Dana Andrews and Gene Tierney are on the tube. "Cut me in," barks Andrews. "I don't smoke no dope," barks Bo Diddley. Bo Diddley is not on the tube. He is in front of it. Spraddled in a chair in a sleeveless undershirt with the sleep half-fisted from his eyes.
He rode in the night before on a bus from Cleveland. Things don't change much. He is touring with the Clash, punk rockers for whom he will front tonight at the Ontario Theater. It jars a bit that one of the precursors of rock and roll has to make his money as the warm-up for some brats from England who probably weren't even alive when "Hey, Bo Diddley" first came out.
"After 23 years, 24 in May, I'm still here, ain't I? That's what I tell people. I'm no millionaire. But I ain't hungry." "Hungry" comes out, probably intentionally, as "hongry."
Bo Diddley and Chuck Berry, and then came all the rest: Elvis, Jerry Lee, Buddy Holly. You could make a case for this, even though Rolling Stone magazine thought to leave him out of its authoritative "Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll" awhile back. Even though the Rolling Stones have cut his "Mona." Even though Bruce Springsteen regularly works him into his act. Even though Muddy Waters owes a lot of "Mannish Boy" to Diddley's "I'm a Man." Even though there isn't a blues band in the world that doesn't know "Who Do You Love."
That's just the way it is.
"I think it was the dee-jays. They had me pegged as some kinda Uncle Tom One-Note."
The man is 50 years old now. The stomach is out to here.The thick, blocky fingers have lines as white as chalk in them. The voice is liquidy and full of cough. But there is a humor that hisses and bubbles, like new oil coming up. On his black derby is a hunk of turquoise. Holding up his pants is a belt they gave him when he played at Woodstock.
"Hell, you got groups coming up now that make one record and suddenly they got a movie going. That's okay, though. The Clash is paying my price. I ain't complaining. They're gonna make some good noise before they're through. They got my blessing. Hey, it's snowing. Man, let me hurry and get out of this town. Maybe it's just blowing off the roof."
One thought has climbed up top of the other here without the merest yellow light. It's like this talking to Bo Diddley. Stream-of-interview.
"You're always like this," says Gene Tierney from the silver patch glowing across the room.
"The hell I am," says Dana Andrews.
"Man, I've paid some hotel bills in my time," says Bo Diddley.
These digs (in the Shoreham-Americana) are pretty swell compared to some he's seen, he says, waving across the blue-lavendar expanses of room F364. "I like 'em big like this, so if I want to run through this dude in the pitch I ain't about to kill myself."
Actually, he and the Clash (there are about 20 in the entourage) weren't supposed to put in here, but in a lesser lodge some blocks away. When they got in town, about midnight. "The dude at the desk must've thought he was being invaded by a biker's convention, or something. He got about kinda halfway nasty. I didn't want to stay there, anyway. They had this little raggedy broke TV."
"Raggedy broke TV" has a nice bluesy feel; he grins and files it away in his head.A song someday.
It's the same old grind he says: Home maybe three weeks out of six months. At the moment, home is Hawthorne, Fla., near Gainesville. He used to have a ranch in New Mexico, but sold it out eight months ago. He has lived here in Washington (2614 Rhode Island), in L.A. ("the earth-quake drove me out") and in Chicago, where he was born, more times than he can recall. In New Mexico, he was a cop, and not an honorary one.
"I still got my badge. It's over there, in my bag. I'm hoping they'll let me be one in Florida, too. See, when I'm sitting around home between tours with nothing to do, I start thinking about all of the good I can do. Being an entertainer and all, I know kids'll listen to me. I can talk to 'em about marijuana."
There is a new album out lately. On M-F records, which he swears is a real label. His hopes for it? Shrug. "I don't know. Whatever happens to it, happens. I don't worry about it much anymore."
He has been to Australia touring. He took his daughter Tammi who is 16 and plays drums. "She freaked everybody out down there." He has a couple of other daughters and a white wife he's been married to 19 years. There were two wives before her.
Hasn't seen his old crony, Chuck Berry, in about a year. "That reminds me, got to call him up. Chuckie's stra - - ange. But that's okay. When I'm in one of my bags, everybody runs away from me, too. You're supposed to respect a man's habit forms. Actually I just learned how to get along with Berry."
A little restless now. He gets up, pulls on a body sweater, black and gray. Then he fetches his axe. It's in a long black case over on the bed. The case is pasted with stickers. One says, "Evil, Wicked, Mean, and Nasty."
Out comes the guitar. It is a beautiful object, square as a box and made of light-colored wood. The face has eight knobs and dials. He designs all his own guitars, he says. "What you're looking at here is $2,800." He mindlessly picks. That thumping, classic Diddley beat.
He keeps saying he isn't bitter -- and the bitterness keeps coming out. "Elvis started everything, they say. Elvis didn't start s - - -. Man, I was wiggling before Elvis. I got on the Ed Sullivan show, and they cut my a - - off to here."
All he wants, he says, is to get a little recognition after he's gone for his contribution to the music on which rock and roll was founded. No, that's not quite right. He wants some of it while he's still here.
"I don't want to be thinking about my passing. But I don't want to be like Little Walter, neither. Little Walter Jacobs, he and his harmonica made the blues. Hell, there's people out there don't even know he's been dead 12, 15 years."
So: Keep on keeping on. It's the only way. He grins. "I wish I could work it so I could stay home and everybody'd come to my place and I'll play for 'em."
At the door he is asked if Bo Diddley is his real name.
"Naw. I used to be a fighter. Bo Diddley sounded like a fighter's name." Suddenly, he is jabbing air -- lefts, rights, a wild flurry, a wicked combination.
"How did you do?"
Grinning, the hands up on both sides of the face. "Hey, you don't see me messed up any, do you?"