Love In Vain: A Vision of Robert Johnson

Back a few years ago, The University of Minnesota press published a new edition of Alan Greenberg’s Love In Vain: A Vision of Robert Johnson. It’s probably one of the best unproduced screenplays ever written. The first edition of this work came out in 1983, and the film rights to it were eagerly snapped up by a young man named Jagger who claimed to have some connection with the blues. Seems the long-dead subject of the screenplay was some kind of musical icon to him, and this fellow Jagger, an erstwhile rock singer and sometime actor, was not without resources, or so he claimed.

The odds, therefore, seemed to be in favour of getting the movie made, particularly since everyone who even glanced at the screenplay thought it was a work of genius. And it is, it bloody well is. The esteemed rock critic Greil Marcus said so. Robert Palmer said so in the New York Times. Even the famed director Werner Herzog claimed that “Love in Vain has accomplished what I have tried to do for a long time.”

But here it is more than thirty years later, and what we have is another edition of the book, not the film itself, which still hasn’t been made. Entertainment Weekly came out and stated that “it may be the best movie you’ll see all year – even if it’s just inside your head.”

Mind you, I am immeasurably glad to have the book. Greenberg is an enchanting writer, and for those who love the blues, well, put your records aside and pick up this book and see if you can lay it down before finishing it. I couldn’t. And yes, there was a movie going on in my head at every turn of the page, for Greenberg indeed creates a vision that is so compelling you keep reading, and you keep hearing Johnson’s music all around you. The ending, of course, is so unbearably sad, with Johnson’s poisoning by a jealous husband, that you find yourself getting up from your bed or your reading chair and finding a glass of Scotch to stiffen yourself against the devastating loss of one of the most important bluesmen ever.

And then the next day you put on a Robert Johnson record and you realize that while the movie concept is fascinating, Greenberg’s screenplay makes Johnson himself come alive in a way that no movie could. What Greenberg has done with his incandescent writing is insert you into the milieu, shove you into the Delta migrant worker camps, feed you a bottle of hootch while all around you the likes of Charlie Patton, Skip James, and Robert Johnson create some of the most soulful blues ever made.

That big Gibson guitar, those slender, handsome features, the long beautiful fingers and that hellhound-driven voice of Johnson’s – it’s the very soul of American music and it will get into your own soul way down deep. If there had ever been any doubt about that, Greenberg takes you right there and puts you on Highway 61, on that haunted crossroads at midnight that has inspired Bob Dylan, Keith Richards, Dion, Lucinda Williams, Robert Cray, Eric Clapton and just about any authentic bluesmaker you care to name. Johnson’s music is the kind that doesn’t merely last decades. A hundred years from now, even two hundred years from now, music lovers will be discovering his forty-one recordings and saying to each other, “These are sublime.”

So Love In Vain is no screenplay in the ordinary sense: Greenberg reflects the Johnson myth back to us so vividly that we begin to understand the source, the pain and the exhilaration of the blues. His book is an incredible achievement, and looms so large in the imagination after reading it that the prospect of making any kind of film from it seems almost to diminish Greenberg’s brilliant work.

Included in the book are several photographs of Delta scenes (there is only one known photo of Johnson himself) and 45 pages of invaluable chapter notes provided by the author: the notes are so highly readable and informative that they’re worthy of independent publication.

Published by The University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis and London