I think Robert Johnson is haunting me. At the very least, he’s keen to look in on me from time to time. Perhaps it’s his way of saying “thank you” for playing his music. It wasn’t that long ago that I listened to an audiobook on his life, death, and afterlife. From there, I started playing his tunes, and that evolved into a renewal of my love affair with the blues. Of course, I couldn’t stop there. From the blues, I look in on the Rock and Roll greats who acknowledge the blues masters as their influences. One trip to Half Price Books later, I find myself attracted to a battered copy of this particular book. It’s the only one in the store, in the wrong spot, and sporting a price tag of $2. The first chapter: “Waiting at the Crossroads”… the legend of Robert Johnson. Damn, Robert. You could just say hello. I suppose you think this is funny?
Ok, well, I think it’s funny. It’s certainly funny how things that are seemingly unrelated can line up in perfect coincidence — if indeed there is such a thing — to create a larger narrative that, when I tell them the tale at work the next day, it will get my coworkers breaking out prayer beads and holy water. And they aren’t even Catholic.
This is the kind of storytelling you’ll find in this book, the sort of thing that, much like the parallels between Abraham Lincoln and John F. Kennedy, will make your hair stand on end. The reason the book starts out with Robert Johnson is due to the sheer number of rock celebrities who have followed in his footsteps, which is to say it’s not that they sold their souls or anything like that, but they died young, at the top of their game, and the pattern of those deaths kept repeating. Johnson himself was the first of what’s now known as the “27 club,” a group that includes Brian Jones, Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, Pete Ham, Amy Winehouse, Ron “Pigpen” McKernan, and a whole string of others… all dead at age 27.
Johnson’s legend starts intertwining other paths as well, which lead into different stories, such as “The Day the Music Died” — February 3, 1959: the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Richie Valens, and the Big Bopper. The circumstances surrounding that crash are weird enough on its own. The so-called “Buddy Holly Curse” would go on to claim Eddie Cochran, Bobby Fuller, David Box, Bill Daniels, Buddy Grover, Keith Moon, Ricky Nelson, Del Shannon, and John Lennon, all of whom died too soon with connections to Holly and his music. Similar “quirks of fate” revolve around the deaths of musicians in the Allman Brothers Band and Lynyrd Skynyrd.
Following the path of the Johnson myth, Led Zeppelin’s Jimmy Page presumably made a legendary blood pact during his studies of Aleister Crowley, the satanic magician who likewise inspired Ozzy Osbourne and others.
Are there hidden messages in the song lyrics? Some say yes. In the case of Pink Floyd, it’s undeniable. More bizarre is how many other lyrics ended up being prophetic, bringing their artists low under circumstances too spooky to ignore.
Of course, it could just be a decades long streak of bad luck, in which case none of what’s in this book really means much. The only way you can make that decision for yourself is to read it and see how you feel by the end of it.
I can say I honestly enjoyed this book, but then, I love to learn about the stories behind music, and I’m naturally drawn to the weird, strange, and otherworldly. I’ve stared things in the face that most would be at a loss to explain or in a hurry to escape. And while that makes me a bit of an extreme case, I understand that it’s human nature to piece things together, looking for answers in a string of harrowing circumstances. It’s how we’re wired up as a species; we love to be creeped out for some odd reason. More than that, after we learn stories like this, we pass them on to anyone who’ll listen. That’s what this book is about, spreading the myths. It’s the modern day equivalent of the classic ghost story. It just so happens that in the process of learning these tales, you’ll never hear the classic songs quite the same way again.