A man walks into a studio. Somebody tells him to start, and he begins playing. He picks a complex rhythm from his guitar, throws in flourishes on the higher strings, and wails his heart out. Air molecules move. Sound waves oscillate wildly. All of this is caught on record. Roughly 8000 kilometres away and 80 years later I lie on the couch, headphones on. I'm wired on coffee, and probably high on dopamine, at least according to a tabloid headline about a study of the pleasure people get in listening to good music. All I know is that I've got that spine-tingling-cold-shivers-and-grin-inducing-feeling that I love. I've got one of the baddest and the greatest on, Mr. Robert Johnson, and I'm almost at a loss to describe what goes through my head.
Now I'm no blues enthusiast. I'm not even a blues listener, deep down I've always felt that it's, well, "dad"-music. Some stuff I like, single cuts. Howlin' Wolf's Smokestack Lightnin'. Son House's Don't You Mind People Grinning in Your Face. I've however never really seen the blues as more than this rigid pattern that allows for some variation, but basically always sounds the same. Probably great, but not my thing, you know? As to Robert Johnson, well obviously I know the folklore, the blues & rock 'n' roll-fairytale. A recap for all of you with less interest in these things: Johnson had some skill with a harmonica, but wanted to play the guitar. Son House and other local musicians cringed at the racket that ensued whenever Johnson grabbed a six-string. After moving away, marrying young and losing his wife in childbirth, Johnson took his guitar to a crossroads at midnight. He encountered a tall stranger that tuned the instrument and gave it back along with the ability to play the blues like no other. In exchange Johnson offered his soul.
While Johnson's skill was due to rigorous practice and unparalleled passion for music rather than to a deal with the devil, it's astounding how someone could've become so good in such a short time. And it's not even that he was good, I mean really, really good. It's that hearing him play, I realise for the first time that there's something to all those quotes about the man being the grandfather of rock 'n' roll. I've always thought that it's a bit silly to say that, a simplification of too many influences down to one man. But damn, listening now to what he left behind recorded, it's pretty obvious. There's a few turns in between, a game of musical chinese whispers: you've got the British rock legends finding his music, then bringing it back to the States with their interpretation of it. From there it spreads out again, always changing, yet somehow always the same. You've got the chords, the rhythm, the melody, the desperation. Throughout the last century, there's always been someone to take from it, and add back to it.
I've listened to some of these things in rock and pop music my whole life. I play a bit, not good, but nonetheless I do. I've played these things as long as I've known how to get any sort of tune out of the guitar. All without knowing. Blows my mind.
I'm looking at two of the three verified photos of Robert Johnson. There he is, in a suit, all swagger and smile. And there he is, with a cigarette, all menacing and badass. The constant in these two pictures is the guitar, and I find myself thinking of how the hard-living man poured both of those extremes into his music through that thing. He was my age. In less than a year I'll be older than he was when he died. What a trip. If there's any way of reaching immortality, I figure it's not so much in the name or the life you make for yourself, but rather in the way your work reverberates when you're gone. Boy does Johnson's ever, and even he got it from somewhere further back in time. I guess the blues never stops. I wonder if I'll think about this the next time I feel inspired to pick up the guitar and put a few chords together. Tapping into some sort of heritage that I'm not even aware of. In any case, I've still got my coffee, headphones and the chills. Might as well enjoy. Take it away, Mr. Johnson!