Sunday, November 21,1999
Life section

Hit me with the blues


Thank the blacks for the birth of the blues. What would male bonding be without B.B. King, Muddy Waters and the black-white Eric Burdon

OF COURSE, I had to go to the Eric Burdon concert at Crazy Elephant.

The songs this English blues-shouter recorded with The Animals in the early to mid-'60s -- House of The Rising Sun, We've Gotta Get Out Of This Place, It's My Life -- have remained vivid for me after more than 30 years.

I had expected him to rock the joint -- and the 58-year-old did, with his able sidemen, especially drummer Aynsley Dunbar who had played and recorded with Frank Zappa and John Mayall, both towering figures in rock history.

More than 500 people turned up for the one-night free gig on Friday, and most of us were content just to listen to the music outside the unpretentious pub and watch the performance on a small outdoor-screen.

Keef Ong, co-owner of Crazy Elephant, reports that the crowd swelled to as large at 800 at one point.

The waitresses were run ragged, but no matter, my friends fetched the jugs of beer themselves and supplemented them with six-packs from the nearby 7-Eleven.

The music was too soft for those of us outside. The outdoor speakers were tiny and turning up the volume would only distort the sound. But as Burdon said in an interview with Life! on Thursday, if you want CD quality sound, then stay home.

I liked the informal, rough-and-ready, down-and-dirty way Burdon and his boys went about their hour-long performance. There was nothing packaged about it, unlike much of today's big-business pop.

After warming up, they got going with their mainly-blues repertoire which included The Doors' Roadhouse Blues and The Rolling Stones' Paint It Black.

Burdon could not hope to hit those high notes of his recorded version of House Of The Rising Sun but his live jazzy take was equally potent, a cry of lament.

At the height of his popularity in the mid-'60s, the guy went over to California and got lost in the purple haze. He was a white blues singer who wanted to be black.

The irony of it all. Many black singers, such as Sammy Davis Jr, refused to do the blues, at least in concerts, because they wanted to distance themselves from what was essentially black-slave music.

The blues grew out of the slaves who toiled in the sugar-cane plantations and tobacco fields in America's South before industrialisation drove them north to the urban centres like Chicago. It was in Chicago that blues artistes like B. B. King and Muddy Waters plugged their guitars into amplifiers, and gave birth to what would become rock 'n' roll.

But it was white artistes like Elvis Presley who took the music mainstream and profited from it, and white businessmen who sanitised it the better to make more money out of it.

Rock 'n' roll eclipsed blues music quickly enough. But in a quirk of history, it was kept alive and popularised not in America, but in English port cities like Liverpool. Americans rediscovered their blues artistes afterwards.

I pop into blues bars wherever I find them when I travel abroad. They are often casual places where the bands are made up largely of ageing babyboomers and you don't feel awkward nursing your drink alone in a dark corner.

It was in one such bar in Glasgow that it occurred to me how the music of the slaves had come back to haunt the graves of the slave-owners. It was, after all, the English and Scottish tobacco and sugar barons who trafficked wildly in slavery, rounding them up like so many animals in Africa and sending them to work in their fields in America.

And now, their great-grandchildren are playing and listening to the primitive music of their slaves.

Electrified blues, very much a part of industrialisation, may not survive long into the information age. But its anti-establishment attitude was what drove Silicon Valley in the early days, and its idioms and cues have been ensconced in the Internet language.

AFTER the show, at about midnight, my friends took me to a wine bar called Aubrey's in Winsland House where they go to jam regularly.

Aubrey's, which has been around for two years, is named after its owner, a pilot. (No wonder the number of stewardesses in the place.) A successful entrepreneur, brother of an MP, took a majority stake in the place recently, and it has begun to attract a growing clientele, despite the fact that it has not taken out a single advertisement in the media.

I have known many in this bunch of friends for more than two decades. Our jobs and families may have taken us in different directions over the years but rock and blues music remains our bond. We don't see each other often, but when we do, we don't need to talk too much. So much is unspoken, but acknowledged.

For my birthday in June, because a friend from Silicon Valley was in town and I thought it was as good an excuse as any to have a little do, I called up Terry -- he of the Straydogs -- to ask if he and some of the boys could come make some music at my place.

He said he had already arranged to go fishing off Port Dickson on that particular weekend. I said that's all right, next birthday then, although this was the big five-o. But the next day, Terry called to say the fishing trip was cancelled because there was going to be a heavy storm, so he and the others might just as well come round to do some songs.

Thanks to them, I had the 50th birthday party I had always wanted. I had nothin' but the blues, baby.

Archive 1

21/11/99 Hit me with the Blues

31/10/99 No chaise longue, just chaise daybed

17/10/99 Tell your tale and watch it take off

03/10/99 Goodness, its been 25 years now

19/09/99 To have a productive day off

27/08/99 Conduct yourself well

08/08/99 Liberalisation and the small man

27/06/99 An ATM at home that knows me

30/05/99 Why fleshy hips and jiggly thighs

16/05/99 A dressing-down for the interns

02/05/99 I've the best seat in the house

04/04/99 I may take China, drop my 'mistress'

21/03/99 When the lens harden

07/03/99 Among dreamers and risk-takers

07/03/99 Lives will be transformed

17/01/99 Look for me at the movies

03/01/99 Hardy, hungry, but a cause for worry?

15/11/98 Goodnight Irin, while I think of New Orleans

01/11/98 'Sexy' and 'Cool' is what sells today

04/10/98 Letter from melancholic anonymous

20/09/98 Men behave like sperm

01/08/98 Global is good, but local matters too

26/07/98 4 books I can't renounce

28/06/98 49 and the genes are calling

14/06/98 Beep beep for every kid

31/05/98 Soft goods, soft power rule

10/05/98 Be still--and be open to constant change

05/04/98 Fight heat at home, then soar the skies

15/03/98 Bond Breakers and my brother and sister

15/02/98 If you love her, set her free

18/01/98 Romancing Cambodia