Weekly Wire
NewCityNet Ghost Track

By Mitch Myers

MAY 10, 1999:  It started when I tried working on my computer while listening to "Robert Johnson: The Complete Recordings."

By the time I finally found a decent work groove, the two-CD set ended and I wrote in silence for twenty minutes. Suddenly, Johnson's blues-ridden wail started coming out of my stereo speakers again. That's funny, I thought. The disc player wasn't on auto-repeat. There weren't any bonus cuts on the CD. The digital display read "track 30." I checked the CD box, but it reported only twenty-one tracks. The song ended, so I programmed the machine to play "track 30" again. No such luck - the song vanished.

Feeling confused, I began calling people who I thought might own the box set. I finally found a buddy with the same collection. "Have you listened to it all the way through?" I asked. "Sure," he said. "I've listened to it." "Come on, Jim," I shot back. "You're no blues fanatic. Are you sure you've listened to both discs all the way through to the very end?" "Well now that you mention it, I only remember putting on the song 'Crossroads' to see how compared to the live version by Cream," he confessed. "Well don't put it on now!" I yelled. "Wait for me to get there!"

We agreed to play the second disc in its entirety rather than searching for the phantom track. As a backup, I suggested using his cassette recorder to capture the song on tape. We sat through all of disc two and sure enough, the CD kept playing after track 21. Eventually, the same ghostly song began playing on Jim's stereo. It was definitely Robert Johnson, but neither Jim nor I recognized the song. As I feared, the song ended and we couldn't get the machine to play track 30 again.

When the cassette we had made played back blank, Jim flipped out. "I don't know, man," he said. "This whole thing about Robert Johnson having a hellhound on his trail and selling his soul to the devil at the crossroads, it's too weird. Think about it, history says that Johnson only recorded twenty-nine songs in his entire life. The rest of the existing tracks here are just alternate versions of those same damned songs. Twenty-nine songs . . . track 30? Come on! And this mystery tune disappears on two different stereos and can't be recorded?" We fiddled with the stereo more, but the song was gone. "Leave it alone," he called after me as I walked to my car. "It's just too weird."

Naturally, I began searching for sealed copies of the collection. I also began correspondence with Columbia Records to explain this bizarre phenomenon. The people at Columbia seemed helpful, but they obviously thought I was crazy. I also got the impression that one guy was hiding something from me. When I asked about the hypothetical track 30, he became evasive and said he'd call me back. Although I left numerous messages in the weeks that followed, I never heard from him or anyone else at Columbia. My friends in the industry told me that while the Johnson collection was supposedly still in print, Columbia had been showing the item on back order for eighteen months.

Finally, I found a broker whose specialty was locating old blues recordings. "Listen," I told him. "I'm looking for a CD collection by Robert Johnson called 'The Complete Recordings.' I only want new copies, but I'll pay top dollar." The broker laughed and said, "Kid, you're out of your league here. I already have a standing order direct from Eric Clapton's business manager for every copy of 'The Complete Recordings' I can get my hands on. You don't even want to know how much he's paying; it would make you sick. Now I don't what it is about these discs, and the more I hear the less I want to know. I'll tell you that I'm not the only broker who's been contacted by people like Clapton; we've all had similar requests for two years running. My advice is to just scour old record bins and leave the high-priced dealing to the folks that can afford it."

In the months that followed, I split my time between visiting record stores and calling blues experts on the telephone. Once I even reached an old Johnson crony, the 84 year-old David "Honeyboy" Edwards, here in Chicago. He was nice enough at first, but when I asked about a secret recording by Robert Johnson he hung up.

Then last night, after hours searching the Web, I turned off my computer in a state of exhaustion. It was midnight and I was totally discouraged. "Damn," I said out loud. "I'd do anything for another listen to that song." Immediately, my doorbell rang. As I went to answer the door, the distinct smell of sulfur filled the air and I realized that I had made a huge mistake.


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