life. I am an artist. Picasso didn’t romanticize what he drew [and] neither did he live the life. The Almighty gave me victory over the things that almost caused my demise. So I give Him the glory and the praise for whom it is due.”
If Hooker Jr.’s persona and rhetoric seem a bit cartoonish to liberal secularists, that’s OK. He’s got a sense of humor, too, and it’s unmistakably evident in the animated videos he’s been involved with for All Odds Against Me, including a cartoon version of “Blues Ain’t Nothing But A Pimp” that comes with the CD. In it, the international touring and recording bluesman appears as a black-leather-suited quasi-super hero in dark shades and dark hat, throwing cars aside Terminator-style before saving an animated, bosomy brunette from a group of armed men. One can’t be sure whether blues icons like Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters are rolling over in their graves in response to this cartoon version of the music and ethos they helped create, but when I jokingly asked Hooker Jr. whether cartoon bluesmen have body odor or go to the bathroom, he ran with it:
“Yes, our body odor smells of ink and erasers, and the only time we go to the bathroom is if we tell the graphic artist we have to potty — then he will graph it in. But because this is a private matter, you won’t see us go into dispose.”
However, toilet humor aside, Hooker Jr. considered it a huge honor to witness the birth of an animated version of himself.
“It is a real thrill for someone to have me animated. As a child, I often imagined becoming one of the characters. It’s a dream come true!”
As is seeing himself through dangerous times in San Francisco and becoming one of the biggest names in the current world of blues music.
On the Bill
John Lee Hooker Jr. performs at 8 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 27, at the Boulder Outlook, 800 28th St., Boulder, 303-443-3322., and on Saturday, Feb. 28 at Oskar Blues, 303 Main St., Lyons, 303-823-6685.