"I can't shake the screwy feeling I've seen Jake and Elwood before . . . I mean, who are they?"
Once again, here's the straight poop: every hapless hambone stranded in this sorry life should at least have a main squeeze who knows how to clean his clocks, an unholy soul band that this twosome can do the Do to, and a copacetic little gin mill where they can work this blissful bit of juju.
Now that's a sweet little vision, but it's not the Big Picture. The Big Picture, unfortunately, is that there is a wealth of chowderheads, mean-spirited stiffs and marginally adjusted jerks out there upon whom such a blessing would be squandered. I'm not trying to sit in anybody's lunch, so to speak, but some people in this world wouldn't know a good time if they chipped a tooth on it. For this reason, I feel at this moment that most of the people who reside in the totemlike town houses of Manhattan's moneyed Turtle Bay area should never be privy to a piece of heaven like Jake and Elwood's legendary Big Apple hideaway, the Blues Bar.
You see, Turtle Bay is a cool, crusty enclave in the east 40s where every Saturday night soiree seems more like one of those reptilian Tuesday cocktail quip-a-thons where the icy hors d'oeuvres never get touched, where the tart white wine goes down like Janitor in a Drum, and where every chattering mannequin is auditioning for a fat cat's lap. "What a marvelous collection of contemptible crumbs," I'm thinking to myself when my good-natured chum, Miami, pulls me over into a corner and rules that it's definitely time to slip out of this mortuary and go where folks know how to get on the good foot.
"So wherezat?" I slur.
"The Blues Bar," he whispers desperately.
"You know, Jake 'n Elwood's hangout."
"Jake and El—oh, you mean the Blues Brothers!" I say, brightening considerably at the memory of their unbridled treatment of "Soul Man" on Saturday Night Live earlier this evening. "They hang out at some place in the city? You mean there really is a Black Rhino Club?"
"Nah," he hisses, "the Rhino thing is just a routine on the show. But Jake and Elwood get loose at the Blues Bar on certain nights – and tonight's one of'em!"
"Where is this place?"
The ride to our arcane destination is a long, bleary bumpalong through some pretty nasty neighborhoods. At length, we pull up to this forlorn little saloon with pitch-black windows.
"There's nobody around here. This place has been shut down for years," I protest as Miami pushes me out of the taxi.
"That's what you think, joy-boy," he chuckles as he taps on the side door and barks, "Big Jake summoned us!"
When the door swings wide, I sober up in a hurry. Looming in the doorway is a big drink of water in a taut T-shirt and shades, the guy flexing biceps the size of my waist. It's Matt "Guitar" Murphy, onetime member of James Cotton's band and now thundering alongside Steve "The Colonel" Cropper in the Blues Brothers band.
"Come on in, Miami," Murphy laughs, "and bring your funny-looking pal. The beer's ice cold and we got a lotta nice snug-geets in here t'night."
"That's what Matt calls his women," my friend explains as we wade into an ecstatic dancing crowd that fills every inch of the small, cozy room. A jukebox stocked with every jump blues and R&B single of any lasting significance is blaring a Sam and Dave tune and the walls are plastered with faded snapshots of the Blues Brothers posed in front of most of the gas stations, roadhouses and jails between New York and Calumet City, Illinois. In the majority of the photos, the sunglassed group is either holding someone, or being held, at gunpoint.
"Who took these shots?"
Miami looks at me like I'm a dunce. "Fans – who else?"
"And who's asking!?" roars a voice behind me.
Shaken, I turn to face the Black Rhino himself, Joliet Jake Blues. Built big, badassed and close to the ground, Jake is decked out in his customary baggy black serge suit, sweat-stained white shirt and ribbon-thin black tie. Rising behind him is broad-shouldered Elwood, his younger brother, sidekick and silent confidant, who's a mite less formally attired in these wee hours, having stripped down to a sleeveless T-shirt and black vest. But both men are wearing midnight fedoras and shades that, even in the red light, accent their sinister barroom pallors.
"Is this clown a friend of yours?" an unsmiling Jake snaps at Miami, who nods cautiously, introducing me. "Well, I hope he came here to listen to the blues, get shitfaced drunk and fall down on the floor," Jake rules as Elwood shifts his stance threateningly.
I nod very cautiously.
"Well then," Joliet laughs, giving me a mighty bear hug, "lemme fill the biggest mug I can find for ya!"
Stunned, I stand amidst the melee as my hefty host hunkers over to the bar and tells Keith Richards, one of the guest bartenders (along with Richard Dreyfuss and Atlantic Records Senior Vice President Michael Klenfner) to fetch a tall draft. But the biggest jolt comes when silent Elwood steps forward, extends his hand and speaks, asking me if I enjoyed Briefcase Full of Blues. "S-s-sounded pretty decent to me," I sputter, and as we shake on it I notice a heavy gold chain trailing from his handcuffed wrist to a black leather briefcase. Suddenly, Jake is back with my beer and suggesting very strongly that I drink it in one gulp. As my eyes water from the effort both men vanish in a puff of truly rank cigar smoke.
Jake and Elwood are two mysterious pieces of work," the huge, mustachioed Klenfner later concurs. "Either one is capable of appearing or disappearing at any damned moment, but silent Elwood's the queerest case – he's gone in a flash and nobody knows where the hell he went. Elwood's never too comfortable, especially around groups of people, but then he could be rolling around naked in a tub of whipped cream and still not feel comfortable. So he just splits. It drives me so crazy I've thought about getting one of those Batman-type spotlights to shine in the air at night whenever we need to contact him. Instead of a bat symbol silhouetted against the sky, we'd either project a giant pair of sunglasses – Ray-Bans No. 5022-G15 – or his silhouette. I don't know, it's a problem I haven't solved yet."
Well, it must be the only one. Klenfner's new act has produced a runaway hit single ("Soul Man") and a platinum album that contains some of the most exhilarating music of an especially bleak winter. The Blues Brothers and their record have been dubbed a "novelty" in this disco-dominated era, and, considering its long heritage of work with blues and R&B artists, Klenfner is especially pleased their aggressive R&B sound triumphed on the Atlantic label.
"I think their second album is gonna do even better," he enthuses. "We've got the best band working anywhere, and on the road Jake and Elwood prove they have the chops to— "
"But Michael," I interrupt. "There's one thing that bothers me about the Blues Brothers. I can't shake the screwy feeling that I've seen 'em some place before. I mean, exactly who are they? Jake, for example, looks a fuck of a lot like John Belu—"
"Now listen," Klenfner says gruffly. "I don't know any more about them than you do. All I know is they sound great and act awful goddamned strange.
"I'll tell you this: they're gonna be on the bill on the New Year's Eve show at the closing of Winterland out in San Francisco. Why don't you fly out? I can promise you a great show and a great time, but as for getting the Blues Brothers' inside story, you're on your own. Far as I'm concerned, what you hear is what they are."
What A God-damned good band!" Bill Graham yells to Klenfner over the din of an afternoon soundcheck rendition of "Jail-house Rock." Holding on to his own crumpled, gray version of a Blues Brothers hat, he darts around the vacant, drafty floor of Winterland issuing orders.
"So what the hell did you expect?" Klenfner bellows back as Jake and Elwood put the group through their paces. "Naturally we got the best!" At this point the band members are a well-rehearsed bundle of nerves. Few major reviews have yet appeared on Briefcase and the Brothers & Co. feel like interlopers on a bill that places their act between a short set by the New Riders of the Purple Sage and an all-night epic concert by the Grateful Dead. Camped on the sidewalk outside are hard-core Deadheads, and the only indications that this anxious hippie throng might have any familiarity with the Blues Brothers are a couple of dazed backpackers wearing battered plastic coneheads.
"Three hours till we open!" Graham shouts as the horns persevere. Led by Tom "Bones" Malone on sax, trombone and trumpet, the distinguished lineup (Lou "Blue Lou" Marini, tenor sax; Alan "Mr. Fabulous" Rubin, trumpet; Tom "Triple Scale" Scott, tenor sax) is skintight by the second take when they're joined by Steve Cropper, Matt Murphy, keyboardman Paul Shaffer and the funky ballistics of bassist Donald "Duck" Dunn and drummer Steve "Getdwa" Jordan. Jake decides to grab the mike and leans way back for a growling assault on the "Jail-house" chorus while Elwood punctuates the proceedings with some honkin' blues harp.
But in a finger snap it's a wrap, and the band mills around the hall as mammoth breakaway plastic bags full of balloons are hoisted to the ceiling in preparation for the New Year countdown. Meanwhile, Jake and Elwood have now dematerialized. It takes the rest of the afternoon to locate the dingy hotel room they're holed up in, but my reconnaissance pays off. Their reticence virtually dissolved by a late breakfast of tepid Muskatel and some overripe seafood, both open up for the first in-depth interview of their convoluted career.
"Elwood!" Jake howls, drawing his partner's catatonic attention from the high-school football game flickering on the TV. "How do you think the Blues Brothers are gonna do tonight? Do we have a chance against the Dead and all the Deadheads?"
Elwood hesitates before speaking, flashing me a wounded glance.
"Jake, I gotta say no way, man. They're gonna blow us off the stage."
"It's a nightmare," Jake agrees. "They'll be screaming, 'Grateful Dead! We want Garcia!' "
"'Get offstage, you swine!' " Elwood joins in. " 'Get fucking lost!' "
"Oh no they won't!" scolds a shadowy female figure in the next room. She is laying out their black suits and slipping extra pairs of sunglasses in their breast pockets; Foster Grants for Jake, Ray-Bans (No. 5022-G15) for Elwood. I realize it's Jake's spectral spouse, known only as the Blues Wife. "You guys are wrong!" she begs. "They'll be screaming Colonel, Bones, Joliet, El-wood!"
"I'm not so sure," Elwood sighs. "Right about now I'd like a bottle of Night Train wine – with a little spike of Sterno in it – to cheer me up. But hell, that swill is up to a buck-seventy a fifth!"
"Key Largo was another great brand," Jake chimes in wistfully. " 'Just one sip/And you will know/That you're on the island/Of Key Largo.' So what do you wanna know?" he asks, pointing a menacing finger at me.
"To begin with, the word is Universal is planning a Blues Brothers film, and Elwood is writing the script."
"The Scriptatron XL 9000 has to finish the script," Elwood recites mechanically. "It'll be the first screenplay by the amazing Scriptatron XL 9000; the first fully programmed script. It's almost half finished."
"But what's the plot? Some say it's the story of your veiled past."
"Yeah," Jake admits, scratching the bristly soul patch under his lower lip with a shrimp tail. "We play ourselves. Here's a simple synopsis: it starts with me getting out of jail after three years and I expect the band to still be together . . . "
"He got three years on a five-year rap," Elwood interrupts. "Armed robbery at a gas station. I was driving but he took the rap because he knew I would string myself up if I went to jail. He did it for the band."
"Well, the band demanded their per diem," Jake explains, "so I had to rob the place! But anyhow, the film is about finding the band members and trying to get it all back together again."
"We hunt them down like cops, like detectives," Elwood bubbles. "We have nothing, a scrap of paper with their last phone numbers and a coupla old addresses. We discover that each one now has a different trip; a couple of 'em are living suburban lives, mostly working day jobs. We were just getting hot when Jake went in the slammer, drawing big crowds in highway drinking halls. Now we've re-formed to try again!"
"It's like The Magnificent Seven," yells Jake, "or Force Ten from Navarrone!"
The liner notes on the back of their album jacket inferred that they grew up in orphanages, took a lot of grief from frustrated nuns, learned the blues from a black janitor named Curtis and staked out Calumet City, Illinois, as their stompin' grounds . . .
"Right," Elwood confirms, "but that wasn't the half of it.
"Both of us were victims of heavy corporal punishment as children," he reveals somberly. "And there's a scene in the movie, in fact, where we go back to one of the orphanages to fulfill a promise we made to a nun. We're both sitting in these little school desks, and Big Jake's wedged in, he's stuck, and she whacks the shit out of us with a steel-edge ruler. She's like a kendo artist. She moves in on us, and then vanishes because Jake says the 'F' word in front of her! The school is named St. Helen of the Blessed Shroud Orphanage and the nun's name is Sister Mary Stigmata.
"There are blood references everywhere in the film and the halls of this orphanage are filled with the images of martyred priests, these grotesque statues of clergymen strung up years ago by pagans. It's a school for special children now but the subsidies have all fallen out from under it, the church won't support it anymore, and Sister Stigmata is really strapped for bucks. They're gonna ship her off to a mission if she can't keep up the rent.
"Now, she's the only family we have, see?" Elwood says passionately, "but she threw us out and said, 'Don't come back until you redeem yourselves! You're thieves and liars, so clear out!' It's a big Catholic guilt trip she lays on us, but we are thieves and [big grin] filthy-mouthed liars! So we come back and decide to do her a favor and raise some money for the school.
"We're pretty strapped financially at this point. I've got a job but I put most of the money into our car, the Blues Mobile, which is an ex-Indiana state police car with a 440 in it – from the pre-unleaded gas era. The speedometer just says 'certified calibration' and it's clocked for 140. All through the movie you'll see close-ups of the speedometer, the needle just banging in there at 130.
"We bought it at a municipal auction. We used to have a Cadillac, which I traded for a microphone, and Jake goes nuts when he sees this old Dodge I'm driving around in, but I soon prove to Jake how fast the Dodge is.
"And it helps during an incredible car chase at the end of the movie," he says with a sly wink.
By the way, how did you assemble the original band?"
"It was agony, agony," says Jake, burying his fat face in his hands. "Elwood and I were a duo and when word got out we were forming a group, I got phone calls immediately, calls from heavy stars, saying, 'I wanna be in your band!' And it was a question of whether to assemble one or just get a band that was already established – some guys together for ten years so we could put 'em up there and let 'em just groove. I was thinking about getting Delbert McClinton's band, and Roomful of Blues, too. When we first resurfaced, Elwood and I did a gig at the Lone Star Cafe in New York in June [of 1978] with Roomful of Blues.
"But finally we just decided, 'Fuck the cost and the damage it will do to the feelings of people who aren't asked, and let's go for the best band we can get, piece by piece.' We got Bones Malone first and he recommended Cropper and Dunn. We really didn't know who they were," Jake snorts. "Then when he [Malone] said, 'You know, from "Knock on Wood" and "Soul Man," ' we said, 'Would they do it?!'
"I called them up, acting real arrogant," Jake recounts, "saying, 'Welllll, all right Cropper, you're in the group but you're a rhythm guitar player – ya got that?' and he went [meekly], 'I like playing rhythm guitar; I don't like all that lead stuff.' So I said [sarcastically], 'Oh, you're hard to work with, aren't ya?'
"Then I called Dunn up and said, 'I never met you but I'd like you to be in a group – but I understand you don't get along with Cropper.' He said, 'Aw no, we get along all right!' I was just giving them all kinda shit, bustin' their balls," Jake guffaws, slapping Elwood on the back.
"But they both said yes, and, uh, incidentally . . . they didn't know who we were either."
"Wasn't your first public reappearance on a 1975 segment of Saturday Night Live in which you dressed in bee costumes and played 'King Bee'?"
Their heads bob . . . warily.
"At that time, I'd do anything to sing," counsels Jake contritely. "So they got us into these stupid bee costumes. Boy, that was a dog performance."
"I'm intrigued by this longstanding affiliation with Saturday Night Live," I press them. "How close are your ties to the show? You know, the more I look at Elwood, the more he reminds me of Dan Aykr—"
"Well, gotta split now," they yelp in unison. "Er, hope you like the show tonight!"
I do, and I'm not alone. A shoulder-to-shoulder army of Deadheads rushes the stage when Jake and Elwood scramble on to a tumultuous fanfare of "I Can't Turn You Loose," Jake turning cartwheels as they erupt next with "Hey Bartender." The program is identical to the album, but it takes on a uniquely exultant tone as the group becomes aware that the audience knows every number.
Indeed, halfway through the set, Jake looks up to spy several willowy longhairs decked out in basic black getups identical to his own. A deafening salvo greets the familiar twanging lead-guitar intro to "Soul Man" and the victory is complete by the time the Brothers close with " 'B' Movie Box Car Blues."
The group overruns the stage when they do their encore, and Jake's cartwheel choreography is out of hand when "Flip, Flop & Fly" segues into the unhinged "Jailhouse Rock."
Backstage afterward, the dressing room floods with well-wishers, and even a cantankerous old grizzly like Jake is so moved by the adulation that he removes his Foster Grants and presents them to a deeply touched young fan – although Joliet quickly replaces them with a spare pair he had stashed in his breast pocket.
The Jefferson Starship turns over its Airplane-era Victorian house on Fulton Street for a post-concert Blues Brothers party, but as the evening wears on, there are rumors among the 300-odd guests that Jake and Elwood won't show. Spirits are momentarily lifted when Saturday Night Live stalwarts Laraine Newman and Bill Murray stroll and stumble, respectively, in . . . followed shortly afterward by John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd, but disappointment blankets the crowd as it becomes apparent that 1979's conquering heroes will be a no-show.
Some critics have noted that the Blues Brothers' musical direction and their decision to record their debut LP live at the Universal Amphitheatre in L.A. bespeak a vitality and an unabashed sense of fun that is currently in short supply. Although their show consists entirely of a roundup of R&B and blues oldies, each was picked and refurbished with genuine enthusiasm. And sometimes their feelings for the music run still deeper. Stax/Volt veterans Steve Cropper and Duck Dunn say that it was a special thrill to resurrect some of their vintage material; the night before the band left for their nine-night stand in Los Angeles, Cropper listened to some Otis Redding records for the first time since Redding's death, Steve's eyes welling up with emotion at the sound of his old boss' searing vocals.
As a band, the Blues Brothers are a delight. As a musical force they are merely a friendly reminder of some great music that in recent years has largely been ignored or forgotten. There's more to popular music than the "preprogrammed electronic disco" Elwood disdains, and the Blues Brothers remind us of this fact with humor and spirit.
I wander upstairs for what proves to be a fascinating conversation with Dan Aykroyd, but feel a little badly because Joliet Jake had vowed earlier that we would have a last chat. I've come to realize that the positive energy emanating from the Blues Brothers is something of an elixir in these jaded times, and I'm pissed off I won't be getting another hit of it.
Wrung out and kinda bummed, I decide to drown my already sodden sorrows sometime around 4:30 a.m. by swigging from various bottles of champagne being passed around the mansion, and soon discover my depression is being cemented by an unexpected dose of acid. Cursing myself for forgetting what Bill Graham had advised earlier ("Don't eat or drink anything being passed around tonight if you don't want to trip"), I race around the house in mounting terror. Luckily, I collide with Cynthia Bowman, the pretty national publicity director for the Starship, who commandeers Michael Klenfner's waiting limousine and sternly instructs the bewildered chauffeur to take me back to the nearby Miyako Hotel, posthaste.
Grateful for the assistance, I lean out the window to thank her as the car pulls away from the curb and look up to see that her face has become a hideous kaleidoscope. I'm jolted speechless; I've never done acid before and the sight scares me out of my wits.
After a seemingly endless excursion through predawn San Francisco – during which I momentarily became convinced that the driver is a horned demon taking me, willy-nilly, down into the Stygian depths of hell – I find myself sitting outside the comforting Oriental familiarity of the Miyako. Somehow I make it to the suite on the thirteenth floor that I'm sharing with Miami.
"Fuck me dead!" I rage as he opens the door. "I got dosed by some low-life scuzz at the Blues Brothers party and now I'm tripping straight out of my skull."
Miami's jaw drops and he leads me in gingerly, telling me to lay down and try to remain calm while he makes a phone call. I am too distracted by the colorful streams of insects surging up the room's melting walls to get a fix on his telephone conversation, but minutes later the door swings wide and in strides a formidable slice of reality, John Belushi and his wife, Judy Jacklin.
To make a long story short, the Belushis, with whom I have only an acquaintance, stay with me for hours, John assuming a comforting bedside manner as we shoot the shit until I am exhausted enough to doze off with the help of Valium; his kindness reminding me of one additional thing every hapless hambone should have in this life: a couple of unexpected friends.
I never do see the Black Rhino again that weekend but I remember Belushi smiling at the tail end of my trip when I mentioned Joliet Jake's latest disappearance. "Aw, don't worry about it; I think you should have these," he said soothingly, placing something dark and gleaming upon the night table as I drifted into sleep.
When I wake up late that afternoon my head is full of questions. Squinting about, trying to get my bearings, the first thing I see is the San Francisco skyline reflected in a shiny object lying just across from my head.
I blink and realize that it's the gift I was given the night before . . . Jake's spare pair of Foster Grants.