Tuesday, June 06, 2006

Typical Tuesday Blues

Walking through the East Village, one can’t help be bombarded by all the posters hyping horror films, hard rock CDs, and club parties trying to tie into today’s date with a Satanic theme. Just for the record, it is 06-06-06, which is 60,606 or in post-Y2K parlance 06-06-2006 for 6,062,006. But why let numerical accuracy stand in the way of a marketing gimmick? Frankly, my company spent too much energy selling 01-01-00 books at the turn of the millennium for people to start nonchalantly dropping integers at this late date. Even Tim LaHaye says today is just another typical Tuesday, so we should all get over it.

If you really want to “celebrate” the date anyway, skip the lame metal bands and spin some Robert Johnson or Peetie Wheastraw. Known as “the Devil’s Son-in-Law,” Wheatstraw, who encouraged stories that he had sold his soul to become the top bluesman, could eat Satanic hair-bands for breakfast, and then dash off a blues about how bland they tasted. His luck ran out the night he and some friends attempted to out-race an oncoming train through an inter-section.

Wheatstraw was something of a precursor to Robert Johnson in terms of rumored bargains with Old Scratch, and their dark, apocalyptic lyrics. Johnson however, would become the towering legend of Blues, in a way no other musician’s life has ever dominated their genre.

It remains difficult to parse truth from legend in accounts of Johnson’s life. Many are familiar with the story that he went to meet the Devil at a crossroads one night. Johnson handed him his guitar, the Devil tuned it and handed it back. Bargain sealed. For the remainder of his short life, Johnson was a blues guitar phenomenon, constantly in motion, singing of “Hell Hounds on his trail.”

Again details about his death are sketchy. It seems fairly well accepted that he was slipped some poisoned whiskey by a jealous husband. There are many dramatic accounts of his death involving fevered hallucinations of Hell Hounds. His frequent traveling mate Johnny Shines heard that Johnson “crawled on his hands and knees and barked like a dog before he died.” Reportedly his final words were: “I pray that my redeemer will come and take me from my grave.”

Johnson’s life remains obscured by mystery, but if there is any accuracy in such reports of his demise, his rumored Faustian bargain, though granting him tremendous mystique, may have contributed to his mental anguish during his final moments. The purveyors of schlocky horror movies and cheesy metal bands trying to play the Devil card today might want to consider his experience. Even if they don’t believe in it, doing business with the Devil may extract a psychic price. Unlike Johnson they will have scant chance of immortality from beyond the grave.