Thursday, March 22, 2007

Like A Rolling Stone

I used to be a musician.

I still play occasionally, but only if you really make me. I never paid much attention to learning to play properly. My older brother is a very fine musician and taught me how to play the electric bass in the late 1970s. I bought an axe and amp, had a lesson, and got a job working in The Met Cafe in Providence a week or so later.

Playing the bass is like owning the baseball. You'll play all you want to if you can manage to show up and mind your business. I did.

The music business was filled with guys like me. They worked with their hands all day in construction, and played music at night. But I was the exact opposite of them, too. I played music for money and built things for the love of it.

I've had a few book's worth of odd and interesting things happen to me while I was playing. I could never remember all the places I've played in, and I can't even remember all the bands I've been in. For a while, I'd play with a different set of people four or five nights a week. I don't miss it all that much, really.

I got to wondering how many people I could recall that I played with that would turn up on YouTube. I was tickled to find two in one video. Pinetop Perkins and Luther Guitar Junior Johnson. They're both playing with the magnificent Muddy Waters:

Pinetop seemed ancient to me back then, twenty years ago and more, and he's still alive today and performing at 94 years old. We played in the Civic View Inn in Providence. The dressing room for the bands was upstairs, and it was... how do I put this delicately... um, well, they had shag carpeting on all the walls and the floor and ceiling too. There was a TV bolted to the wall up in the corner; the movies they were playing on there continuously would make an animal husbandry specialist blush. I avoided the doorknob, and there was no power on earth that could compel me to enter the bathroom under any circumstances. Pinetop was bored, so we went down to the bar. I thought it was funny that Pinetop called Johnny Walker Red, his favorite, "high test," just like my uncle does. He was almost fifty years older than me, but we had more in common than I had with people I considered my friends. He wore a huge cowboy hat, was skinny as a rail, told a million stories. We had a blast. Some guys in his band didn't show, so we opened for him and played with him too. All he needed was a piano, really.

I can't remember where the Luther Johnson gig was. That's him playing the guitar over in the right hand side of the frame. He was one of those guys -- lively, talented, good enough to make a living at it, never making a lot of money. I remember giving him a ride back to his house. He lived in a tidy little suburb south of Boston somewhere, and was anxious to get back home to his family. Now that's my kind of guy. I always am too.

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