Can’t Be Satisfied. The Life and Times of Muddy Waters by Robert Gordon

It has long been a commonplace observation about popular music that the relationship between creators and corporate entities amounts to an onerous if not outright penal set of conditions. All one has to do is look at the terms of a standard record contract and immediately recognize how much a musician is required to sign away for the privilege of bringing his or her material before the public. Prince was therefore not engaging in the knee-jerk rhetoric of a pampered celebrity when he referred to his former relationship with AOL-Time Warner as that of being a “slave to his masters.” Whether superstar, flash-in-the-pan or wannabe, all musicians remain more or less trapped in a subordinate position by the structural inequities that shore up the culture industries.

At the same time, while this set of conditions remain irrefutable, few books on the music industry do little more than lament the obvious and refrain from examining with any rigor or specificity the actual manner in which the music industry manipulates its hired help. Too often, the stories that get told possess a kind of VH-1 Behind The Music melodramatic air of innocence lost and cynicism acquired by yet another lamb to the slaughter. Casting the corporate suits as boogey men and the creative serfs as blind-eyed artisans may appeal to our appetite for allegory, but does little to render our sense of history more acute or provide our capacity for outrage with any concrete ammunition.

Robert Gordon’s compelling and comprehensive biography of the blues icon Muddy Waters, Can’t Be Satisfied , offers an exception to this pattern. Filmmaker, record producer and author of one of the most stylishly written and informative histories of a local music scene, It Started In Memphis [Faber & Faber 1995; Pocket Books, 2001], Gordon brings to his subject a fan’s admiration for the music without abandoning a historian’s dedication to detail. His language is rich and evocative, particularly when he conjures up the sound of one of Muddy’s most famous works, as in the following passage on Rollin’ and Tumblin’ :

The song is little more than a harmonica, a bass drum in overdrive, an occasionally ferocious slide guitar, and the orgiastic humming of several grown men. The sounds are pugilistic and sexual. Someone yelps. Someone else responds. The randomness of the interjections is frightening, the rapid-fire drumming disorienting. Muddy’s slide rings like loose spokes on an irony wheel, haywire. The harp is hypnotic. Chant and hum, chant and hum. Violence hangs everywhere, the sex heated and raw. . . . The sonic quality is awful, the song more powerful as a result, as if this wouldn’t be allowed in a proper studio, needing a dark and surreptitious place to germinate.

Passages like this and many others ground the factual trajectory of the narrative in the acoustic record of Muddy’s material with a deft hand. At the same time, I have to add that I miss the wit and revelry that makes It Started in Memphis one of the most high-spirited music books I know and caused me to laugh out loud more than once. Gordon captures the giddy eccentricity of that spectacularly odd city with awesome precision. However, such a tone would be inappropriate to the gravity and complexity of Muddy Waters’s career and take away from the magisterial position he acquired in the eyes of many musicians, particularly the rock & rollers who venerated him in the latter period of his life.

The master metaphor that Gordon employs to make sense of the trajectory of Muddy’s passage from the juke joints of the Mississippi delta to the stage of the Grammy Awards takes root in the institutional inequities of sharecropping and the plantation system. While born long after the abolition of slavery, Muddy nonetheless grew up in the economic hierarchy of the South and recognized from an early age his position as lowest man on the proverbial totem pole. He was a resident of the Stovall property, whose owners had the reputation of being uncommonly supportive of their charges, but nothing could absolve the fact that, as Gordon states, “Working as a sharecropper was like being knocked down to the ground every time you started to stand up.”

At the core of the system and the abiding liquidity of the transaction between master and servant was what was known as the “furnish.” It included the land and home that the worker inhabited as well as the seed, tools and livestock necessary to raise crops. Any necessities were exchanged for credit at the company store, yet the exchange amounted to a harsh transaction. Half of what one harvested had to be turned over, and all expenses deducted from what remained. Those laws, either harsh or humane, that dictated the course of one’s life emanated from the will of the master. Outright poverty might be avoided in the process, yet establishing a claim to one’s sovereignty was out of the question. Maintaining equilibrium in an unequal environment became a lifetime’s ambition.

As Gordon states, such an existence — “getting half of what you’ve got coming to you” — prepared Muddy for the exigencies of the music business. Most of the men who recorded him, including but not limited to Leonard and Phil Chess, treated Muddy as a commodity to be merchandised, even if they admired the breadth of his musical capacities. What Gordon underscores with a sensitivity that does not belie outrage is how Muddy apparently acquiesced to this system as a recapitulation of his childhood bondage. True, he may have rattled his chains and asserted his manhood time and again, but he never betrayed or demeaned individuals who did not necessarily have his best interests at heart. Howlin’ Wolf, whom one imagines to have been a more down home and unsophisticated individual than Muddy, apparently railed against how the Chess brothers abused their artists time and again. Muddy, on the other hand, embraced and never abandoned the mutual dependence at the core of his relationship with the record label.

Gordon details with court records the worst element of that arrangement: how the Chess brothers, in collaboration with Gene Goodman (Benny’s brother), established Arc Music in 1953 and systematically undercut the royalties of its writers by assigning them “employee for hire” status. This meant Arc Music could pay Muddy a regular salary and thereby deny him ownership of his material. These circumstances only came to light after the death of Leonard Chess in 1969 and following the sale of the label to the GRT (General Recorded Tape) Corporation. When Scott Cameron, Muddy’s manager, filed suit for unpaid royalties in 1976, the “creative” bookkeeping engaged in by the Chess brothers came to light as did the fact that GRT had thrown away all files germane to the management of Arc Music.

While a settlement was reached, the Chess family contended that they operated no differently from any other record company and, in fact, routinely made advances to their artists upon demand. Muddy knew, as a result, that he would never miss a car or house payment yet, accustomed to the inequities of the “furnish,” did not trouble himself to inquire what his fair share of the profits might be.

Gordon details these circumstances in a more objective and illuminating manner than Nadine Cohodas’s earlier published and widely praised history of the label Spinning Blues Into Gold: The Chess Brothers and the Legendary Chess Records [St. Martin’s, 2000]. Her volume, in my judgement, goes out of its way at times to treat the Chess brothers with too even a hand. She might argue that the label was built upon “a convergence of outsiders,” yet some participants were kept blind about the how their interests were less well guarded than those of their superiors.

Admittedly, Muddy, and others, acquiesced to this arrangement and accepted whatever gratuities came their way in the form of cash, cars or whatever. Nonetheless, Cohodes goes somewhat overboard when she asserts, “In an otherwise segregated world, Leonard and Phil and their musicians found a racial comfort zone based on mutual need and respect and deepened by the fact that the Chess brothers made their living in the black community, not just from it.” Gordon’s accounting of Muddy’s association with the firm makes clear that it combined symbiosis and parasitism. Assigning blame might be a losing game, yet absconding with a man’s right to the creative fruit of his labors in the form of copyrights seems tantamount to, if not somewhat worse than, collecting half of what he raised on land he would never own.

The fact that Muddy seemed to acquiesce to the machinations of the Chess brothers amounts to but one of the many perplexing elements of his personality. Gordon recognizes that there was something bordering on the opaque about the man. Apparently, one of his often-stated aphorisms was, “If you got something you don’t want other people to know, keep it in your pocket.”

True to his word, Muddy internalized his emotions and beliefs most of the time and opened up to few people, white or black. Perhaps, in the case of the former, that can be attributed to the insecurities of an illiterate man in literate environment. With his peers, he kept each element of his life separate from the other. That included not only his various families (Muddy having fathered children by more than one woman) but also the musicians in his bands. He rarely taught them how to play his material explicitly, and often depended on long-term band member and pianist Otis Spann to be the instructor. One of the most telling comments by a band member about the man is the harp player Paul Oscher’s observation how “he often spoke with his finger to his lips, like he was reminding himself to hush even when he was speaking.”

In the end, perhaps Muddy withheld all but the most essential matters in the course of daily life so that when he hit the stage, the contained energy that exploded would mesmerize the crowd, as if did for some four decades or more. Robert Gordon’s biography reinforces the breadth and resonance of that achievement as well as his miraculous journey from illiterate sharecropper to a homeowner in the suburbs of Chicago. The grit and sweat of his origins in the delta resonates from the field recordings of Alan Lomax for the Library of Congress through the Columbia sessions overseen by Johnny Winter. Muddy paid dearly for the ability to conjure up that sound and never let anyone — family, lover or friend — come in his way.

“Down through the years you’re going to get a whuppin’ and I got mine good,” he once remarked. The scars may have been deep, but the music remains.