Washington -- Bob Smith had an unhappy childhood, so like many kids growing up in the 1950s, he took to heart Chuck Berry's proclamation in "School Days": "Hail, hail rock and roll/deliver me from the days of old." Rock and roll took this skinny kid from Brooklyn away from a miserable home life, away from a cruel stepmother whom, 40 years later, he still talks about with bitterness in his voice.
But rock and roll did deliver Bob from unhappiness, for the most part. He was a white kid who loved rhythm and blues, and he absorbed black culture -- so soulful, so different from his own. When he took to the microphone as a disc jockey, he adopted the persona of a happy-go-lucky lover of good times, a man who liked nothing more than to play great music. Bob Smith became Wolfman Jack, the most famous DJ in America.
Still, the past has a way of returning, even if, in the case of the Wolfman, you immersed yourself in a new identity decades ago and don't even answer to your Christian name anymore. When Wolfman Jack started working on his autobiography, all those bad old feelings started coming back. For all the exuberance and colorful anecdotes that mark "Have Mercy: Confessions of the Original Rock 'n' Roll Animal," just published by Warner Books, there is a distinctly melancholic side to the book.
"That was a bad time for me," the Wolfman says softly in his trademark whiskey-and-cigarettes voice. He is, as a matter of fact, lighting up the first of the unfiltered Camels he chain-smokes. "I love people, but that woman that my father married -- I could never forgive her for what she did to me. Because she did it viciously. It was like pulling wings off a fly, and I don't like people who act like that."
This isn't the side of the Wolfman you usually see -- not the jive-talking, ultra-hip disc jockey who has delivered the news to millions of rock fans since the mid-1960s. It's a Saturday morning, and he is sitting down for breakfast, still feeling the excitement, he says, that has carried over from his Friday night radio show, broadcast live from Planet Hollywood in Washington.
Begun last year, it's now being heard over 50 stations nationwide once a week, and it's a gig he loves. For here the Wolfman is, at age 57, still rocking the house, still spinning the music of Chuck Berry and Jackie Wilson and all the other rock and roll artists whose records he loved and who, in many cases, happened to be friends as well. Though he's been living quietly in North Carolina since the late 1980s, he still looks the part of the aging rock and roll animal: goatee --ed with white, silvery hair tied up in a ponytail. He's big going on huge, a black sports shirt and slacks covering his considerable bulk.
But now he is talking about Marge, his now-dead stepmother, who, he says in his book, routinely did such things as poisoning his dog. She joined the Smith family under bizarre circumstances. She was a married neighbor who got involved with Weston Smith, Bob's father -- and then the aggrieved spouses, Bob's mother and Marge's husband, also fell for each other. The ensuing marriages devastated young Bob, and many years later, the Wolfman would write in "Have Mercy":
"I started thinking that the way to survive was to make sure that people liked me. I taught myself to tune in to another person's wavelength, figure out what they are looking for, and try to project that thing back at them. . . . My salesmanship came out of wanting to prevent rejection. I became a junkie for approval and recognition."
"I went into a depression you wouldn't believe," the Wolfman says reflectively about writing "Have Mercy." "Going back over my childhood -- there were memories I didn't want to bring back. But in doing the book, I started going over things again."
The Wolfman had been talking somberly, but now he grows quiet, his piercing dark eyes staring out at the dining room of the hotel.
"My poor mother [Rosamund], who just passed away two days ago -- she was a victim of circumstances," the Wolfman begins, his voice cracking. "She was just a young girl, married when she was 16. She felt guilty all her life because she left me in the hands of that woman. Finally, before she died, she read the book, and I thank God that she was able to realize that she was a victim of circumstances."
The Wolfman wipes his eyes and doesn't speak for about 30 seconds. "She told me before she died -- this is really hard for me, man -- I talked to her on the telephone for two hours before she died, and she told me: 'You were my beautiful baby boy. I always loved you. I always felt so bad because of what I did to you, but I realize that you were right: I didn't know what to do to change the situation at the time.' "
There's another long pause, and the Wolfman holds his head in his hands. Then he looks up. "Anyway, that was wonderful to me because she had left this young kid hanging in the breeze." He fishes for a cigarette and adds: "I'm sorry, man. I got pretty emotional."