Just like riding a bike

Fri, 06/30/2017 - 9:30am

The best guitar-playing job I ever had was in the mid-80s, on Block Island. Vin McAloon hired me to play from 8 to 11 at a little bar in back of the Atlantic Inn. I’d work at the dock until 3, and then hop on the ferry. I’d hike up High Street and bring my guitar to the room. Then I’d go run a few miles, take a swim, and grab some grub. At 8 p.m. I’d begin my sets of Jimmy Buffett songs along with some standard Bob Dylan songs, as well as my own stuff. I’d be done at 11, then I’d hit the saloons to hear some rock and roll music. I’d flop in the crew’s quarters on the Carol Jean, and be back in Point Judith by 9 o’clock, and begin my work day. Also, I’d be 125 scoots heavier after the gig. Whattacountry!

In the 60s, the folk music scene was happening on a national level, and lots of kids were starting to play guitars and sing songs of an austere nature by folks like Peter, Paul, and Mary, Bob Dylan, and the Kingston Trio. You could buy a chord book, and pick up a guitar for pretty short money. Then, if you spent some time in the basement or garage, you might learn to play the thing. More importantly, it evened the playing field for guys who weren’t athletically inclined or bringing home Honor Roll grades — guys like me — in the pursuit of meeting girls. “Women are more attracted to guys with guitars than guys with typewriters,” said Jimmy Buffett. In 1964, I saw my friend’s brother playing guitar and singing with a long-haired blonde beauty at a local gig. I was gobsmacked at seeing these kids — a little older than me — doing such a cool and deft thing. That night was the genesis of a focused juvenile mission to get my hands on a guitar, and play it and sing in front of an audience — maybe get a girlfriend in the process — and reach a certain degree of proficiency at something; at that time, the academic thing was going sideways.

After caddying at every opportunity for a solid month, I accrued enough money — 25 scoots — to head over to the Apex Department Store in Pawtucket, R.I., and buy a guitar — my dad gave me a ride. He probably figured it couldn’t hurt me pursuing this, seeing that our next-door neighbor, Peter, played guitar. He was also an excellent student — an Honor Roll guy. Subsequently, I hit the basement hard with my new rig, and practiced; however, something felt off kilter. I’m left handed and was playing the thing upside down and out of tune for about three weeks. One day another local kid who was bashing his guitar in the basement came over and squared me away on the quick. He showed me three chords and made me mimic him until I mastered them. Then, he told me to practice strumming the guitar with my right hand — for two hours —without a break. I did. The next day he taught me “Donna” by Richie Valens — three chords: G, C and D. I played for my neighbors that night. Game on!

In the 60s, they had these things called hootenannies. (This Scottish term referenced a small informal group of performers.) The tribe of folk-singing kids was expanding at a rapid pace — we felt part of something — and local schools and churches probably thought it was a good way to keep kids off the streets. It also gave an endgame to all the practice. Also, singing and playing at the same time was daunting stuff. All you needed to participate in one of these things was a guitar, and the willingness to make a complete fool of yourself if you weren’t any good. But if you succeeded people would applaud your effort, so the risk was worth the reward.

There was a hootenanny scheduled at a local high school. All we had to do was sign up and then show up and play a couple of songs. I’d learned a few verses of “Mister Tambourine Man” by Bob Dylan, and all of the verses to “San Francisco Bay Blues,” by Jesse Fuller. I got to the gig early to scope out the scene and practice. Backstage, there were about five acts: duets, trios, and solo players. I wore the current de riguer for guys: blue denim shirt, jeans and sneakers. Everyone was new to this and there was a shaky vibe in the air. Suddenly, a guy comes barging into the room. We all looked at this guy and knew we were outgunned. This blustery character had quite a getup, and he was like a professional teenage folksinger. The guy had a brand new 12-string Gibson guitar, and a mandolin. He sported a deerstalker hat — the kind that Sherlock Holmes wore — and was wearing a tweed jacket. He also was smoking a dramatically designed pipe. Moreover, he had two girls with him helping him carry his gear — two girls! I thought to myself, “What the hell kind of guy actually dresses like this?” Needless to say, this guy stole the show and shut us down while we stumbled through our sets. Although this was a nerve-wracking experience, I continued playing for over 50 years.

I don’t play much these days. Sometimes Chief Vin Carlone stops by the car shack and he shows me a new lick he’s learned on his new Taylor guitar, and then I’ll play a few chords — the Chief has the chops. Recently, I was at a friend’s place on the Vineyard — she’s a guitar player and singer. I grabbed her guitar and played a song that I learned at the Newport Folk Festival in ’65. I sang all the lyrics and played all the guitar parts — it was just like riding a bike.