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Howlin Mercy: Existential Blues by Tom Geiger


I couldn’t sleep last night. I woke up with John on my mind. But, that is only partly true. I had lots of things on my mind. But, John is on my mind because I need to start writing again. I need to start listening again. I need to find that part of me that John touched, destroyed, illuminated, and healed. So, I decided to go back to the source. I went back to Howlin’ Mercy and I was blown away all over again. While listening it dawned on me that the reason it is a masterpiece is that it works on so many levels. It works as music, as theater, as philosophy, as religion, and as psychology. I am sure that a few of you may be shaking your head right now. But, if you give me a chance, I will explain.

The blues is not just about music. It can also be about ideas. My premise is that John had a plan when he put this record together. The bluesmen of the twenties and thirties were oppressed by racial prejudice, economic uncertainty, and the everyday problems of life. They wrote about it and the music reflects their times. John Campbell's blues reflect the same kind of introspection. But, for John it was different. John was struggling with his existence and trying to give that meaning in the context of his life. John was writing about a different kind of oppression: the oppression of life and getting through the day. It is the oppression of existence. John was tapping into the existential nineties and bringing the blues up to date. I think that is why if John had lived his blues would have revitalized the blues genre. Listen to the album again. Howlin' Mercy is not your typical blues or rock and roll album. There is a cohesion to the music and to the ideas and the way the songs bring those ideas to life. There is a logical progression. This is a work of philosophy as well as music.

Howlin' Mercy: Existential Blues

There was a time when shadows grew bones stood up and walked whistling past graveyards and no one feared midnight. Alchemy was called science and therefore had to be torn down and rebuilt. And all took responsibility for their wickedness as well as their power.John Campbell

Howlin’ Mercy is an existential blues album. Just as teenage angst was being given a voice in grunge music, John was tapping into it and bringing it home to the blues. This is grunge for adults; this is John trying to make sense not only of his own choices but the choices of the world around him. The songs on Howlin’ Mercy reveal a tension that John must have been feeling at the time. Keep in mind that he was experiencing success in his career, success in his relationship with Dolly, and success with his life in general (he had become healthy and removed many negative influences from his life.) John may not have found religion, but he must have felt like: Now what? Where do you go when you finally get to the point you have set your entire life towards? What happens next when you finally reach the summit? Howlin’ Mercy is the powerful answer to those questions.

If one reads the lyrics of Howlin’ Mercy it is easy to suggest that seeing things with optimism was difficult for John. It seems dark and depressing. The songs seem overly conscious of death and the symbolism of good and evil. But, if you look close there is a common voice in this work of art. There is a protagonist and when we listen to Howlin’ Mercy it is as if we are inside his mind as he faces the challenges of life. The images may be dark and disturbing but that has a lot to do with the musical genre John was working with. This is a blues album to be sure. It harkens back to a time when it was not uncommon for blues songs to sing of hellhounds and salvation. But, I don’t think that John was advocating a religion here or looking for one either. Howlin’ Mercy is not a gospel record. John's protagonist is not seeking salvation; instead, he seems to be seeking understanding. He is looking for meaning not resolve.

The man in Howlin’ Mercy, who I believe represents John’s own state of mind, is living in the moment of the struggle where he finds himself in constant emotional, physical and spiritual duress. Howlin’ Mercy was written on the road and perhaps that extra pressure is revealed here, too. Life is about the struggle to control our impulses and to balance our desire for love with our desire for immediate gratification. Life is a journey and a test where we are beset with temptations and conflicting thoughts, feelings, and just living is hard enough. The struggle between good and evil is omni present. In the opening track, Ain’t Afraid of Midnight, John feels beset by the devil. To John it is a battle of will and wits. It is a game with real consequences. I think that John is telling us that our choices end up haunting us. I’m not sure whether John starts out that way or only feels that he has become corrupted, but the guy in the song has already been damned by the consequences. He has already made his deal. He references hellhounds and cobras and you get the feeling of mortal peril with the reaper waiting in the wings for his time on the stage. But, what is great about this song and about what I think John is trying to say is that it must be faced. At some point, you have to live with the consequences of your actions. Symbolically, this time of reckoning occurs at midnight and even though he fears that he is beyond saving, he will fight to the bitter end. It may be bluster, but John warns the hooded bugler that if he is coming he better pack some heat. He will take it right to the edge – to the graveyard and dance with the devil if he has to. This is the manic John pumped and ready to fight. This is John when he is on stage. I take great encouragement from this song and I think it is the uplifting note of the album. This song is about the meaning of life. It is about finding courage when you fear that all is lost and finding a way to continue the fight.

Ain't Afraid of Midnight is both the beginning and the end of the album. Just as midnight is the end of the day, it is also a beginning of a new battle and a new set of temptations. John is presenting life here as a constant unending struggle. We exist and we know we exist because we feel the tension of that struggle. It binds us to the world. The protagonist of Howlin’ Mercy is struggling to hold it together. A new day begins by washing away in a literal and figurative sense the previous one. But he grows weary from the tension; the second song When the Levee Breaks brings this feeling to life. The song itself has many levels and a history of its own, but I think what it does on Howlin’ Mercy is provide an emotional backdrop. The song’s subject matter and title deal with the preparation for a massive flood. A flood that will ruin crops and devastate all that has been planted, all that has been worked for, and all that is cherished. The future is unknown and the only thing holding this doom back is the levee. The levee is the lock on the door that keeps the bad guys out. It is the insurance we purchase hoping never to use. It is a gate. It is our fear come to life. I think John saw it this way, too. I would add that a levee can also be a state of mind. As a symbol it can also be seen as a way of holding off bad thoughts from flooding out the good and maintaining control. The problem with levees is that eventually we know that they will break. That is the tension. John knows. In the song, the character contemplates the levee on the brink of his impending doom and realizes that when it breaks all is lost. He weeps and moans, but it is no avail. When it breaks it is over and he knows it. There will be no place to hide. The refrain at the end – almost dreamlike – is part dream and part fear come to life. I’m going down John says repeatedly. Welcome to reality.

What is man’s response to the realization of this predicament – the nausea of his existence? John seems to be saying that man must not only deal with the pain of life’s challenges and the consequences of his choices but he must also deal with the unknown fear that grips him. This is where Tom Waits’ song, Down in the Hole comes in. John’s protagonist has realized his predicament. Life is one ass-kicking moment after another. Now he must find a way to cope. The song works for many reasons but the simplest reason is that it is drenched in religious imagery and it sounds so damn eerie. Down in the Hole is almost a sermon. One can imagine a preacher saying “If you walk with Jesus, he’s gonna save your soul, but you got to keep the devil way down in the hole.” According to the preacher, Jesus is supposed to be the answer, “you don’t have to worry” the preacher says, “We will all be safe from Satan if you hold Jesus hand.” It is a statement of faith. In the song the angels are singing about Jesus’ mighty sword and the preacher promises that the angel's wings will shield us as long we don’t heed to temptation. We are further admonished to remember the devils hands are cold. The answer seems to be simple: faith. Submerge your feelings and your fears and everything will be ok. Don’t worry about it; just don’t ever talk about what you really feel. Just trust us.

But, what if that is not enough? What if you have no faith? I get the sense when I listen to Howlin’ Mercy that John's protagonist is not satisfied with this resolution on either an intellectual or a spiritual level. The practicality of keeping the devil down in the hole is indisputable. It must be held back at all costs – if it is not held back, if the levee breaks, then there will be hell to pay. John can’t simply forget about it. It has to be understood. It has to be dealt with. The levee is still there and religion is just a sandbag. All the while John’s alterego, Elvin Diablo, is struggling to come out. It is Elvin who is shaking the medicine stick. It is Elvin that makes the song seem scary. He wants to run wild but John is holding him back. In the end, faith is just a coping mechanism. Surely there are better ways of dealing with the problem. At the very least, faith doesn't seem work by itself.

John's protagonist looks at an alternative: love. The Beatles thought that it was all that you needed. “Love, love, love,” according to Burt Bacharach is the only thing, “there is just too little of.” I don’t think that John's protagonist agrees. John deals with the subject of over the course of five songs. I think each song represents a different aspect of love and in the end John realizes that love is not an answer any more than faith is. Love seems to be an illusion - an ideal created by our minds. John doesn’t believe it is meaningless by any means. It is just not the balm of Gilead to salve his troubled mind. In a lot of ways, love just makes things worse. Love may even be generalized here. It doesn’t have to be love for another person. Love is the emotion that drives our desires. Love is the only reason we need faith in the first place.

In Look What Love can Do?, John deals with romantic love. John’s protagonist is happy because he has found someone. The song tells of a guy who has just found love. He finally has it, so he gives up his wicked ways – his black book, his gambling and whoring – and changes his ways. No more rumbling, double dealing, or the pursuit of earthly pleasures for him. Sure, he has love. But, it is love on the outside. It is a warm blanket. In the song, JOhn's protagonist has the external comforts he thinks are important: a mailing address, someplace to throw his clothes, and a picture of himself on the wall. It is convenient and physically satisfying. But, will that keep the devil in his hole or keep the levee from breaking? When John wrote this he had found love himself – for at least the third time if marriage is used as a measuring stick of romance. He should have been blissfully happy. We should expect to see his philosophy transformed. Love should be conquering evil, right? If this was the final comment on love we might be inclined to believe that love was somehow enough to tame the wild beast within. But, it doesn't change anything real or meaningful. It's what he doesn't say about love that is most revealing. John doesn’t say that love has completed him or cured him or dealt the devil a blow. Really, he doesn’t appear to be saying anything positive about it on any deep or meaningful level. Instead, love means giving up his happiness. It is restriction and change. How long before John's protagonist starts to ask himself, “Why am I not happy.”

In the end, romantic love is not enough. When the romance dies all that is left is the physical and even that is not enough. The momentary pleasures of physical love are appealing but they don’t resolve anything. It does not quench the physical desire nor stop the temptations that hound us. Saddle Up My Pony speaks to the desire for instant release. The song is about escaping rr just getting the hell out. When you listen to the song, it is almost as if John is expressing the desire to seek a more enduring and internally satisfying expression of love anywhere but where he seems to have found it. He can't seem to reconcile what to do about what he has. Even as he contemplates the tangible feel of the love he has found, John's protagonist knows something better is out there waiting. “I think its time,” John says. Time to get the hell out. Love is something remote and distant. John’s lyric, “the woman I’ve been loving is out there in the world somewhere,” and “every I see a woman it makes me think of mine," may lead you to think that John is longing for the woman he has. But, I think it is just the opposite. Love seems to be a trap. Love hasn’t solved anything. "Its weighing heavy on my conscience and worrying my troubled mind," John laments. "What the hell?" John seems to be saying. In the end he complains, “Same worries same trouble is hunting and hounding me. I think somebody man is trying to put a spell down on me.”

I think what emerges is guilt. John’s protagonist is trapped and yearning to be free. The reference directly to Robert Johnson works well here. “When it comes my time to die, just put me down by the highway side, so my wicked spirit can easily catch a greyhound bus and ride.” Elvin or the darker part of his soul is yearning to be free. Whether this freedom is from life itself, from love, or from his obligations is unclear – it could be all three. It speaks to the existential angst that surrounds the protagonist in Howlin’ Mercy and the inescapable conclusion that the Beatles were full of shit. There has to be something more. When John boogies in Saddle Up My Pony, I get the feeling that tension is released even if it is just imaginary. John seems to be reveling in the “what if” – the freedom yet to be explored. This is how the blues conquers the demons. Let it go. Live in the What if. Let it ride. Let all the darkness pour forth in a dream even if it is only momentary.

Besides love has consequences and that is part of the problem. Romantic love and physical love involve other people and the associated baggage that comes along with them. The girl in Firin’ Line is symbolic not only of the opposite sex in general but of all things we crave and desire and love. In the end you get taken to the slaughterhouse. John’s love has turned on him. He says that "my body's aching...my mind ain't right". He is looking for a way out, but the woman he loved is now bearing down on him. He feels like a target. When he turns to a priest, he gets no help. In fact, it is quite astonishing. The priest tells him that he is “a dead meat man.” In other words, its over. The priest's only suggestion is “If you had sense, you would turn and run.” But, still he must have her. He stumbles through life “watching his back”, knowing that “she is out there and she is waiting on me.” In the end John finds her. But, it is totally unsatisfying. What does he get for his persistence? “A sweet payback for his dirty deal,” John says. He gets to see a “glint of steel” as he is slaughtered during the night of the huntress.

In the end love can’t be trusted. "Love stay away from my door,” John begs on Love’s Name. “I don’t want,” he says, “to hear the tears that fall when people mention love’s name.” It is a sad song, but it is the song of one who seems to be realizing the measure of his folly. He remembers that even in the midst of his love “he never trusted happiness.” This awareness has come at great cost. He realizes, that “love don’t play by the rules. Love is a wicked woman’s tool.” Of course that is the low point, for John’s protagonist. The pursuit of love has failed to resolve the internal struggles of his psyche. Maybe he is only rejecting physical love? Or is he rejecting the goal of physical conquest? I think that John is talking about life in general. The love or feeling of love he gets from fans, from record industry types, from friends and acquaintances and from family. What does this say about humanity? “I won’t be nobody’s fool,” John says.

Written in Stone is more upbeat. It is as if John’s protagonist is realizing the facts of life about physical love and is trying to drag himself forward. Love cannot be discounted anymore than faith can, at least not totally. Love has to be figured in the mix somewhere. But, it cannot be the goal or the objective itself. As life is bearing down on him, John sings about the certainties of life: death, the Sun and the taxman. He knows that religion has not been the answer. He has been down the high, the low, and the narrow road and he has still not found heaven. Somehow he still believes in love. He has to. It is written in stone. It is unavoidable. But, this love is a more idealistic form of love. This love is a love with a greater foundation. John’s protagonist knows that the search will not be easy, but he must continue to search. He is willing to go to the extreme if necessary. He promises the recipient of his love that “the faint of heart might freeze,” but he won’t. No trials and tribulations will deter him. The truth like the sun will continue to shine. Some things are written in stone. This song is one that speaks to balancing things and aspiring to a higher purpose. John mentions the cards, the bones, and the bible. He reads them, of course, but he is not going to let them dictate his choices. Life is difficult and he knows that the comfort they give can be fleeting like the hot winds blowing over the sands. No wind can blow us under John promises. In many ways, it is John’s most optimistic song. If John had an angel on one shoulder, this is the type of encouraging words he might hear. The contrary view is provided in the next song. After all life is about tension.

Of the two songs, Wiseblood is the more logical and rational. It is cold. If Written in Stone is what John’s angel is saying, then Wiseblood is the Devil on the other shoulder. He is talking to himself – perhaps even talking to love. He is stomping out the fires. The struggle is still there. There is no salvation. You can’t live on faith. There is no act of contrition that will work, there are no confessionals, priests, candles, etc. that will do the job. It's all a lie. John says, “There is no price you can pay.” In the end, there is only death and “the darkness rules the day.” It is as if John is taking back every thing he says in Written in Stone. “The truth is still the truth,” John points out. This is the front line of the battle right here. Faith, love, and ideals crumble before introspection. The song may be about the ire of a jilted lover, but it is much deeper than that. It is the dawning of awareness and the end to blissful ignorance. It is as if John is saying, I got wise blood or wisdom now and I am onto you. “I can see through your lies.” I know that you are unreal. That the song focuses on blood is important because it goes right to the heart of faith. John looks around and realizes that the Devil – the flood of temptation behind the levee’s walls – is still there. Nothing has been resolved. The blind can’t see, the dumb can’t talk, and the lame can’t walk. The truth cannot be wished away or washed off. It is like blood. It is a stain on our collective consciousness.

Wolf Among the Lambs is the crowning piece. Does the Wolf win? Does evil win in the end? Notice what John says, when the moon is shining I have to howl. He says, “I’m going to step in the shadows – when the day is over and darkness starts to fall.” The feelings are rising and they must be dealt with – somehow. It could be that this is a dream or a desire or a temptation that must be put down – but it brings us back to Ain’t Afraid of Midnight. In some sense the cycle is complete. John is back in that graveyard and he is dealing with his life. He calls it a hunger and an appetite. He can’t help it. He must feed it. This is his humanity pulling against the logic of his mind. He has a carnal existence in addition to a spiritual existence. This is part of the struggle, too. In many ways, this is the outcome. It is like a wolf among the lambs. The lamb is not Jesus here but his own better nature. He needs to howl. He needs to prowl. This is the fundamental pressure that is dying to be released. It has been held down in the hole and the pressure is mounting.

In my mind, John’s protagonist is still winning because he puts these feelings back down – even as they build and demand release. The key to conqering it lies in confronting it. There is nothing he can do to elminate it. It is a part of him and a condition of his existence. The devil is right there at his throat with all of his hellhounds but John escapes him by confronting them. He takes responsibility for them. He spends each day battling the demons – whether they be mental, physical, or spiritual. Even if his cynicism tells him that the artifices created to keep it down (church, love, humanity) are all lies and deceits he uses them as crutches to maintain control. It is only in his dreams and when he plays his guitar that he achieves that release. In the end – John lets go to feel it if only through the music and we get to feel it too. He achieves total freedom. On stage, John releases that pressure and lives. His guitar becomes the instrument of his salvation.

Life is a journey. On that journey we are beset by good and evil. We experience it and try to figure out a way through it. We are guided by our cynicism and we are provided as tools only hope, faith, and love. But, it must always be remembered that these are merely tools not ideals. Every day is a challenge. There are no easy answers. The painful consequences of our actions and the feelings of dread must be battered down every day. Midnight tolls for each of us. So where was John at? On the road – the pathway, trying to figure it all out. That is where I am at and why this record speaks to me. Like John, I think we are all searching for answers.

There is always the danger of reading too much into things. Howlin’ Mercy speaks to me. But, I am not just an observer – I am a participant. It is difficult for me to divorce myself from what I am experiencing when I listen to John. This album was fused into my consciousness at a time when I was undergoing a spiritual struggle of my own. When I find myself in such a place, I look to Howlin’ Mercy. I will stand resolute in the graveyard and fight to the end. In the end, what else can you do?


Copyright 2005, Thomas Geiger
Revised: January 14, 2005