Saturday, September 13, 2008

Hellhound Postscript: Blues Walkin' Like a Man

And so ends one version of the life of Robert Johnson--my 40-year-old script admired by many over the decades, but criticized by some too for sentimentality. (I'd say in defense that I tried to portray a flawed man rather than a myth.) At any rate, Hellhound is now on-line for anyone to examine and decide for him/herself.

Eventually there were other attempts: Alan Greenberg's too-surreal Love In Vain (which appeared as a book but was never filmed), and the silly Crossroads picture, and the Blaxploitation Leadbelly movie (which I egotistically thought might have "borrowed" some ideas from my widely circulating script), and the more recent Johnson docudramas--they all had ideas worth considering, but none of them attempted to create a whole world and a thoroughly imagined life.

I may not have nailed it, but I did struggle to do justice to one amazing Bluesman's poorly documented, Depression-era history, and be as culturally/socially/linguistically accurate as a white man writing a third of a century later might be.

Was Johnson's life tragic? Or was he merely heroic and skillful, pathetic and foolish in equal measure? The two or three known photos of him are finally as confusing as the recorded memories of other musicians and (supposed) friends concerning his musical prowess and his sad early death.

Only the great 29 songs (in 40-some existing takes) and the mystery remain.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

Hellhound 22: Hello, Satan


The place is filling up, not yet at capacity--black people out from town or in from their sharecrop farms for the Saturday night dance. Betty Mae and Ralph sit in tense silence at a table between the dance floor and the bar. Robert is on the small bandstand beside the crowded dance floor.

JOHNSON: I 'uz thinkin', peoples--gettin' sho' nuff hot an' funky in here. Time to slow on down... time for some blues.

A few voiced objections from the dancers, but most are ready for a drink and a rest; these head for the bar.

JOHNSON: Could use a drink m'self. What say, Ralph?


Curtis registers displeasure, but then waves his agreement. He gets up and heads over to the bar to help Charles with the drinks.


He grins gleefully at getting the boss to work for him. Now he heaps insult on injury with the song he proceeds to play.

JOHNSON: All right, brothers an' sisters. I wrote this li'l thing for a' ol' frien'...

The song is his gentle "Honeymoon Blues," with such lyrics as these:

Betty Mae, Betty Mae, you shall be my wife some day (repeat)
I wants a sweet girl that will do anythin' that I say.
Someday I will return with the marriage license in my hand (repeat)
I'm gonna' to take you for a honeymoon in some long, long distant land.

Robert's own glances make it quite clear to whom the song is dedicated.


Some stirring and amused whispering. A few people watch Betty Mae. Others look around for Ralph.


She doesn't know how to react--embarrassment, worry about her husband's reaction, pleasure at Johnson's words. She alternately stares down at the table and sneaks glances at the crowd of listeners.


Ralph is behind it serving some people. He seems to be ignoring the whole thing aside from a general tightening of his facial muscles and a sheen of perspiration. Charles glances at him curiously; Ralph becomes aware of this and stares his barman down. Charles turns away, busying himself with customers.


The music continues throughout. Curtis takes out a new bottle of whiskey and turns his back on his customers (and the camera), presumably opening the bottle, but doing something at the back shelf too. When he moves away, we can see the now-open can of Red Devil lye.


Ralph approaches the bandstand carrying the loosely corked bottle and a glass. Without looking at Johnson, he hands these to him, then returns to the table where his wife waits. We can't see his face, but something there makes Betty Mae drop her eyes.


As he pulls the cork and tosses it; he also puts the glass aside.

JOHNSON (patronizing tone): Why, thank ya, Ralph.

He takes a long pull from the bottle, then shudders at the taste.

JOHNSON: Brrr! Ralph, you keep servin' mule-kick like this, you gonn' rez-u-reck Pro'bition!


No sign from Ralph that he has heard this quip. Some laughter from the crowd as Johnson takes a small swallow, then sets the bottle at his feet and moves into his next song. Dissolve to:


Now half-empty. Johnson's feet shift awkwardly beside it.


He looks decidedly ill now, shifting about uncomfortably. He is sweating heavily.

JOHNSON: Folks, I'm feelin' some sickly. I'm gonn' get off here now...


Vocal opposition to this from the happy dancers looking up at him.

WOMAN: No, Robert! You cain't quit now!

FIRST MAN: You is in the alley!

SECOND MAN: We come all way out from town!

Betty Mae can be seen still seated in the background; she appears concerned. Curtis is talking to someone else.


Johnson shifts uncomfortably, but he accedes to the crowd's demand.

JOHNSON: All right, I stay... long's I kin...

He looks over at Betty Mae and Curtis, and watching them seems to decide what to play next--his touching and beautiful "Love in Vain":

I followed her to the station, with her suitcase in my hand (repeat)
Well, it's hard to tell, it's hard to tell, when all your love's in vain, all my love's in vain...
When the train lef' the station, she had two lights on behind (repeat)
Well, the blue light was my blues, and the red light was my mind...


Her reaction to this despairing love song.


Looking sicker and sicker as he struggles to get through this number. But he finally keels over, actually fainting.


He falls off the stool, knocking the bottle over, his guitar crashing down among the dancers. Consternation and concern from them.


Betty Mae leaps up, but Curtis grabs her arm and holds her back. Then he slowly gets up himself. He walks toward Johnson holding Betty Mae behind him and shouldering other people aside.

CURTIS: It's all right, folks. Prob'ly jus' too much to drink. I warned him 'bout that... Some o' y'all with a car tote him in to Greenwood. Pete? Thomas?


Johnson is half-conscious, writhing on the floor. The two large men Curtis designated lift Robert to his feet. Curtis lets go of his wife, gesturing to the other onlookers.

CURTIS: Cool down now! The boy be fine. Bar's still open, an' we get somebody up to play right quick.

The men half-walk, half-carry Johnson forward. He is more alert now, and as Curtis turns away, their eyes meet.


Sweat streaming down his face; his look is stony and slightly triumphant.


Pain twisting his features, he yet gives Curtis a searching look, then a slight nod and the ghost of a half-smile.


Now stomach cramps double Robert over, and the men half-carry him towards the door out. Betty Mae sounds a wordless moan and tries to move past Curtis, but he holds her back again; then both of them slowly follow along after the three men, walking out of the building.


Many people watch from the doorway of Ralph's Roadhouse as Johnson and the men move across the half-lit spaces outside. Curtis halts Betty Mae once more. Suddenly the most excruciating pains yet clutch at Johnson's insides; and like a puppet yanked aside, his reacting muscles tear him from the supporting arms and throw him onto the ground.

JOHNSON (groaning): Maee...

BETTY MAE (screaming back): Robert!

She tears herself free from Curtis and runs across to Johnson.


In low light, writhing in pain, Johnson is on his hands and knees; his head hangs down and his silhouette against the night seems some mockery of a four-legged animal. Betty Mae drops to her knees and tries to wrap her arms around him.

BETTY MAE: Oh Robert...

But Johnson has passed beyond awareness now. He moves free of her arms, crawling away from her, away from the light from the roadhouse. Betty Mae spins around, looking for Curtis.


Curtis is alone in the foreground, the watching people beyond him; even Curtis looks horrified now. Betty Mae runs to confront him, striking him about the head and chest with her flailing arms. He makes no move to stop her.

BETTY MAE: You did this! You! I wasn't gone with him! I wasn't!


Johnson's hands-and-knees shape moves terrifyingly in the darkness, moaning and groaning its guts out. The soundtrack picks up the highest moan and echoes it electronically, building on it, creating a whole cacophony of animal-like howls. Then the film and sound fade to black and silence.


A new wooden marker reads "ROBERT JOHNSON (1911-1938)." Hands drop a bouquet of wildflowers, as the zoom out reveals the donor, Betty Mae. Robert's grave lies in a small country graveyard. (Music plays throughout this Epilog, a reprise of Johnson's "Me and the Devil," the ending portion that says, "... bury my body down by the highway side... so my ol' evil spirit can get a Greyhoun' bus an' ride.")


Betty Mae turns away and walks across the graveyard to the low wooden fence; a suitcase awaits her outside it. She climbs over the rickety barrier and stops beside her suitcase at the edge of the highway. She is silent and dry-eyed.

Sounds of a large moving vehicle on the road; she looks up.


A Thirties-era Greyhound bus approaches; the destination sign above the windshield reads "CHICAGO." Betty Mae flags it down, and the bus stops.


Betty Mae boards, and the bus accelerates. Camera follows its departure, holding particularly on the greyhound emblem. Soon that symbol escapes, and the bus recedes up the highway, growing smaller and smaller in the Mississippi farmlands distance. Super roll CREDITS... and END.

Saturday, September 6, 2008

Hellhound 21: All My Love's in Vain


Now signs of the town of Greenwood are visible in the distance. Johnson sits in the shade of a tree, picking out a tune on his guitar and keeping a watchful eye on the roadhouse. When Betty Mae appears and walks hesitantly toward him, he stands up.

BETTY MAE: I cain't see you, Robert. It's not right. (mournfully) Why are you here?

JOHNSON: Baby, I had to see you--I got things to say. You gone back to town, ain'cha? I walk you there.

He picks up his suitcase and starts in the direction of Greenwood. Betty Mae stands still for a moment, torn two ways, then when Robert stops and motions to her, she reluctantly moves forward, still keeping her distance from him.


The camera move discovers Ralph's face, inside his roadhouse, watching their departure. Tight on his face then, we see he imagines the worst: Betty Mae's old love has returned to steal her away. He shows a mixture of anguish and anger.


Robert and Betty Mae walk along the highway heading to Greenville. They walk in silence at first. When they do talk, they avoid each other's eyes--when one turns, the other looks away.

JOHNSON: I need you. I ain' know till now jes' how much. (after a pause) I got to ramble, it's in me. I alluz thinkin' I could run alone or wid some buddy, an' fin' woman love whensoever I want, wherever... But that kin' ain' nothin'--no better'n wind in the trees an' dust in the road. You lonelier'n if you was alone.

Betty Mae is watching him now, but Robert stares resolutely off into the distance.

JOHNSON: Bad luck doggin' me ever'where I go... I know I have done evil--I kill one man, an' I hurt some peoples, you mos' of all I 'spect.

Now Betty Mae looks away, resisting her impulse to comfort him.


His face as he continues.

JOHNSON: I was angry, an' I give you up that way, when what I shoulda done, I shoulda hol' on tighter. Ain' been no whole man no day since--juicin' an' foolin' aroun'. (bitter laugh) I been near drownin' in that stuff.


Now he stops and faces her, pleading.

JOHNSON: But i ain't in that fast life now. No more, Mae. I come for you now--you what I been try'na fin' all these years.

Betty Mae has her hands over her ears.

BETTY MAE (wailing): Stop it, damn you, Robert! Stop...

She backs away from him before continuing.

BETTY MAE: I love you, Robert. I do. But it's too many years. I'm married now. You cain't jes' come here...


Robert is thoughtful as he resumes walking; Betty Mae falls in step beside him.

JOHNSON: I ain' come here t' take you off, Mae. Onlies' thing that's set, I be playin' at Ralph's t'night. Well, tha's my life, ain' it?

BETTY MAE: Ralph loves me strong, Robert. He's a decent man, a hard-workin' man. But he won't accept anythin' between you an' me. He's proud, an' he hol's onto what's his. I won't leave him. 'Specially now...

JOHNSON: I ain't aimin' to do no one else wrong. I ain' so greedy, Mae, no more. I been playin' these blues long enough--I reckon I kin live 'em a mite longer.

Now Betty Mae grabs his arm, stops, and turns him toward her.


She is almost in tears.

BETTY MAE: It's forever, baby. I been tryin' to tell you--I got Ralph's child in me now.


His reaction: stunned amazement, followed by disappointment, and then somehow a visible acceptance. He nods, chuckles, and slowly walks on.

JOHNSON: Well, well... he's a lucky man. (quietly, almost an incantation) God bless the chile.

Now he takes Betty Mae's hand in his; she allows it now.

JOHNSON (smiling cheerfully): That's all right, mama. Nothin' bad between us. (singing a bit ridiculously) Got a house full o' chil'ren, ain' ne'er one mine...

He winks at Betty Mae, and she laughs in pleased relief. Then, hand in hand, more like old friends than ex-lovers, the two of them amble on down the highway towards Greenwood.

Wednesday, September 3, 2008

Hellhound 20: Someday I Will Return


This crossing of roads (outside Greenwood, Mississippi) looks very much like the one from Johnson's earlier nightmare, though he does not appear to notice. An ancient rattletrap Ford truck wheezes to a halt, and Robert dismounts from the passenger seat, nodding his thanks to the black driver.

JOHNSON: Thank ya.


As Johnson reaches into the truck for his guitar and suitcase, the driver leans over.

DRIVER: Curtis place up the way there. (winks) Good times tonight an' ev'ry Sat'dy night!

Then he waves and sputters off in the Ford. Johnson turns to survey the surrounding countryside.


Robert's view of his surroundings: two distant farmhouses, early-spring green fields of cotton, some other plantings as well. And up the road, two hundred yards or so, set well back with its own long dirt-road entry, a large wooden structure almost like an overgrown shed--Ralph Curtis's dancehall/tavern, with proud sign "RALPH'S ROADHOUSE."


He sets out walking towards the building.


Inside, it is somewhat less impressive, though rather large--a battered bar and tables in one half and a large dance floor beyond. Ralph himself is sweeping the fance area, while his assistant Charles stands behind the bar, cleaning sink and drain; a can of "RED DEVIL" lye waits on the bartop near him.

Johnson enters from outside and saunters over to Charles.

JOHNSON: Ralph Curtis?

CHARLES (waving toward the back): 'At's him yonder.

Robert deposits his suitcase by the bar and, guitar in hand, heads for Curtis.


Ralph--Betty Mae's husband--is stocky and stolid, a perennially suspicious, easily perspiring member of the incipient Negro middle class. He looks at Johnson impassively as the bluesman near him.

CURTIS: Yeah? What?

JOHNSON (showing guitar): I play--breakdowns, blues, you name it. Need a job.

CURTIS: This ain' no dime juke or two-bit crib. If you can cut it, could be we use ya.


Johnson runs through a few dazzling runs on guitar and plays the opening to "Preachin' Blues" (heard early in the film). Curtis holds up his hand.

CURTIS: So you got that part down. The rest of it is, we open Satiddy only, you stay sober and play onta dawn on a right night. Two dollars, more if you draw folks good. Well?

JOHNSON: Better'n choppin'.

CURTIS (dismissively): Right. Be here come nine... what's you' name anyway?

Robert is already walking away. He turns back with a half-smile.

JOHNSON: Johnson. Calls me "Blues Boy Bob."


Johnson picks up his suitcase as he walks by.

JOHNSON (to Charles): So long.

Then he heads on out the door. Curtis has trailed him over to the bar.

CHARLES: Who 'zat? Look some familiar.

CURTIS: Say his name Bob Johnson.

CHARLES (thinking while he cleans mugs): Bob Johnson... Johnson... Well, sho'... 'At's Robert Johnson, from up Rob'sonville way. You heard 'is records, ain'cha? Real woman-poison too, folks say.

Curtis is already frowning and staring after Johnson.


Which shows Robert making his way down the road, Betty Mae coming towards him. She doesn't recognize him at first, but then stops in astonishment. The two ex-lovers approach each other slowly. Their initial words are not heard, as Charles continues speaking voiceover:

CHARLES' VOICE: Oh, yes, he pick 'em up an' drop 'em down. Say, Ralph, ain't you' wife come from up there?


As Curtis strides over to the screen door and yanks it open.

CURTIS (back to Charles): Shut you' mouf.


As Curtis emerges and bellows out...

CURTIS: Betty Mae!


Now the couple is in the foreground and Curtis distant in background, gesturing from the door.

JOHNSON: ... to fin' you, Mae.

Betty Mae waves reassuringly at her husband.

BETTY MAE: I never tol' him, but...

JOHNSON: I be wait out at the crossroads. We got t' talk.

Betty Mae hurries off towards Curtis, but she looks back at Johnson, very much troubled by this encounter. He turns and saunters off.


As Betty Mae approaches her fuming husband.

CURTIS: What 'uz he sayin' at you?

BETTY MAE (not meeting his eyes as she passes): Nothing. He wanted a place in town to stay at. Why, who is he anyway?

She hurries on into the roadhouse. Curtis looks stricken by this casual lie, then somehow both angry and despairing, watching Johnson recede into the distance.

Saturday, August 30, 2008

Hellhound 19: See That Lonesome Road


This is an East Texas "piney woods" logging camp with sawmill, board shacks, and an off-shift barrelhouse tavern right on site too; its flimsy sign has a handwritten "MUD'S." Both sawmill and barrelhouse are going full-tilt as Johnson wanders into camp, carrying his suitcase and the replacement guitar strapped across his back. He passes the working area with scarcely a sideways glance, arrives at Mud's just in time to stop, allowing two men, the one helping his drunk cohort, to stumble out from inside.

DRUNK (to Johnson): Good evenin', brother!

Robert looks up at the dawn sky, then grins and answers:

JOHNSON: Evenin' to you.

He walks on inside.


One long room filled with off-shift workers--a narrow bar, a few tables, a smoke-filled atmosphere, and a battered upright piano stuck off in one corner. An old juke joint/barrelhouse pianist named Henry sits noodling riffs and runs just about as tired as the workers all around the room. Robert skirts the bar and goes over to the piano.


Johnson sets his suitcase and guitar down, which attracts Henry's attention; he turns his head to the sound, revealing dark glasses and blind eyes. And he begins playing a more complete tune, some slow blues number.

HENRY: Who that?

JOHNSON (leaning on the piano): A weary man.

HENRY (playing throughout their talk): New man too, I'd say. The voice...

JOHNSON: Uh-huh. (about the music) Tha's nice 'n' peaceful.

HENRY: Slow drag for the end o' things. You play?

JOHNSON (looking over at the guitar): Gittar. Some harp when I 'uz a kid.

HENRY: That so? What'd you' name be?

JOHNSON: Robert Johnson.

Henry stops playing long enough to hold out his right hand.

HENRY: Henry Perkins. Calls me "Blin' Boy."

They shake hands and then he resumes the music.

HENRY: Seem like I hear talk of Robert Johnson. You him?

JOHNSON (shrugs): Depen's what you hear.

HENRY (smiles): Bad blues gittar, folks say.

JOHNSON: I get on.

Henry lifts one hand to reach for his beer mug atop the piano, finds it empty.

HENRY: Mebbe we try some piano-an'-gittar after 'while.

JOHNSON: Don' min'.


Henry turns to call across to the bartender.

HENRY: Hey, Mud. Two short'uns.

Robert walks over to pick up the two mugs. The room has gradually begun emptying out as the next camp shift makes ready to start. He returns with the beers, pulls up a chair, and sits down next to Henry. He sips from his mug, but Henry takes a deep draught, then sets his aside and resumes playing.

HENRY: Well, Robert Johnson, where be you boun'?


Robert shrugs silently, then realizes Henry can't see that motion.

JOHNSON: Wherever. Somewheres better than I been, hope to God.

HENRY (slaps his knee): Ain' that th' trufe! But you ain' soun' near old 'nuff to talk it.

JOHNSON (bitterly): How ol' you got t' be to be dead?

Henry absorbs this silently, segueing into another blues number; the talk ceases for a moment.

HENRY: Some better up North, folks say. Seem like they's movin' up there, anyway--Indiana, Chicago, an' such like.

Johnson absorbs this in silence, shaking his head gloomily.

HENRY: Yessir, that's black man's future, folks say. Mebbe I oughta roll on up that river myself.

JOHNSON (intensely): Blin' Boy, it ain't. I been there.


As he turns and answers Robert just as intently.

HENRY: Son, I be fo'ty-nine year old, near's I kin tell. Live my whole life in Arkansaw, Loo-zana, Eas' Texas--these ol' piney camps. It's damn got t' be better!


Johnson shakes his head but says nothing. He finishes his beer, and Henry resumes playing. Then:

JOHNSON: No better, jes' diff'runt.

Henry plays silently, lost in the music for a moment.

HENRY: Yeah, I 'speck you right. Hell, if'n I found it, I ain' know whut t' do wid it anyways.

Another silence as they both mull things over. Then the 6 a.m. steam whistle sounds loudly from outside; Robert is startled a bit, but Henry pays no attention.

HENRY: You hear 'bout Bessie?

JOHNSON: Hear what?

HENRY: She done pass on, coupla weeks back. Auto-mobile crash, over t' Mis'sip' or Alabam. Bled on out, folk say, try'na get inta the white man hospital.

JOHNSON (clearly shaken): God-dam, Blin' Boy. Bessie Smith cain't be gone like that.

HENRY: Well, she is. "Queen o' the Blues"? Don' make no nevermin's, it's the road we all gone down, fast or slow. (sings a line from a Smith record) "See that lonesome road, Lawd, it got to end..."


Now the midnight-shift workers begin streaming in, their first noisy stop the bar. Then they spread out heading for tables or the small open space meant for dancing.


Robert and Henry have to talk loudly now to hear each other.

HENRY: Know what the answer is, Robert? Get'cha a good woman. Not no bottle--Lord knows, not these blues lines. Jes' a sof' sweet gal ta hol' onta.

JOHNSON (doubtful): I don' know...

HENRY: I'm tellin' ya, ain't I? You ever have a gal like that?


Several of the new arrivals are ready to whoop it up now.

FIRST MAN: C'mon, Blin' Boy, put me in the dozens!

SECOND MAN: Kick 'em on down!

A third man is in the dance space, all set to step out.

THIRD MAN: I got to be movin', son--where you' Ma Grinder at?

Henry waves one hand in response.

HENRY: Comin' at ya.

Then he bangs into a high-spirited, gutbucket piano stomp.


Robert leans into make himself heard.

JOHNSON: One like that a long time ago, but she took up wid somebody else.

HENRY: Well, you young, ain'cha? Git 'er on back.

Now Henry really gets into the number, swaying and rocking on his piano stool.


The workers are whooping and hollering too, some of them leaping and dancing, beer mugs right in their hands. Johnson looks lost in thought.

HENRY (shouting): Yessir, that's the ticket! One good gal!


He finally accepts the notion, makes up his mind, nods his head, and speaks aloud but to himself.

JOHNSON: All right, I will then...

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Hellhound 18: Me an' the Devil

((The fifth section begins here--the last act in this extended look at the harsh life of a Thirties bluesman. We begin, still in Dallas...))


This is the unused office which the record company ARC has converted for its schedule of "field" recording in Dallas. Two white women are seated on a moth-eaten couch talking listlessly. The sound of string band music comes from within the closed recording portion. Johnson enters, dressed in clean clothes. He is cold sober and now, unexpectedly on the morning after the previous scene, a stronger, more confident man, even quietly dignified. The women look at him with some distaste or dismissal, but he ignores them, standing quietly off to one side.


The closed recording room door opens, and Dawson escorts out the four-man string band in their Western clothing. The women rise to stand with their men.

DAWSON: Thanks, boys. A fine session. I think we'll all do well...

The players insist on each man shaking Dawson's hand as a goodbye. Then all exit, passing now on both sides of Johnson and giving him the onceover. Dawson nods at him coolly.

DAWSON: Well, Johnson, you ready now to work? I got you a replacement guitar.

The bluesman walks over to him, subdued and somehow a different man.

JOHNSON: Yes. I am.

Dawson looks at him in surprise. The change really is apparent. Guitar music begins on the track...


The set-up is different this time. Johnson at the mic is separated from Harry the engineer and Dawson by a glass office partition. They work the equipment and watch as he finishes his outspoken sexual blues called "Traveling Riverside":

Now you can squeeze my lemon till the juice run down my leg
Till the juice run down my leg, baby...
(spoken) You know what I'm talkin' about...
(and so on, to the end)

The song finishes, and Johnson relaxes in his chair, not bothering to turn and look at the white men.


Dawson speaks via the rigged-up intercom.

DAWSON: Whew! I said sexy, Robert--not pornographic. What do you call that, anyway?

HARRY (muttering again, but audible): Most disgusting thing I ever heard. Animals, that's what they are...


Now he turns to stare at the engineer through the glass. His answer is cold and proud.

JOHNSON: Call it "Mammyjammer Blues." In honor to you' frien' there.


Harry half-rises, not quite sure whether to be angry or "honored."

HARRY: What's that supposed to mean?

DAWSON: Shut up, Harry. You brought it on yourself.


As he points at Harry.

JOHNSON: If you is got any mo' discs, Miste' Engineer, I got two mo' songs...


Dawson signals his okay, proceed.

DAWSON: We're fine. Go ahead when you're ready.

Robert turns back to the mic, adjusts the bottleneck on his finger, and mutters to himself.

JOHNSON: Try this one on, white folks...

Then he plays/sings the haunted and paranoid (or guilty) blues--the film's title song--"Hellhound on My Trail," the awkward beginnings of which we saw early in the film.

I got to keep movin', got to keep movin', blues fallin' down like hail, blues fallin' down like hail,
Umm, blues fallin' down like hail, blues fallin' down like hail,
An' the day keeps on 'mindin' me there's a hellhound on my trail, hellhound on my trail, hellhound on my trail...

Etc. The song plays through completely, the camera watching Johnson from a variety of angles, but always medium shots; intercut with these are the folllowing inserts:


The engineer is listening intently, but mechanically, doing his sound job, frowning.


The producer is surprised by the intensity of this song and performance.


He turns to fiddle with various knobs, adjusting the recording levels.


He has risen to his feet, unconsciously holding his breath, at pains to keep silent and not disturb the moment.


As he finishes in a final burst of of guitar notes. Dawson is visible, standing beyond the partition. Johnson turns to signal something as Dawson speaks.

DAWSON: Good God, man! Where did...

JOHNSON (interrupting): Keep rollin' it--I got 'nother one...

He turns back to the mic and launches immediately into his most chilling and evil blues of all, "Me and the Devil," all anger and despair:

Early this mornin' when you knocked upon my door (repeat)
I said, "Hello, Satan, I b'lieve it's time to go."
Me an' the devil was walkin' side by side
I'm goin' to beat my woman till I get satisfied...
You may bury my body down by the highway side

(spoken interjection:) Babe, I don' care where you bury my body when I'm dead an' gone
So my ol' evil spirit can get a Greyhoun' bus and ride

This time the camera concentrates on Johnson only--moving fluidly all around him, in tight on his face, tight on his hands on the guitar, angled down on his body and the mic (from above), etc. The bluesman's face shows all the intensity and searing pain of the song (and of his soul). Dawson can be seen in the background once or twice, pressed against the glass, intent and staring. By the last verse, tears are streaming down from Johnson's eyes as he looks deep into the abyss of his erratic life. He ends, slumped over, head bowed over the mic.


All are momentarily frozen, unwilling to break the silence. Then the engineer's voice sounds over the intercom.

HARRY: Goddam cylinders... useless as this nigger music...

Dawson turns to glare at Harry silently. Robert brushes the tears from his cheeks, then rises.


Johnson turns to face the control booth.

JOHNSON: Gimme my money, boss--time to shake the Dallas dust off'n my shoes...

Saturday, August 23, 2008

Hellhound 17: In the Midnight Hour


As Johnson's limp body tumbles to the floor in a heap. His face is puffed and bruised; he moves like his body is too. From the doorway the fat cop tosses Johnson's broken, strings-dangling guitar in after him.

FAT COP: Play yourself some blues--that's what you call 'em, ain't it, black boy? Oh yeah, I dipped my wick in that ink a time or two. Haw, haw, haw!


Wincing with pain, Johnson struggles up onto the bunk, clutching his busted guitar. He looks at it, then hurls it away in disgust--causing himself further pain. He groans loudly, then lies there staring at the darkness.


The fat cop pulls the door open; he is angry.

FAT COP: On your feet, black boy. You lucked out.

Dawson appears behind him.

DAWSON: Robert? You all right?


As Johnson rises from the bunk, still wincing, but putting on a strut.

JOHNSON: Doin' some better now, Miste' Dawson.

He saunters past the fat cop and thrusts the broken guitar into his hands.

JOHNSON: Here go, boss--play you'-self some blues.


Dawson and Johnson emerge and descend the steps to climb into the auto Dawson and Harry are using. Harry has the motor idling; Dawson helps the slow-moving bluesman into the back seat, and he climbs in the front passenger spot. The car speeds off.


Dawson twists around to talk with Johnson while Harry drives.

DAWSON: Good Lord, man, what happened to you?

Johnson shrugs, then flinches from the pain.

JOHNSON: Pool hall fight. An' then I done what the po-lice call re-sistin' arrest.

DAWSON: You mean the cops did that to you? But it was a policeman that called me...

JOHNSON: Jes' one of 'em work on me... (exhibiting torn sleeve and tooth marks) him an' his dog. Smash my gittar too.

HARRY (under his breath): Thank God for small favors...

DAWSON: Shut up, Harry. (to Johnson) No problem, we'll find you something--and deduct it from your wages, of course. (shakes his head) Incredible... How could such brutality be allowed to go on?

Robert laughs aloud at that naive remark.

JOHNSON: You sho' ain't black.


The car stops and Johnson climbs painfully out. Dawson leans out his window to say a few more words.

DAWSON: Stay put this time, Robert, okay? You got everything you need now? Money enough?

JOHNSON: Axe the Dallas po-lice. They got mine.

Dawson digs deep and comes up with a handful of change.

DAWSON: Here's forty-five cents for a meal. Don't blow it on booze, please?

JOHNSON (with a tired grin): Don' need ta--whiskey'n my room already.

Then he painfully mounts the stairs to his clapboard hotel.


Johnson is talking into the wall telephone. His bruised face has been tended to and he is smiling at something camera does not see. He also looks drunk again.

JOHNSON: Miste' Dawson?


Dawson has just picked up his room phone; he is in his underwear, hair touseled, looking half-asleep.

DAWSON: Robert? What the hell's the matter now? (looks at his watch) What do you mean, you're lonesome?


Now we see the object of Johnson's attention--a smiling sexy woman who hands him a glass of whiskey and runs her fingernails down his cheek.

JOHNSON (slurring): I'm lonesome an' they's a gal here. She wants fi'ty cents an' I lacks a nickel...

Clearly over the telephone connection comes the sound of an outraged shout and a receiver slammed down (Dawson reacting at his end). Johnson flinches at the ear shock, then shrugs and hangs up.

JOHNSON: Well, mama, look like you gonn' has t' choose 'tween me an' a fi'-cent-piece.

She looks him over, then answers with her own shrug. She takes his arm, and the two of them head for his room, Johnson weaving a bit.


Shabby furnishings as ever; bare lightbulb illumination from overhead. Johnson sits at a small table, pouring himself another drink; he is bare-chested. The woman frets on the bed in her bra and panties.

WOMAN: Come on, daddy. Leave off that bottle.

Johnson mumbles something stupidly, lifting the glass to peer up through it at the lightbulb.

WOMAN (wheedling): I be good to ya, honest...

She rubs her pubic area but Johnson is paying no attention.

WOMAN (angry now): Shit, you ain't want a woman--all's you need 's a whiskey-tit.

With that, she bounces up off the bed and over to the table. She grabs up the bottle, and when Johnson stupidly turns to look for it, she yanks her bra down and pours a few drops on each nipple, rubbing the alcohol into her flesh. Then she smiles seductively and falls back on the bed, holding the bottle on her belly.

WOMAN: Here ya go, bottle baby...


Johnson lumbers drunkenly to his feet and over to the bed, where he tries to grab the bottle back. But she resists him, and finally he simply hits out at her with his arm and hand, harder than he realizes, knocking her off the bed. Her head strikes a corner of the bedstand, and she goes limp. Johnson looks around for her stupidly, then sees her on the floor. He tumbles off beside her.

JOHNSON (dazed): Mae, honey, i ain' mean t' knock you down...


As seen early in the film when Johnson inadvertently knocked her to the floor.


Johnson awkwardly lifts the woman's head, and his hand comes away with a small smear of blood. He stares at this stupidly for a moment, then reacts with a terrible groan, scuttling backward, letting her head fall to the floor again.


As seen in the death scene, Louise bloody and dead in the hotel room.


Johnson lunges away from the woman, gagging and retching, and half-crawls, half-runs to the room door, yanking it open and stumbling out into the hall.


Johnson staggers away from the room and near the wall telephone falls to his knees once more, vomiting up all the cheap whiskey and bad memories.


The back of his lowered head as he continues to gag and gasp and choke. Finally, the heaving subsides, and he crawls off to another spot where he hunches against the wall, staring blankly.


After a moment, sounds from the hotel room bring him back to awareness. In agony but also relieved, he gets up and staggers back to the doorway. Framed across the room he sees the woman pulling on her dress and dabbing at her head with a handkerchief.


At the sight of Johnson, she lets out a shriek of anger and charges at him. But she stops short, merely holding up her purse threateningly.

WOMAN: Where's my money, motherfucker?

JOHNSON: I... I'm sorry...

He reaches out to her, but she knocks his hands away.

WOMAN: Keep you' monkey paws offa me! Jus' gimme my fifty cents 'fore I calls my mack down on you!

Johnson reaches into his pants pocket and hands her the coins.

JOHNSON: Fo'ty-five cents is all...

She snatches it from him, counts it, then glares at him in anger, wounded dignity, and residual pain. Then she flings the coins in his face.

WOMAN: Keep it, you damn jackass-balls no-good! Your money ain't good enuff!

Then she slams him out of the way with her purse and strides from the room.


He rubs his face where the coins stung, staring after her. Then he wearily turns away.


Johnson stumbles over to the table and collapses into the chair. He looks all the way down--drained, exhausted, sober finally, lost in depression and his memories of other days...


From the scene of Robert's triumphant return to Son and Willie.


His typical charming self, executing a bow.


As she was when first seen, sultry and sexy and fiery.


Tears well up in his eyes and begin to trail down his cheeks. He rubs his neck where the lucky bag once was, then slowly lowers his head onto his arms crossed on the table top. He doesn't move again.

((END OF SECTION 4--of my failings in this script, Johnson's "dark night of the soul" is probably the most overwritten and romantically cliched; chalk it up to a fledgling screenwriter in his 20's trying to write stuff that might somehow seem tragic and mythic. At any rate, Section 5 rises above all this pathos. Stay tuned...))