Rolling the strings

First of all, I must warn you, I am not a guitar player. Fact is, I couldn’t carry a tune in a bucket, so this post is not one to brag about my guitar playing prowess.

That being said, I admit there is nothing I enjoy more than watching a good guitar player do what he or she does best, and that is take that stringed instrument, the one in which I have tried to play countless times, and make that bugger sing.

My Dad used to play when he was younger, and still had good dexterity with his fingers, but numerous injuries to his hands has caused his fingers to stiffen up too much to hit the chords, so he won’t even venture near a guitar those days.

My dad taught himself to play from listening to Johnny Cash tunes. He used to really enjoy listening to the many Smiley Bates records (youtube the guy, he was talented!) and I remember hearing him picking his flattop guitar out on the front step while us kids sat in the front yard playing our kid games. we used to make our own guitars, out of an empty tissue box with ‘lastic bands stretched across the opening.

My fascination with the guitar went beyond trying to play them (I gave up on that a long time ago), so I ended up collecting recordings of the greatest pickers in our time. I had every Chet album I could find, a few Roy Clarks, and when I got older, I moved on to Jeff Healey, John Lee Hooker, an Bo Didley, and one day, I got really lucky and found a box set of early Clapton tunes that I still play (converted to .mp3 of course, hard to play records on my ipod!)

A few years ago, a few friends of mine asked me along to a party they were attending. I was never that much of a party guy, but when I heard one of my friends say that they invited a guitar player, I began to show some interest. My friend Paul said that he met this guy while he visited the local unemployment center. He said the guy showed up to look for work with tattered clothing, his hair a mess, and reeking alcohol. He also said that the guy brought along his guitar when he was looking for work, and despite the fact that he did not get a job that day, he treated everyone to over two hours of the best picking anyone had ever heard.

I now wanted to go to the party, just so I could see (and hear) what my friends were talking about. When I got to the party, I noticed the guy right away. My friend Paul got up in front of everyone to introduce his guest of honor, a guy known only as Raymond. At first glance, I knew I had seen this guy somewhere before, and it hit me where. While walking in downtown St. John’s a few years back, we happened along this bum, sitting in front of a bar, playing his heart out on an old guitar, while his guitar case lay in front of him filled with pennies, nickles and dimes. I remember mentioning to my friend that this guy should be playing in front of an audience, not bumming for small change, and I remember my friend’s reply. “He is just an old bum with a guitar. Don’t look at him, he might be dangerous.”

I still don’t think the guy is dangerous, but I grew curious when he began playing for everyone. As he played tunes like Walking Blues and a few tunes I had never heard, people bought him drinks, which he threw back like he was putting out a fire. He then went into a fury picking out old country tunes, some of which challenged even Chet’s best work, mixing in blues, country, and the best rock licks, and in no time at all, the party was rocking.

Later, when he had taken a break outside, I approached him, curious to where he learned to play like that. While he drew back on his cigarette, he began explaining to me a story that will stay with me forever.

Raymond said that back in his teens, he was considered a prodigy. His teachers urged him to go further than the small cove he lived in, but coming from an abusive home, he feared anything other than the life he lived. Despite being so talented,  the abuse he received at home destroyed any confidence he may have had. Since both his parents drank, he too was inflicted with an alcoholic habit, and he started drinking while he attended elementary school, at the age of fourteen.

Raymond told me of one teacher, Mr Cummings, who tried to take him away from all his troubles by teaching him the work of the masters. Mr Cummings was the music teacher at Raymond’s high school, and quite the guitar player himself. During lunch, Mr Cummings and Raymond used to practice guitar together, and as one taught the other, there grew a trusting relationship.

Raymond told me of the times that he and Mr. Cummings spent together, and how they both planned to start a guitar duo, and not only travel the province, but maybe even the world. He went on to say that he really trusted Mr. Cummings, the only person who ever treated him good. He said that he loved playing so much that picking replaced drinking. Raymond began to cry when he continued his story.

“Mr Cummings and I were booked at a hotel in St. John’s. We were supposed to play for an audience of over 500 people during a spring concert in the city. We were in the hotel practicing when it happened. Mr Cummings got real close to me. Real close.”

By now, the picker sucked what was left of his cigarette butt and began drinking his booze straight from the bottle.  As he went on with his story, I guessed where it was going, and tried to stop him from continuing.

“He got real close to me”, he said.  “The only person who did not hit me, call me stupid, abuse me, the only person I could ever trust. The person who taught me so much on this guitar, and he hurt me worse than anybody ever hurt me before” He cried. He was in tears now, and I wanted him to stop, but I don’t think he could stop. I wondered whether I was the only person who had spoken to him and wanted to listen to him.

Raymond went on to explain how Mr. Cummings wanted more than just a guitar partner, and how he tried to take advantage of one so young, so talented, and so vulnerable.

“He touched me in places he shouldn’t have, where nobody should have, and I let him. I let him because before this, abuse was how I lived. My father abused me this same way. And I let him too. I must be evil. I ran, ran home, but when I got there I was not allowed in. I had nobody. I had nowhere to go. I ended up living next to any warm door I could find, and my guitar, this damn guitar was all that I had left!”

By now, he was in tears, I was in tears, and all I wanted to do was help him. “Go away!” He shouted! And he went back to the room where everyone was waiting his return. He played a few more tunes, most of them sad, but spectacular all the same, and when the party ended there was nobody left, not the guests, not his new fans, and not Raymond.

I never heard from Raymond again. Nobody did. My friends who enjoyed his music said that they walked the streets of the city, listening for the picking, listening for the music, but there was none. The streets had gone dead.

I visited the places where he slept, asking store owners whether they knew where he was, who he was, and the replies were all the same. “That drunk with the guitar? I can’t remember him, there are so many, who the hell really cares anyway?”

When I see people living on streets, in doorways, drunk, stoned, and begging for a few cents, I give what I can. I know they will probably spend the money on booze or drugs, but what if they do? Hell, its only pocket change anyway. I think of why they are there, who put them there, and if they will ever leave the streets. And I think of Raymond, and all his talent, and that guitar that played the most beautiful tunes I ever heard.

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2 thoughts on “Rolling the strings

  1. A Bo Jangles story. That’s heartbreaking.
    And awe inspiring that a pained man could translate that into music.

    If you don’t know him, check out Stanley Jordan, another great guitarist with a unique style.

    And start playing again! Ain’t nothing like it, even for a hack like me.

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