I’ve told so many stories about friends and family to date that I’m basically ready to start exploring some new directions with this blog. I’m not sure what those directions will be right now, but I suppose this happens to everyone at some point. Along the way, I’ve learned a thing or two about creative nonfiction — especially the kind in which the author goes to great pains to conceal the true identities of people and places. For example, when you change the names of some things, you have to either exclude certain conversations and anecdotes altogether, or you can attempt to edit them slightly, salvaging the essential truth of the story. I’ve painted myself into a corner on a couple of occasions — not that anyone would have noticed, save for my sister who knows who’s who and what’s what.
Uncle Charlton has an issue or two surrounding him within these pages, for example. Yes, we had all the shootings and droppings of the n-word described herein (see the entire “Tales of the Midwest” section of this blog), but there’s just been a few oddities from the writer’s perspective. I was just thinking about my Uncle a while ago and another oddity resurfaced. Thankfully, I need not go to great pains to alter any details. This one’s extremely brief and straightforward — although I’ll stretch it out unreasonably for the sake of simply writing something today.
You see, I was listening to the radio today, and heard the old Doobie Brothers tune, Black Water. You know that one, right?
Old black water, keep on rollin’
Mississippi moon, won’t you keep on shinin’ on me
Yeah, keep on shinin’ your light
Gonna make everything, pretty mama
Gonna make everything all right
A good tune, for sure. I remember stumbling home in the wee hours one night, very early in my college career. There was some hippie dude sitting in the common-area lounge between the men’s and women’s wings of the dorm. A girl ran up to me and said, “Go get your guitar, okay?”
“Sure,” I said. I was baked out of my mind at the time, as I recall, and was agreeable to pretty much anything. So, I went and grabbed the Yamaha 6-string. I’d paid fifty bucks for it not long before this; there was some kid in another dorm who was strung out on something and needed cash fast. Half a c-note for a Yamaha 6-string was too good to pass up. Years later, in one of the dumbest barters I’ve ever made, I traded the thing for a flute. Don’t ask …
Anyway, I handed the hippie the gee-tar, expecting little more than hearing ten songs made up of G, D, C, and maybe an F chord now & again. See, I can be so damned judgmental. But, the hippie was good. He did extended solo arrangements of Magic Bus (which was neat, even though The Who sucks ass), Zeppelin’s Goin’ to California, and a bunch of other old standards. Then he finished up with Black Water. Not just chords, either. He’d incorporated a lot of the melody into his playing as well — kind of a precursor to the kind of stuff I really came to love years later. For example, if you’d ever heard of Tuck Andress or Michael Hedges — well, Hippie wasn’t quite there yet. But, it was reminiscent, in retrospect.
(BTW If you’ve never heard of the above guitarists, and you have a minute, lookup Tuck Andress playing Santana’s Eurpoa and Michael Hedges playing his own amazing Because It’s There. Hell, even if you’re familiar with those guys, it’s worth it to relive them for a moment. I remember that head-exploding moment when I discovered each of these guys. For Andress, it was at a small outdoor festival. You could tell all of the guitar players in the crowd; we all immediately stopped what we were doing and stood in front of the guy in disbelief. For Hedges, it was a videotaped concert someone gave me. And, then later on, it was when he was killed in a car crash.)
Anyway, I’d seen Hippie around before. He lived over in another dorm on campus. For some reason, the actual name of that dorm was Priapus. No kidding. Why a school would do such a thing to a men’s dorm is beyond me. That particular dorm was one of the more disgusting things I’d ever encountered. I mean, I’m not exactly cleanly… but, I literally thanked God when I found out I wouldn’t be staying there. (We’d accidentally pulled into that parking lot upon arriving at the school.)
Just as a quick aside, I just remembered another kid from that dorm. Everyone called him “Zap.” He was a druggie’s druggie — a real connoisseur, if you will. Wore prescription sunglasses day and night. He was such a Zeppelin fan that he actually had an electric 12-string so he could play Song Remains the Same more accurately. Once, he called me into his room to get my reaction to his latest composition. I think it was called “No Good Burned Out Druggie,” which no doubt was the same title he used for all of his other tunes. (It wasn’t bad, actually. But, hey, that’s one of the advantages of a 12-string. Well tuned, a simple A-minor sounds downright symphonic.)
So, hippie showed me some techniques that night and, though hammered, I still remember them to this day.
I’ll get back to the Uncle Charlton story in a moment, btw …
Guitar is a second instrument for me. I was brought up on piano — played since age 5 or 6, I suppose. Classical lessons, scales, arpeggios … the whole nine. So, when I talk about playing in rock bands, you have to understand that I almost always thought what I was doing was pretty stupid. Fun, sure … But, most classic rock is pretty dull, from a keybordist’s perspective. Sure, it was fun to “play out” or whatever. But, I always thought it was an odd compliment if someone were impressed after hearing, say, Come Sail Away. Sounds tough, I suppose, if you’ve never touched a piano. But, it’s not exactly Chopin (not to diss Dennis DeYoung, of course — because I do think the guy’s among the better classic rock keyboardists). Looking back, though, I’d much rather have been doing, say, Ray Charles, or some other more challenging stuff that I didn’t even know about until much later.
One thing I notice about the guitar, though — and, I wonder if anyone else out there notices something similar — is that my retention is vastly better than it is on the piano. Once I learn a tune on the guitar, I can almost always return to it years later with ease. With piano, and especially when it’s from sheet music, I often have to relearn a piece after a long absence. My only theory is that it’s the sheet music making the difference. When I play the piano, my eyes rarely go to the keys; they just read the music. With the guitar, I never learned to read sheet music, so I’m always looking at the guitar neck. And, I suspect it goes beyond simply remembering where my hands go; I suspect learning this way somehow reinforces the muscle memory effect. But, that’s the topic of a much different post someday.
Well, now I’ve really done it … I’ve strung this along so much that it’s going to seem stupid when I tell you just how dumb of a memory this Doobie Brothers thing is. But, what the hell … You see, someone in my family (as I understand this), is remotely related to someone who is somehow close (if not actually remotely related) to Michael McDonald, Doobies front man from 1975–1982.
It didn’t matter that McDonald co-wrote the Song of the Year Grammy-winner in 1978, Uncle Charlton didn’t know who the hell the guy was when some old codger kicked the bucket in my family. I wasn’t at the funeral, but I’ll never forget my father telling me the story: “So, Charlton walks up to Michael McDonald and tries to start up a conversation. He says, ‘So, I understand that you’re a Doobie. What exactly IS a Doobie, anyway?’”
Yes, we can be downright out of touch in my family.