So you want to play guitar, huh? Who are you going to play it for? What do you have to say?
For a number of years I just wandered around the country, all over it, simply looking at the scenery, talking to the people, seeing what was different, and what was similar about different parts of the country.
Have you ever ridden in the back of a pickup truck across Canada? More than twenty four hours across a huge wheat field. That wheat field goes from nearly the Arctic Circle to the Gulf of Mexico. It goes from the Great Lakes and Mississippi River to the Rockies and it feeds the people of two countries. In the north, in the summer, it stays light almost all night, so you can ride in the back of a truck and read a book at eleven PM, while the Northern Lights are dancing on the horizon! It is amazing.
I sat in a road house somewhere north of Lake Superior and listened to a young cowboy in an argument with his wife about taking a job a thousand miles away. He was saying he didn’t want to work as some other man’s hands, building another man’s dreams. He wanted to build one for them. It was a country song, and they were simply talking about life.
I was drinking beer and taking notes!
I hope he got his ranch, and the two of them made it.
I rode with a young kid driving a logging truck with a full load down a grade on a back road in Wyoming. At one point he got this nervous smile, looked over at me and said “there went the brakes!” I thought: “hum…” but kept a straight face. We made it!
The way I saw it, that kid earned his spurs.
I changed into clean shorts as soon as I had the chance.
Enough time was spent in Mexico to be able to get across to people, but more important, I could understand them. Part of why I went there was a curiosity: It seemed that what most conversations I would hear meant nothing. People took them very seriously, but they weren’t really saying anything.
I thought it was the language.
After some time down there, riding bulls in the streets, and seeing fiestas with 10,000 people, four rock and roll bands, maybe ten Mariachi bands, and fire works going off in the town square, one morning I was listening to a couple of waitresses talking in the hotel. They were saying the same things as waitresses in Tulsa!
Maybe it wasn’t the language!
I talked with a door to door vacuum cleaner salesman one time in Illinois. He kept saying he wished he could live like me. I thought “Yeah right, a couple of nights ago I nearly froze to death, and last month was stranded in Death Valley!” What I said was “Well?”
I don’t think he ever left his job.
There was a West Virginia coal miner who had recently quit mining and bought a small farm in southern Ohio. He said in the past year he had watched the mine ceiling come down on his father, and then his brother; they were both only fifteen or twenty feet in front of him. It had gotten so that he had to get drunk to get up nerve enough to go into that hole in the ground. When he realized he was turning into a drunk, he knew it needed to change, as he was already dead. He quit and bought his small farm. He worried about the money, but didn’t have to crawl down into the ground anymore. He had stopped drinking.
That, I thought, was a wonderful story!
I was playing all the time. If I wasn’t actively doing something else, I was playing. From Big Sur and the Oregon coast to Maine, I was there. From the San Juan Islands to New Orleans, I was there. In the winter, in the summer, I was there. Until the elk came down from the high country and the bears hibernated in the Rockies, I was there.
And always I was playing. I thought about it some years later, and really, for about six years my guitar was never further than an arms length away.
I thought, finally, I had something to say!
The stories that could be told about that period of time!
I had played some coffee houses in Boston and Provincetown, had been run out of a couple of Oklahoma bars. I really wasn’t any good, and didn’t play country; still don’t. It did seem there was a lot to learn about being in front of people and getting them to hear what you were trying to do. What you were trying to say with the music.
And there was a real difference between knowing what you were doing and just trying to survive the set. Being lucky. I was at least smart enough to know that. Besides, I wasn’t often that lucky.
In San Francisco’s North Beach there were places to play for tips. I was looking for someplace to learn how really to do what I was trying to do. I was tired of pretending. It didn’t seem either real or honest. It seemed Davis’s intensity, or Lightning Hopkins’s rock solid ability to just sit there and play that amazing stuff was something you had to pay for.
There was that ragged line that you could play if you could hear it. You had to listen fast, and play what you heard. Part of what you were trying to play was the way the room felt. You had to practice listening. It was so dim in the tourist places, and college coffee houses. Those places felt more like a Tulsa coffee shop.
Don’t get me wrong, Tulsa is a fine place, but coffee shops can be a little tame!
The alleyways and sidewalks of upper Grant echoed with the bohemian’s experimental spirit. Ferlengetti had his book store, Kerouac had roamed and written of a wild side I had my curiosities about; and there were these nasty places I had seen Dave Von Ronk play years before. Timid, perhaps, but I had my guitar, and my tunes, and I was going to learn to play them. Stubborn? Definitely!
Timid and stubborn, now there is an interesting combination. There were going to be lessons to learn about a lot more than music, and I didn’t have a clue!
Ah…North Beach. The tourists, the pimps, the whores, the junkies and thieves, the characters!
It really isn’t all that different a game than Nashville, in that you survive because you make your mind up about it. To borrow one of the great seminal Nashville songwriter Harlan Howard’s lines of advice: “no one invited you here!”.
There was one guy who was a dope dealer. He had been in prison and was released on parole, but he was confined to North Beach. What he would do is get kids on the street strung out, and have them steal stuff, and rob people to pay for their habits. The police knew this and kept him on the streets of North Beach. Every so often they would lean on him, and he would give them a couple of the kids he had gotten strung out and stealing, just so he could keep his parole.
It was the oddest kind of job security I ever saw.
There was Joe, who was a folk singer. He would get drunk and some other drunk would give him a hard time. Joe would put down the guitar, and the two of them would go outside and settle the discussion. After which Joe would comeback and finish his set. His girl friend’s father had given her a car one time, and Joe hated not buying it for her himself. One night Joe lost the car. It took a couple of weeks to find where he had parked it. Before he
lost it he had wrecked it. She had a temper, and I think Joe would have rather never found it.
There was George. George was a small blonde girl who wore Elizabethan clothes, complete with a sword. She also carried a .38 pistol in her shorts. One night some Hells Angels came into the bar and one of them told her to give him the sword. She simply told him “Why don’t you just come and get it?” It wasn’t an invitation. His friends all said “Yeah, why don’t you just go and get it!” The Angel found other things more interesting.
George couldn’t really sing, not even close. She couldn’t tune her guitar, but what she could do was get people dancing on table tops at 2 AM. She was amazing! There would be nobody on the streets; it would be pouring rain, and for her set the place would be packed.
Mean as a snake, but I adored her.
There was J.C. Burris who was a blues singer. He was great! But he kept you on your toes. If you weren’t doing the set well he would sit in the audience and start to sing and play harmonica. He would steal the room right out from under you.
Michael Wilhelm had played with a band called The Charlatans, who had had a couple of albums and hits. His girl friend had lived with another old friend in Mendocino, but that is another story. Michael was also into the blues, and could play. We would discuss what made the best slide material and cop each other’s chops.
We kept those places alive Monday through Friday.
There was a guy named Bobby Coffman. Bobby was a beat poet. Years later Von Ronk asked if he still spit his beer on you when he was drunk and talking. I said, yeah!
Coffman was amazing. He was the real thing, and the closest thing to a friend I had there. I was there for the music, and he was there for the life. There wasn’t much difference!
The Great Experiment!
He knew what I was about.
He watched as I learned, and in his way would let me know when I was doing something right.
Sometimes he would sit on the stage and listen. One night when I had figured out how to fake it, and was faking it. He got up and walked between me and the audience, looked me in the eye, and said: “that’s bullshit, and walked off the stage!
It was a kind of tutelage you can’t buy, but had an honesty about it I wanted. Nobody else cared enough to have an opinion.
I learned how to put notes out there and tap somebody on the head with them. It was absolutely uncivilized. It took belief in what you were playing.
I learned how to make them quiet, and to listen and laugh. And yes, I learned from George about the attitude necessary to demand the room be full.
In North Beach it took a lack of civilization that I have not found elsewhere. But that willingness to be totally uncivilized is a vital ingredient to performing. Give it everything you have.
Bobby had thought his writing was bullshit about eight years before, and had decided not to write for ten years, and then find out if he still had anything to say.
I had left North Beach when his book came out, and the reviews were glowing. When he died, shortly after that, there was a full page article about him in the Examiner. I had no idea what he had done. He was kind of like a bohemian Harlan Howard, both in impact and involvement.
One night I looked up and there were a couple of guys robbing some guy in the middle of the room. One of them had a knife, in the middle of my set! I informed the bouncer, and the matter was resolved.
One night I come out of a club and there was this guy and his girlfriend. They were very stoned. He pulled a knife on me and asked me what it was worth to me. With a very straight face and total confidence I looked him in the eye and said “I don’t know, let me see it”. He handed me the knife. His girlfriend looked at him like he may not be the great provider she had considered him to be. I gave him fifty cents, and they stumbled off.
Down the street there was tourist bus, I could hear the tour guide pointing us out as the “Bohemians written about by Kerouac and Ginsberg”.
I didn’t know about any of the other “Bohemians” hanging around, I was just a kid from the suburbs trying to play the guitar!
One night the room was giving a friend a hard time. I got mad and was up next. I got into talking about how they could come up here and get drunk, and hang out on the wild side. They could earn a righteous hangover, but what did we get out of it? I pulled off my boot and pointed to a hole in my sock, and said “holes in our socks, man, put some damn money in the hat!”
I did it just right, and they all laughed, and the hats were great that night!
A few months after I had left, I went back to visit. That same guy had turned into a heroin addict and his girl friend a whore to pay for it. I always hoped they survived. He could write some great songs, and their relationship had love in it.
The place could break your heart.
You learned to sing the song. You learned that no matter what was happening in the room, or with your life, if you didn’t sing the song, it wouldn’t get sung. And you learned to decide if the song were important enough to you to sing in the first place.
Later you learned that you couldn’t really go back from what you had learned. You may change focus, you may change direction, but there was a part of that education that remained with you. You were never going to be a middle class history teacher. But you did know how to give it everything you had, tonight, and then give it more tomorrow.