The myth goes that Robert Johnson sold his soul in order to know how to play a mean guitar. Or in other words, knowledge (of playing) and pleasure (of being great).The guitar his apple of Eve. The sin of flesh, the longing of desire. Perhaps, to know how to pick a guitar where the song will outlive your body, like when the needle drops on the record, and Robert Johnson’s skinny fingers get to plucking, the wobbles between the crackle of vinyl, the voice smooth but rough, and your bones feel his woes, ache in all the ways blues is meant to make a person ache, the wounds synthesized as sound. Feel the fever. That fire. The flames rising. He went down to the crossroads, and ole Bob sold his soul.
Robert lost his woman and baby, one ecstatic push between breath and legs, the baby entered and left the world all at once, taking her mother with her. In the myth, this is when he turned his back on God. He turned his back on God, like Eve when she took the fruit from the snake. Was it a snake slithering on its belly on the dark stretch of road in the Mississippi Delta, the roar of thunder, and then a flash of lightning? Or was it pitch night and still, no crickets or coyote’s howl, when Robert laid down his guitar for the devil to play? And when the devil placed it back in the heft of his hand, did Robert, like Eve, have to take it?
A poet once told me that we are all myths of ourselves. What is a myth? Are we all just delusional? Is the trouble of the soul inside of us and only us fighting ourselves? Were myths created to explain away the worst of humanity? Or perhaps, to explain why the best die young. Was a black man playing the guitar the way Robert did too much for society? Maybe it was how the strum of his string unleashed the gash we try so hard to conceal.
Would you sell your soul? What would you sell it for?
I was twenty two years old writhing inside my skin across the bed, the bed that my brother had died in, shriveled down to bone from loving a man, seven years earlier. Dying for his sins, another Christian myth seeking to explain or even punish the young and innocent, the queer, to wrap them in lies instead of love. I was living with my mother because I couldn’t pay any bills. Bruises checkered my arms and a serpent coiled inside my belly. It was a hot summer day in Memphis. The air saturated with thick hot water. My mom’s air conditioner blew cool. She was at work and I had woken up with a commitment to be clean, but the sick settled in and shook me into longing. I lay back on the bed and stared at the ceiling fan overhead as the light of sun slipped through the blinds and tried to reach me. I thought of what I could steal from my mother, but she was at work, and so was her car, so I was stuck. The fan turned counterclockwise with a slight whir of a sound, and the occasional car rumbled past. I said aloud to the room, “I’d sell my soul for a hit of dope.” There was no music. No lightning. No man/beast with horns and pointed tail. The phone on the nightstand by the bed rang. I answered it. It was my dope dealer. He was nearby at a payphone. His truck’s air was out and he needed a cool place to dip in to his own stash. I gave him directions to my mother’s. And the stash was sweet, dropped me to my knees, and I stayed there awhile. Through the molasses of heroin, I could hear a whisper inside me, quiet but urgent, Did you sell your soul? And I answered, Yes.
It is said that Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil to be the best guitar player. It is also said that a man poisoned his whiskey, a man whose wife Robert had been running around with. It took three days for him to die. He fell out of bed and crawled around on the floor barking like a dog, like the hellhound that had been on his trail had finally caught up with him. Maybe it was syphilis like his death certificate says, or maybe it was poison from another man.
Robert was twenty seven when he died. The twenty seven club, another myth. Like Jimi, like Janis, like Kurt. All were twenty seven. Is this the age when the devil comes to recoup? All of them, those who shined but also quaked, those who the world was too much for and they drank and fucked and shot up and belted out their internal sores through song, through voice, through the guitar string’s reverb, and did whatever they could to ease the pain of living. Twenty seven. What is the significance to this number? Is it the two numbers, the two plus seven, sum of nine that John Lennon was obsessed with? In some strands of the Christian myth, nine means judgement. Jesus gave up his soul in the ninth hour. So is it redemption then? God taking back what is rightfully his? Before Robert died, he wrote a note to Jesus: Jesus of Nazareth, King of Jerusalem / I know that my Redeemer liveth and that / He will call me from the Grave.
At twenty seven, I got clean, and stayed clean, so far.
Fourteen years clean, and I can still hear the call of the crossroads like I hear the twang of Robert’s guitar, his voice singing I gotta keep movin, with that raw patch deep inside, the place that won’t ever heal, the place where the hurt hollers, the memories of the departed, and the parts of ourselves where another person’s power dug in and took away our own, blues fallin down like hail. There’s a hellhound on my trail, breathing heat, the speakers tremble, flames burning at my heels.