“Did you bring your guitar?”
“Yeah. In my car.”
“Why don’t you get it?”
It’s a Monday night, around 7. In Texas in May, it’s 90 degrees and still bright as blazes. Will stands in the middle of a white hot gravel alleyway between a metal shop and a used clothing boutique. The other voice comes from the shadows of a darkened carport in back of the store. Will makes out a half dozen figures sitting in a rough circle.
He squints and tilts his head, then turns and walks quickly back to his car. Do I bring just the guitar? Do I keep it in its case? Do I leave now, while I still can? Where is Jason? What am I doing here?
Will asks himself that last question a lot. It’s a soliloquy he recites when he’s home alone. He sees himself as an actor in a long running play, appearing daily in an office tower downtown, off-off-off Broadway. He plays the part of a lawyer. Suits and ties are the costumes, trials and depositions are the scenes. Supporting characters include clients, judges, and juries. The script is made up of case law and contracts.
He’s been good in his part. He knows his lines. It’s a steady, paying gig. But lately, his audience has dwindled: parents die, spouses leave, and children grow up.
What he really likes is playing music. He’s played guitar since he was a kid, mostly self-taught, in the privacy of his bedroom. Recently single and an empty nester, with no one depending on him, he’s begun improvising a few new bits in his old script. He’s been doing pro bono work for local musicians, mostly contract review, but he wants to parlay it into something more, to color outside his lines.
“I can bring the copyright registrations to you at the studio and just hang out.”
“I play an instrument, too, you know, if anyone’s ever sick.”
He starts taking lessons from a local guitar slinger, Jimmy Redd, hoping to shore up his skills and move beyond campfire chords to improvising lead parts. JR’s heyday was back when Will was in law school. He never had any hits, but he opened for most of the big acts that came through town. He was known as a player’s player. He still tours Europe every summer as part of an American blues package, but spends the rest of the year teaching. Will and JR are the same age, so when Will brings in a song from the 60s or 70s that he’s been unable to figure out, JR is never stumped.
“You’re good, Will. Now, you just need to get out there and start playing with other people.”
A singer-songwriter client, Jason, mentions a weekly jam session at Logan’s Lair. Will’s been there a few times on Friday nights to hear Jason’s band play from a makeshift stage in back. When he pulls up on this early Monday evening, he doesn’t see Jason’s car, and isn’t exactly sure where the musicians are meeting. The stage is empty. He can’t make out that much music until he is right up on the carport and starts fielding questions from the apparent leader of the group.
Committed now, he pulls his guitar case out of the back seat of his safe and sensible, dependable gray Camry, still slightly cool from the air conditioned ride over. He walks back, a little faster now, along the hot, dusty, alleyway back to the open air carport. Stepping in out of the sunlight, he recognizes a few players from shows around town. They are older than Will by five or six years. Most are playing acoustic guitars, although there is a guy playing bass, and there is an unoccupied piano and drum kit in back. To the side is a large industrial fan moving the dust and hot air around.
“I’m Will. Jason invited me.”
“I’m Mark. Have a seat and join in.” It’s the voice from before. Mark motions to an empty chair.
Will takes the chair and unpacks his Yamaha. He’s had it since high school. Its bangs and scrapes include teeth marks from one of his kids, now long grown. It sounds alright, just not impressive to look at. The players go around the circle and call out their first names in introduction. Will nods.
There is a protocol. Each person takes a turn suggesting a song to play and leading the group through it. The songs are simple and familiar enough to Will that he is able to join in on rhythm guitar chords. He knows more of the words than the others, so in the course of the evening he is able to chime in on vocals pretty easily. When it is his turn to call out a song, he passes. “I didn’t bring anything. I’m happy just to play along and try to keep up tonight.” Mark looks on to the next player and they continue around the circle.
Jason eventually stumbles in, late as usual, gives Will a sly grin, and sits at the upright piano. They all play into the night, with a couple of breaks for drinks and smokes. Finally, Will has to go home and get some sleep before his early morning commute to the office. But he starts going back every Monday night. By the second or third visit, he’s bringing a song or two, usually mid-period Beatles or Stones. Will has one of the better voices and can harmonize naturally. He feels like he’s fitting in.
It’s also evident, to Will’s relief and surprise, that although most of the other players are working musicians and way past him in terms of playing ability, he is not the worst player. There are a couple of guys who are clearly worse. One of them can’t keep time and always wants to play the same Buddy Holly song. The other can’t carry a tune or remember lyrics. What they lack in talent, they make up for in self-confidence. Will knows he doesn’t want to be those guys. He sees some of the others roll their eyes and grimace at yet another round of “That’ll Be the Day” but he’s the newbie and looks away.
One night, a new character shows up. The others seem to know him. He is introduced as Vinnie. Jet black hair, probably dyed. Slicked back. He looks serious, concentrating as he pulls his Martin from a beat up gig bag. He surveys the circle of players with a scowl and takes a seat. He plays the hell out of his guitar. He manhandles the neck, shredding away with nasty lead lines and naughty jazz chords no one has heard of. When it’s his turn to lead a song, Vinnie starts a blues pattern, nodding to various folks in the circle to take a turn at lead. Will avoids any eye contact. Lead parts are still new to him. But eventually Vinnie catches Will’s eye and nods abruptly, throwing the gauntlet, challenging him, calling him out to put up or shut up, whether he is prepared or even capable.
I’m a rhythm player, not a lead! I strum chords; I can’t lay down the tasty licks!
From years of rote memorization, he has a couple of short riffs in his tool box. Scrambling, he finds a place on the neck where they work with Vinnie’s pattern. So far so good, but that only lasts a few bars. Before long, he hits a clunker. He recovers briefly, but then another creeps in. And then another. Bad notes start to outnumber good ones. Crouching over his guitar neck, not looking up, he wills himself to somehow hang on until his turn at lead is over and Vinnie can pick on the next guy.
Will begins an inner pep talk. It’s OK. Keep going. Just make it to the bridge. I’m not going to run home. I’m going to stay here. I’m going to come back next week. When will this end? There’s another bad note. Crap!
Finally, his solo stumbles to the bridge. He avoids looking Vinnie in the eyes. Not after such a mangled effort. He’s relieved the ordeal is finally coming to an end. He takes a deep breath and peaks up, but Vinnie is not looking on to the next guy. He is staring straight back at Will, malevolent, focusing a steely glare. “Keep going!” There is no time to argue, Vinnie isn’t blinking. He’s not calling on anyone else.
When the turnaround comes in the 12-bar blues, there is no choice, so Will has to dive back into the solo. This time, he starts slow and is able to get by without so many bad notes; a few even sound good. When that second, more assured solo ends, Vinnie finally nods to the next player to step up. Will goes back to playing the basic chords and feels himself exhaling over and over.
“Who in the hell was that guy?” Will and Jason walk out to the parking lot with their gear hours later, a hot breeze teasing their sweat-soaked shirts.
“Vinnie’s a strange bird. He keeps to himself a lot. Back in the 70s, he did some session work out in LA. I think he had a record deal or something. He moved back here and kind of retired. I don’t think he plays out anymore, but you heard him. Crazy good.”
“Crazy scary, too.” They stop at Will’s car as he feels for his keys.
“What do you mean?”
Will squints as if focusing on something in the dark distance. “Maybe crazy intense. Or maybe just crazy Zen.”
“Alright, Will. Whatever. See you next Monday, maybe.”
At his next guitar lesson, Will asks JR about Vinnie. A promising start back in the day, session work on major labels for a few years. A couple of co-writing credits. Deep album cuts. Vinnie turned his back on all of it, came home, and lives comfortably off modest royalty checks, playing with friends if and when he feels like it.
“He’s not giving guitar lessons, I’ll tell you that much.”
“What do you mean, JR?”
“He doesn’t really strike me as a people person. He’s a loner. Sometimes I can’t tell if he likes other musicians or not.”
A few months later Will is surprised to see Vinnie at a party at Jason’s house. Vinnie hasn’t been back to the jam sessions at Logan’s, but Will recognizes him instantly. He’s standing near a door to the back porch. Will watches him for a while, circling the room, mingling, getting closer, but Vinnie turns and steps out the door. Most people are staying inside, out of the heat, but the keg and the ice chests are out back, so Will makes his way to the door and goes outside. As his eyes adjust, he sees Vinnie by the keg, his face a darkened backdrop for the glow of his cigarette.
“You were at that jam session a few months back at Logan’s, right?” Vinnie takes a drag and says nothing.
Will tries to fill the silence. “Making me keep playing kind of helped me, in a ‘get back on your horse’ way.”
Vinnie looks at him for a second. “I know. You just gotta keep going.” They nurse their beers.
“Jason was telling me about some of your past work. And I’m taking guitar lessons from Jimmy Redd and I asked him about you, and he–”
“Yeah, well that’s past.” Another drag and a long exhale.
“Look, what I really like is playing music, none of the other crap. I had to go off grid awhile to figure out that I was never in this to be some circus performer. That’s acting, and I’m not an actor. I’m a player. I play. And now I play for me and me only. I’m my own audience.” He steps on his cigarette butt, twisting it out on the concrete. He empties his plastic cup of beer and tosses it in the trash.
“I gotta go. Keep playing, though. You’re not half bad. I’ll see you around. What you’re doing right now, it’s the good part. It’s what the rest of us are trying to get back to.”
The jam sessions eventually move to Jason’s home studio. The two worst players aren’t told, apparently. According to Jason, the crappiest players tend to take up the most bandwidth. But Will is told, by Vinnie, who starts showing up every few weeks himself. Sidemen from touring acts occasionally sit in. JR even comes by a couple of times.
So now Will is the weak link, but they keep asking him back. He thinks about taking early retirement from his daily matinee performances in the office tower downtown. That play had a good run, but the audience has changed. It’s an audience of one now. Will’s old play feels too dialogue driven now and he’s ready for a musical.
Will’s getting better. He’s played a couple of open mikes around town. He just doesn’t make a lot of eye contact on nights Vinnie shows up. But he keeps going.
Copyright © 2014 by Robert R. Carter