As the bellows trundle back and forth something deep within gives a muffled squeak. The inappropriately named Mexican orderly, Angel, says he’ll get an engineer to fix it. But I don’t mind – it’s reassuring, the noise reminding me that the device is doing its job – the filling and emptying of my lifeless lungs.
Angel tells me that the iron lung breathed for its previous occupant, one of the last of the Polio victims, for 40 years straight. He expects me to take comfort in this antique’s steadfast operation, but the flipside is that surely whoever it was also died in it, and it already resembles a coffin too closely for my liking. People walking past my door do a double take at the sight of it, and stop and stare. One middle-aged daughter uses it to chide her wheelchair-bound mother, pointing at the monstrous museum piece, warning of the dangers of a continued nicotine habit. But my seven coffin nails did not have filter tips, they had copper jackets.
Besides deflating my lungs like burst balloons, one of these – intended for my skull perhaps – shattered my jaw in five places, rendering speech, and positive ventilation, impossible. And so here I lie; a miracle of survival, waiting for an organ donor to bequeath his lungs, waiting for an album to go platinum to make sure I am first in line to receive them.
Angel, not put off by the fact that my jaw is wired together, asks me what I do – or rather, what I did. I type my reply, watching the small TV screen that shows my fingers hovering over the keyboard – there is no other way to see what my disembodied limbs within the steel frame are doing. I tell him I was a music producer. He glances around the tastefully decorated private room and excitedly asks if I produced anyone famous, eager for the reflected glory that looking after a big-shot might bring. I tell him – Johnny B Halkin – and he looks disappointed. I type – “The dude on death row?” and his smile returns. “Ah! I hear ‘bout him. Hear ‘bout him lots. Next Monday, yeah?”
I give him a small nod.
The orderly pauses in the doorway. “What does the B stand for?” he asks. But he’s too far away from the screen to see, so I don’t bother typing a reply. I merely raise my eyebrows, a shrug without the shoulders.
There are many things I changed about Johnny; his name is probably the least interesting of them. Without me, he wouldn’t have been a blues player at all. I still don’t know why he came to me, maybe mine was the first sign he saw. And I doubt he read past the top two lines: James MacCracken, Music Producer and Agent. He certainly didn’t read the name of the studio, “Blues all the Way”, because he sat there, twanging his cheap guitar, singing some frothy country pop.
As he strummed the final chord, a goofy grin on his face, like a dog that’d just done a good trick and was expecting a prize, I thought, do I throw the kid a bone?
I handed him my Gibson. “Slow it down some. Sing it as a song about happiness long gone, a song of bitter remembrance. And try a slide or two.”
He frowned. “Gee, Mr MacCracken,” – I kid you not – he said it just like that. “Gee Mr MacCracken, I’d rather play my own guitar.”
I patted the old maple wood body. “This here is the best blues guitar in the world, the favoured instrument of both Chuck Berry and BB King. If the devil meets you at the crossroads and offers a trade, and it isn’t one of these, he ain’t playing straight. This one belonged to Duanne Allman himself. John Lee Hooker once picked it up, struck a few chords, and declared it admirable. So I guess it might be good enough for you.”
His face was a blank – he hadn’t recognised a single name I’d said, and I’d just name-checked four of the greatest blues guitarists of all time. I came this close to giving up on the rube. He shrugged and plucked each string in turn, and then began to play.
Well. I don’t know what you’d call it, but it wasn’t the blues and it wasn’t all that much better than the first time. He struggled to play at the slower tempo, he sure as hell didn’t know how to slide, and still he wore that goofy grin.
I was just about done for the day, so I told him if he didn’t mind waiting around a half hour, I’d buy him a drink and offer him some free advice. He didn’t mind, and wandered around the studio looking at the signed portraits and framed gig posters.
To be honest, I was all ready to give him the gentle brush-off. To tell him his music, competent though it was, wasn’t going to create any waves in this city, suggest he got a proper job, or went home, or whatever his plan B was. But before I even had the chance, he started on his life story. He told me about the little town he grew up in, the eleventh birthday gift of a guitar, but mainly about his childhood sweetheart, Mary.
It was her who’d packed him off to the big city to make or break it as a musician. The deal was, if he made it, then she’d join him, if not, then he’d go home, work on her folks’ farm. “No Regrets” was their motto, and either way, they’d be back together in six months time, married in nine, and boy did he smile when he told me that.
That was when it all fell into place. This dumb ox of a farm boy, his life was a straight and narrow road stretching into a rosy future. Even him being there with me in this seedy little bar, at three in the afternoon, was just an exciting adventure, something to tell the kids when they were big enough to sit on his knee, his one act of youthful rebellion. No wonder he played with such a grin.
If I was to produce blues music from this wet-behind-the-ears kid, I’d have to produce the blues. No regrets? Blues is the sound of regret, the song of loss. If I had to buy him a dog, and then shoot it, I would. You couldn’t miss what you’d never had, so I’d give him a taste of success, money, fame, and then somehow contrive to whisk it all away. The first and most important thing to go though, was the one thing he already had – his homecoming queen, Mary.
I was figuring on this being a long term project. Ten years, maybe. Introduce him to the bottle, get him clean, relapse. Get his heart broken, have him break a few hearts in return. All the while playing the small bars, the low dives, honing his skills.
You could say that I exceeded my wildest dreams, because in the end it only took eighteen months. I’m still not entirely sure where I went wrong. It had been going so well – I got him a support act or two at some of the smaller venues, and I even lined him up for a city sponsored music festival, a week or so after the six month deadline expired.
I should have known he’d want to invite Mary. But that was, I thought, a good thing. He’d be all gushing with excitement, and she’d see it for what it was – an unpaid ten minute slot in the slow middle of the afternoon.
Afterwards, still high on his biggest audience to date, Johnny introduced me to Mary. She looked at me shrewdly, and I knew I was in for a hard time. I pitched it carefully, listing the gigs he had coming up, mentioning a favourable review in the local listing magazine, and then spoilt it somewhat by saying that many blues players take years to become established, and by that measure, Johnny was doing pretty well already.
“And whose idea was it to play the blues?” she said, nailing me with an icy stare.
It didn’t help, and it wasn’t supposed to, that the studio flat I’d found for Johnny to live in was in a rough part of town, even less that it was directly over a cathouse. So of course Johnny didn’t want her staying with him, and of course he got flustered trying to explain why. I offered them the use of my place, but Mary decided she’d get the late greyhound back instead. Their parting was far from romantic. “Three months.” she said coldly. “You’ve got three months and then you’ll have to start looking for a new bride.”
That was the night that the brothel madam made good her promise to tell me if Johnny ever availed himself of their services.
So yeah, I thought everything was going just fine. I already had plans for that three month extension, ways I could use Johnny’s moral slip to drive the wedge irreparably between them.
I never got the chance. The big galoot ‘fessed up. He was all for running back to Mary to try and salvage the relationship. “Leave her to cool down,” I advised. “Send her some flowers. Besides, you’re playing JoJo’s on Thursday, and I hear it’s sold out.”
That was the first gig that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end, the first time he played the blues as they were meant to be played. Finally, we were getting somewhere, and I made tentative noises that we ought to record a few tracks, test the waters.
So it was a shock to open the door to the studio a few evenings later, expecting Johnny, to find Mary with a semi-automatic grasped in both hands. She didn’t wait for my protest, for my appeal for mercy, and everything after that I’ve had to piece together from the police reports and the trial.
Seven times she shot me. I wonder if she heard the thundering on the stairs as she turned the gun on herself? Johnny arrived too late, but soon enough to take full responsibility for what had happened. First degree murder and attempted murder – the death penalty was a foregone conclusion.
The kicker, the twist in the tale, was the music loving judge who heard Johnny’s half-recorded demo tracks, and decided that he should be allowed to record an album on death row, as long as the proceeds were split between a gun-crime charity and his victims – namely, Mary’s folks, and myself.
I still wonder, when I listen to the achingly plaintive riffs and stripped down, almost mumbled lyrics, what exactly Mary found out. And whether, when she confronted me in the doorway to my recording studio, something in the expression in my face told her it was all true, and sealed the fate for the three of us.
If my coma hadn’t lasted as long as it did, if that last shot hadn’t shattered my jaw, if there hadn’t been a delay in fitting the keyboard inside the iron lung, or even if the lawyer hadn’t played me the first cut of the award winning prison album and asked me what I thought, then I might have told the cops who really shot me, might have saved Johnny from prison, and the dark cloud over him might have had the faintest traces of a silver lining.
Even so, I’m still kind of hoping for a stay of execution, and a second album. But it seems unlikely, since Johnny refuses to support an appeal. As Johnny would tell you himself, “Everyone knows the B is for the blues. And the blues are a bitch.”