Monday, February 13, 2012

Charles Shaar Murray's "The Hellhound Sample"

Had a funny moment at Stooge prac the other night. One of the Stoogeaphiles happened to mention there'd been an unexpected death in his family over Christmas, something of which the rest of us were unaware. So there we were, standing there holding our guitars, talking about death for 30 minutes, until finally Teague crushed out his cigarette and said, "Well, OK then, let's play 'New Rose.'" In a way, I suppose, that convo primed me for the arrival of a copy of Charles Shaar Murray's The Hellhound Sample I'd ordered, which showed up in the mail, like a Candygram from the gods, the following day.

Murray, in case you don't know, is a Brit journo-muso, born 1951, who started his writing career as a teenage contributor to the underground newspaper OZ's "Schoolkids issue" and was thus involved in the subsequent obscenity trial, a real cause celebre in the UK. He went on to write for the New Musical Express, and I was fortunate to read some of his '70s scrawl from that publication when it was reprinted in Creem. He's the author of Crosstown Traffic, for my money the _best_ book on Hendrix (at least, the one that does the best job of placing JH in the context of his times and his formative influences), and Boogie Man, a bio of John Lee Hooker that I have yet to read. Murray plays guitar and harp, started performing during the punk era, and now fronts a London blues band called Crosstown Lightnin'. (Just what the world needs: Another goddamn writer that wants to be a muso.)

The Hellhound Sample is Murray's first novel, the story of the last days of bluesman James "Blue" Moon, a character loosely based on Hooker. After receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis, Blue decides to put his house in order by recording a final album with his estranged daughter, soul diva Venetia Moon; his grandson, the covertly bisexual rapper-producer Calvin "Ice Blue" Holland, and his protege and surrogate son, Brit blues-rocker Mick Hudson (who sired Calvin during a brief '70s fling with Venetia, but kept his paternity a secret for 30 years at her insistence).

Murray is familiar enough with the mythology of the blues and the trajectory of music since the '60s to spin a yarn evocative of their ethos, replete with deals with the devil, the struggle of sacred versus secular (shades of Skip James), and a subplot involving some villainous Jamaican rappers that turns out to be central to the story. He knows the music world well enough to make the stage/studio bits convincing, even though when he describes the production magic Calvin performs on his grandfather's music, it reads like sci-fi to a 20th century techno-illiterate like your humble chronicler o' events.

More to the point, Murray's sufficiently tuned in to the nuances of human speech and interaction to make compelling characters out of what could be straw-filled archetypes, and make a story with major potential for mawkishness on a Crossroads level (the Ralph Macchio vehicle, not the Robert Johnson song) ring as true as a bottleneck slide hitting a steel string. Not only are his principals believable as people, so are secondary characters like Blue's current, much-younger wife and their child, and Blue and Mick's managers (the latter a Peter Grant simulacrum). Murray's plot jumps around in time, from the '30s to the '60s and '70s to the present day and back again, from reality to his characters' dreams, but the narrative thread holds all the way to its surprising denouement.

Even though James "Blue" Moon doesn't go out the way he (or the reader) was expecting, he gets something that most folks in real life can only wish for: a chance to tie up the loose ends of his life, both for himself and for the ones he loves the most. We should all be so lucky. In an afterword, Murray hints that he's not yet through with Mick Hudson. Were a sequel to appear, I'd definitely be in line for a copy.


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