Somewhere in the back alleys of the city’s older section there was a crumbling brick building that had been around since before ragtime music was popular. Hanging above a faded green door that led down to the building’s cellar was a wooden sign, and despite the peeling paint, you could still make out the bar’s name: Pinetop’s Tavern. Nobody really knew when Pinetop’s first opened; local folks would tell you it had been there since time began, and the world had grown up around it. It was one of those places where the lighting was always dim and the cigarette smoke never dissipated and the cloud you were breathing now had probably been around since W. C. Handy was still alive.
Pinetop’s Tavern was a blues joint, and it had been around almost as long as blues music itself. Blues music was a lot simpler than most kinds of music—simpler chords, simpler lyrics, and most blues musicians couldn’t read sheet music. The genre was born on some unknown plantation in the forgotten Deep South, where black slaves chanted with each other in the fields and their cries turned into music. Nowadays, you only found blues underground, on fuzzy radio stations and in smoky bars like Pinetop’s.
Everyone showed up at Pinetop’s at some point in their life. It was one of those places you never went to, but ended up at, and more often than not you were in such a sorry state that you didn’t care whether it was a blues joint or a lonely bench in the park or a bridge over the highway. Most people came across Pinetop’s by accident, and when they went back to look for it later on, they couldn’t find it. You can’t sing the blues when you aren’t feeling them, and you can’t find Pinetop’s unless you really need to.
Walking in, the first thing you saw was the old bar, where Little John the bartender was filling glasses and sliding drinks down to patrons. Little John had never gone to school, but the man practically had a degree in psychology. He’d been in the business so long that one look told him your whole story. Childhood problems, woman problems, work problems. Bartenders are one part server, one part psychologist.
After you’d waved a space in the cigar smoke for you to breathe and your eyes adjusted to the dim lighting, you picked a table or sat at the bar. You’d stew about whatever misfortune sent you here in the first place—your girl left, your dog died, your boss gave you a pink slip signed with a smirk. Everyone here had a different story, many of theirs worse than yours. You said nothing to the people around you as they shared their trials and tribulations. You weren’t ready, you told yourself as you ordered another drink. Still not ready as you shared some peanuts with the guy next to you, who’d been laid off for the eighth time in three years. Still not ready as another man asked you why the long face. Okay, he answered, we don’t pry around here.
The band at the corner of the bar would play, and your sadness turned into a melody and a rhythm and soon your feet were tapping on the wooden floors. Happier folks bowed their heads and remembered yesterday’s tragedies, angrier folks calmed down and swayed to the beat. Blues could turn you a different color if you weren’t careful, and no one made you forget the outside world better than Pinetop’s band, the Back Avenue Brothers.
The Back Avenue Brothers played every night at Pinetop’s, their repertoire ranging from the old standards to stuff they made up on the spot. Each of them had pasts and personalities to make even the most determined therapist ask for another drink, but their music got toes tapping and fingers snapping. Odd tempers, even tempos. That’s how blues musicians are.
Their leader was called Freddy Four-Hands because of how he played the piano, or as he liked to call it, his 88-string guitar. Some say he hitchhiked up here from the boonies of the Louisiana Delta, and some say he crawled out of the deepest pit in St. Louis, but if you asked him where he was from, he’d say everywhere and nowhere at all. He was a demon on that piano, though. Local folks say he traded his soul to the devil to play the way he did—and he liked to mix things up. He played things like Bach’s Minuet in G with a jazz spin or “Fur Elise” if Beethoven had been a blues man. But his favorites were the stride piano songs, fast melodies backed by a steady left hand bass. His idols were greats like Art Tatum and Thelonious Monk and people whose names sounded made up.
The band’s guitarist was an old crusty waif of a man named Jeetes, who stuttered so bad he couldn’t form sentences, but he struck a nerve whenever he struck a chord and played your heartstrings on his guitar. Freddy Four-Hands found him under the 39th Street Bridge last year, plucking a manic version of Robert Johnson’s “Hellhound on my Trail”. Freddy wasn’t the only one who’d sold his soul to the devil, local folks said.
Their bassist was a silent man named Loomis, who was thick as a tree trunk and nearly as tall. He wore sunglasses even inside and he played the bass as naturally as most people breathed. Didn’t say much though. He didn’t really mix with people, but somehow he kept the band together. Bass players are like that.
The drummer was a skinny, lanky fellow named Puck who always had a cigarette dangling between his lips. He was Little John’s cousin whose life had veered off track long before he made it to Pinetop’s. His shortcomings were long-staying and he had problems deeper than the blues could reach, but that didn’t mean he didn’t try.
And then there was that singer. Marla. The woman with a voice that turned angels green with envy.
Marla could’ve been Miss Universe if it weren’t for the angry scar that ran down the side of her face. Some say her daddy put it there; some say it was a husband; some say God himself drew it upon her cheek because she would’ve been too beautiful otherwise. Either way, she was one of those girls with a great taste in music but bad taste in men. Some day, she’d probably learn that Loomis had been there the whole time, at her side giving her a bass to keep steady, but for now it was one loser after another, one more blues song for the road each time they left her.
After a couple songs and a touching rendition of “Ain’t No Sunshine” you opened up a little. Told them a little about yourself. Talked around your problem before talking about it. Said you were a lonely kid, Momma wasn’t rich, Daddy wasn’t there, in and out of work since graduating from a school that taught you nothing. The guy next to you could relate—only he didn’t even have the Momma part of the deal. Took care of eight little siblings while Momma was in the house but out of her mind on Lord knows what.
You had another drink. Freddy Four-Hands played Ray Charles and put Georgia on everyone’s mind. Now you slowly got to the point of your tale. You’d found a girl fresh out of college and decided you wanted to be a director. Science fiction movies, that kind of thing. As a kid, space had been your escape, and as an adult, it was going to become your dream.
Everyone sitting around you could tell you a little something about the fragility of dreams.
You ordered another round, offered a toast to dreams—broken ones, new ones, old ones not yet forgotten. The Back Avenue Brothers paused a moment to join in. Marla had tears in her eyes and her next song put tears in yours. Jeetes played like only madmen can, Freddy Four-Hands’ fingers slid up and down the piano, and Loomis’s bass throbbed like a heartbeat. Puck’s skinny arms flew everywhere on those drums.
Marla and the Back Avenue Brothers took a break. You got back to your story. So this girl you had got sick of you going on about yourself—you were going to fix the movie industry, put some color in a business that had gone gray with remakes and reboots and re-this and re-that. A guy the next table over said he wanted to be a rock star and do the same for the music industry before he learned every other guy had a similar idea. You all ordered another round of drinks, made a toast to a gray, colorless world.
“I’ll give the gray some blues,” said Freddy Four-Hands before taking to the piano again. “Suwanee River” this time, before he transitioned into something he made up this morning. Something wild, mad, delirious as Four-Hands himself. Something so insane and incredible that only a man who’d made a pact with the Devil could have dreamt it. After the song and following applause ended, Four-Hands said it was something he picked up when he visited Hell last weekend.
Next song was quieter, the piano barely a trickle and the drums nonexistent. Marla began to sing. She put her soul into her voice, her damaged, determined, enduring soul. Dancing up and down octaves, sliding easily through notes. The song was about a man whose woman left him—eighty percent of blues songs are about that kind of thing—and even though it was a woman singing it you felt the man’s pain as if it were your own. It was your own. Suddenly you were remembering what your girl’s back had looked like as she’d walked out that door. Tired of the dreams, she’d been. Tired of you telling her someday we’ll this and someday we’ll that. Someday was in some faraway future that wouldn’t exist until you got through today alive.
Blues made you remember that. Blues made you remember what it was like to feel sad, what it was like to watch your dreams walk out the door like the careless woman every blues singer crooned about. It was the sincerest form of music, born from pain, born from loneliness, born from the simple fact that despite how everyone came from different pasts and headed towards different futures, we all felt the same aches, nursed the same wounds. Love. Loss. Starting over. Blues was the loneliest thing that brought people together.
The applause after this song was hesitant at first, but it grew steadily. Marla had this odd smile on her face despite the leak in her eye. It made you remember an old saying you read in a book long ago: Shared pain is lessened, shared joy is increased. Good book, you thought, even if you weren’t in the right state of mind to remember the title.
The Back Avenue Brothers started up one last song for the road. Freddy Four-Hands joined in singing, his mad fingers racing up and down the ivory. He had a raspy voice from his three-pack-a-day habit, but there was genuine heart in it.
“There’s something going on,” he sang.
“Something going on,” Marla and Loomis repeated in harmony.
“There’s something going on.”
“Something going on.”
“There’s something going on. Tonight’s your night.”
“Tonight’s your night!” Marla’s voice flew up half an octave and Loomis’s steady bass harmonized.
“There’s something going on.” “Something going on!” “There’s something going on.” “Something going on!”
The whole bar chimed in: “And if you come and hang out with us, you’ll have a real good time!”
Applause. Marla took a bow and a tentative glance at Loomis. You ordered another drink and the room got fuzzy. Last thing you remembered, Little John was telling someone to call you a cab and check your wallet for your address.
Next morning, you woke up in your own apartment with an impressive headache but you felt weightless. You started humming that last song to yourself as you washed your face and realized that you were still in your rumpled clothes from last night. So you changed into something fresh. Made yourself some coffee. Went about your day. The world’s a colorless place, yes, but something about the way the daylight hit the pavement and the tune you had stuck in your head made it bearable.
A week later, you wandered through the older section of the city, trying to find Pinetop’s Tavern again. Several times you thought you smelled the cigarette smoke and heard the Back Avenue Brothers playing, but those were false alarms. The faded green door and the old wooden sign were nowhere to be found among the decaying brick buildings. Perhaps you’d dreamt of that entire night? Your ex always said you were a dreamer. But then again, Pinetop’s was one of those places you only found when you needed to. Someday you’d stumble into it again, smell the cigarette smoke, hear the stories, feel the music. But for now, life had plans for you and your next visit to Pinetop’s wasn’t for a long time.
That was how Pinetop’s Tavern worked: Some people came only one night and they were mended; some people kept coming back for years because life broke their heart that often. But whether you were there for a night or a decade, you were always welcome at Pinetop’s, where the Back Avenue Brothers would play for you, Marla would sing for you, and Little John would serve you your poison of choice. And you’d sit at the bar or a table and you’d hear the blues music or the blues of other people down on their luck, and despite your misery and your problems, you knew you were never alone in this world.
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“Have a Real Good Time” by Trampled Under Foot, Wrong Side of the Blues, 2007.
“Shared pain is lessened; shared joy, increased.” – Spider Robinson, Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon, 1977