Looking for Robert Johnson
Zeke Schein has sold guitars to Patti Smith, Rosanne Cash, Jeff Tweedy, Steve Earle, Elvis Costello, Jack White, Sam Shepard, and Bob Dylan, among many others, from his perch behind the front counter at the legendary Matt Umanov Guitars on Bleecker Street in the Village. Schein also plays slide guitar and has played with Patti Smith and Ronnie Earl, among others. In fact, his love of the blues is so deep that licks from Robert Johnson and Skip James flow from Schein’s fingers because their music permeates his soul.
Part memoir, part music history, and part detective story, Schein’s new book, Portrait of a Phantom: The Story of Robert Johnson’s Lost Photograph (Pelican), carries us on a journey deep into the heart of blues history, while also providing a few glimpses into just how territorial and jealous and spiteful some blues experts can be. A rattling good storyteller, Schein one day throws a guitar pick up at the store’s ceiling — a game he and a co-worker, Carlo Tonalezzi, had been playing for weeks — and his pick sticks in the ceiling. Maybe, he thinks, it’s a sign. That was Thursday, June 2, 2005. That evening he’s scrolling through the “old guitars” section of eBay when he comes across an odd listing: “Old Snapshot Blues Guitar B.B. King??? AAMUS.” When he looks at the photo, Schein realizes that the image in the photo is not B.B. King but Robert Johnson. “His hands were huge, with long spidery fingers. You never see anyone with hands like that. When I looked at his face, I knew who he was, because I had spent the past fifteen years studying the only other two known images of the man who was holding the guitar in the photo.”
Seeing the photo that evening sets Schein on what turns out to be a ten-year journey, filled with all sorts of villains and heroes, that in some ways continues even now. When he sees the photo, he begins to wonder if this could be a lost third photograph of Johnson. Up until then, only two authentic photos of the blues guitarist, so famous in legend for having gone down to the crossroads to trade his soul to the devil in exchange for the ability to play guitar, were known to exist. If this photo turned out to be Johnson, according to Schein, it was “priceless in both historical and monetary value.” Schein’s wonder about the photo is underscored by the mystery surrounding Johnson himself: “Despite his popularity and the extensive research on his life, Johnson remains a phantom. His history is a house of cards that collapses under close examination, because no matter which way you look at it, there are always a few cards missing.”
With the help of his co-worker Tom, Schein places a bid on the photo — which appears on the cover of the book and depicts Johnson standing next to bluesman Johnny Shines — and eventually wins the auction with the highest bid. Once he receives the photo in the mail, he begins the process of authenticating it. At first he shows it to some friends, including Ralph DeLuca, a big player in the world of movie memorabilia, and John Tefteller, who produces the Blues Images calendar. By this time, Vanity Fair has also shown interest in the photo and in Schein’s story. Even before Vanity Fair publishes its story and debuts the photo, blues naysayers appear on various online forums questioning the authenticity the photo, claiming that it cannot be a photo of Johnson. Once the story appears in print, the vituperative comments grow even louder. Yet, Schein works with the Robert Johnson estate, which hires a forensic expert, Lois Gibson, to authenticate the photo, and the estate stands behind him throughout the ten-year journey he travels with this photo.
Schein reflects on Johnson’s influence on him, as well as on musicians and music around the world. “Over a million people around the world saw the photo online, and it created a controversy because people still care about Robert Johnson. He may not have been popular in his time, but he affected so many creative people I’ve known … who all saw a piece of themselves in Johnson … . I saw a man who believed in possibility, like I do … . It’s all about suspending your disbelief and seeing possibility. I learned that from Robert Johnson … . People can reproduce ideas and communicate them to others through art: painting, music, words. Robert Johnson may seem a phantom to us now, but in his time he was a man who breathed and drank and sang … . He communicated ideas that continue to live and enrich music across its genres … . For those who care to see it, I hope I have managed to offer one more glimpse of the phantom.”
We may close Schein’s entertaining Portrait of a Phantom still wondering whether or not his photo is a lost third photograph of Johnson — though he’s amassed plenty of evidence to indicate that it’s a photo of Johnson, many still doubt its authenticity — but we can’t close the book without being a bit breathless about the thrill of discovery, the tenaciousness of his detective work, the enduring love he holds for Johnson and his music, and the dazzling fretwork of his storytelling.