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Full Focus

The Hot Spot

John Lee Hooker and Miles Davis



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Steve Day considers The Hot Spot - a film soundtrack featuring John Lee Hooker and Miles Davis.


The Hot Spot soundtrack


“I’m gonna take you down to the riverside, hang you up Baby, by your neck, I’ve got the Mad Man Blues.”  Even in the new terrorised millennium of the 21st century, John Lee Hooker’s grim dark demon lyric to Mad Man Blues is shot through with caustic pain and John Lee Hookermisogyny which grows all the more gruesome as the song continues; casual domestic violence voiced not just by the words but by the rough recording, his big booted foot stomping on the floor, the guitar picked and strung out as if it is the body of the song’s victim, the whole lo-fi eminence rattling like a damaged stone in a can. This late 1950’s recording was my first introduction to John Lee Hooker.  I bought the Chess Records EP in Keddies Department Store in Southend High Street, Essex when I was about 12 years old.  Mad Man Blues has never left me, I still play it when I need to physically touch the darkness and see how deep down is its descent. 

John Lee Hooker had a long career, but he never ever quite cured himself of the pain and terror that came with that early Joe Van Battle recording in Detroit, back in a time when the city was even harder than it is now.  The myth of America being great back in those golden days is classic cowboy propaganda, the truth is the un-United States was a tough, proud country, bruised and beaten.  In the coming years its President would be gunned down in the street at The Grassy Knoll, followed by the assassination of a man called Martin Luther King whose crime was “to have a dream”, and history would write its own epitaph, embarking on a stampede into Vietnam and the Watergate era. Writing this on the eve of 2017, Mad Man Blues now sounds like a prophecy.


Listen to John Lee Hooker's Mad Man Blues.




In 2016, the Columbia/Legacy label released a ‘new’ curated double CD package called Freedom Jazz Dance focusing on Miles Davis’s classic quintet, the one with Herbie Hancock, piano, Tony Williams, drums, Ron Carter, bass and the great wizard, Wayne Shorter, tenor saxophone and interpreter of the soul.  I’m sure I’ll get to it because it is a complete recorded encounter of the whole studio rigmarole of laying down the tracks for Miles Smiles, one the greatest studio sessions put out by this quintet.  But, this I know, if you want to really experience these five phantoms together, you have to go to the live recording made at the Plugged Nickel, a club in Chicago, Illinois in 1965.  Several years ago I bought the Plugged Miles DavisNickel dates as if I was taking out investments.  Back then Columbia were searching the archives for every last bit of the legend which could make them a dime, and presumably a nickel.  Freedom Jazz Dance is evidence that they are still at it.  The thing is, Plugged Nickel really was worth it. By any stretch of the imagination what went down in Chicago during that residency was undoubtedly the total truth about what it means to play jazz.  If I could light the J-word up in neon I would, because on this occasion we’re not talking some preserved display of past glories, or a dead music-form resurrected to titillate the senses of suits and chiffon, the Plugged Nickel is a definitive rendering of the jazz arts.  An acoustic quintet abstracting composition into a new music so absolutely pertinent to time, place and its own context, that for many, many months I was listening to nothing else. 

From the moment Herbie Hancock plays those opening piano chimes signalling the start of If I Were A Bell it feels as if there is nowhere else to go but Chicago.  I have never been there.  Instead, from my tiny home in the English countryside, I listened like a Lord, on the legacy of someone else’s knowledge of what it is to touch creativity in the passing moments of a club full of people having a night out on the town in the Windy City.  I later realised that around the time Miles, Wayne, Herbie, Ron Carter and Tony Williams were playing the Plugged Nickel I had just about got as far as buying Mad Man Blues in Southend-On-Sea.  Sometimes it’s worth checking out the dates, just to put our lives in context.

All this brings me to The Hot Spot, a dodgy noir of a film that Dennis Hopper brought out in 1990 based on Charles Williams’s piece of pulp fiction, Hell Hath No Fury.  Unloved sex, second-hand violence and a bank robbery, it could be Mad Man Blues recreated for a time when things were more innocent than they are now, though it didn’t feel like it at the time.  This not downtown Detroit, that had been and gone. Oceanway Studios, Hollywood is sun burn cocaine-California.  On The Hot Spot soundtrack there are no rotten eggs like Joe Van Battle, neither are there pure-toned jazz Buddhists like Wayne or Herbie. This time it’s John Lee Hooker, at the tender age of 69, scratching some guitar, moaning and mumbling the blues idiom.  Alongside are Taj Mahal, playing acoustic dobro together with blues slide specialist, Roy Rogers (who has nothing to do with his namesake, the old TV cowboy hero of yesteryear). Sat at the mixing-desk is record producer, Jack Nitzsche (Phil Spector, Rolling Stones, Neil Young) ripping-off the composition credits.  Okay, there’s also Earl Palmer on drums and the well known session bassist, Tim Drummond, plus some occasional electric keyboards from Bradford Ellis.  I’m not interested in the film, but the soundtrack, despite the rather tacky organisation behind it, is a special entity because Dennis Hopper managed to persuade one additional musician to join the ensemble.  Miles Davis. 


For context, here is the trailer for the movie.




So the story goes; as a young boy Dennis Hopper had a chance meeting with Miles Davis, who was kind to him.  It seems they made a connection (sic).  When I first heard this it all sounded rather apocryphal, though a film buff friend of mine assures me there is a grain of truth in the tale.  The Hot Spot is low profile. It doesn’t figure in a lot of people’s must-listen lists.  John Lee Hooker The Hot Spot albumaficionados don’t seem to refer to it very often, possibly because even on Mr Hooker’s own terms, these are not so much songs, rather they are vocal riffs rubbed along the surface of music like fraying sandpaper; quality shredded sandpaper.  It’s a moody, bleak rough-reel session, which could go all the way back to Mad Man Blues if you let it take you that way. Except that there is Miles Davis.  And he stands darkly in the wings emoting like a ghost who has forgotten he is supposed to reside in the spirit world.  Miles Davis beautifies his horn with notes that glisten from his breathy embouchure, shining long and looped.  His sound slithers  forth across the oh-so-basic tin bath, twelve bar blues structures, somehow making each one of them an invitation to the very heart of his genius.  So many times in his career he has almost surgically implanted his finest moments into arrangements scrapped free of fuss.  Bill Evans and Gil Evans, Wayne and Herbie, these were the guys who got the good-thing out of Miles.  And, intuitively, this is what John Lee Hooker was able to do. 

The old R & B Hooker never was a virtuoso in a technical sense BUT (a big thin, lean on the line ‘but’) he almost always played his ace hand in any situation, a mad man’s moan that could scramble the blues into instant sorrow.  Miles Davis picked up on this barren wasteland and bled his horn all over it.  If this isn’t gut wrenching music I don’t know what is.  And if the Plucked Nickel was the live mantra of the man, the strange, almost throwaway studio soundtrack, The Hot Spot, his act of penance.

You have to chase this kind of stuff down.  Your ears need to be patient.  The opener, Coming To Town begins with the old standby climb-down into a twelve bar blues played by every damn bar-band the world over.  And Roy Rogers’ slide lead is the ‘good ol’ boy’ riff favoured by just about every budding blues man. John Lee is uttering utterance like a guilty priest before the alter and the cross.  Yet even now there’s a dignity about how they place the beat and slow the stagger into the tonic. And then Miles alights on those simple chord changes like a guardian angel blowing a holy horn and you know, know for certain, that this is the commotion of the soul.  It is the personification of the blues struck through by a jazz master beating the air with the deliberate act of acid in your heart.  You don’t learn this at the Julliard School of Music; it can’t be rehearsed or practiced; the only way to get this deep into the groove is to have been the depositary of this much pain and had the guts to transpose into your technique to the point that you live with it, constantly.


Listen to Coming To Town.




What comes next?  In fact nothing else, what starts on Coming To Town can be found on Sawmill, Bank Robbery, Moanin’, right through to the closing End Credits.  The same soiled beatific sound, the relentless ache of madness which pervades the sparseness of the blues and sheer presence of the maestro jazz trumpet star who has come to the session because, well, Hopper asked him and he felt he could not say ‘no’.  Though god knows, he’d practiced that word often enough in his life.  The Hot Spot soundtrack maintains its wounded wonder just as Plugged Nickel retains its total definitive platform. 


Here they are playing Bank Robbery.




There is one track on The Hot Spot which has a slightly different feel to the others.  Gloria’s Story is not quite a blues and involves only Bradford Ellis’s electric keyboards back-dropping a short lament from Miles Davis.  In fact Miles has not changed tack one iota; he is as subtle as a soft punch that fractures.   The difference is that Mr Ellis is giving him a different shape.  In place of Roy Rogers’s defining twelve bar slide, Ellis offers this torch singer’s trumpet a minimalist melody line of synth and barely pressed notes from an electric piano.  When I get to Gloria’s Story it doesn’t feel out of place.  It crosses the ears for a little over three minutes as if the curtain has temporarily been pulled over to let in a little daylight.  And at the end, as the trumpet teeters on the edge of the last note only to be followed by Roy Rogers and Taj Mahal crawling the descending entry of another so-slow shuffle of pain, the curtain is pulled tight once more, and by the time they reach Murder, Miles is left to blow another beatitude to the defeated god of sorrow. The Hot Spot is a sore, sour place. There is no solace.  Eventually, the listener, has to close it down before it closes them down.  I put on Plugged Nickel’s Stella By Starlight just to give myself some air. 


Gloria's Story.




I would submit that John Lee Hooker and Miles Davis reach inner places on this recording which they never got to anywhere else in their illustrious careers.  It has a terrible (as in magnificent) simplicity and it hurts long after you have finished hearing it.  Profundity is stripped of its embroidery; laid bare. “Down by the riverside....” was not a place of revelation for John Lee Hooker, rather it was a mad man’s habitat for terror and despair.  This is where Miles Davis met him, almost on a whim, both responded to each other like brothers.  Beauty is a rare thing, so said Ornette Coleman.  Like on so many things, he was right.     


Stella By Starlight by the Miles Davis Quintet Live At The Plugged Nickel




© Sandy Brown Jazz 2016-2017

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Visit some of our other Full Focus pages:

Tommy Andrews - Crystal Car
Sam Braysher - Braysher On Bird
Tori Freestone - My Lagan Love / In The Chophouse
Alastair Penman - Sandbox