From a distance, we all gave B.B. King such a hard time. My brothers and my cousin, all aspiring blues guitarists, complained with alarming frequency. We complained about the commercials, we complained about the album with Eric Clapton, we complained about his tolerance for white boy blues prodigies, and we even complained about his effortless poise.
We complained about his appearance on a Simpsons novelty album. We complained about his appearance on Sanford and Son. We complained about “The Thrill is Gone.” We complained about his high ticket prices and short performances. We complained about his duet with Bono. We complained his song from the 1985 John Landis film Into the Night so much that we belligerently spammed it to each other on Facebook and eventually learned to play it and credibly sing it. We complained about depths of his discography most people don’t even know exist. We complained about the cover of L.A. Midnight. We sure knew a whole lot about that guy we didn’t like.
In 2011, I had some money burning a hole in my pocket and nothing to do. So, you know, as a goof, I went to go see B.B. King at the Nokia in downtown L.A. and, yes, I made a special call to my brother to complain about it. “Hey, I’m bad with money and guess who I’m seeing at the cell phone theater,” I said, maneuvering past the planet of teenagers gathered for a Twilight screening, going up that escalator, secretly excited. My brother knew immediately. “B.B. King. He’s on tour.”
Of course he was on tour. He was always on tour. It was impossible to believe he lived anywhere or slept anywhere or even existed off-stage. The whole idea of B.B. King leaning against a counter in some quiet house waiting for a microwave to beep was always upsetting to me. It never seemed right.
I didn’t have a whole lot of money burning a hole in my pocket though. I didn’t have enough money for drinks or a seat in the front. I was against the railing, that obnoxious Club Nokia railing, right by the bar, and I was a couple hours early. A woman from Downey came up to me and politely asked what the hell I was doing by myself at a $60 B.B. King concert. And you forget how to put on airs with people you know you’ll never see again. You forget all the acts you do for different audiences. So I said what I thought about B.B. King for the first time in my entire life. I said he was one of the greatest singers I’d ever heard and I’d hate myself if I didn’t go.
She told me it was her mother’s 93rd birthday, and it was her mother who insisted they go. She told me her mother was in love with B.B. King, and she’d be happy to just die there in the front row in her wheelchair. Then she firmly insisted I get good and drunk before the show started, and gave me a hundred bucks to perform the task, which I did, out of purely moral and altruistic obligation. She even hunted me down on the smoking patio “to make sure that money got spent right.”
A man from Castaic stood next to me when the house music started playing and the lights went down. He said he managed a hotel, or was staying in a hotel, I’m hazy on that detail, and he saw B.B. King every time he was in town. He said B.B. King played for the contract minimum and the only reason to go was ritual, to relive something you remember from a long time ago. He kept apologizing for B.B. in advance. But I was fine with ritual. I felt obligated to participate at least once while the option was still there.
There was no opener. The band came on first and played a couple numbers to prime the audience for the main attraction, the world’s greatest blues singer, the king of the blues. After awhile, B.B. strolled out on stage in a blindingly shiny jacket, with the posture and stride of somebody who knew he was the biggest performer left in his idiom and could probably get away with just saying his name and throwing some guitar picks into the crowd, at the exact same pricing structure.
He played for 45 minutes or so, he told everybody he was using Nutrisystem to lose weight, he had more stories than songs, and he squandered a good third of the set playing “The Thrill is Gone.”
But in the middle of the set somewhere, he played a Blind Lemon Jefferson song. “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean.” And all the zeal he had left materialized out of nowhere. He went from 86 years old to 50. His voice was ageless. He sounded young when he got to wave at his imminent death. For about 5 minutes, I had a fine idea what B.B. King was like in 1970.
After the house lights came up, I saw the woman from Downey on her way out, pushing her smiling mother’s wheelchair out toward the elevator. I called my brother and told him I had a great time and wished he’d been there, I explained how great that Blind Lemon Jefferson cover was, and he wisely informed me that I was just happy because I drank up a hundred bucks of somebody else’s liquor.
The next day I sobered up and decided to drop the act, knock off our little ritual, and tell my brother I loved Live At The Regal, and, you know, that Eric Clapton duet probably got him a giant paycheck, and doesn’t every old guy deserve some giant paychecks, and all those usual things. It didn’t take, of course, and my brothers still complained about B.B. King after that, but I wasn’t much good at playing along.