Johnson

I got a message from an old friend today. Someone I haven’t thought of in a long time.

He first came into my life when I still lived in Badgers Crossing, back in England. When I started secondary school my friends and I decided to form a band. We’d sit against the gym wall at lunch break arguing over band names and set lists. Despite Rob and Keith’s protests, I insisted on including Summer of ‘69. The story of three friends starting a band together really resonated with me. It was my favourite song. It still is.

For the next three months, I relentlessly pestered my parents. I folded the page in my mum’s catalogue so it always fell open at the instruments where I’d circled my favourites. We couldn’t pass the music shop without me stopping to gaze in. I can still picture those guitars hanging enticingly in the window! Gibsons, Washburns, but most of all Fenders! I wanted one so badly.

When Christmas Day came and I saw a large pile of small presents my heart sank. I got a couple of tapes, action figures from the latest toy fad (it was the last year I received toys) and some boring clothes. I forced a smile and gave muted thanks but I was beginning to think this was the worst Christmas ever. Until I noticed my parents share a mischievous smirk.

My dad, hamming it up dreadfully, said “Oh? What’s this? I think we missed one!” He slid a large triangular box from behind the settee. Oh my God! This was it! As I tore through the gift-wrap and saw the letters F-E-N-D I thought I was going to cry!

I hugged my mum as dad patted my shoulder. “You deserve it son. Now take all this upstairs while we get ready for our guests. I expect Stairway to Heaven by the time…” but I was already running up to my room. Most of the gifts were dumped unceremoniously on my desk but I unboxed the guitar very carefully. It came with a Bert Weedon book which I set on the bed next to me and flipped straight to the page on chords.

“You need to learn to tune it first!” came a soft, American voice. I yelped in alarm as I looked up. Standing near my wardrobe was a man in his late twenties, maybe early thirties. His skin was a dark umber and his eyes so black that I couldn’t tell where his pupils ended and irises began. He wore an antiquated suit, like Al Capone in that old film, with a trilby hat tilted at what they call “a jaunty angle”.

A beat up acoustic guitar was leaning against the wall with a silver coin threaded between the strings. I saw him many times but I never saw him play that guitar. Or even pick it up. As I recall I don’t think he ever even looked at it.

“Don’t worry boy. I ain’t gon’ do yuh no harm. Johnson’s the name”. He earnestly thrust out a hand. I was cautiously reaching to shake it when the door between us burst open.

My father strode in, straight past Johnson who pressed his finger to his lips and winked. I flashed the ghost of a grin back. My eyes darted back and forth between the two men and this made Johnson laugh out loud with a booming guffaw.

“Mum says dinner’s at one, okay?” I strained to hear him over the laughter.

“Okay!” I had to shout to hear myself. Dad departed, shaking his head and muttering as I slammed the door with my foot.

I didn’t have time to open my mouth before Johnson cut in ”Oh they can’t see me. Never have, not in nigh on fifty year. Don’t know why. Never bothered me anyhow”. He paused and smiled. His grin, on the outside, seemed cheerful but there was wistfulness in his eyes. “So… Brian?” I nodded. “The way I figure, we got ourselves a couple hours…”

My first guitar lesson should have been from that book but Johnson gently took it from my bed and placed it on the bookcase. ”Books is for libraries son. He’s a good’un, Ol’ Bert, an’ no mistake” he said. ”But there ain’t nothin’ in there that you can’t learn from experience. And that, in my book”, he thumped on his chest “is far more valuable”. I never opened that book again. It went to a charity shop in the end.

For the next three years, Johnson appeared whenever I picked up that guitar. Didn’t matter if I was alone in my room, playing something for my folks or practising with our band Crooked Weasel. Nobody else could see him. When others were present he would either silently smile and nod in approval or shake his head in disgust.

He would make me play scales over and over. They were imprinted in my mind like the like deep trenches the strings left in my fingers. Other times he would just offer advice which, to my teenage-self wasn’t very exciting. With hindsight, I truly appreciate it. I’ve heeded Johnson’s words onstage, in the studio, the office and even, on occasion, with a girl.

He was an amazing teacher but most of all he was my friend. Although we talked about many different things he had a way of turning the conversation towards music. When I was dumped by Joanne, my first serious girlfriend, he comforted me at first but then taught me how to express that pain on the fretboard.

In the summer of ’89, just like in my favourite song, the band drifted apart. Keith moved away and Rob spent more and more time with Maxine until we just didn’t bother practising anymore.

Johnson consoled me. “God knows I had my share o’ break-ups. The first hurts the most. But you keep working hard and doin’ what you do and they’ll come looking for you.” I wasn’t sure if he was talking about Joanne or the band.

About a week before my fifteenth birthday he’d been working me particularly hard on a solo. After the umpteenth slap on the fingers, I threw down my pick and demanded to know why he never showed me anything himself. He grasped my shoulders and for a moment those onyx eyes became red like dying coals fanned back to life and I was afraid. But Johnson released his grip, bowed his head and sighed. When he looked up again I saw those familiar black eyes again “No Brian. It’s for you to play and me to teach.

“You”, he prodded my chest, “are almost a man now and I’m near done here. It’s ’bout time for ol’ Johnson to hit that highway and find another kid”.

“But… I need you”. I struggled to fight back tears of disappointment.

“Nah Brian. You don’t need no-one. Did all this yo’self. Worked hard an’ never took the easy road.

“And now” he smiled but I could tell, from the way his voice cracked, that he was hurting too “You don’t need me no more.

“Let me tell you, I helped a lot o’ kids, from Seattle to Liverpool and everywhere between, and I ain’t never been more proud as I am o’ you right now”.

“Please…” I begged, a tear now slowly snaking down my face.

“Can’t. I been here too long. Gotta go. Just promise me one thing, though…”

“What’s that?” I whispered, my vision blurred as I wiped another tear from the corner of my eye.

“If outta nowhere, someone suddenly offers you the easy way – a shortcut, you might say – do not – and I mean this with everything I got in me – do not take it. Don’t even think ‘bout it. Someone always has to pay…” he nervously looked over his shoulder and when he turned back to me he seemed older, frail. “Shouldn’t’a said this much… Time to go”.

As he stood and doffed his hat to me more tears welled up. I tried to call after him but at that moment my mum yelled up something about chores. I shouted down that I’d do it in a minute and turned back towards Johnson.

But he was gone. I never saw him again.

***

Memories of Johnson soon began to fade and I’d all but forgotten about him after a couple more years.

In the early 90s dad got a job with an American firm. They relocated us to New York City and once I got my high school diploma I moved into a small apartment in Brooklyn. I found a day job stacking shelves but most nights I took my guitar to the coffee houses and wine bars of Greenwich Village. The pay was crappy – as much coffee as I could drink and the cost of the subway ride home – but I loved it. The music scene was vibrant and exciting. The applause was a buzz but jamming with other accomplished musicians felt even better.

One summer’s evening I decided to enjoy the sun and walk the last mile to the Village instead of taking the subway. I came out of the 42nd Street Port Authority and was waiting for the light to change when I found myself people watching: Tourists tired from cycling around Central Park; Shoppers laden with bags from the stores on 5th Avenue; Diners dressed for supper at one of Hell’s Kitchen’s trendy restaurants; Commuters streaming in and out of the Port Authority; Locals with paper bags crammed with groceries.

Something about the weather and the good mood of everyone going about their business made me want to get my guitar out right there at the crossroads of 9th and 40th and play.

I played the songs I’d planned for that night, Nirvana, Faith No More, Soundgarden, that sort of thing. As I worked through them I was pleased to see I’d attracted a bit of a crowd who were enjoying the music in the balmy afternoon sun. I finished my last song and thanked the folk who’d listened. Coins clattered into my guitar case as the crowd dispersed. While I was gathering them up my eyes were drawn to a guy leaning against the crossing post. I’d not seen him there beforehand.

He was tall, thin, pale and slightly balding. His suit looked expensive and a pair of designer sunglasses sat on the bridge of his aquiline nose. He swaggered over to me, one hand buried in his jacket pocket and a leather briefcase in the other. He set the case down and offered me his hand. His fingers were unusually long with well-manicured, pointed nails. I took his hand and he grasped mine firmly – a little too firmly for my comfort. The man introduced himself as Andromalius Boone. He chuckled when I gave a quizzical tilt of the head at the name and told me to call him Andy.

Thanking me for what I’d played, he asked if I wrote my own songs. I said that I did and offered to show him one. As I played his grin broadened. His mouth was so wide that he appeared to have more teeth than a person should.

Clapping slowly as I ended, he told me that the song was terrific and that it was a crime that I’d not been snapped up by a label. His cheerful disposition was really quite infectious and I found myself drawn to him.

Packing up my guitar, I told him that I was on my way to the Village. Andy was heading in that same way and asked if we could walk together. We took the High Line to avoid the rush hour traffic, chatting as we strolled. I recounted the history of Crooked Weasel and my move to NYC and he told me about his job as an A&R man.

I’d hoped a scout would come to a gig one day, maybe in a few years, but I never imagined I’d bump into one on a crossroads in Hell’s Kitchen. When I pressed him for more details he said that he preferred to think of himself as a hunter. That was fitting as his grin gave him a wolf-like appearance.

Andy then admitted that it was actually me he’d been looking for that night. Word of an extraordinary young man playing coffee bars in the Village had reached his level and he’d been heading that way to listen. What a surprise it had been to find that same lad playing so wonderfully on a street corner.

As we approached Chelsea Market Andy asked if we could sit and talk business. In the peace of the garden above the intersection of 10th and 16th he became quite melancholy. He explained that listening to me play had reminded him of a young guitarist he’d made a deal with a long time ago. After many successful years, he had got into some kind of trouble and wanted to back out of the contract so he could get away.

Bowing his head, Andy rubbed his temples. He’d begged the musician to stay and offered to help but he ran anyway and they’d “set the hounds on him”. He’d shown such promise but had thrown it all away. And what for? A woman? A card game? He was found dead soon after aged only 27. Murder, the police report had said. Andy reached into his briefcase shaking his head and mumbling that someone always has to pay.

Someone always has to pay. Where had I heard that before?

He pulled out a document and handed it to me. It was a contract with my name on. It mentioned recording, tours, endorsements, and marketing – stuff I could never afford on my wages. Below that was some print so small that I couldn’t quite read it. At the bottom there was space for a signature. Andy held out a red pen with a golden snake embossed on it.

All I had to do was sign.

This all seemed too good to be true so I asked what was in it for him. This broke Andy out of his pensive mood and he gave me another of those unsettling grins. It appeared less cheerful in the dying light.

Calling me shrewd he elbowed me in the ribs and said not to worry, that they’d get their pound of flesh. Shakespeare, he informed me. I knew it was from The Merchant of Venice which delighted Andy further. He roared with laughter and told me that he liked me. If anybody deserved the shortcut to success it was me.

A shortcut.

“Don’t even think about it. “ I whispered to myself as memories of Johnson flooded back. Without hesitation I said “Thank you for the offer sir. It’s tempting, it really is, but you see a good friend taught me to value hard work. So if it’s all the same with you, I’ll take my chances”.

Andy raised his sunglasses and grasped me by the shoulders. He urged me to reconsider as there wouldn’t be a second offer. His blue eyes reflected the setting sun and for a moment they seemed as red as hot coals. Brushing his hands away I firmly repeated my answer. With barely contained rage he leapt to his feet, snatched the paper and strode towards the steps to street level. I had to follow, to explain but first crouched to collect my guitar. When I got back up he was gone. I was left alone, there at the crossroads, wondering if I’d just made the biggest mistake of my life.

***

Since then it’s been hard work but I’m getting there. The critics didn’t really care for my first album. But the fans did and it slowly rose up the Rock Billboard Chart, overtaking more than one hero of mine. More followed, to even greater success. And finally, after years of touring smaller venues, my dream came true when Bryan Adams selected me to support him at Madison Square Garden.

For two weeks I’ve been staying with a friend and his family up in Maine. I’m preparing a new album but struggling with writers’ block. I need some time away from the busy schedule, to enjoy myself. Maybe the famed natural fireworks of the New England autumn will inspire me.

The other day I played my latest offering to Ben and his wife Beverly. They were polite about it. Dylan, their teenage son, not so much. He’s been learning guitar himself. Getting quite good, I gather. At first, he was uninterested, as teenagers tend to be with adults, but today he seemed quite excited.

“Hey, Brian. You know that song you can’t finish? It’s missing something. Not the lyrics. They’re okay…” Thanks, kid, I thought. My lyricist wrote those! “It’s that bit where you go from G to D to G again”. He paused for a few seconds, looked into the corner of the room, nodded and carried on. “It doesn’t sound quite right. It needs a bass run-down. Maybe G, D with an F-sharp bass, then E-minor. That’d sound pretty neat I reckon. Yeah”.

I tried it. I have to admit he was right. It’s a fairly obvious chord progression, which I’d normally dismiss, but it didn’t feel forced or clichéd.

“Nice Dylan. What gave you that idea?” I marvelled.

“It was my friend. I told him about how you’re staying with us, writing songs and can’t finish one. So I played it to him and he suggested that. He also asked me to give you a message”.

Cute. The kid’s been telling his buddies about me. They probably want CDs signing or a selfie or something.

“Go on”.

“I don’t know what this means but he told me to tell you this: I once said I ain’t never been more proud, but you done prove me wrong, son.

“There at them crossroads“.

notes-custom

 

To date this is my longest story, weighing in at exactly 3000 words. I started it in April 2016 while on holiday in Minehead, Somerset and finding myself with some rare time to myself. Then after an hour or so everybody came bounding in and it got put to one side for a few months.

That was until my friend Jane told me about a request for ghost stories by Iron Press, a small independent publishing house near where she lives in Cullercoats. Rather than begin a new one, I felt that this one was begging to be completed so I finished it off and then, with the help of some friends, edited into something approaching a half decent story. I didn’t get in the book but I did make it to their shortlist or thirty or so, after almost two hundred submissions – and they sent me a very kind letter informing me of this, so that was a nice experience for my first rejection!

The story is semi-biographical. No, I didn’t get lessons from a ghost, but all that mooning over guitars in catalogues and shop windows really did happen, and all the characters in that first section of the story are named after real friends from school. Joanne was the first girl I ever kissed at the age of 12 (I’m pretty sure I did it all wrong).

The character of Johnson is based on a real musician, Robert Johnson (pictured), who was poisoned to death after a fight over a woman. Due to his songs Crossroad Blues and Hellhound on my Trail a popular myth arose that Johnson sold his soul to the devil in exchange for ten years of success but when he realised what he had done and tried to get out of the deal, the devil claimed his prize early. Johnson was just 27 when he died, an age which has its own air of mystery about it. The 27 Club boasts many talented musicians who passed away before their time including Brian Jones of The Rolling Stones, Amy Winehouse, Kurt Cobain, Janis Joplin and Jim Morrison.

When Johnson says that he has taught kids from Seattle to Liverpool, in my head when reading, this refers to Jimi Hendrix (who also succumbed to the curse of the 27 Club) and George Harrison of The Beatles (who obviously worked hard and did not take the shortcut).

In 2015 my parents treated me to plane tickets to any location in the world, as a 40th birthday present, so I chose the one place I had always wanted to go – New York City. The geography in the second section of the story is based on walks my wife and I took during that holiday. Our hotel was on the edge of Hell’s Kitchen, on West 40th opposite the 42nd Street Port Authority where Brian busks and meets Andy. The High Line is a disused elevated railway which was converted into a wildlife reserve and walkway by residents who wanted to see some greenery in Manhattan and it runs for one and a half miles from Hudson Yards in the Garment District, through Chelsea and the Meatpacking District, ending near the Whitney Museum of Art in Greenwich Village.

We sat eating our lunch, bought in Chelsea Market, on the benches above 10th and 16th, where Andy attempts to make the deal with Brian.

The Whitney was opened by Michelle Obama while we were in NYC and our walking tour of the High Line had to be diverted due to security a cordon! The day before, we saw the President and his wife arrive in the city in his helicopter, Marine One, while we were visiting Top Of The Rock – the viewing platform on top of the Rockerfeller Center.

The antagonist Andy Boone, is based on the tradition of the Crossroads demon – an attractive, charming supernatural entity who will appear at an intersection to make you a deal: your heart’s desire in exchange for your soul, to be collected by Hellhounds at a time determined by the demon. Robert Johnson is not the first musician to be associated with this myth. Fellow blues-man, Spider Black Dumpling is believed to have done it in the 1930s and virtuoso violinist of the Romantic Period, Niccolò Paganini is also said to have made such a deal. The idea also occurs often in popular fiction, particularly in Christopher Marlowe’s The Tragical History of Doctor Faustus (the play which brought the legend of the titular doctor making his pact with the demon Mephistopheles to a wider audience) and in the TV show Supernatural in which Mark Shepard plays a major character called Crowley who is King of the Crossroads.

The name of Andromalius Boone is taken from the 17th century occultist work The Lesser Key of Solomon, the first section of which, Ars Goetia, lists the Pseudomonarchia Daemonum or Hierarchy of Demons. The role of Earl Andromalius (whose seal is to the left) is to retrieve stolen goods and also to hunt and punish thieves and those who make dishonest deals. He is often depicted holding a snake in his hand (hence the pen with the golden snake). Duke Buné (right) is able to grant riches, eloquence and wisdom but those who do fall under his spell are eventually turned into demons. Since Buné cannot tell a lie he has to rely on his attractive and persuasive voice to gather followers.

The final section is a small tribute to my favourite author, Stephen King. Many of his stories are set in his home state of Maine. Brian’s friends Ben and Beverly are named after members of The Losers Club, Ben Hanscom and Beverly Marsh – two of the main protagonists from one of King’s most beloved and terrifying novels, IT.