Zeke Schein with Poppy Z. Brite – Portrait Of A Phantom | Book Review

Zeke Schein with Poppy Z. BritePortrait Of A Phantom

The Story Of Robert Johnson’s Lost Photograph

Pelican Publishing Company

224 pages

For many fans, Robert Johnson tops the list of iconic blues artists. Just as his recordings have influenced countless musicians with classic songs rendered in his amazing style, the speculation and myths about his life, and especially his death, continue to resonate with new generations of listeners. His deal with the Devil at the crossroads to elevate his talents, through his death by poison by an unknown party are firmly entrenched in the legacy of the music. And with just two photos of Johnson in existence, his impact far exceeds our knowledge of his life.

Imagine for a moment that one day, you discover a photograph of someone who looks remarkably like Johnson. Author Zeke Schein had that incredible experience one day when he stumbled on a worn photograph in an on-line auction, showing two young African-American musicians, one of them holding a guitar in his large hands. A guitar player himself, Schein had studied Johnson’s music as well as the story of his life. After several days of studying the photo and having the internal argument for or against using his savings to purchase a picture of unknown origins and subjects on the faintest hope that it might be music’s version of the “Holy Grail”. The story begins in earnest once Schein ends up with the winning bid, giving him the opportunity to examine the photo in detail up close.

As you read the book, you begin to feel that Schein was destined to be the one to tell this tale. He has the storyteller’s knack for letting the story flow, expertly mixing his efforts to verify the photo with details of his daily life. As a salesman for Matt Umanov Guitars, a vintage shop in Greenwich Village, the author became an expert on classic guitars, studying the details of each instrument in order to assess the value. His clientele included Hollywood collectors like Johnny Depp, Richard Gere, and Sam Shepard as well as upper-echelon musicians like Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello, and Lou Reed. Patti Smith buys a guitar and invites Schein to play slide on a song during her Central Park concert.

In attempting to verify the fact that his photo does indeed include Robert Johnson, the story begins to follow a twisted path as some members of the blues community react vehemently to the possibility of a third photo of Johnson, some offering in-depth denunciations without ever viewing the actual photo up close. Schein’s research points to blues artist Johnny Shines as the other figure in the photo, opening up a promising avenue to verification that ends up creating more questions than answers. A telling moment occurs when the author and a friend pour over Sears Roebuck catalogs from the 1930s, trying to match the suits and guitar in the picture to establish a timeline. Stories are set up for national magazines that fall by the wayside. The endless questions and denunciations slowly dim Schein’s energy and desire to get his photo accepted as part of Johnson’s legacy. The music lifts his spirits through it all, including the death of his older brother.

As a modern-age griot, Zeke Schein treats us to an unusual tale that quickly draws you in, then keeps you turning the pages, pulling for the hero to ultimately prevail. The book is proof that the author understands that it was the journey where the lessons were learned. Make sure you pick-up a copy of this one – one of the best books on music that you will ever read.

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