KNIGHT RIDDER NEWSPAPERS
EL CERRITO, Calif. -- Elvin Bishop sits in a back room of El Cerrito's Down Home Music, surrounded by old blues and rock LPs. Here he can point to a John Lee Hooker poster, smile and remember bringing the blues giant some collard greens from his garden.
He looks at a Jimi Hendrix poster and remembers jamming with him at the Fillmore. Before sitting down he asks an employee to find LPs from a pair of old blues greats, who he figures could use some publicity.
This is his comfort zone, where he can sink into in his life's love: the roots of American music. It took him from a Midwestern farming family to the blues mecca of Chicago to the explosion of '60s style he experienced firsthand playing in the Paul Butterfield Blues Band.
The blues have been his love since he was still a kid, and have kept him breathing the past five years.
"That's why blues was invented," he said, sitting on a fold-up chair. "For dealing with impossible situations. You get 'em out and feel a bit better."
On Aug. 16, Bishop, 62, will release a new record, "Gettin' My Groove Back," his first studio effort in seven years. Typically, this means getting out and talking to the press, something Bishop has understandably avoided the past few years because of his daughter's highly publicized death. It's the topic about which Bishop doesn't want to talk. Yet it's also the topic he can't escape, and probably never will.
Five years ago this month, Bishop's daughter, Selina Bishop, was murdered in one of the most horrific killing sprees Northern California has seen.
Earlier this year, brothers Glenn and Justin Helzer were sentenced to death for killing five people in a twisted plot to extort money for a self-awareness program that would bring world peace. An accomplice, Dawn Godman, received 37 years and eight months to life in prison for her role in the killings, the lesser sentence because she testified against the brothers.
Selina Bishop and Bishop's ex-wife, Jennifer Villarin, were killed, as was Villarin's friend, James Gamble, and an elderly couple, Ivan and Annette Stineman. Selina Bishop, who lived in a small, close-knit Marin County community, briefly dated Glenn Helzer.
Bishop is uncomfortable going into details on the subject. But he doesn't really have to. Anyone wanting to know how he feels can listen to his new album -- the pain-drenched guitar accompanying his pleading with music to help him "make it through," on "Come On Blues." Or his angry confusion on bare-bones rocker "What the Hell Is Going On," on which he growls "scared to read my paper, can't look at TV "
"The thing with my daughter, it knocked me for a loop," he said. "My feeling was that, if I quit the music, I'd have nothing. I held onto that with a desperate grip."
Bishop remained secluded during the media frenzy, while the murder spree unfolded, then during the trials afterward. As reporters called him in the middle of the night, and TV trucks blocked the driveway of his Marin home, he could only retreat into his music and shield his other daughter, now 17.
"My daughter was dead," he said. "Nothing I was going to say was going to bring her back. They wanted entertainment, an emotional reaction. This one guy called me and said 'How do you feel?' I said 'OK.' He said 'No, how do you feel?' Well, I was doing OK for a guy who just had something like that happen to him.
"Me and [ex-Giants manager] Dusty Baker went fishing, and they wrote a story and they stuck in something about a murder." He pauses, then leans in for emphasis. "In a fishing story."
Bishop lightens considerably when talking about his new record, or his heroes and old friends -- whose work (and pictures) are all over the room. "I'm probably the only guy in the world who's played with Lightning Hopkins, Muddy Waters, Hendrix, Duane Allman, B.B. King. Duane was a beautiful guy. We were talking about making an acoustic record, but then he died. I'm just happy with the process right now. I want to keep getting better."
"Yeah," he said. "When I met B.B. King in the '60s, he invited me up to visit him at the Fairmont. We were on a bill together, I think at the Fillmore. He was already in his 50s and I was surprised. I go into his room and all this sheet music is spread out all over the place. He was working like a dog. Here he is, trying to improve. It really stuck with me."
Bishop is obviously proud of the new record, and he should be. This isn't your typical, overproduced 21st century version of the blues based on a couple of riffs somebody just learned. Along with whatever emotions Bishop had to get out, there's also some of the fun that Bishop was known for back in the '70s and '80s.
He's made a name for himself in a genre that doesn't require hit records and doesn't discriminate on age. He'll have an audience as long as he wants.
"My motivation is I like to stay home with the family. But I do like the old blues guys. Man, I quit going out on weekends. I can go out and play fish fries, whatever. I'm a gardening maniac, lots of collard greens and peaches. I'm pretty lucky. I put in my time playing 300 dates a year."
It was the third time in an hourlong interview Bishop called himself lucky. Music therapy seems to work.