The blues rents a cramped one-room apartment in Cleveland Park. The blues hails from Sweden and carries a head full of the Delta to each show. And the blues is broke, as in “I could use some money,” says Robert Lighthouse, a 39-year-old immigrant who followed his passion for the music to the United States in 1988.
A one-man paean to the Delta, Mr. Lighthouse has hit his stride locally as the man to reckon with when it comes to the blurry sounds of the old rural South.
When he got here, Mr. Lighthouse stood outside the Dupont Circle Metro station with a coffee can and dreams of making a living playing his guitar. In rain, in snow, with cutoff gloves on his hands to free his frigid digits, he played “every single day, no days off. And it wasn’t bad. I never felt bad as long as I could pull my half of the rent.”
That’s how it started here for the gaunt, quiet, and darkly affable Mr. Lighthouse, real name Palinic.
Some of his solo shows, three sets of mostly rural blues covers by obscure artists, are done without uttering a single word, other than to introduce a song.
“Talking is not my forte,” he says, with a tinge of accent.
In what has been called the Year of the Blues, aficionados of the genre have done some talking for him. A recent appearance at the Kennedy Center raised his profile. Even better, he is featured in a spiffy promotion run by the Public Broadcasting Service, used to hype “The Blues,” a seven-part series executive produced by Martin Scorcese that premieres Sept. 28.
The jump-cut-crazy 15-second spot shows Mr. Lighthouse hammering a battered acoustic Epiphone and huffing his harmonica in a frenzied fit, a classic portrayal of the music that he loves so much.
“You think you know the blues?” asks a deep voice, before answering: “Robert Lighthouse knows the blues.”
It is quite a stretch at first to believe that a long-haired, white European can authentically relate to music about chains and murder and hurt that was born of black slavery.
Adding to the dubiousness is the beer commercial blues played by white dudes in silly hats and sillier sunglasses.
But to hear Mr. Lighthouse play, be it alone, as he can often be found in such places as Madam’s Organ, or with his small three-piece combo at such places as Bangkok Blues, there is an element that refuses to die.
It is as fleeting as a flicker of fingers on the fret board, or an urgency in the vocal inflection, something that recalls the gothic Old South.
“My world grew up in Mississippi,” he says, recalling the old Muddy Waters records he fastened onto as a guitar-learning youth. “I just always felt a kinship with that music. Even growing up in Sweden, I was not a Swede. My father was Croatian, and my mother was only part Swede.”
There was no Crossroads in Sweden, where Mr. Lighthouse grew up like many other guitar-obsessed youth in Teenage Wastelands all over the world, looking to get stoned and laid and to dig the tunes.
In his home, there was some music, a few albums like Billie Holiday, some Beatles, maybe even a Leonard Cohen platter.
“And when I would ride around with my dad, he would have on the radio,” Mr. Lighthouse recalls. “And I remember Johnny Cash on that radio, and oh, man, that voice.”
He didn’t like school, so he took government-sponsored music classes and worked at a government-provided job in a music store.
At 18, he used a $1,000 student loan to come to the United States to live on a Hopi reservation in northern Arizona. Mr. Lighthouse took a bus from New York with his backpack, guitar, and a photocopied map showing him the way to the reservation. It was part of his spiritual questioning, and he hoped to find answers through some shamanism.
What he found when he got to the reservation was anything but spiritual: “They were all into heavy metal, smoking weed and had long hair.”
Teenage Wasteland, revisited.
When Mr. Lighthouse returned to the United States in 1987, he headed this time for Montana, where a religious cult was establishing a community. He met a D.C. girl, and the two decided the place was creepy. They split for Washington, then New York, then San Francisco. Then back here.
They wed, then divorced.
And here he was, Washington, hardly the home of the blues but a place with some roots nonetheless.
Mr. Lighthouse has some roots now, and the tiny apartment he shares with amp heads, four guitars, a couple of cabinets, a framed picture of his guitar idol Jimi Hendrix, and his girlfriend.
His goals are no different from those of most musicians; some recognition and some jingle.
But he is the anti-Barnum, self-effacing to the point that his ex-wife once heard him on the phone trying to land a gig and grabbed the phone from him and blared to the club owner, “He won’t tell you this, but he’s really, really good.”
And now, the secret is finally out.