On the Bus with B.B. King

Page 2 of 6

"I have this one really important question – OK?"

A female voice cuts through the basso murmur. She says her name is Ann. She looks eighteen or so; there is a feisty DiFranco cut to her jib: frizzy hair flying from a leather clip, baggy shorts and sandals. She says she's a singer-songwriter.

"Do you ever get tired of singing and playing?"

"No. Never."

Ann isn't buying it. "Look, even I get tired, because it's so emotionally draining," she says. "So painful sometimes. I put so much of me in my songs, things that really hurt me. And to do it over and over . . . . "

For the first time tonight, B.B.'s smile has vanished. He is almost stern as he leans across the table and tells her: "Don't think about the hurt. Don't think people are responding to the hurt when you play to them. Don't . . . do . . . that. It's about the music. You don't know what they find in it – some connection. Who knows? Leave it at that. Don't think of being hurt . . . . "

Morning is breaking civilly enough on the Connecticut shoreline as we settle into the private lounge of B.B.'s bus to talk en route to Baltimore. He slips off his shoes, which he always buys at Rochester Big and Tall in New York for his "big old weird feet." Reflexively, he shuts down the throat-killing AC vents and slides the windows open to a powerful highway racket.

Traveling with B.B. is not for the fainthearted. The company is genial, but the pace is brutal by any standards. After every show, B.B. spends up to two hours talking to those who clamor to see him up close. At 2 A.M., with 600 miles to be covered for the next gig, even when B.B.'s diabetes is working its sneaky hoodoo on his blood sugar, no one is turned away. The band is often abed or winding down in some hotel lounge before the boss finishes work. Lately, B.B. has been suffering from insomnia – the damned diabetes, he thinks – so he sits in his room, clicking at his laptop computer, answering letters, playing solitaire or his beloved cybergame, Freespace, past dawn.

Creep down to the hotel coffee shop after a couple of hours sleep, and that sound – the low, impatient diesel rumble – is always right outside. B.B. owns the band bus, but his private leased coach is a recent indulgence. "There's two other things I thought I owed myself the last five or six years," he says. "A suite – not a huge one, but a parlor and a bedroom. And a first-class ticket on the airplane."

The object of all these splurges: privacy. He says he's such a creature of group travel that he catches himself closing his bedroom door behind him during the rare times he's at home – alone – in his Las Vegas town house. Having the coach to himself gives him a great deal more solitude. On a full tank it has a cruising range of more than 1,200 miles. "You need that to keep up with the man," says today's driver, Hap Arnold.

The remarkable engine that is B.B. has been sputtering a bit lately, owing to a flare-up of the diabetes that was diagnosed several years ago. He has been wondering if it's the same thing that might have blinded and then killed his mother when he was just nine and she was in her late twenties. With great effort, he pared more than thirty pounds off his ample self. His pockets rattle with Ziploc bags of prescribed medications. He does not drink alcohol or eat meat. B.B. carries no masseurs or personal trainers on tour, just a small space heater to ward off air conditioning in his dressing rooms. This morning he's salting the first of a few stabilizing light meals – a couple of hard-boiled eggs. He pops open a wake-up Diet Coke.

"I've been thinking about that girl last night," he says, meaning Ann. Hers wasn't a new question, but it nettled. Why do folks always fixate on the pain? B.B. just hates it when people come up to him and confess how they held fast to his music when their lives and loves fell apart. He is always polite, but the truth is, he'd like to pound a wall.

"People say, 'Oh, me and my girl broke up last week and, boy, I've been playing you ever since.' It's not really flattering. Any way I can get them to listen to me, I guess I should be happy. I shouldn't be surprised that they reach out to the hurt in it. But don't play it simply because you lost someone or you hurt. I'd still like very much to know that I'm a pretty good musician. And you can hear it even if you haven't been hurt."

Pain is hardly a taboo subject for B.B. It keeps cropping up in conversation as it does in life, as natural and persistent as crab grass. He'll finish an anecdote: It hurt me. You don't know how that hurt. B.B. even speaks the word with the same upward-sliding glissando that makes his guitar licks instantly recognizable. In hours of conversation, he demonstrates great intimacy with all kinds of hurt: romantic, racial, professional. He admits that his own hurts have compelled and propelled him. He's played them, shouted, stomped and roared them. He's autopsied and orchestrated them.

I've been downhearted, baby . . . .

Have you ever been mistreated?

How blue can one man get?

Growing up poor and motherless in the segregated South, B.B. says, he has lived some very deep blues. And he has no problem with people thinking that pain may have pushed and shaped his art. But he would like this understood: B.B. King also owns the copyrights. All this time and mileage he has put in are not about the triumph of misery as much as its subjugation. His favorite blues are about survival, not submission. He says he's tickled at the way audiences are reacting now when he powers through a song from his new CD called "I'll Survive." Night after night, they rise to their feet when he brings it home with those two words. Respected, well paid, draped with honorary degrees and awards, he relishes his role as the poet laureate of Enlightened Complaint.

"Can you imagine," he asks me, "how a seventy-three-year-old guy has all these young people coming out nightly? Just to see me? How lucky can you be?" He's just as ready to admit that, yes, every day he also has the blues, if only for a moment. That's life. We haven't been talking five minutes when B.B. mentions what he calls his education hang-up.

"By coming out of school in the tenth grade, I've never caught up," he says. "I'm always trying to learn what everybody else knows. For example, if I'm with somebody and they say, 'Yeah, when I was going to college, I learned so and so . . . . ' Well, I feel a little inferior at the time. I have that little complex. I always feel that I'm the one that has to learn."

Press him about his honorary degrees from the likes of mighty Yale and tiny Tougaloo College, the Kennedy Center Honors, his 1987 induction into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame; remind him of the seminars he gives at universities like Northwestern to demonstrate his philosophy of funk and technique, and he'll finally acknowledge: "I feel I have a reasonable degree in art, in what I'm doing now. I started feeling this way not awful long ago. People praise you – I love it. But they don't know my limits as I do. I know my limitations very well."

Not that he is one to rest easy with them. He classifies himself as "very aggressive" in trying to learn things. To illustrate his point, B.B. hands me a zippered case full of CD-ROM disks with the invitation, "Go on, check it out." I find Success Builder disks for Algebra 2. Geometry. Elementary Spanish and French. Reptiles of the World. Architecture. What else is in B.B. King's Compaq laptop? Letters, compositions in progress.

All this talk of sophisticated communications leads him to remember a very basic message sent to him one night in Chicago. It came when he felt like a big deal – recording star, lady's man, King of Saturday night – until this blues blindsided him and he came undone:

B.B.'s got a band, paying it pretty good, too. They're playing a joint called Roberts, and B.B. is strong, loose and juiced with the promise of a new release. He tells the crowd he's got a new ah-blum out. "Ah-blum." After the show there's the rasp of a note sliding under his dressing-room door. It says, "The word is 'al-bum,' not ' ah-blum.' "Walking by the band room, he hears the guys saying "ah-blum." They're laughing . . . .

"That hurt me deeply," B.B. says. "One of the guys that was doing it I thought was a friend. To be a friend, he should have told me, straightened me out."

Suddenly he brightens with a coda to the story. About a decade later, in St. Louis, someone sent a note backstage asking whether he remembered the ah-blum message, which was meant kindly. Then the writer stood revealed: "It was a beautiful lady." B.B.'s smile bespeaks a happy ending to that blues.

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