May 28, 2008


Robert Johnson yawned extravagantly, then placed one of his guitar cases on the made-but-rumpled bed. He reached into his desk drawer and brought out three notebooks. Two were exceedingly plain, with extra-thick beige covers, and were originally intended to be used for laboratory notes. The third was black, and was lined for music composition. In fact, it was only black because he’d hidden the ugly cover—filigreed with various notes and the words Music Tablet in a brush font from the 50s—with black electrical tape.

This last notebook was always a vague source of guilt for Robert, as he’d found that blues guitar didn’t entail as much music composition as he’d originally thought. In fact, he didn’t think any of his mentors, men in their 70s who’d never had a job that didn’t involve a guitar, could even read music. Robert had barely used ten pages in the four years he’d owned the notebook, but he still carried it with him whenever he set out to practice. It had become a totem.

Robert had spent almost all of the Saturday night before with his girlfriend, while his sister waged her slumber party throughout the downstairs rooms of his house. At five a.m., as the first hint of the whispered rumor of daylight appeared in the bayou sky above Westwood Village, Robert forced himself to leave Litta’Bit’s sleeping pantied body and get dressed slowly to leave. He didn’t wake her as he left, only placed his hand heavily on her remarkably warm back and felt her slow breath fill the small hollow of her chest.

He had to at least make an appearance at his uncle’s, so he snuck out, more out of politeness than necessity, with his hard-soled shoes in his hand. Jason Huynh was still fighting his way through a video game in the still-dark living room, and his eyes, glazed by twelve hours of polygons and pixels, fixed on Robert’s with an uncomprehending stare before moving slowly back to the plasma screen above the mantel of the false fireplace.

After the long drive back into the city, Robert parked his mother’s BMW on the now-bright street in front of his Uncle Tony’s downtown condominium. Fifty years before, the building had been a large brick warehouse, holding cargo from the Wallace Martin & Sons Shipping Concern. Now, it was just known as the Wallace Martin, and the sales team made a point to tell potential tenants how the building was situated in the middle of the “thriving downtown arts district,” but in fact no real artists could possibly afford the luxury condos in the renovated warehouse.

Robert slipped quietly into the condo, but found all of the lights on, and his uncle’s bedroom empty. He hadn’t had to leave Litta'Bit’s side after all…his uncle hadn’t come home for the night. There was a note on the kitchen counter, telling him to eat whatever he wanted. Robert found a mostly-empty refrigerator, so he ate only three slices of Swiss cheese and drank a glass of water. He went into the guest bedroom and messed up the sheets, then remade the bed. With a couple of hours to kill, he dozed in front of Meet The Press, then showered, wrote a thank you note, and met his mother and sister at Mass.

After church, both Robert and Miranda were exhausted and cranky, but Tabitha Johnson insisted they eat brunch with her in the Quarter, then visit their grandparents in Gentilly for the afternoon. They finally got home late in the afternoon, and they both snuck away to their rooms and fell asleep on top of their covers.

And now it was 8:30, and Robert found the house quiet and dark, with the only evidence that he wasn’t home alone a sandwich on a tray by his nightstand and a light under his mother’s office door. He looked outside, and though he knew the sun had only just set, the night he saw seemed beyond any sort of time. No cars moved on the street, the houses of his neighbors were dark, and everything he knew seemed suspended in the damp air of the summer dark. It was a good time to try to write a blues song.

Under his bed, Robert had a shoebox that held a collection of candles, in various small jars and votives. He pulled this carefully out, the glass inside clinking nervously, and added it to the growing pile beside his guitar.

A quick glance in the mirror: the pants would do, his shoes were fine. Robert untucked his sleep-tousled shirt. He rolled up the sleeves and unbuttoned it to reveal the white t-shirt underneath. Over to the top of his closet for one last touch, a brown fedora given to him by David’s father after he saw him perform at a Beaumonde Academy talent show. Harry Sebastian was famous for his hats, wearing a different one in each of his ubiquitous TV ads, and he felt that Robert needed a fedora to be a real bluesman.

Downstairs with full arms, then through the French doors and into the landscaped backyard. The city was silent, not even traffic could be heard in the heavy night. Waking up after dark had thrown off his internal clock, and he felt like the last man alive, like he was living in amber.

He chose the patio table farthest from his mother’s office window, and pulled out the sturdy wood chair. The seven tealights were lit with the silver Zippo, plain and Proper, that every male member of the Gang carried. He opened the two beige notebooks to their appropriate places, but the black notebook stayed closed.

Robert sat down in the chair, adjusted it, then opened his guitar case and carefully lifted up the acoustic Martin 000-15 he’d bought used on eBay with his birthday money a few months before. He tuned the guitar, strummed a chord, and cleared his throat. He pushed his fedora back on his head. Time to write a blues song.

The backyard was quiet and still. Robert eventually strummed a chord again, then re-tuned his guitar. Okay.

Robert had been taking lessons in blues guitar since he was 12, five years now. His Uncle Tony felt it was an injustice for a young man to be named Robert Johnson and not know how to play the blues, so he’d given him a child-sized acoustic guitar and used his political connections to strong-arm the more famous living Delta bluesmen into teaching his nephew how to play it.

Perhaps in a heartwarming movie the old men would have eventually warmed up to the young man, who would display a true talent for the music in spite of his privileged upbringing, and both the veteran and the rookie musicians would have learned valuable lessons from each other. In real life, though, the men had never been particularly close to Robert and seemed to see him only as an obligation, or a paycheck, or further proof that the rich folk would always be imposing on the poor folk. Uncle Tony’s less-than-subtle methods hadn’t helped matters: one of Robert’s tutors, for example, had discovered that his club’s trouble renewing their liquor license had gone away the second he agreed to take on Robert as a student.

Robert’s most recent mentor was Little Barry Black, a man reaching into his 70s, who was famous for his weekly Thursday night shows at a small bar on the fringes of Uptown. Whenever celebrities came to town, there was a fair chance they’d end up at one of Black’s all-night shows, and if they were musicians they’d always be pulled up onto the stage. Barry Black was also known as a tireless supporter of young talent, and a lot of professional musicians in New Orleans will tell you that their big break came when, at a young age, they were asked to sit in with Little Barry Black during a Thursday night set.

Robert had never been invited to one of Black’s shows, much less brought onstage.

Little Barry Black was never particularly encouraging of Robert, and he seemed distracted during most of their lessons, and he never asked him a single question about his life, but he wasn’t mean or dismissive like some of the other old men. He frequently told Robert, in a curiously dispassionate voice, that he was impressed by how hard he worked. But best of all, unlike every other tutor Robert had ever had, he didn’t try to tell Robert that he needed to truly feel the blues deep down in his bones, or whatever. In fact, he seemed hateful and dismissive of the very notion: “All this hogwash about how you have to live the blues before you can play the blues. Shit. Hard work beats inspiration seven days a week.”

At some point Barry Black decided that Robert was about as good at playing guitar as he could be at seventeen years old. Like a lot of teenagers whose dedication to grueling practice outstripped their experience or even their talent, Robert was already a skilled mimic, able to copy any song or style played for him just a couple of times. The only thing he needed to refine his technique was time, all those decades of playing that still awaited him. Black had reassured him that eventually his own style would emerge…it would just take elbow grease, which Robert seemed to have in pretty good supply.

So instead, he decided to focus on Robert’s non-existent songwriting. Barry Black had been surprised to hear that Robert’s other teachers had never asked him to write a song. “I think the feeling was that a rich boy like me didn’t have anything to be blue about,” Robert told him, paraphrasing a bit but expressing the essential point.

“Shit, like the blues is a club and we decide who gets in and who don’t. Boy, you’re seventeen…that’s the bluest age of them all. You a big old man, but your parents still treat you like a kid. You got brothers and sisters running around, driving you plum crazy. And, hell, it feels like your pecker’s about to bust right through your pants. You got a girlfriend, don’t you?”


“She lay down with you as much as you want her to?”

“Well, in any relationship there’s a give and take…”

That’s what I’m talkin’ about. You know why they call them blue balls? ‘Cause your balls got the blues.” He coughed out a laugh, then another one. “The hell a rich boy can’t have the blues. Did they not see that you black? I don’t care how rich you are, you probably got about five hundred songs in you today, just about that right there.”

So Little Barry Black gave Robert a homework assignment: actually write a blues song. He was told to just use a standard 12-bar blues so that he wouldn’t obsess about the sound. Robert was to dig down and write about something that mattered to him, then come back in a couple of weeks and play it for him.

That was a week and a half ago. Since then, Robert had tried to write his song a few times, but he hadn’t been terribly successful. The whole process was incredibly stressful, and Robert was pretty sure that wasn’t the point.

After his last failed attempt at writing a song, Robert had opened one of his notebooks and, at the top of a page, made a list of potential topics for the blues, including:
  • Women, trouble with
  • Money
  • “Drink”
  • Women, lack of
  • Jesus / The devil
  • The blues itself
Then he filled out the page with a list of famous first lines, as a way of getting himself started.

I was born by the river
in a little old shack

My papa was a rolling stone
he never gathered no moss.

And so on. Robert spent two days in the pantry with his iPod and the second notebook, listening to songs and compiling an extensive list of the rhymes he heard. He had an idea that blues musicians had standard rhyming templates they could fall back on while composing. Robert realized this academic approach seemed a bit ridiculous, so with a rueful smile he named this list Blues-like Word Rhythms.

And don’t be mistaken: Robert was fully aware of how silly he was being, out in the backyard with his notebooks and his fedora and his candles. But as a Gangmember, he also knew how inspiring it could be just to look the part, how a simple change of wardrobe could change one’s perspective. “Fake it until you make it,” Andre had said a few days before, when in a moment of extreme personal weakness Robert had called to tell him about the challenge he was having.

Robert, lit by candles in the Sunday darkness, began playing a standard blues riff, letting the music get settled in his hands. He glanced over at the list of rhymes, but nothing came.

“Well, I woke up this morning-“ he began, in a faltering voice, then stopped. (He’d never been given singing lessons either.) He waited, still playing, for the riff come back around. He decided to warm up by singing the beginning of the only blues song he’d ever written. It was a class project for tenth grade English, and Andre had helped him with the words:
Ophelia likes good looks,
And Portia likes brains.
But old Lady Mack-Beth
Is only concerned with stains.
Okay, that was good, he felt himself loosening up. He looked over at the list of rhymes again, and waited for the riff to restart.
Now I got an Asian mama-
No, wait, hold the phone. He stopped the riff then started it again.
Now my baby is Asian,
And my best friend’s a Jew
Okay, good, keep it together. Let’s see: Jew, blue, new, screw…
Now my baby is Asian,
And my best friend’s a Jew
But what’s that got to do, mama,
When it comes to me and you?
This was a start, definitely. He continued playing the riff over and over, mumbling this stanza a few more times, then adding a chorus from Blind Willie McTell:
I got the bluuuuues, so bad
And it’s the worst ol’ feeling that a good man ever had.
He was just about to try another four lines when a car pulled softly into the driveway, the headlights bright against the stone wall to Robert’s left. He continued playing his song, and the car didn’t kill its engine for almost a full minute. He couldn’t see the SUV from where he was sitting, but Robert could picture his father inside of it, collecting his briefcase and making a few final phone calls, maybe wadding up the fast food bag from his Baton Rouge trip.

Eventually the car was turned off, and the driver’s side door opened, then closed. Robert played a quick solo, then rejoined the riff. The side gate opened slowly, and the dark shape of his father was outlined against the light from the street. The workers were off on Sundays, and no one had turned on the outside lights. On this moonless night, the secluded backyard was dark, with Robert’s candles the only oasis of light.

Jerome Johnson, closing the gate softly, reached into his jacket and pulled out a pack of cigarettes. One last smoke before he went inside to bed. Glancing at his sheet, Robert saw town / running around, so he thought for a second, cleared his throat, and began to sing.
My papa’s a roller
He runs half the town
But he comes a’ runnin
When Mama comes around…

I got the bluuuuues, so bad…
It’s the worst ol’ feeling a good man ever had.
Jerome Johnson chuckled softly as he stepped away from the garden gate, approaching his son slowly. An unlit cigarette dangled precariously from his lips. Smoking was his only vice, barely tolerated by his wife, and Robert always secretly believed that he only smoked so that one day, when he quit, people would say in astonishment: “He smoked for twenty years, and gave it up just like that.”

The shadows from the candles obscured Jerome Johnson’s face as he reached out for Robert’s Zippo. A spark and a flame, and his father’s face was illuminated briefly: far from handsome, but sturdy, well-lined, with downturned eyes that somehow seemed both stern and sad at once. The Zippo was snapped shut and Robert looked away, towards his notebooks (tear/hair) and tried to come up with a line. His father watched him in silence, taking one and then two drags of the cigarette.
They say he’s a scion
They say he’s an heir
But he ain’t worth nothin’
When Mama’s on a tear!

I got the bluuuuuUUUUUES, so bad
And that’s the worst ol’ feeling a good boy ever had.
Jerome Johnson laughed again, the coal of the cigarette tracing red hops in the air. He reached out gently and adjusted his son’s fedora, pushing it farther back on his head. There was another chair by the patio table, and he pulled it off to the side and leaned back, his legs spread, and watched his son play the guitar for a while as he smoked.

Maybe others would have sat at the table with Robert, or placed the chair directly in front of him, but Robert knew his father didn’t want a performance; he wanted to watch his son perform. A minor difference, perhaps, but one that defined Robert’s father for him. Robert had a lifetime of memories—of dinners, of cocktail parties, of charity fund-raisers—that featured his father, off in a corner or by a window, watching everyone else and occasionally approached by guests for a discrete conversation away from the crowd. From a young age, Robert knew that the most important person in a room wasn’t the one everyone listened to, but the one that everyone talked to.
Papa thinks he’s a stone
What don’t collect moss,
But let Mama catch him,
She’ll show him who’s the boss!

I got the bluuu-uuu-uues, so bad
I said it’s the worst feeling that this man ever had.
Jerome Johnson chuckled softly as he exhaled a lungful of smoke. The massive shadow of the house covered the top of his body, so that all Robert could see when he glanced over was his father’s cheap suit, bought off the rack at a large warehouse in the suburbs, then altered for his tall thin frame. His father wasn’t blind to style—he always complimented the expert tailoring of Robert’s bespoke suits—and it took Robert a long time to realize that his father’s wardrobe was as carefully cultivated as Alexander’s: his hundred-dollar suits sent the powerful unspoken message that he was as honest, hard-working, and unpretentious as his constituency.

Robert continued to play, trying to come up with one final stanza. His father’s cell phone chirped softly in his pocket, but he just squeezed his pant leg, silencing it.
Now my mama is chocolate,
My girlfriend Vietnamese.
But when those girls come knockin’
Me and Papa fall to our knees.

I got the bluuuuues, but I’m glad
that I’m not half as bad off…as my poor ol’ dad!
Robert did a lazy run through the chords of the riff, then went into a lengthy but casual solo. As his father bemusedly clapped a few times for him, Robert couldn’t help but think: holy shit, I just wrote a song. Okay, it was totally rough and didn’t really make a lot of sense and the subject of having a rich and powerful father probably didn’t have the universal appeal one looked for in a classic blues song, but still: that song didn’t exist five minutes ago, and now it was out in the universe.

Jerome Johnson’s cell phone chirped again, and again he silenced it, but now he stood up and walked the chair back over to the table. Robert was finishing his relaxed solo and easing back into the riff, and his father placed a large hand on his son’s shoulder and squeezed firmly.

“You sound good, son…you sound real good.”

He patted his shoulder once more, then took the half-smoked cigarette from his mouth and placed it carefully in Robert’s. He stood back and looked at the effect, nodded deeply, and went into the house.

Alone now in the dark, Robert tried to play through his song again and discovered he’d already forgotten half of it. The cigarette smoke distracted him, and made him want to cough, but he ignored it. In fact, as he played, he sucked in a mouthful, held it between his cheeks, then let it trickle out slowly. He let his father’s cigarette dangle low and sad in the corner of his mouth, curling smoke up towards the brim of his fedora.

Robert had to admit it really finished his look.