The wonderful and beautiful B.B. King

SIMON SWEETMAN
Last updated 11:15 09/04/2014

Yesterday the story was posted around the place (including here) that an "erratic" B.B. King was "painful to watch". 

There's even plenty of footage from the show to watch in a "highlights" clip. But if you saw B.B. King in Auckland a couple of years ago (as I did) the footage and story might seem instantly familiar.B.B.

I'm curious to know what you think about this though - it's essentially a story telling us that a living legend should be put out to pasture, a trip to the glue factory for this old warhorse...

The issue I have with this is that it's actually the audience's duty to do the homework, to have an understanding of what they're about to see, not just who they think they are seeing. You need to go to a gig prepared for the reality, not just with your hopes and dreams of seeing, in this case, the person who created two of the greatest live albums of all time; a blues guitar legend. It's not realistic to expect the B.B. King of 88 to play like, well, the B.B. King of 80, let alone the B.B. King of 75 or 60 or 50...

My grandmothers are still alive - one is slightly older than B.B. King, one is slightly younger. Neither of them ever troubled a guitar, nor performed on any stage. It's sometimes hard for me to see them at this stage of their life, I don't get the chance to see them as often as I used to, conversation is difficult. They're both in care; neither one capable of living alone, of functioning without support. It can sometimes even seem cruel to see - for just a few moments - their daily battle.

It's not my immediate memory of their lives - and not how I'll want to remember them at their best. Because, frankly, they are not at their best. Like any human being they have their flaws, their foibles. But one of my grandmothers is the happiest person I've ever known, content with life, so sure the tiny two-bedroom house she spent most of her life in was an absolute palace; her kingdom. She couldn't ever see anything in anyone but the best. Every person as important as anyone else. The other has a dark and wicked sense of humour - she makes me laugh. Still. And she taught me some harsh but important life lessons.

Growing up, getting to see both of them at least once a week - it's one of the luxuries of my life, a real pleasure. Something to treasure. In staying with them, having them look after me, teach me their ways, see things from their point of view, I was ultimately given their versions of Live At The Regal and Cook County Jail - and well before I heard those actual albums, well before I knew about B.B. King.

I was taught and shown their facts of life. I got to see and live with some of their very best work. I'm reminded of their finest moments daily.

When I visit them now, out of respect for who they are, for what they mean - and meant - to me, because of the connection, the bond, the time we've had and the trace of nostalgia that frames any meeting now, I am instantly reminded of so many of the times in my life when they were around and when they looked and sounded different to how they are (and perhaps who they are) now. When they were in better health. And I was younger. And of course they were too.

When I saw B.B. King - one of the great musical moments in my life, actually, just getting to see him, I felt like I was given a chance to pay my respects to a legend of music while still living, still alive, still working - of course I thought of the B.B. King of Live At The Regal and Cook County Jail - of course I did. Of course I thought of that compilation tape I used to listen to - The Story of the Blues - after hockey matches when I was 13. The rest of the bus cranking out AC/DC or Pixies or whatever. And me with my headphones on, absorbed in a world of music that felt private - something special. It seemed like something only I knew about.

It wasn't realistic of me to expect to see and hear a B.B King standing, delivering those sermons, hollering two feet back from the microphone and making that guitar sing.

Although he still had that touch. There was something about the way he got his guitar to talk. It was slower, gentler, softer. And, yes, at times, struggling. Much like he is. Absolutely. Because his performance was all about who he is now; where he is at now.

When I last saw my grandmother she whispered a line about her own incontinence that had me...well, I want to say wetting myself...but...it was a line that only she could have said, and got away with. It was in her voice. It was shaky, it was softer, slower, gentler, but it still delivered traces of those same notes. And it carried enough of a version of herself. It had me almost crying with laughter. And in that split second you remember back to so many things.

My thoughts around this are that if you want to see B.B. King at 88 be prepared for the B.B. King that he is now. It's arguably one of the more honest performances you could see. Is it comfortable? Not always. Is it value for money? Well, that's up to you. I drove through the night, there and back in one day, from Hawke's Bay to Auckland to see him. My arms didn't prickle, the hairs on them doing that wee electric dance, when he sang that line about "I gave you seven children and now you wanna give them back" like they always do when I hear that Cook County album. Because he never sang that line at the show. And clearly wasn't capable of doing that, of saying it in that way.

But when came to the stage and that drummer hit the first hair-trigger snare there was a lump in my throat. And two lifetimes of music - his and mine - sat heavy all around me. The Venn diagram of how his music had offered so much to me was there, along with a picture in my mind of what it might have been like to see him earlier. Absolutely. But my heart was filled to bursting just to have seen him there - and then. A little pity? Sure. I can't lie.

But when he fumbled and bumbled and searched for what to say or do there was a tear in my eye. There was a slight shiver in my voice.

I never thought to heckle him. Just like I never try to rush either of my grandmothers, or mock what they're trying to say.

There's a very simple choice here - if you don't like the B.B. King you are going to see now - him being 88 and all - then you don't go. Or, if his music has given you the comfort of family, has meant the world to you and so much more, you go, you pay your respects. You give a little of yourself to the cause. And because you've kept up with the family photo album in the times while you've been away from each other you instantly know, on one level at least, what to expect.

I'd love to know what you think about this B.B. King story - the real horror to me wasn't that anB.B.88 year old man wasn't quite what he used to be. Look around, you'll find that every day. And you'll always be the second person to know it, never ever the first. The eyes still tell you everything. They tell you what the person knows. And that the person knows.

The real horror was imagining the tactless, classless, vile lot in the audience booing and heckling and calling, no doubt, for value for money. For something they deserve! The chardonnay dribbling down their trotter, their weekend ruined!

Postscript: Just hearing this story and reading some of the reaction to it, I pictured a crowd similar to the one I've described from when I had the chance - that lucky chance - to see Ray Charles. I also thought - again - abou the best music gift I've been given.

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