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Looking Ahead With the Hook


John Lee Hooker hasn't found the secret to everlasting life. It only seems that way.

Less than six months shy of his 80th birthday, the King of the Boogie is still making music.

The singer-guitarist teams with Los Lobos and longtime admirer and collaborator Van Morrison on his new album, "Don't Look Back," which will be released Tuesday on Pointblank/Virgin Records. (See review on Page F10.)

And though his concert appearances are growing more scarce, he still plays live occasionally, producing his signature blues sound with an electric guitar and a stomping foot.

"I might do a little gig here and there," says Hooker, who will play with the Coast to Coast Blues Band on June 14 at the Playboy Jazz Festival at the Hollywood Bowl. "But I'm practically retired."

Retirement, though, doesn't mean not making records.

"That ain't on the road," he says. "I don't have to go no place."

Instead, Los Lobos and Morrison came to the Bay Area, where Hooker leads a quiet suburban life in Redwood City. Other than music, his greatest passion is watching baseball on television. Despite his address, he's a devoted Dodger fan.

"I can't change," he says.

He altered his lifestyle, however, to give up smoking and hard liquor about 15 or 20 years ago. Regular walks, he says, keep him in shape.

"I didn't think I'd go this long," he says, crediting his longevity to "God, a high spirit and energy, and a will to play."

His playing and singing on nearly 200 recordings have won him a legion of devoted fans among younger musicians, from the Animals and the Yardbirds to Bonnie Raitt and Eric Clapton.

"I feel blessed to still be living for them to know me," he says.

Hooker first worked with Morrison, a longtime disciple, in 1972. The legendary Irish singer-songwriter produced all but one of the 11 cuts on "Don't Look Back," which combines classic songs with new material, and duets on four.

"He's a hard guy for other people to get to know," Hooker says, "but me and him have been good buddies for years. He's a good blues singer. He lets me do my thing, and he does his thing. We just work good together."

Rare Talent: "For the Sake of a Song," a benefit tribute to the late singer-songwriter Townes Van Zandt on Sunday at the Ash Grove, pays homage to a unique figure in pop music history. (Proceeds go to Van Zandt's widow and two youngest children.)

T-Bone Burnett, Peter Case, Bob Neuwirth, Butch Hancock and actress-singer Mare Winningham are among the two dozen artists who will salute Van Zandt, a Texas native who never had a hit as a singer but gained a cult following for his blues-inspired songs about life's losers. Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard's duet on Van Zandt's "Pancho and Lefty" was a No. 1 country single in 1983.

Though he was the son of a prominent oil family, the hard-living Van Zandt--who was 52 when he died of a heart attack on New Year's Day--spun tales of prostitutes, bums and gamblers.

"If he was writing sad music, he didn't find it appropriate to live a happy life," says the oldest of his three children, 27-year-old John Townes Van Zandt, who performed at a tribute to his father last Sunday in New York and may play Sunday. "He was unhappy just to spite happiness, so he could say, 'Life's a bitch,' and laugh about it."

* T-Bone Burnett, Peter Case and others play Sunday at "For the Sake of a Song," a tribute to Townes Van Zandt, at the Ash Grove, 250 Santa Monica Pier, Santa Monica, 4 p.m. $15. (310) 656-8501.

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