Notable Notes of Note

When I was ten years old, my piano teacher was a wonderful young Japanese woman named Mieyae Ogeso. She was kind, patient and endlessly encouraging and was a student at the Julliard School of Music, which at the time was directly across the street from our apartment, at the intersection of Broadway and 122nd street in New York City. At night local Italian American kids with elaborately coifed pompadours would sit on the school’s front steps and sing together in three and four part acapella doo-wop harmonies, raising their voices when subways screamed out of the subterranean tunnels onto the elevated tracks above Broadway, half a block away.

As my piano skills improved Mieyae told me that me and some of her other students were going to give a recital at Julliard, an institution I had never been inside of before. It was an aural thrill to play for the public for the first time on a new, crisp, mellifluous, well tuned concert quality grand piano in a room with perfect acoustics. It was a far cry from the 50 year old, ragged, poorly tuned upright that I practiced on daily in our apartment, inherited from my grandmother’s house in New Jersey. Everything sounded better at Juilliard.

Things go better with Steinway

I was at a small music club in Redwood City, listening to the English guitarist and singer Martin Simpson describing a charity event that he had been hired to perform at in mansion in New Orleans. While he was setting up before the event a young black woman came into the banquet room to be interviewed for a domestic position by the madam of the house. The young lady looked up at a grand painting on the wall and questioned the madam if it was a younger version of herself in the image, saying “Is that y’all in the painting?” When the older woman said “yes” the job seeker responded “Lordy, Lord, ain’t time a wrecker!” Simpson did not know if the young lady was offered the position, but suspected that she did not get the job.

Portrait of a Lady Dressed for a Ball • Giovanni Boldini

I first heard this good advice from the folk singer and blues artist Leadbelly (Huddie Ledbetter) in a book on the history of the blues. He gave this counsel in a talk at Harvard University, where graduates maim and kill each other much more frequently with the more subtle tools of economic and social injustice, racism and class warfare. Leadbelly knew what he was talking about, as he had been imprisoned in Louisiana for killing one of his relatives, Will Stafford, in a fight over a woman. While in prison, he was stabbed in the neck by another inmate. After his release he was imprisoned again in New York several years later for stabbing another man in a bar fight.

When I was a child I heard Pete Seeger perform several times in New York City. He sang “Frankie and Johnny,” a sad ballad about a woman shooting and killing her unfaithful man, as well as “The Streets of Laredo,” an old West song about a cowboy shot and mortally wounded by another cowboy over a card game altercation in a saloon. My mother often sang these songs as we drove between New York and New England on our way to our country home and on our many cross country drives from coast to coast. 

Murder ballads are staples of folk and country music, many of them originating in England, Scotland and Scandinavia. They changed and morphed after they crossed the Atlantic to America to include stories of more recent crimes and killings. I have heard enough of these songs at music festivals over the years detailing the murderous deeds of men and women who were avenging wrongs, to fill a small jail with assassins. In spite of Leadbelly’s advice, I have no plans to kill some mens and will not never kill no womens.

As the bluesman R.L. Burnside said after he shot a man during a dice game:

“I didn’t mean to kill nobody … I just meant to shoot the sonofabitch in the head. Him dying was between him and the Lord.”

Leadbelly

De Witt was the bass player in my friend Jay’s band Plan B, which was performing at my wedding. Over champagne at the break he told me that he had opened for an animal act featuring trick performing chimpanzees when he was touring with Tiny Tim a few years previously. Tiny Tim (who ironically, was very tall) was a throwback nostalgia act in the late 1960’s. He played the ukulele and sang songs from the 1920’s in a quavering high falsetto voice. His signature song was, “Tiptoe Through the Tulips.” I saw him marry his sweetheart, Miss Vicki, on The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson on December 17, 1969, with 40 million other people watching, the biggest wedding I ever went to. 

Tiny Tim

My friend Jay made these comments after hearing some Thelonious Monk and Charles Mingus music during a wedding reception on a small island on very large Moosehead Lake in Maine. I had water skied a mile or so out to the wedding site behind a 1940’s mahogany speedboat called the Merganser and the minister later descended from the heavens in a seaplane and taxied up to the tiny dock and performed the service half an hour later. 

Thelonious Monk

Charles Mingus

My introduction to the world of hippie music began on a Saturday evening in October of 1966, when I was 15, on the roof of Stanford’s Student Union building above the bowling alley. My girlfriend Marianne Murphy and I went to hear the Grateful Dead along with perhaps 200 other curious souls. There was a garishly painted old school bus parked below (“Furthur,” Ken Kesey’s 1939 International Harvester vehicle, later made famous by Tom Wolf’s book “The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test”.) When the Dead started playing I saw the ecstatic, acid infused swirling and twirling hippie dance styles of the Pranksters and Deadheads for the very first time.

Grateful Dead

During the band’s break Marianne and I talked to Pigpen, the band’s Hell’s Angel organist and singer. He was wearing the Angel’s blue denim “Colors” motorcycle jacket with a large death head embroidered on the back reading “Hell’s Angels, Frisco.” I asked him how one became a Hell’s Angel and he said that once the members thought you were up to their standards (usually after going on road runs for a year or more), there was a ceremony. The initiate had to bring a woman who was willing to have sex with all of the club members and a full gallon jug of Cribari wine. The members then lined up in rank order. Their leader who was first in line, drank as much wine as he wanted and then put something back into the bottle (LSD, speed, Jack Daniels whiskey, more wine, urine or whatever else he wanted) and then handed the bottle down to the next member, who did the same thing, and so on until the prospective member who was last in line had to drink the full contents of the bottle and survive. If he did survive, he had earned the right to be an Angel, ride with them and wear their colors.

Pigpen and janis Joplin

When I was 18 I saw and heard the very old delta blues master Son House perform at Stanford University. He was a tiny wizened old black man sitting alone on a white stool in a brilliant pool of light. He took a couple of slugs from a silver flask, hit a strong shimmering opening chord on his metal resonator guitar, opened his lips and out poured incredibly loud, scary fiery blues music from another world and another time. He became a giant in an instant, possessed by wonderful dark and grand musical spirits, singing about his dead woman laid out on a cooling board. It was the most powerful, instant and complete transformation I had ever seen of a human being. I was mesmerized by his whoops, wailings and the sharp, abstract staccato attack of his bottleneck guitar stylings.

Son House

This gem of a musical insight was given to my friend Jay by the wonderful guitarist Tuck Andress – Half of the jazz duo Tuck and Patti which he performs in with his wife, Patti Cathcart. Jay was taking a guitar lesson from Tuck and asked Tuck how to improve his lead guitar playing and was told he should “democratize the notes,” a pitch perfect musical Zen koan that I have been trying to unravel note for note since Jay mentioned it to me several years ago.

Tuck and Patti

This casual comment on artistic dismemberments, one accidental and one self inflicted, came in a discussion with a friend about what it takes to be an artist and what one must sometimes overcome to achieve one’s goals. Jerry Garcia, lead guitarist, musical mastermind and singer for the Grateful Dead lost a finger when he was holding a piece of wood that his brother was chopping for a campfire at the tender age of five. He overcame his mutilation and became one of the most well known and innovative guitarists in the world.

Jerry Garcia

Van Gogh cut off his own ear at the age of 35 – He had been suffering from depression and got into a fight with the painter Paul Gaugin, with whom he shared a house in the south of France. Tensions developed between them and in a fit of rage and dementia, Van Gogh threatened his friend with a knife before turning it on himself and mutilating his ear lobe and giving it to a prostitute. Two years later he took his own life. He was a poster boy for tortured starving artists and sold only one painting in his lifetime, though he is one of the most famous and revered artists today. 

Van Gogh’s self portrait after mutilating his ear

Django Reinhardt was a Belgian born Romany gypsy and was one of the progenitors of jazz guitar in the 20th century. He was sleeping in a caravan in a gypsy encampment and knocked over a candle, which ignited the extremely flammable celluloid that his wife used to make artificial flowers. Their wagon was quickly engulfed in flames. The couple escaped, but Reinhardt suffered extensive burns over half his body. During his 18-month hospitalization, doctors recommended amputation for his badly damaged right leg. Reinhardt refused the surgery and was eventually able to walk with the aid of a cane.

More crucial to his music, the third finger and fourth fingers of Reinhardt’s left hand were badly burned. Doctors believed that he would never play guitar again. Reinhardt applied himself intensely to relearning his craft and overcoming his disability. While he never regained the full use of those two fingers, Reinhardt regained his musical mastery by focusing on his left index and middle fingers, using the two injured fingers only for chord work, developing a unique percussive style of playing.

There is now a week long Festival Django Reinhardt every summer in the south of France to celebrate and commemorate his contributions to the world of music.

Django Reinhardt

Another who overcame musical adversity was Mac Rebennack – better known as Doctor John – who was a New Orleans guitarist before becoming a pianist. His finger-losing mishap came when he was protecting a friend in a fight and got shot in his left ring finger. That led him to change his musical focus from guitar to the piano and began his long and successful career as a singer and composer on that instrument.

I was sitting behind him at a friend’s wedding in a church in rural Massachusetts where he took the “Black Tie Optional” dress code code seriously, and came dressed with a 6’ long boa constrictor wrapped around his neck in place of a tie.

Doctor .John

I once saw the Texan singer-songwiter Lyle Lovett slowly make his way to the stage at an outdoor show in Saratoga, California using crutches, with an elaborate metal halo apparatus of wires, rods and rings wired into his leg, which had recently been crushed by a bull. Lovett had been at his uncle’s ranch and had seen him get attacked by a bull and bravely jumped into the corral to distract the beast and save his relative, and had his leg crushed by the angry brute as his uncle escaped. Lyle had his leg broken in 20 places. It was remarkable that he was still able to travel and perform after such a traumatic injury, but the show must go on.

Lyle Lovett

The composer Ludwig Van Beethoven suffered from depression, was probably bipolar and was an alcoholic, which led to his early death from liver damage. By the time he had turned 30 his hearing was starting to fail, and by the time he was in his mid 40’s he was totally deaf, though he was still able to hear music in his imagination and could still compose magnificent symphonic works on paper in spite of his disability.

Tribulation is the promise that life always keeps, but at our best, we can rise above life’s challenges and create something beautiful and lasting.

Ludwig Van Beethoven

Shakespeare • Hamlet

Frank Sinatra song chorus

These two statements concerning the ground of being and how to conduct one’s life were inscribed in tiny, fine point, felt tip pen print on thin lines of white grout between ceramic tiles above urinals in a men’s rest room at the student union at San Francisco State University when I was getting my Master’s Degree in fine art in the early 1980’s. The number of comments and tiny philosophical statements increased as the year went on, until the white grout turned back and one could have collected enough pearls of wisdom to begin a PhD dissertation in Philosophy.

Ophelia – Hamlet’s heart’s desire • John Everett Millais

Frank Sinatra

Jimi Hendrix said this on mic, moments before playing “Wild Thing,” setting his guitar on fire, smashing it and throwing it into the audience at the Monterrey Pops Festival in June, 1967. I was in the audience at age 16: rapt, enthralled and unbelieving, not yet knowing that the Who was about to appear next, ready to destroy all of their instruments at the violent end of their set. Hendrix had lost the coin toss as to who would close the show that night and did his best to remain unforgettable for the rest of rock history.

Jimi and his flaming Wild Thing

Me and my first guitar

Son House – Death Letter Blues: