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By Kai Flanders
Muddy cruised through his ‘60s success, living comfortably on Chess’ dole and content with label-mandated incarnations such as ”folk artist“ (on Muddy Waters, Folk Singer), psychedelic shaman (on Electric Mud) and supergroup front man (on Fathers & Sons). According to Gordon, he remained a man of simple tastes even as fame found him; he liked nothing more than sitting around the house, sipping a beer and watching a ball game on TV. He kept his friends close: Pianist Spann lived for many years in the basement of Muddy‘s home on Chicago’s South Side.
But he had one problem. ”Muddy loved women,“ his cousin Elve tells Gordon. ”Just like any other man, you supposed to love a woman. But you ain‘t supposed to try to have all of ’em.“
He tried anyway. Can‘t Be Satisfied features a cast of so many spouses, ”road wives,“ back-door gals and bastard offspring that a genealogical chart would have proved helpful. Though he lived with one woman, Geneva Wade, for over 20 years, Muddy was moved by what one of his song lyrics calls ”that same thing that makes a preacher lay his Bible down.“ His chronic womanizing created a mountain of personal wreckage in his later years: Some children and wives were abandoned or ignored; others grappled with or expired from drug or alcohol abuse. His granddaughter Cookie notes grimly near the book’s end, ”He was not a very nice person.“
He was also, given his illiteracy, not much of a businessman. It was only after Scott Cameron became Muddy‘s manager in 1973 that the singer got his monetary due. By that time, Leonard Chess was long dead, and the label had been sold. It was left to Cameron to untangle Waters’ exploitive contract and publishing deal; the manager maintains in the book that Muddy got his first royalty check after the 1977 release of the soundtrack for The Band‘s The Last Waltz.
After finally splitting from Chess in ’75, Waters made his last record deal with CBS-distributed Blue Sky Records, which released Hard Again, produced by Johnny Winter, in 1977. That thumping album, and to a lesser degree the three that succeeded it before Muddy‘s death on April 30, 1983, resuscitated the primal force and sexual charge felt in his historic ’50s recordings.
Those records also re-explored the long route Muddy‘s music took, from the boggy earth of the Delta to the bright lights and harsh pavement of the urban North. In that journey lay the musician’s truest victory, Gordon says in his closing pages. ”Muddy‘s achievement is the triumph of the dirt farmer,“ he writes. ”His music brought respect to a culture dismissed as offal. His music spawned the triumphant voice of angry people demanding change. This dirt has meaning.“ And so does this rich, knowing book.
CAN’T BE SATISFIED: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters By ROBERT GORDON | Little, Brown and Co. | 408 pages $26 hardcover