Everybody knows Robert Johnson sold his soul to the Devil at a Mississippi crossroads one fateful midnight and gained in the bargain a supernatural power over the guitar. There’s some question regarding which crossroads it was. Tradition argues for the crossroads near Dockery Plantation. Others maintain it was the crossroads where Highway 61 meets Highway 49, in Clarksdale. The great bluesman Son House says it was the crossroads in Rosedale. We may never know for sure.
What’s less recalled about Johnson’s myth is his apprenticeship, as a young boy, to a bluesman named Ike Zimmerman. The story goes that Johnson left his hometown of Hazelhurst for a career in the blues, but was greeted with derision and “chased off as an incompetent by the ruling Delta players.” He returned to Hazelhurst, where he came under Zimmerman’s wing and received instruction both in music and the black arts. Zimmerman himself had learned to play by wandering graveyards at midnight; possibly it was this shadowy figure, this antimatter rock-and-roll Obi-Wan Kenobi, who informed young Robert where he might could find the Devil.
But then, the selling of his soul—the Faustian bargain that works as an origin story for all of rock and roll—isn’t even Robert Johnson’s first encounter with spirits and magic and boneyards and whatnot. There’s another man, earlier in the Johnson myth, suggesting a prior and equally mysterious account for where Johnson got his sound.
All of rock-and-roll history behaves this way. Whenever you think you’ve got a handle on the origin of an element, the birth-point of a sound or image or attitude, a trapdoor opens and drops you somewhere else—usually somewhere older, almost always somewhere stranger.
Listen to the songs you’re reading about:
This happened to me, in real-time, a few months back, when I interviewed JD McPherson over the telephone. I was complimenting him on the song “Precious” from his second album, Let the Good Times Roll (2015, Rounder Records). Truthfully, I was complimenting him, and also trying to show off a little.
“Correct me if I’m wrong,” I said, “but that’s the same hook [in ‘Precious’] as in ‘Signs and Signifiers,’ and also on your cover of [Nick Lowe’s] ‘Rome Wasn’t Built in a Day,’ and that comes from ‘Mona’ by the Rolling Stones, right?”
“Well, you’re really close on almost all that,” JD answered, like a patient teacher correcting an overeager student. “That’s a guitar effect I can’t live without. It’s called ‘tremolo.’ ” He then listed the icons of tremolo guitar: “Bo Diddley, Pops Staples—and Johnny Marr from The Smiths.” He credited Johnny Marr with “probably the greatest example of tremolo guitar in pop history” on “How Soon Is Now.”
Map out the songs in this conversation and you go from JD in 2015 to JD in 2012, then from JD’s 2014 cover of a 2007 song by Nick Lowe to the Rolling Stones’s 1964 cover of a 1957 Bo Diddley song, and from Roebuck “Pops” Staples all the way to an indie-rock band from Manchester who recorded in the mid-1980s. Where does it all begin? Where does it come from? Who was Ike Zimmerman listening to as he sat on those tombstones and honed his eerie craft?
You won’t get close to answering these questions without a book by the name of Mystery Train by Greil Marcus. Marcus is one of rock and roll’s most prominent and deep-thinking critics. Robbie Robertson called him “rock music’s best writer,” and Mystery Train is his magnum opus, a book that Bruce Springsteen said “gets as close to the heart and soul of America and American music as the best of rock ‘n’ roll.”
The book’s format is that of a long, multi-part essay, followed by a much longer series of notes and discographies; the essay stares searchingly at four musical acts—The Band, Sly and the Family Stone, Randy Newman, and Elvis—while trying to make sense of where rock and roll came from, why it means so much to people (especially Americans) and why it repeats itself, like history.
Given the style of music JD McPherson plays, I thought it would be truly bitchin’ to talk with him about the book. I got him on the phone through his agents in Nashville and asked him if he was familiar with Mystery Train.
“Absolutely,” he said. I then asked him about a couple passages from the book, and what he thought about them.
I read from the section on Elvis: “The question of history may have been settled on the side of process, not personality, but it is not a settlement I much appreciate. Historical forces might explain the Civil War, but they don’t account for Lincoln; they might tell us why rock ‘n’ roll emerged when it did, but they don’t explain Elvis…”
“What do you think is going on,” I asked JD, “that pop culture, or whatever you want to call it, has turned around again to where the kind of music you play is something that moves people and that people respond to?”
There was a long pause as he mulled the question.
“Okay, let’s just say this. Rock and roll was the first music for teenagers, and it was the first youth culture, the first time teenagers became a thing.And once that happened, there was a swing to push that idea to something much more mainstream and more pop-popular. Music sounds started to change. It eventually started growing up. And then there’s another push against that. Like, ‘I don’t want to hear another five-minute Rick Wakeman piano solo.’ Or, ‘I don’t want to listen to this prog-rock that’s trying to turn my teenage self into a serious individual.’ There’s this kick against it, and that became, like, punk rock. It was return to the three-minute, 1-4-5 song—leather jackets and torn-up jeans and street music. Then that starts moving back and forth. There’s all these swings of the pendulum.”
This brought him back to his own teenage years.
“I had a great time in the ‘90s. I thought there was some really good music on the radio and on MTV that I had access to that made me feel like, you know, a weirdo, but felt good about it. Like, ‘Man, there’s a lot of people out there who want to wear a green cardigan sweater and dye their hair purple.’ It felt good; it was a good thing. I felt like all of a sudden, media had granted permission for frustrated teenagers to feel this certain way.
“But, since then, there really has been, I think, a steady decline in the quality of popular music. And everybody says”—his tone was sarcastic—“that you hit a certain age, and all the music is no good. But I really think it’s true.
“And it’s not so much because of the musicians or songwriters—it’s the idea that everything has to be perfect, and every note must be in tune, every beat must be in cadence, there has to be this amount of low-frequency and this amount of high-frequency… and if I had to say why I am able to tour, in a band across the country”—he chuckled at his own staggering luck—“it is because it sounds, mmm, it sounds like a reaction to something. I hear it over and over again, ‘Thank you so much for bringing this back!’ I don’t know man, I think that’s all it is.”
He meant the rhythm of rock-and-roll history flowing from one place to another, and that’s the exact word JD used: rhythm. As though history itself had a sound, with a groove—something you could dance to.
Earlier in our talk I’d mentioned to JD that I grew up one town over from him, in Talihina. JD comes from Buffalo Valley, a narrow strip of land between Buffalo Mountain to the north and the Potato Hills to the south.
“Get out!” he said.
The reason I brought it up was because of another line from Mystery Train, in a section on Robert Johnson: “It may be that the most interesting American struggle is the struggle to set oneself free from the limits one is born to and then to learn something of the value of those limits.”
JD understood exactly what Greil meant. He goes back to Buffalo Valley every once in a while to see his parents, but when he lived there, he couldn’t wait to get away. Still, he knows his time in south Latimer County was crucial to his development as an artist. The isolation of that world meant everything to his formative years.
“The time to spend without distraction, focusing on drawing and painting and making videos and playing guitar and listening to music and reading. I’m very easily distractible,” he laughed. “So I treasure that I was granted that opportunity right off the bat.
“Secondly,” he said, “I know for a fact that there is a beautiful culture in that part of the country, but I did not seem to ever find it. It was me trying not to get into physical altercations with cowboys pretty much daily. So I didn’t get to find any cool war veterans who made saddles or Choctaw singing groups. It was me kicking against what was around me at my school. Had it not been for that, I would have never been interested in punk rock. I would have stayed listening to Cream and Hendrix and all that great music, but it would have been a different story.
“Another thing that really did help was that I really did love the environment. I spent a lot of time in the woods. I read a lot of things related to growing up in nature that ended up giving shape to my ideas. I would go into the woods with a video camera and just record things. I grew up on a cow ranch, and we had round bales of hay. I remember pointing a video camera at a stack of hay bales and just leaving it for a long time.”
JD was entranced by the hill country, inspired by it. “In the fall, when it started looking a certain way, a certain atmosphere was summoned up. I wrote and wrote and wrote, and I would draw and draw and draw, and practice, practice, practice. And once I discovered David Lynch movies, it was all over.”
After he left that part of the country, he came to feel the lack of its presence, like a man pining for a ghost who no longer haunts him.
“It’s not ‘til later when you live in a city or whatever that you realize, man, something’s missing—I kind of miss being afraid of the panther with the white spots who screams like a woman and lives out in the woods and kills things.”
It’s striking that JD would mention this story of a panther that screams like a woman. Later, when we got into a discussion of his lyrics on Let the Good Times Roll, I asked him about this strange, heightened quality of several female characters he sings about on the record.
“I don’t know, sometimes they sound a little evil,” I said. “I mean, they’re heartbreakers—but there’s a really neat line [in ‘Bossy’] where you say, ‘History is full of people like you.’ And it takes the idea—I mean, a lot of rock and roll, obviously, is about heartbreak, and the woman who broke your heart. But [that line] makes it seem larger and much more interesting. There’s the last song [‘Everybody’s Talking ‘Bout the All-American’] where there’s a heartbreaker, but you’re writing about her sort of like she’s the quarterback of the high school team, or a war hero—you use the word ‘bombardier.’ Then there’s [the song] ‘Mother of Lies,’ which I kind of took to be almost a reference to Satan, as the father of lies… ”
JD tapped the breaks a little on that one.
“ ‘Bossy,’ ” he said, “is about past relationships I had, and a little story or a little secret from each. There haven’t been many, but I have always been attracted to people I had a difficult time getting along with. I would admire these women as sort of heroic figures.”
“Bossy” has been a hard song for JD to explain. Some people who’ve talked to him about it have seen the song as misogynistic. “It’s actually, in fact, quite the opposite. It’s more of an ode, like Willie Nelson’s ‘To All the Girls I’ve Loved Before.’ ”
“It’s a little fraught,” I admitted, “but where would rock and roll be if we weren’t able to sing about heartbreakers?”
“Yeah,” JD said. “And ‘Mother of Lies’ is actually about that notion. I was just thinking about blues lyrics and how there’s a lot of superstition in blues lyrics that I can’t really latch onto. If you ever see me writing about a mojo bag or a black cat bone, please just drive where I am and punch me in the face, because I have no right to that kind of blues vocabulary. But, I really love this idea of this really dark, magical kind of superstitious language that’s in blues. I was on an airplane and I was going to a songwriting gig and I was writing down last-minute ideas, and the phrase ‘mother of lies’ popped into my head. I wrote it down and I actually caused a bit of concern because I was laughing so maniacally at this really hilarious, over-the-top blues language. And I’m not sure where I end up going with that lyric, but I was trying to compare the antagonist of the song with all these supernatural figures.”
JD wanted to get back to “Everybody’s Talking ‘Bout the All-American,” though. He’d only spoken to one other person about that song—“and that person was German, and I was not able to understand what he wrote.”
“All-American,” it turns out, is about a man—a friend of JD’s named Nick Curran, a rock-and-roll singer and guitarist who died in 2012 at the age of 35. “He was a huge hero of mine,” JD said, “and really was kind of responsible for me starting to sing and sound they way I did.” “All-American” was JD’s attempt to combine his own sound with Nick Curran’s, especially Nick’s use of punk-style guitar. Curran was also the inspiration for the gender-fluid quality of the lyrics.
“He always wore this shirt,” JD said. “W.W.J.J.D? What Would Joan Jett Do? I loved the idea that he wore this influence on his sleeve, of this super-awesome female punk rocker. And I always liked this idea of shifting gender.” For example, JD said that the lyric “breaking every heart by the way she played” originally was about “Nick Curran’s affinity for Joan Jett, plus the idea that a lot of guitar players have a female name for their guitars, like [B.B. King’s] Lucille.”
“So that song was about Nick, which really confused that German guy. He knew who [Nick] was, but he couldn’t understand why I was using female pronouns to describe him.”
There’s another thing happening in “All-American,” a dual process of humanization and mythologization—a man being honored even as he’s transformed into an image. This gets at an important paradox at the heart of rock and roll: the way artists become these super-heroic figures of titanic chemistry and profound sexual authority, but who can also sing about heartbreak and rejection and loneliness.
“I’ll give you an example,” JD said. “Lightnin’ Hopkins is one of my favorite artists ever. I love everything about him: I love the sound of his guitar, I love his guitar playing, I love the conversational quality to his voice when he’s singing. I love his rhythms—he had the hottest, hottest rhythms—and he was just the coolest-looking guy ever. Sometimes he’s got a cowboy hat on and sunglasses, like the cool Cary Grant sunglasses. And then sometimes he’s got a really nice plaid shirt buttoned all the way to the top with a cardigan tied around his shoulders. Just this effortlessly cool guy. But if you listen to his lyrics, it doesn’t match the other stuff.”
Hopkins sang a mud-low, blood-soaked blues, such as in “Bring Me My Shotgun,” about a jealous husband headed off to kill his woman because “she’s fooling around with too many men.” When she’s dead, Lightnin’ sings, “I’m goin’ to throw her in that deep-dug well / hide her from everybody, they won’t know where she at.”
But then JD said, “I find myself caring so much less about blues lyrics than compared to all the other stuff. I never really was like, ‘Oh man, what a great songwriter’ when I think about a lot of people. It’s more about the whole thing, the song and everything else with it.
“The only person I don’t feel that way about is Howlin’ Wolf, because Howlin’ Wolf has really, really great—and Skip James—have really, really captivating lyrics…”
There it is again—the slipperiness of trying to say anything about rock and roll. There’s always an exception, always a counter-example, always an argument on the other side. There’s no solid ground; it’s just too lively. Rock-and-roll history works this way, I think, because history works this way. There’s no beginning. There’s always an earlier story, always a thread that leads farther back. Adam raised a Cain—who raised Adam?
Originally published in This Land: Fall 2015.