Bound-for-Bangkok Blues

A Letter from New York

June 28, 1992|By RAFAEL ALVAREZ

When you go out-of-town to say farewell to a friend who is moving half-way around the world, you have to fill the space between hello and goodbye.

There are always blues enough for any hole.

Allie Scott is going away, Bangkok-bound, and Johnny Shines is a long time gone, dead at 76 in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, this spring.

When does it end?

When they throw the dirt over you.

Maybe not even then.

(Not even then).

Alwyn C. Scott is a 29-year-old short-story writer and newspaperman working for the Associated Press on Wall Street, soon to be dispatched to Thailand to write about the rise and fall of numbers and the things people trade for money.

He has been my friend since 1989, when he spent a Baltimore summer chasing cops and robbers for The Sun. He has since become an intimate of the Traveling Literary Dinner Party, a loose group of word butchers who meet monthly between Greenwich Village and Fort McHenry to eat and tell stories.

Bangkok, Allie tells me, is home to at least two blues clubs.

Johnny Shines probably played one of them.

Shines, who followed the great Willie Dixon to the grave by three months, was yet another of the last of the old-time Mississippi Delta blues singers.

In 1982 he said: "Blues is like death. Blues is when you are lost. Blues is when you are depressed but don't know why. . . ."

In New York, where men walk down the streets carrying tables upside down on their heads and vacuum cleaners draped

around their necks, Allie and I desired to shake our blues by standing in the arc of their glow.

The blue lights don't burn much brighter than this: Albert King, Robert Junior Lockwood, and John Hammond in concert at the ornate and bejeweled Brooklyn Academy of Music on Albert's 68th birthday, the ghost of Johnny Shines moving through the mix.

A week before the Los Angeles riots, Albert King sat on a little cot backstage of the old opera house in Brooklyn to reflect on 40 years of touring "around the United States 17 times, east, west, north and south as far as you can go."

From this experience he has concluded that the country that made a show-biz star out of an Arkansas cotton picker is going down the toilet.

"It's right before your eyes, you can't say anything else," says Mr. King, who goes into the public schools now and then to talk to kids. "Don't nobody want to work now. I see it all the time, I see it every day, this country is going down when all the youngsters are going for making money the easy way. When I was 15 years old I was working in the cotton fields, but today the penitentiaries are full and ain't got enough policemen in the world to stop the crime."

Mr. King's rows of gold-capped teeth were clamped down on the stem of a large brown pipe and he wore a sober black suit over a starched white shirt, diamonds on most of his fingers, diamonds circling his wristwatch and a cluster of diamonds hanging from a gold chain around his neck.

After we talked about America -- and how Albert played drums on the early Elmore James records -- we talked about Elvis.

Earlier in the afternoon Allie and I had met an elderly gentlemen playing "Are You Lonesome Tonight" on a clarinet for loose change on a subway car rumbling under the land of Manhattoes belted round by wharves, a man with wisps of white hair flying out from under his cap.

Taking the clarinet from his lips, the man said: "Elvis isn't dead. Shucks, the King lives on. I tell ya, he had talent, man."

Albert King seems to think so.

While rooting around for his music at Smash Records on St. Marks Place, I found a copy of "Blues for Elvis: King does the King's Things," released last year on the Stax label.

Albert's voice, weak alongside most blues singers and milk-water thin compared to the thick tar of a voice Johnny Shines took with him, shrinks on songs the world associates with Elvis.

But Presley's music would have been doubly-blessed if Albert King's Flying V guitar had made a few passes over the Elvis catalog.

"Elvis and I and Rufus Thomas was friends way back in Memphis, you know what I mean, in the Fifties. He developed into a pretty good singer after awhile," said Albert. "All of his songs I didn't like, but some I really liked."

It surprised me to find out that Albert King had hung out with Elvis Presley but did not know, or know much of, Johnny Shines.

Robert Junior Lockwood, however, was a childhood friend in the Delta and was scheduled to be one of Shines' pallbearers except that he was on the road at the time and had to send regrets to the widow.

Mr. Lockwood and Johnny Shines, who recorded together for the Rounder label in the 1980s, carried the blessing and burden of being the last living blues links to the fabled Robert Johnson; blessed with what they learned from the mysterious hellhound and burdened with a million questions from people like me about what those times were like.

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