Thursday, May 06, 2010

My Gateway Drug

Riding down the road today, my mind started wandering about how I got here (with a GPS! Hahahahaa...sorry I couldn’t resist!). I love my job. I love making music and performing, I love recording and working with other musicians to create something bigger than ourselves. I have grown up being a musician. From my earliest memories, music was always around and I look at those times as an indoctrination of sorts that enabled me to become who I am. Music has always been there. I started playing music seriously (I think that‘s an oxymoron) late in respect to years, but I think I was studying lessons that would serve me in that regard all along. Church, my parents record collection, television, radio and later MTV, all of these factors contributed to my education. I can still sing the words to Gilligan’s Island, Love Boat, The Brady Bunch and Green Acres (back when TV theme songs had lyrics and cool melodies!). Little did I know that I was practicing remembering lyrics!
So what was my ‘tipping point’? My ‘gateway drug’, so to speak. James Marshall Hendrix. I distinctly remember the first time I came across his name; it was at school. We had these wooden desks that prior classes had carved into. Pot leaves, call letters for the local rock radio station (WKDF in Nashville, now a country station, my how things change!), girls’ names, boys’ names, band names (Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, Deep Purple, etc.) and on one desk that I sat at, I can remember seeing the name Jimi Hendrix. That’s it, just the name. No explanation or even a clue as to who he was or what he did. I remember asking a classmate who Jimi Hendrix was and they said, “I’m not sure, I think he’s a guitar player or something.”
My local record store was called Sound Shop. It was in the local Mall. I came up during the cassette era and they had a good sized selection of rock and country. I bought my copy of Rebel Yell by Billy Idol, my copy of Heartbeat City by The Cars, the Footloose soundtrack, I could never manage to buy the .38 Special tape Wild Eyed Southern Boys, because it was never ever on sale... NEVER! I grew up with 5 really close friends. At some point, for some reason that I’m sure made sense in my youth, my friends and I decided to get really heavy into “60’s” music. I doubt if we even really knew exactly what that was or why we should even care, but we decided that The Doors would be a good place to start. Probably thanks to the fact that we were watching Apocalypse Now about twice a week, (I had that soundtrack on VINYL thank you very much). The Doors were cool and spooky and no one else at school was listening to them, so we liked them even more! I remember going in the store alone one day and seeing a white cassette that said ‘Jimi Hendrix: Soundtrack to the Motion Picture’. It looked interesting, guy in a cowboy hat sitting on a stool on an otherwise white cover. I wish I could remember what I paid for it, $7.99 probably, but I do remember the thin, plastic yellow bag that said Sound Shop in bold black letters on the outside. I remember walking out of the Mall past the video arcade (Pirates Cove!) and getting in my truck, tearing the plastic off my new purchase and cranking the old Pioneer (with an additional booster with graphic equalizer in the glove box!). I remember all these details because they would forever be marked in my life as the before part, as in ‘before and after’.I had never heard any of these songs before and I had never heard any songs like them. The songs were interspersed with interview clips from Little Richard, Jimi’s dad and some others I can’t remember. The acoustic version of Hear My Train A’Comin” with Jimi asking “did you think I’d do that?” at the end, The Star Spangled Banner, Johnny B. Goode was ferociously cool but the song that really stands out in my memory was Purple Haze. It was my first time hearing that song and it sounded huge! Metallic. I have since become a devoted student of Jimi’s music and I have probably heard every version of Purple Haze, from live versions to every studio take of the song, but it never hits you like the first time. I currently have 135 different versions on my iTunes alone!
I think it’s interesting how past memories seem to condense. I’m trying to remember how things happened sequentially after that, but it really seems like a blur. I do know that I immediately fell in love with Jimi Hendrix’ music and had to find and hear all of it that I could. My next purchase was Kiss The Sky a compilation tape that Warner Brothers put out in the 80’s (probably in response to my interest!). That’s the first time I heard Are You Experienced?. Again, I was hooked. It’s hard to relate to now, but I had no real resource for my interest in Jimi. There was no internet, no YouTube, none of my friends knew who the hell he was, much less the best way to approach learning his music and his story. I’ve always been that way, if I find an artist or an actor or a writer that I like, I tend to devour their work and learn as much as I possibly can about them. In the case of Jimi, I had no idea what albums came first, where he was now, or anything. This is the time before DVD and music videos were in their infancy. I had probably heard all three studio albums (Are You Experienced?, Axis: Bold As Love and Electric Ladyland) before I had even seen any video footage of Jimi. I found a book about Jimi by Jerry Hopkins in the school library (the only thing I think I ever stole) and then I could get the discography together, understand when he died and how, and try to gain some initial idea of why he was significant. I was blessed with parents who gave me confidence and self value so that I was able to appreciate the music that I liked because I liked it instead of being told ‘this is good, you should like this.’. I liked Elvis long before I found out he was the King of Rock and Roll and still liked him when it was no longer cool to like him. I loved Jimi Hendrix. He could have just as easily been some kind of cult figure in music and I would have still devoured his every note.
Around the time that I acquired the soundtrack and heard Purple Haze for the first time, a voice I had never really heard in my head told me that the time had come for me to learn how to play the guitar. It wasn’t the voice that told me that it might be time for some fish sticks and ketchup after school, or the voice that told me algebra was a waste of time, it was a new, confident, clear voice that left no doubt that I would do what it said. Get a guitar, learn how to play it like Jimi Hendrix, simple! I asked for an electric guitar for Christmas and my parents, God bless them, got it for me. I doubt if they ever dreamed that that act would lead to the tattoos, ear rings, loaded passports and closets full of guitars and amps that followed, but they knew that their child wanted something and they figured out how to pay for it. That didn’t always happen, we didn’t have a lot of money growing up, but my parents broke their backs to give me and my brother everything they could. Along with the guitar, I got a Mel Bay Chord book. A big Mel Bay chord book with thousands of chords that I had no idea how to play. I didn’t know how to tune my guitar or even where to start. It was a catastrophe! My dad loved to tell this story, especially the part where he said “either you’re going to take lessons or I’m throwing that thing out in the yard!” he said it with a smile and with love (like he said everything to me) but he meant it! The short version of this part is that I found the best teacher in the world, Doug Thurman, and he had me bring in a song I wanted to learn and he showed me how to learn it from the cassette. That song was Voodoo Chile (Slight Return), (from my Kiss The Sky tape!!) and I was off! That was a long time ago, I went on to work with and become friends with one of Jimi’s biggest influences Buddy Guy, I recorded with his final rhythm section Mitch Mitchell and Billy Cox, I became friends with Band Of Gypsys drummer Buddy Miles, met Jimi’s dad before he passed. I can’t believe the path my life has taken, but i still put on my Jimi Hendrix records (or Cds or MP3 files) and search them for some new hidden treasures. I am never disappointed, Jimi never lets me down!
We just passed the exit for Clear Lake IA and the Surf Ballroom where another Strat player played his last gig, now about Buddy Holly...