Friday, March 14, 2008

A Stratocaster With A Whammy Bar

Today I forgot someone was dead. For a split second, I thought it would be nice to see him. I remembered he was gone and I felt that light go out all over again.

The first time I saw him was against my will. I was dragged by a friend. The lights went down and the band tip toed into a slow 9/4 figure. It was haunting from the first bar. There was an endless pause before he came slowly out, lit a cigarette, and took the guitar from his roadie. They shared a sentence or two, nodded and walked away from each other. An applause swelled, but it was a different applause than shows I had been to. It had a knowing air about it. The noise that rises for a pop star is much different than the sound smart people make for an artist.

He looked out knowingly, like he was greeting an old friend. He took a long drag on the smoke and wedged it into the strings of the guitar, between the nut and the tuning pegs. The crowd stood up waiting for him to play, he laughed and spoke into the mic.

"Siddown, yer makin me nervous."

He played the opening melody of "Watermelon in Easter Hay". The tobacco Strat once owned by Jimi Hendrix sang for him the way it always had, with big round blues tones. I remembered seeing Jimi set that guitar on fire in an album jacket. Now that same connection between Jimi and I was forty feet away. Did he write "Lil Wing" on that? "Castles Made Of Sand"? Was this the instrument that yielded the mysterious "Watchtower" solo?

Through out the night the smell of Colombian virgin bud and cloves drifted together with the musical reorganization of my mind.

"City of Tiny Lights", "Lucile Has Messed My Mind Up", "Muffin Man", and finally they closed the show with a brutal version of "Whipping Post" by The Allman Brothers.

I saw him three other times. The last was on a pier in New York City in the summer of 1984. As the sun went down, he and his amazing band weaved complicated rhythms and impossible melodies into the night so perfectly, I forgot my band was stranded there with no hope of rescue. He reminded me that music could save souls, make them laugh, point out absurdities, and shine the light on hypocrisy.

I was in Montana Studious with the band I was managing in 2002. Dylan, Miles Davis and many other legends had rehearsed there. I was in the bathroom trying to compose myself, before a label showcase. I looked at the wall and saw a hand written quote of his, comparing the music business to swimming in shit. I laughed and put some water on my face. It was going to be alright. It was just a stupid game.

I wonder if there is a kid out there that doesn't want the trappings. A kid that is writing impossibly scary and provocative lyrics. A kid that is dedicated to the art and discipline of becoming a musician. A kid jamming in Joe's Garage.


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