When I Left Home: My Story
Buddy Guy, with David Ritz
Da Capo Press, 2012
Buddy’s always been one of my favorite blues guitarist, if not my fav. I’ve always loved his frenetic approach and a large number of riffs are his. While he has always complained, as he does several times in the book, that he rarely got to record the blues as he wanted to, all I know the many by are his recordings and one show years ago that I got to see when I was catching all the old blues men. He’s one of the last of that era and few of them either lived long enough or didn’t care enough to get their experiences down on paper (Big Bill Bronsey is one of the few exceptions). An autobiography affords the chance to go beyond the records, the photos, and the occasional You Tube clip and to know where the music came from. Given that the blues has at times a mystic weight put on it, what with the legends of Robert Johnson and blues explosion of the late 60s that was in part a pantheon raising, perhaps an autobiography, despite their vagaries, would bring that past back for a little while.
It’s hard to be a blues man. The life is dangerous, under paid, and given to life shortening excesses, particularly alcohol. That Buddy has survived in good health and enjoying success that eluded him for many years is a combination of luck and a natural shyness that kept him level headed. He grew up in Louisiana and at a young age moved to Batton Rouge where a passing stranger one day heard him playing a bad guitar and offered to buy him something decent. It was the kind of luck that gave him a eventual career. He began playing gigs in Batton Rouge, because you couldn’t live on that. The inability to live well on music runs through out the book as does his constant desire to finally make it. The blues is as much a commercial activity as an art, a word I doubt he’d use. A way of life might be better. Something that is music, feeling, and community. The story of his move to Chicago and his meeting with Muddy Waters the day he was deciding to move back home is well known. But his descriptions of sharing a narrow studio apartment with a friend, spending the night on the streets while he waited for him to sleep so he could go back later, was just one of many hardships.
But Buddy was young and he loved playing and Chicago in the mid 50s to the early 60s was humming with blues and a man could make a living, not a lot, but enough to get by. Buddy also became one of the most sought after side men in the recording studio because he would follow directions, keep his mouth shut, and show up on time. In other words, he was reliable. Unlike his friend Jr Wells he never had problems with alcohol and as was all too common would drink himself into a stupor and would often find himself in jail. Buddy would have to, of course, bail him out. All through the book, Buddy is right in the action but due to his nature he is just one step back from real self destruction. He was also wise enough to know when things were never going to get better and, for example, stopped touring with Wells due to his unpredictability.
The Chicago he describes during the heyday of the Chicago Blues was one of clubs running all night with steel mill workers, going from club to club to play or compete in battle of the bands. The prize was usually just a bottle of whiskey. Buddy didn’t care, though, because he was playing. It was only latter as he married and had more children that he found that the blues and especially Leonard Chess did not pay. For most of the sixties until the blues revival hit at the end of the decade he drove a tow truck and worked in a garage. It is hard to believe that the man who cut some great sides and was a side man to some of the best sessions at Chess was working a day job. What’s interesting is how often he talks about wanting to make it. Despite the fun he was having in the clubs, he had visions of making it big. It can be easy to forget the economic necessities of the musicians once their work has been transformed over the years to a sacred legacy. It is also a realization that the rock ethos of authenticity and the Romantic ideal of the artist and his muse are projections that the critics inject.
Buddy, though, as he tells it was nothing if not responsible. He mentions he wanted stability which is why he married twice, but the blues and touring are anything but stable and both of those marriages eventually failed. It’s not to say Buddy didn’t sleep around, or find himself staring at the knife blade his first wife held over his head one night, he just managed to keep it together a little better. It was with that stability in mind that he opened his first club the Checker Board, thinking he could quit touring and stay at home more. But the club always lost money and he had to invest too much time into it. For a while he had to sleep in it with a gun to keep people from steeling his booze. Not a great success.
If financial success eluded him, so did artistic success. According to Guy it isn’t until the 90’s that he finally got to record the way he wanted to and be successful. I’m not sure that I agree since Stone Crazy from 1981 is probably his best album. All he says about it is it came out without much success. He also doesn’t like much of the Chess or Vanguard catalog. There are definitely some failures (I Digg Your Wig, anyone?), but some of his tracks show both his guitar and vocal talents. He often mentions that he didn’t have the chance to record like he played in the clubs. Yet when you see some of the live stuff, it isn’t too distant from his recorded materials. I can remember being disappointed with some of the live stuff, because he sang so much and worked the crowd instead of playing ala Hendrix or Vaughn. While A Man and the Blues doesn’t rock, the live material from the same period isn’t too distant from it (It is also one of his best, certainly of the period, although a few of the instrumentals leave a little to be desired). To me the 90’s material is OK, but what ever you think about it, he loves it, it part, because it marks his ultimate success and is part of his progression to blues legend.
The idea of the progression to success is typical of the memoir genre. As is all too often common, the book has a story that shows Buddy slowly making his way to success. It is a narrative arc that can down play past successes, such as with his albums, and it can also turn the end of the book, where all the success is recounted, into a formulaic naming of famous names. The last 15-20% of the book begins to slide into that trap. Over and over he talks about playing with Clapton or Vaughn or Santana in some concert. It can get a little repetitive. And since this is an oral history dressed up as a book the writing can be lacking when the subject isn’t strong enough to propel the story.
Ultimately, the book is at its best when he is describing the early days and was a struggling musician. Ritz captures Buddy’s way of speaking quite well and as he recounts the stories (most with a suspicious level of dialogue, another flaw of the genre) you feel like Buddy is telling them to you. The best way to end this review is to quote Buddy’s last visit with Muddy Waters before he died of cancer.
Didn’t wanna mention music ’cause I knew he wasn’t performing or recording. Figure the best thing I could do was just sit and be quiet. Sat there for a long spell.
Muddy was the kind of guy who could read my mind. After a long time he turned to me and said, “Look, Buddy, I’m okay. And I only got one thing to say to you.”
“What’s that?” I asked.
“Mother fucker,” he answered, “don’t let these blues die.”