A few years ago, I spent a few hazy shades of winter days in Stockholm, Sweden. Gray, eerie, and beautiful; the city appeared to be skating on an endless sheet of Baltic ice.
A couple of people I spoke with claimed they were having an unseasonably warm winter and I was glad to see the Swedes enjoying the tropical weather, but after a day of wandering around outdoors I felt frozen to the point of shattering. Around 3:00 PM the leaden sky dissolved into purple haze; within an hour the night was painted so black that not even a bad moon would dare to rise.
On our last night in Stockholm I suggested to my friends that we check out a little blues bar I had noticed at the edge of town. My love for the blues has taken me into a lot of dodgy places, even jamming on stage. I figured that a tiny dive in this most non-bluesy of countries during the dead of winter would be pretty tame.
And so it seemed. A faded poster of Muddy Waters. A tiny dance floor. An over-amplified and below average white band slogged through 12-bar standards and harmless shuffles.
A skinny, threadbare but harmless looking character was spinning around alone, carefully avoiding an uncovered hole that opened to a subterranean room. Seconds after our beers arrived, he two-stepped over to our table and, hearing us speaking English, started screaming, “F---- AMERICANS!!!”
“We’re Canadian,” said my quick-thinking friend who really was both. I smiled cheerfully, trying to look the part.
Our new pal repeated his warm greeting and then shuffled away, captivated by the band that played the blues so poorly that they needed sheet music.
Minutes later, Jack Flash jumped back with more creative F-word conjugations. His grammar was impeccable. Tangled up in his own shade of blue, he drifted away. Free falling. Dancing with himself.
He was far from running on empty. Whiskey, bourbon, beer …. this shabby ambassador of international bad-will slammed enough cold shots to bankrupt the Vatican.
And the band played on, doing their best to bring it on home.
The nowhere man let it be for a while. He was reeling and rocking like tumbling dice. I’d almost succeeded in ignoring him until he tried to walk out of the bar wearing my jacket. This was doubly irritating because, (a) I liked this coat and, (b) I would have died after two minutes in the sub-arctic streets without it.
Once, long ago, I had my nose broken when I made the mistake of trying to reason with a drunk, so I gently nudged this northern nebbish, and coaxed him out of my coat. I pulled his arm out of my sleeve and he spun away like a top.
The band strangled a slow shuffle as he scuttle butted around the room, slamming into tables like a pinball.
In less than no time, Professor No-Hair was back at our table shouting at the devil. “YOU HAVE NO BLUES IN AMERICA!!” He gave us the evil eye, his bare skull steaming. “AMERICA STOLE THE BLUES FROM SWEDEN!!”
Sweden: the birthplace of the boogaloo. I hadn’t known.
“YOU HAVE NO REAL BLUES!!” he barked like a howling wolf.
“We’re from Canada,” I said, rambling on my mind. “It’s like Sweden, without the blues.” At this point there was no reason to wait for the midnight hour. When he launched back into his rapidly decaying orbit, we hit the wet streets trying to remember whose bad idea this wild night had been.
“YOU HAD TO COME TO SWEDEN TO HEAR THE REAL BLUES!!” he yelled, following us out into the sub-zero. But without the benefit of my famous blue raincoat he wouldn’t last long outdoors.
At the crossroads we could still hear him twisting and shouting. “SWEDEN IS THE TRUE HOME OF THE BLUES!!”
For him it was the gospel truth.