In recent months, I began digging through my record collection, searching deeper and deeper into my almost forgotten sonic cellars of black vinyl.
Feeling a level of trepidation, I found, dusted off and opened up the Howlin Wolf’s ‘The Chess Box set’. The vinyl and record sleeves smelt strangely aged. I hesitated, pausing just for a moment as I removed record one from its sleeve and walked to the record player, in spinning the disc up, I am daring myself as a listener and musician to once again to drink from the “Wolf well”.
After a few crackles from the needle, Wolf’s frightening voice fades in moaning and groaning with the opening track of “Moanin’ at Midnight”. I feel the chills of Wolf’s voice and then the snap of a dirty guitar, as the band kicks in, for a moment the moaning stops, but then it returns even more ominously.
Its mood is as gripping as Robert Johnson’s Hell Hounds on my trail with suspicions of impending doom with its unexplained midnight door knocks and phone calls in the Wolf household.
This is the stuff of personal nightmares.
The threat of the unknown continues throughout the song, until Wolf finally barks with defiance at the knocks and the calls: ‘well, keep on calling, tell them I’m not at home’.
Going back and listening to the Wolf box set, at a deeper level than ever before, I am shocked by the explicit nature of its content – explicit not in terms of bad language, but the ideas, and the intensity of the psychodramas of real human sorrow lived. These songs are about real, human longings carved from hard and dangerous times and lives. Not the safe lives of today. This is not music for teeny-boppers or the pop-gum brigade either. Music like this should be wrapped in tight plastic with a label stuck on the front: “Warning – the tones of this record are highly unsuitable for minors!”
The Wolf had married seven times. Man, you can hear every bad experience in his voice and those songs. From birth to death, lives like Wolf’s were never wrapped in soft cotton-wool but lived to their absolute limit, and then maybe a little more after that. You just know by his ‘moaning’ and singing that these marriages were never a happily ever after affair.
The more I listened, the more revelatory it became.
By the time I got to the track, ‘I asked for her water’, the scary and sad adult drama of human failings were manifesting in full swing. The sonic dirt of these recordings had gotten underneath my fingernails in my youth, but now they are getting in so much deeper.
‘I asked her for water’ opens with a foreboding and sickly repeating guitar riff from Hubert Sumlin, an out of tune uncertain piano and a relentless snare on beats 2 and 4, all marching in time to the one-chord, hypnotic groove.
Wolf’s gravelly and throaty voice starts thundering the words, “Ohh..I asked her for water...” Man, he’s really got something to say with the word “water”, punched out with such a distasteful bitterness.
Then comes the second part of the line, ‘Oh, she bought me gasoline’ delivered with a resignation and disappointment that is heart breaking. Wolf repeats just to make sure we heard it.
Yes – we heard correctly the first time. The band grooves away and then the turn-around is delivered with the words, “that’s the troublest women, that I ever seen.” Sadly, domestic bliss eludes the Wolf again.
The band rolls on, the second verse opening with the words “the church bells toll’in”. Maybe there is good news at last, has the Wolf found love and a joy filled wedding day arrived? But then Howlin Wolf delivers the punchline, ‘Oh the hearse coming driving slow’. Now, what had happened to the Wolf’s lover? The band now respectfully rally arounds him, with Wolf launching into a harmonica break.
The short harmonica break is strangely short and restrained, as it is set against the juxtaposition of the slightly edgier and harder snare hits from Earl Phillips’ drum-playing. There is no complex technical drum wizardry here but just a steady, sympathetic march up to the old, white weather-beaten church on the corner on another relentless hot and humid day.
Wolf launches into the final verse with ‘Oh tell me baby’. For a moment, you think all is good as Wolf directs his conversation to his lover, but then that bitter and sad realization emerges that she won’t be coming home.
As the band moves through the verse Sumlin on guitar get softer, less driving, pulling back, giving a distance to be respectful to the Wolf’s grief.
This song’s words are sparse and few, but the ideas are deep and shocking. It circles and grooves on one chord for almost 3 minutes. I am still listening, holding tightly onto the groove as its marches to its own end, I am engaged as I was within the first few seconds, and I don’t want it to leave just as much as Wolf didn’t want his to lover to go.
Wolf’s voice, the grooves… are all telling it how it is. Maybe the arrogance of youth had blinded me on the first listening of this material, and I really just didn’t understand. Howlin Wolf is like a good bottle of red in that it only gets better with age. Today my mind has been blown…….
Having said that, I might just pour myself another glass of that ‘Wolf’ tonic right now.
Check out some of Nick J Harvey’s gritty tones below.
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