What is it about people in your life; your grandmother, my grandfather? (When I was about six I was cutting the lawn, and did a horrible job, my Grandfather was watching, he said: “Tom, is that a good job?” I said “no”, he said: “if a job was worth doing at all, it was worth doing well”. I cut that lawn five times before we both agreed. I never forgot it.). Then there was Katie Cole! Who was Katie Cole? Isn’t that a question!
Katie Cole was a friend of my sister’s. She was beautiful, sparky and would get in your face at the drop of a hat. She was a year older than me. All the way through high school I was very shy and secretly drooling.
In college, I was going to be a history teacher. I knew I needed to be planning something and that was the closest thing to interesting for me. I had a professor who would teach periods of history by reading from the journals of the people involved. It made it come alive. I got into jazz and started to sneak out of the house and go to the city to a small club on Divisidero called “The Both And”. I would hang in the alley and listen. The people in the club knew I was going to get killed out there so they started letting me in. I would sit in the loft with my hardly shaving white face looking over the railing. I saw Miles Davis and his historical quintet stopping time with his intensity. Philly Joe Jones would at times be playing different times on both sides of the cymbals. Jon Hendricks without Ross and Lambert amazed me. I saw legends on a 10×20 foot stage in a room not 30×50. The life those people could put into it! I hung out enough so that I knew Dizzy Gillespie’s bass player Chris White and he knew me. Gillespie, now that guy would play. The amazing intensity it takes to get a quiet thing across is something I am still learning. The precise, exact, calm, slash, of a quiet thought with no reservation. And not twice.
Well, as you’ll recall, and Dylan sang: times were changing. I ran into Katie. She’d get me to take her to the city, and drop her off at the Longshoremen’s Hall or some place, and I would go listen to jazz.
But Katie being Katie, it wasn’t long before we were going to the Fillmore, and then Winterland. I would watch her putting lights in her shoe, and laughing as only she could do.
Viet Nam was the period. I knew I was watching history as it was happening, decisions and directions needed to be chosen.
I realized that the western expansion of the continental United States was a political strategy necessary for the security of the nation. But it was done by marketing the west to families with nothing. Dreams of freedom and becoming landed gentry were sold to factory workers, on ground with no infrastructure. For that to happen the buffalo had to go, and the Indians, where young men, my age, to have a dance with Katie, had to count coup, and steal horses. Viet Nam was clearly just another “political strategy”.
However, counting coup and stealing horses was done on the plains of your own integrity.
I had no idea what I had to do to have a real “date” with Katie. I was her ride, she had her boyfriends, and I was jealous. The buffalo were gone, and that culture destroyed, as was inevitable, but with a viciousness that made “the white man’s burden” a “worthy” dream. We were in Viet Nam, and I had to decide. Ken Kesey lived in town, and Joan Baez. Dylan played a coffee house, and wrote about “where rivers freeze and summer ends”, which didn’t happen in California. John Hammond Jr., Robert Johnson, Gary Davis, Sleepy John Estes, all sang with a kind of emotion that was amazing. How could they wait until tomorrow to play a note, and then it was exactly right?
Well, while all this was going on, I had a couple of friends who were taking guitar lesions from the TV. One night I picked up a guitar and made a couple of notes myself. Those two notes, the way they related to one another; and that you could play them, those same two notes, with different attacks, or different times between them, and they would feel different, made more sense to me than anything I ever had known. There was a kind of reality about those two notes I never knew could exist.
Katie had me listen to Sandy Bull, a New York guitar player, as well as John Fahey, who had just come out with what was the first independent hit record. Bert Janch was an English guitar player, who later was with a group called Pentangle. He would run his guitar rhythms against his vocal like storm waves, icy grey-green waves, against a breakwater on an overcast day. Branches exploding at 60 below zero. His honesty and humanity was staggering. These people made sounds similar to what I was hearing in my head!
The amount of motion Joan Baez or Dylan would make with their guitars! I was amazed. Dave Von Ronk could play like his fingers were feathers, and his voice a fog horn.
Leadbelly had been in prison, and the Governor of Texas visited, Leadbelly sang “if I was the Governor, and the Governor was me, I’d write him a pardon, and let him go free”, and the Governor did. There was Erik Satie. And Bitches Brew
Life wasn’t about a job or what was in a book. Nor was history about what was in somebody’s journals, as human as that might have made it seem.
Life was in the fields of the south; or blew across Utah where you could stand and feel like you were on a basketball floating through space; or in Boston, or New Orleans. Life was with kids making the same confrontive kinds of decisions I was; it was with coal miners who had to get drunk to crawl down a hole in the same ground they had seen fall on their brothers and fathers, knowing that if the mine ceiling didn’t kill them the black lung would. Life was with the old cowboys, on the street with their grandsons in Jackson Wyoming, broke, waiting out the snowstorm which kept their jobs from starting; or the sailors on the California coast.
Friends were getting married, having children and the wonderful looks in their eyes warmed my heart while their wives did not much want me and my wandering ways around.
There was some kind of rhythm to it all. Not very symmetrical, but you could hear it. I wandered looking, listening and trying to play it.
Sitting on a curb in Boston crying because I had just “sold” the music for some food, to people I couldn’t get to hear what I was trying to play about. I felt like a whore. Then learning the magic, those points far, far apart, but absolute, as I began to be able to get them to hear what I had seen.
Katie Cole had opened that door. It is a universe I, in some senses, still live in. I never did really thank her.
Time passes. The moon and the earth and the sun all move. This small forgotten galaxy changes in its relationship with the rest of the vastness of what is the physical universe. People change too. One moment is, and then it is not.
About four years after those early San Francisco days I ran into her. I had a Jaguar and we drove to the beach. We made love all that night; it was
the real thing: a dance on the beach in the moonlight. Forty years later, I still smile thinking about it.
When I dropped her off at dawn, we looked at each other and it was like seeing that a heartbeat or two too many had passed. There was a gulf, and somehow something had changed and we didn’t know what it was. She said “I feel like a hot house flower in your world; I don’t think I could survive”.
What was odd was that it was her world I was living in; or at least the one she had shown me. I went by a couple of times, but we couldn’t find anything to talk about. I ran into her in a supermarket after another three of four years, she had gained a bit of weight and married a professor from Stanford. I think now she is a grand mother, I hope she and her husband love each other well.