The Music Blog: The Legend and the Myth

You can imagine the day, what it was like. There was a knock on the door of a Dallas hotel room. The door opened and a white man peered out into the hall where a black man stood, slight of build, dressed stylish, dapper even. There was likely a cigarette dangling from the young black man’s mouth and he carried an old battered guitar case. The white man greeted the stranger and invited him in.

“You can set up over there Robert,” the white man said, pointing to a corner where a chair sat in front of a microphone.

The black man takes his coat off, drapes it over the chair back, but not before pulling the whiskey bottle from the inside pocket. The black man, Robert, sets it down on the floor beside the case, opens the case and pulls out a battered brown topped guitar that is obviously well cared for besides the hard use, like the case that carried it. The case, guitar and Robert the black man have seen a lot of miles together more miles than the white man has likely ever traveled but almost all of them in the state of Mississippi. He sits facing the corner. This was not because of shyness but for acoustic reasons.

When the white man tells him to play he does and it likely causes the white man to briefly raise an eyebrow. It sounds like there could be two guitars in there but its only one. Or maybe the white man has no reaction because over the past weeks and months he has had many black men come into play and all of them could play but this kid was good. When the session is over the black man packs his things and leaves. He will not record again and will be dead soon after.

You can see this happening. You can see it in your mind. It’s been reenacted before on countless movies and documentaries although no one really knows what happened as the participants are long dead. Robert Johnson had that kind of life; a life of myth and legend and most blues historians most important jobs is to discern between what was real and what wasn’t real. I wonder sometimes if this was pure marketing genius on Johnson’s part or whether it was just the life he led. Some call Robert Johnson the greatest blues man ever. He is certainly one of the greatest guitarists of any genre on the planet. For the record he is number 4 on my list right behind my big 3: Hooker, Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. He would likely be higher except for one of those mysteries. He has less than 30 songs, that’s all. Yes he died at a young age but there were opportunities to record. He could have stayed in Dallas and recorded more. Despite the amazing number of compilation packages out there it’s the same songs, enough to fit onto one or 2 cd’s. Blind Lemon Jefferson who was blind and had to walk from East Texas to Dallas to record has over a 100 songs he recorded. Johnson’s life is a mystery and to understand what you can of him you have to go through his life step by step.

He was born in Hazelhurst, Mississippi. His father was actually a relatively well-off landowner but he was soon run out of Mississippi by a lynch mob and there is no recorded reason why. It could have been that he was black and that was reason enough but more likely he was well-off and so considered uppity. Johnson lived with him for some time in Memphis but was soon back with his mother on the Abbay and Leatherman plantation. Robert saw early on the hard work of the plantation employee, with little pay and little hope but there were not opportunities for blacks in Mississippi and Johnson always wanted something better. It was not surprising that Johnson decided he wanted to be a bluesman. There were many wandering bluesmen around playing the circuit all vying for spots in the big clubs. Many of these men could be found playing in cities on corners for nickels and dimes hoping to draw interest to get on a stage in the evening. Johnson began his career on these corners playing for nickels and dimes. Johnson might have continued this way and have never been known for anything, living and dying earning a few nickels and dimes but something happened that changed his life. Robert Johnson fell in love.

He was only 16 years old, she even younger. He may or may have not gotten her pregnant but Johnson left music on the corners behind and went to work on a plantation where his new wife worked. Her family was deeply religious and did not approve of Johnson because of his love of blues music which they considered devil music. Johnson worked hard doing the work he had never wanted to do. Such would have been his life had fate not intervened again. Johnson had acquired a guitar either bought or given to him and was teaching himself to play although spare time was limited. His wife naturally wanted to be with her family for the birth of their child and as she grew closer she took a train to her parents where she could be better cared for. Johnson saw her to the train with the promise that he would make his way soon after to be there for the birth of their child. Johnson saw a perfect time to play a little music while he made his way there for the birth. While he was drinking and playing for nickels and dimes his wife went into labor early and with great difficulty. Johnson arrived late but he was greeted with her grieving angry parents. Where had he been they accused? They saw the guitar he carried and showed their disappointment and displeasure. Johnson’s wife died, as did their child. Robert buried them both and then left never returning to the plantation life.

Now here’s the thing. Did it happen? There are certainly some questions about this important event but most of these are just because the rest of his life are full of these events that either did or didn’t happen. I believe it did and Johnson wrote one of the great blues songs ever Love in Vain about the loss.

So Johnson went back to the blues, traveling the routes other blues men traveled trying to squeak out a living. At night he would show up at juke joints and beg other blues men to allow him to play with them but he was an atrocious musician and was frequently ridiculed and laughed at. He especially hounded the bluesman Son House and tried to learn guitar techniques from watching. Later Johnson’s family would tell researchers that Johnson had given up all normal life to play the music of the devil which is what they called secular music. This was also known as selling your soul to the devil. Now Johnson was not alone in this. Many religious black men and women considered any musician to have done the same.

It was likely a Saturday night somewhere near Robinsonville, Mississippi at a crowded juke joint. Robert Johnson arrived carrying a battered guitar case or maybe just his guitar. He had not been around of late and some believed he had finally given up on the nonsense dream that he was some sort of bluesman. Johnson did his usual begging the musicians and singers for a chance to come up on stage with him. They laughed at him probably slapped him on the back. Son House may have been playing that night. Stories vary as to what Johnson did or didn’t do. Some say that he took the stage on his own without permission during a break and began playing. Other stories say that a musician dropped out mid performance due to illness or drink and Johnson replaced him without permission. Who knows? This is Robert Johnson we are talking about. Johnson began playing no matter which story you believe. He may have even gotten permission out of persistence alone. He was dapperly dressed and maybe that helped persuade someone. Regardless from the first notes all eyes were on him. This kid who had not been able to play much before was now the best musician in the house. Johnson’s transformation was not explainable, was magical, maybe even supernatural. It did not take long before the rumor began circulating that Johnson had gone to the crossroads and made a deal with the devil. It seemed the best explanation. In African American culture the crossroads is where you went to make a deal with the devil. People believed that Robert Johnson had done this. Johnson made the most of these rumors by writing songs attributing his skill to that deal: Crossroads Blues, Me and the Devil Blues, Hell Hounds on My Tail. Johnson knew exactly how to market himself and knew enough not to have every song he wrote about this, just enough.

So if Johnson didn’t make a deal how did he get so good? He worked and worked and practiced and worked and learned. He watched and he had a teacher. It is very clear from Johnson’s style that he had watched Son House and likely learned a lot by watching and practicing. One thing about Johnson is that there are only 2 known pictures of Johnson and one is still in dispute but he had huge hands slender hands for a man that was actually slight of build. There is a wiry strength in them which is easy to see. It’s also likely that Johnson was taught a lot by one Ike Zimmrtman who believed that spirits helped him with his guitar playing and that because of that he was often found late at night playing in cemeteries which is likely where Johnson found him.

Johnson worked the circuit, playing before shows at local barber shops to draw interest and then playing to larger audiences in the juke joints at night. He was a known womanizer and had women who he lived with up and down the juke joint trails. Somewhere around 1936 Johnson sought out a talent scout in Jackson, Mississippi who got him ultimately in contact with Don Law and Johnson traveled to San Antonio, Texas for his first recording session. Johnson later traveled to Dallas, Texas for his more famous session, where he recorded his darker moodier songs such as Crossroad Blues, and Me and the Devil Blues. Johnson recorded only 29 songs. Whether he would have recorded anymore is a question many ask. Yet Robert had one more bit of myth coming.

Robert Johnson died on August 16, 1938 near Greenwood, Mississippi. There was no announcement he simply disappeared as black men and women did in those days, His death certificate indicates no cause of death. It was not until 30 years later when a musicologist reviewing his life began to dig deeper. As with most of his life his death is surrounded in mystery and myth. Some say he was poisoned, and others that he was shot by a jealous husband. It was suspected he had congenital syphilis and this may have been a contributing factor of his death. Some say that he just died of pneumonia like many did. Stories gave different accounts of what may have happened before his death. Johnson was at a local juke joint and was flirting with a known married woman. He was offered an open bottle of whiskey which Sonny Boy Williamson knocked from his hand as Johnson had always warned him against drinking anything that had already been opened. Johnson was angry and told Williamson to never do that again. Another bottle was given to him and Johnson drank it. He later complained of feeling ill and was helped out and to a nearby home. It was said that he had been poisoned with strychnine which he recovered from but that weakened him and that he died of pneumonia. The original stories of his death indicate that he may have been found by the side of a road. Even his death is difficult to determine as you weed through the myths and the facts which are sparse. One of the stories which has gained more and more credibility is that Johnson had gone to a local plantation to perform over a few days and that he had grown sick there and eventually died and was buried near there.

Even Johnson’s burial location is a mystery. Black men died and were buied, many in unmarked graves without fanfare. There are three possible burial sites noted on the Mississippi Blues Trail around the Greenwood area. All three of these sites are as credible as the next. Who knows which grave Johnson is buried in or whether he is buried in any of the three? Even his burial is shrouded in mystery. There is little known about his life, or his death and so it’s subject to stories. Johnson didn’t seem to garner many close friends. He wanted to play music and be with a different woman whenever and wherever he could.

Robert Johnson was a unique talent. He recorded only 29 songs and that’s all we have left besides a couple of pictures one of which is in dispute. There are a million stories of did he or didn’t he and even his death is did the devil come take his soul. Johnson has such a unique style, even sometimes adding a seventh string to give his guitar a different sound. There are times when it sounds as if he has an entire band playing with him and it’s hard to believe that the recording is just Johnson and his guitar. Maybe the devil was playing alongside of him, or maybe he wasn’t.

Mike out

The Music Blog: Captain Fantastic

In my earliest years, formative years, one of my first musical loves was Elton John. I loved his voice, loved his music, all the early stuff. I even borrowed two albums from my sister that she had and if you walked into my room at any given time I was either listening to Chicago or listening to Elton John. The best thing about those two bands was how acceptable they were to my parents. They didn’t scrutinize the music and they heard the songs on the radio. So there were no conflicts other than me trying to steal my sister’s records. She had the songs Daniel and Your song two songs I still love to this day. Luckily I have the albums now, not my sister’s but my own. No worries my sketchiness remains as I did steal several other records of hers that remain in my collection.

Elton remained more or less a constant in my musical experience until the album Jump Up when I decided that buying more of his records was simply a waste of my time and money. It had been a process anyway. As a kid the first blow to my Elton John world was the horrible duet done with Kiki Dee that was played on the radio constantly. I hated it then still hate it now. It was a huge turn off and back then I was a lot less forgiving than I am now. Now I recognize artists are not always going to do things you love. In 1982 Elton John released Jump Up. It is simply not a good album and it features the hit song Empty Garden which is a tribute to John Lennon. Now truthfully I do not know if they were friends but it would seem an odd pairing. Elton talked about John as if they were the best of friends. Maybe they were but it just seemed to my 19 year old mind that it was bullshit and the song has always seemed contrived, false. It puts me off and for a long time I would remain steadfastly anti-Elton with the exception of the early well-loved albums that meant so much to me. In 1997 Elton made another bad decision that he is actually quite revered for. Now Elton was friends with Princess Diana so it made perfect sense that he would want to perform a song for her honoring her life. Yet he chose to not write something new, instead butchering a well-loved song Candle in the Wind which was about Marilyn Monroe. It was bad form to me, one it compared Diana with Marilyn and it seemed the easy way out.

Now let’s be clear this is not a bashing of Elton John blog, just the opposite. Over time my positions have softened greatly on the artist. He will always be Captain Fantastic to me. I still absolutely adore his early albums, Tumbleweed Connection, Honky Chateau, Don’t Shoot Me I am Only the Piano Player. I will even add Goodbye Yellowbrick Road although it’s not my favorite album. I just think it’s over produced and too focused on hit songs. I much prefer Captain Fantastic and the Brown Dirt Cowboy with one of the most awesome acoustic songs ever. In fact I always wanted to learn to play the guitar and had dreams that I would play that song for some girl someday. My love of music doesn’t really translate though to playing a musical instrument although I still have hopes of putting together a death metal Glockenspiel band. Hey the music world NEEDS that. We might even cover a Zappa song. Wait what? Yea no. No Zappa. EVER.

One album has over the course of my life steadily risen to have more importance than any other Elton John album. Of course it’s an early album. It is firmly entrenched in my top ten albums of all time and the title track to me is one of the ten greatest songs ever written and simply stunning. Now that’s just my opinion. Side 1 of that album is the greatest pop album side ever. Notice I said pop. The greatest rock side of any album, again my opinion, is side 1 of Aerosmith Rocks. The album is Madman Across the Water. With the songs Tiny Dancer, Levon, Razor Face and the title track I get goosebumps when I get ready to play it. It is absolutely wonderful and so much of Elton John’s early music is stripped down, not as over produced as later efforts. I think the album Tumbleweed Connection is actually edgy as hell considering how early that album was in his career and being released in 1970.

Artists grow though and if they are very lucky they are successful. The need to be edgy, coupled with less of a need to constantly have new material ready softens artists. For many artists their best album will be their first. Those are the songs they played the longest before recording, they know the best and they have worked out the kinks. Many songs later in an artist’s career will get discarded because they simply don’t have the opportunity to work out the glitches and kinks in live settings. They never get an audience response. It’s hard though for any artist in any genre to stay relevant and popular for 50 years. When you look at Elton’s discography too you see how prolific he actually was. Long after establishing enormous success Elton continued to churn out about an album a year and for his entire career you don’t see huge gaps between albums. To me that is very phenomenal and indicates just how much Elton loves to play and how important it is to him. Elton will be cherished as one of those artists who is almost universally loved. There are not many artists I listened to when I was the age of ten that still impact me well into my 50’s. For that, well done Elton.

Mike out

 

The Music Blog: The King of Pop

I feel thankful that I got to grow up as a kid in the 70’s where we played outside until the street lights came on, explored creeks, shot off fireworks, threw water balloons at cars and at each other, played kickball or touch football in the street, spit or rubbed dirt into our scrapes. I think it was a great time to be young, to be a child.

The music was great too. There was something for everyone. There were rock gods and bands that would see us through high school and beyond. There were concerts later, lots of concerts. There were variety shows and everyone seemed to have one or be on one. There was Motown; the Temptations, The Four Tops and sigh, Diana Ross and the Supremes. There were teen idols and two hit making family acts that seemed to be in competition with each other, one white and one black. There were the Osmonds and there was the Jackson Five. People bantered about who was better. For me it was never a question. There was always something creepy about the Osmonds, all those teeth I think. I loved the Jackson Five. At one time I had or we had 45’s of a lot of this music but over the years they were lost. Always there was Michael Jackson at the center of things.

Long before he was the King of Pop he just seemed like this fun kid who could really sing and dance. Most of his career is overshadowed by later allegations of inappropriate behavior with children. The question of did he or didn’t he still seem to plague him long after his death. Regardless his career and legacy and even his financial status was forever tarnished. If he did it, then that was a small price to pay for the damage done. If he didn’t then it was way too much. As a star and especially a star of that magnitude then you might say that thems the breaks, that’s the price of fame, that’s the cost of being the King of Weird. I don’t know of another artist more demonized for any number of reasons including buying the rights to the Beatles music and then refusing to sell them to Paul McCartney, for buying or at least wanting to buy the bones of the Elephant man, for his bizarre Neverland house that he built, for wanting to be or acting like Peter Pan the boy who never grew up, for the plastic surgeries, for the drastic change in his appearance, the fascination with Diana Ross, the strange desire to change his complexion from black to white and the stranger stories to explain it all away. He will be remembered for holding his baby off of a balcony and not seeming to understand why people were so concerned. The weirdness made the allegations of wrong doing more believable. Through it all with all of that scrutiny he is one artist I would have never wanted to be even for a single day. He always had to be on and how could anyone be normal with that sort of scrutiny. For all the success I find his life tragic and sad.

I grew up loving him and then became so disillusioned with him because of the weirdness and the allegations that it was hard for me to acknowledge that I had ever liked him at all. Maybe as a social worker I just refused to give him any benefit of the doubt. Yet his situation was anything but normal, it didn’t fit into a nice space that anyone could really understand. His death has softened me, surprised me so much that I went from quiet shock to tears. Whatever he did or didn’t do is beyond him now, beyond any of us whoever judged him which pretty much includes everyone. You can still believe one way or the other yet at the end of the day it won’t and can’t change a single thing. So what do we have left? Well, he was the King of Pop and he got that title for a reason. I thought Off the Wall one of the coolest albums ever, a grown up Michael. The relationship with Quincey Jones worked and I like that album as well as I like any album he ever did including the next one Thriller. It always was interesting to me that the Jacksons came out with Victory at the same time as Michael with Thriller. It would prove to be problematic for Michael as he had already committed to the Victory tour but Thriller soon outstripped both the Jacksons’ tour and the album. Yet Michael didn’t allow his success to overshadow his brothers on that tour. What those two albums did was give Michael Jackson one iconic epic moment when both the Jacksons and Michael performed at Motown’s 25th Anniversary show. I remember that like yesterday and sure I watched more for Diana Ross than I did for the Jacksons. I expected Michael would perform something older, but he didn’t. Instead he introduced the world to four things: 1) What an amazing dancer he was, my my my, 2) the Glove, 3) Billie Jean which is still my favorite Jackson song and 4) the Moonwalk. I remember shouting, I remember screaming and I am quite sure I said something to the extent of what the hell was that. It didn’t look real, it didn’t look possible and seemed to defy physics. It was iconic and it was genius. I bought Thriller the week after that. The great thing is that you can youtube that moment and I bet it will still give you chills.

I don’t necessarily think that Thriller has held up well with time or the follow up Bad, but that doesn’t define an artist. Michael always found a way to be changing not just his appearance but musically as well. Every time you thought he was down and out he would come back with something else. To me there is only one artist that had the pressure that Jackson had to always be on and that was Elvis. He lived his life in a fishbowl, as a spectacle. It’s hard to imagine him at home relaxing in a pair of jeans no make-up, no costumes no weird, yet I am sure he did relax at home. Yet he seems to have always been in an outfit made for the stage, like a personal uniform. People will argue about who the greatest front man is, I even had a blog recognizing what a wonderful front man Fred Schneider of the B-52’s is. I would not normally include a solo artist in that category. Michael though was more than a solo artist. He was the leader of the Jackson 5 and no matter how young he was you just could not keep your eyes off of him. Going back to the Motown 25th Anniversary show performing with the Jackson 5 no matter how he deflected to his brothers they just paled in his shadow. And any time he was with a group of performers such as We are the World he was front and center.

Look ultimately you have to make your own decisions about whether he was or was not some evil pedophile, and sexual predator. No matter what you think you can’t change what did or didn’t happen and if you believe as most that there is something after death then he has had to answer a judgment much greater than anything you can do. Personally I think he was taken advantage of, by different kinds of predators all looking for paydays but again that’s neither here nor there. My judgment means little. To me he was iconic, the King of Pop, an electrifying performer who I grew up watching. At least once a year I pull up the youtube video of Billie Jean at the Motown Anniversary show and I still get chills. That is what the blog is about, about a performer far and above most.

Mike out