When young it's hard not to be blinded by the allure of being a professional entertainer or artist. Finding out that someone made their living by playing music, especially popular music, automatically gave them an elevated status in a young person's eyes. At that age, professional musician meant the Beatles or the Rolling Stones. Even the slightly less glamorous form of Bob Dylan in the late sixties and early seventies implied wealth and stardom.
The idea that there were men and women who performed daily for little money and who were lucky to make enough to support themselves, let alone a family, just didn't occur to me. Pop musicians lived in different strata than the rest of us after all; at least that's what we were told. They didn't really work. They wore all sorts of fancy clothes, drove expensive cars, and were worshiped by adoring fans.
Even having somebody in the family who was involved in an only moderately successful band did nothing to change that perception (My common-in-law uncle played electric violin for Lighthouse in their first incarnation). The one time I had any exposure to the world of rock music as a kid was my mother dragging me along with her as she searched for my aunt backstage at an open air, free show that Lighthouse was doing in Toronto, Ontario's Nathan Phillip's square in front of the City Hall buildings.
Instead of seeing it for what it was, unglamorous and exhausting work, all I noticed was the huge crowds of people overflowing the square up onto the ramp leading up to the 2nd floor entrance of the City Hall. There was an air of expectation and excitement I have since come to identify with concerts; it also fed the myth of the pop star lifestyle I had bought into.
Illusions don't hold up well in the face of prolonged exposure to reality. I realized that as soon I started working in the arts, if not before. My own life in theatre was never particularly glamorous, and neither were the lives of the musicians I met over the course of those ten years. I discovered names I had been familiar with for years lived in the rooms of the hotels they played in and barely eked out an existence.
Knowing all this, it still comes as something of a shock when you hear stories of the difficulties of those who didn't fare much better or even worse. A perfect example of this is the story of blues great Son Seals as recounted in the newly released DVD on the Vizztone label A Journey Through The Blues: The Son Seals Story.
Producer and co-director Peter Carlson of Sagebrush Productions says in his liner notes for the DVD, "…despite a life that only bordered on success, Son Seals never failed to stay committed to the music that drove him". In so many ways that would sum up the legacy of the vast majority of blues men and women who came out of the south to join the legion of players up in Chicago. None of them ever became rich doing what they were doing, but the compensation was they were doing what they were supposed to be doing.
Journey Through The Blues is divided into two parts. The documentary, which includes interviews with Koko Taylor, Dr. John, and of course Son Seals himself, is thirty minutes long. There is also around an hour of concert footage culled from three concerts, Rooster Blues, House of Blues, and The Chicago Blues Festival. There are also outtakes from over a dozen songs in the interview section of the film that act as little tastes of what is to come in the concert and to emphasise some of the more important aspect of his personal and professional life.
For instance, we learn about one of his wives who tried to kill him and managed to shoot him in the face. The bullet remained permanently lodged in his head just below his ear. The biggest worry after the injury, after finding out he was going to survive, was that he may have lost his voice forever. But Son came back from that and his voice was just as good as it ever was.
But the most important thing you learn about Son Seals from this documentary is how much he loved doing what he was doing. Koko Taylor describes the life on the road as going from one dive to another in your car. They would play for three or four hours a night and then have to load all the equipment back up into the car and drive until they found someplace to spend the night that wouldn't charge all they had earned from the gig.
"We didn't do it for the money, we did it because we had no other choice," is how Koko Taylor put it. These folk loved what they did to the extent they sacrificed their lives and their health for their music. There's no way your going to have anything resembling a family life if you're on the road as much as these people were in those days.
Aside from being a dedicated blues man, we also learn that Son's style of guitar playing and his voice were unique to him. He was primarily self-taught, although his father was the one to introduce him to music. Funny enough, he was called Son because of his close relation to his father, in spite of being the youngest of thirteen children.
His voice is what some refer to as dark and smoky, as there is a certain quality to it that makes every subject serious somehow. But he also gives off a certain energy that felt like a burst of sunshine able to wipe away the clouds brought on by what ever topic he was singing about.
While the documentary aspect of the film was interesting and informative, the concerts were far from satisfying. On the first song of the first one, Rooster Blues, you can barely make out Son's vocals and the same went for the House of Blues gig where the sound was just muddy. These were somewhat redeemed by the quality of the recording at the Chicago Blues Festival, which was pristine. Unfortunately, it was also near the end of his life and career, and his indomitable will had taken quite a beating because of the diabetes that had taken his leg.
According to everyone that knew Son, he died because he probably felt like he could no longer go on stage and perform. At one point in an interview he as much says that, when he says once this is no longer any fun for me, you won't see me.
A Journey Through The Blues: The Son Seals Story attempts to tell the story of Son Seals in words and music. While the words are quite effective, the concert footage does not do him justice. Part of that stems from the fact that the sound on the DVD is only 2-channel stereo, which doesn't allow for clean presentation. Watch the documentary part of the movie to learn about the man, but go out and buy one of his re-mastered CDs to learn about the music.