Mr. Backward

A hundred feet of blacktop parking buffers Gerald’s Roadhouse from the two-lane highway. Gerald’s is often filled with diners and the road is often packed with vehicles traveling from tasting room to tasting room. It’s been there, on the edge of Sonoma, for six decades, sometimes thriving, sometimes just getting by, just as the surrounding vineyards have some years better than others. New owners, a husband-wife team, took charge a little over two years ago. They were perceptive enough to bet their bankroll that they could attract an affluent clientele by offering upscale “farm-to-table” dining – meaning expensive – in a comfortably downscale setting, situated amongst rows of Zinfandel and Pinot Noir grapevines. They spent a lot upgrading the kitchen. The dining area renovation gave it the worn appearance and personality of a slightly disreputable, but venerable, roadhouse. Patrons could relax in working-class setting with little chance of mingling with actual working-class people. Except the servers, of course, who all, male and female, dressed in white shirts set off by black, thin neckties. Denim jeans and sports shoes gave just the right formal-but-casual appearance. The investment paid off. The new Gerald’s has been doing well.

I was a regular patron there. Natalie and I had many dinners at Gerald’s, often moving into the adjacent Jerry’s afterwards for music with our dessert and drinks. Why Gerald decided the lounge, in a separate building adjacent to the dining room, should be “Jerry’s” nobody knew. Could be the founder named it that because it was more relaxed and informal. As the nights wear on, the drinking crowd becomes more diverse. Local workers share tables with vineyard owners who have not yet sold to a San Francisco lawyer or some celebrity. Seems too, there’s always some big corporation buying a winery from a family that’s ready to cash out. Everybody claims to know about Gerald but I never talked to anyone who knew him personally. Still, he’s remembered as a “colorful character” from Sonoma’s rustic past. Supposedly, he added on Jerry’s so he’d have a place to drink with his friends. Some say, though, Gerald’s came later because he believed more money would be coming into the valley. It has. Unfortunately, not in time for Gerald/Jerry.

Natalie was gone from my life before the new owners finished the refurbishing. I still go there, usually alone, occasionally with a companion. Lately, I’ve been there mostly on Sundays and have my dinner in the bar. Sunday evenings were usually relaxed, winding down from the weekend influx of Bay Area millennials. It’s the calm between last week’s wine tourists and the new week’s just starting to arrive.

Sundays in Jerry’s meant Miller Owens at the piano, playing familiar tunes, softly enough to allow conversations. It was background music for the patrons coming in for an after-dinner drink or who stopped by to sip a glass of wine and see if any friends were there. Mr. Owens was able to handle most of the requests the audience threw out. The tip jar, a large snifter on the piano, labeled “Mr. Backward,” almost always filled up a couple times during the evening. There was something bluesy in his playing that would sneak out and capture attention, mine anyway, as if an unseen window was cracked open to let a whiff of swamp air seep into the room. Deeper into the evening, the audience transitioned to the drinkers and people who came for the music. He’d sing a few numbers, his cigarette-and-whiskey rasp taking on mostly familiar, though some not, songs, making them his own – less “Great American Songbook,” more soul and rock ‘n’ roll and country blues.

Miller was somewhere past seventy years, always casually well dressed, but not as casual as his audience. He sat straight upright at the piano, a fedora tilted over one eyebrow. Occasionally he would lift his hat and rub his smooth and burnished pate.

I was enough of a regular that Miller began to recognize me. He’d nod and almost smile in my direction when he’d notice me. Sometimes I’d try to stump him with a request. (I finally did, with Guitar Slim’s “The Things That I Used To Do.”) When he was about to take a break, a server discreetly placed on the piano a glass of what I learned later was Johnnie Walker Black Label on the rocks. When the song ended he’d say, “Back in fifteen,” and head toward a side door. One time I followed him out. He had a chair outside at the back corner of the building, next to a small metal table that was bare except for his cigarette pack, lighter and ashtray. I guess he came by his “cigarettes and whiskey” voice honestly. He looked up at me like the uninvited that I was, but he was friendly enough.

Chatting with Miller during his breaks got to be a regular thing. I convinced myself that he liked having my company. He found another chair to set outside so he wouldn’t have to look up at me standing above him. As he got more comfortable with me, he became more open and began sharing stories. How much was true and how much was embellishment, I don’t know, but he definitely packed a lot into seventy-however-many years. The more we talked, the more he let out.

“I got the ‘Backwards’ name when I was a youngster in Kansas City. The folks at the club off Vine Street where I got started called me the ‘Backwards Kid.’ They said ‘Owen’ was a first name and ‘Miller’ was a last name. I told ‘em it was ‘Owens,’ with ‘ess’ at the end, not ‘Owen.’ They thought it was funny, so I was stuck with the name. Later on, it became ‘Mr. Backward.’”

Owens had traveled all over the country and some other countries, too. His musical career began in his teens.

“I was a kid, just fifteen years old, when I got the job bussing tables at that club. Had to be careful; had to learn when a person was really done. Take a glass or bottle that wasn’t quite empty could cause trouble. I started staying around after my shift was over. Hell, I’d even come in on my off day, just to be around the music. I tried to blend in, heh, as if a skinny white kid could blend in there. I was like a miniature marshmallow in a bowl of that cocoa cereal. I started picking up a few piano chords; they’d let me try ‘em out between sets. Guys there didn’t mind helping me. The boss was okay with me coming in and practicing at the piano before the night’s music started. Good thing about piano was that it belonged to the house. Other musicians didn’t want no one messin’ with their instruments. I saved up and bought a electric guitar from the Sears and Roebuck and started learnin’ that, too.

“Big Joe made his name in K.C. He never played our club, but sometimes when he was in town, his boys would come by and jam after they were done with their night’s show. Once, though, Big Joe showed up and sang a few songs. He even talked to me. Well, he saw me and said ‘Hey, kid.’ So I guess I can say I knew Big Joe Turner. Heh.

“The club’s owner wasn’t too particular about an underage kid hanging around. I don’t know what all was going on in there, but one night the cops showed up. They showed up other nights, too, but this one night was different. People started leaving in a hurry; a lady grabbed me and hustled me out. When we got a block away, she gave me a push and told me to go home. I heard the owner and a few others were arrested, something to do with where they got their alcohol. The place never opened again.”

* * *

As the weeks went by, I learned more about Owens and his journey through American music. I pieced together the narrative in my own mind from the anecdotes Miller told. The stories didn’t come out chronologically. They seemed to be almost random. Not random so much as it was one tale would trigger another reminiscence. He’d finish a story and lean back in his chair, raise his head with closed eyes and a closed-mouth smile, or maybe sometimes more like a smirk. I’d sit there, wondering if he had opened a door to another room full of memories, and maybe found something he didn’t want to share. Other times he would laugh and start into another, “That’s like when I …”

* * *

I’m a frustrated musician; never stuck with any instrument long enough to get even close to competent, much less accomplished. I had a cheap guitar that I learned a few chords on and could plunk out a simple melody. Then I thought a Hohner Marine Band harmonica would be a good start for being a front man in a blues band. What is the drive some people possess to pick something up, and not let go, ever, and are relentless in pursuit of what must be the impossible quest to master it? Or does one master an instrument and then find the level of competence that can be settled into and practice enough to stay with that? Or if one performs for an audience regularly, is that enough practicing to maintain? I think a real musician just can’t not do it. My sixty-one-key electronic keyboard sits in the corner of my living room, ready for me whenever I come back to it.

* * *

Even with our difference in ages, Miller and I became – I hope I’m not being presumptuous here – friends. Our conversations meandered from his recollections to our trading tales of how we each ended up in wine country.

“I stayed in Kansas City for a while. I started filling in now and again for a piano player who was sick. Heh, ‘sick’ usually meant too drunk to play, or hiding out from somebody he owed money to, or maybe off somewheres with a woman. The clubs weren’t too concerned about it; they figured if I could cut it with the other musicians, it must be okay for me to be there. I played guitar a little bit and once in a while the bass. Somehow, with all that going on, I still managed to graduate high school. After that, I decided the time had come to see what’s out there in the world. Next stop: Chicago.”

* * *

Like a lot of Californians, I came from someplace else. Provo, Utah, in my case. Found my way to Sacramento. Natalie and I began spending a weekend now and then in Wine Country, Napa and Sonoma, especially in the summer, to get away from the heat. When we could swing it financially, we bought a small place in the little town of Sonoma; Napa Valley, even back then, was out of our reach. We always said when we could, we’d move here permanently. Natalie spent more and more time here, and I usually would join her for the weekends. Eventually, we did move here full time. And eventually, Natalie let me know that she liked it better on the other side of the mountains, if you can call barely over a thousand feet a mountain. In fact, she liked it so much that she decided her life would be better splitting her time between homes in the little town of Yountville, by Napa, and Irving, near Dallas, both owned by a Texas real-estate developer. How did I not see that coming?

I was at loose ends for a while. I actually dug out my teach-yourself-to-play-piano book and told myself this time I really was going to dedicate myself to it. Sunday nights at Jerry’s I would try to get a seat with a good sight line to the piano’s keys so I could watch Miller’s hands and fingers work.

* * *

“Chicago was a slow go. It took a while but I started getting some gigs here and there. I also got my first recording session. Getting paid what I was owed didn’t always happen, though. What I learned in K.C. did me good in Chicago. I hooked up with a band that went on tour, mostly through the South: Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi and wherever. That was an education! Only a couple of us whites in the band. We couldn’t eat a lot of places. We had to sleep on the bus when no hotel would take us. White boys traveling with a mostly-black band weren’t always welcomed, neither. We got called some nasty names ourselves.

“One day a guy I knew from K.C. got in touch. He’d moved to Los Angeles a while before that. Said I’d get all the work I wanted out there. Plenty of pop and rock recording-studio sessions. That’s where I realized I’d better learn to read music, so I worked at it and got to be a pretty good sight-reader. Sometimes there’d be gigs in the jazz clubs. Used to be a lot of those in L.A. Went on the road some, too. Someone has a hit record, and then needs real musicians to go on tour. Out on the road could be crazy.”

* * *

Miller’s wife died a short time before I lost Natalie. They too had planned to settle into the pastoral lifestyle. Miller had been several decades in the L.A. area. He and Tess met there. He stayed busy with recording-session work – that’s how he met Tess – and playing in the SoCal clubs. Sometimes he’d sign on with a touring band for a few weeks on the road. He decided he didn’t like being in a different bed every night or sleeping on the bus traveling to the next date.

By the time they settled in the Wine Country, Miller was in the secure position where he only took a job if he really wanted it. He still received calls for studio work. If an old friend got in touch, wanting to put together something, he might agree to a limited-engagement club gig. He turned down anyone putting together a touring band. When he took a job, Tess usually went with him. When he had a gig in San Francisco, they stayed in a hotel, rather than make the fifty-mile drive back home in the early morning hours.

Miller liked his Sundays at Jerry’s. He got paid a few bucks, plus dinner and drinks. The tip jar got a lot of fives and tens and more than a few twenties. Once in a while he’d even find a fifty or a hundred. He said he’d reached the age when quiet days spent reading satisfied him after living the hectic and uncertain life of a musician for so long. Miller found he had an interest in history, especially the history he began to realize he’d been part of. He went back to Kansas City not long ago to remember what it used to be. The city was trying to make the old neighborhood into a tourist attraction. The 18th & Vine Historic District it’s called. He said the old days aren’t coming back, though. The African-American community has been scattered.

Miller was comfortable in the compact house he owned, situated on a quiet residential street. He admitted he wasn’t very diligent about keeping up the yard. Tess liked puttering in the garden. She had never had a real yard of her own before. She was surprised to discover she liked getting her hands in the soil. Could be from her growing up in the rural South. There was a satisfaction in scraping dirt out from underneath her fingernails. It appeared to Miller that she dug and planted and trimmed with no plan in mind – “Let’s try that over there,” – yet the yard looked like it was carefully thought out.

After Tess was gone, Miller felt he had a duty to keep it up, but finally succumbed to hiring a Mexican guy to come by every other week. Inside, the house was neatly cluttered with furniture and memorabilia. A few photos decorated the wall, some of Miller and Tess together, usually in a music-related setting. Tess was a singer, a time or two with a group Miller was part of. She also did background singing at recording sessions. That’s how they met. It was good timing for Miller. He had watched others suffer the effects of drugs and bad eating – and other – habits. He hadn’t been an abstainer, even from his Kansas City days, but still never was too deep into it. Tess told him right off she would have none of it. She also made clear there would be no messing around, either. Miller always said Tess saved his life.

Somehow a piano, a full-sized grand, fit into the living room. Miller practiced every day. The first time he came to my place, he snickered at my abbreviated keyboard. He chided me for not being persistent with my playing. He didn’t understand why I hadn’t kept at it. He told me maybe I needed a real piano to play on. He could show me a few things if I was interested. I’d visit at his house and he’d sit me at his piano and give me some direction. He showed me how to play some things that sounded like real music but were easy to learn. I got so inspired that I bought myself a new instrument. Not a real piano, but a new electronic one with a full-sized keyboard. I started practicing every day.

Miller and I got together two or three times a week. We’d meet for lunch or maybe a drink and dinner. He even invited me to his home a couple times and cooked us dinner. He said Tess and he liked to make meals together. She knew how to cook and he mostly did the chopping and slicing of whatever needed to be chopped or sliced. He claimed he wasn’t a real chef, but he and Tess had learned a few things in their time together in the kitchen. He pretty much stuck with low-fat meals, even when eating out. He always asked how I was doing with my music education. Actually, I was getting better, practicing a couple hours every day. I fantasized about having people gather around me at parties, or attracting attractive women with my musical prowess.

After closing time at Jerry’s – ten o’clock on Sundays – Miller and I would have one last drink and mess around on the piano. I think he was telling the truth about my getting to know my way around the keys. One time between sets, he told me he was going to call me out and have me come up to play something. Of course, I knew he was kidding. One night, right before break, he introduced me and said I was going to play a tune. I thought he was still kidding. He wasn’t.  He called me again and I realized he meant it. So I went up and pecked out “Don’t Get Around Much Anymore.” People applauded, even though I messed up a few chords. When I got back to my seat, I tried to casually scan the room to see if any women were checking me out. I tried to be cool, but I know I was grinning.

* * *

And then he died. He was out on his daily walk. A warming sunny morning. He was a brisk walker, said he needed to get the blood flowing. A person who saw him said it looked like his knees folded and he slumped to the ground. Probably his heart gave out. Maybe all those cigarettes and whiskey finally did their damage. The obituary said he was eighty-three years old. Older than I would’ve guessed. Quite a few people came up from Los Angeles for the service. Even someone from Nashville. A daughter whom he had never mentioned to me showed up to claim his estate.

Turns out Miller had a will. Or at least he’d had his attorney arrange to have his piano passed on to me. I paid some professionals who knew what they were doing come up from San Francisco to move it. It took some rearranging, but it’s now in my living room. I play every day.

When you’re in the Sonoma Valley wine country, come have dinner at Gerald’s. If it’s a Sunday, stop in Jerry’s after your meal. I can manage maybe one out of three requests, but I’m getting better. The snifter on the piano gets mostly ones, but I’m beginning to find fives also. Last week I found a twenty.

About the Author

George Rothert

George Rothert has previously published: English-as-second-language study program; Cavalier magazine; Historical Society of Santa Rosa. After 20+ years in California wine country, he has recently returned to Portland OR, where he grew up.