Saturday, January 13, 2018

The Story of Bluesman Robert Johnson’s Famous Deal With the Devil Retold in Three Animations

by , Open Culture:
So many hugely successful and talented musicians have died at age 27 that it almost seems reasonable to believe the number represents some mystical coefficient of talent and tragedy. But several decades before Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, or Amy Winehouse left us too soon, Robert Johnson—the man who pioneered selling one's soul for rock and roll—died in 1938, at age 27, under mysterious and likely violent circumstances. He was already a legend, and his story of meeting Satan at the crossroads to make an exchange for his extraordinary talent had already permeated the popular culture of his day and became even more ingrained after his death—making him, well, maybe the very first rock star.
Johnson's few recordings—29 songs in total—went on to influence Eric Clapton, Keith Richards, 27 clubmember Brian Jones and so many others. And that's not to mention the hundreds of Delta and Chicago blues guitarists who picked Johnson's brain, or stopped short of selling their souls trying to outplay him. But Johnson, begins the animated short above (which tells the tale of the bluesman's infernal deal) "wasn’t always such an amazing guitarist." Legend has it he "coveted the talents of Son House" and dreamed of stardom. He acquired his talent overnight, it seemed to those around him, who surmised he must have set out to the crossroads, met the devil, and "made a deal."
The rest of the story—of Robert Johnson’s fatal encounter with the jealous husband of an admirer—is a more plausible development, though it too may be apocryphal. “Not all of this may be true," says the short film's title cards, "but one thing is for certain: No Robert Johnson, No Rock and Roll." This too is another legend. Other early bluesmen like Blind Willie Johnson and Robert's hero Son House exerted similar influence on 60s blues revivalists, as of course did later electric players like Muddy Waters, Howlin' Wolf, and B.B. King. Johnson was a phenomenal innovator, and a singular voice, but his repertoire—like those of most blues players at the time—consisted of variations on older songs, or responses to other, very talented musicians.
Most of the songs he recorded were in this vein—with at least two very notable exceptions: "Cross Road Blues" (or just "Crossroads") and "Me and the Devil Blues," both of which have contributed to the myth of Johnson's pact with Lucifer, including the part about the dark angel coming to collect his debt. In the latter song, animated in a video above, Satan comes knocking on the singer's door early in the morning. "Hello Satan," says Johnson, "I believe it's time to go." Much of what we think about Johnson's life comes from these songs, and from much rumor and innuendo. He may have been murdered, or—like so many later stars who died too young—he may have simply burned out. One blues singer who claims she met him as a child remembers him near the end of his life as "ill" and "sickly," reports the Austin Chronicle, "in a state of physical disrepair as though he'd been roughed up."
Johnson scholar Elijah Wald describes his history like that of many founders of religious sects: "So much research has been done [on Johnson] that I have to assume the overall picture is fairly accurate. Still, this picture has been pieced together from so many tattered and flimsy scraps that almost any one of them must to some extent be taken on faith." Johnson's "spiritual descendants," as Rolling Stone's David Frickecalls his rock and roll progeny, have no trouble doing just that. Nor do fans of rock and blues and other artists who find the Robert Johnson legend tantalizing.
In the film above, "Hot Tamales," animator Riccardo Maneglia adapts the myth, and quotes from "Crossroad Blues," to tell the story of Bob, who journeys to the crossroads to meet sinister voodoo deity Papa Leg, replaying Johnson's supposed rendezvous in a different religious context. In "Crossroad"'s lyrics, Johnson is actually "pleading with God for mercy," writes Frank DiGiacomo in Vanity Fair, "not bargaining with the devil." Nonetheless—legendary or not—his evocation of devilish deals in "Me and the Devil Blues" and gritty, emotional account of self-destruction in "Crossroads" may on their own add sufficient weight to that far-reaching idea: "No Robert Johnson, No Rock and Roll."

Monday, November 27, 2017

What Was It Like to Play With Guitarist Roy Buchanan?

Roy Buchanan might have been the quintessential “guitarist’s guitarist,” earning the respect and admiration of contemporaries such as Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix, yet never achieving mainstream success. But one defines “success” on one’s own terms. As the artist himself said in the 1971 PBS documentary Introducing Roy Buchanan: The World’s Greatest Unknown Guitarist: “I didn’t care whether I made it big…all I wanted to do was learn to play the guitar for myself. 
You’ll feel it in your heart whether you’ve succeeded or not.” By the time of his untimely — and, some say, suspicious — death in 1988 he’d done much more than “learn to play,” having established himself as one of the premiere American electric guitarists. His pioneering use of the full musical and sonic capabilities of the Fender Telecaster especially influenced the generation of guitarists who followed. Bass guitarist Jeff Ganz toured with Roy in one of his final lineups, a power trio also featuring drummer Ray Marchica. I had a conversation with the veteran NYC bassist recently, in which he shed some light on Roy Buchanan, both as man and musician.
Q: When did you first become aware of Roy Buchanan?
A: I was made aware of him like everybody else, watching the PBS documentary on television. When I heard him, he was always in a very traditional surrounding, like in a 4-piece rhythm section. But it was polite, swinging, rockabilly-oriented rhythm section playing, with his brand of guitar: everything that became popular that you could do on a Telecaster later, (only) he was doing it in 1959!
Q: How did the band come together?
A: I was recommended to be a local musician, which was his paradigm in the mid-‘80s; there were different versions of his band that didn’t last very long, and then it became not a band at all because he could make more money with “pickup” guys, because the people were not there to see anything but him. The fellow who produced the PBS documentary was named John Adams, and a mutual friend of ours named Scott Kuney recommended me to do the gig, and asked if I could get a drummer. So I recommended Ray Marchica. Ray has a very diverse resume, everything from Broadway pit work, to Dan Hartman, the Ed Palermo Big Band…this is a total musician, and one of my closest friends. The only time we ever got together to rehearse was the very first time he was checking us out on December 7th, 1984 at RCA Studios in New York.
Q: How was it that first time you played with him?
A: Analogous to what John Paul Jones said about the first day of Led Zeppelin, the room just exploded! ‘Cause you’ve got New York guys who are listening and adapting to the situation, and are being asked to contribute their own ideas; all of that happened very simultaneously. Our first gig was the next day at the Capitol Theater in Passaic, NJ, opening for Robin Trower. To be honest with you, it went so well that we got some heavy, heavy reviews in the Newark Star Ledger; the guy really liked the band! Also, because Roy knew about this band’s versatility, even from the first gig he started to experiment. Like, he goes “Hey Jeff, do you know ’The Lady Is a Tramp?’” I said, “Yeah!” He says, “Well, can you sing it?” And that’s what happened on the first gig: I sang “Lady Is a Tramp,” and it sounded like “I Saw Her Standing There,” with Roy trying to cop that exact groove! So he started trusting this band right away.
Q: What was the most fulfilling aspect of your experience with Roy?
A: My personal thing was when he was able to rip into a solo without a lot of accompaniment, when it was just me and the 8-string bass with him. So there was a lot of room to do what he did and experiment, and then Ray and I kind of music-directed him with “stop time” and stuff like that, but never really took him out of what he did. When you’re playing with a more “traditional” blues band, you play your solos and then you stop and you’re comping behind somebody else. That isn’t really what happened in our band. It was him, and arrangements on the spot. There were a lot of things going on in my head simultaneously: it was like, I’m doing a gig, but I’m being asked to be me! Now I’m feeling 14 again, and idealistic about why I started!
Q: Roy gained the admiration of many legendary guitarists, but not their level of fame or recognition. How come?
A: The difference between Roy and those guys is that Roy was not the least bit conscious of his own image. He would get onstage and wear whatever he wanted to wear; he was not interested in any visual trends, he was strictly a real guitar player, you know what I mean? There were times when Ray and I wanted to leverage him into something bigger, and he simply wasn’t interested in pursuing it. It was a different kind of mind set; he just wanted to play the guitar, but he wanted to play his way. He was the antithesis of “showmanship.” He wasn’t lighting his guitar on fire, making himself look a certain way, or playing licks over and over to impress the crowd, like so many people are now. I think he was one of those guys who just wanted to work, but he was stuck being a genius! And with that came a lot of the demons.
Q: So he wasn’t conscious of his “brand?”
A: Hard to say…it seemed that way to me, but how do I know? He took all the real answers with him.
-Interview by John Montagna
Writer’s Note: Mr. Ganz’s comments have been edited for brevity and consistency.
PS. Some thoughts on technology and the guitar. And some other low-key heroes of the music scene.
Photo of Roy Buchanan by Tom Morton of the Hochberg Photo Collection