Copyright © 2014 Alby Stone
Three numbers in and one more to go before the break, that’s when I saw her. She was sitting on a high stool at the bar, a cigarette in one hand and a margarita in the other, a slender figure in a long black dress and long black hair, two dark blurs above a slash of crimson in a white face. That was about as much as I could see from where I was standing, but from the way she leaned forward with her shoulders slightly hunched as though anticipating a sneak blow from behind, the way she held her drink and her smoke like talismans to ward off evil spirits, I could tell she was down and pretty much out. I supposed she was a lot like some of the other women there, some of the men too. Not everyone who hangs out at places like this in the early hours of the morning is looking for music. She was just another lost soul who’d come in out of the rain on a very dark night, into a shabby downtown bar hoping to find something to take her mind off herself for a little while.
Maybe she’d come here to get drunk, or find a guy for anonymous, no-strings sex – perhaps both, anaesthesia and someone she could pretend wanted more than an emotionless, casual and ultimately selfish fuck. I don’t know. I’m good at reading people, but if most of the time I know what people are, I have never been able to tell what they want.
Well, whatever this woman wanted when she came in, what she got first was me, the man on a small stage with a second-hand Stratocaster and first-hand troubles to share. I got the blues so bad, until it hurts my tongue to talk. Yeah, but you’ve got to spit it out anyway, no matter how bad the words taste in your mouth, get it off your chest or choke on it. That’s what the blues are all about, and that’s exactly what I do. Twelve bars, that’s all it takes. You repeat the prescription until you’re cured, which means you repeat it a lot, sometimes until they nail down the lid.
I finished the old Son House song and quickly retuned my guitar as a handful of people in the audience reluctantly showed their appreciation. The E-string was a little off, not so much that the booze-dulled patrons would notice – and let’s be honest, most of the rabble were either dead-eyed barflies or losers praying for one last, desperate opportunity to get laid – but enough to annoy me. I thought of the woman at the bar and impulsively decided to play a song that wasn’t on my set list.
It was as if she knew. She glanced up at me and I caught the shadows that passed for her eyes, nodded by way of dedication. This one’s for you, honey. You’re not alone in this. Sonny Boy Williamson was elbowed aside in favour of Robert Johnson, ‘Love In Vain’. I know a broken heart when I see one. I know it demands recognition. And I know heartbreak demands bottleneck guitar.
Unlike most bluesmen nowadays, I won’t use steels. No, I use the neck of a real Old Overholt rye whiskey bottle, 1930s vintage, carefully sawn off and the cut end rounded with a blowtorch. To my mind that’s the only way to get that authentic, eerie blues wail, the genuine sound of heartache and regret. As otherworldly noises go, it’s up there with the glass harmonica, the theremin and the Aztec death whistle, as unsettling as any of them in its own sorrowful way. There’s the symbolism, too. When you slip your ring or middle finger into that smooth glass sheath you enter a world of metaphor: little red roosters, lonesome horns, and squeezed lemons. All blues songs are essentially about sex and love – the joy of the act, the thrill of illicit liaisons, or the pain that inevitably follows when ways part, when it’s over. The bottleneck rolls them all up into one.
So I closed my eyes and sang the words, and meant every syllable. God knows I’ve been to that station too, carried that suitcase and watched the blue light recede into the distance. Really, with that song the lyrics usually don’t matter so much. It’s feeling the hurt and the longing that counts, expressing it through the cry of glass on steel and in the spaces between notes. But this time the words were as real and as strong as the strings. I took it slow and easy, like I was making love to the woman of my dreams for the very last time and didn’t want it ever to stop. And when I did reach the end, the inevitable end, I found I didn’t exactly know how to finish. Willie Mae was Johnson’s girl, and the woman out there didn’t fit that name. Eventually, I came up with I pledge myself to Lady Jane, but all my love’s in vain. It seemed right; it sounded right. By then I’d fallen a little bit in love with the idea of her, and she looked to me like she could be a Lady Jane. Besides, I didn’t think Mick and Keith would mind.
I wound it up with a complex, melancholy slide flourish stolen from the entire spectrum of blues players. This time a few more people clapped and I stood there as if I was grateful for the ragged applause, though in truth I didn’t give a shit about anyone there but Lady Jane. When I looked up again, she’d gone. But someone had left a fresh margarita perched on the edge of that small stage, a kiss discreetly printed in crimson lipstick on the side of the glass, close to the stem. I reached down and picked it up and silently drank to her health and future happiness. I hoped she’d left alone, though I wouldn’t have minded if she’d waited a while longer and gone home with me, maybe stayed for a time. When it comes to selfishness, I’m as guilty as the next man, though I hope I’m less cynical than the majority. What the fuck, perhaps she’d never been there at all and I’d only imagined that sad shape at the bar, that undefined face. Anyone could have left that drink. Everyone here knows I like margaritas and it wouldn’t be the first time I’d been served an underwashed glass. It wouldn’t be the first time I’d seen a ghost.
Then I loafed in the damp back yard and smoked a couple of cigarettes and drank a free beer while I reconsidered the second part of my evening set. I had an old wound that had never quite healed. Tonight it had reopened. It needed treatment.
Like I said, you repeat the prescription until you’re cured. Howlin’ Wolf’s ‘I Asked For Water’ would be next, followed by Muddy Waters’ ‘Forty Days and Forty Nights’ and that Sonny Boy Williamson number that had made way for ‘Love In Vain’. Of course, there was now only one song that could possibly close the show, to complete my daily dose of medicine.
And the day keeps on remindin’ me, there’s a hellhound on my trail.