Many years ago, I decided to sketch out what I had done to make money throughout my life. The original motivation was to provide a document for my kids; not a path for them to follow but more an entertainment. These “job sketches” evolved into an autobiography filtered through the lens of work. We each have a story to tell. This is mine.
Question: What was your favorite job?
My very last one. I created it. (You’ll have to read the book to find out.)
Question: Does a career define a life?
Not always. In my case, I would say, yes, it does because my work became my life. In a good way. I shaped my self-created job to my talents. (One might say whims.)
Question: Which jobs most shaped your view of life?
I have come to believe that there is no such thing as a worthless job. Each one contributes to your understanding of the world and how it works. But be careful not to overstay once you grow bored or feel stagnant.
Question: How did you recall the things you did many decades ago?
It is remarkable how memory works. Dwell enough on something and small details return. Not necessarily important details, rather, snapshots from the photo album that is our mind. For the most part, I have written what I remembered. And I have tried to be truthful. But memory and truth are two different things. I confess to augmenting my memory with Google searches from time to time. How else would I have known the number of people employed by the auto industry in the 1960s?
Question: Who are some of the most unforgettable characters you worked with?
Doc, the caddy master, at the Hinsdale Golf Club. The Ace hamburger flipper at Lum’s restaurant in Lawrence, KS. Dishwashing Moses at Grinnell Hall at Southern Illinois University. The Fabulous Johnny A at Sunflower Cablevision. Sherlock the Basset Hound in Minneapolis. Dr. Bingo, the mad pharmacologist.
Question: Who are your most likely readers?
I am of the baby boom generation, but the book provides a social history for any age group. I believe dividing populations into age blocs can miss the point. A better gauge might be dividing people into taste blocs. Here is who might enjoy Hardly Working: young people who are curious to expand their frame of reference, who may be uncertain of their career path. Ex-hippies. Social historians. Corporate dropouts. Wannabe corporate dropouts. Ad industry people. Memoir enthusiasts who wish to absorb a point of view from a regular (not normal!) person. Cable TV alums. It may also serve as a gift for recalcitrant kids or grandkids. The geo-focus of the book includes Chicago and its western suburbs, Lawrence, KS, Minneapolis, Carbondale, IL, San Francisco and the open road.
Question: What do you hope the book can accomplish?
I hope that Hardly Working might serve as a look at the latter half of the twentieth century and the beginning of the twenty-first from the perspective of a non-famous person. I hope the book is provocative in a positive way. About twenty people have read the manuscript as of this writing. Two of them have already changed the direction of their work life.
Question: What was your writing routine?
It varied from one afternoon-a-year to three hours every morning for a month. My library in Arlington Heights, IL, has a monthly writer’s group. Reading aloud chapters and getting immediate feedback gave me some direction. The ensuing discussions often veered into similar jobs that group members had. They recalled tasks that were bureaucratic or time wasting or bosses or co-workers who were wonderful or not. Of special importance seemed to be jobs that are deemed low skill or incidental or low paying. Summer jobs. Starter jobs. Dirty jobs: the jobs that are the binding agents of society. The jobs deemed essential during a pandemic.
Question: Is there a soundtrack?
Yes. I thought you would never ask. Most friends and acquaintances think of me as a songwriter. I have collected some twenty compositions that are mentioned in the book or reflected my circumstances at various stages of the story. https://rogerbainmusic.com/hardly-working
Question: Do you have advice for young people beginning to think about what they want to be when they grow up?
Keep an open mind, don’t be afraid of failure, have fun, don’t settle for the obvious, pay attention to what fulfills you and read many books, hopefully this one, available Feb. 25 on Amazon and (I hope) other fine platforms.
If you are a bookstore or book reviewer, I will send you an ARC upon request.
Chapter #1 from Hardly Working, my memoir of jobs and work.
Caddy in Clarendon Hills, IL. 1960
The first time I set foot in the clubhouse of the Hinsdale Golf Club was on the occasion of my 50th high school reunion. That October night, the club was crawling with weird, saggy renditions of my former classmates. I didn’t feel saggy, but I also looked far different than the picture on my name tag, taken during my senior year for the yearbook. Over 50 years before, the club had provided me my first job: caddying for the esteemed members. Though I had often been on club grounds, I had never seen its innards until this reunion night. It had been off-limits to me fifty years ago.
My caddy career began a few months short of my thirteenth birthday, when I still harbored notions of becoming a major-league pitcher. From 23 Blodgett Avenue in Clarendon Hills, I walked ten minutes down the street and across the peat bog, which had recently been turned into a park. On the other side of this ex-bog was Chicago Avenue. There sat the Hinsdale Golf Club.
Hinsdale is the next town east of Clarendon Hills on the Burlington train line, but the country club was—and still is—in Clarendon Hills. No club member actually lived in Clarendon Hills. That was against the rules. Members had to reside in Hinsdale, home of the rich uncle, the corporate titan, the live-in housekeeper, the afternoon martini, the sprawling, manicured lawn. Coach houses. Brick streets. Columns. A few old money families still employed butlers. Although it had a large section of ordinary middle-class neighborhoods, the town’s reputation was predicated on wealth.
Soon after I began my caddy stint, I started attending Hinsdale junior high. On many Saturday afternoons my father would drive me in the Rambler wagon over to the proverbial other side of the tracks to a newfound friend’s house. I recall one occasion when, in the midst of our pickup football game on the lush front lawn, a live-in housekeeper called to my new friend, “Hubbard. It’s time for your lunch.” Hubbard went into the house with his shoulder pads still on, to dine on pork chops prepared by the cook, to dab the corners of his mouth with linen napkins. Although this rather elaborate lunch struck me as far different than the baloney sandwich I might have had at my house, it mattered little to me at the time—wealth made scant impression on me as a kid. Most of my new friends from Hinsdale took their lives for granted, as did I.
My town of Clarendon Hills was modestly middle class. Most homes had one bathroom and three or four kids who shared bedrooms. It would be several decades before Clarendon Hills transformed into Hinsdale Lite, though the new muscular, trophy homes—too big for their lots—would never be the rambling mansions of an earlier era’s wealth.
For those who lived along the brick streets of Hinsdale, membership at the Hinsdale Golf Club was a must. “The Club,” as it was referred to, was a gathering place for those who had arrived. It was where like-minded, well-bred folks with similar aspirations gathered; folks eager to showcase their faith in the status quo while being catered to and smiled at. Club members shared a belief that they were blessed, that there was a divine element involved in their good fortune. Sure, hard work got them to this exalted position—maybe not their hard work, but someone’s. “We are so blessed to have all this” was a frequent mantra. These were God’s creatures, steeped in an aura of entitlement and a knack for conversations about golf swing mechanics, the renovation of the fourteenth tee, membership rules, recent purchases and investments, second homes, booze-fueled gossip, and how swell things are if we can just keep them this way.
To caddy at the Hinsdale Golf Club, you had to be at least 13. I was still only 12 but tall for my age, so I passed. Caddies were divided into three descending classes—A, B, and C—subject to the judgement of the caddy master. For the record, most of the C caddies were pipsqueaks. Numbers were then assigned to us, ranging from one to ninety-nine and the lower the number, the more qualified the caddy. At least that was the theory. In spite of my age but because of my height, I was assigned number A-13. Class A! Being tall is a natural confidence-builder.
What stands out about the job was not the actual caddying, or the members, but the caddy master, Doc, and his cohorts Moose and Harry. These characters were of a type I had never been around, and very different from the dads I knew. They were certainly not Little League coaches.
Doc was about 40 years old and clearly not from Hinsdale. He dressed like a golfer, wore thick glasses, and his beard was a permanent five o’clock shadow. He reminded me of Sergeant Bilko from the 1950s TV show; a bit of a hustler and a schemer, and definitely a gambler. Club members had a winking appreciation for this rogue in their midst. It was Doc who decided which little creep was going to carry which golf bag for 18 holes at the going rate of $3.00, a sum enough to keep me thick in baseball cards and milkshakes from Parker’s drugstore, where I had begun to ogle Darlene, the 15-year-old, tight-sweatered soda jerk.
Moose was Doc’s enforcer. He had a world-class menacing stare and didn’t hesitate to frighten a suburban caddy. Looking back, I’m not sure he had any other function than terrorizing us. His black hair was well-greased, his gut pushed out above the waistline of sans-a-belt slacks. He wore shiny shirts of a pattern and color unknown to the dads on my block. He was from an entirely different world. He was Moose.
Harry was downright scary. Gaunt. Way tall. Pock-marked complexion. Doubtful that he’d ever seen a dentist. The demeanor of Frankenstein. He was a professional caddy and a golf hustler who spoke double negatives through broken teeth. In downtown Clarendon Hills I had glimpsed him getting off the train in his cracked, wing tip golf shoes then followed him at a safe distance as he strode up Blodgett—right past my house—to his job at the Club. Was he one of those guys who lived on skid row?
When things were slow, Doc, Moose, and Harry played cards and swore and accused each other of cheating or bluffing. This was my first exposure to real cursing. It wasn’t practiced in my neighborhood. At least not in front of the kids. When word came that a member was ready to golf, Doc leaned out of his office and peered through his thick glasses at the pathetic collection of caddy boys, all of us cooling our heels on the bench that lined the walls of the shack. He seemed to delight in this moment. He knew which members were ball-busters, and which ones had low handicaps and needed a competent caddy. Which scrawny kid would he pair with a captain of industry or the well-coiffed wife of the bank president? “Here, Bain,” he’d say, handing me a card with a member name and number on it. “Go pick up the clubs for Mrs. Templeton. They’re on the first tee.” I was always gripped with a moment of giddy anxiety on the way to the pro shop to pick up the clubs, knowing that I was about to undergo a three-hour golf etiquette examination.
The club had a no-tipping policy, with signs posted in the pro shop to reinforce the idea. Seemed a bit cheap even to my young mind. On occasion, though, a member would hand me twenty-five cents at the turn, golfspeak for passing nine holes, which I’d spend on a Baby Ruth and a Coke in the caddy shack. A quarter was a small amount to truly be considered a tip, but it still created a minor conspiracy between the member and me. The offer and acceptance made us both complicit. We were bending the rules together.
I recall a general air of indifference when it came to the members’ relationships with caddies. Some tolerated my existence, a few noticed that I was alive and breathing. Some ignored me altogether, an invisible arm handing them a club. Occasionally one would ask where I lived or where I went to school or if I played golf, pleased to be displaying a concern for the welfare of the help. Some wore plaid pants. Some had wives who drank too much. Some had red cheeks. Many owned the firm. All believed that golf is what civilized people did.
I had played golf a few times with my uncle, who was a real ace, and on public courses with kids in my neighborhood. Through playing, you pick up a sense of the rules. My only other training was the occasional tidbit from Doc or Moose about how to hold the flag or to be sure that my shadow didn’t cross paths with the line of the putt. Always keep your eye on the ball. Speak when spoken to. Never laugh at a duffed shot. Don’t make your player wait for you. And keep the clubs from clanking too much as you walk down the fairway.
Caddying provided a good opportunity to sing under your breath whenever your golfer was at least twenty yards away. If the member was good enough and he hit the ball far enough, I’d get to sing a whole song between the drive and his next shot. Most songs were two minutes or less. How long did it take to explain that Betty Lou Needed a New Pair of Shoes or that it was Finger Poppin’ Time? I didn’t yet know about Muddy and Wolf and Little Walter.
I eventually doubled my pay by doing doubles—carrying two bags at once. This also doubled the work, especially when one of your golfers had a slice and the other a hook. Golfers can get aggravated waiting for their pitiful caddy to help them find their Titleist in the rough even if the caddy has been waylaid helping his other lousy golfer 100 yards away in the bushes on the opposite side of the fairway. An aggravated golfer decreased your chances of the 25cent bonus at the turn.
One nice perk was that caddies could play free golf at the Club on Mondays when the course was closed for maintenance. We had to dodge the sprinklers and skip any greens that were being repaired but who cared? We played 18 or 27 holes, practiced our cheating, and tried out some of the cuss words. Though I wasn’t aware of it at the time, two sides of America were being exposed to my growing mind. Where else could I be hanging around Doc, Moose, and Harry one minute, then handing a club to Mr. Comiskey or Mrs. Johnson the next? Right off the bat, I’d stumbled into a job that revealed a swath of our social strata. As I matriculated through Hinsdale junior high and high school, I became friends with many club members’ kids, but I never thought to myself, “One day, I’ll become a member.” Not because I felt that I couldn’t, but I found Doc more intriguing than any of the members. Chalk one up for the salt of the earth. There had to be more options than either hitting the balls or carrying the clubs.
I had the Hinsdale Golf Club in mind when I wrote and recorded this decades after my stint as a caddy:
Live long enough and you will experience something new. America’s election of a black president was certainly in that category, but that was something I voted in favor of. The coronavirus was something new over which I had no control: an unseen enemy that lurks everywhere, that shapes the daily life of the world. Look out the window and all appears “normal.” But a collective uncertainty permeates the atmosphere.
A nagging feeling that life is passing me by set in, that simple things like shaking hands, hugging, inviting friends into your home, going to restaurants and music clubs, was now becoming a part of the past—with no clear understanding of when these social constructs would resume.
I was in Key Largo as the pandemic began its grip on our daily life. As I played my guitar each night after dinner ( often fresh yellow tail snapper), I had a clear view of the sunset. It looked and felt the same as it had the month before and the year before and the years before that. But the feeling was different. Because I knew. We all knew. Was it still possible to be funny? To laugh? Would laughter be best practiced alone, where droplets wouldn’t reach a fellow human?
I wrote many verses, tried several different chord progressions and melodies, before ultimately finishing the song in early summer after I had returned to my home in Arlington Heights. I recorded a version into my phone which I sent to son, Anthony, who suggested some edits to streamline the lyrics.
In August, I drove to Geoff DeMuth’s Little Pink home studio and recorded acoustic guitar and vocals. (Usually I take Metra but wasn’t keen on taking public trans.) Good thing that Geoff has a vocal booth that allowed for safe distancing. We wore masks the rest of the time and never got closer than six feet. In the ensuing couple of months, Geoff recorded Jim Seidel on upright bass, Victor Camacho on percussion and finally, his own pedal steel part. It’s a nifty little four-piece band. There is a tropical feel to the tune because the tropics is where it gestated.
Something that should have brought us together has torn us apart. Be kind, everybody. Enjoy the song!
Songwriters write about anything you can see, feel, taste, or think. Thousands of songs are about love, but two of mine are about the love of beans. I composed a brace of bean songs mid-decade during the 1970s and thought I had discovered a new genre of songwriting. Maybe I did.
Both of my bean songs feature the
pinto bean. The songs are quite different in musical style, yet each professes
bean love. Pinto Bean Blues is played in the style of Blind Lemon
Jefferson. The other song, Frijoles, is a Slavic march sung in Spanish.
I had been introduced to the wonders of pinto beans by an amiable fellow I hung out with in San Francisco in 1971, John Lopez, who was from East LA. John taught me to barely cover the dried beans with water, add salt, pepper and cumin, bring to a simmer and keep adding water as needed until the skin furls off when you blow on one. Usually takes a couple of hours depending upon altitude and kitchen vibe. John frequently made a pot of pintos, then refried them—mashed them in hot oil in a skillet. Spread this delightful result on tortillas with some chopped onion, shredded cheese, avocado and salsa and you’re set.
The inspiration for Frijoles! came in 1974 while Linda and I were staying at the Hotel La Riviera in Playa Rodedero near Santa Marta, Colombia. An eight-year-old girl from Bogota, Olgita, was vacationing at La Riviera with her dad and uncle at the same time. The hotel was situated a block from the beach next to a rubble pile with a trash heap across the street. It was lovely.
I conjured Frijoles! as entertainment for Olgita. After playing it one time, she and her drunken uncle made constant requests for encores. They were wild about the song. The uncle, a medical doctor from Bogota, would sit there plastered on afternoon rum and request a performance: “Rogélio. Toca Frijoles!” I am certain that Olgita, now a grown woman, would still remember Frijoles!
Growing up in the Chicago suburb of Clarendon hills, the beans we ate were green, often from a can. Nice that we have expandable palates. Long live legumes!
“We will never run
out of food,” stated a brochure for Naismith Hall, a newly opened, private
dormitory named after basketball’s inventor, James Naismith. I was a big
basketball fan—one of the reasons I attended KU—and in the fall semester of my
freshman year, Naismith Hall seemed like a good place to work. This would be my
first job in the food service industry. I had no qualifications other than the
fact that I was a student with a pulse who had properly filled out an
The promise of delicious,
plentiful meals was a motivating factor for choosing to work this gig but once
hired, I was given a choice of compensation: either $1.00 per hour or free
meals. Though $1.00 an hour was below the federal minimum wage standard, the
state of Kansas didn’t bother with such trivialities. I chose the money option.
What 18-year-old didn’t want an extra $10 or $15 bucks in their pocket in 1966?
It rankled me,
though, when I witnessed trays of perfectly good chicken fried steak, that
moments before had been served to the darlings, now must be thrown out. These
were the rules. But rules are for fools. When nobody was looking, I planned on
One of my duties
was trash detail. I was instructed to throw out everything that had gone
un-eaten except pie and cake, which had a two-day shelf life: A costly lunch
item one minute, became garbage the next minute. My system was simple: I lined
the inside of an empty five gallon can of vegetables or fruit with paper
napkins, nonchalantly filled the can with uneaten cheeseburgers—the most
popular lunch item—carefully placed the can in the trash barrel, wheeled the
trash out to the garbage dock, pulled out the can of cheeseburgers, then took
one bite of 25 different burgers. Seemed less wasteful then eating two entire
burgers and throwing away 23 whole ones. I also ravaged the day-old cakes and
When the staff
bakers made banana bread for the dorm, I requested they save the peels for me.
Time magazine (I think) had published an article about various methods that “today’s
youth” were experimenting with to catch a buzz. The inside of the banana peel
was purported to have a psychedelic component. The baker ladies thought I was
crazy, which I was just beginning to realize—I was. I scraped the insides of a
dozen peels, put the scrapings on a tray, baked them for a few minutes, emptied
the tobacco from a filter cigarette, filled it with the baked inner peel stuff,
went out on the back dock and proceeded to give myself a sore throat. Much more
pleasure could be derived from actually eating the banana. The same magazine
article also suggested cigarettes soaked in vanilla extract and some concoction
of rotted green pepper were buzzworthy. They weren’t. Obviously, I had no weed
The food service
manager at Naismith was a short guy with a crew cut named Preston. This guy was
an archetype of a square. There was not a molecule of hipness in his DNA. I’m
sure he went through life without listening to Miles Davis, visiting Amsterdam
or ingesting DMMDA. He had a white face and rosy cheeks and always wore a gray
suit. Or maybe every suit turned gray when he put it on. I had just turned 18;
he was about 28. He thought I was some cool guy because instead of saying “cool,”
I would say “boss,” a term I had picked up listening to WVON (the Voice of the
Negro) in Chicago. Then he found out my nickname, recently given to me at my
fraternity, was Bossman. He called me Bossman and thought he was cool by doing
During one back
dock feast, after I had shoved an unbelievable amount of food into my always
hungry mouth, Preston burst through the back-dock door. I jumped off the dock
with my back to the boss. “Hey, Bossman,” he said. “Do we need to do something
about all the sweat bees out here?” My mouth was too full for a reply, so I
began to furiously swat at imaginary sweat bees while flailing around the
dumpster, where I bent down low and spit out the contraband. “Yes, the bees are
bad today,” I answered with a straight face, licking a smear of chocolate from
the corner of my mouth.
Being a wise ass, I decided to coin a new adjective just for Preston—book. Man, that’s book. I wanted to hear him exclaim that something was “book.” When one day he informed me that he was feeling book, I felt that I had learned something about human behavior but wasn’t sure what.
The Barking Geckos hatched in 1975 during lazy Kansas afternoons spent catching a buzz, listening to Bob Marley, banging pots, pans, and tambourines and singing along with the Wailers albums. We began as a ragtag aggregation of non-professional music lovers with varying degrees of musical acumen, joined together by a lack of inhibition and the absence of demanding employment. We never advanced much beyond that stage, but we became legendary. Almost mythical. At least in our own minds.
Our raggedy improvisations were punctuated with frequent, spontaneous outbursts of joyous barking and yipping. My mission was to remind all that conformity is not a pillar of freedom. Absurdity is truth. The songs I was writing careened from the preposterous to the unconventional with an occasional dose of blues or rock. The Geckos were a perfect vehicle for the nonsensical.
We were the opening band on the opening night of Off the Wall Hall. It was not a paying gig because there were too many of us to pay. Our motivation was based in joy. It wasn’t monetary.
The lineup was Brian and I on guitars, an ever-changing cast on bass, drums, mandolin, harmonica plus a vast array of rhythm shakers that often ended up in the audience. As many as five Geckettes provided percussion and background vocals, though being on key was never a primary goal. Linda was a Geckette and would be the first to admit that she has trouble singing on key. We weren’t an on-key band. Geckettes roamed the stage yipping profusely between songs which in turn caused the audience to bark. Spontaneous barking was our signature sound. At times, I had to politely ask the Geckettes to quit barking and yipping.
The Gecko look was influenced by thrift stores, the Marx Brothers, Sgt. Pepper’s, the Beggar’s Banquet photo shoot, and a host of mind-altering substances. It was anything goes. When Jaw Harp Joe spent a dollar on a box of fifty aprons at a yard sale, he donated them to the cause. I wrote a song now lost for the ages, “Cheap Apron Fashion Show.” Each Geckette improvised a way to showcase her apron at our next gig, either as an anti-fashion statement or as a giveaway item for the audience, a gaggle of tripping hedonists assembled to witness a myth in the making.
For one gig, the Geckettes dressed as nuns in homemade pastel hued habits. At another, they stood behind ironing boards, playing kazoo and washboard. At another, a bagpipe player led them around the block as the rest of the band joined the goofy procession, gathering curious potential fans as we advanced through sleepy downtown Lawrence. I often wore pajamas and a pencil thin fake mustache above my lip. Our drummer wore a gas mask, just in case. Brian sported pantaloons tucked into high boots as he meandered about the stage tuning his axe before, during, and after each song. Jaw Harp Joe wore reflecto mirror shades and a towel wrapped high on his head. Others wore fake noses, leopard skin prints, and garish un-matching outfits picked from Salvation Army bins. The audience yipped and yapped and held up signs. Mimes circulated. I gave away fake puke and other novelty gag gifts from the stage. The whole thing was wonderfully life affirming
Our most noteworthy gig was at the
National Surrealist Party Convention, a brainchild of Firesign Theater founding
member, David Ossman and his wife, Tiny. Firesign Theater was an absurdist
group that began in the 60s and had recorded a few well-known comedy albums.
The Surrealist candidate for President was George Papoon, a guy with a brown
paper bag over his head. His campaign slogan was “Not Insane”.
The national presidential candidates in 1976 were eventual winner, Jimmy Carter, and Gerald Ford, whose running mate was Kansan, Bob Dole, who we referred to as Bob Dull. The Surrealist Party Convention was an antidote to Dullsville. We were in opposite-land, at the far reaches of time and space. I have no idea how the convention came to Lawrence but when Ossman saw the Geckos he knew we were of the same cloth. And it wasn’t polyester.
The Geckos re-formed in 1980, a bit more rehearsed and elaborate. We had two shows, both at the Lawrence Opera House. The first performance, in 1980, was staged for Randy Mason’s “Bringing It All Back Home” blockbuster cable show on Sunflower Cablevision. All of the band members were different than the first Gecko iteration except for myself and Kurt Sigmon (RIP). We were on to something and should have continued but life got in the way. Tell your kids about the Barking Geckos!
The first time I took Linda on a west coast road trip, we left Carbondale with $300 and stretched it nearly three months, thanks to the kindness of friends, acquaintances, cheap gas, free rides, hitchhiking and a diet of canned tuna, avocados, cream cheese, peanut butter and jelly, pinto beans, hard rolls, and eggs. A reader might think that surely this is an exaggeration: only $300 for an entire summer road trip of thousands of miles? This was 1972. We had no car, no rent, no insurance, bought no clothes and never went to restaurants except for a truck stop apple pie or fried rice at the Moon Café in San Francisco, which cost a dollar.
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?
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.
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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.
We’ve all heard this description applied to somebody who is well off, often uttered by somebody who wishes that they were as well off. It is the ultimate praise in our capitalist society. God is rich but this person is richer. The richer you are, the more god-like. God is money. God could replace Bennie Franklin on the $100 bill, if only we could figure out how to illustrate God’s likeness. A stack of Benjamins would become a stack of Gods. Cocaine sniffed through a rolled up hundred would, in a way, have God’s blessing. Or, at least, HIS assistance.
Does God have mortgage payments, pay for Impossible Whoppers, owe membership dues at Augusta, possess a garage full of vintage Aston Martins? Does God owe back taxes? Child support? No. God has none of these markers of wealth. A need to be transported in a helicopter? Overdue health insurance premiums? No-no-nah-no-noh! God has a credit card with no limits.
On reflection, don’t we all have more money than God? Forget it. That was a stupid notion. God is so well off that he doesn’t even need money? God is a penniless, omniscient presence who owes nothing, oversees everything, who is worshipped by billions. The poor one in the family was God’s son. He was notoriously poor. But he developed a lot of followers. He went viral. Since his passing, trillions have been raised in his name. It is a thriving business because there are a lot of customers with an insatiable demand for the product.
You know who has more money than God? Who is rolling in dough? The devil. Here is a mischievous dude adept at the financial arts, able to live high on the hog by whatever means necessary. The colloquial saying should be: “He has more money than the devil.” That is a more accurate statement. If you really have a lot of money, the devil is your guy. Like God, the devil needs your dough.
Remember. God never picks up the tab, but the devil might
buy you a few drinks. Maybe even a nice dinner and a show. Would you rather be
in Vegas with God or the devil? Would God frown on your gambling or would he
turn a blind eye, which of course is impossible because God sees everything at
The next time someone say, “She has more money than God,”
keep this in mind.