Ted Hawkins, age 57, has lived one hell of a life--and he's not finished yet. If Robert Johnson hadn't cashed in his chips at so young an age, his tale might have sounded a lot like this one.
It's a story that, understandably, Hawkins doesn't much like telling. After decades of struggle, he's finally earning some attention: The Next Hundred Years, a sad, beautiful disc released earlier this year by Geffen Records, has received rapturous notices from the nation's critics. But when these scribes sit down to chat with Hawkins, they can't help but ask about the trouble he's seen. And right now, Hawkins, a gifted and soulful singer, songwriter and musical interpreter, has other mountains to climb.
"You see, my past is not so pretty--there's nothing pretty about my past nowhere," he says. "So talking about certain things kind of upsets me. Because it's not only heartbreaking. It's a waste of time. I don't have that much time left on earth, so I want to get on with my life. And I feel that to talk about certain things stops me in my tracks and causes people to look down their noses at me."
This last assertion couldn't be further from the truth. Anyone who's survived such a tumultuous existence, no matter how many misdeeds he may have committed along the way, deserves acknowledgment. That Hawkins also managed to produce so much beautiful music in the process is nothing short of astounding.
"As far as I can remember back, I was always at my lowest ebb," Hawkins claims, and his background bears out this seemingly hyperbolic statement. Hawkins was born in 1936 in Lakeshore, Mississippi, a tiny burg where poverty was the order of the day. Even in this environment, however, Hawkins's circumstances stood out. His father was gone by the time of his birth (the only thing he left Ted was his name), and his mother was a prostitute and an alcoholic. He suffered neglect and abuse at the hands of both men and women throughout his childhood and left school for good after a teacher told him to return home and clean himself up. "I don't have no education, but I did teach myself to read and write a little bit," he says. "I'm still not that good at counting and things like that. I can't do much with fractions or algebra."
By twelve young Ted was in reform school; three years later, after stealing a black leather motorcycle jacket, he was sentenced to the state penitentiary at Parchman, Mississippi. Upon his release, he learned that his mother had died of cirrhosis of the liver.
Hawkins's luck with other women, during a period when he hitchhiked throughout the northeastern U.S., wasn't much better. He married a woman he met in a Buffalo, New York, church choir, but the match was annulled when his bride's mother objected to it. He subsequently met and wed another woman in Geneva, New York, but she died of cancer two months later. He inherited just enough money from her estate to buy a train ticket to Los Angeles, a destination chosen because he was sick of the cold.
Upon his arrival in Southern California in 1966, Hawkins bought a guitar and decided to make a go of a singing career. His model was gospel-singer-turned-pop-star Sam Cooke. "I believe Sam Cooke's spirit is within me," Hawkins insists. "He's been a real inspiration. Him and Otis Redding--and Elvis Presley, too. Have you ever heard `Viva, Las Vegas'? My God, man, that guy sang that thing. I saw it at the movies, and when that man fell on one knee, it was too much."
At first, Hawkins's foray into music seemed promising. On the advice of a local disc jockey, he wrote his first song, entitled "Baby," and eventually cut the track for a now-defunct label. The recording got plenty of local airplay, but when Hawkins went to the company headquarters to pick up his royalties, he discovered that he'd been scammed. Wounded by this disappointment, Hawkins began to drift between street performances and jail, the latter for mainly petty crimes he refuses to elaborate upon: "People seem to get their jollies off talking about prison and things like that--talking about why I did this or that. But I'm not going to rehash all of that."
He survived this period, he believes, because of his wife, Elizabeth, whom he married shortly after arriving in L.A. "She's a Cherokee Indian," he says, "and those people love hard. Once you become involved with them, they're there to stay. They're cross-my-heart-and-hope-to-die. When I'd throw up my hands and say, `I might as well quit,' she'd give me so many reasons why I ought to carry on that I just had to do it."
In the early Seventies Hawkins recorded a number of songs with producer Bruce Bromberg, but no release date was set. Frustrated, Hawkins took his music to Venice Beach, where he became known for performances he held on the boardwalk while sitting on a milk crate. "I still have that same crate," he reveals. "You can take the hog out of the hog pen, but he's still a hog. I don't want to forget that I'm still a hog. It keeps me humble."
Predictably, playing for tourists' nickels and dimes was not always easy for Hawkins. He can still get riled up talking about rival performers who would steal his favorite spot on the boardwalk if he was a few minutes late to the beach. He also was frustrated when he was treated with disrespect. "There'd always be some drunk, somebody who wanted to help you sing, and he'd be slobbering all over you, blowing his stinking breath in your face," he recalls. "And if you said you didn't want him to do it, you'd be the worst person in the world. Every time he'd pass you by, he'd curse you out."
Fortunately, there were also rewards. "With most of the singers down there," he says, "I noticed that people would stand there for a while and then move on. But I could stop joggers--and it's impossible to stop a jogger. And there's also that one-to-one thing. One day I was singing and the crowd was thick, and this lady snuck up behind me and whispered in my ear, `Don't stop singing. You're healing me.' That never would have happened in a concert hall."
As Hawkins's reputation as a street performer grew, the tapes he'd made with producer Bromberg were unearthed and released by Rounder Records under the name Watch Your Step. The year was 1982 and the acclaim the platter received was universal; Hawkins is proudest of a five-star review published in Rolling Stone. While neither this disc nor two followups (On the Boardwalk Vol. I and Vol. II, from 1985) earned commercial success in this country, Europeans made Hawkins a cult figure. He moved to London in 1986 and stayed for four years, performing throughout the country and accompanying singer Billy Bragg on a version of Hawkins's "Cold and Bitter Tears." But after 1987's Happy Hour (featuring guest Robert Cray) and the import-only I Love You Too, from 1989, Hawkins ran into visa problems. He was forced to return to America in 1990 and promptly discovered that he remained as obscure here as he had been prior to his departure. It wasn't long before he was back on Venice Beach, sitting on his milk crate and singing his songs for Midwesterners wearing flowered shirts and cameras around their necks.
That changed a few years later, thanks to the efforts of Tony Berg, an A&R man for Geffen, and singer-songwriter (and brother-of-Madonna's-ex-husband) Michael Penn. By 1993, Hawkins, the most old-fashioned of performers, was on a label known for such acts as Aerosmith, Guns N' Roses and Beck. But that doesn't mean he's suddenly become hip to his fellow Geffen signees. "When I'm out there on the road, I bend my legs and bow my head and pull that rope until I'm dead," he says. "I don't have time to listen or to look around or walk around or get to know nobody. I start at ten o'clock in the morning and stop around six. That's the only way you can make money out there."
Given this confession, it comes as no surprise that Hawkins had little familiarity with two covers he performs on The Next Hundred Years: the John Fogerty composition "Long As I Can See the Light" and Jesse Winchester's "Biloxi." Still, his impassioned singing--a throaty, scratchy croon that can reach ghostly heights--enlivens these selections and infuses his own material with an utterly timeless quality. In spite of the participation of A-list accompanists Jim Keltner and Billy Payne, Hawkins's numbers sound almost startlingly simple. On paper, lyrics such as "Living is good/When you have someone to live with/Laughter is bad/When there's no one there to share it with" (from "The Good and the Bad") seem Hallmark-card rudimentary. But when Hawkins sings them, they take on the patina of artful, universal truth.
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It's impossible to know if Hawkins's material will be discovered and embraced by a mass audience this time around: Although The Next Hundred Years is selling briskly in a number of international locations, including Australia and New Zealand, the album isn't burning up the American charts. Nevertheless, Hawkins believes that good fortune will smile upon him, if for no other reason than that he's good at what he does. "I don't know if it's charisma or what it is," he says, "but people stop for me when I'm playing. They'll pass me by and then they'll come back. And sometimes, somebody will be across the street buying something, and they'll look over at me with an irritated look, and the next thing you know, they're right beside me. I don't know what it is, but I've got something that comes from me and grabs people and holds them, whether they like it or not."
By the same token, he admits that he's sometimes felt anger at his lot. "I'm not going to lie," he says. "Sometimes the bitterness would come up and I would cry--I would walk the back streets and cry. Then one day I looked up and said, `Whosoever you are up there, I'm talking to you. I'm talking to the maker, the one who made this place and caused me to walk around. Why do you show partiality? So many people that you've helped don't give a tinker's damn about you, but I'm crazy about you. Everywhere I go, I talk about you and tell people how wonderful you are, and you don't seem to give a damn about me.' And I was crying by the end of it. Tears fell on my chest.
"But after that prayer," he concludes, "everything worked. And now I don't have time to hang around and pick flowers like I used to. I've got big things to do. I've got to hurry up."
Ted Hawkins, with Jon Sirkis. 8 p.m. Saturday, October 1, Swallow Hill Music Hall, 1905 South Pearl Street, $10/$8 members, 777-1003.