Lady Gaga Will Be Playing in Hell -- Wanna Go?

Early this mornin', ooh, when you knocked upon my door
And I said, 'Hello, Satan, I believe it's time to go.'
-- Robert Johnson, "Me and the Devil Blues"

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Satan seems to have a real issue with musicians.

From Paganini to Robert Johnson to Dr. Dre, the Devil keeps popping up in popular mythology, hovering around some of the most successful musicians ever, eating up their souls like candy. He can't keep his hands off them.

Nicolo Paganini (1782-1840) was the best violinist of his time, possibly of any time. Schubert, Berlioz, Liszt -- the greatest musicians of the day -- idolized him. His playing forever changed violin music and our expectations of virtuosity. Some people actually believed he was the Devil incarnate.

But the more popular story, and the one that has been handed down over the generations since his death, is that Paganini's mother made a deal with the Devil when the boy was all of six years old -- the Devil gets the boy's soul for eternity, Mrs. Paganini gets to see her son become the greatest violinist who ever lived.

By his last international tour, Paganini was the leading celebrity of the day and making more money than any performer before him.

Robert Johnson, similarly, had a way with the blues guitar that still makes guitarists 75 years after his death drool with envy, somehow simultaneously creating melodies, bass lines and bell-like harmonics on the guitar while moaning soulful blues lyrics -- a one-man orchestra. Eric Clapton and the Rolling Stones' guitarist Keith Richards both regard Johnson as the greatest blues guitarist who ever lived.

Many of his fans believed the story, first told by his fellow blues musicians in the 1930s, that Johnson had met the Devil at midnight at a crossroads (U.S. Highway 61 and U.S. Highway 49 in Clarksdale, Miss., according to one source). The Devil silently took his guitar from him, tuned it and handed it back.

The deal was done. Johnson was instantly the greatest guitarist around and his soul was condemned.

Similar rumors have swirled around Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin and other pop musicians. Most recently, an editor here at TheStreet pointed out to me that Dr. Dre -- listed by Forbes as the highest-paid entertainer of 2012 and the subject of my column a few weeks ago -- is said to be in the Devil's pocket. If rumors are to be believed, so is Lady Gaga.

The legend about Dre is fueled by a quote from record producer Dick Griffey regarding a lucrative contract between Dre and Sony ( SNE). Griffey told Dre biographers John Borgmeyer and Holly Lang, "I was there when Dre said he sold his soul to the Devil for a million bucks. And I swear the Devil has got have a receipt for his ass." That funny observation is taken out of context on dozens of Web sites and folded into a conspiracy that has Dre as a member of the Illuminati, re-imagined for the 21st century.

No matter how preposterous, these rumors persist. We want to believe them. Like all myths, these represent elements in human psychology that we don't completely understand.

The Devil's Counterpoint

First, great talent clearly bothers us. The appearance of genius is disturbing on some level and we have to account for it.

Musical gifts like Paganini's or Johnson's is like a lightning strike -- powerful, wonderful and terrifying. They highlight our own weaknesses, our inadequacies, our mortality. Calling it evil and unnatural makes it a lot easier to swallow, especially if we loop in eternal damnation for the Uber-Freak.

Second, the Devil story isn't told about every talented or famous musician. John Lennon, but not Paul McCartney. George Gershwin perhaps, but not George M. Cohan. Only the hip few are chosen. Squares need not apply.

There is something subversive about each of these artists, an air of danger. The playing style is daring and supremely confident, the lifestyle often reckless.

Where the rumor is strongest, the music is also invasive, punching through the comfortable envelope of polite, established style to touch us in a very personal way. It's sexy dark, like a vampire coming right for us, homing in on a vein.

Third, the Devil apparently doesn't give every soul the same terms. Paganini lived into his 50s -- a good, long life in those days. He was one of the most famous and wealthiest musicians in the world at the time of his death.

Hendrix was equally famous in his time, if not so wealthy, but died at only 27. Also 27 when died, Johnson was relatively unknown, a wandering performer living hand to mouth, who almost accidentally left a body of recorded songs.

Always the better businessman, Dr. Dre is currently world famous, worth an estimated $260 million and, at 47, shows no sign of stopping anytime soon.

Too steep a price for eternal torment, perhaps. But even so, the Devil must still be kicking himself over that deal. Dre didn't come cheap.

Fourth, if we enjoy all the music these folks made, or even some of it, does it mean we're going to Hell, too? Or does demonic possession allow us to avoid the responsibility of liking it? We were bewitched! What could we do?

But ask yourself, if Lady Gaga is going to hell, wouldn't you want to go there too? Seriously. Eternal torment with her would be more fun than spinning Madonna records in heaven. (Cuz you know Madonna isn't going to perform. She's going to be too busy showing off her halo.)

Fifth, and perhaps most important, is the theological implication: the Devil makes the best music. Sure, God has his musicians -- Handel, Yes, Barry Manilow . . . ( yawn!).

The Charlie Daniels Band tried to beat the Devil at his own game with the pseudo-bluegrass hit, "The Devil Went Down to Georgia." In it, the Devil and Johnny match fiddle skills in a duel. Johnny walks away victorious with a fiddle of gold as his prize and his soul intact.

Problem is, as any musician will tell you, the Devil actually wins. Satan's more aggressive, avant-garde fiddle solo blows the doors off Johnny's traditional breakdown. The singer can deny it all he wants, but we know the truth.

This quiet victory of the dark side goes all the way back to the ancient Greeks. Plato wanted to outlaw certain types of music, the kind that could inspire impure thoughts and dangerous behavior. The god of music, Apollo, represented order, civilization, rationality. By day, Apollo was in charge, the god of bureaucrats and lawmakers.

But at night, Dionysus was the people's DJ, the earthy, footstomping god of drunken good times. Parties in his honor were the stuff of whispered legend. Plato's ideal society? Never happened.

Centuries later, the Christian God sided with Apollo. But the faithful, even in Eden, couldn't keep their eyes off that snake.

Today, Dionysus is in Hell. With Hendrix. They've got Lady Gaga on speed dial and the party down there -- torment be damned -- is nonstop.

Up here, we fight for order and crave chaos. We abhor greed and ambition and are fascinated by it. We demand equality but fall like slaves at the feet of great talent. These seeming contradictions define who were are as human beings.

We don't want to admit it but when the Devil calls the tune, we dance.

-- Written by Carlton Wilkinson in Asbury Park, N.J.

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