Everyone’s doing it right now. Normally, that’s reason enough for me to let something be and focus elsewhere. Today, though, I’m going to jump on the bandwagon and talk about B..B King, partly because writing is cheaper than therapy. So, for the next few paragraphs, you, the reader, gets to be my therapist.
My heart is broken. My whole life, I’ve been into music that had others my age rolling their eyes at me. I love all kinds of music, but I tend to gravitate toward sounds that just further labelled me as a weird outsider to many. I was into 70s Rock at the end of the Disco craze. I held onto Punk Rock when New Wave was pushing it out way too soon. I listened to Alternative bands long before they became chic. Through it all though, I’ve always had a special place in my heart for blues. I love the sound of Bobby Bland, Howlin’ Wolf, Buddy Guy, John Lee Hooker and so many others. I mourned the death of Koko Taylor in 2009…with only a few other friends who even knew who she was. But, last night, we lost someone who’s name is known by everyone. The King of the Blues, B.B. King has died.
Just looking at that sentence, I want to delete it, somehow take it back and make it not true. I’m not stupid. I know we all die, but something about B.B. felt immortal to me. In spite of his health problems, in spite of his age, when I got a new alert late last night about his death, I couldn’t even process it. I got out of bed and just sat in the living room in the dark for a while before pulling up his music on my iPod and just losing myself in it for a while. The funny thing was, like so many other times in my life, listening to that music made me feel better, more at peace.
I know. It sounds strange, but listening to blues raises my spirits and B.B. King’s music is a great example for why that is. Blues is not just about crying, “Poor me!” Like so many other performers, many of whom were profoundly influenced by him, King’s music was about embracing the pain in life, but doing it with humor and sarcasm and a huge amount of joy. If you don’t believe that, just pull up some videos of him performing. When he was sitting on stage playing Lucille, there was boundless joy shining in his eyes. The message I got from B.B. King’s music: Life can be hard, but it doesn’t have to beat you down. Of course he’d sing about giving up on life to go shopping for a tombstone instead (All Over Again), but he’d also sing about a woman doing him wrong while making fun of her in the song (How Blue Can You Get). Then he’d sing about a woman with big feet and a big hard head (“Caldonia”) or he’d record a cover album of Louis Jordan classics like “Ain’t Nobody Here But Us Chickens” and “Choo Choo Ch’Boogie”.
In later years, he had plenty of health problems including diabetes. The last time he came out to the Blues Festival in southern New Mexico, he slowly shuffled out onstage and sat after performing only one song while standing, but even though he was clearly no longer even close to being the young man he once was, he never stopped performing for as long as he could physically show up and play and he was always wonderfully friendly, gracious and giving of his time to others, especially the younger musicians who came up idolize get him. He played the role of mentor so comfortably to the likes of Eric Clapton and, of course, Stevie Ray Vaughan. Plus, he could rock the house like no one else!
B.B. King was a man who, like we all will, finally succumbed to the frailties and failings of his mortal body. As a man, his life left us with an example of how to live our lives with joy in the good times and bad and how to treat others with humbleness, compassion and respect. As a musician, he remains a giant, a legend, whose music will never fade or lose its impact and whose influence will help mold countless generations of musicians yet to come.
For those of you who took the time to read this, thank you for witnessing me trying to temper my grief with all the positives that a man I greatly admired without ever getting to meet left as his legacy. Tonight, I’m going to listen to B.B.’s music. I’ll grieve his absence from our world and immerse myself in the treasure he left behind. Tomorrow, I’ll get up and try to live according to a very simple sentiment:
“Better not look down
If you want to keep on flying
Put the hammer down
Keep it full speed ahead
Better not look back
Or you might just wind up crying
You can keep it moving
If you don’t look down”
Rest in peace, B.B. King