GOIN’ DOWN SLOW
Saturday night, there’s always a woman in a red dress. Looking over at me when my hands are down—harp in one hand, mike in the other.
I drop my hands when Big G takes a keyboard solo. Most people, their eyes go to the man with the front music. Junior does vocals, Melvin plays slide—they get most of the looks. They both play the crowd too, working them.
But when I solo, I get lost. My eyes are always closed. It’s not a stage thing—that’s the way it happens. So, if a woman’s looking at me when I don’t have my harp up and running, I know why. But if the woman’s there with a man, I know better than to look back. Woman like that, the red dress is a signal. She’s a fire-starter. In the joints we play, it’d most likely be a knife, but a pistol’s always a possibility.
And even if her man walks off, you can’t be sure he won’t be back. Slick and quiet. And maybe your next drink will be the same kind that sent Robert Johnson off to pay that debt he ran up at the Crossroads.
But if that red dress is full of juice and there’s no man next to it, that’s another signal. And it ain’t “Stop!”
You have to play hard in these joints. I don’t mean loud—noise won’t get it. Hard enough, maybe that’s closer to it. Sometimes we get to play big places. Even a stadium once, behind a band with a label deal and all that. In big places, you don’t have to play hard. The people in the crowd make most of the sound themselves any- way. But in the clubs, you better bring it. Or they’ll take you right off the stage.
That’s the way I started. Tuesday nights at the Ice Pick. The house band opens up, one slot at a time, the way a flower opens, petal by petal. That’s to see if anyone wants to sit in. Like, the slide man, he’ll make a gesture, then take a seat off to the side. And anyone who thinks he can make steel sing, well, he can just step up and try and take the man’s place for that piece of time. It was a long time before I was ready. Longer than I thought, actually. ’Cause, the first two times, I didn’t make it. It wasn’t like the people booed me or nothing. They don’t do that. What they do is . . . they talk. To themselves, I mean. Just go back to their con- versations like they’re in an elevator.
They do that, you’re done.
The third time was the charm, like the people say. I just filled in behind at first. Then I put in a few figures. And when the leader stepped off and pointed at me, I made the crowd quiet right down. Most harp men, they can juke you to death, but they can’t go slow. The great ones—Jimmy Cotton, Butterfield, Mussel- white—they can go either way, of course. Sonny Boy, Little Wal- ter—they could go wherever they wanted. I always modeled myself after Blind Owl Wilson. I must have listened to him on “Goin’ Down Slow” a million times. I wanted to make people feel what I felt when I heard him. And that night, I got it right, bending the notes over slow and soft . . . clean, not cheating off the feedback from the mike.
After that, I sat in a lot with different bands until Junior picked me for permanent. I’ve been traveling with them ever since.
I can’t read music, but I can hear it perfect. I told Honeyboy, and he said it was okay—he said he wouldn’t trust no preacher that had to read his sermon from a script.
I’ll never be the king of anything. My ambition is to be one of the thousand great harp men. Not to be in no arguments, just to be. Like the blues. That’s one of the first things Honeyboy told me. “The blues is always going to be here. Like a convict run off from a chain gang who the Man never find. Oh, he have to lay low some- time—disco made the blues lay real low for a while back—but he always going be around. Always be running, though. Never be on top for long, but never be gone neither. Remember that part, son—never be on top to stay. Lotsa white boys, they made that mistake. The ones who come up in the late sixties—it was good then. College kids loved it. Record deals for everyone. Stadiums, TV, everything. Then the sheriff called to the hounds, and the blues had to get back in the woods. Those white boys, the ones who expected it to last forever, they stayed out in the open—and they got cut down. So what you got to remember is this one rule: They can’t hang you while you running.”
I never forgot that. But I don’t know what to do now. It was a Saturday night. It was a woman in a red dress. It was a man I didn’t know she had.
A young man. A white man. A rich man’s son who crossed the tracks one too many times.
Now he’s in the ground and I’m on the run.
I’ll be all right if I don’t go back to the clubs. I’m nobody . . . as long as I don’t pick up my harp again.
I wonder how long I can go without.
I wonder how long I can go.
© 1999 Andrew Vachss. All rights reserved.
This story appears in Everybody Pays by Andrew Vachss.
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