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He Lived the Blues Life And Didn't Know It


I've interviewed hundreds of authors, athletes and celebrities, but few interviews had as much of an impact on me as the one I did last month with Wolfman Jack. For days after interviewing him in Washington June 17, I kept going over things that he had said. When rock and roll's most famous disc jockey died of a heart attack July 1, at the age of 57, he continued to stay on my mind.

Certainly there's simply the occasion of hearing that someone you've just interviewed has died suddenly. With Wolfman Jack, though, it was shock, but not surprise; if anything, he was the classic candidate for a heart attack.

As he had detailed in his just-published autobiography, "Have Mercy: Confessions of the Original Rock 'n' Roll Animal," the Wolfman had used cocaine for the better part of two decades, and he smoked unfiltered Camel cigarettes. "I'm going to die because of this cigarette because I enjoy it too much," he told me nonchalantly as he lit up his second Camel of the interview.

I also wrote in my article that appeared in The Sun on June 25 that the Wolfman was "big going on huge," and he was just that -- at least 50 pounds overweight. At the beginning of the interview, he leaned over to Lonnie Napier, a longtime friend and business associate, and pointed to the menu: "Would eggs Benedict be OK? I'm trying to cut back."

When Mr. Napier responded that eggs Benedict was probably the most fattening thing on the menu, the Wolfman sighed. He settled for poached eggs and bacon -- the Wolfman was the ultimate sensualist, and he was going to have some kind of real breakfast.

Though he seemed weary from having done a radio show the night before, the Wolfman was more than ready to talk -- about his book, about rock and roll, about his days as a deejay on outlaw stations, about preachers and racial relations.

But what struck me during the interview was not the wild, raucous fellow we were used to seeing and hearing. As he talked about his miserable childhood in Brooklyn, and his lifelong attempts to be not the unhappy lad named Bob Smith but the Wolfman Jack persona who loved to let the good times roll, the interview took on an inescapable sadness. His mother had just died, too, and a couple of times in the interview he broke down and cried.

That's how I'll remember the Wolfman.

Wolfman Jack was a hero of sorts to me -- a guy who played the music I loved and did so much to popularize it around the world. He came along in the early 1960s, at a time when disc jockeys were supposed to be entertaining, to be creative, and he continued to do so long after rock radio changed into a faceless, antiseptic enterprise. I spent many hours listening to him on the radio, reveling in his exuberance and his sheer joy in being able to play Sam Cooke and James Brown records. No one seemed to enjoy more what he was doing for a living. He was what rock and roll was all about.

At times in the interview, he certainly put on a cheerful face: "Now I'm so happy I can't think," the Wolfman chirped. He talked of his Friday night radio show at Planet Hollywood in Washington, broadcast over 50 stations nationwide. "I would rather do radio than sex," he wisecracked; "All of those people having a great time -- I get levitated every show."

Professionally, he was still busy, still commanding up to $10,000 an appearance, and he had cut out the drug abuse, he said, and the fooling around that had more than once prompted Lou, his wife of 34 years, to leave him. Now they were living quietly in northeastern North Carolina on a 160-acre plantation. Mr. Napier even allowed that the Wolfman, who epitomized urban cool and love of night life, was becoming "a country bumpkin." He had even taken up fishing.

But then he'd start talking about his unhappy childhood again, and the party-hearty persona of Wolfman Jack would disappear. He'd talk of being a lonely kid named Bob Smith who couldn't understand why his parents divorced when he was 5. The rancor in his voice was still evident when he talked about his stepmother, who he flatly declared was "evil." He acknowledged that when he began to write his autobiography, "I went into a depression you wouldn't believe. Going back over my childhood -- there were memories I didn't want to bring back."

The memories were so unpleasant that when he became a successful disc jockey, and his Wolfman Jack shtick was imitated by dozens of other deejays around the country, Bob Smith simply decided he didn't want to be Bob Smith any more. Mr. Napier told me later that practically no one, including the Wolfman's mother, called him by his real name. If someone did, he wouldn't answer.

"That's why I like being Wolfman Jack," he wrote in "Have Mercy!" "Bob Smith from Brooklyn is a guy who sometimes gets hung with problems and fears. Wolfman Jack is a happy-go-lucky guy who knows how to party. The challenge of my life has been letting more and more of Bob Smith go, becoming the Wolfman on an almost full-time basis, while still taking care of business."

Now, most disc jockeys you hear don't go on the air under their real names -- indeed, since my wife has been in radio for nearly 15 years, I am used to meeting deejays who have changed their names numerous times. But very few take it to the extreme that the Wolfman did -- effectively killing off their childhood and becoming someone else entirely. This was a remarkable deed, and I told him so.

He seemed to slough it off. "The Bob Smith that I knew -- I don't want to be that kind of guy, who doesn't know what to do with his life," the Wolfman said offhandedly. Then he said something very revealing:

"I don't want people mistreating me. I found out when you're vulnerable and your heart's open, then people step on you. You're really stupid for letting that happen. And the only way to counteract that is to be like Wolfman Jack. Because if you do nice, kind things for people, then how are they going to mess you over?"

This was no streetwise cat, so hip and cool: This was a man in the sixth decade of his life who still had deep scars remaining from his childhood. That helped explain why, as he told me, he immersed himself in black music. Bob Smith didn't know how to be happy, and black people did.

This statement was so dubious that I could hardly keep quiet. As a famously sympathetic advocate of black music, the Wolfman seemed hopelessly naive and simplistic about blacks and black culture.

"What God did by mixing up those races was trying to have a good time," he enthused to me. He seemed to be veering dangerously toward the "all black folks got rhythm" way of thinking, and when I got home, I pulled this startling excerpt from his autobiography:

"The one thing I've learned, getting out to all those foreign and domestic locales, is that people in every country of the 'civilized' world wish -- either secretly or openly -- that they had the expressiveness, the flair, the I'm-so-glad-to-be-me spirit that black folks have made a part of American life."

I've since read that passage and similar ones from "Have Mercy!" to several black friends and acquaintances. Their reactions were nearly identical: an arched eyebrow, a small smile and a cryptic remark such as "I wish it were that easy."

This was the paradox of Wolfman Jack. He truly loved black music and helped spread it around the world. He was a friend of countless black artists, and, he noted proudly, he was the only white person to be named an honorary member of the Temptations. Yet in embracing the music, he missed one of its messages.

As a lover of blues, and rhythm and blues, he somehow overlooked the core of the music: its honesty. Great blues singers may sing of a hellhound on their trail, as Robert Johnson did, or of other unbearable heartaches. But sadness is only one emotion expressed in the blues.

The weekend Wolfman Jack died, I was watching a late-night cable television show featuring John Lee Hooker, the great blues singer. At one point, the interviewer asked him about singing the blues. "The blues can heal you," Mr. Hooker said. "It isn't just about being sad." When Mr. Hooker or B. B. King or Lonnie Brooks or any other great blues singers perform, their concerts can veer from anguish to joy to unabashed sexuality. All of it comes from feeling what is inside.

No wonder then, as the Wolfman said in his interview, that thinking about the bad old days in Brooklyn had made him so depressed: He had tried to kill them off but couldn't. And that leads to another question: Would he have been better off by reconciling those traumatic times, of not shunting off Bob Smith to some closet in his mind? After all, he still made a lot of people happy, which was his main goal in life.

Perhaps it doesn't really matter. But I'll always think that the Wolfman had the blues life, and he didn't know it.

Tim Warren has written about pop music for several publications. He is a copy editor in the features department of The Baltimore Sun.

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