Let’s Talk About Sex

True confession: I spent the last 48 hours trying frantically to write about my sex life.

You heard me. In a burst of bravado I pitched some ideas to a women’s magazine. To my horror, the editor asked me to write one. I was at REI, queuing to buy socks for Chris, when her email arrived. I went hot and cold, then dizzy. Was buying his favourite socks going to be enough to make up for dishing personal information in a public forum?

“Is your husband comfortable with you being this open about your sex life?” the editor asked.

Good question.

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That night, after a couple glasses of wine, I took the plunge: “So, how would you feel about me writing about our sex life?”

To my relief, he was good with it, as long as he got a preview.

That, it transpired, was the least of my concerns.

Travelling from Oregon to London to Ibiza to Manchester in the space of a week left me short on creative time. I finally sat down to write in Manchester. Perched on an uncomfortable hotel chair, in my pants, I tried to render in words the elusive emotions of an intimate encounter. Quelle surprise, words went belly up on the page like fish in a dynamite pond. It wasn’t moving, it wasn’t sexy, it wasn’t even coherent.

Thankfully Chris got back from work so I could quit for the night.

My Wednesday deadline was poised like the sword of Damocles. Saturday night I caught a train to London while my husband got on a plane to Denmark. It made perfect sense to spend 10 hours on a slow-mo Hackney bar crawl with Ruth, rounded out with another bottle of wine at her flat.

I was wide awake at five o’clock Monday morning, heart pounding, anxiety’s fingers wrapped around my throat. Too dizzy to read or sit upright, I lay on the sofa chanting, “All is well” in the vain hope it might be true. Needless to say, the essay went untouched.

Tuesday I flew to Spain. Rather, I caught traversed taxi-plane-bus-train-taxi transport sequence that got me from Finsbury Park, north London to Jerez de la Frontera, Cadiz (best known for its sherry and horses). En route I had plenty of time to think about the ways this personal essay was not working. In a burst of desperation/inspiration I emails to a couple of Portland (OR) based sex therapists. They both responded and, thanks to the nine-hour time difference, I found myself with an 11PM and 2AM interview.

The first one was easy enough. It is light in Jerez till after 10PM so another hour wasn’t a stretch. I set two alarms: 1:40 and 1:45. The fidgety timekeeper in my brain booted me awake at 1:37. Chris was wide awake in Helsinki so we texted till five to two. Then I hit the call button on Skype and snapped into chipper journalist mode.

On the evidence of the interviews sex therapists are a delightful bunch. Both women sounded like people I want to be friends with. This gave me hope. Maybe their wisdom would bleed into my writing. Maybe their sensibleness would make sense of my nonsense.

After chatting to Chris I fell asleep around 3AM, slept through my alarm, and woke beneath a cloud. Must write personal essay. Must find a place to live. Must… must… must…

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Crawling back into the surprisingly comfortable twin bed, plugging my ears and waiting for the world to go away never looked so good. Behind all this, the nagging thought that I could have asked for an extension on the essay. Hitting deadline is one of my sacred principles though, the freelancer’s code. I didn’t want to look like a flake on my first outing. Nor did I want to send something that would shame me as a writer.

Midday came and went. Two more drafts begun. A plate of rice and beans eaten on the terrace. Phone calls to an estate agent to arrange a 5PM viewing of a flat 4km away. That’s a 50 minute walk according to Google, which dispensed no wisdom on public transport. I mentally blocked out the afternoon: write till 4. Walk, view, walk back. Then I had till 10PM to send the piece, based on a 5PM finish in the magazine’s New York office.

By the time I set out I’d hatched a new strategy. Ditch the narrative essay. Focus on the key message: How this experience helped me overcome my relationship fears. Write it one-two-three-four. There was a conclusion tacked onto an earlier draft that I could live with.

“If I can write the essay to fit that conclusion, it’ll be okay,” I said to Chris.

He took my panicking over writing about our sex life better than I would. It’s unlikely the tables will ever turn, but if they do it is going to take an effort of will to sit back and let him be frank.

Jerez Norte is a dead zone during siesta. Avenues, parks and office buildings uniformly deserted. I walked along, past HiperAsia, Lidl, Mercadona, mounting pieces of evidence that my destination isn’t where I want to be.

Enrique was in his car, smoking and texting. Tufts of nasal hair, like Meyer Wolfsheim. We stood in the shade next to a bar and he told me this was the best zone of the city. It looked like Marina Botafoc without the yachts: soulless blocks of flats with high gates and artificially turquoise pools. We looked at one of the flats. Sterile, ugly, with a tiny oblong that passes for a terrace in this town. The walk back was, mercifully, quicker for being familiar.

wallaceHome, straight to the laptop. Write. Write. Write. As I hacked away, the thought kept repeating: A supposedly fun thing I’ll never do again. David Foster Wallace’s essay of that title is turgid and self-important beyond belief (it encapsulates the experience of reading his work) but it is a great title. And captured my precise feelings about writing the damn essay. It should have been fun. A yomp. I was just asked to write about my experience. What could be easier? Pulling teeth, for one.

Even with the wise, candid sex therapist input the essay veered like a rudderless sail boat. There’s a Spanish saying: va viento en popa means to go extremely well, to be on a roll. My roll was more kid-backwards-downhill-on-skates (waiting for a crash). I scrabbled for my best writing teacher advice: Break it down, tackle small sections, don’t edit, keep writing.

I meant to pour a glass of wine to aid the creative process but couldn’t bring myself to leave the desk for that long. Sentence by clunky sentence I inched towards the conclusion. That kept changing too, but it was low on my worry list.

Around half-eight I plunked the last words in. It wasn’t good, but there was an introduction, four main sections and a brief conclusion. It was 1037 words. I spell-checked and proofread, consulted their website for the therapists full names and titles. After it was done, I read it again.

Chris was messaging from the gig in Helsinki. “Have you sent it?” he asked, 20 minutes after I told him I was finished.

“Just now,” I said, opening an email window.

The editor replied not long after: “Thanks, I’ll send notes tomorrow.”

Dread oozed back into my bubble of relief. It is without doubt one of the worst things I’ve ever written. Easily beyond repair. So far, nothing from New York today. I’ll just have to deal with it when it happens.

George Orwell remarked that writing a book is like a long bout of a painful illness –and he was a man with ample knowledge of both those things. Writing a personal essay to order is acute, like projectile vomiting in public. The topic of my essay was a huge confidence boost, writing about it smashed that confidence to fragments.

Win some. Lose some.

If you must write about sex (or anything) get help

non-fiction

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Poem: Fragments

One of my (very) occasional poems.

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Fragments

10 March 2015

Crater Lake suspended between scarlet sunset and silver moon rise

Moonlight casting shadows of Joshua trees like puppets or

Silvering almond blossoms on a spring night in Ibiza

The sea: spilled ink in turquoise

Living gems like my cat’s opal eyes

Wide awake as the plane banks over Distrito Federal Philadelphia PDX

Heathrow Singapore Reykjavik Rome Barcelona Chicago Paris Amsterdam.

Home, a red rucksack. Work, the laptop stuffed inside. Comfort, a copy of

Franny & Zooey, heavily underlined in soft pencil.

Weddings in Vegas, the Lake District, a country house, a tiny white clapboard

Chapel on the fringe of an

Amusement park in Portland, Redbridge registry office.

Patti Smith at the Cardiff Coal Hall, Radiohead at Glastonbury (not the mud year),

The Mud Years – Homelands, Glasto, Godskitchen, Leeds, SW4. Name that tune:

‘Electric Dreams’ ‘Diabla’ ‘Common People’ ‘Insomnia’ ‘Karma Police’

‘Yoshimi Battles the Pink Robots’ ‘Sinner In Me (Villalobos Remix)’

DC10 Closing 2005 – 2009

Sam, 2012, RIP

“…afflicted from birth with a presentiment of loss”

Chips and a strawberry margarita, Mad4Mex

Goats cheese pancake, Bistro

Wine and crisps, anywhere, 1999 – 2015

Riot!

Sharp slippery shining slivers of memory.

A mosaic in the making?

Writer’s Houses — William Faulkner

From my notebook, 1 April 2017 (Oxford, Mississippi)

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Rowan Oak, Oxford, MS

Sitting on the Adirondack chair on William Faulkner’s “patio” at Rowan Oak.

I walked from Oxford town square, past the Makers’ Market with people selling crochet butterflies and canvas wall-hangings. Past the white marble pillar (c. 1907) praising Confederate soldiers who died for “a just and holy cause”, past the courthouse flying the Mississippi state flag with its stars and bars — as if miniaturising renders the symbolism inconsequential.

Eleventh Street between the square and Rowan Oak is so pretty my teeth ache. All those shining white houses, flowers, gleaming silvery roofs. The porch swings fat with overstuffed cushions, faux flames dancing in real lanterns, verandas, roof terraces, white curtains, white benches, white lattice work. Lush green and sweet pinks, reds, fuschias. Confection. A sugar glaze.

Rowan Oak is smaller than many of the houses I passed. Its drama is in the long approach through scattered sentinel trees — cypress and others I don’t recognize. They are well-spaced with swathes of shade dappled grass between, begging to be sat upon.

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Faulkner’s bedroom with his riding boots

The exterior is brilliantly white, the interior modest. It looks more like a home of the ’30s or ’40s than the ’50s and later. The furniture is dark wood with heavy upholstery. Walking through the library, writing room, kitchen, and bedrooms is pleasant but unrevelatory. There are no ghosts. Nothing to be gained here.

Outside there’s a party of some sort on the grounds — teenage girls in impossible heels and rolls of satin, faces painted stiff. Storm ‘Time to Burn’ is blaring out of badly balanced speakers. Dogwood, my favourite Southern tree, is in staggering bloom.

Walking through a writer’s house used to charge me with envy. Today, no. Admiration, yes. But I’m no longer sure I have the strength or ego or whatever it takes to be so assured. You have to believe hard in something. Fiction writers, more than non-fiction writers, have to believe hard in themselves. It takes a huge amount of energy and attention to write a book (Orwell compared writing a novel to a long bout of a painful illness). It requires time, resources, patience, and a stubborn certainty that the thing is worth doing.

My one novel, thus far, appeared under such circumstances. I was fed and sheltered, had minimal other responsibilities, and the story had been chewing its way through me for two years before I sat down to write.

Rowan Oak gives a silent account of what a writer needs: financial stability, space, light, privacy, routine, comfort, quiet, moral support, aesthetic pleasure, and independence. It is the embodiment of what Virginia Woolf meant by “a room of one’s own”. Art is not ethereal. It has bodily needs.

When met, they give the artist / writer / musician scope to express his or her creativity. Faulkner memorably resigned from his job as University of Mississippi postmaster with the following letter (via Letters of Note):letters of note

As long as I live under the capitalistic system, I expect to have my life influenced by the demands of moneyed people. But I will be damned if I propose to be at the beck and call of every itinerant scoundrel who has two cents to invest in a postage stamp.

This, sir, is my resignation.

He understood that being at anyone’s “beck and call” was antithetical to his ambitions as a writer. Free to write, Faulkner’s talent ignited. For sheer breath-taking mastery of the form, few novels compare to As I Lay Dying. The tragicomic story of the Burden family’s journey to bury their mother, it is excruciating, morbid, and funny, with a killer twist.

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Faulkner’s pretty white tree-shaded house was more than a home. It was the omphalos of his literary world. Sitting on the patio, or wandering between the trees, he had space to create and imagine. Modest and practical (right down to the tin mint julep cup), Rowan Oak fitted and enabled his creative life.

Writer’s homes come in all shapes, sizes and configurations, but they are essential to the work.

 

 

Stax Records, Memphis

Driving south on E McLemore I see a church on almost every block. What’s God up to in this corner of Memphis? Houses not dedicated to worship of the Almighty slump among empty lots: paint peeling, porch rails crumpled, concrete warping beneath the wheels of clapped-out cars.

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Stax, 926 E McLemore, Memphis Tennessee

It takes a minute for my eyes to adjust to the bright, solid lines of Stax Records. Properly, the Stax Museum of American Soul Music, a modern reconstruction of the iconic studio torn down in 1989 after a church failed to find a use for the shell.

If I believed in God, which I don’t, that would make me doubt. A righteous, omnipotent being wouldn’t let the finest thing on E McLemore vanish in dust. God would take better care.

Stax Records is to soul what Sun Records is to rock’n’roll. Stax was Otis Redding, Sam & Dave, Isaac Hayes, the Staple Singers, Rufus Thomas, Carla Thomas, the Mar-Keys, the Bar-Kays, Booker T. and the M.G.s, William Bell, Johnnie Taylor.

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Booker T & the M.G.’s

Richard Pryor recorded ‘That Nigger’s Crazy’ at Stax. Isaac Hayes recorded the ‘Theme from Shaft which won an Oscar and a Grammy. Otis Redding recorded ‘(Sittin’ on) the Dock of the Bay’ days before his private plane crashed into a freezing lake, killing him and four teenage members of the Bar-Kays.

Inside, Stax is clean and calm. A short film tells the Stax story. How it was founded by Jim Stewart and his sister Estelle Axton (Stewart + Axton = Stax), both White. How it became a magnet for Black musicians, many of them kids from un-integrated local schools. How an alchemy of music and passion kept the place not just afloat but aloft. How Stax introduced Europe to soul and used music to bring unity to post-Watts Riots South Central LA.

Stax Records took virtually its whole roster into the South Central in 1972 for an epic concert called Wattstax. It was a joyous, defiant celebration of Black pride and unity.

I froze in front of the Wattstax display. I knew that voice: “This is a beautiful day. It is a new day.”

The next words were unfamiliar, as was the lack of piano chords beneath the voice, which rose and rose. “It is a day of Black awareness. It is a day of Black people taking care of Black people’s business.”

Jesse Jackson continued with words that, once again, reverberated with my memory: “Today we are together…. on this program you will hear gospel, and rhythm and blues, and jazz. All those are just labels. We know that music is music.”

I know Jackson’s soul-stirring speech as the intro to Primal Scream’s acid house masterpiece ‘Come Together’. But never, in the 15 years I’ve loved that record did I realise the Scottish ravers (or, more likely, their genius producer Andrew Weatherall) cribbed the best part of ‘Come Together’ from Stax Records.

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Jesse Jackson ‘I Am Somebody’

Rev Jesse Jackson’s face shines from an LP on a wall of record covers. I am somebody.

Across the street from the Stax parking lot, two teenage boys lark around, holding trombones. On the pavement in front a handful of workmen stretch canvas over a frame, getting ready for a fundraiser. On the marquee: Staxtacular, February 11.

Memphis writer Robert Gordon captures Stax’s rise and fall in articulate, beautiful, passionate detail in Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion.

He tells of the brilliance. The betrayals. The triumphs. The catastrophes. The stories of people who made some of America’s finest music then, largely, slipped through the cracks of our cultural history.

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Stax Records Museum of American Soul Music

Leaving Stax we drove past Royal Studios, erstwhile home of Hi Records. The small brick building with a bright mural painted over the door is the only thing in blocks that looks like it wouldn’t sway in a strong breeze. There’s no place to buy food in this neighbourhood apart from a couple of “grocery” stores with heavily barred windows and blistered paint. The houses look abandoned. Windows boarded, hemmed with weeds, screen doors hanging from a single hinge. The only business we pass is an AT&T outpost that looks like a prison, complete with razor-wire topped fences. Churches, though, have gleaming white porticoes and landscaping.

Subtly, lines soften as we head towards Midtown. Grass is greener. Blighted buildings give way to petrol stations to, finally, the accustomed restaurants, shops and offices.

I don’t know how to process the injustice, the beauty, the senseless repetition of tragic histories. Does anyone figure it out?

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Stax Records catalogue

“Sorrow everywhere,” Jack Gilbert wrote. “Slaughter everywhere.

If babies are not dying someplace they are dying somewhere else.

With flies in their nostrils.

But we enjoy our lives, because that’s what God wants.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

Write as if you were dying

“Write as if you were dying”. Annie Dillard’s advice (The Writing Life, p 68) has echoed in my head since I scribbled it in my notebook yesterday.

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“What would you begin writing,” she asks. “If you knew you would die soon?”

Yesterday’s answer was: I don’t know.

Today’s answer is shaded by the news of he-wh0-shall-not-be-named’s immigration ban. My mind keeps casting for a flicker of hope or relief. The hook comes up emptyemptyempty.

What would you write if sanity and morality were dying in your world, leaving good people gasping, upside down, like fish in a poisoned lake?

What the fuck can I say in the face of that?

Tweet. RT.

#resist #notmypresident #imanimmigrant

Someone, Natalie Goldberg maybe, said if you can ask a question you can answer it. Fine.

If I were dying, I’d write about not knowing where I belong. I’d write about the rain and the pine trees. I’d write about riding the old red Routemaster bus from Finchley Road to the Strand. I’d write about the nights drinking on Old Compton Street, and the Weatherspoons on Charing Cross Road. I’d write about making boots out of pink acrylic fur and wearing them to hard house raves beneath the arches at London Bridge. I’d write about buying Andy a Kinder Egg for Easter and watching him repair his trainers with superglue. I’d write about waiting for hours for a minute of conversation with Will; about the night he bought me a bottle of champagne in a drafty club in Elephant & Castle. I’d write about how extraordinary the stars are in southern Idaho, miles from the nearest town; and how the Nevada desert doesn’t look real beneath the pearly light of the full moon. I’d write about how the air smells at night in Ibiza and the whorled trucks of ancient olive trees. I’d write about the ribbon-like roads of the Amalfi Coast and the way the wind topples turquoise waves into streamers of white foam on the Mayan Riviera. I’d write about learning to taste wine and chargrill aubergines. I’d write about the dead men who make me grind my teeth. I’d write about feeling lost. I’d write about the books that shaped me, the ones I turn to for comfort. I’d write about being a god-fearing child and agnostic adult. I’d write that the most important thing in the world is being able to walk away. Then I’d contradict myself and say the most important thing is to know when to say.

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Amalfi Coast, Italy

What I’d be trying to say, through all of it, is I don’t know. Maybe you do. Maybe someone does. But me? Nope. Not a clue. I don’t know what it means to be here, to be me. I don’t know what picture the pieces make. All the memories and experiences, all the fun and all the disasters, all the friendships and the distance.

This is where I should trot out a pithy homily and – zi-zang!- all will be clear. But it’s not that kind of day; arguably, as of today, we don’t live in that kind of world. There are no pat explanations or obvious answers. All I know is that we have a fundamental human obligation to treat each other with care and respect. Everything else — our histories, preferences, quirks, interests, opinions — are inconsequential compared to this single, immense obligation. The only question any more is What can I do to help?

Support: Amnesty International Support: Human Rights Watch Support: ACLU

 

 

Birthday Poem: ‘Trouble’

On encountering Jack Gilbert’s ‘Trouble’ I had to look up Saint Chrysostom. Turns out the holy man in question was the Archbishop of Constantinople and his feast day in the Eastern Orthodox calendar of such things is 27 January. On that note…

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Summer in the Mediterranean — Ibiza

‘Trouble’
by Jack Gilbert

This is what the Odyssey means.
Love can leave you nowhere in New Mexico
raising peacocks for the rest of your life. The seriously happy heart is a problem.
Not the easy excitement, but summer in the
Mediterranean mixed with the
rain and bitter cold of February on the
Riviera, everything on fire in the
violent winds. The pregnant heart
is driven to hopes that are the
wrong size for this world.
Love is always disturbing in the
heavenly kingdom.
Eden cannot manage so much ambition.
The kids ran from all over the piazza
yelling and pointing and jeering
at the young Saint Chrysostom
standing dazed in the church doorway
with the shining around his mouth
where the Madonna had kissed him.

Buy Jack Gilbert’s ‘Collected Poems’

Share your birthday with an interesting character ? Share in the comments

Highway 61, Visited

Clarksdale, Mississippi is where, according to legend, Robert Johnson sold his soul to the devil. The alleged swap took place at the junction of Highway 49 and Highway 61, crossroads now marked with a blue-and-white sign and a guitar. Across the street: Church’s Chicken and a gas station. Opposite, Abe’s Barbecue “Swine dining since 1924.” You can judge a place by the length of time since anything noteworthy happened.

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Carnegie Library

There is a Carnegie Library, built in 1913. Blue plaques commemorate Ike Turner and WROX Radio. Ground Zero blues club, part-owned by Morgan Freeman, looks like a cross between the set of The Wire and the toilets in an indie rock club: busted sofas, a bench seat from some ancient automobile, scrawls and music stickers slapped on the walls. Its patio looks like Miss Del’s “garden” a few blocks down — a concrete plot sprouting mismatched furniture beneath a wall blazoned “God Speed the Plow.” Miss Del’s garden, like the adjoining General Store, is slumped and peeling. The only bright spot a crisp red-and-white “For Sale by Owner” sign.

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Ground Zero Blues Club

 

Whoever sells these signs has the only growth industry in town. The grocery store is boarded over; sheets drape the windows of Dependable Appliances; the Sunflower Building is a rambling corrugated iron shed that betrays no sense of purpose; “Customer parking only / Others towed at owner’s expense” warns a sign in front of a derelict drive-through. Mag-pie Gift shop is one of the few establishments that looks alive but it’s Sunday afternoon. What business gets done in Clarksdale doesn’t happen on the Lord’s day. Especially not as dull a one as this.

Highway 61 runs through pancake flats of mud broken by lines of black, leafless trees. Rain falls, unremitting, feeding shallow silver pools of water. Occasionally a line of bright green-and-yellow John Deere tractors breaks the monotony; less predictably, a shack roofed yellow parachute fabric. God gave good advice: If you want some killing done, no one will notice here.

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Highway 61, Mississippi delta

Above, flat silvery clouds; alongside, sodden fields; ahead, burnished concrete ribbon unspooling at the speed of our tires. For an open space, it feels awfully cramped. Tension splits the sullen sky and black Delta mud. This land’s richest days sprang from the slavery. Its finest heritage is heart-cries of anguish distilled through despair to bittersweet blues. What becomes of a place whose only pride is the beauty of its ugliness?

 

Judging by Clarksdale, it crumbles, contracting in a permanent spasm of hopelessness, too broke to sustain even the liquor store. You can buy beer at the gas station next door, though. A big, elderly black woman stands between thebattered gas-pumps and the shop’s iron-barred door, her red sun hat blooming like a flower above a royal purple dress. She’s the only sign of life on the streets, apart from a heavysetman wrangling two small children across an empty intersection. Do they bother to teach kids to look both ways here? Is anyone ever coming?

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Clarksdale town center

Levon’s Bar and Grill is the only place to get a drink or assurance you’ve not stumbled into a nightmare. Two white-haired white guys play the blues. On the guitar, Mr Pony-tail, beret and handlebar mustache; on harmonica, vocals and kick-drum, Mr Clean-shaven in a loose-fitting black button-down, says he has a wife but doesn’t wear a ring. They play “Sunshine of Your Love” and “It’s Alright Mama”, run through a joke about topless hippies that’s as threadbare as knees on old Levi’s.

 

Behind the bar, Mr Birdsong chirps. His daddy is a retired firefighter-cum-blues historian who tends bar across town. Mr B the younger, a “fourth or fifth generation” Clarksdaler, got away all the way to Tupelo (two hours east) to apprentice as a portrait painter. Spent 13 years learning his art then moved back, 14 years ago, tended bar with his daddy till Levon wrangled him. “I have kids running around, ex-wives on my nerves,” he says, grinning.

There are half a dozen of us in the room. A tattooed tourist from Milan wearing a fancy-dress take on Easy Rider chic: denim vest over a leather jacket, cowboy boots, red bandana tied over a frizzy curls that swish around his shoulders, rings on every finger. Sharing his table, a big man with bloodhound jowls wearing overalls and hoodie. Tucked in the corner is a tidy, middle aged couple in matching black puffa jackets. They’re from Brazil, which means they must have read about the Delta Blues Museum and Highway 61, must have come looking for some magic. I wonder if this enough.

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Crossroads, Clarksdale

Blues was survival music. Here in Clarksdale, whose famous sons and daughters include John Lee Hooker, Muddy Waters, Bessie Smith, Son House, Sam Cooke, Johnny B. Moore, and many others, it still is. Those fields of Mississippi mud aren’t likely to birth anything better and it is a long way to somewhere else on Highway 61.

Read: Delta Blues: The Life and Times of the Mississippi Masters, Ted Gioia

Listen: Bob Dylan, Hwy 61 Revisited