When The Devil Comes To Collect

Everyone knows the myth of Robert Johnson. The tormented Dark Prince of the Delta who made a deal at the crossroads; a deal that would endow him with talent, bring renown and worldly success. Only these things came with a price. Poor Bob had made a bargain with the Devil himself. The deal was for his soul and one day, Satan would come to collect. Robert Johnson died in a rooming house in Greenwood, Miss.; some say he was poisoned, some say he was stabbed. Some say he died bereft of his wits, on his hands and knees and barking like a dog. Either way, the debt had been paid.

There's a prosaic explanation, of course. Johnson loved liquor, loved women, and picking and wailing the blues beats the shit out of being a field-hand. He was living the life, and having a good time doing it. He messed with another man's wife and, in the culture of the time and place, got what was coming.

Only Bob was short-changed. The worldly success that Old Nick had promised never came. He was well known and well respected among his peers - as much as anybody who's good at their job. "Terraplane Blues" was a regional hit, but that was it. Then in 1938, John Hammond Snr. presented the "Spirituals to Swing" concerts at Carnegie Hall. And he wanted Robert Johnson. One small problem. Poor Bob was already dead. Consider that bitter irony, and its easy to see the Devil's hand in it. It was left to white, middle-class collectors of "folk" and "race" music - twenty years after the event - to present his music to the world as an archaic and dying art-form, yet still worthy of study. 

I don't write this to diminish Johnson's oeuvre or his tremendous power as a performer, only to illustrate how a white man's myth became attached to a supremely gifted black bluesman. And there's something in that myth. As a kid I had to walk away from it, it was too powerful. Frightening. Too much. The power and intensity of men like Robert Johnson and Skip James was more than I could bear. These men terrified me. Yet they were singing of something I would gradually come to understand, in my own way and from a personal, rather than cultural standpoint, as I grew older.

I's up this morning, Blues walkin' like a man; Worried Blues, give me your right hand

When your knee-bones go to achin', your body's getting cold: Lord, you're just getting ready for some old cypress grove

Early one morning, you knocked upon my door: I said "hello Satan, I believe it's time to go"

Blues, for me, is of course an entirely different thing than it was for Robert Johnson or Skip James. My Blues is not the cottonfields or the Klan or the fear of Judge Lynch. It will seem a paltry comparison - it seems so to me - but my Blues is the nameless, overwhelming terror that rips me apart from the inside and reduces me to something less than a man. My own Devil, a monstrous thing that can come upon me without warning and leave me broken, weeping and crippled inside, unable to work, make love or venture out of doors. There is no explanation. There is no reason or rationale. It's a fear of nothing, and yet a fear of everything. Fear of fear. Fear for fear's sake. I've just spent half an hour fannying on about Skip James and Robert Johnson so I wouldn't have to address it. And I wanna make this clear. This is isn't because I'm SOOOOO frightfully talented dahhhhh-ling that there has to be a pay-off somewhere. This isn't because I made some Faustian pact wherein the Prince of Darkness tuned my guitar to an open G, handed me a bottleneck and said "crack on!" I'm not, and I didn't. I'm an ordinary bloke, who plays a bit of guitar. That's it.

And this is my point. It happens to ordinary people. People who didn't ask for it, didn't invite it in. People who didn't even know it existed. "Anxiety" the doctors call it, but that's so horribly far off the mark. Mention "anxiety" to one who doesn't suffer and they'll most likely think of the feeling you get when you might miss your train. Oh shit, what if I'm late for work? I mean, seriously,  you're getting bent out of shape about that? Man up! Fucking grow a pair. If you described pneumonia as "a touch of the sniffles" you'd probably get the same reaction. Because the description simply isn't adequate (the irony is, for someone who DOES suffer with anxiety, the thought of missing that train COULD send them into a tailspin).

OK Mr Milway, what about "Anxiety Disorder"? How about "Acute Anxiety Disorder"? Are we getting warm? No, not really. But it's a start. People are generally beginning to recognise the condition, take it seriously and look at ways of treating it, more so now than even ten years ago. I don't know if that's because it's become more common or simply that people are more open about it. I know a man who used to sneer at "panic attacks" until he had one. And therein lies the problem I think. If you haven't been there, you simply don't know.

On April 3rd, with a line of promising gigs ahead of us and having rehearsed the new band for four months straight, it happened. Three days before our first gig as a new band, Anxiety struck like never before. I suffered a complete nervous breakdown. And I can't tell you why. I wanted those shows. I'd been living for that band. The dates we had booked would have been the culmination of all we'd worked for. That band was on fire. We were hot!

So why? 

I don't know. But I have come to believe that when you open yourself to inspiration and allow the Muse in, something else follows in Her wake. And you have to be strong to survive it. A friend and fellow-sufferer told me recently "people like us, we're wired different". The very thing that empowers you also makes you vulnerable. Robert Johnson has his modern analogues; Nick Drake. Ian Curtis. Kurt Cobain. Amy Winehouse. And consider those who lose their soul but remain trapped in the body, hollow husks, shadows of their former selves, burnt out at a young age but condemned to simply exist until their bodies wear out. Google "Fleetwood Mac" or "Pink Floyd" and you'll see what I mean. The deal wasn't for their body, breath or blood. It was for their soul.

I don't put myself up with these men and women. I don't know how they suffered. Their world is - thankfully! - not my world. I can't explain why I was suddenly inwardly crippled to the point where I couldn't perform, or even consider it. And I do not believe in the Devil or Satan as a malignant entity. That's something the Christians invented to scare their children. But I know that others who suffer as I do - and understand blues parlance - will empathise when I say that on that day, the Devil came to collect his due.

Won't you look-a here Blues, see what you done to me.

People who suffer with anxiety can become terribly afraid of  being a burden on those around them, and of letting people down. I want - I need - to thank Graham, The Duchess, Dan and Phil for their patience and understanding and love. Also those outside of the band who've given me real encouragement and help - whether they know it or not; Bill Faupel, Tam Gibbs, Gary Grainger, Nick Beere, Dave Sims, Debbi Burch, Bren Murphy, JJ Howell, ZZ Birmingham, Mark Fletcher, Richard Heenan, Joanna Prokop, Magda Wesola, Smokin' Mat Harrison and Davey Quo. And of course Simon Blyth and Si Williams, my oldest and best of friends.

Baby that's all right, I'll be up someday.