Sunday, May 17, 2015

Long Live the King: B.B. King

Long, long time ago I decided to leave school, pack a rucksack and guitar, and try to touch all forty-eight states in the continental US. My cousin agreed to join me for the first leg of the trip, a swing through the south that brought us to New Orleans where we teamed up with a more seasoned traveler who convinced us against our better judgement to continue on to Mexico where we wrecked our car and were stranded for two weeks. I made it to California eventually, started a band or two, and kept looking for a code that would shape me.

Music was my guiding star then as now, and the symbolic crossroads, the place where that whole journey out of one life and into another started was the Front Row Theater. There I saw B.B. King, Albert King and Bobby "Blue" Bland two nights in a row.

B.B. King: smooth searing guitar, weeping and wailing and sailing above the stars; a booming voice full of love and humor; a grimace, a smile, warm words he had shared thousands of times with his backing band and his audience as he sweated and shimmied and glowed.

The recordings of the live shows were always my favorites, and seeing him live for the first time was a pilgrimage to witness a liturgy of the heart enacted by a High Priest who gives life to his people. I still know many of those albums note by note, having played along best as I could for years, eyes closed, imagining myself trading licks with a father, a grandfather, a great grandfather who -- despite lifetimes of difference between him and me -- assured with the giantness and gentleness of his person and music not only that the blues were an invitation I could accept, but that accepting the blues meant accepting love, and never being alone, and that even in the lowest, saddest of times the good work could get done, hauling sorrows and joys hand over hand with the King of the Blues, the One, the Only, B.B. King.

His music goes so deep -- deep as darkest dark. Yet it also buzzes with zest and vigor like purest light. There was a threshold across which B.B. King and his friends who taught the blues -- especially the electric blues -- carried an entire culture. That basket of blues held the possibility of all things, just like the arks that the Israelites carried out of Egypt.

"What's in those arks?" the passersby would say.
"One holds the Holy Torah and one holds the bones of Joseph," they replied.
"But how can you carry the living alongside the dead?" they asked.
"If not for this one, that one never could have been," they said.

Without music, it's hard to image living, but rising up for me as he did when he did, B.B. King was the rare musician whose warm, wise, simple, booming greatness offered an embrace so perfect amidst the imperfection of the world that it's hard to imagine my life itself without him.

That's a King for you, and this is his kingdom -- and feeling this way about these things is something grand and pure that cannot be explained. The King is dead. Long live the King.

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