Highway 49 looked just like any other. Clarksdale decayed on either side of her. Everywhere else, highways cut through empty stretches of grass that once held viable farms, separating communities just hitting their stride.
Clarksdale grew busier with all the familiar trappings of both big cities and small towns as she drew nearer. Her eyes went over the Abe’s Bar-B-Q sign before she saw it: the three blue guitars marking “The Crossroads.” She turned off the highway and looked for a place to park. No one ever seemed to set foot on the actual spot except perhaps the landscapers who cared for the trees and shrubbery surrounding the marker. Instead, everyone stood across the street with acoustic guitars while friends took pictures of them with The Crossroads in the background. They thought they paid homage to the master Robert Johnson when all they really did was fall into a tourist trap courtesy of the state of Mississippi and pretend the August heat didn’t bother them. She could smell the heat. Deep South heat wasn’t like anything else—so thick that the sun had a scent, like an eye on the stove burning an empty pot.
She took a moment to watch the late evening traffic pass by the landmark that supposedly held the most important meeting in modern music history. She looked at the smiling faces of tourists armed with their cameras and the secondhand guitars they thought made them more authentic. She took one last look at the false idol before getting back in her car. She needed to go a little further south, one smug thought in mind as she left the intersections of Highways 61 and 49.
They really don’t know they’re in the wrong place.
It took less than an hour to drive the nearly forty-mile stretch south to Rosedale. No heart-pounding anticipation or heavy breathing as more of Mississippi passed her by. She knew exactly what to look for and kept her eye out for the Great Wall, a long stretch of levees rendered useless in 2005 when they were needed. That was when she should have come, her 27th year.
She told herself she could beat the curse if only she was patient. The 27 Club got the impatient ones. So she didn’t fret when it took her another five years to finally make the journey.
She got off Highway 1 and parked at Leo’s Market where the Crossroads Blues Society was headquartered. They always want to canonize us after we’ve gone and they’ve stolen everything we created. The museum she had no intention of visiting was closed, but she only needed the parking space. The intersection with Highway 8 no longer formed an X. Maybe it never did. The devil had many tricks after all.
She stood on the edge of the parking lot where 1 met 8. Nothing else on the road, not even a stray rabbit. Alone in the post-dusk darkness on a road modern times had yet to conquer.
“Dora A. Burns.”
She turned back toward the parking lot to see the pale man walking toward her. Of course he would be pale, not attractive as she was always told. He stopped about two feet from her. Dora wasn’t surprised he didn’t smell of sulfur and chimney soot but was astonished to have a pleasant citrusy scent greet her.
He said, “I thought you would arrive sooner.”
“So did I.”
She stood as tall as the five inches over her other five feet would allow as he looked her over. Dora gazed back at him, putting up the hard exterior she’d spent a lifetime developing. She’d had no capacity to develop the other skills she’d coveted since she was a child sitting on her mother’s bed watching Sheila E. and Tracy Wormworth three and a half minutes at a time. The pale man finally finished his examination.
“You think you’ve beaten the system, don’t you? You really think I’m so attached to that number 27?”
“You take more than the great ones. Now they become legend if they die at that age regardless of what they accomplish. They’re part of ‘the club.’ It’s easy to become immortal that way. But I’m not after immortality.”
“No. You want true greatness, true genius.”
“And what’s wrong with wanting to create?” she said.
He glared at Dora. “You’re not being true to yourself. You say you don’t want immortality, but why else do you create?”
Dora shrugged. “I feel it’s my calling.”
He smirked. “You fell in love with an art for which you have no talent. You tried to learn, but your hands don’t cooperate with you. How can it be a calling when your own body doesn’t allow you to create what you want?”
“Just a matter of circumstances,” Dora declared with all the confidence she could fake. “I wanted this all my life, but that small window when I could have developed some kind of talent closed too soon. My parents couldn’t …”
Dora tripped along that memory when her first-grade music teacher asked if she took piano lessons when she got all the notes right. She scored highly on the required music aptitude tests in fifth grade. With her high scores, she was invited to join sixth-grade band. But there were costs involved: the instrument, uniforms, private lessons. Her parents told her the cost of the instrument alone was too much, never mind the extras. So her love of music grew from the sidelines, always a spectator, never a creator. Never the nurtured, sprouted talent. As she grew older, the thought of creating the music became more of a childish fantasy best left to professionals. Instead, she became a walking encyclopedia. As soon as she learned about the ones like Jimi, Janis, and Jim who all passed at the same age, she went even further back in the history. Her obsession eventually took her to The Crossroads.
She re-evaluated what she really wanted after realizing she had been muse to an ex. The guitar he left behind after their breakup was old but sturdy. She had a beginner’s instruction book. Re-learning notes was not as hard as she thought it would be. That stayed with her all those years. She found notes and knew where to place her fingers.
She just couldn’t move both hands at once to play chords. Not because of any accident or deformity, simply a lack of range in movement and coordination.
Dora needed to get at least that, but she knew talent alone would not be enough, not with YouTube and iTunes stars coming out every month. She needed to be more than talented. She needed the people to want her.
“You have it all figured out, right?” the pale man asked. “Too old for the curse, disinterested in vice, and willing to actually do the work it takes.”
Dora said nothing while she looked at him expectantly. He closed the gap between them before speaking.
“Lisa Beth Johnson.”
Dora searched her memory for a reference but came up blank. As much as she knew about music and those who died in obscurity, she had no inkling of who this person was. The pale man smiled unkindly. And for the first time, his presence unhinged her.
“Everything you know but you’ve never once heard of Lisa Beth Johnson? Don’t worry. You’re not alone. She’s so obscure the only people who really knew her are the ones who worked with her. Stubborn, willful, and idealistic. Do you know when she died? At three a.m. on August 29—1978.”
The exact moment of Dora Burns’s birth. The pale man reached out seemingly across time and took Dora’s hand. His touch felt as if she’d stuck her hand in snow. She expected him to say some words, endow her with new hands, but instead he drew the Venus witch’s ring from his free hand.
“As long as you wear this ring, you’ll live her life. You’ll have chances to return it. You’ll know when. It’s up to you to take care of her life and legacy. Return the ring before it’s time, and you’ll destroy all she worked for.”
The chill she felt in her hand spread through the rest of her body as her head began to swirl. Everything went white.
He’s playing flat again.
Lisa kept a steady rat-a-tat as she tried to isolate the bass from the rest of the band. If Terry decided to keep these guys, she was definitely in for some bass overdubs—uncredited of course. Some young wannabe rock star always walked away with hurt feelings having to reconcile she had many talents when he barely had the one. They couldn’t handle that she was better at something they’d already forgotten her folks invented. Then there was image. Terry knew how to sell the image even better than he knew how to manage and produce musicians. “No one would look at you with them African-looking beads in your hair and believe you could really play, Lisa.” He watched her do it every day, but who else would believe she was the session drummer behind the most popular rock music coming out that year?
Still, he built her reputation behind the scenes, made her name, if not her face, known throughout the industry. Hungry artists who had worked for years to get to New York City and San Francisco were talked into heading Midwest and hoping Lisa Beth, known as L. B. Johnson, was available. Many then questioned her skills right to her face or asked if she was supposed to be the backup singer when she was revealed.
She put up with the disrespect for a while as any young and hungry artist would. She kept at the work, made her name mean something and scoffed at those who kept quiet about her identity lest the world know their best drum and bass work was done by a Black woman. Lisa grew comfortable with threatening to walk out if she needed. Someone would always need her. She hadn’t had to walk out on this current project, Badstar, but she knew it wouldn’t all be roses and sunshine. It never was.
“Okay, guys. Why don’t we call it a night? It’s been a long session, and we can start fresh again tomorrow.”
Lisa was surprised he was ending the session before two a.m. since he usually went all night under the influence of his regular combination of coffee and coke. Terry hovered while the mingling of sweat, heroin, and disappointment trudged out of the soundproof room. His subtle glance told Lisa everything she needed to know about how the session was going.
“They need a lot of work, Terry. They clearly only grabbed the bassist and drummer to fill out the rhythm section, but they still can’t play worth shit. You really think they’re worth the time and effort?”
“Look at those guys! Vince’s face alone is gonna be posted on the walls of every teenage girl in the country. Plus, he knows how to play real rock on that axe. Do you know how long the kids have waited for real rock with all this disco bullshit?”
Lisa shook her head while she gathered her things. “If it’s all bullshit, then why did the Stones hit number one last month with a dance song?”
She could always shut Terry up but never shut him down, especially not when his high got a hold of him. Lisa only got away with these little bursts of logic because Terry knew how valuable she was in creating just the right sound for his whiteboy du jour—someone Terry felt deserved the opportunity to develop, someone palatable to the “core” rock audience, as he liked to say when he was able to speak to her through his sniffles.
“It’s been a long one, Lisa. Head on out. I’ll try to get Daniel back in sync with the others.”
Lisa refrained from disrespecting the borrowed drum set by kicking it over as she stood to gather her things. “He’s the rhythm, Terry. The beat. If he can’t keep the beat, it’ll never come together. I just don’t get you. You spend a fortune for me to fine-tune these guys in the studio instead of just investing in guys who can play when they get here. I tried to get you to go see that kid in Minneapolis, but you think he’s too white for Black folks and too Black for white. Betty Davis has been looking for a deal for a while now, but you passed her up like a goddamn fool.”
“We talked about this already,” Terry replied, with that disingenuous exasperation he used when he wanted to end a conversation he couldn’t win. “She’s just not …”
“… the right image. She comes off as so sexually aggressive that it’s cartoonish,” Lisa finished. “And yet you’re courting a bikini-clad blond ‘cave babe’ whose gimmick is performing fellatio on a sledgehammer.”
She didn’t wait for Terry to reply. She walked out of the studio and headed home for the night. These same battles every day—they never went away. Always having to prove she was the best. Always behind the scenes in the studio but paid handsomely for her silence.
She had told herself she would put up with it until she could change things, but that was when she was first discovered and had hopes of forming her own band. These past nine years she had the same thought. Nothing ever panned out, and she got tired of Black and white folks telling her niggers can’t play rock ’n’ roll. She was no longer in the mood to listen and had decided this was the night to silence that annoying little optimistic voice.
Her neighborhood had been the city’s art hub at the beginning of the decade, but once outsiders discovered the cheap housing and permissive atmosphere, things changed. Much like they did in San Francisco when the hippies actually made it there and moved in, pushing out the Black folks. One of the reasons Lisa had stayed in the Midwest is because she had been fortunate enough to hold on to her house while others sold and saw them turned into two- and four-bedroom apartments right next to ethnic restaurants with decidedly un-ethnic food.
Perhaps she no longer fit in. Even with her former afro transformed to braids and almost witch-like appearance, she stood out from the rest of the leftover hippie neighborhood. She stared a moment at the ring on her finger before heading to the front door of her dull peach house. That scene when the musicians made noise all weekend long was gone, and Lisa had begun to feel just as passé. She looked around the dead, dark street as she unlocked her front door, remembering how just a few short years ago, WaSauk Street never slept.
Lisa laughed after the initial shock, but she still lightly slapped Eric for startling her when he came over to embrace her. The chorus of “Happy Birthday” greeted her from at least twenty familiar voices.
“In about twenty minutes, it’ll officially be our Lisa Beth’s birthday. Tell us how you feel to be … almost 27.”
“Well, I know I’m still too young to die, but I’m getting to be a bit too old to fuck around.”
Eric’s uncouth laughter drowned out all the rest. How such a raucous noise came from such a skinny man was beyond Lisa. “That’s why you my girl! When that clock strikes three, we gon’ raise a glass to you. Right now, I want you to meet these cats from New York.”
Eric guided Lisa across the room to a couple of unfamiliars who still looked illegally aged, so she ignored the drinks in their hands while Eric passed her a beer. She focused instead on their athletic gear from head to toe right down to their flashy sneakers. A girl-and-boy team in identical clothing like a uniform. Lisa liked something about this right away. The girl introduced herself as Gee Wiz. He called himself Zardoz.
“I couldn’t believe it when Eric told us L. B. Johnson was a Black girl!” Gee Wiz exclaimed as she shook Lisa’s hand.
“Yeah,” Zardoz added. “Herc plays your breaks from that track you did a couple of years ago with that group Blue Fire Red. We checked it out, and you did something fierce on bass and drums.”
“Kool Herc?” Lisa asked. “Out of the Bronx?”
“You know Herc!” Zardoz asked.
“I’ve heard of him. Cats from New York come through all the time. Been mentioning him since ’73 saying he’s doing some shit ain’t been done before. So he uses ‘Point of Nowhere’ in his shows, huh?”
“Yeah, that’s how we heard about you.” Gee’s voice held some reservations, so Lisa knew to expect an inquiry. “See we’re working on some new stuff, and your rhythm is the kind we like. Z said you probably wouldn’t be interested ‘cause you into that hard rock stuff, but I told him it couldn’t hurt to ask.”
“You can also tell him I may be full of surprises. We should talk later, though. Eric’s coming back over here for the official countdown.”
Lisa nervously caressed the ring on her left hand before Eric gave her the sticks. At exactly three a.m. on August 29, she would break a paper drum to find a gift, a ritual he had come up with during their early days. Eric gave her the signal, and she began the slow marching band rat-a-tat, briefly catching a glance of Gee Wiz’s wide-eyed awe.
“Five … four … three … two … one.”
The clock struck three just as Lisa deliberately tore through the drum, silently relieved the bottles holding the vodka and sleeping pills were no longer necessary.
Her interview had gone as well as expected. The local zines always wanted to speak with her, treating her as if she was the ticket to a Pulitzer or a prime gig with Rolling Stone if they were the ones to drag her out of obscurity. She still worked. The white boy everyone credited with the “blues revival” made sure of that. That and her name on a hit record from ’78. She didn’t know why Terry had given her credit for her contributions to Badstar’s debut album, but it brought her a recognition she didn’t expect. It was the first time she had gotten such a credit with a “legitimate” band rather than as a session musician for a studio group everyone knew just looked good on stage without playing instruments.
But her collaborations with Gee Wiz and Zardoz did little more than make them underground hip-hop legends. But she saw it had started to grow beyond New York, beyond the US even. She should have known. They always took what Black folks started then spouted empty rhetoric like “Music is universal.”
She usually declined the zines and the new Rolling Stone wannabe mags looking to retrieve a past and culture they wanted to claim, but she said yes to MadCity Beat. She’d walked past the meager headquarters on Main Street enough times to know the publication barely sputtered along. Unlike the other local zines like Maximum Shred, the Black college kids ran the Beat to preserve themselves and to document their own existence. Lisa listened to Georgia Kane tell her what she knew of Lisa’s work during the ’70s and ’80s and how it made her want to pick up a bass. She decided then to give the sophomore two hours of her time before she drove to Chicago that night. They spent that time sipping sweet tea like the Southern immigrants to the Midwest they were, talking in the only quiet room in the building, a cramped office overrun with back issues.
GK: I have to admit I was surprised to find that L. B. Johnson was a woman, a Black woman at that.
LBJ: Most people are.
GK: Yeah, we get told so early that rock started with Elvis Presley and The Beatles. I had to find out on my own about Little Richard, Chuck Berry, and Ike Turner.
LBJ: Well, even before them, we had Sister Rosetta Tharpe and Memphis Minnie plugging in and making rock what it would become in the ’60s. Beverly Watkins and Lady Bo are two of the finest guitarists around. Never could get around to working with them because people didn’t want too many “ladies” in one place.
LBJ: Yeah. Think about it. Name one all-girl band besides Klymaxx. You probably can’t. They like to think a girl who can play is a novelty, or worse, an anomaly. I’ve been at this since ’65, and people still ask me if I’m just for show and taking credit for some guy doing all the work. Why would I even bother?
GK: And your amount of session work is extensive—everything they found after the Badstar revelations. You’ve finally been publicly credited on work from late-’60s R&B to ’80s new wave. It’s hard to believe anyone would doubt you.
LBJ: Not for me. It happened to me then, and it still does.
GK: I wanted to ask you about the expanse of your work. You don’t seem to discriminate by genre or style.
LBJ: I’ve always played whatever felt right. I do have my own style, but when you collaborate, it’s important to be able to adapt to your collaborators and create something that reflects all of you. I found that with Gee and Z in the most unexpected way, because music was moving fast toward the electronic, something accessible to kids who couldn’t afford instruments. I’ll play live music until the day I die, but I was really enjoying the changes happening at the time. While everyone else was sampling James Brown and Eugene McDaniels, I was playing live breaks for Gee. She and I could be up all hours of the night just writing and playing. We thought when Sugar Hill broke through, the doors would open for all of us, but the labels wanted Z without Gee, so she got left behind.
GK: But you stayed with her for a while, right?
LBJ: Definitely. Gee was smart to know she needed to own her shit, so she still has our work from earlier in the decade. She just couldn’t get a deal. The same people who told Z he was better off without her told her she was no good without him. So Gee decided she didn’t want to do it anymore. I had to respect her wishes. They did the same thing to her they did to Betty. They didn’t like that she insisted on having so much control over herself in the boys’ club.
GK: Before a couple of years ago, it never occurred to me that women had been involved in creating music like rock and rap from the beginning but got pushed out. All the narratives I’ve come across always suggest that Black girls just weren’t there or were not interested.
LBJ: Myth. We’ve been there since the beginning. The vocalists and the dancers got the most attention because everybody likes to look at them, but dig deep enough and you’ll find us on guitars, pianos, bass, percussion, horns, and everything else. Some of us even taught the men how to play but got buried ‘cause there’s nothing that hurts a man’s pride more than having to admit a Black woman’s better than him at anything.
GK: Do you think you’ll ever get to work with Gee Wiz again?
LBJ: I’d like to, but who knows? I consider her a protégé, and I feel I did some of my best work with her. But she doesn’t want to right now, so like I said, I have to respect her wishes and move forward. Like later today I’m heading off to Chicago to meet some guys from there and Detroit doing some great dance music on the underground scene. They go by names like Mr. Fingers, Model 500, and Rhythm Is Rhythm, so I’m looking forward to seeing what they got.
GK: One more thing. I just wanted to wish you a happy birthday!
LBJ: Thank you, Georgia.
She mentally replayed the interview long after the highway grew dark with the coming of early morning. The highway belonged to her almost alone as Chicago’s permanent residents had already abandoned the streets for the comfort of their homes, while the underground kept the city’s heartbeat from flatlining on a Friday night/Saturday morning.
“The Beastie Boys,” she muttered as she fiddled with the radio. “Hell, Flash ’nem fighting for the right to live. White boys fighting for the right to party. Tongue and cheek, my ass.” She turned off the radio, preferring the silence to the sound of rap going the way of rock ’n’ roll barely twenty years ago. “How long will it take before they write in the history books the Beastie Boys invented rap?”
Lisa focused on the road ahead and pulled into the driveway of a house, feeling the vibrations from the heavy thumping emanating from inside. A young man she hoped responded to the moniker Phuture came outside as soon as she pulled up. She knew she was right when he extended his hand and treated her to a broad grin.
“L. B. Johnson in the flesh! They tell me tomorrow’s your birthday. Well, it’s today now.”
“It will be in about another ninety seconds. Three on the nose.”
“Alright then. Let’s get a drink in honor of you, and you can join the party already in progress. You can hear what we’re working on for the next warehouse gig.”
“Sounds like a plan.”
She needed no clock to tell her exactly when three struck. The Venus witch’s ring felt chilly on her finger. But she ignored it this time. She needed to see where Phuture would take her.
She enjoyed those days more than she expected. Most of her peers clung to the past and set their hopes on the so-called blues revival, but her work with the house DJs had given her an excitement she hadn’t felt since the days when she first started as a teen. She knew she was supposed to claim her space as the LB Johnson of the past, make a go of it like Siedah Garrett or Brenda Russell after spending so much time making the careers of others off their work. But if working with Phuture and the others taught her anything, it was how much she looked forward to how far she could really go. So for a while, she left rock and blues behind.
Instead, Lisa spent most of her time exchanging ideas with a newcomer still trying to break her way into the scene. She called herself TI-1183. Lisa liked her immediately. She reminded Lisa of being that age. Except instead of preaching the gospel of the skins and tubs, TI introduced her to the Roland TB-303 synth.
But they tainted each other.
TI often incorporated Lisa’s music into the mix undistorted. Many in the industry clucked their tongues at Lisa’s career suicide, especially after Terry “stuck his neck out for her” all those years ago. How dare she eschew those nostalgia tours where she could have been seen by the right audiences and finally reaped the rewards due to her? The rock session work dried somewhat, but she’d made friends with so many of the hip-hop heads who still sampled her work with Gee Wiz. They had no trouble convincing their labels to hire her for new music.
She was now back in the Mad City with every local college band hoping to be the next Nirvana. Sometimes Lisa enjoyed that sound, but she found it ironic so many bands were rewarded for an unpolished sound when she spent years proving her perfection and craftsmanship. She did not find that amusing. They redefined “authentic” every few years in ways that kept her outside the bounds.
Lisa kept her eye on the local scene, but she kept the other on Billboard. The Macarena was driving her up the wall. Dance crazes were always the worst. Now this one had only seemed to gain momentum. So many other things going on and this one inane song overshadowed it all. Even the white girls with acoustic guitars deserved better.
But this was supposed to be her time off. No gigs. No sessions. No interviews. No guest lectures downtown at the university. She couldn’t help playing, though, in her spare time. She usually restricted herself to bass during the early morning hours, especially in the middle of the week. Besides, the drums inevitably led her back to those days with Gee, and she didn’t want to be reminded right then.
It also reminded her of the criticism. One of the criticisms she got during that time with the house DJs was the stronger bass notes and the rapid-fire drumming. The accusations of the drum machine had followed her since then, especially after the naysayers found she learned to operate electronics. She was no longer “authentic.” No way she could play live at more than 140 beats per minute.
The rumors started then that she was not even real. Nothing except the devil’s hands could do the things she did to those drums and that bass. No one person could be that innovative, always at least twenty years ahead of the time but having to wait until the “experts” defined it before it was recognized. Gee knew it as well. Phuture definitely knew it.
Who the fuck is calling me at two a.m.? The caller ID read “Unknown,” so she hesitated to pick up.
“Sorry, love. Forgot it’s the middle of the night over on your side of the pond.”
Every new generation brought a new Nigel. They were always named Nigel.
“It’s fine. I’m always awake at this hour. What’s up?”
“You got some new fans over this way. This kid I’m working with, a DJ Catnip, got ahold of some of the work you were doing with them boys about ten years ago. Found out you were the same L. B. Johnson who did all them rock sessions back when Bowie was still hip. Ever work with him? Eh, nevermind. We was wondering if you’d like to come over for a while and work your magic with the kid here.”
Lisa processed his request a moment, fingering the cold ring, since it all sounded like one long sentence to her. “Normally, I would, Nigel, but I’m supposed to take a couple of weeks off every once in a while, and you happened to catch me on a break.”
“Well, look. It’s no hurry. We’re already laying down tracks, as you say, and you can come in after your holiday and polish it in that way you did with the whiz kid.”
“Gee Wiz. Her name’s Gee Wiz.” Lisa didn’t bother to hide her irritation at Nigel’s disrespect of her favorite collaborator. He didn’t seem to notice.
“Sure, darling. Great stuff. If you want to do it, I’ll make all the arrangements.”
“Tell your Catnip to call me tomorrow. I can decide then. That’s the deal.”
“He’ll be glad to hear it, sweetheart.”
Rediscovered yet again. Every novice thought they had what it took to recreate the magic she made with Gee. None rivaled. Sometimes she enjoyed the ones who tried and found something unique like she had with TI, but even that work fell under the shadow of the collaborations with Gee.
It was almost time. The moment she waited for every year to see if she wanted to be Lisa Beth Johnson for another cycle, power through another nine years. On this August 29 when her phone rang at three a.m., she heard about the death of Gee Wiz. She almost renounced the ring then and there.
England. Germany. The Netherlands. France. Austria. Portugal. Spain. Every European capital at least once by 2005. She felt like Josephine conquering Europe in the ’30s. Nigel tried to convince Lisa to make her US home base New York or at least the East Coast in order to simplify her two-continent lifestyle. She refused to move permanently to England. She stayed planted in the Midwest, the Mad City. As much as she loved her life as the newest old-timer plucked from obscurity by the ultra-hip Euros, Lisa needed to get away from it sometimes. The road often called, but the Mad City pulled her back.
She was far from Wisconsin this time. Having jumped at the chance to play for a European classic rock revue, Lisa incidentally became the primary drummer for the latest incarnation of Badstar. She wasn’t surprised to find that Vince was the one surviving original member. They talked about those days with Terry.
“Terry was such an asshole. Knew it wouldn’t work with him for long.”
“Really?” Lisa took a sip of her mint tea as she awaited Vince’s explanation. Just like everyone else, she had heard the rumors over the years of the battles between Vince and Terry. The battles resulted in only one collaboration and decades of bad blood that prevented Badstar from reaching the same amount of success as their contemporaries. Their notoriety made them heroes to classic rock purists who prided themselves on retrieving the real deal before everyone else did.
Vince had aged well considering. His lines and wrinkles showed through his lightly made-up face, but his brown eyes sparkled as he talked to her. She almost declined his invitation to breakfast after his morning show interview. She wanted to sleep in before their afternoon gig at the Swiss festival.
“I knew you’d have to dub the rhythm section. Yeah, Leddy and Fin were weak, but they were my friends. Never forgave me for pushing Terry to give you credit.”
“That was you?”
Vince nodded, his long graying hair falling over his shoulder as he turned his attention to her.
“I came back, and we got into it after you left. I told him your name was going on the record, or I’d go public with it in a way that made him look as shitty as he was. I wanted to tell you that night, but by the time I got outside, you were long gone. Terry wouldn’t tell me where you lived.”
“I’m sure he didn’t know. Maybe for the best.”
“Thought about getting in touch every now and then, but you fell off the radar from the circles I knew. Then when I saw you were in Europe for a while, I thought I’d ask if you’d be interested in the tour. Didn’t know how you’d respond considering.”
“Considering what? That I went electric?”
Vince blushed. “Well, yeah. I didn’t realize you were still a rocker at heart. But these kids now, they connect all the dots. Reminded me you were still the real thing. Could use a bit of that now.”
Now it was Lisa’s time to blush. Vince was easy to talk to, and she realized she enjoyed his company over breakfast more than she thought she would, particularly since his presence reminded her of a low point in her life. That was the first time she had the chance to remove the ring after the ’78 session that ended up being the break she needed.
It started then. They shared the same work ethic, so they saw each other during rehearsals and performances. Then there were long conversations after performances and on the road between shows on the revival series. Eventually, Vince would join Lisa at her Mad City home on touring breaks.
But they were on the road in Switzerland on August 29. During a late Monday morning breakfast, Vince surprised Lisa with an onyx ring, never questioning the presence of the Venus witch’s ring on her other hand as he asked the question.
That’s what Dora knew of Lisa Beth Johnson when given the opportunity to live her life. Because of her, Lisa Beth lived. Lisa Beth would be written into a history that nearly erased her, but that history would not tell the story as it happened, but as someone calling himself a historian felt she should be remembered.
So the pale man had put Dora to the test. He sent her back to retrieve the woman Dora said she wanted to be and made her live out the life she would have had. He gave her Lisa Beth’s hands.
Dora blinked, looked around her surroundings in confusion. The pale man still held her hand, the ring still chilled her finger through the Southern heat. But something was different. The lifetime she had lived in those few seconds burned in her memory as real as any of her own.
But she was still thirty-two, still on a dark empty back road in Mississippi where she intended to find her own legacy. Now the life of a woman she never knew existed before this moment haunted her. As she looked at the pale man, she knew these memories would be a part of her for the rest of her life.
“You have a choice now, Dora,” the pale man said with his hand still around hers, poised to take the ring back at a moment’s notice. “You can give her a little more time, let her live a little longer with the happiness she’s finally found when she got the credit. She might slip back into obscurity, undiscovered for the next generation, or she might reach heights even you couldn’t imagine if she lives. But she’ll never have even this chance if you decide she doesn’t get it. It’s up to you to give it to her. If you give back the ring now, you’ll have to take your chances making your own way, forging your own name with only the talents you already have. Your life or hers.” The pale man leaned in to meet Dora eye to eye. “But there could be something in you. If you’re selfless enough to choose correctly, maybe you can find the path you’re supposed to take. Your fate is tied with hers, but maybe not the way you think.”
Dora thought a moment, considered the conflict that had overcome Lisa every time she had the choice to take off the ring. All the regrets with all the triumphs but at least the chance to play it out. Lisa would know none of it if she carried through her plan to end it all at 27 and join the club.
“If I decide to keep the ring, what happens to my name?”
The pale man gave the most shit-eating smile Dora had ever seen. “Your name is then lost, Dora Aswald Burns. Forever an insignificant footnote in someone else’s life but a riddle only I will know. Are you willing to take that chance that you’ll lose her if you decide to unleash your mediocrity onto the rest of the world with no guarantee you’ll make it?”
Frustrated or hopeless, maybe a bit of both, Dora felt hot tears suddenly fall from her eyes. She had come to The Crossroads for herself, hoping to get what she felt was rightfully hers. Just a little piece of greatness to make her life mean something. But now she knew about the life of Lisa Beth Johnson and what could be if only she willed it so.
Despite the heat of the August night sweltering around her, the ring grew even colder. Dora looked at the pale man and told him her decision. With no expression at all, he marked the X on her forehead with an ice-cold finger. Everything went white.
MadCity Beat Special Edition
On August 29, 2014, music pioneer Lisa Beth Johnson was found dead in her home in the early morning hours on what was her sixty-third birthday.
Her husband of nine years, famed Badstar guitarist Vince Masen, arrived at their WaSauk Street home in the early morning hours to find his wife unresponsive. He told emergency responders he knew something was wrong because she never slept at that time of night.
In her almost five-decade career, Johnson became an influence and an innovator of several subgenres, including early hip hop and drum and bass. She often spoke of her collaborations with the late rapper Gee Wiz as one of her favorite phases in a long career. She also befuddled many with some career choices, such as foregoing the second annual Lilith Fair invitation when she co-organized a European rock revival festival with flamboyant British producer Nigel Cumberland. Johnson reunited with Masen during a 2005 European festival and the couple eventually married and worked together on their own music.
See the reprint of former editor Georgia Kane’s 1987 interview with Johnson and discover the life and legacy of her work in this special edition dedicated to Lisa Beth Johnson compiled by diversions editor Dora A. Burns.