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Robb Johnson, A Break in the Clouds

Robb Johnson - Backstories


It’s five past Friday evening, the town of Greiz is cold & grey, & I’m down the Bahnhofstrasse in the Peanuts Bar Café. In the shadows in one corner, a well-dressed business man is drinking the café’s most expensive wine & working on a laptop. In the shadows of the other corner, two teenage boys, pale faced, hooded, are muttering & whispering about how the Auslaenders all get televisions & computers the moment they arrive. A small, slightly shabby man with round glasses drinking beer unnoticed at the bar, sighs, & thinks about how he’s heard this all before. He has his guitar in its case, & a packed suitcase discreetly at his feet. His cigar burns steadily in an ashtray. The door opens & a tall, smartly dressed stranger carrying a guitar & suitcase, hat pulled down over his face, walks in. He moves through the bar the way a cat moves when its trying to pretend it’s invisible. The boys stop whispering when they realise his skin is black. He sits down at the bar, orders a beer & puts a cigarette in his mouth. His fingers slide into his jacket pockets looking for matches. The man with the glasses pushes his lighter over to him.

“Thank you, mister,” says the man with the hat, quietly, politely.

The boys start their whispering again.

“Bertolt Brecht, ” says the man with the glasses, holding out his hand.

“Robert Johnson,” replies the man with the hat. He carefully puts the lighter into Brecht’s open hand. Brecht nods, impressed. Johnson looks at Brecht’s guitar.

“Are you a player too, mister?”

Brecht shakes his head. “No, not like you. I’m more of a writer. But then…you are too, aren’t you?”

“You heard my stuff?”

Brecht nods. “Oh yes. Poetry, Mr Johnson. ‘Love in Vain’…. Poetry.”

“Do I know your stuff, mister?”

Brecht thinks for a minute. “No, probably not. Maybe… Do you know ‘Mack The Knife’?”

It’s Johnson’s turn to look impressed. “Yeah… good song. Didn’t you do that ‘Pirate Jenny’ thing too?”

Brecht nods, trying not to look too pleased with himself.

“Man, that is a song. What’s that all about, man? She’s black, right, that woman, she’s got to be black.”

Brecht looks surprised. “I don’t know… possibly. I hadn’t thought about it…Yes, very possibly. Possibly, nowadays, maybe she thinks of herself as muslim, rather than working class, but, yes, she could very well still also be black. Unfortunately.”

By now, the Café is starting to fill up with customers. A father & son come in with the unthinking confidence of routine, seat themselves at their accustomed table & wait for the barman to bring them their accustomed beers. They share an affectionate, fond & comfortable silence, & Brecht & Johnson watch as modest smiles creep across their faces.

“You have children?” asks Brecht.

“All over, I guess…” Johnson’s smirk turns into a wry grimace. He shrugs.

“But nothing … permanent?”

“No, nothing… permanent, mister. Just passing through. Gotta keep moving…”

“Blues falling down like hail, eh?”

“Yeah, blues falling down like hail…”

A group of stereotypically beautiful girls tumbles like laughter into the café. They too head for an accustomed table. Unconsciously, both Brecht & Johnson sit up a little straighter; Brecht adjusts his glasses & Johnson tilts his hat. The girls ignore them. Again, unconsciously, their shoulders, & bellies, relax & sag a little as they return their attention to their beer.

“What do you call an artist without a girlfriend?” asks Brecht.

“Homeless,” replies Johnson.

Neither of them laugh. Brecht looks at the ash on his cigar, & Johnson lights another cigarette from the stub of his old one. Brecht looks in admiration at Johnson’s fingers. They are long, elegant, wicked, spatulate, & move like they have a life of their own, sliding like snakes, fluttering like birds. They look like they will never be at ease unless they are caressing a guitar.

“So….did you really sell your soul to the devil?” asks Brecht, never taking his eyes from Johnson’s fingers.

Johnson closes his eyes, tilts his head, like he’s listening for something he isn’t ever going to hear. He smiles, opens his eyes & looks directly at Brecht. “Did you?” he asks.

“Well…” Brecht frowns. “As a good socialist, I of course don’t believe in the devil except as a useful metaphorical shorthand…”

“So how come you got that theatre in Berlin I seen one time when I was passing through?”

Brecht grimaces. “Compromises. The only way to keep going. You make the best deal with the …the most progressive devils you can find.”

“Is that right?”

Brecht finds himself feeling unconvinced.

“In retrospect….looking back now…It’s all very well being an anarchist. All you have to do is complain about everything & everybody all the time. & it’s all very well being a revisionist, saying ‘oh in retrospect…’ But at the time…You make choices.” He frowns. “I don’t know. An artist without a … girlfriend…You know?”

He looks up into Johnson’s face & raises his eyebrows. It’s his turn to shrug now.

Johnson nods. “You do what you have to. To keep going. Who wants to be a hero anyway, huh? Most people, just takes all they got just to keep going, get to the end of the working week, before the next one starts up again. Most people I play for, they just want a good Friday night out. They don’t want no po-litics. They don’t care about how many hellhounds you got on your trail. You pick guitar, or you pick cotton.” Johnson sighs & looks his splayed fingers. Brecht wonders if it’s just the candle light that makes them look like they are trembling slightly. Johnson steals a backward glance at the shadows over his shoulder & quickly turns his head back again. “I chose the guitar, Mister Brecht. I plays whatever they wants to hear, so’s they can dance for however long they wants to dance.”

"Yes… indeed. Unhappy the land that has need of heroes… though we did used to have an awful lot of statues in the old days. Perhaps that was the problem."




“No statues,” Brecht raises his glass.

“No statues,” agrees Johnson, raising his glass.

They drink their beers.

“Tell me,” asks Brecht, “doesn’t it bother you the millions other people have made out of your music?”

“Well… when I started playing, just not picking cotton & nothing else everyday was good enough for me. To get out of Mississippi, see that moon of Alabama, yeah? Get me to that next whisky bar…” Johnson looks sideways at Brecht & they both laugh. “That’s all I ever wanted. & here I am. It was a good deal.” Johnson’s face suddenly looks like it’s turned to stone. “At the time. A real good deal.”

“Hmn,” grunts Brecht, “so was the theatre. At the time.”




They finish their beers.


Johnson shakes his head. “Gotta keep moving.” He picks up his guitar. “You staying?”
Brecht nods. “Nowhere else to go. Besides… I quite like it here. In spite of everything.”

“That’s because you’re white, man.”

“No, I think it’s because I’m red, actually.”

They laugh. Johnson holds out his hand.

“Take care, man.”

“Go well, comrade.”

They shake hands.

As Johnson passes by on his way out into the darkness, the businessman looks up from his laptop & calls out softly “See you later, boy,” then nods to the two pale hooded faces in the corner. They get up & walk towards the door.

Outside, a golden moon in a black silk sky smiles down on a cold grey town. Behind every window, it feels like there is a TV in almost every room now, & every room is spilling over with reality shows, game shows, celebrity shows, pumped full of advertisement & numb with the latest news of the latest war. Elsewhere on the planet, Mother Courage hauls her monstrous wagon from checkpoint to checkpoint through the ruined streets of Baghdad, as the jet fighters howl over her head. Meanwhile, Robert Johnson, darkness shadowing every step, whistles softly to himself as he heads towards his next Hauptbahnhof, “Gotta keep moving, blues falling down like hail…”

Inside, Brecht orders a black coffee & takes out his biro. He looks around at the largely unemployed & officially no longer necessary working people of Greiz as they smile, & laugh, & drink their way through the candle light towards the end of this particular tired old working week. He notices one woman wears pretty pink shoes. Pink shoes…He smiles to himself. The ash on his cigar trembles, & he begins to write.

“We all work for peanuts…”


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