Album: The Centennial Collection
. . .
Of course, like most rockboys of my generation, I came to Robert Johnson’s music through second-hand sources. The Rolling Stones “Love in Vain,” (shamefully credited to “Woody Payne” on Let It Bleed), Cream’s cover of “Cross Roads Blues,” (or more accurately, Lynyrd Skynyrd’s cover of Cream’s “Crossroads,”), the, um, er Blues Brothers cover of “Sweet Home Chicago”, and so on and so forth.
And while the Johnson covers dried up as the years went on, there were still the occasional great ones, like Gil Scott-Heron’s utterly chilling take on “Me and The Devil Blues” that somehow updated the original while still retaining all of the darkness.
In fact, when I finally got The Complete Robert Johnson during the coldest Christmas of my life in 1990, I was surprised at how many songs I already knew through osmosis, like Shakespeare quotes or some shit. In any event, that meant that I knew every word to a song like “Stop Breakin’ Down Blues,” covered by The Rolling Stones on “Exile on Main Street,” as a slow boogie churn with piano, harmonica and a spidery lead guitar.
That’s totally different from Johnson’s take, which is just his voice and his amazing guitar playing leads over his constant rhythm churn while he describe a nightlife that is both dangerous and irresistible. Like all good nightlives should be.
I can’t walk the streets now to consolate my mind
Some pretty mama she starts breakin’ down
Stop breakin’ down, please stop breakin’ down
The stuff I got it gonna bust your brains out,
Baby, hoo hoo, it’ll make you lose your mind
There’s a lot of ambiguity in “Stop Breaking Down.” Why are all the pretty mamas breaking down? And more importantly when he sings about “the stuff I got,” is it a sex reference or is it a drug reference. Is he a dealer or is he a player? Is he contributing to the breakdowns or trying to make things better?
It’s impossible to know. But what is knowable is that his “hoo hoo” is utterly amazing, complete and utter braggadocio and swagger. Also: one helluva hook, which is why he went to it again and again.
“Stop Breakin’ Down Blues”
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