"I'm a true Gypsy bluesman," says James Pobiega, better known as Little Howlin' Wolf. "My creativity is totally different though, 'cause I take Zen and yoga and martial arts and mix that into my music. I'll play three or four saxophones at the same time and play flutes through my nose. I'm like a big freak, being freaky."
Like Jessie "Little Howlin' Wolf" Sanders, who left Chicago in the 90s and settled in Memphis, and Lee "Little Howlin' Wolf" Solomon, a west-side institution who died on Halloween, Pobiega got his nickname because he sounds like Howlin' Wolf. Though he was one of Chicago's most famous street musicians for much of the 70s and 80s, also performing as Buccaneer Bob, the Shadow Drifter, and Deacon Blue--he claims the Steely Dan song is about him--since the late 90s it's been hard to find him playing anywhere.
Lately, however, he's been discovered by a growing cult of freak-folk and outsider-art fans, including former Chicagoans Twig Harper and Carly Ptak of Nautical Almanac, who are now based in Baltimore. In the past year they've released two CD-Rs of Pobiega's old singles on their own HereSee imprint, with a third planned for 2006, and this summer HereSee and the Baltimore label Ehse coreleased a new Little Howlin' Wolf LP, Brave Nu World--Pobiega's first recording in almost two decades. To celebrate he'll open for Nautical Almanac at the Empty Bottle on Sunday (see the Treatment for more on the other bands).
The 55-year-old Pobiega was raised in the southwest suburb of Justice, in the same small house where he now cares for his octogenarian parents, who both suffer from Alzheimer's. As a child he often accompanied his milkman father on south-side routes, entranced by the blues music blaring from radios in houses and shops. But Pobiega didn't need a radio to hear the blues.
"When I was three or four, I would hear Howlin' Wolf play in my head. It was as if I was on the same wavelength that this guy was on. . . . Later on, I checked with other guys who were from the Mississippi Delta and they were just like me."
Pobiega had grown to six foot six by the time he finished high school in the late 60s. He narrowly avoided serving in Vietnam by taking a "handful" of acid and acting crazed at his draft-board interview. "They took me in to see the captain," he says, "and I was like, 'I'm ready to go to Da Nang!' He looked at me and said, 'You're going nowhere. Get the fuck out of here!'"
With his knack for performance, Pobiega won a spot with the Goodman Theatre in 1968, and in 1969 helped Goodman director Patrick Henry start a guerrilla troupe called Free Street Theater. He landed a few roles, including one in Sean O'Casey's Red Roses for Me, but his heart still belonged to the blues. As early as 1968 he was a fixture at the Maxwell Street market, playing sax alongside bluesmen like Blind Arvella Gray and Junior Wells.
By the early 70s, though, he'd developed a problem with alcohol and downers, and at age 21 he nearly died from an overdose. For the next two decades he'd be homeless, roving around the midwest and parts of Canada. "You've seen some of these guys walking the streets picking up garbage? Well, that was me," he says. "Except I had a horn."
His music, which he peppered with strange monologues and stabs at comedy, was outre for a street musician. "I was on the same wavelength as the people in the AACM," he says, "except I stressed blues." By the mid-70s, though he was still living rough, he'd scraped together enough cash busking to start making primitive, lo-fi recordings. Over the next decade he would release close to 40 singles and two compilation LPs, 1981's The Guardian and 1985's The Cool Truth. He overdubbed all the instruments himself, playing cacophonous country, wheezing polkas, and most of all a kind of Beefheartian blues that drew a twisting line from Howlin' Wolf to Rahsaan Roland Kirk.
Pobiega overflows with stories about his own fame and influence--he says he encouraged a struggling young Whitney Houston to pursue music, that he passed on a role in The A-Team so Mr. T could have it, and that George Thorogood stole his song "Bad to the Bone." It's hard to tell where the fantasy ends and the truth begins, but Pobiega does have a few battered briefcases full of clippings--everything from playbills and newspaper features to a two-page spread on him in People magazine that dates from his street-musician days. "I was like a full-fledged celebrity out there, man," he says.
In 1985, at the peak of his local notoriety, Pobiega claims he was recruited by members of Solidarity, the Polish labor movement, to help act as a kind of cultural agent and anticommunist agitator in the eastern bloc. "I ran the Gypsy underground over there," he says. "We were testing their system."
Whatever Pobiega was doing on his visits to eastern Europe--he's got photos to prove he was there--he returned to Chicago for good in 1991. Maxwell Street had changed and he says he felt "a little too old to be living out on the street." He took boat-repair and salvage jobs around the Chicago Harbor, but by the end of the 90s he was using drugs heavily again. By the time his parents' illnesses forced him to return to Justice to care for them, he wasn't in much better shape than they were. "I'd been on downers for ten years," he says. "I was so fucked-up I couldn't even walk. I wasn't even playing. I was half in the bag, ready to die."
It was at this point, in 2002, that Pobiega first heard from Clint Simonson, owner of Minneapolis outsider label Destijl. Simonson was booking a summer festival and invited him to perform on a bill with Six Organs of Admittance, Wolf Eyes, and Nautical Almanac--who'd found The Guardian at a garage sale in Chicago in 1997 and were eager to meet Pobiega. "We swung up to Justice and picked him up," says Twig Harper. "That night Nautical Almanac had a show at the Empty Bottle and we all played together. It was, of course, an instant connection."
Pobiega would later join Nautical Almanac for a few road gigs and make several visits to Baltimore to play and record the songs that became Brave Nu World. HereSee also plans to release an EP of new material, including Pobiega's rendition of "Bad to the Bone."
Though he can't leave his parents for long, Pobiega has been playing a bit outside Chicago and just returned from a five-show trip to the Bay Area. He's also acting again--he recently played a supporting role in Crab Orchard, an as-yet-undistributed independent film starring Ed Asner and Judge Reinhold, and he's working occasionally with the Mary-Arrchie Theatre Company.
But for Pobiega, life still begins and ends with the blues. "Blues is the music that takes all the barriers and knocks 'em down," he says. "There's blues in everything. It's all blues: Hank Williams played blues, Bob Dylan plays blues. You know, I may be doing some wild shit with it, but I am the blues."
Nautical Almanac, Little Howlin' Wolf, Sseepage, Pommel
When: Sun 11/13, 9:30 PM
Where: Empty Bottle, 1035 N. Western
Info: 773-276-3600 or 866-468-3401
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jim Newberry.