The guitar virtuoso passed away, tragically, in 1988, but his music remains eternal. An appreciation.
BY JAMES TIGHE
I’d rather not count the years that have gone by since my crew and I used to catch Roy Buchanan and his guitar at the Crossroads in Prince George’s County, Maryland. Next door was a crab shack, and the thing to do on a Saturday night, after sitting down to a newspaper-covered table of steamed Chesapeake Bay blue crabs and pitchers of National Bohemian beer, was pile into the Crossroads to hear Roy. We saw him play there, initially on the strength of fake I.D.s, countless times.
A character by the name of Danny Denver fronted the band in those days. Besides sporting a world-class beer belly, hopeless polyester threads, and a repertoire of George Jones, Charley Pride, and Elvis Presley imitations, Danny Denver had a habit of shooting his cuff on his hand holding the microphone and surreptitiously stealing a glance at his wristwatch, anticipating the upcoming break, usually during the vocal crescendo of whatever impassioned country aria he happened to be singing. But behind him, as far out of the spotlight as he could manage, there was Roy, his shy Ozark face sprouting the dark overgrown goatee of an old-time beatnik, a smoldering cigarette fretted in the strings of his Telecaster, his Schlitz cans stacking up on the undersized amp next to him. We thought the world of him.
So did a lot of other people. Donald Kinsey, who played with Bob Marley, called Roy “the king of the flash guitar.” Jerry Garcia talked of how he went to school on Roy’s licks. Robbie Robertson said of him, “He was my first main man. His imagination on the instrument was amazing. . .” Roy briefly played in Toronto with Ronnie Hawkins’ band that included Robertson and Levon Helm and later evolved into The Band. The rumor persists to this day that when Brian Jones died, the Stones offered the job to Roy.
We knew he didn’t deserve this scene at the Crossroads. That he had already paid his dues. That Danny Denver couldn’t lift the pennies in Roy’s loafers. It was obvious to us Roy was punching a time-clock night after night, toting a Fender Telecaster instead of a lunch bucket to work. After all, he had seven children to feed. You might have to see him play half a dozen times before he’d strut his stuff. But when he did, his ringing kickoff to “Johnny B. Goode” was guaranteed to start any joint rocking. And when he launched into his own “The Messiah Will Come Again,” with its tragic, soaring, matador’s notes, everyone in the place, from the waitresses with beehive hair that Danny Denver was forever hitting on, to the weekend cowboys who’d never been west of West Virginia, looked up and wondered who was this man playing an old guitar like his life depended on it?
And maybe it did. Roy died more than twenty-five years ago at the age of 48 in a Fairfax County, Virginia, jail cell, where his death was ruled an alcohol-related suicide.
It is not unusual for artists of exceptional talent like Roy Buchanan to be engaged in a daily war to stay alive—that’s what their art is all about. Art, whether it be the blues or a novel, is a weapon—sometimes the only one an artist has to fight his or her demons. When asked by a studio musician how he could play with such fire, yet seem so calm, Roy answered, “Because I’m screaming inside.” The artist Chuck Close said of his contemporary, Robert Rauschenberg, “He’s like a shark—he has to keep swimming [creating art] or he dies.”
Booze or drugs when mistaken for allied weapons in this war for spiritual survival are a fearful choice, because in the end they can turn on you and become demons themselves, one more dragon to be slain. As Ken Kesey’s heroic character in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, Chief Bromden, says of his alcoholic father, “[E]very time I see him put the bottle to his mouth he don’t suck out of it, it sucks out of him. . .”
I read of Roy’s sad death a month or so after I had returned to Washington D.C., my hometown, to work on the subway still under construction. The newspaper article mentioned a benefit for his wife and family at the old Crossroads. After work that Sunday (I was working a seven day work week) I stopped by there on my way home. The bouncer looked me up and down, saying he couldn’t let me in because it was a coat and tie affair. I was dressed in work clothes. I didn’t argue with him. I looked past him into the dark bar where the crowd and band were in full swing. I would have loved to have joined them. I gave him the cover anyway, saying I wanted to contribute a little something to Roy’s family. He thanked me and I left.
After Roy cut loose from the Crossroads way back when, I saw him play other places, other times, even upscale venues like the Kennedy Center. Years after his death his music continues to crop up in unexpected places. During the ’92 winter Olympics a Canadian figure skating couple performed their routine on television to The Messiah Will Come Again. I’ve heard his Telecaster pouring from the tape deck of a carload of teenage longhairs in a Pascagoula, Mississippi, Sonic Burger, and from the jukebox of a French Quarter bar at dusk while a Springtime flock of little unseen birds squabbled in the treetops. It does my heart good to know his music lives on.
James Tighe is the author of Following the Water, Working the Land, a collection of outdoor articles, published by Quail Ridge Press of Brandon, Miss. He lives in Lafayette County, Miss., and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Below, watch a complete Buchanan concert from 1985, live on Germany’s “Rockpalast” show.