Musicians

Issue 28 by Robert Appelbaum

The world was in upheaval, and there was no going back. Or not in upheaval, exactly. There was no heaving and there was no certainty about an “up.” But every day it seemed that the world was being torn up, shredded, and discarded; crumbled up into little balls and tossed away; reduced to trash. But then again it was being remade, day by day, into something new. Every day this torn-apart world was being gathered and reassembled, the discarded paper unrolled and flattened out and molded into paper airplanes, their wings stretched and ready to fly, so that every new day our world had a grand reopening, and every day there was some new angle or lift, a fresh new occasion for letting fly. Music was a big a part of it, on the radio, in the clubs, in our heads, in the lyrics, in the beat; music was lift; music was freedom; music created and destroyed, destroyed and created; and music was shelter. It was where we lived.

It was 1968, 1969, and 1970. I have a story to tell about it, and about its aftermath. It isn’t much of a story: it’s about a part of my intellectual life, and not much more. But maybe that’s enough. My name is Barry, let’s say, and I don’t have much to show for myself after all these years, but I have had a genuine intellectual life and some of it has had to do, frustratingly, with music, going back to the 1960s. So this is a story about music and me, and the sixties and me, and everything that came after and me, even if what came after never amounted to much.

1968, then, in a suburb just outside of Chicago, never mind which one. It was the year of the riot in Grant Park, a “police riot” some had called it, for without much provocation during the Democratic Convention the police started running around crazily with their Billy clubs, beating demonstrators pell-mell and hauling them, bleeding, into paddy wagons. I know because I was there, watching it on television with my parents (we were what, only twenty miles away? watching what “the whole world was watching?”) but responding to it in my own way, as a young person, loyal to other young people, appalled at the War in Vietnam and appalled now too at how what I took to be the Establishment would go to any length to defend its inherent, systematic cruelty. My parents, though, growled about “troublemakers” and “outside agitators.” We sat around the TV in the room we called our “den,” eating a post-supper snack of peanuts and Pepsi-Cola, and I had to listen to their ridiculous parroting of inanities, while wishing that I were a part of it, screaming “Pig! Pig! Pig!” and getting my head bashed in.

They had no idea.

We had come to Chicagoland three years before from a city in the east, never mind which one, where I had already fashioned myself into an aspiring hipster – a radical, an intellectual, an artist. I had studied playing clarinet and I had taught myself the guitar, out of a Bob Dylan songbook, and by 1965, at the age of thirteen, I was writing poetry and original songs – at least I thought they were original – and dreaming about a life to come. One of my more advanced compositions involved putting T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men” to music. Another was an anti-war rhapsody in three minor seventh chords, “I Won’t Go.” I was singing and playing my music, on the guitar, with a friend as a back-up singer, at community centers, both of us with hair combed down over our foreheads like the Beatles, and word had spread about me to the point where an agent from a prominent rock band, a man in his thirties with a blond pompadour, wearing a tan leather blazer, came to see me and hear what I could do. To test me, he asked me to write a song on the spot, on a theme of his choice. I accommodated him by taking thirty minutes to write a song about women wearing short skirts, or rather “short-short skirts.” He seemed to like it, as well as the evidence that I might be a real composer, although I knew that the song was nonsense. And then, on the road to I wasn’t sure where … in the middle of it all, my stepfather’s used car business went bankrupt, and our family abruptly moved to that suburb in Chicago. Dad had a new job in the industrial heartland, as a drummer for a steel supplier.

Chicago, the city, was awesome, huge in every dimension, but we didn’t live in the city. We hardly even lived in the sixties. On my first day at high school, I came strutting out of our home, a row house beside a main road, sporting tattersall bell-bottom pants, a pale blue turtleneck, and a brown felt vest. I was trying to look like Mick Jagger, or maybe Sonny from Sonny and Cher. For good measure, in my back pocket I had inserted an oversize comb in the shape of a fish that I had bought in Chicago’s Old Town. As soon as I approached the stop for the school bus, people started heckling me. “What’s that you’re wearing?” “Would you look at that guy!” “Hey. What’s wrong with you? Where’d you dig up them pants, at a flag store?”

It continued all that first day. I even got roughed up a bit by one of the older guys. “What do you think you are, punk!” I retreated. I wanted to hide. One of the teachers – I came to know him later as a phys-ed instructor, a former marine, with a crew cut – called me aside and told me that if I ever came to school dressed like that again he would have me expelled. And I needed to get a haircut too.

The high school was a regional institution with a swelling student body, over 3000 strong. The halls were human traffic jams; you could almost hear the horns honking, as students going every which way between classes struggled to make headway, inching toward the crowded rooms that would hold them here or there for the next fifty minutes, that would try to keep them quiet and still and make them stifle the passions, the yearnings and resentments racing through them long enough to get them to learn about chemistry, or civics, or mathematics, or the history of the world. It was 1966 but still not quite “the sixties” for this side of Chicagoland. Coming from several handfuls of ethnic and social backgrounds – rich kids and lower middle class kids whose fathers owned shops or collected tickets at the train stations, Catholic, Protestants, Eastern Orthodox and Jews, Italians and Poles and Swedes and Greeks and Russians and Germans and Hispanics, along with the Waspyist of WASPS – students were still trying to cling to an old order of American adolescence, a decadent order by now, where, in spite of a multitude of differences, the universe of the high school was ordered according to a Manichean system: either you were one thing or the other, a “greaser” or what for some reason in our school were called “kulaks.” No doubt you’ve seen this, if not in real life, in the movies. The stereotypes were not without foundation. The greasers were snazzy and sexy and rebellious, entertaining a penchant for black leather jackets, with swept back greasy hair for the men (hence “greasers”) and bee-hive hairdos and short tight skirts for the women. The kulaks were either athletes (a.k.a “jocks”) or budding intellectuals (a.k.a “eggheads”) or at least budding citizens, bent on preparing for careers, or for humdrum jobs in a world which demanded good behavior and social conformity. They were drab dressers, these kulaks, the men in white khakis and madras shirts, sporting crew cuts, the women in pleated skirts and starchy white blouses and short bobbed hair, male and female alike in the group outwardly diffident about sexuality but brash about the values of picturesque romance and loyalty to the great collective nostrums of the day, beginning with an enthusiasm for what was called “school spirit.”

Not everyone cared about the Manichean system of greasers and kulaks, or even really knew about them, but the two different ways of being were the coin of the day, and everyone I knew felt themselves under pressure to adhere to one group or the other. And there was an undeclared war between the two. During my first two years of high school, you could count on a fistfight every day or so among the young men in the halls or in the parking lot before or after school and you could feel the belligerence among the young women, what with the venomous looks they gave to each other and the clothes they wore in competition with one another and who knows what else in the game of high school rivalry. (We young men hardly understood the young woman’s world; we watched from afar; we tried to gather clues.) So the traffic jams in the hallways broke out into collisions, and the collisions broke out into violence. As for music, that vehicle for revolution, for most kids it was only music, a parade of “hits” that delighted the ear but altered nothing.

And there I was with my Bob Dylan songbook and a fish in my pants. It was several months before I was adopted by one of the cliques at school. Hard work, it was; I had to rely on a go-between who befriended me in study hall. But at last, now dressed in a more humdrum way, my fish comb retired to a drawer, my hair combed back, my bell-bottoms doomed to storage, I had friends, a group of kulak Jews. We all lived nearby to one another, most of them in a town next to mine, sometimes known as Mortgage Meadows, where the residents lived in sprawling houses with crisp front lawns and two-car garages – I lived in a town of terrace houses and apartments, and no garages, and lots of shopping malls. Having friends, being part of a benevolent gang, was better than having a mother and a father. But apart from our common religious affiliation, my new friends weren’t like me. They didn’t understand me, nor I them. Yet it turned out that some of them had formed a garage band, with modern equipment, Fender amps and Stratocaster guitars, which was surprising, given what else I knew about them – they were so “straight,” as we said back then – but they were terrible, they didn’t understand what they were doing or why; they just played covers of easy hits like “Louie, Louie” and “Hang On, Sloopy”; the lead singer couldn’t sing on key and the lead guitarist, to put it kindly, couldn’t play. I eventually, somewhat begrudgingly, joined the band as the lead singer, and even wrote a couple of songs for the group, but we were hopelessly mediocre, and singing with them, though fun at first, started to fill me with dread. It introduced me to a new form of alienation, the sense of being inauthentic. Nothing we did felt like it came from us or came from me. And it didn’t, not even in a literal sense, sometimes. One of the songs I wrote for the group, it turned out, though its lyrics were original (“The Stoned People” it was called) was a copy of a song that had been recorded by the Monkees. And no one noticed.

So I gave up. I stopped hanging out with most of them and spent a lot of my time alone. At night, I would stay in my room, on the second floor, lying in bed, listening to the radio while my parents and my sister sat downstairs watching TV, one of their favorites being Beverly Hills Hillbillies. There was an FM station that called itself Underground Radio. It featured chatter about politics and cultural trends as well as the latest music, the broadcaster speaking in a woozy marijuana-smoke voice, summoning his listeners to concerts and be-ins and demonstrations against the War. It was on that station that I first heard the Doors doing the long version of “Light My Fire,” the Cream doing “I Feel Free,” and Janis Joplin screeching that we should take “A Piece of My [her] Heart.” I still had my clarinet and my guitar, but I gave up the clarinet because the boys in school gave me odd looks when I carried it about in its little black case – the clarinet was too effeminate for our neighborhood, their looks implied – and as for the guitar, I couldn’t decide what to do with it. What kind of music would be me? In Chicagoland in those early days, rhythm n’ blues was still the rage, rather than the psychedelic rock coming out of California or the experimental rock coming from Great Britain, and I was fine with it: Wilson Pickett, James Brown, the Four Tops, Gladys Knight, even the Supremes. Stop in the name of love! But rhythm n’ blues seemed retrograde to me. I longed to hear and make music that would be on the edge of things, that would speak to my, no, to our longings, to what I took to be “our” longings, which were not just adolescent expectations but also a violent hunger to transform our very hungers.

Surprise. I had no luck. I couldn’t come up with anything. I couldn’t manage to invent interesting original tunes. And the words that came out of me for lyrics seemed phony. Say I tried out a love song. At some point along the way, out would come the word “babe” or “baby.” But who called anyone babe or baby in real life? It was only a creaky convention of popular songwriting, which kept coming up because of the demands of the form. Even Bob Dylan was guilty of relying on dead tags like “babe” and “baby” in some of his songs, not to mention Janis Joplin, the Doors (come on baby light my fire) and so many others, whether they were playing West Coast psychedelic rock or Motown R&B. And me, trying to be different, trying to come up with a lyric that, well, that spoke of longing while conforming to the frame of rock, which was actually quite narrow melodically and harmonically – I too would end talking about “my babe” or “you baby” or some such thing. It was ridiculous. Serious protest songs were little different, in which my lyrics invariably ended up crying to be free, to get to the other side of some wall or other, or to get to that other place under heaven. Heaven? And me a Jew? I appalled myself, dead metaphors and all, and ended up conceding failure. I could not write original music anymore, if ever I could; or at best, I could not write original music that I would want to play and share with anybody. I turned to other endeavors, like studying for school. I was reading poetry and fiction and writing stories and poems of my own, most of which went unfinished, and daydreaming (constantly) about having sex, until finally I met a girl who became “my babe” (though no, I never called her that) and I was not only daydreaming about it but doing it every once in a while. And I was in love too, for a while, and wrote poems about it.

Late one night while I lay in bed with my transistor radio on, I heard something different. It was the voice of a black man from the South, accompanied on acoustic guitar, doing a twelve-bar blues. The voice was grainy and growly. It drawled, but when it drawled it swung into the words it was singing; it swung and then dived down into them like a heron going into a river after fish, catching it in its mouth, then dropping it and flying away, while the guitar lingered and hummed and danced and called for the voice to return. When it came back the voice was sometimes mournful, sometimes vexed, and usually bemused. Sometimes it would let out a wail; sometimes it would drop to a whisper, and instead of singing it would speak. The song was about “trouble,” a word which the voice on both syllables put a stress, so it was truh-bull, truh-bull, truh-bull. It wouldn’t go away, that trouble; there was nothing the voice could do but sing about it, now bitterly, now mockingly, now vanquished by it, now reconciled to it because it was all that it could ever know.

Meanwhile, the guitar played along, keeping a steady beat that would sometimes all the same slow down or just as surprisingly speed up, or move away from rendering the beat and break into a riffing melody all its own, a counterpoint to the singing as well as an accompaniment. I had never heard that kind of guitar playing before. It was as if it were a bass, a rhythm guitar and a lead guitar in one, a whole band, though a whole band minus the drums and restricted to a single set of six nylon strings, which usually thumped, muted, as if emanating from beneath a grave, but which sometimes broke out into a piercing cry, or else declined into a descending ladder of chords that were at once melody and rhythm, bringing the twelve bars toward a close.

I had never heard that kind of blues before. It was not what I had been looking for, but something even better. It was authentic and elemental, primal and knowing, innocent and guilty, uncensored and unadorned, spontaneous and erratic – except it was also highly structured and ingeniously developed. When the song was over the DJ explained; it was Lightnin’ Hopkins, a musician from Texas … and I was hooked.

***

By 1969 my high school had undergone a revolution. All of us, it seemed, were hippies – even my old kulak-Jewish friends were hippies – the young men growing their hair long, wearing blue jeans with moccasins on their feet and fringed shirts on their backs, the women likewise abandoning their skirts for jeans, their blouses and sweaters for tie-dyed tee-shirts and smocks. There wasn’t any fighting anymore. Everyone was smoking dope, not to mention stronger drugs, and we all seemed to be gathered in a great rebellion – against what, of course, none of us was very clear, but still against something. You could see it in the way we behaved toward one another – supportive, clubby, conspiratorial, knowing and ironic. You could see it in the music we now all listened to, the clamorous new rock; in the defiant attitude we adopted towards our elders; in the unleashing, among boys and girls alike, of the monstrous power of sex. There was sex going on everywhere you turned, making you dizzy.

Of course, it wasn’t really like that, when you go into the details. That sense of belonging to a movement – a new “generation” – was blindingly seductive, as was the vertiginous prospect of promiscuous sex. But we didn’t all belong in the same way; some of us didn’t feel that we belonged at all; and sometimes belonging, if you belonged, was a trap. If you look at one of the anthems of the time, the Who’s “My Generation,” for example, you find that the song is actually about feeling alienated and uncertain. “I hope I die before I get old,” Peter Townsend sang. And in another anthem, by the Buffalo Springfield, “For What It’s Worth,” you encounter this:

Paranoia strikes deep.

Paranoia was actually a big theme those days. We were bold, arrogant, and defiant, but we were also skeptical, meek, and fearful. We were experimental; but we were also wary of where our experiments might lead and inclined toward doubting that they would lead anywhere at all.

I had a new circle of friends by 1969, male and female, mostly artistically inclined types, many of them doing or having done the same classes in theater studies as I. We acted in plays, we threw parties where we studied – not just listened to but studied – the latest albums, and we moved around, half-dancing, half-meditating; we gathered in consciousness-raising sessions, we argued about the Black Panthers and violence and the Chicago Seven and we protested against school regulations, race discrimination and the Vietnam War. We also did the kinds of things most of our less-hip peers were doing: working part-time in restaurants or shops – I had a job in the warehouse of a variety store, moving around boxes – hanging out on free nights in Dunkin’ Donuts or in the parking lot at Jack in the Box to spend the money we earned on ridiculously cheap and junky fried food and to meet up with whoever else turned up; or else driving up and down a strip in the northwest suburbs, attending concerts at what were called “teenage nightclubs,” where all kinds of bands played, some of them renowned – I saw Janis Joplin and Led Zeppelin live – and trying to establish, maintain, or break off from relationships with members of the opposite sex. Also, we went to school, and studied. King Lear. Waiting for Godot. American history, heavy, because this was Illinois, on Abraham Lincoln. But our school had become so overcrowded with baby boomers, now approaching 4000 in number, that it had to cut the school day into two shifts. My group went to class from eight in the morning to twelve-thirty, and then we were done for the day, as another group came in.

My most important friends were Mitch, Dan, and Harry – but above all Mitch. Mitch was an artist, a painter with plans to go to art school and win competitions. Dan was a musician, a bass player. And Harry was just Harry, an all-out self-conscious hippy-dippy-hippy with thick frizzy dark hair down to his shoulders, a sardonic sense of humor, and a permanently renewable supply of marijuana. The four of us would go for coffee and donuts in the morning, and out to McDonald’s for lunch, and then, our whole afternoons ahead of us, back to Mitch’s place. Mitch had his bedroom in the basement of his parents’ townhouse, so that it was almost like having a separate apartment to ourselves. He had painted the ceiling black with yellow stars, and the walls with abstract shapes that oozed like the globules in a lava lamp. We listened to music – the Beatles, Joni Mitchell, Bob Dylan, The Band, Arlo Guthrie. Mitch was besotted with Arlo Guthrie and his anti-establishment song about “Alice’s Restaurant” and kept trying to learn it, not entirely successfully, on the guitar. We smoked weed and we chanted: “You can get anything you want at Alice’s Restaurant.”

That Mitch – how I loved him! He was one of the few men I have ever really loved. It was not a sexual thing, but rather a mysterious cathexis. He was handsome, with a thick mop of golden-brown hair and thick feminine lips, and I constantly desired to be near him, to listen to his jokes, to look at his face, to feel the warmth and self-confidence that emanated from him. Slightly built, with a high-pitched voice, he was always happy, it seemed, mischievously happy, as if his life was made for getting the start on others. He did a bit where he pointed a finger at you and asked you to pull it. You pulled and he farted. Well, we were adolescents despite all our pretensions and Mitch was a pitch-perfect adolescent. But Mitch’s best friend was actually Dan; they were like brothers. Sometimes Dan made me feel as if he and I were rivals for Mitch’s affections, and I suppose we were. I never got to spend as much time with Mitch as Dan did, who lived only a short walk away from Mitch’s place, and I was not above feeling jealous about it.

Sometime in 1969 Mitch and Dan announced that they were forming a band, a blues band. They were friends with a guy who had graduated from high school two years before, John Jacoby. Jacoby was a singer who also played the blues harp and rhythm guitar; he had already played professionally and had serious musical ambitions. Mitch had gotten his drum set out of storage – I hadn’t even known that he played the drums – and they had joined up with a guy named Phillip, who had only come to our high school the year before, by way of that mythical land we knew as California. Phillip was the best guitarist I knew; he could play like Eric Clapton, up and down the neck, shifting effortlessly from low to high and high to low, with lots of triads and blue notes and wah-wahs from the lever, as if his hands were dancing on water.

I had something new to be jealous about. In some respects it didn’t matter to me. True, I had taught myself how to play the blues guitar over the past couple of years, styling myself after Lightnin’ Hawkins and B.B. King and Buddy Guy, but I had plenty else to occupy myself with, the plays I acted in, the school newspaper I co-edited and wrote for, the classes that absorbed me, Theater, English and History, and my ambition to go on to be a writer, maybe, or to be an actor, maybe, or to be … well to be something. So the group went its way, and I went my mine. For my part, I knew I had a long way to travel. Said my theater teacher to me one day, whose favorite pupil I fancied myself to be, when I told him I might want to study to be an actor, “You don’t know anything yet, Barry. You haven’t learned anything, the classics, the Greeks, the philosophers … You need to go out and get an education before you can think of doing anything else in your life.” I started reading Thomas Mann, Bertolt Brecht, Jean-Paul Sartre, and even Aeschylus in my spare time. I thought about going to college, which I had to do in any case because without a college deferment I would probably be sent off to Vietnam. And I wouldn’t go under any circumstances.

Yet one day Mitch and Dan announced to me that Phillip had left the group over artistic differences. And it occurred to them, well, it occurred to them that maybe, if Jacoby said it was okay, just maybe I could join the group. What did I think?

I wasn’t sure what I thought. Playing in a band wasn’t part of my plan. I had those other nebulous ambitions. But they insisted that at least I try and audition in front of Jacoby. I didn’t even have an electric guitar, but they said they could sort it out. So I auditioned.

We were down in Mitch’s basement pad. I was handed an electric guitar. Jacoby was there to preside over the meeting. Long and lanky, sporting a wispy beard, his dark hair curly, he looked a little bit like Bob Dylan. He spoke keenly; he was driven by what he was doing and he was determined to succeed. We were playing the blues, the real blues, he said, and nothing else. No bullshit, no bubble gum rock, no bourgeois suburban stuff, just the real thing, real real real. Jacoby took up his harmonica – his “blues harp” – and a microphone. Dan took up his bass. Mitch sat behind his drums. “In A,” Jacoby announced. The bass started with a standard boogie bottom, the drums thumping along; after about four bars, Jacoby got set to come in with a harp solo, but before he could get to it I started playing B.B. King-like riffs, high-pitched and syncopated, bending some of the notes so that they sounded like someone sighing, or struggling for breath, and then pausing for a chord, an A major six or seven, before sliding up to D for the next four bars. Jacoby joined in with riffs that mimicked my own, filling in the blanks. Before long Jacoby started singing, in a clear supple tenor, while I shifted into the background, answering his lyrics whenever he paused, counterpointing his melody with a melody of my own. He was singing, “My baby done left me,” and making you think that maybe she had.

***

The band lasted for about eight months. Mitch, Dan and I were finishing high school; we had papers to write and exams to take. We were applying for college. But we practiced as much as we could and Jacoby booked gigs for us. We played in hotel lounges and teenage nightclubs, and started taking in a little money, calling ourselves The Bark. (We made a publicity photo of ourselves standing in front of the trunk of an old maple tree.) Often there weren’t many people in our audiences, and few in the audience seemed to respond to us the way we were responding to ourselves, but we were enraptured. Sometimes girls came up to us after a session, wanting to get to know us, and we felt validated, since having girls attached to your band was a mark of success, and having sex with them was the great fantasy. We played Willie Dixon standards, like “Hootchie Coochie Man” and “My Babe,” as well as a few works of our own composition, all of them twelve-bar blues with conventional-sounding lyrics. In fact, with maybe an exception or two everything we played, whether hot and fast or cool and slow, was a twelve-bar blues, usually in E or A. We gave ourselves plenty of time for improvisation; Jacoby honked through the microphone like Little Walter, wah-wah, wah-wah, wah- WAAAAH. I did my B.B. King routine. Even Dan and Mitch were given solos, and they too had their moments. As we got better, I introduced Lightnin’ Hopkins and Robert Johnson-like material into my playing, doing chords and single-note solos almost at the same time, adding a rural twang to our work, and Jacoby started taking stuff from Sonny Terry, a blues harpist from Georgia whose music sounded like a freight train coming at you, crossing the cotton fields.

What a summer that was too, 1970. Another blues revival was on, and a lot of the old musicians we admired were back on tour after a hiatus of a few years, grizzled black men in their fifties holding forth before crowds of adulating white hippies. I saw Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Jimmy Rogers and others up close. I went backstage and shot the breeze with them. To a man, all of them were gracious to me and the other young white kids who approached them. They were funny. They were modest. They were enjoying themselves. They were regal.

My excitement at meeting them and hearing them play, though, was tempered by a depressing insight. It came upon me especially when I saw Howlin’ Wolf play. He and his band were going through his old hits, “Smokestack Lightning,” “I Ain’t Superstitious,” “Back Door Man,” “Spoonful” (that spoon, that spoon, that spoonful) and I realized, these guys are better than us, so much better that it was shameful. Their playing was precise, their sound both brilliant and deep, the rhythm swung; it made you stay on your feet and sway your shoulders and tap your toes, and there was that voice, that howling gravelly voice, which was not just uttering words but roaring like an instrument in its own right. The band made the crowd ecstatic. They were themselves ecstatic. My group, The Bark, was nothing like that. Compared to that band our sound was drab, our rhythm uncertain, our purposes opaque. No one ever swayed when we played. We just weren’t that good.

And why should we have been? We were only beginners, and we hadn’t had much of a connection with the tradition until recently. And worse: the doubts that had assailed me about my songwriting now plagued me about The Bark. While playing, at best, I was absorbed in the sound, that group vibration, giving and receiving. In my solos I tried to dig into my emotions and make them speak, thinking of every note as a word, or at least a syllable in the making of a word, and every syllable and word as a registration of joy or sorrow, of hope or despair, or of just plain energy, a clamor of life. But when I went quiet, letting others play, or when I heard recordings of our group, which Jacoby regularly took charge of, or when, even while I was playing along with the whole group, I listened to us as a band, I was disappointed. There was nothing there, just a quartet of disingenuous white kids pretending to be bluesmen. Our playing was flat. It lacked a driving rhythm. There was no genuine emotion, just simulacra, expressed in words that usually weren’t our own, in music that wasn’t our own. Even my solos disappointed when listened to from afar; in the end they were derivative, improvisations based on other people’s improvisations, patchworks of riffs and motifs drawn from other guitarists’ riffs and motifs.

We would have to move forward somehow, do something other than twelve-bar blues, or do something different with twelve-bar blues, something that came from us – but how? And who were we, anyway? As the summer wore on we ran out of gigs. Jacoby had only so many contacts, and no one invited us back. A university in the city beckoning, I moved in with Jacoby, who had a two-room apartment in town just across from the El – yes, we could hear the trains going back and forth all day and much of the night. I had a job at nights and Saturdays working for a photo lab and classes three days a week. Jacoby did I don’t remember what. Dan went to a junior college and Mitch started classes at the Art Institute of Chicago. Harry, always our biggest fan, got a full-time job delivering mail, and disappeared from our lives. Before long Jacoby and I became close the way Mitch and Dan were close, spending almost all our free time together, busying ourselves as partners learning how to be adults, how to cook for ourselves, how to organize our days, how to think without anybody telling us what and how we should think. We learned about different kinds of cheese, from Germany, from France, both of us having grown up on nothing but processed American “cheese” and American “cheddar.” I had an ill-fated affair with one of Mitch’s old girlfriends, who lived in our neighborhood. Then I had another involvement or two. But mainly, it was study study study, and play play play. Jacoby and I still felt that The Bark had a future. But on my own now, with Jacoby’s blessing, I was listening to new forms of music, which we both felt was what a musician ought to do. I went for jazz and classical music alike. For the latter, I started with Beethoven’s piano sonatas, the Waldstein, the Appasionata, and found myself attuned to a new kind of musical force, far more capacious, emotive and complex than anything I had ever heard before. For jazz it was Miles Davis, and then Coltrane and Monk and Sonny Rollins, who showed me what it really meant to think in music, and to get ahead of anything that was known in pursuit of what had yet to be known. I went on to Bach and Brahms and Bartok, and to jazz guitarists like Barney Kessel, Charlie Christian, and Charlie Byrd. I was faced with two kinds of music that moved me in ways unexpected, speaking in languages that I hadn’t anticipated, expressing new sophisticated dimensions of thought and feeling – which, I saw, I could never play. I tried, but it was no good. I emulated some jazz chord progressions, but I didn’t have the education in music I would have needed in order to play like a jazz musician. Classical guitar was out of question too. All I could play was the blues. “No problem,” Jacoby said, “you can use what you’re learning in your own way. You can bring it back to the blues.” But I was not so confident. I had learned about new possibilities and I wanted to make them my own. But I couldn’t. I could only wish I could.

That autumn came on like the death of a hero. The days were short and dark, the leaves fell from the trees, and it was cold outside. And one day Mitch and Dan announced that they wanted to start playing country and western. Hank Williams. Jacoby and I were appalled. That was not what we were. That was not what we wanted to be. This was Illinois! This was Chicago! We argued, Jacoby and me against Mitch and Dan; we argued heatedly; Jacoby and I couldn’t understand this betrayal, this failure to stay loyal to our vision. Mitch and Dan had words of their own. And suddenly that was the end of it. Sometime in a cold late October night I think it was. We broke up. And I never saw Mitch and Dan again.

***

Not too long after the breakup, Jacoby started getting weird. He erupted into crying jags. Our usual festivities with marijuana made him paranoid to the point of panic. We held on together, the best of friends, and had our adventures with girls together, but one day Jacoby announced that he couldn’t take it anymore, he was moving back to his family in the suburbs. He left – I think it was in February 1971 – and I never saw him again either.

So I went on in a different frame of mind, throwing myself into my studies and my intellectual ambitions. Eventually I changed schools, matriculating at the University of Chicago and moving down to Hyde Park. I gave up playing because I couldn’t play what I wanted to play. In spite of my feelings and inclinations, music apparently wasn’t me; that is, music wasn’t something that came from me, it was something that came from the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, or from Chick Corea. Music was something I listened to.

And how I listened. I got a job at the university’s music library and spent my free time comparing performances of Beethoven’s and Mahler’s symphonies as played under different conductors with different orchestras. I learned about Toscanini, Furtwangler and von Karajan, Reiner and Solti. I became a connoisseur of ninths, of Beethoven’s, Schubert’s, Mahler’s and Shostakovich’s, and of how different conductors performed them, fast or slow, brassy or smooth, sinuous or spiky. I took a class in music theory and learned about Schoenberg and Stravinsky. I wrote an essay about the structure of the third movement in Beethoven’s Seventh – a structure hearkening back to the eighteenth-century fugue but also moving forward, into dimensions of harmony, rhythm and feeling that un-did the fugue, pushing it beyond itself into a strain of heart-rending lyricism. I gave myself an education in music. But music wasn’t me: it was something I consumed and assessed, like wine. It wasn’t something I made.

After graduating I travelled a bit, including a long sojourn in Greece – I had been studying ancient Greek literature – and then took a job in Southern California, with an advertising agency, where I wrote copy for catalogs and newspaper and magazine ads. Our biggest clients were a hotel chain and a supermarket chain; sometimes work for a cigarette company was farmed out to us from New York; and we kept trying to land an account with a film studio. I was pretty good at the trade. Writing copy came easy, and I had a gift for concocting headlines and slogans. But the irony of working for a company whose chief business was lying to the public did not escape me; it was bitter, that irony, and my only consolation, apart from the money I was making, and the freedom that money gave me, was the fact that most of my colleagues were also bitter. We lived a joyous life of adult indulgences – cocaine, alcohol, one-night stands, swimming pool parties – and a black sense of humor, which allowed us to make fun of ourselves and keep our cool even while continued doing what it was that we were making fun of and enjoying the fruits of the money we made. We had no self-respect, but we had jokes about how self-respect was overrated. “My shrink told me I ought to respect myself more; the problem, he said, was that I was an asshole.” “I would respect myself more if perversion wasn’t such a downer.” “I would respect myself more if I were better at being an asshole. As it is, I am just a pervert.”

I did not lack for music. Both the classical music and jazz scenes were lively back then in L.A. I had kept my acoustic guitar and every once in a while I dusted it off and experimented with American Standards – another form of music I had come to love – songs like Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” and George Gershwin’s “They Can’t Take That Away from Me.” I had come up with a theory about playing and singing, that what you were doing wasn’t expressing yourself but assuming a persona. It was a lot like acting. When I sang “Night and Day,” it wasn’t myself in all my sincerity that was important, but rather that artificial person I was pretending to be, that person who was trying to make a go of it with a woman who was resistant, but singing his pain and longing in D major, with a swinging rhythm, as if there were joy in singing his pain, as if the pain wasn’t really pain at all, because there he was, singing, making musical headway and swinging.

Night and day

Under the hide of me

There’s an, oh, such a hungry yearning burning inside of me.

It was a far cry from the blues, although the fundamental sentiment – I want you! – was much the same. It was the music of a heedless white man of a long-gone glamorous past, whose pain was never really pain, and whose words struck out in a zone between self-mockery and despair. But I could perform the persona, even if I had trouble with the complex chords and a difficulty, as a singer, with trying to keep up. I could try to play the persona that Frank Sinatra tried to play, and lay the words out, even if there was no yearning and burning actually inside of me and even if I wasn’t close to being Sinatra. It was a relief to discover this. I was liberated from the prison house of scruples about sincerity. But I never played for anyone – never exposed even my personae to anyone – except when I was really drunk and trying to make an impression on the woman with whose company I found myself. Once I tried playing and singing the theme song from M.A.S.H., “Suicide is Dangerous,” but that didn’t go over so well. By the end of the song, the woman was afraid I was about to whip out a knife and slit my wrists. It wouldn’t have helped if I had said to her, “But it’s only a persona!”

And then I did something wrong. And I got caught. And I ended up doing time. I didn’t do anything violent, but I committed fraud, and I got caught. It was stupid. Phony billings. I got caught. And that was the end of everything. It was the end of my nebulous ambitions, and when you get down to it nebulous ambitions were all I had.

Instead of ambition now I had shame. Shame enclosed me in its cage. Shame sucked the syrup out of my veins. Shame tormented me with its sneers, its slurs, its laughter. I probably should have felt guilt for what I did, but it was shame that prevailed. My family would have nothing to do with me. Far away, in Chicago, they seldom did so much as send me a birthday card. My old friends would have nothing to do with me. My partner in crime, the one who came up with the idea and started it all, was sent to a different prison and we never spoke again. When I got out of mine, there was nobody to take me in.

And so along with shame came regret. If only I could take back those silly few weeks in which I had been involved in the scheme; if only I could move back in time and erase those weeks from the calendar of memory; if only my regret could also be atonement, and if only atonement could take the shame away … but I couldn’t take back, move back, or adequately repent. There was no lying myself out of the trouble I was in, and no lying to myself that I wasn’t in trouble.

***

Years later, I moved to Europe. I looked up a woman I had had a fling with at the university, who came from a wealthy, prominent family. She took me in, like the lady in the Bob Dylan song. Because of who her family was, I was able to get a resident permit – it was that kind of country – and I was able to make one last try at licking my wounds. I found a métier, thanks to that new thing called the Internet, setting up web sites, news feeds and blogs, editing text, writing opinion pieces, cultural journalism, and the like – not anything grand enough for me to make a lot of money, but enough to live on, and enough to make it a fact that when you Googled my name a whole lot of entries came up – except, of course, that it wasn’t my real name, since I always wrote under a pseudonym. I even had an email address and a web page fashioned according to my nom de plume.

One day the woman threw me out.

And so there I was, coming into my sixties, me and my computer and the one-bedroom apartment I rented, near the town center, alone. Somewhere in Europe. My days of intensive music listening were well over. Sometimes it seemed to me that I had already heard it all before and I would never regain that intensity of discovering something new, of getting riled up by the sense of possibilities that a new piece of music used to alert me to: the first time I heard Lightnin’ Hopkins, or Beethoven’s piano sonatas, or John Coltrane doing A Love Supreme on tenor sax. Chick Corea playing solo piano. Solti conducting Mahler’s Ninth. Thelonious Monk doing “Well You Needn’t.” With my newfound prosperity and independence, I bought some cd’s and played the music and enjoyed it, but the enjoyment was a retread. Instead of getting excited about the future, I found myself going back to the past and feeling nostalgic. It wasn’t the shiver of sublimity I felt when I re-listened to Beethoven’s late quartets – that music that went beyond music, in words of Charles Mingus– it was the memory of having shivered at sublimity a long time ago. It wasn’t the joy of liberation I felt when I listened to Monk play – it was my recollection of having once long ago felt liberated that stirred in me now.

Few people I have met have had as eclectic a taste in music as me. There are no rules behind it, just a sense that sometimes, in whatever style is, the music is. Often music isn’t. Maybe because I was living abroad in a small country, or maybe because I was just getting old, very little that I hadn’t heard before, that was new to the world, did anything for me. New trends in popular music passed me by, and as far as I could tell, there were no significant new trends in the music I was especially devoted to, classical and jazz. Nor was much going with the blues. Instead of living in the stream of modern music-making, with all those airplanes flying about, I became the owner of a treasure chest of aged repertoires, to which I would repair like a miser in his attic fussing over his tarnished baubles. The traditions coming from eighteenth-century Vienna, from early twentieth-century New Orleans, from bebop and Tin Pan Alley in mid-century New York, from Texas-Mississippi-Chicago blues, from Motown, and for good measure from that rock n’ roll that was invented in the fifties and turned into an art form, briefly, in the sixties: if there was anything any of it had in common, it was a sense that the music communicated, when it was played, that this was its moment. Classical music had its moment for centuries, although it was pretty much over now except in the stodgy concert halls supported by philanthropy and government subsidies. Bebop had had its moment, from the fifties to the seventies, and now it too was moribund, though musicians continued to play it, albeit to shrinking audiences. Tin Pan Alley, the blues, Motown, rock – they were just the same. They were. And they weren’t anymore, except so far as people kept trying to do them and kept getting excited while listening to them. I have forgotten to mention opera. And I should add a maxim attributed to the great Gustav Mahler: “Tradition is not the cult of ashes; it is the transmission of fire.”

Just do it right, though. That was my idea. Do it thinking that it couldn’t be better (although of course it always could). Do it as a gift to yourself, and to anyone who might hear it. Be a master of the music that enthralled you.

I bought a guitar, a steel string resonator, and I tried going back to where I had left off many years ago, doing American Standards. But I had developed arthritis in my left hand, and I couldn’t reach those chords that composers like Porter and Gershwin relied upon. An E flat seventh was sheer hell. Even an F major stung, pricking into the joints of my index finger and knifing into my forearm. So I went back to doing the blues, Lightnin’ Hopkins style. I listened, I played. I listened and played alone, and what I listened and played with, for better or worse, under the sign of one of my personae, was a fire I had inherited from the past.

***

The emails started coming in around this time, because I was unable to keep up my anonymity. “Are you the same Barry I knew at ___?” Three different former flames wrote to ask that question, one now living in Paris, another in San Diego, a third in Miami. I hardly remembered the third at first, but she added, “I used to be in love with you.” I remembered then. I remembered that she was welcoming and naive, and that I had been arrogant with her, and had left her after a few assignations. And how could I respond? I fantasized about reuniting with each of the women, about thwarting my loneliness and returning to the heat of their bodies. But they were so far away. Each of them had had a life, and they had partners, children, professions. And each of them was now in their sixties, like me, or almost there. What love I had had for any of them was a love for a young woman in her teens or her early twenties, and there was no going back to those women. There was no going back to the moments we had, and what were they without those moments?

Still, thanks to the Internet the past loomed, as it were, ahead of me. Distance meant nothing. With a few clicks I could find myself back on that Greek Island, staring at the same sea, pretending I could feel the same breeze, eat the same seafood fresh off the boats, drink the same wines from the local vineyards, make small talk with the same locals in halting Greek. And so too with a few clicks I could find my old friends. There must have been dozens of them, people I had known, people I had had moments with, who I hadn’t seen or heard of in decades. Could I drink wine and smoke cigarettes with them again? Could I do that in spite of my shame? The guys at the advertising agency, for starters, the guys I snorted cocaine and complained about self-respect with were easy to find on the Internet, a good many of them still working in advertising or the media. One had become a Hollywood producer, another a TV writer. But I couldn’t bring myself to contact any of them. How could I, for who was I to them, and they to me? And then, of course, most important, there was Mitch and the rest of The Bark.

With them were those moments to which I most wanted to return: those cold nights in October; or rather, to the life we had just before those cold nights, when the future was still before us, and we still had our paper airplanes to fly. Mitch, Dan, Jacoby, Harry, and yes Mitch in the first place. Internet search after Internet search, however, turned up nothing, until one day I found Dan. He had lived most of his adult life in a college town in Pennsylvania, working as a low-level college administrator, but in the nighttime and on the weekends he worked as a DJ on a local radio station and a bass player in local bands. He had a wife and two daughters. He was a celebrity in his obscure community, known as an advocate of R&B and jazz, a “man of great taste,” and a constant presence at clubs. He was dead, at sixty-two, a victim of cancer, and mourned.

It took me a couple of days to recover from this news. I felt that there was something I had to atone for with regard to him, and there was, though I don’t want to go into that now. Dan ___! Who played the bass line while I played the lead. Mitch’s satellite! My friend! I re-read the obituary several times, along with several items that had been placed on the web before his death. I noticed that among his achievements was having made recordings with a musician named Mike Mustang Parker. So I looked up Mike Mustang Parker, and it turned out to be Mitch. Mike Mustang Parker was a blues musician based in northwest Illinois, near another college town.

I wrote him at once. “Have I found you, Mitch? After all these years? I’ve gone through life feeling sorry for what happened between us when we were band members, when we were still friends. Are you okay? What has happened in your life? What’s with the name?”

I got an answer the next day. “Barry, it’s good to hear from you. Yes, I changed my name for show biz reasons. A good while back I started a restaurant out here in ___, where we serve bbq ribs and stuff like that, and on weekends we have live music. I’ve got my own group, Mustang Parker and the Blues Return. I don’t understand what you’re sorry about. All I remember was the good times we had. Great times, really! I’m still in touch with Jacoby: you can reach him at ______. Dan, I am sorry to say, passed a little while back. It was terrible. Well, we’re getting old. I have worn a beard for a long time now, but I just cut it off. I was starting to look like Santa Claus! Take care.”

“All I remember was the good times we had”: those words stung me. We had experienced the same thing, but we had experienced it in different ways. What for me was traumatic for him was hardly anything at all. He had no regrets. He had no memory of anything that he ought to be regretful about. Had I entirely misread the situation? Had I stumbled when I could have kept walking? Was it not simply the case that Mitch had a gift for life, for taking it as it is, that I had never possessed? Was it not the case that I was a loser and Mitch a winner? Hadn’t all my ambitions been an excuse for not allowing myself to be myself? Had I chased shadow after shadow, paper airplane after paper airplane, when a guy like Mitch was happy standing still?

I contacted Jacoby, and soon received a reply, from an email address that indicated he worked for the same major media company his father had worked for. “Barry,” he wrote, “it is so good to hear from you! We are so proud of you! We knew you were brilliant! Dan, Mitch and I used to get together and listen to the tapes we made. You were so good! Those solos!”

I responded immediately. “John! What have you been doing? Where are you? What has happened in your life?”

But I never got a reply.

And I never wrote to either of them again. What would be the point? Jacoby was a mystery that refused to explain itself. And Mitch – Mustang Parker – was opaque. Had he lived never experiencing, not even once, the grief and regret that so marked my own life for so long? Had he never reflected on the past and wondered what might have been, if only we had done things differently? Had he never experienced loss, the failure of one’s own moment in the world? Had he never even been curious about it? Had he gone through adulthood, as he had gone through childhood and adolescence, in utter innocence, cheerful and negligent, a start on others but never a start on himself? And what was this about his having his own restaurant, and on the side setting himself up as a musician? Where did he get the money to open a restaurant? Why was he living in small-town Illinois, when all the globe ought to have been before him? What kind of music did he play? The blues? But how? I had had faith in him as an artist, a painter, and had broken up with him because he refused to be true to the cause of the blues. And now …

Once more I was stung with regret. For I too could have taken life easier. I should have never imposed such expectations upon myself, expectations that were bound to be disappointed, which led me into committing a ridiculous, needless crime, and which doomed me to shame and isolation. I should have just lived, as Mitch apparently just lived, being satisfied with my limited capabilities, and enjoying what I had, rather than craving and resenting all the things I didn’t.

Then one day I found a performance of Mitch’s on YouTube. It was Mustang Parker doing a duet with a musician who called himself Wisconsin Holler, playing the blues harp. There was Mitch, in the flesh, not with drums but with an acoustic guitar. I could recognize him. He seemed to be a big man now, with white hair and a stylish white goatee. Handsome as ever, he wore an Australian bush hat, à la Crocodile Dundee, maybe to cover up baldness. And so the two old white guys started playing an old blues tune, Wisconsin sounding a lot like Jacoby used to sound, only better, more in control of what he was doing, with more nuance, with a better timbre, more the way Little Walter used to sound, and Mitch singing and playing the acoustic guitar just like I used to play, borrowing from Lightnin’ Hopkins, a base note keeping time, played by the thumb, and chord progressions ornamented with single notes, played by the rest of the hand. The music was jumpy, at first. The tune was catchy. But Mitch was making a few mistakes, missing notes, his left fingers not being placed hard enough on the string, or his right hand failing to strike when it should have done. He sang a blues about being on the road, and he sang in a clear bright voice with a southern accent, inclined toward swallowing his words, cutting off his final vowels, his eyes downcast. I would place the accent in Arkansas. From a perky start the song drifted into slackness, just more of the same, the same twelve bars again and again, going nowhere, losing a sense of purpose. And where did that accent come from? When did Chicago-born Mike Mustang Parker suddenly sing as if he hailed from the woodlands outside of Little Rock, Arkansas?

I found another video, Mitch playing with his group in a club in southern Wisconsin. They were on a small stage, backed by violet curtains, five of them, dressed in baggy worn-out jeans, the blues harpist Wisconsin Holler, a lead guitarist, a bass player, a drummer, and Mitch himself, playing rhythm guitar and doing the vocals. All but the bass player were in their sixties. Mitch was wearing his bush hat, and the lead guitarist was sitting on a stool, as if standing up with the group was too much work for him, too hard on his back. The five old white men started up, with the harp playing the usual riffs, and then Mitch started singing, saying words that were difficult to construe, still in his Arkansas accent, something to the effect of “You told me that you loved me, now you gone away.” The band was lifeless; the beat was too slow; the drummer, wearing a pillbox hat, looked like he was half asleep. He hardly moved a muscle apart from his forearms and wrists. Mitch tried to command the stage, moving about, fidgeting, trying to conduct the action, but with his eyes to the ground, as if the audience was of no interest to him, and as if, at bottom, he was sure of neither where he was nor where he ought to be, like an old man in his living room in his pajamas, shuffling this way and that in search of his lost remote control. The music plodded, without expression. Then it plodded some more. It got nowhere. Then it went nowhere some more. Watching the band was like paying respects to the ashes of the dead.

***

Well, that’s the story. I have no more to add. Irony never sleeps. And still, music is, or can be. No thanks to me, of course. And no thanks to, well I have already named the names and I think I ought to let them rest in peace. The whole world isn’t watching us anymore and even worse, it never did.

About the Author

Robert Appelbaum

Website

Robert Appelbaum received his BA from the University of Chicago and his PhD from the University of California, Berkeley. He is professor emeritus of English Literature at Uppsala University, Sweden, and a fellow of the Swedish Research Council. Usually he writes about literary history and cultural theory, but he is the author as well of a work of creative non-fiction, Working the Aisles: A Life in Consumption (London: Zero 2014) as well as a handful of short stories.