Wednesday, August 05, 2009

It's a Guitar Player Thing...

I just finished watching the film "Crazy", a biopic about Nashville session ace Hank Garland. Hank played on all kinds of records by Elvis Presley, Patsy Cline and a bunch of other late 1950's and early 1960's artists. He had his own hit with "Sugarfoot Rag" in 1959, and recorded a Country-influenced Jazz album the next year, with a quartet that included the drummer from the Dave Brubeck Quartet.

That jazz/country record was a big deal for its time: it showed that country guitarists were good, great even, to jazz musicians who turned up their nose at Country music for its corn pone simplicity. You hear some of Hank's licks on some of his records and you stand amazed, just like many of those Jazz artists did. Hank was a musician's musician.

I was just thinking today about how much I love to play, and I'm not getting to do nearly enough. I can't explain why it makes me feel complete, but a guitar in my hands immediately puts me at ease. I'm sure God wired that in me. It's wonderful to have something that you love, that you can do at any time, and that's portable (take that, organ players!)

Hank loved playing, as the film depicts, and as Hank's story goes on you see a talent who is probably headed for some kind of brick wall. Hank's brick wall was a car accident, rumored to be caused by a record label head for Hank's threats on his life. It sounds like a soap opera, but you know how those crazy musicians are. They're, well, crazy.

Hank recovers to a certain extent, and goes home to resume his playing, but he can't. He can fumble around but, as the various biographies of him record, he didn't have the attention span any more to focus on playing with the kind of dexterity that he'd had before. His time in a mental hospital didn't help either, as shock therapy may have robbed him of his greatest gift.

As I watched the scene where he fumbles his once easy playing, I thought of my grandfather. When I was young, my dad and I would go to his house, and a lot of the time he had a group of guys playing jazz tunes with him. I was young, so I was disinterested. "Who cares about that?", I thought. "Why don't they play some Elvis?" They never did.

Later, as a teen, when I'd take my "portable" monolithic CD player to family functions, I'd tune the playing out. My late teens found me playing a bit with him, specifically "All of Me" and "Do You Know What It Means to Miss New Orleans?" I treasured it at the time, because, with my dad playing, too, this was family to me. This was MY family. This is what my family did.

While I was attending college, my grandfather started to have some memory issues and slurred speech. Eventually, he was diagnosed with Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease, a disease that slowly and increasingly impairs the mind. He would spent his last months in a nursing home, visited by a steady stream of family and friends. When I visited, he'd write down indecipherable notes on small pieces of paper, or tell a story of which you could barely make out a handful of the words. And then he'd pull out his guitar from the closet, and try to play a couple of simple chords, strumming unevenly. He'd mumble something frustratingly, and then put it back in its case, with help from my dad or me.

I'm not a big cryer, and I didn't cry whenever I visited him, or at his funeral. I'm just not someone who cries very much, if at all. But, at that visit where he tried to play, I felt the weight of it. I understood that he was not my grandfather any more. There wouldn't be any more jam sessions into late hours, and there would be no more jazz chords that I'd have to learn on the spot to try and keep up. So, I mourned the way that often do when mourning is appropriate: I play.

I know that what you do, even what you love, is not the sum total of who you are. But, for those people who have a passion and a gift, and whose identity is wrapped up in both, it's very hard to separate, either for them or for those who know them. I'm one of those people, and you may be as well. If so, you know you'd do that thing, that gift, whatever it is, all the time if your spouse or your job or common sense would let you. I understand.

I think the lesson here is that you should find the time, and find the way, that you can do your thing. Enjoy the joy that it brings to you. Revel in it, even. Not because it may be gone someday, but in spite of that. Or, find the thing that you want to do. It wasn't placed inside of you so that you could push it down until it shuts up. I always got the impression that "growing up" was code for giving up what you love. But, my grandfather, even to the end, even when he couldn't do it any more, never did.

Sometimes, if you stick around long enough instead of giving up, cool stuff happens. A few weeks ago, I got to play a couple of shows with one of my musical heroes, Mike Roe. If anything, life is teaching me to not give up.

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