Tunes from the devil, suite from Saville Row…
I suppose it’s an indication of my age that recently a few good friends have all independently of each other confided in me that they feel at a crossroads in their lives. This came as no surprise as I too have been feeling the same way recently. It seems the universe was showing me that I wasn’t alone. This blog is in fact part of that change; a way for me to explore my interest in Buddhism, and spiritual practise(s) in general and I’m also using it as a basis for a book I have started writing about happiness and a film project that will explore death as a visual meditation…so where were we….ahh yes standing at the Crossroads.
Now when someone talks about crossroads I immediately think of two things. The first is a character called Benny from a terrible British soap opera based depressingly in a Motel called the Crossroads Motel. Imaginative. Amazingly the show ran for over 20 years from 1964-1988! I don’t remember much about it at all (I wasn’t a fan) except for this character Benny who always wore a beenie hat whatever the weather (mainly raining). He was a likeable character always getting into trouble and being manipulated by others as he was slightly mentally retarded. (I have just checked this and according to Wikipedia the character was “a simple-minded bumbling semi-rustic handyman”). Well I thought the show may be dealing with cutting edge mental health issues but then I have never lived in Birmingham. Apparently the show did in fact deal with some story lines that were considered controversial for the times: A single parent working at the motel (hugely controversial in the mid-1960s); And the first paraplegic regular character in British soap opera, ever. So I’m not sure whether the Crossroads writing team were in fact tackling the important issue of mental health in UK’s road side businesses with the character of Benny or whether it’s just my imagination enhancing the experience of the character – either way, he was quite memorable.
The other thing I think of is Robert Johnson the legendary Blues musician. Johnson is widely considered to be the best blues musician who ever picked a guitar. Robert Johnson the “King of the Delta Blues”grew up dirt poor in Mississippi over 100 years ago. He left home and learned to play the guitar and sing the blues; an African-American in the deep South and all that meant… never had the sorrow and hardship of the world been transformed into such poetry never had a voice conveyed in such an accessible way the loneliness and suffering of an entire people. Not much detail is known about his life, as Martin Scorsese pointed out “he only existed on his records” and it’s perhaps because of this that one of the most enduring legends surrounding his story came into being; Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil at a crossroads for fame and the ability to play the blues.
According to legend, as a young man living on a plantation in rural Mississippi, “Robert Johnson was branded with a burning desire to become a great blues musician. He was “instructed” to take his guitar to a crossroad near Dockery Plantation at midnight. There he was met by a large black man (the Devil) who took the guitar and tuned it. The “Devil” played a few songs and then returned the guitar to Johnson, giving him mastery of the instrument. This was in effect, a deal with the devil mirroring the legend of Faust. In exchange for his soul, Robert Johnson was able to create the blues for which he became famous”…after the deal was done Johnson was apparently able to play the guitar like never before and like no-one else and simply plucked songs out of thin air. He also disappeared for about 18 months. According to Doktor Snake (a UK Voodoo Priest) during this time Johnson who was pretty shaken up by what he had done and took a passage to London in the hope that the devil wouldn’t find him there (!) This by the way, is apparently where he picked up his natty dress sense for which he was also famous.
I could talk more about Johnson because his life was so fascinating…about how he supposedly practised in a grave yard and how the devil may refer to the voodoo God, Papa Legba but you can find all this on Wikipedia if you want to. What is widely accepted is that without Johnson there would be no Rock and Roll. For me though what’s more interesting (apart from this) is the symbolism at work here…
So to me the crossroads really symbolise a time of profound change in life and the choices available, inevitably this comes with a healthy dose of fear; fear of the unknown and fear of making the wrong ‘choice’ (or of not being enough in Johnson’s case), if only we could be certain that our choice of path would lead to what we want and that there would be no unpleasant feelings or outcomes. The devil may let you have it (certainty) but only if your soul is his….by the way there are a number of versions of Johnson’s tragic death but what is known is that he was poisoned near the Three Forks juke joint outside Greenwold MS where he was playing….so called because of the crossroads (here we go again) it stood near and not the limitation of its cutlery drawer…apparently when they looked inside the suit on Johnson’s lifeless body, the good folk of Greenwold were all amazed to see the label “Saville Row”….
So the devil could be seen as the ego which needs to be fed and bargained with and offers the illusion of security and permanence and will perhaps get you what you want in the end but only at the cost of your soul…your own eternal and divine spirit.
Which way now?
The thing is in life the crossroads are really nothing but an illusion, or rather what is promised along each path is really only an illusion; It’s really only the intention that matters. In its simplest form, happiness is the attitude we travel with not the destination, therefore it should not matter which turn we take as it’s not a matter of right or wrong but rather of cause and effect. Nothing in life is certain or ‘promised’ even if it was what would the price paid have to be for this ‘knowledge’?
“Better it is to live one day seeing the rise and fall of things than to live a hundred years without ever seeing the rise and fall of things“.
SHAKYAMUNI BUDDHA – DHAMMAPADA
Johnson spent his whole life running from the devil in fear….in order to be truly happy we need to be able to move forward and accept the challenges and struggles we face and indeed turn them to our advantage somehow…for me that somehow is encapsulated in the Lotus Sutra. Without that faith in the mystic truth…a perception of the true aspect of all phenomena…I would really only have (like Johnson) a reliance on self-will and the doubt that brings and the fear of the devil.
This may make me a great musician but the as the saying goes “the devil will always get his due”.