Legend has it that Robert Johnson, father of the blues, met the devil at the crossroads and traded his soul in exchange for musical fame. It’s said that bargain cost him his life because he was murdered by poisoned alcohol at the age of 27. Benjamin Booker discovered the music of Robert Johnson when he was 13 and it changed his life forever. Eight years later Booker came to his own crossroads, but the devil he met there was himself, and instead of losing his soul he found it. Music was his salvation and fundamental to his survival.
Booker’s self-titled debut album was released around the world yesterday and to my mind it’s a masterpiece. Blues-based, soul-tinged, rock-infused – there’s a casual simplicity to the music that belies the emotional complexity swirling underneath. The lyrics are occasionally indecipherable but then suddenly they grab hold of you, as if you’re a swimmer caught in a treacherous rip. They have a raw honesty and hard-won wisdom that is a very rare commodity in our disposable pop world, exuding the same naked emotion and fierce intensity I find in the best work of John Lennon – and there can be no higher praise than that.
Benjamin Booker was born in Norfolk, Virginia, as was the protagonist of Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land”. Norfolk is a navy town and Booker was a navy brat. His father’s conservative religious beliefs and traditional family values wouldn’t allow him to accept any remote postings, something looked upon favourably by the US Navy, so he never rose through the ranks. Their family of five may have had a stable home life but they were reluctant members of the American underclass known as “the working poor”. When Booker was seven, his father retired from the navy and moved the family to a working-class Hispanic neighbourhood in Tampa, Florida. Tampa is a soulless, suburban wasteland in a state renowned for its sterile materialism, but, as a counter to all that, the city’s youth revelled in a vibrant skate-punk culture and, once he hit his teens, that was the scene that began Booker’s musical education.
Andrija Tokic, the producer of Benjamin Booker, was also responsible for the Alabama Shakes’ celebrated debut, Boys & Girls. Like Booker’s album, it was recorded at Tokic’s Bomb Shelter studio in Nashville, in a more primitive, earlier incarnation. Released only two years ago, Boys & Girls is already recognised as a classic and I wouldn’t be surprised if people soon come to say the same thing about Benjamin Booker. But Booker’s album is in no way a sequel to anything else: his music is more a continuation of a long, unbroken tradition, a tradition he first became aware of growing up in Tampa.
Located next to the local skate park, Transitions Art Gallery was also a live venue and most days it would host all-ages shows for five bucks, featuring a never-ending supply of South Florida hardcore bands, with snotty names such as Bad Eating Habits, Cold Ritual and This Bike Is a Pipe Bomb. Another kid hanging around the skate park was Carson, now of the band Merchandise, who was a couple of years older than Booker and would sit near the ramp playing acoustic guitar. Despite all the music around him, Booker never felt the urge to write songs or join a band. But once he was back in his bedroom at home, his growing obsession caused him to spend endless hours on the internet, tracing back through the music that influenced his favourite bands, then tracing back even further through those older bands’ influences, over and over again. It always seemed that, no matter where he started, at some point he would end up back at the blues. Booker realised the blues was the musical Big Bang that created the universe he loved. Soon the self-admitted nerdy teen was annoying his fellow students by arriving at high school with Robert Johnson, the king of the Mississippi Delta blues, blasting out of his car stereo. Booker had found something more hardcore than hardcore.
Rough-edged and energetic, Booker’s album took only six days to record at the Bomb Shelter. The songs were often captured for posterity on the first take – and they never had to do more than three – which would be no mean feat for a music veteran, but for a relative novice such as Booker, it is truly remarkable. It has only been two years since Booker, who turned 25 in June, first began performing, initially by himself and then later as a duo with drummer Max Norton. He and Norton bonded over a mutual love of blues and just six months after they met they were in Nashville recording an album together. That’s a meteoric trajectory in anyone’s language, but only a few years earlier Booker was absolutely convinced he wouldn’t live beyond his early 20s.
After Booker finished high school he moved to Gainesville, Florida, to attend college. Somewhat directionless, he began a degree in music journalism. The angsty teen who had rebelled against his conservative, religious family wound up rudderless, in a toxic relationship founded, and eventually foundering, upon a co-dependency on pharmaceuticals. Around this time he also learned about a family history of schizophrenia and, whether coincidental or a manifestation of his self-destructive lifestyle, he began to suffer severe visual and auditory hallucinations. A pivotal event was a road trip with his parents to visit a cousin who was sick in hospital. It was obvious to them all that this would be the last time they would see the cousin and on the long drive back to Gainesville the stress of that realisation led to a six-hour screaming fight with his parents. Booker decided at that moment that his parents would never understand or accept him and that knowledge plunged him even deeper into despair.
The episode directly led to the song, “Have You Seen My Son?”, a song about the enormous gulf that can arise between parents and their child. I tried to get the lyrics from Booker’s Australian record label prior to my interview with him, and he later explained why they were not forthcoming: “There’s a reason we didn’t include a lyric sheet. People can take what they want from the songs. I know where the songs are coming from. The album is… unbelievably personal. There’s a lot of stuff that I honestly don’t feel comfortable talking about, you know?” Of course Booker was aware his words would be analysed, but he wasn’t about to make it easier for people by providing a lyric sheet or employing perfect diction. There were too many raw nerves left exposed for that. This is exactly what makes his lyrics so compelling –they aren’t fictionalised at all.
My questions about the lyrics of one song, “Wicked Waters”, led to a particularly telling exchange. These are the parts I quoted back to him:
This must be where I lose it all, darling. Throw myself into wicked waters… You woke me from a stagnant rest to say we’ve had a child. A new beginning, a new beginning. We’ll raise this one the right way up, we’ll raise him to be wild! We’ll teach him about our brokenness, and the things we wish we knew. A new beginning, honey, a new beginning. He’ll stare at us with spiteful eyes and make his mistakes too.
Booker was clearly uncomfortable talking about the song and refused to elaborate. “I’ll just tell you that it’s very personal and I didn’t make anything up on the album,” he said, “and you can just assume what you want.”
I honestly worry if he might have left his psyche too exposed at times on the album. Later in our interview, he opened up a little more about what he was going through at this time: “I really was so self-destructive and I was in a relationship with somebody who was the same way. And I really just, ah, I felt like I was dying. I just felt so miserable and… everything was falling apart and I couldn’t see a month into the future.”
These were the dreadful crossroads Booker had been edging towards all his life. It was at this, his bleakest point, estranged from his parents, feeling like he had no value – or even any future – that he discovered the one voice he could trust. It was his own, one he found through songwriting. These songs were born out of an overwhelming need to make some sense of his chaotic world and to maintain a tenuous grip on his sanity. Temporarily relocated back home in Tampa, he borrowed his sister’s laptop to make some private demos, intended for the ears of only some close friends. He took these recordings with him when he moved to New Orleans shortly afterwards. A new city, a new beginning.
In New Orleans Booker got a job working for the charity HandsOn New Orleans, which, seven years after the fact, was still resettling people left homeless by Hurricane Katrina. Slowly he started to see some light at the end of the nightmarish tunnel his life had become. “Helping other people definitely made me feel like, ‘I can do something and, even if things aren’t going the right way for me, I can do something to make other people’s lives a little bit better.’ ” He played his first solo shows in New Orleans and his friends shared some of those private demos on blogs, one of which was associated with a subscriber-supported public radio station. Almost immediately, he began getting calls from record companies. The songs that were never meant to be heard, performed by the singer who never wanted to be a musician, were becoming an accidental, overnight success, despite the reticence of their creator.
Fast forward a few months and Booker returned to play solo shows in Tampa, striking up the musical partnership with Norton, whose propulsive drumming plays a crucial part in the rootsy energy of Booker’s songs. Next he signed a deal with ATO Records, released his first single, “Violent Shiver”, and he and his band were musical guests on Letterman. That TV appearance was how his parents saw him perform for the first time, and his mother’s first comment to him afterwards was that she couldn’t discern a word he was singing. “It’s good that my parents couldn’t understand what I was saying,” Booker says softly.
Ready or not, Benjamin Booker is going to have to get used to people scrutinising his work. This relentlessly honest artist has made a great album, a work of real substance, and one I truly hope will be the first of many. Whether his music will resonate down the ages like his idol Robert Johnson’s did is anyone’s guess, but the signs are sure looking good.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 16, 2014 as "The man Booker". Subscribe here.