About ten years ago my friend George wrote and directed a play about Carlos the Jackal. International jet-setting terrorists aren’t really my bag, baby, but George is a talented guy so I did the drive down to Ventura for a performance, wearing, as I recall, a pleated plaid mini skirt. The only reason I mention that is because (a) it was the first time I met George’s wife and I’m not sure how pleased she was with me looking like that and kissing her husband, and (b) to admit as an aside that I used to be kind of a jerk around wives and girlfriends, but (c) fortunately I seem to have grown out of it.
Anyway, if you don’t feel like clicking on that link, I’ll tell you that Carlos the Jackal was renowned for dodging Johnny Law (or, I suppose, Juan la Ley), and he slipped under the eagle eyes of justice many times by doing drastic things to modify his appearance, like plastic surgery and liposuction. [I hope you noticed the internal rhyme of drastic and plastic in that last sentence. You did? Awesome.]
Between acts the house lights came up and an astonishing (to me) song came over the loudspeakers. George meant it as a humorous comment on Carlos’s liposuction, and the song was called, ha ha, “Three Hundred Pounds of Joy.” And I was sitting there in my little Catholic-schoolgirl-gone-bad outfit thinking, Holy shit, I never knew a man whose larynx was made out of sandpaper could seduce women by singing through a broken radiator filled with potsherds.
I drove back up to Santa Barbara and found Jack sitting on my couch watching television, and I said, I just heard the most amazing song, and Jack was all, You’ve never heard any Howlin’ Wolf before? I pretty much think of those first six months of our relationship as The Very Long Summer of Howlin’ Wolf, with a few weekends of Etta James thrown in there for some rusty-voiced yin. There’s an extremely embarrassing photo of me at the Bushmills-fueled ass-end of one of our record parties dancing to “300 Pounds”; I look like a lily-white but drunken bookstore clerk doing some kind of Frug variation whose energy and appeal absolutely did not translate from the lived moment through the eye of an idiot-proof one-shot camera and onto a cold, hard 4 x 5 glossy Kodak print.
Last Monday I was driving to yoga at 5:50 a.m. when Hello NPR! They’re doing a story on, say it with me: Chester Burnett*, the boy raised 100 feet from the railroad tracks who grew into the man who made the incomprehensible leap from Delta farmer to Musical Force of Nature whose deeply religious mother rejected him for his secular success and broke his heart forever.
It actually turns out to be a good thing to have “Smokestack Lightnin’ ” going through your head as you coax your body through several early-morning surya namaskaras. It beats the hell out of Sting, or Krishna Das, or whoever’s doing the Anglo-Indian popstar chanting these days. So now I must I give thanks for the cultural bridges of George, NPR, and my husband, bringing races together with respect, intelligence, peace, and harmony. But it takes a weirdo like me to roll up Howlin’ Wolf in a yoga mat for you like a gift. A gift that smells like my feet.
*That’s his real name. I just thought maybe you were sick of reading “Howlin’ Wolf.” Those apostrophes can be downright exhausting.