Robert Lucas' blues heat was not Canned, but his own
“Blues singer for Canned Heat” was Robert Lucas’ printed grave marker this week, the headline on the wire service obit that reported his death Sunday in Long Beach at age 46 of a suspected drug overdose.
Yes, he performed long service in that gig, a replacement of a replacement for the late Bob Hite, who fronted Canned Heat back when it played Woodstock and scored radio hits. But Lucas sticks in my musical memory as a talent in his own right, a superb harmonica player and good slide guitarist who honored the blues and its traditions, yet was creative enough to stretch the form to express his own physical and internal being.
Lucas’ series of 1990s CDs for Audioquest, a San Clemente label that took pride in producing records made in analog and without overdubs -- capturing startling sonic clarity and presence -- yielded three songs I’ll always remember. Two of them are about being fat -- a topic that blues songwriters, with their commitment to tracking the common, everyday reality we all live, will tackle from time to time while everyone else’s gaze is on the purportedly beautiful people.
Lucas, who was hefty indeed, celebrated packing imposing poundage in “Big Man Mambo,” which rollicked, and laughed at his lot amid tears in the tragicomic plaint “What Happened to My Shoes.”
“I hit every buffet in town/They see me walkin’ in, they know I’m gonna shut 'em down,” he joked in the latter song, before marking the pain of having the wrong shape to be considered shapely: “I took down all my mirrors, just a little one to shave/Don’t want to look no more, Lord, I’m really not that brave.”
The other keeper wedged in my memory is “Usin’ Man Blues,” the title track of a 1991 solo-acoustic release. I no longer have the CD, but I can clearly hear Lucas’ trenchant, grainy voice in my mind’s ear, sliding through his extensive range, crying out, “I am/I am a usin’ man.” He wasn’t bewailing the drug abuse that apparently caught up with him last weekend. Instead he was guilt-tripping over the grass-roots musician’s need to sponge off friends, family and amours.
“I don’t want to have any futile illusions,” Lucas, then 27, told The Times in 1990, after putting out “Across the River,” his first, cassette-only release. “The whole key to doing this for a long time is keeping your attitude right. If you say, 'I’m going to be the next John Mayall,' you’re setting yourself up for a fall.”
A year later, writing about “Usin’ Man Blues,” I said that Lucas sang as if he were “a spiritual medium, registering the voice of some long-dead, long-forgotten, bracingly talented Southern bluesman who never received his due in life, and was returning from the hereafter to claim it now.”
The hereafter came and got Lucas too; listen to what he’s left behind and see if he can’t claim a little share of blues eternity for himself, beyond the headline of having been a latter-day front man for Canned Heat.
-- Mike Boehm
Photo of 1996 performance by Los Angeles Times