Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Star Search

Various Early Years, Ames and Nevada, Iowa.

My Mom Darlene and Dad Jim are music lovers all the way, and they know a lot. They went to see Harry James and Count Basie back in the day, dancing ballroom style in Washington, D.C. My Grandpa Dave, from Darlene’s side, when he wasn’t working on the railroad, played the organ on a live Minot, North Dakota radio program twice a week during the 1940’s and 1950’s. Not without some notoriety in the area, he played small dances with a combo that kept him on the road some weekends.

The first sign of me having any musical talent was singing with the family around the Wurlitzer in Grandpa’s basement around 1969 or 1970. My Grandmother Luella saw what was happening to me, with my eyes fixated on Grandpa’s fingers, singing out strong. She held my hand one day on the sofa and told me the life of a musician was no life. She had spent too many nights alone with Dave out on the loose, living and drinking hard.

Jim and Darlene were the kind of people, especially my Dad, who would bust out into a song if someone said something which reminded them of that song. Jim was a catalogue of partial song lyrics, always singing under his breath, not humming so much as brr brrriinggg through his lips like he was doing a trombone or trumpet sound. Around the house or outside while working in the yard or in the barn, he jammed out big band stuff mostly, but of course all the Sinatra, Dean Martin and Ink Spots hits filled the air, as well as the classic country of Marty Robbins, Johnny Cash and George Jones. Or Darlene would suddenly do a quick dance move and sing some old time number from Rosemary Clooney or Ella Fitzgerald from the Cole Porter Songbook. Lots of fun.

We also had a babysitter named Cheryl Costal, a neighbor on Bald Eagle Lake. She sang John Denver, Bob Dylan, Ian and Sylvia, and other popular folk songs to me and my sister out in front of the lake. We had great sing a longs, and I got a plastic guitar one Christmas, which I didn’t stick with. Not like the real thing.

Despite what Luella said, my folks were always trying to get me into music or acting. In second grade, just after moving to Ames from Bald Eagle Lake, the music teacher Mrs. Busch made a special call to tell Darlene that I had a great singing voice, and wanted me to do a solo at the next school concert. I wasn’t ready, at age eight, to get up in front of an auditorium alone. Instead we did a jubilee quartet singing Sloop John B. and Dem Bones.
Later on by popular demand I did do a solo in class for my classmates, singing along with George Harrison Give Me Love (Give Me Peace on Earth), the first record I ever bought. I still can’t get that song out of my head.

After a couple years of chorus and singing at Guitar Mass in Saint Cecilia’s, it was time to take up an instrument in fifth grade. The plastic guitar had long been gathering dust. Jim decided I was to play the trumpet. I refused for some reason, he wanted me to be the next Doc Severinsen and also because he quit band when he was young so he didn’t want me to make the same mistake. We discussed the matter across the pool table in the basement one Saturday afternoon. He was explaining why playing a musical instrument was such a pragmatic thing to do, could be a money maker too. I wouldn’t budge. Occasionally we would lobby over a ball to the other person’s side in the midst of indecision and urging. When he finished preaching the benefits of the trumpet, I firmly said no, that I would decide once all the prospective students met in the band room the following Monday to choose instruments and do a tryout.

At the tryouts, It seemed to me that people split into groups based on personality or who was already playing a certain instrument. It wasn’t necessarily because they liked that instrument, there were many factors involved in the mind of a fifth grader, mostly forced into playing in the band, getting up two hours earlier than everyone else in school to practice.

In a full concert band, there is everything except strings. Gertrude Fellows Elementary had an extensive collection of instruments in a state of the art band room. That Monday, about sixty of us were assembled in the band room, taking turns at different instruments. At first I wanted to play the drums, but when a couple of known bullies went to the top riser and started beating the tympani, I shrunk back to the winds once again. The sax was out, mainly because you had to sit in front. No flute, thank you, even though some of the prettiest girls were in that section. I didn’t want to play a big instrument, like Tuba or Baritone, too much to carry. Piano was not portable, you had to buy one for the house, and trombone was for people with the same intelligence as drummers. So I was left with Trumpet after all.
I was first chair trumpet from day one, playing lots of concerts in fifth and sixth grade, even little quartets and competitions in other schools. I was already getting in with other musicians and meeting lots of girls at the band clinics and weekend retreats. Being in band was fun, my Dad didn’t tell me that part.

When we moved to Nevada in sixth grade word was already out about the hot trumpet player from the big city coming to town. I sat in last chair on the first day, just out of respect for the other players, but by the second rehearsal it was apparent I should take first chair, just in front of Chris Abbott and Robin Richards. We became the best of friends, listening to Dizzy, Louis and Miles all the time, playing in the jazz band doing all the great tunes. Band directors came and went, but our section was always swinging at the basketball games and other pep rallies at Nevada High School. We won a lot of awards in Iowa and went to Florida to compete, Chris won outstanding soloist and I got a second place. So that’s where I learned how to swing.

At some point people tried to get me over to the swing choir. It was enough for me already to wear the pastel shirts and matching black vests in the stage and pep band, but in the swing choir they did dance steps, but really cheesy dance steps. Jazz band was more my style, no uniforms and we could decide what charts to play. I gave in to the new director’s request one day in choir and went to a try out with the swing choir at the beginning of the year.

The new director was really sexy and flirty and we had a pretty good rapport. Her husband came later after class sometimes, he’d silently come in and play the piano a bit as she got her things to leave. We all couldn’t believe she was married to him, he was overweight and pretty ugly.

She called me honey in a southern kind of way, including in front of the chorus during practice. At first it was kind of scandalous, but then everyone just realized it was playing, that it just brought us closer together to feel the love. I knew that southern attitude from my family, especially my Aunt from Alabama.

The new director was nice to everyone though and everyone liked her. So she urged me to be in the swing choir, and I relented. The singing wasn’t a problem, I could site read no problem. It took a while to get the dance moves, especially with smelly Mike Hathaway, king of the cheesy swing choir, showing me how it’s supposed to be done. I tried but couldn’t stop laughing and the new director was giggling too, at the same time counting off and playing the piece with great effort at the piano, sweat forming in the armpits of her pastel shirt. I got it pretty good in the end and it seemed like I was in. Mike left and she and I went into her office.

She smiled at me approvingly, leaning back in her chair. I was still laughing inside, unable to accept but unable to figure out how to tell her. She really wanted me in that swing choir, in a southern kind of way. I just couldn’t do it, I told her I couldn’t be in such a cheesy group like that, and kind of made her feel ridiculous. She got really upset, like she felt rejected, that’s the feeling I got. I snubbed her. Needless to say our relationship wasn’t the same after that. By spring we had a new director.

Friday, August 7, 2009

Personal tale

Head has left body no chance
For recovery of lost memory
Umbilical cord severed floating in space
The bus driver pulled over to the side of the road in order to take a nap.
The entire situation was a mess.
Swallows scatter like molecular bats
One or two shooting out the isotope connecting the houses
Overhead they swarm and hunt for night bugs
Choppy and scattered
Maybe that’s why I watch them

Mexican journal not so bad
Best kind of journal I ever had

All of the cement
Seeps down the hill
Into battlefields asunder
Skulls crossed with bones warding away interlopers
And non-believers

Stones in the palace
It is now so real
A distant constellation
Was once an ideal
I mention a name and the door unfolds
I put down the same steps
In the hills of Tepeyacac

Garibaldi square mariachis eyes look vacant cases closed

Only heard one small group playing the day looked over

Stuck in the hotel placating rituals denied.

Cuernavaca, Mexico, Summer 1997

Animal Farm

Fall 1979, Nevada, Iowa

We waited too long to break Missy to lead. She was ¼ Arabian from her mother Dolly, and a mix of Appaloosa and Pinto to go along with it, with long legs to let us know she would be a real runner.
You may not know that horses are wild by nature, their spirit must be broken at an early age or it requires at least a couple of rodeo cowboys to ride that bucking horse into submission. After six months, a couple months too long according to shared wisdom, my Dad thought it would be a good chore for me to break Missy’s spirit and learn a little more about life on the farm.
Missy didn’t want anything to do with humans, and she was unapproachable in the pasture, keeping her distance or hiding behind Dolly at all times. My only chance was to separate them in the pens and lock Missy into her own pen and lock Dolly out. I lured Dolly into the barn with a can of seven grain oats, and Missy came trotting in unaware. She saw me and gave a start, hiding behind Dolly and peeking out at me from behind her mother’s tail, Dolly snuffling away into the can as the grain dust floated up in little puffs into the dank air.
I put some grain in my hand and beckoned to Missy, all the time using the curry brush on Dolly’s favorite spot just above her front leg, where you comb the hair up into a little tuft. Missy absentmindedly approached my hand and I leapt out to grab her around the neck, dropping the oats can and leaving Dolly snuffling into space, her eyes darting over to me as she saw the clever move I had made.
Missy stood about shoulder high to my waist, so it was not a problem to wrestle her into her own pen and lock the door. With a couple menacing waves of my arms, Dolly fled the barn and I slid the aluminum door shut behind her. For a second it was almost completely dark. I looked over at the holding pen and caught Missy’s opaque brown eyes as a shaft of light from a hole in the barn darted across her face.
What they told me to do, and what I had seen with my own eyes, was to try being nice at first, but if that doesn’t work, there are other more extreme methods which can be used to break a horse. It all depends on the situation how far you need to go.
Missy stood with her face in the far corner of the pen, about ten feet across, ignoring me as I entered with nylon lasso in hand. I was saying there there now Missy, don’t worry sweety, be a good girl Missy that’s a good girl...

I threw the lasso into the air over her neck but she suddenly jumped backward with some horse karate move and kicked me squarely in the right knee. I slumped onto a straw bale in screaming pain. After a bit of rubbing, I got up and grabbed the blue rope, getting ready for the slow approach, each hand forward like another notch up the mountain. To keep her from kicking I had to stay calm and not make any sudden moves. They told me most of it was in how you talked, you could see it in their eyes if they were calm and if they trusted you. So I kept talking, calmly and evenly through my teeth.

The idea was to get up to her head without getting kicked too much, slip the halter over her and then and only then could you try to break them to lead with a rope. This was the first step, later you broke them to ride. I finally made it up to her head and slipped the halter on, but she still wouldn’t budge and I was getting more and more impatient as the pain wore off on my knee. I picked her up and carried her into the pasture outside, Dolly looking on but doing nothing.

I pulled and pulled at the rope but she just dug her hooves farther into the dry earth. She went bucking off with me on the end of fifteen feet of rope and I literally skied behind her, skidding across the ground on the heels of my boots. I decided my only chance was to wear her out, and as a last resort, I used a method I had seen someone use at Chamberlain South Dakota Exotic Animal Auction and Sale. Cut off their air supply.

The halter had little rings holding the nylon straps together. I took the long rope and draped it over her shoulders, the two ends going down and through the front legs, up and through the halter. The more she resisted, the more her air would be cut off from the rope and any horse was said to yield under such pressure, gladly being domesticated just for a little gulp of air.

Not so with Missy. She fought and fought against me, wheezing and puffing, her eyes bulging out at me. She collapsed on the ground with white foam in the corner of her lips, chest heaving up and down in the dust.
A couple years later I saw her again. We had sold her to some friends who had more experience and they said she in fact was one of the fastest horses they had ever had. I saddled her up and took her for a ride and she tried to throw me in the ditch.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Killer

Summer 1985 Iowa City, Iowa and Chicago, Illinois

Jerry Lee Lewis was playing in Chicago. I had a big white 69 Volvo with an eight ball clutch that just might get us all there. We were only three hours away from Chicago and our little university town was blessed with having some of those legends coming through on a regular basis, playing festivals and small clubs.Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy and Little Walter at the Crow’s Nest, Albert King at Gabe’s Oasis, Koko Taylor at the Crystal Ballroom, complete with a spring operated floating dance floor. I met them sitting in the back warm up rooms or in the case of Albert Collins and the Icebreakers, me and my friend Willie saw AC Reed sax player sitting in an IHOP at 3 in the morning and we asked him where the band was. He pointed across the street at the Motel 6, room 12 and 14 he told us so we went over. Albert stood silently in the doorway to room 12, a mink coat adorning him from neck to toe, watching his band snort cocaine. We joined in but never talked to Albert, he went over to room 14, which he had to himself. Later I heard he used to beat up his group, but they say that about a lot of blues guys.

Jerry Lee was a legend but he didn’t work as hard as the people from Chicago, so seeing him was like seeing Elvis Presley if Elvis hadn’t seized up on the toilet a few years before. Six of us got in the Volvo and about a half hour into the drive I start to smell Ether. One of my former housemates at the Maid Rite House, Rich Haven, was the son of the chief of police, and like sons of preachers, he was one of the wildest people in town. We hadn’t lived together for over a year, now Totem Soul was all living together in the country, playing and recording in the basement of a big ranch style house, and I was giving guitar lessons and teaching at nearby Scattergood Friends School. I hardly ever went into town anymore.

I knew that Rich had gotten on this Ether kick, getting it from some medical supply salesman, putting it on a black glove and sniffing it, but I didn’t think he would be so presumptuous to bring it on the road trip. He had his head out the window the whole time, glove pressed to his face, eyes bulging out. He even got our other friend Dan on it too, the two of them floating like Bugs Bunny in the back seat.I honestly don’t remember exactly what the Ether smelled like, but it didn’t go away. If you go into the 7Eleven, the cloud goes with you too. Everyone in the same air is overcome with a sickly sweet feeling, a dreadful primordial memory of the scalpel or the obsidian blade sweeps through your mind. A man on Ether becomes dangerous simply by the way he smells, as if he has strapped dynamite to his body in a crowded place.I chose to ignore it and drove on, The Killer was probably just waking up in The Hyatt, ordering a grapefruit and corn flakes for breakfast, thinking of Crazy Arms and Whole Lotta Shakin Goin On.

By the time we had made it to Lake Shore Drive, the strange clicking noises in the Volvo transmission sounded like a machine gun mowing down midday traffic. It died right there overlooking the waves of Lake Michigan, and we pulled over to a little safety lane as the cars whizzed by us. We could still make the concert though and the AAA tow truck and roadside assistance got us all downtown to a mechanic. Neither of the two drivers who came to help mentioned the Ether smell, luckily the canister had run out after two hours on the highway and Rich and Dan were getting back to normal, talking again.

As we were in the little greasy mechanic’s office, swiping credit cards and making phone calls, the classic rock radio station announced Jerry Lee Lewis had cancelled the show. No reason was given, but tickets would be refunded by KPJY or the TicketMaster outlet.We spent three days in Chicago waiting for the mechanic, and went to the Checkerboard Lounge to see Junior Wells. The Volvo made it back to its ranch style home by the river, new fuel pump and rings for 200dollars.

Sunday, August 2, 2009

This Wheel’s on Fire

1980, Nevada, Iowa

I think it was a Buick K car, brown with four doors. I took it when the Econoline was not available, and we had sold the Fiat by then, a little death car.
I learned to drive when I was 11 or 12 on a C Farmall Tractor, mowing the pasture. You could get a special license when you were 14 years old back then, so I was already driving a car legally to and from school events early on. Drinking and driving, that great old Midwestern pastime.

We lived a couple miles out of town. At the end of the paved road, right where the driveway to Indian Creek Country Club begins, lined with poplars by the driving range, you turn left onto gravel. I took the turn too fast and slid sideways into the ditch, the car turning completely upside down with me in it. It was 3 o’clock in the morning and I was blind drunk.

I managed to climb out a window and reach the road. I looked down at the bottom of the car and decided to do one thing: get all four tires spinning at the same time, which I did and then stood back watching and laughing.

The only thing I could do was head up the driveway and wake up my boss and his wife who lived in a trailer next to the clubhouse. I went and they woke up grumbling but more concerned that I wasn’t hurt, no concussion or anything. They called my Dad and told him what happened, so he came and took me home. While I was sleeping, the tow truck came and pulled the car out of the ditch. The police also came, as was routine with any accident, and my Dad soberly explained to Capt. Johnson how he had lost control in the turn, but was not injured in any way and thanks for coming Steve, say hello to Katie and the kids for me.