Wednesday, June 15, 2011

"The Best Smelling Street In America"

As if you needed another reflection on the Bessie Smith Strut...

A friend of mine remarked the other night as the Strut was winding down that he felt like it had been "oversold." I think what he meant was that it didn't measure up to his expectations--for him, maybe music not great, food all of a type, purposeless meandering in the heat. He hadn't been in quite awhile. And I know what he meant.

A "successful" Strut somehow has to be more than the sum of its parts, and if it isn't for you, then you ask, what's the big deal? If it's too hot, you become miserable. Drink too much beer, you feel dull. Wait too long to get something to eat, you get a crunchy, charred sausage that has been sitting on the grill for 4 hours. Don't really care for the music, you get bored. And if those things are not working for you, you realize that you are in the middle of a giant throng of people, a circumstance you may try to avoid the other 364 days of the year.

Teenagers from the Bridge Christian Church Youth Group pass out koozies to adults carrying beers. The koozies bear the logo of the church.

But, really, isn't that true of anything? A trip to Paris can be spectacular, or, in a moment of existential awareness, you just might think, wait a second, this is just another city in another country with a bunch of people who do the same things that they do in every other city.

Smoked sausages, jerk chicken, turkey legs, potato salad, chicken or alligator on a stick, hot fish, funnel cakes, hot dogs, ribs, barbecue, grilled salmon and a whole lot else, but it's when those sizzling, grilling onions get into the air that you pause in your walking and take a couple of deeper smells.

My love of the Strut has developed, over time, because of its mystery. I, too, stayed away for years. Perhaps my life is too pedestrian, but the Strut, to me, is a grand adventure, and I'm always amazed by those who choose not to join in. Let's face it, an event like this in a city like this involves throwing a lot of volatile ingredients into a pot with no idea how they might turn out. Some people stay away because that scares them; I go because I want to know.

A long street, a stage at either end, and anything that can happen in between. Who will you run into as you stroll down that boulevard? A former student trying to establish himself as a bluesman on the street? The guy who runs your lawn service? One of your daughter's friend's mothers, now with a "26.2" tattooed on the back of her shoulder? Someone who scares you? Someone who makes you do a double-take, for any number of right or wrong reasons? Too many police? Not enough? Or just people looking at people, as Fitzgerald once said, "both attracted and repelled by the inexhaustible variety of life?"

Conversations are easy while you wait for the Port-O-Johns. A shared need, for some, a shared desperation. Anywhere else, people would stand silently and wait.

And it is about the walking, really. Up and down that street, back to where you were one more time, back to get something good that you saw, down a side street to the Port-o-Johns. By the time you get to the end of strut night, you've logged in quite a few miles and, most likely, your feet are screaming. You walk past places you've driven past for years but never noticed--"Retired Gentlemen's Club."

John Lee Hooker Jr.'s band churns out one of his daddy's songs, "Boom Boom."

But, sadly, the blues themselves are starting to get lost in the shuffle (or strut). A friend correctly identified the only authentic player on the whole street as an old man with more guitar strings than teeth, perched on a stool behind a bass-heavy aged amplifier. Besides him, there were white guys playing stuff like "Imagine" and "Wish You Were Here" at their own perches, while up on the stages, the music drifted either more towards rhtyhm than blues (a synth solo? really?) or towards surf guitar. John Lee Hooker Jr. has the pedigree and Jimmy Thackery has the chops, but neither served Miss Bessie well on this night.

And when it ends, when darkness falls, you find that you aren't quite finished, and off you go into the night, with comrades, down darkened city streets in search of some wistful ending of your own, some way to extend the night.


troutking said...

Is Bessie Smith the Strut the Seeg was writing about? "She'll bruise some. She'll hurt some too. But oh they love to watch her strut. Oh they do respect her butt. They love to watch her strut."

Abbie said...

I like how you worked Hatfield's favorite Fitzgerald quote into this post. If he doesn't read this regularly, I hope you send it to him! I stayed away this year, not because of fear, but because I would rather not see a lot of people that I know... I like anonymity at an event like that. Weird? I dunno...

Bob said...

Abbie, then perhaps you should recall another line from that Fitzgerald book: "I love large parties. They're so intimate."