Monday, June 2, 2008

R.I.P., Bo Diddley

It was several years ago that I saw what I knew would probably be one of the last really great performances by Bo Diddley. I had seen him a year or so before, in Eureka Springs, but hip surgery had made it obviously painful for him to perform, and while he still gave a performance that made true the title legend that always was placed before his name, that tiny auditorium was not where he wanted to be. He was at an age even then - about 10 years ago - where he should've by all accounts been able to retire, and just trot out his guitar for special occasions. He should've had bank by then, at close to 68, 69 - but he didn't, because his fame grew in an era where musicians didn't make bank - and they didn't get royalties for their record sales. "I am owed. I've never got paid," he said once. "A dude with a pencil is worse than a cat with a machine gun." I remember my interview with him about a year later. The hip was better, he was feeling much more sprightly. It was an advance interview before a show at Doc Murdock's in Fayetteville, Ark., a phoner. I had a number from his manager, and instructions to call around 7 p.m. Central. I called, and a woman I would later find out was his wife, Sylvia, answered. I explained who I was, and she said, "Oh sugar, he's just finishing his supper. Can you call back in about 15, 20 minutes?" It was then that I realized I had Bo Diddley's home phone number. About 20 minutes later - because I figured you didn't interrupt Mr. Diddley's dinner twice - I called back. Bo himself answered, and I could hear the familiar clatter of Sylvia doing dishes in the background. We talked about his music, and the rigors of touring at his age. He said he still loved it, even though he did get tired. He acknowledged that having to go back out on the road so soon after hip surgery left him a little cranky, but again, he blamed the music business as it was when he started out. And then we began talking about the music business now. He said he had a problem with some of the music, and "the rap," but also acknowledged that his grandson was in a rap group, and he enjoyed that. We talked politics for a long time, so long in fact that I offered to let him go. "You tryin' to get rid of me?" he asked. "No sir, I just thought you might be tired of talking," I replied. "I don't get tired of talking when the questions are good," he shot back. When he came to play in Fayetteville, I ventured over to Doc Murdock's before sound check to see how things were going. I saw his wife sitting there, and the slightly irascible Bo Diddley ordering a sound guy around. I introduced myself to Sylvia, who said, "Bo's been looking for you." I waved at Bo, and he waved back, and then said to a couple of people, "She interrupted my dinner." Then to me, "I hope what you wrote was good." That night, he wowed the crowd, and was back to form. No sitting in a chair, nursing a hip. In fact, a day later, he had an encore performance in nearby Fort Smith, Ark., which I also attended. He brought the house down there, too. I remember feeling a pang of sadness when I heard he had a stroke earlier this year, and it had affected his ability to speak. He was a man of opinions, and a man with a gift. Without him, rock and roll would be bereft. Would Buddy Holly have been able to "Fade Away" without Bo's patented beats to borrow from? Where would the Who, the Yardbirds, Springsteen be? I know that today, I'm remembering Bo the way I'm sure he'd like to be remembered. On stage, in Fort Smith, playing a third encore to a packed audience, with a young blues band behind him so freakin' excited to be chosen to back the Bo Diddley they grinned like hyenas the entire show. That's the Bo Diddley I remember.