The instant we found the lost corridor, we knew there had been a mistake. It had been forty plus two years since the hanging, and the newspaper reports were no exaggeration.
But to come upon this place now was a lost cause. But having been a high school tumbler, well, that had nothing to do with gymnastics.
So down we went, as though the beginning of a cheap folk tale made over for an expensive movie.
And the rest is this story, but this story is not all the rest. It is one of numerous explanations, but a practical one.
I was asked to come along, but it was Mr. Herbruck’s mission. I had better things to do, but was not able to convince myself that I should spend this October evening working on what was due the next day in my creative writing class. I was just beginning graduate school, eventually resulting in a doctorate in the area of modern American poetry, but my interest really was playing regularly at a little club in Madison, Wisconsin, where Folk music was still of interest in the wake of the psychedelic Rock and Roll that was sweeping up the late sixties with a subjective broom into a confessional pail. I had met Richard Herbruck at the Green Lantern, where one could buy organic food for dinner, help clear the tables, and then listen to Folk and Blues songs performed by members of the co-op who rented the storefront on University Avenue. Once in a while we would have a special guest artist and on 30 October 1969 Herbruck came to play harmonica. He was good. I was surprised. He looked like an LSD advocate but played like a person who drank whiskey.
Following his rendition of a Jim Kweskin rendition of “Ukulele Lady,” he came over to the table where I sat, tuning my Gibson, about to play a version of “The Coo-Coo,” or, because I was drinking whiskey out of a flask and was not a drinker so the room spun right away and with ease, thinking about doing “Drop Down Mama” that I had learned from Sleepy John Estes when he played recently in the city – well, a couple of years before, actually, as now it was all about self-indulgent guitar riffs and words from academic greeting cards written by people in love with themselves but using other people’s names in the lyrics. You know, ‘Lucy’ as in the sky or ‘Johanna’ as in visions of. Everybody was confessing their thin souls with thick images that were derivative but with the conviction of originality gone awry.
So as I was about to walk the five feet from table to folding chair, no microphone, Richard Herbruck tells me that he would like to speak with me when I am done playing. I don’t remember what song I played now, as I was mesmerized by his inquiry and quite drunk, but when back at the table he grabbed my arm and we walked outside.
The frat-boys and sorority-gals were in full parade dress, and I do remember watching them strut past while Richard, he introduced himself as Melvin but said I could call him Richard, explained that we should get in his car and head South.
I asked not why but how long this was going to take.
This was a period of time when wondering about the ‘why’ of it all was really not hip. It was all about ‘let’s go’ instead; however, I was, beneath the rumpled sports jacket, unbuttoned vest and work shirt, a person with wing-tipped shoes and a colorful red and blue thin, wool tie (gotten in Greenwich Village the year before where I was living with a woman I suddenly chose not to marry) that had traditional feel but contemporary stance. I had classes the next day. I dressed up for them. But I kept a piece of clothing --the tie, or brushed suede cowboy boots when the wing-tips hurt my heels-- that was contrary to the leather briefcase filled with Ezra Pound, William Carlos Williams and, beneath them, William Butler Yeats. I knew Allen Ginsberg, and he had good things to say about my poetry books, printed on a hand press and hand-delivered to the faithful, but I did not think too much of Allen’s work so while feeling proud that my poems meant something to him, sure, I had no truck with the self-indulgence of Beat poets. Zen? I was from an orthodox Jewish family. If I had an epiphany I would not describe it directly in a poem about being in a supermarket. I would search for real imagist stuff that was in a lost book, rediscovered over a cup of awful tea that was good for the stomach, and keep my own identity a secret as I searched for The Other to speak for me. Zen? I think not. God was far away and not mired in the dregs of how I felt or what some rounder could steal from me when I took all I had anyway and practically spent it myself.
We got in his car.
We drove for hours. He talked about the old ways, the music of it, and said that he could offer salvation. I was shocked. How could a harmonica hipster say this? Tony “Little Sun” Glover has showed me some harp techniques in 1965 at Carlton College where we were on the same bill, me doing traditional music and him, with Dave “Snaker” Ray and “Spider” John Korner, doing new songs that sounded like old ones. They did, but there was a Rockabilly attitude in the sound that I remembered from seeing Gene Vincent and his Blue Caps, by now low culture as the literary world infused that of Folk Rock and all was lost that was once pure fun as high culture became the brain of the game. I could not figure out how kids not much older than me played music much older than I was but yet brought to it an immediate urgency. Years later, of course, this music would be called impure as it was not true Folk/Blues but college kids faking it; however, even more years later, like right now in 2007, it would be heralded as the absolute source for kids again going back to the root. Well, I am losing my point, here, but in retrospect it somehow makes a difference and explains what happened that late Fall night when Richard finally pulled the car over alongside the single-lane highway and we walked into the woods.
The leaves were down. The air a cold but somehow not chilling affair. Out of the woods a man came toward us.
Richard introduced me to an older person who wore a fedora, carried a Colt Single-Action pistol, and asked me if he could see what was in the guitar case I had left in the car that was visible through the window. The moon was up enough to create shadows that permitted visibility, but not enough for me to see this man’s full face nor even Richard’s. I was not fearful of this odd person who carried a pearl-handled gun, and, once he had my guitar in hand, could play like the devil.
As I look back on this, I did not think about the devil, nor even anything angelic, I merely felt that I wanted to get back to my rooming house on Johnson Street as I had a writing assignment due. I was soon to be coming to Milwaukee to work in the English Department at the University of Wisconsin campus there. I was going to get married first (to a different woman who likes the same tie). By the end of the year, there was a lot to do. I suddenly resented being in the middle of nowhere with Richard, who was smiling like a kid, and this character who impossibly stepped out of the woods with a firearm in a shoulder holster that he had to remove in order to play my Gibson Dove. I was irritated. Richard noted this and offered me a cigarette but I did not smoke.
I do not know what happened next. I was walking down a hallway that led me quite far. I was seeing newspapers on an oak table that has carved initials in it, and the headlines have something to do with a man who was hung for deeds not in the headers but in the stories that I could not read as it was nearly dark in there. Richard asked me my name. I realized that he had not done this yet. I was introduced at the club by first name but he never even used it yet tonight. I mean, that night. As I describe this it does not seem to be in the past, but it is, even though I do enjoy a cigarette now and then.
Who’s that roughhouse rounder, he’s got a fiddle in his hand;
Who’s that roughhouse rounder, he don’t need no band:
Tell me who’s that coming around the bend,
Who’s going to be standing there at the end—
Who’s that roughhouse rounder, done took your money to spend.
I wondered who was singing. All I did was tell him my name. I thought the song was an old one but Richard said that it was just being made-up now. He said it was within the last paragraph of a story about how Folk music got done, but then what night is that? I did not ask then, not even now. Sometimes you just got to shout, that night or this.
I have tried for many years to describe all sorts of things. Corridors; hangings in public; whatever happened to the hope never spoken except in concrete tones to avoid sentimental melody. A bit over four decades since the experience has driven the whole affair into a private world. It is what happens, I would assume, when you write not from what you do but as a result of it – because if you deal with it directly, well, it becomes the stuff of awful and very popular fodder. You know, the kind of, say, poem or song, better yet, that has so much truth in it that it is false. Ultimately, I can only report that many books and albums later I still cannot explain much, so I am filing this story instead. I am going to put it in an envelope marked, “the mistake that gets us into this mess.” I will also enter a sub-title in case there is any use for the manuscript in, shall we say, academic affairs, and it will read “how authenticity might be mistakenly applied if more were said or less said differently.”
My life has been this way. It cannot be the case, really, that I have never gotten to the point. It must be that the point has gotten to me. Yes, that sounds good. If this explanation ever gets published, it will be long after I have been down and around. That really sounds good.
And as for Richard, he no longer was part of the story, here. He got what he wanted back there. I have dreamed about the initials carved so clearly into the table. I have never understood why I did not read those newspaper accounts though they in memory are rather like a canon.
But then I was probably busy trying to manage my fearfulness regarding the inability to provide an ending that would that night or this behave like one from a story -- and not just exactly what happened then, or now, either, for God’s sake. For once, I have told the truth. I should add that the fellow who played guitar that night was not Robert Johnson. He is only on t-shirts these days, and in boxed sets, posters; and I wish that guy that night, or this one, would have been identified so I could make a buck from my text about him. Instead, I am left to someone else’s initiation that will not even make me a prophet. But then I could not have a quality end to the story instead of more of the same.
But it begins so well.
Who’s going to be standing there at the end—And what is not even a question has no answer anyway. Any one specific explanation will do.
Copyright, Martin Jack Rosenblum.
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