Music

Beware the Urge to Serve Two Masters, Especially One So 'Primitive' as the Blues

Joe Seneca (L) and Ralph Macchio in Crossroads (1986)

They say Bluesman Robert Johnson went to a crossroads one night and sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for his guitar prowess -- but no one ever accused him of serving two masters.


Crossroads

Director: Walter Hill
Cast: Ralph Macchio, Joe Seneca, Jami Gertz, Joe Morton, Robert Judd
Distributor: Sony
Release date: 2004-08-10
NOTE: This column contains spoiler after spoiler about the 1986 film, Crossroads.

The 8th of May 2011 marked the 100th anniversary of bluesman Robert Johnson's birth. Johnson didn't make it past the age of 27, recorded only 29 songs from 1936-37, and didn't leave much of a paper trail that biographers could use to reconstruct a life. No one's really sure how he died (strychnine poisoning at the hands of a jealous man is the dominant theory), or even where he's buried.

Johnson was a talented guitarist, and the often tortured narratives of his lyrics set him apart from many blues artists of his day. Even so, he wasn't incredibly successful while he was alive, and if he hadn't been championed by the likes of British artists like Eric Clapton, Led Zeppelin, and the Rolling Stones when American blues recordings started washing onto English shores, he might not enjoy the reputation he has today.

A life with so little evidence, especially one that casts so much influence, leaves plenty of room for legend to settle in and make itself home. In Johnson's case, the most prevalent legend is that he went to a crossroads one night and sold his soul to the Devil in exchange for his guitar prowess. Johnson wasn't the first blues artist to bear this tale's mark, and Faustian bargains were old even before the Devil set up shop in the Mississippi Delta -- 19th Century violinist Niccolò Paganini, for example, was said to have made the same deal. Like Paganini, Johnson was slow to correct such a tale (even writing songs that hinted at it), perhaps seeing the marketing value of a good story.

This year also marks the 25th anniversary of the movie Crossroads, which uses the Johnson legend as a jumping off point for its own tale of deals and redemption. Crossroads tells the tale of Eugene Martone (Ralph Macchio), a guitar prodigy struggling to reconcile his classical guitar studies at the Juilliard School for Performing Arts with his love for the blues. In one early scene, he finishes a delicate rendition of Mozart's "Sonata A - Major KV 331 Alla Turca" in his class, but can't resist throwing some blues licks onto the end. This earns him a stern reproach from his instructor, who tells him that he cannot serve two masters, especially when one is so "primitive".

Eugene is obsessed with the idea that there is a lost 30th Robert Johnson song that was never recorded. His research leads him to Willie Brown (Joe Seneca), an elderly harmonica player who supposedly knew Johnson. Brown tells Eugene that he'll teach him the song if Eugene helps him break out of the correctional nursing home he's living in, and get him to an appointment in Mississippi.

Naturally, Eugene manages to pull off the breakout, and he and Willie start heading South, mostly on foot. Along the way, Eugene comes face-to-face with discrimination and other hardships of the road, and loses his innocence in a barn to Frances (Jami Gertz), a fellow hitchhiker who abandons them soon after. All of this supposedly transforms Eugene from a talented guitarist "with no soul" into a real bluesman. It's all fairly streamlined, and not entirely convincing that a brief period of what largely amounts to inconvenience and foot calluses could transform Eugene into someone who would play any blues worth hearing, but it's all in the service of getting Eugene in fighting shape for the end of the movie.

Willie, it turns out, has been lying to Eugene. There's no 30th song. What's worse, Willie reveals that he made a deal with the Devil many years ago and he now wants to petition the Devil to tear up his contract. Scratch (acting rather devilish), of course, refuses, but tells Eugene that he can play for Willie's soul in a head-cutting contest. If Eugene wins, Willie's free. If Eugene loses, Scratch gets his soul, too. Eugene, Willie, and the viewer are immediately taken to the contest, which is really the only part of the film most people remember.

The Devil's guitarist, Jack Butler, is holding court in what appears to be an old church converted to a roadhouse. Red skies boil outside of the windows, and what are presumably demons or damned souls are boogying in their Sunday best to Butler's vamped up blues. It's not spoiling much at this point to say that Eugene defeats Butler, frees Willie's soul, and frees the pair to seek their fortunes in the world at large.

A note of appreciation here for the way the infernal is portrayed in this film. Joe Morton, as the Devil's point man, bristles with menace and condescension. Meanwhile, Robert Judd's portrayal of "Scratch" is all business, right down to his black suit, hat, and string tie. Throughout his negotiation with Willie and Eugene, he's level-headed and all-business, even if he can't resist the urge to increase his profit.

There's also an air of clean-cut affluence that never quite hides the threat of very bad things. It's a welcome respite from so many hammy portrayals by actors who feel the need to portray the Devil as some kind of unhinged lunatic. The low growl of the red skies outside the church makes it seem like the action takes place in the eye of some raging hellstorm. When an a capella quartet twists a spiritual to call Eugene up on stage, it seems like just the sort of impish joke the Devil would enjoy.

As far as the duel itself goes, there are several interesting things going on. The first is that Butler is played by Steve Vai. At this general point in time, Vai had made his reputation as Frank Zappa's go-to guy for "impossible guitar parts", and he'd ventured into the metal world by replacing Yngwie Malmsteen in Alcatrazz. He was also playing with David Lee Roth, who actually seemed to have a viable solo career ahead of him, especially if he -- a la Ozzy Osbourne -- had a talent for sniffing out guitar talent like Vai.

So right away, you could argue that the Devil's blues is some kind of metallic perversion of the form with Vai's fleet-fingered style venturing into all sorts of feedback and guitar trickery. In 1989, Vai joined Whitesnake, prompting one guitar magazine to ask on its cover if Vai would would be his generation's Hendrix or play bad metal for millions of dollars. So in the guitar geek world, at least, there might have been the attitude that Vai was mulling over certain deals of his own.

Vai's playing is set against Ry Cooder's badass (to use the technical term) slide guitar, which has already provided most of the movie with its musical tone. Vai certainly plays and looks the part, with his long hair, leather pants, and taunting facial expressions, but you can't help but wonder what might have been. According to Arlen Roth, who provided uncredited musical work on the film, the duel was originally set to be a slide guitar duel between an on-screen Cooder and Eugene. What's more, once Vai was added, the duel was supposed to begin with a scene of Vai cutting down Shuggie Otis. All of this apparently ended up on the cutting room floor, and it sounds like a gold mine in terms of bonus features for a future DVD release.

What we get, though, is Vai's Butler setting the tone with a few test runs at Eugene. He starts off with a rumbling train riff (Willie had told Eugene earlier in the film that you can't play the blues if you can't play a train rhythm), and a few other things before kicking into the full-band duel. Butler and Eugene trade increasingly charged guitar parts (at one point, Willie and Eugene physically flinch away from a Butler guitar tirade, as if to say, "What Hellish wankery is this?") until Butler seems to shut down the show with a frenzied guitar attack.

But wait! As Scratch laughs to himself and the crowd cavorts, Eugene begins playing a classical piece that we had seen him practicing earlier in his school dormitory. In reality, it's a Vai-composed piece called "Eugene's Trick Bag", and it's deeply rooted in Paganini's Capriccio number 5. Butler tries to play the piece but fails, eventually dropping his guitar to the floor and walking off, presumably out of the church and into the maelstrom (one has to think that Jack Butler might not have given up so easily if he'd known the Devil's punishment for losing would be a stint in Whitesnake).

What's frustrating about the winning piece, as technically impressive as it is, is that there's no blues to it. This is where the movie seems to betray itself. The message at the beginning of the film was that you can't serve two masters, and Eugene's victory would make sense if he had played something that blended classical and blues (such as his playful melding of Mozart and blues we saw at the beginning). But the message here seems to be, "OK, we've had our blues fun, we've gotten our blood all angried up, but we need to go straight classical in order to bring the kind of chaste beauty that Hell's own guitarist can't possibly match."

The more you think about it, the more condescending it seems, as if the film's blues journey has been little more than a lark. Allan Closing of the American Mind Bloom, who gloated about using the subtleties of classical music to save his students from a purgatory of pop emptiness, couldn't have written the ending any better.

I'm not about to make any argument about the relative merits of classical music versus the blues. I'm only saying that the classical bookending puts the film in a bind. Eugene's journey to Mississippi has supposedly opened up the bluesman inside, allowing him to pour himself into his music instead of copying his heroes. Why couldn't he follow Butler's premature victory lap with a soulful blues piece inspired by all of his experiences -- something that Butler, as the Devil's all-flash headcutter, couldn't possibly match? And what if Butler could match it? What if Butler pulled out something informed by countless years of knowing that the only thing keeping you out of the hellfire is the collecting of the Devil's debts every Saturday night? What if Eugene lost?

Now I'm just getting all excited with notions of alternate endings, when the duel Crossroads delivers is plenty rousing, with top-notch guitar skills on full display. In fact, the more I watch it, the more impressed I become with its structure. It wasn't until recently that I realized that Willie and Eugene seize early control of the duel's tone instead of Butler. Instead of Eugene hanging on for dear life, he's bending without breaking in the face of Butler's feral assaults on the song's rhythm. Butler's overmatched and doesn't know it -- or maybe he does, and that's why he tries to end the duel with such finality. It's just a shame that the duel ends on such a wishy-washy note, unable to decide how to deal with this "two masters" trap that it sets for itself.


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