July 30th, 2011

Happy 75th birthday, Buddy Guy, and thanks to Passion of the Weiss, for making me aware of this milestone. Everybody old is already dead and all birthdays come as reminders, nudges, not occasions. Still, I appreciate it, since I’ve always thought Buddy was miscast. Because of his association with Chess Records, and his triumphant return to the public eye in the 1990’s as a “blues legend” who influenced famous white people like Eric Clapton, Guy seems like a fossil.

Let’s stop and take notice here: 75 is hardly that old. There’s a reason Buddy Guy has outlived everyone else from that era, and has had no problem keeping up with the generation of Brit geezers who still worship at his feet. Watch the video above, with its Black Power imagery and Buddy Guy’s barely-restrained violence. Guy’s creative peak came in the 1970’s, captured on the nearly-gonzo Stone Crazy, where his vocals shriek and lurk, ordered only by their own jagged mania. His guitar, all ugly distortion and multi-directional, serrated licks, seems intent on tearing the instrument apart, not addressing the outside world. His style was exploratory, endlessly climactic. Furiously and seemingly indignant, Guy never fit Chess’s model, where passion and control, might and empathy, worked together to convey a grown-up pop product. It fit Muddy Waters to a tee; allowed Howlin’ Wolf to use his demonic voice in identifiably human ways; and gave the Chess brothers a thoroughly digestible sound for hit records.

Guy, who hailed from Louisiana, was following Guitar Slim, whose signature hits resemble post-Trane shredder Sonny Sharrock more than they do Otis Rush. And, while Chess allowed for guitarists like Hubert Sumlin to riff at will, Guy was restrained, maybe even pushed in more teen-friendly directions because of his age or ownership’s disdain for the “noise” he generated live. It wasn’t just Chess, though. His earliest sides, on Cobra, give only the faintest impression of what Buddy Guy had brewing in his head. A Man And His Blues, “an essential recording of second-generation Chicago electric blues” (some dude on Amazon), is perfectly fine, but isn’t worth a listen unless you’re really in the mood for blues music.

The best blues neither seeks converts nor epitomizes the genre; it’s universal, or completely warped, in some way that allows the listener to get past the structural and sonic formulas. As much as the blues have come to represent tradition, I’m pretty sure that the artists themselves were more interested in defining themselves than playing by the rules. The limited format, the burden of history, and all the homage and quotation, were confrontational, playful. Nods to other artists were anything but arbitrary, and brought with them all the usual problems of acknowledging influence. The three chords of the blues are powerful and hypnotic, but not intended to encourage stagnation, coasting or cliche. Contrast that with rock’s similarly foundational three-chord progression, an incantation that can channel every great song written around the same pattern. One is a dialogue, with undercurrents of irony; the other, diving headfirst into a song we’ve heard a hundred times before. Each time is different, but let’s not fool ourselves: The confidence and authority contained in those chords is absolute.

Buddy Guy, scion of Guitar Slim, displaced from the Chicago scene he was lumped in with, was the most anarchic, unruly kind of bluesman; only Albert King comes close, and King’s deceptive simplicity allowed him to join up with Stax, while Guy was perhaps even too out-there for the fans of his now-famous fans. Like Miles Davis, he ended up both affecting and being affected by Jimi Hendrix, if nothing else in coming to understand exactly how his sound could (or should) fit into the cultural landscape of the times. Miles took to the Fillmore. Buddy wandered Europe, but also ended up in videos like this one. You might say that, at least in this clip, he manages to make sense of his avant-blues, and notions of contemporary Blackness—something Hendrix himself agonized over, especially in his last years.

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