March 18, 2004

The Repeat Button: John Lee Hooker

Print More

This song probably didn’t influence Edward Hopper, but it should have: it’s the musical embodiment of his paintings’ streetlamps, smoke, and loneliness. This 1989 take on one of John Lee Hooker’s most classic numbers works where so many other late career reimaginings fail (coughLaylacough) because instead of trading on the emotions engendered by the original, Hooker and Van Morrison allow each vocal and instrumental detail to breathe with significance. Every element conspires to give the song its subtle and pervasive sense of exhausted water-borne faithfulness.

The track opens with quiet guitar and Hooker’s bruised, slurred voice already inured to its endless waiting: “I cover the waterfront/ Watching the sea.” It’s rare to know the exact emotional and temporal location of a song, but Hooker, in only a few elegant lines, lets us know exactly where he is: “I waited all night long in the pouring rain/ Searching for my baby.” It’s got to be 4:38 a.m., the most silent moment of the night, and the most depressing. The night is endless and morning unapproachable, and he knows with absolute surety that out of all the people in the city, only he is alone.

The only constants in the song are this sense of weary wistfulness and the sea. The sparse guitar and organ flow like the tide between verses. It swells into Morrison’s passionate outcry: “I was drinking black coffee/ And smoking 40 cigarettes,” before ebbing into Hooker’s subdued — but no less fervent — vocals. The song manages to build tension out of what is, after all, only the story of two guys sitting on a dock waiting for their girls. But when the right ship finally arrives “out of the fog/ Rolling so, so slow” the whole song brightens and we can feel the singers’ sense of relief. The overwhelming feeling of need and devotion that underpins the track is earned, and, in a sense, explained when Hooker says, in his baby’s voice, “Jimmy, I been waiting for so long, so long/ I know I know, you’ll be waiting to meet me/ Covering this old waterfront for me.”


Archived article by Erica Stein