Making music. Is it art or is it magic? Certain performances/collected works/bands/songs hit the notes of magic. Profound, mysterious, other-worldly. Running Dry and Helpless, by Neil Young, have always aroused the hairs on the back of my neck, invoking a sense of longing that exceeds the flaccid emotion of most pop songs. Moonlight Mile, by the Stones, transports me to a different, shimmering, druggy world. When I hear Billie Holiday’s recording of Pennies From Heaven I hear a voice that is a true musical instrument, like she’s being played by an unseen hand. Bach’s Brandenburg Concertos warps me to the 17th century, at the intersection of music, math and creativity.
Ry Cooder’s cover of the Blind Willie Johnson instrumental, Dark Is The Night, gets me every time. When I first heard it, I thought, this is why you learn to play guitar. Emotional. Profound. Moving. Perfect. Is it the simplicity, the complexity or the utter mastery of the guitar strings that creates my sense of wonder?
Every band or project of Ry’s is bit of magic—Sticky Finger-era Stones, Early Captain Beefheart, Paris Texas soundtrack, the collaborations with musicians of Cuba, Africa, India, Mexico, the American south and folk and blues. If you’re a fan of Ry, you’re a fan of musical history, politics, anthropology and the connection we have with each other. Seeing him play live or being interviewed, he seems to be a regular dude.
The pathway that led me toward Ry Cooder began when my Dad put Green Door on the turntable, sometime in the early 1950s. I noticed how enthused my father was. He dug the beat. Pop music was on the cusp of rocking. I felt it, too. Then Elvis came, and my life—American life—was never the same. Music has shaped me.
Elvis was a big deal because he looked cool and he had the moves and sang some crazy songs; a sneer with sideburns. At the same time, Chuck Berry at Chess Records was exploding, and though his catalog is as important as any American songbook ever, Chuck couldn’t compete with the Elvis package. Chuck was black. It was 1956, the Jim Crow era. Also, Chuck had done three years for armed robbery. It took years before I learned that the early rock & roll of Arthur Big Boy Crudup never reached a mainstream audience because Crudup was also the wrong color for the times. So, it was Elvis who introduced young white people to a new way of life. The opportunity to express pleasure by shaking your hips. He was the right guy at the right time to codify the potent combination of gospel music, country music, teenage insolence, sex, blues and rebelliousness.
To be a cultural force takes frequency—just like advertising. James Dean was a rebel without a cause, a sneering young movie star adored by the same demographic as Elvis, but Dean didn’t turn the culture upside down as Elvis did, because Elvis was on the radio every day. You could spin his record on your turntable at will. His first appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show reached an 82 percent share of the television audience. This dwarfed the movie audience. Elvis had constant visibility. You want some Elvis? Put him on your turntable whenever you want. The radio played him all day and all night. You want some James Dean? Find a movie theater that’s featuring one of his movies and buy a ticket, because there is no VCR and no American Movies Classics and no Netflix. Elvis had the technological advantage over James Dean.
I was hooked on rock & roll as soon as I saw Elvis. I have a hazy recollection of my dad taking me to a record store somewhere on the west side of Chicago— there were no record stores in my tiny suburb of Clarendon Hills—to buy the Elvis 45, “Money Honey.” In 1956 the young rock and roll record industry relied mainly on 45 rpm singles. The “A” side was deemed the hit or potential hit, the “B” side was the toss off, the neglected sibling. The 33 1/3 rpm, long playing (LP) disc had been introduced the same year I was born, 1948, but that format was used primarily for classical music. Elvis was the first rock & roller to release an album’s-worth of singles. This first LP included “Money Honey” but I can only assume that we got the 45 because it was cheaper or maybe our phonograph didn’t have a 33 1/3 rpm speed setting.
Like Lou Reed would sing, my life was changed by rock & roll. In 3rd grade, I took a blonde wooden hair brush to school and often excused myself to go to the washroom where I could wet my hair and attempt to fashion an Elvis do. My hair wasn’t quite long enough, though, and I didn’t use Brylcream to give it the proper greasy look. The teacher must have thought that I had a weak bladder.
There could be only one Elvis, and the groundbreaking effect he had on our culture—to be fair, white culture—was at least the equal of other pop kings like Michael Jackson and even The Beatles. Young girls called bobby sox-ers, had screamed for Frank Sinatra in the 1940s but not quite as wantonly as they did for Elvis. And although the young girl screams would be more deafening for the Beatles, the venues were a hundred times larger and the young girls screaming for the Beatles were screaming because the cuddly Brits were so cute. The young girls screaming for Elvis was because he aroused them sexually. That made him dangerous.
In 1956, I had not yet been exposed directly to the Blues but “Money Honey” and “Don’t be Cruel” and “Jailhouse Rock” evolved from the blues. It became inevitable that I would make the path backward to this source. You’ll understand where rock & roll originated by listening to the early blues of Robert Johnson, Charlie Patton and Blind Lemon Jefferson, black music for a black audience—they even called it race music. These country blues performers were the influencers of the Chicago blues beginning in the late 1940s/early 1950s. Howling Wolf, Muddy Waters, Little Walter and Buddy Guy were the bridge between the country blues of the south and the rock & roll that was about to sweep the nation. Call it a migration.
When I finally picked up an acoustic guitar at age 21, it was this early country blues that captivated me: The same holy grail that snared Mick and Keith and Eric Clapton and Ry Cooder. I learned the guitar styles of Blind Lemon, Blind Blake and Mississippi John Hurt from records, perfecting my technique on lunch breaks, back porches, saggy couches, VW mini vans, train stations and straight back chairs, while on the road in Lawrence, Kansas and Carbondale, Illinois, South America, Europe, Minneapolis and San Francisco.
When you begin playing guitar—and you’re serious about it—you sense your progress, you sense how your skills plateau and then lurch forward. I learned to break things down and play them slowly before trying to play at the speed or the singular rhythm of the masters. I remember the liberating feeling of being able to bounce my thumb between the bass strings while my other fingers pinched and picked the trebles on Shake That Thing by Mississippi John Hurt. I was certain that I would play guitar for the rest of my life and that nothing would ever be more important to me. Time has confirmed this.
Magic enchants the supernatural part of our soul. The languid sustain of a long, drawn out note from Miles Davis triggers the many layers of consciousness. There’s more going on than meets the eye; or the ear. What was his trick? How did he do it? An insane amount of dedication and practice. Slight of hand.
Music is a big magical deal. I am thankful that I have been able to both live and craft a living with my guitar being either at the center of or dancing around the edges of my career, magically. I recently saw Ry Cooder perform at Thalia Hall in Chicago with my wife and son. It was magical. Long live rock & roll. Long live the blues. Long live magic.
©2019 Roger Bain