June 01, 2001 at 04:00 AM EDT

”You ask him one question for me. You ask Ike Turner how it feels to know that every black woman in America thinks he’s the Antichrist.”

That was Vanessa speaking. She works in the administrative section of this magazine, and her response to the news that I was flying out west to spend some time with Ike Turner was typical, if more precisely phrased than most. Two days later, her question — which I promised that I would, in fact, ask the man — is hanging in the back of my mind as I watch the former Mr. Tina Turner give the giggles to his neighbor’s toddler.

We’re in the backyard of his small ranch house, on a verdant suburban byroad north of San Diego. It is a long, LONG way from the places Turner has been: from the Mississippi Delta town where he was born in 1931; from the back-road juke joints where he codified the DNA of rock & roll as a guitar-slinging, barnstorming bandleader; from St. Louis, where he met a kid named Anna Mae Bullock and turned her into a star named Tina; from the world tours with the Rolling Stones; from the endless hotel rooms where a marriage and a musical partnership unraveled at the back of his hand; from L.A.’s Bolic Sound studio, where he reigned as a cokehead rajah; from the California Men’s Colony in San Luis Obispo, where he was imprisoned for two years on drug trafficking charges.

Today, Ike Turner is a member of his neighborhood watch (”Best rated in the north county!” he crows). He has been clean for 12 years — no drugs, no booze, no cigarettes — and his stocky frame doesn’t begin to suggest the lean, tensile switchblade of the past. He has a new album out, too, and it’s good — a throwback to the blistering R&B with which he started his career and a showcase for the barrelhouse piano playing he always kept under wraps. He hit the stage at Austin’s South by Southwest music festival last March and converted a roomful of rubberneckers into a cheering squad. He’s lined up to play Conan. And he has a girlfriend, Audrey Madison, a comely singer who looks a bit too much like a certain ex-wife for some people’s comfort.

At 69 years old, Ike is as ready for his comeback as he’ll ever be. But are WE ready to modify our image of him as the demon husband of rock & roll — the man whose name still serves as pop-culture shorthand for ”wife beater”? Especially since he shows no interest in repenting the way we like our villains to repent: on TV, in close-up, with plenty of tears?

”Don’t make me black,” Ike tells the photographer as he poses affably in his backyard. He means ”Please set your camera exposure so that my face is not unnecessarily darkened,” but the comment dovetails with what he says next, as the first cut from the new CD by Ike Turner and the Kings of Rhythm, ”Here and Now,” storms out of the open patio doors and into the spring morning. ”See, most black people, they hear a song, they feel the beat on the two and the four” — he stomps a foot to illustrate. ”And white people, they feel it on the one and the three. I feel it on the one, the two, the three, and the four!” He claps it out — bap, bap, bap, bap — demonstrating the unstoppable rhythmic motor that has powered his music from day one. ”I am a white man trapped in the body of a black man!” he laughs. The song, a pile-driving slab of primordial roadhouse called ”Tore Up,” rips the air. He first recorded it in 1956, with Billy Gayles singing the words. Forty-five years later, he’s finally singing it himself — and playing hellacious guitar on top. ”Hey, Roseanne,” he yells to the neighbor who has reappeared beyond the wooden fence. ”This is my new CD! Want a copy?”

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