By Mike Marino
The bluesman, was a jazzman, a riff man…a notorious Rastafarian who lived on and off the streets. He would fly high at night with a jet stream fix in his arm, a communist sympathizer, actually, and actually attacking the tanks as captain of a red zeppelin…Jazz streets, beat streets, hard streets and harder alleys of Detroit, that are smaller, and more cramped than those they had in old Cairo where mummies, and memories of mummies are wrapped in secrecy and cheap duct tape from the hardware store on Jefferson Ave, a ribbon of racing asphalt running along the river to Belle Isle, the mummies covered in mondo bondo bandage bondage (some people pay good money for that you know!) for the ages of the ageless.
The blues man’s apartment was up high, up atop the escarpment, a Skull Island in the ocean of poverty that was the old Cass Corridor, with it’s Chinese restaurants, one room bars with one broken stool, deep within the loins of the tender, with row upon row of skids, a third floor walkup without a view of the campus or the art institute, but only the blink light of the WDET radio tower, but he would climb them daily, his personal Matterhorn, those wooden steps taken from wooden planks of wooden ships, wooden it be loverly?
His walk was weary at the end of the day, and his footstep slow, a film noir sequence, dark, slow, as he mounted the floors one by one, the steps cascading before him, upstream, spawning by insane salmon with a asylum agenda…he walked upwards against the downward flow of a thousand liquid rain children freely falling from the skies, the other children had broken free from the split apart piñata and spilled out, falling and bouncing down the stairs to hinder his progress, and then out onto the street. He dodged them artfully as he tread deftly, as though they were, and they are, projectiles from space, fired from the moon at the behest of a beast from the outer rings of Saturn’s rear end planet, Uranus, yer anus, jumpin’ Jupiter yumpin Yiminy.
He painted with music, self-portraits on the surface of rough textured bags of burlap which he found in dumpsters on the west ends of eastside alleys, old burlap bags that held the fresh marijuana from old Burma herself. He found that these self-portraits would fit snugly in the gun he kept in his guitar case, a bullet in the chamber of a .38, where all could hear it ring out as a holy sacrament is announced by the pealing bells, the peeling bells, the Irish male stripper bells, dancing in thongs to the catholic throngs of Notre Dame or St. Patrick’s, where the pious go to pee for peace, and are hooked up inexorably to the catheters of the cathedrals with red cardinals and blue birds with beards of black and blue, and the salt and pepper hair of the bluesman, the jazzman, the riff man, a notorious Rastafarian…
The bus depot ‘Hounds and the electric streetcars competed with diesel and electricity, making pedestrian noises to drown him out as he six-stringed, sometimes 12 stringed some syringe hymns with Lenny Bruce junkie juice flowing hot and steamy, and the notes playing out like a marked deck of cards at a pharmaceutical convention, with unconventional doctors in attendance, wearing togas stolen from New York City bath house locker rooms with fat sweaty Greeks and those from the Baltics with secret rings…eating lunch naked, he was now William Burroughs wielding a guitar in place of a typewriter with keys that stuck and ribbons that were worn and faded. The Bluesman played with notes, to him they were nubile underage breasts just peeking above the skin with a pink nipple tipped volcano cane ready to erupt with passion as pubic hair began to sprout it’s fertile garden below, and he played with real guns, killing himself with the bullets of their bang-bang music, a real Hemmingway and Hunter Thompson suicide and all with a hypnotic hypodermic dream look carved in granite with a chisel on his rugged face.
His was an old negro face, the kind you see or saw in Look Magazine or National Geographic where at one time they were the only publications that you could see bare Josephine Baker Negress breasts, in 3-D, and as children looking at the magazines, we thought the only women with tits were the African black beauties as the white women seemed to hide securely behind whiter lace, parasols and stays. Our first pre-pubescent crushes were on tribal women in deepest, darkest Africa and all we wanted to do was to set sail in a skiff to explore up and down their moist Nile as the Negress became in our minds the Mother of Men..the Mother of hardons..and then she gave birth to the Bluesman, the riff man..a notorious Rastafarian….
He played for change, spare, copper, nickel or silver, with buffalos on one side, and Indian heads on the other, very old, old change, yes? On the corner near the overpass not far from the art and the asphalt of Heidelberg, but at the Eastern Market on warm Saturday mornings where the suburbs melted, a globally warmed socio-political glacier that shrunk on it’s own, but grew in size as it blended into the urb itself. The market is where the Motor City went for daffodils in spring for planting and fresh fruit and vegetables and peanuts of every race, creed and color at the Rocky Peanut Co. for consumption. They also enjoyed the street musicians, the bluesmen, the jazzmen, the riff men….and would toss a grenade of crumpled bills into his open yawning guitar case. The currency itself was as wrinkled as an old suit of cheap material, the money tossed by cavalier passerby, you know the type, the casualist, the “lets drop whatever it is we are doing, and go slumming. I know where this blues guy is on the corner near the meat market and the hardware store, he’s black and everything, like that Jake character that used to walk around downtown Ann Arbor, the Shakey guy by the diner and the candy shoppe.
Well, this Detroit cat knows the blues, maybe from Mississippi or some damn delta place,” So they would all fold up their three piece suit-tent cubicles with battle flag neckties flapping in the wind, to go see the blues guy, and then move on to Starbucks to read some Steinbeck not knowing who he is, this blues man, jazz man, riff man, and notorious Rastafarian, nor Steinbeck either. Tyrell is his name, and he came from the boot heel in Missouri, kick ass cotton country, with rockabilly mules hitched to plows with eight track tapes of Narvel Felts blasting from the front seats of pick up trucks with rifle racks and crushed beer cans on the floor near the gas pedal.
He would royally regale you with tales of days of times passed, when he was a younger man in his primes, a young jazzman with a hot wink in his eye, and a load of jazzman jasmine jump jive jism in Paris in the Twenties. He played the cabarets as a musician with the decadent banana dancer, prancing prancer and vixen, Josephine Baker. The art deco diva danced in feathered splendor, collared and leashed to the stage, divulging and revealing as much of herself on stage as she was of her honey flesh, The Follies Negre and more, and her captivating self was captured and immortalized on poster and canvas and figurative drawings by her close friend Paul Colin, who also designed stage sets and advertising posters in Paris in the Twenties.The entourage was entertaining and exotic and old Tyrell (the bluesman, the jazzman, the riff man…) was one of the orbiting planets spinning around her perky twin moons and the gravitational pull of her vaginal vortex. The crowned heads of Europe rolled like bowling balls as they rolled down the alleys of the Palace of Vert-Sigh. She herself was a sensuous, sexy Sistine Chapel, a work of art for the ages, horny young men, and horny young women, both of whom wanted to be her and in bed with her at the same time.
1975…Tyrell had a big smile, as well he should, after all he had enjoyed a life bigger and better than a Cuban cigar manufactured in Tampa…he had a locks of dread now, long, tinged with grey, matted but wore it like a crown. 1975…the days of the past, had passed, and now he lived quietly, split in yin-yang two, a lost Los Alamos atom, wide and far apart from society, distant, and apart from that, he was as rich as only the poorest of men can be. He had a soft, gentle voice inside that told him to create the music in between the injurious injections where you tie your own arm off. I came to know him from the streets, summoned to his palace by invisible trumpeters who heralded his music, and I would stop to talk to him, listen to his stories and always walk away amazed. He liked to be called Robert though, not Tyrell and I did call him that, after Johnson I suspect, and would visit his apartment and listen to him sculpt riffs that were as beautiful as an armless Venus crafted carefully from a blank block of sinewy Italian marble that when finished would float higher than clouds above the Roman columns, and then he would stop, get up, mumble to himself and reach into the drawer of the table that sat near the end of the couch …carefully unwrapping his works kit tied gently with ribbon, a child unwrapping a doll in the early morning of a snowy Christmas, he would prepare himself for the injection, a prize fighter, a pugilist warming up in the locker room to step into the ring of addiction and shoot up.
I would watch him do that, and help at times when he was too shaky (had done it myself for awhile at a shooting gallery on Forest Ave.) and he would use this poor man jazzman handmade kit with an eyedropper to pump the junk to get a head start rush racing on the adrenalin drag strip, propelled by a warm fuel injected injection, veins rising to the surface of the skin, magma breaking through a fissure, a blue line mainline redline submarine, breaching like a whale, begging to be hypodermically harpooned. Ahab’s needle goes in on a slight angle, guided by an angel well within range and in the line of fire, squeezing the trigger, safety off of the eyedropper nipple, the cooked cuisine runaway railroading itself through the bloodstream, Michelangelo was careful, not to knock over a marble statue, Robert was careful not to collapse a vein, or shoot in vain.
Most of Roberts veins were darkened now, to a bruised swampy green and black-blue bruised too, weaker and harder to raise, a limp pulp, even with a gentle spank, have to use the bottom of his feet soon, but they too already bore the scars, but soon…soon…the heroin heroine claims her right, right to the brain. Nodding and smiling, casually laying back in the rickety chair, the junk microwaved in the bloodstream, so warm it’s global warming swarming over you in layers melting your personal ice caps, arctic and antarctic. The homemade syringe is emptied, a sigh and smile cross his face, and he unties the rubber tube from his arm, and picks up his guitar, smiling at it’s beauty, music as poetry filling the room with a lyrical fog as the junk raced further and further along the two lanes of his veins right into the truck stop of the brain. The drugs took hold of the great bluesman, jazzman, riff man and notorious Rastafarian.
Soon the song ends…the effects of the drug wear off, a tired old flying horse coming in for a crash landing, Baron von Benzedrine and the Goddess Aphrodite Amphetamine rush to the scene to the rescue all mixed up in a baggie cloudy with powder or a dark brown bottle of an old prescription that belonged to someone else in the basement of an old Victorian owned by an old Edwardian, where junkies would line the walls sitting on the floor in suspenseful suspended inanimation spending quality Quaalude time until too much speed makes your stom-ache ache, until your hunger returns for a curtain call…after you vomit a vile bile and it is standing room only at the shooting gallery and the turntables turn the tables, but the song is scratched on the vinyl, making that shhhing sound as the needle refuses to go forward, or backward, and enjoys being in neutral. The paranoia in the shooting gallery is thick as black smoke and fragile as the damaged skin of a leper ready to peel off, fleshy chips at a gaming table in Monte Carlo where the stakes are high, death and disease. Shooters forget their own names and are emaciated, not emancipated from addiction.
Tyrell knew the highlife with cocktails for two, and downtown basement crap games, above ground adorned with a white top hat and tails taking Paris by storm. That was 50 years ago, 19-two and five, his pocket full of twenties roaring and rarin’ to go, but that was no more. The times had softened him, not hardened him into sediment, but a canyon of soft, sweet sentiment instead. One day I went to hear Robert play on the street and then as we did on occasion, go to lunch at that stand-up diner we both loved in that Googie shaped flying saucer that resembled a railroad car from space. Grease, a mile away you could smell, and you knew you were getting close to well cooked meat with cooked onions, peppers, and cheese with sesame seed warmed buns holding onto the meat in it’s clutches.
As I ran breathing hard, knowing in my heart what must of happened, or didn’t happen, breathing, blood flow, that kind of thing that can kill a man, I rounded the corner to look at the spot where Robert would sit on the outside steps and play for the neighborhood, a king holding court, now, the steps stoop was vacant. No Robert, No Music. But the coroners truck was already there, a familiar sight in that particular neighborhood, with it’s overdosing junkies and third floor suicides and basement murders. Two burly hurdy gurdy EMS types inoculated from feeling anything for the dead they carried out over the years, possessing true objectivity in the face of death, were wearing white uniforms Good Humor men playing a dirge in a parade were lugging a load, a human load that would decompose but for now, lay quietly and serenely on a stretcher as they emerged from inside the vestibule of the old building, a baby screaming from the womb, taking a look around, and wanted to crawl back inside it’s bag of safety, a pleasant placenta, a real Hole-in-Wall hideout for real cowboys and babies.
In the bag, the black bag, was Robert, being carried out, dead as an out of tune guitar…the crowd stood around and all I could hear one of them say was, “Heard he was a musician, kept to himself mos’ly and probably a junkie too. Damn shame, these junkies miss out on life all the time, getting high and all then they die and all…” Yeah, I thought to myself…old Robert didn’t miss a thing in life…contrary to the bystanders misstepped, half-assed, assessment…I looked at the guy and asked him, “Have you ever danced cheek to cheek with Josephine Baker?”
No, that’s what I thought…didn’t think so Amigo….didn’t think so….Robert though, he did, yes, he did…he had such a full, rich life…he was in turn …a blues man, a riff man..and a notorious Rastafarian.
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