A shiver tracks his spine. Bro reaches inside his overcoat pocket, pulls out a bottle, and downs the dregs. He wipes his lips with his sleeve and drops the empty into the gutter. The bottle does not break. It spins around on its side a couple of times and comes to a stop—bottleneck pointing in his direction. Mephisto Gin—Bottled in Chicago. Bro picks up his guitar and turns toward the club entrance.
At a little past 9:30 P.M., Bro, carrying his ancient guitar case, walks through the front door of Club Indigo. The bald bouncer glances up from his chair and waves him through.
Robert Brown is dragging around a lot of history. He was once a sideman with the great Howlin’ Wolf, and in the 1950s, he recorded two solo albums, “A Minor Blues” and “Whiskey Talking.” Both of these albums were once considered to be blues classics. Now, mostly forgotten, he works as a bar musician playing a style of blues shaped by the great Mississippi Delta players like Charley Patton—one man with an acoustic guitar—nowhere to hide.
Bro walks slowly down the entranceway that leads into the club. He eyes the assorted old photos of renowned blues performers that line the wall to his right—familiar faces from a better time and a better place. On the opposite wall, Club Indigo jackets, t-shirts, and caps, in various colors, hang like masterpieces in a museum.
Inside, the bar is a fusion of neon beer signs, tinted lights, and cigarette smoke. The booths are like something from the 1950s.
As Bro makes his way through a group of people chatting in front of the bar, Shaky Jake, one of the club managers, is on stage with a microphone giving his usual pre-show pitch:
“Ladies and gentleman, I want to remind you to tip your waitresses and bartenders, who are working real hard for you. And don’t forget to pick up a blues souvenir! We have T-shirts, baseball caps, and jackets. We also have CDs by famous Chicago blues artists. In the meantime, sit tight, because the great bluesman, Robert Brown, will be out shortly!”
Bro walks past the stage and into the dressing room—a cheap panel and plaster hangout for the band during breaks. Almost every inch of wall-space is covered with graffiti left by the hundreds of unknown bar musicians that have passed through over the years. On the wall, somebody has scrawled: “We’re still getting the blues and Clapton’s still getting the money.”
John Keyes, the club owner, is sitting at a small table in the middle of the room. He has an empty whiskey glass in his hand.
“Nice to see you, Mr. Brown,” says Keyes.
He gets up, walks over to where Bro is leaning on his guitar case, and says, “Robert, you and I have to talk.”
“What about?” asks Bro.
“Business,” says Keyes, “We can’t afford to go on any longer, the way we’re going now. Times are bad. The crowd is down. The club has got to make a change.”
“And I’m the change,” says Bro.
“Listen Robert, you’re a great, old blues musician, but there’s no audience for traditional, black, blues guys. Hell, I couldn’t even sell Robert Johnson these days. The young audience wants to hear electric guitar slingers, like Stevie Ray. You know what I mean.”
Bro stares directly into John Keyes’ eyes and smiles. For a few seconds, everything in the room moves away. A white light breaks like a wave over Bro’s brain, and stops just behind his eyes—a blurred message. And then, just as quickly, it's gone.
“Yeah, John. I know what you mean.”
Bro props his guitar in the corner and walks out—headed for the bar.
Bro tries to recall the bartender’s name, then gives up and calls out: “Barkeep, what about another double?”
“Hey man, aren’t you Robert Brown, the blues musician?” someone says behind him.
Bro turns on his stool and looks into the face of a young black man. He has on a White Sox baseball cap twisted to one side. He’s certain that he’s never seen this man before.
“Yeah, I guess I am.”
“I’m Stick James,” the man says, as if the name might mean something, “You might have heard of me. I’m a RAP artist for Scratch Records.”
“Well Mr. James, there’s a goddamn artist on every street corner in every city, and I’ve never heard of you. So, how is it that you know me?”
“Oh, I recognize the face from your album cover. You’re a little gray around the edges, but I’d know you anywhere—your face is burned into my brain.”
“Bullshit, says Bro, “I didn’t make but two records, and you don’t look like you’re old enough to have owned either one.”
“I didn’t, but my father did. He had ’em both—loved ‘em madly. And when he took to the highway, those old records were all he left behind.”
Bro turns, stares into the bar-length mirror, and says nothing.
“You know, Mr. Brown, my mother played those two albums until the grooves were smooth as a baby’s butt—the perfect background music for an alcoholic junky to wallow in.”
When he gets no reply from Bro, he continues his rant.
“Yeah, ain’t nothing sets the proper mood like some good ol’ chicken-shack, chicken-shit, juke-joint slave music. Man, all that hard living you sing about, I’m surprised to see you’re still around.”
Bro feels something inside coming unraveled, and this time the message is plain.
“Kid, if I were you, I wouldn’t push it any further,” says Bro.
But Stick James, RAP artist, can’t stop talking.
“Fact is, I’ve never known who to hate more, my would-be father, or you and your blues crap. If my mother’s habit hadn’t finally killed her, she’d probably still be drinking, shootin’ up, and playing those sorry-ass records of yours.”
Bro moves inside himself—beyond the possibility of reason. He slides his right hand down to his boot, pulls up the leg of his pants, and finds the handle of a survival knife. He spins on the barstool and jams the blade all the way in and back out of Stick James’ chest.
The wounded man opens his mouth as if to scream, but instead begins to howl—lupine eyes burning yellow in the dark.
Bro drops the bloody knife on the barroom floor. Oblivious of the woeful sound, he closes his eyes and considers the meaning of eternity—ceaseless existence without a break. The jukebox in the corner plays:
I got to keep moving, I got to keep moving
Blues falling down like hail, blues falling down like hail
And the day keeps on remindin’ me
There’s a hellhound on my trail...
Robert Bro Brown stands in front of the Club Indigo, “windy-city” cold blowing into his bloodshot eyes. How long since he’s closed his eyes—months, maybe even years. He looks up and down the boulevard—not a car in sight. Quiet, except for the sound of a dog howling in the distance. Mournful wailing. The baying of a hound tracking a scent.
A shiver tracks his spine. Bro reaches inside his overcoat pocket, pulls out a bottle, and downs the dregs. He wipes his lips with his sleeve and drops the empty into the gutter. The bottle does not break. It spins around on its side a couple of times and comes to a stop—bottleneck pointing in his direction. Mephisto Gin—Bottled in Chicago. Bro picks up his guitar and turns toward the club entrance...