The Devil In The Music

Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain.

These are but five famous rock stars who earned themselves a place in the lamentable 27 Club, by the simple expedient of dying at the age of twenty seven.  The list of members is long, far more so than for those who died at other age, and cannot be explained away as a statistical anomaly.  In order to find the true explanation, it is necessary to look at the life and death of the very first member of the 27 Club — blues legend Robert Johnson.

Born in 1911 in Mississippi, Robert Johnson was drawn towards the Delta Blues music that was prevalent in the region.  He never achieved commercial success or public recognition in his lifetime, but earned his living as an itinerant musician, performing on the streets or in juke joints, never knowing what an enormous impact he would have on the world of blues, rock and roll, and even heavy metal.

His skill as a guitarist stands him out as one of the true masters of all time, although he only ever recorded 29 songs.  When Keith Richards first heard one of his records, he asked, ‘Who is the other guy playing with him?’, and when told that there was only one guitarist, he said that it was physically impossible for one guitarist to play like that.

Johnson was a great exponent of the tritone, which is a musical interval, often known as the Devil’s Interval for its dissonant tone.  In medieval times it was branded diabolus in musica (‘the Devil in music’) and became prohibited in ecclesiastical singing up until the Renaissance, since when it was used judiciously.  Later, it became more freely used by composers such as Wagner, and then more widely in blues music, and of course rock and roll.  The tritone is frequently applied to heavy metal to create a harsh, disturbing sound, and it is Robert Johnson’s prolific use of it that has been the inspiration behind the great rock songs we enjoy today.

But music wasn’t easy for Johnson.  Initially, he struggled to play in the manner he aspired to, but was determined he was going to get there — whatever the cost.  The cost, though, was one that has gone down as one of the great legends in the history of rock and roll, for Robert Johnson made the ultimate sacrifice in order to gain the skills he craved.

The story goes that he took his guitar down to The Crossroads where he met with a mysterious large black figure.  Accounts vary as to where the crossroads actually was, but all involve the being revealing himself as the devil, tuning Johnson’s guitar and leaving him with mastery of the instrument.  Only the story below explains all the events that were to occur afterwards.

‘So, you desire expertise of the guitar,’ said the devil.  It was not a question.

‘Well, yes, sir.  I do,’ Johnson replied.

‘I have the power to bestow upon you a greatness beyond your imagination.  You shall write and perform songs that will be revered by the world’s most accomplished musicians.  Your fingers will pick those strings with a talent that will make the angels weep and kings sing your praises.’

‘And the girls?’ queried Johnson, for he had an eye for the ladies.

‘They will be mesmerised by your talent, and will worship the very ground you tread.’

‘But how?’

‘Hand me the guitar.’

And Robert Johnson passed his guitar to the devil.

‘But there will be a small cost,’ the devil smiled.

‘I’m sorry,’ said Johnson.  ‘But I have nothing to give.’

‘Oh, but you do,’ said the devil.  ‘In return for the success that I am going to give you I require only one thing — your soul.’

Now, Robert Johnson was not a religious man, but he knew that giving away your soul was not a wise thing to do.  Faustian pacts never go well.

‘No, sir,’ he said humbly.  ‘I can’t do that.  My soul is me.  I can never give that away.’

The devil paused for a moment and then said, ‘Very well.  I shall make you an offer.  You can keep your soul until you have written your thirtieth song.  Only when you have done that shall I return to you.  And when I do, I shall take your soul.’

Johnson saw an opportunity.  He could accept the devil’s deal, and make sure that he only ever wrote twenty nine songs.  That way, he gets the talent he desires, but keeps his soul.

‘Okay,’ he said.  ‘You got a deal.’

The devil tuned his guitar, played a couple of tunes and handed it back to Johnson, who from then on was a virtuoso on the instrument.  He began to gain admiration for his extraordinary guitar playing skills, and took great pride in the fact that he had cheated the very devil himself.  In 1936 he went to a recording session in San Antonio, and the following year another one in Dallas, where he ensured that he recorded only the twenty nine songs that he had written.

And so things were going well for Johnson, but he had two weaknesses — ones that are so typical of a man in his profession.  He like to drink, and he like the ladies, whether they were his for the taking or not.  Stories differ on the nature of his death.  Some say he died of syphilis, others that the jealous husband of a woman he had been fraternising with slipped poison into a bottle of whisky he was drinking.  No cause of death was listed on his death certificate, but that is because there is no registrar on earth that would risk his reputation by writing down what really happened.

As a travelling musician, Johnson would often stay in guest houses.  At one place outside Clarksdale he met, as he would, a girl that he took quite a shine to.  She was the most beautiful girl he had ever seen and utterly enchanting.  She also was greatly attracted to Johnson and went with him to his room.  There, she said to him, ‘Before we go any further, play me a song I haven’t heard before.’

‘Okay,’ said Johnson, and he played Cross Road Blues.

When he had finished, the girl said, ‘I’ve heard that one before.  Play me another.’

So Johnson played Love In Vain.

Again, the girl said she’d heard that song before and could he play another?  This continued until he’d played all twenty nine of his songs to her.

‘Please, play me another song,’ she pleaded.  ‘One I’ve never heard.’

Well, Johnson realised that if he was to make any progress with this girl, he was going to have to play a new song.  But it would be okay.  She would be the only person who would ever hear it, and the devil would know nothing of it.

So, he played a whole new song.

It was the most captivating song that had ever been sung.  Johnson played a mesmerising complexity of his trademark tritones and sang with such emotion that he was shaking by the time he’d got to the end.

The girl clapped with delight.  And laughed.  Laughed a deep, sinister laugh that resonated throughout the room and shook the windows as though a mighty storm had flared up outside.  Horns sprouted from her head, her fingers became claws and she grew greatly in stature.  Her clothes tore from her expanding body to reveal the entity that Johnson had encountered just a few years ago at the crossroads.  Beelzebub, Satan, the Tormentor of Souls.  Now come for his soul.

And thus on 16th August 1938, aged 27, Robert Johnson met his end, but his story did not.

Unknown to Johnson or the girl/devil, the owner of the guest house had been listening to their conversation.  He was a big fan of the blues and kept one of those machines that allows you to record songs directly onto an acetate disc.  When he heard that Johnson was about to play something new, he poked a microphone into the room and captured the song on record, including the devil’s laugh at the end.

Now, it is said that if you ever hear the devil’s laugh, you die immediately.  And so this record, the only pressing that has ever been made, is highly dangerous.  There have since been several fatalities as the record has been passed amongst many Robert Johnson fans, largely rock stars.  Of course, the curse of the record is now known amongst those in the music industry, and they quite wisely keep its existence secret from the general public.

But when a rock star is twenty seven years old, the age at which the devil took Robert Johnson, the temptation to listen to that thirtieth song becomes difficult to resist.  And those that succumb to it become so transfixed by its sheer majesty that they cannot stop before they hear the devil’s laugh at the end.

And so the 27 Club is not merely a group of celebrities that had the misfortune to die at 27.  These are people who have actually heard the laugh of devil.

Amy Winehouse famously said, ‘I don’t want to join that stupid club.’

It was assumed that she was concerned that her drink and drug habit would take her before her twenty eighth birthday, but that was not the case.  She knew about the record, and she felt it calling out to her — play me, play me.

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