The history of the blues is a book filled with unhappy endings. But according to veteran blues songwriter Nick Gravenites, successful, respected and reasonably prosperous at an age when many bluesmen fear what tomorrow might bring, the story has a happy ending -- as long, that is, as the story never ends.
"The blues is all right if there's still someone alive to play the game," Gravenites philosophizes when contacted about his new Don't Feed the Animals album and an upcoming visit to Houston. To Gravenites -- whose education on the mean streets of Chicago's South Side prepared him for an influential role in the psychedelic stew that boiled over in San Francisco in the 1960s -- the blues is more a style of living than it is a style of playing. "You live the life, you play the music, you pay your respects," he says. "One of my favorite inspirations was Lightnin' Hopkins. He'd come to town, get three or four white boys to back him up. He'd play a 13-bar line, a 14-bar line, an 11-and-1/2-bar line, and drive these guys crazy. And have fun doing it."
Gravenites' musings about the role of self-reliance as the cornerstone of a musician's personality takes on an Emersonian air as he expounds, "You do what you feel like doing; become a person that doesn't fit into the mold. The blues is my life, the bedrock of my whole musical foundation, but I won't let anyone tell me what it is. That's my job."
This attitude might seem arrogant if it weren't the voice of experience. It was 1955 when this tough teenage son of Greek immigrants lost his first friend to violence -- shot in the head during an armed robbery. Soon thereafter, another friend bled to death after being shot in the throat. Memories like these led the young Gravenites to discover the blues clubs in the black ghettos near the University of Chicago. The music he found there gave Gravenites a way to express the emotions generated by his experiences. The deaths of his friends became his signature song -- "Born in Chicago." Gravenites used this bitter paean to lost friends to introduce himself to the coffee-shop scene of beat San Francisco in the late 1950s when the writings of Jack Kerouac drew him there. It must have been a shock to the hipsters used to the peaceful hopes of the era's folk musicians to hear the anger of "Born in Chicago, 1941 / the first thing my daddy told me, boy you got to get yourself a gun." The stark realism of the song fueled Gravenites' reputation and helped lead to collaborations with the likes of Mike Bloomfield, Paul Butterfield and Janis Joplin. Gravenites left an unmistakable blues stamp on a number of influential Bay Area bands, but then Butterfield and Bloomfield both self-destructed in the spectacular fashion that's sadly traditional among many bluesmen, while Janis Joplin took her final, fatal shot of heroin a day before she was scheduled to record Gravenites' "Buried Alive in the Blues."
Gravenites sees these tragedies as contributions to "a mythology of blues stories, how ugly and crazy you can get." Looking back over decades of playing benefits and tributes for other musicians, Gravenites muses, "I want to live like a bluesman, I just don't want to die like one."
What Gravenites dismisses as "luck," and others call restraint and savvy, makes his impoverished and forgotten demise seem unlikely. "I've managed to keep the copyrights to most of my songs. I make a good living off of it." Gravenites says. "When they released the 25th anniversary director's cut of the Woodstock movie they added Janis Joplin singing "Work Me Lord." That gave me a nice chunk of change. I've been lucky having an independent income from my publishing. I don't have to subject myself to what a lot of other blues people do, which is play where the money is, period."
It's an opportunity to make some music for, and -- in this case, with -- a close friend on a special occasion that brings Gravenites to Houston. Among Gravenites' friends who survived the blues gauntlet is fellow songwriter and guitarist Jerry Lightfoot, who, the weekend after Gravenites' show, will marry the woman who inspired him to write "Walking With Colleen." Lightfoot and Gravenites go back a couple of decades and then some -- a friendship that apparently leads Gravenites to confuse Houston with Lightfoot's hometown of Pasadena when he describes his memories of Houston as "mostly industry, factories and the cracking things and railroads and canals, but the people were a real kick in the ass, really folksy and generous to a fault. The people in Houston treated me like a million bucks, had parties like I'd never seen. In California if you want to buy ten pounds of shrimp you take out a bank loan first."
It's not a need for a paycheck that brings Gravenites to Houston; it's a friendly response to a friend's request to sit in at a very special time. It's the kind of gesture that meshes smoothly with what Gravenites describes as his present career goals: "Just to simplify my life down to where all I do is play music, play golf and write songs." It may not sound like the blues, but for Gravenites it has a distinct advantage. It works.
Nick Gravenites, along with Jerry Lightfoot, plays at 9:30 p.m. Saturday, April 8 at the Fabulous Satellite Lounge. Tickets are $8. Call 869-COOL for info.
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