Isaac ("Ike") Curtiss has been playing on the streets and beaches of San Diego on and off for years. I have never done that, but I joined Curtiss, a long-haired, late-40ish guitarist with an Eric Clapton (circa early '70s) mustache last Friday night in the Gaslamp. Curtiss slings a gracefully aging Guild 12-string, and I was packing an Asian Stagg acoustic with a pick-up. Curtiss's guitar was wired as well, and we both played through small and identical battery-powered amplifiers while standing next to a cigar-store Indian on Fifth Avenue between Market and G Streets. The spot was chosen for an indentation in the building that frames the entrance to a youth hostel, the name of which will return to me when the brain damage clears up. With a few, very few, loose hours of rehearsal, we sounded truly boss, no thanks to me.
Curtiss is a mild-mannered introvert who plays tastefully and sings with a vulnerable voice that is too soft to compete with the Harley-Davidsons on Fifth but is as true as the azure skies of summer. My voice, on the other hand, when I leave my limited range, sounds to me like Johnny Cash on helium or a groin-kicked Burl Ives. Curtiss is also one of those rare things -- a born rhythm guitarist in the tradition of John Lennon, Emmylou Harris, and (I'm gonna say it) Elvis Presley. Curtiss remembers thousands of lyrics, too, while all the lyrics I've memorized -- even the ones to my own songs -- have gone the way of the name of that youth hostel.
Beautiful people flowed past; a few lingered for a song or two, and some placed dollar bills in Curtiss's guitar case. The women seemed uniformly beautiful (though they all seemed to be the same woman to my fashion-lapsed eye). But as for the men (who also seemed like the same guy after a while) I clocked so many buzz cuts and shaved heads that I wanted to counsel the parade of naked craniums individually (in a considerate sotto voce, of course) that crew cuts were a huge mistake in the 1950s and they still are, and that Yul Brynner and Telly Savalas were tonsorially misguided. They would have had no idea who I was talking about anyway.
Mostly I played fills and lines over Curtiss's chords and in between his vocals, just staying in the key; but once in every few bars I would play accent chords if the song happened to be familiar, something I had played in bands years ago, for example, and surfaced inexplicably, no doubt replacing the memory of my inseam and my California I.D. number. Pink Floyd, Eagles, and Buddy Holly were requested. We pulled off all three ad hoc, and another dollar bill rained into the hard-shell case. I did an imitation of Lennon on harmony to the chorus of "You've Got to Hide Your Love Away" and the chorus to the Standells' "Dirty Water." After an extended 12-bar blues instrumental (over which I worked a bottle-necked slide and fingered refried Lightnin' Hopkins riffs) we did a Green Day thing I had never heard, but it contained a logical series of chords; Arlo Guthrie's "City of New Orleans," "Route 66," "Hey Joe," "All Along the Watchtower," and some country tunes I was unfamiliar with, though it didn't matter.
Curtiss would pause for a cigarette (I had just started up again, too), and he would gaze appreciatively at the flow of feminine beauty. Lucky for me, the antidepressants have a firm hold on my libido, and I am no longer subject to that particular and exquisite frustration.
After an hour more or less, we were forced to take a break by a flabby but clean -- even dapper -- Harley owner who made a great show of warming up his hog. He revved the engine, adjusted his patent leather seaming, stunted Nazi helmet, and in general preened himself from his $149.95 wrinkle-free black leather vest to his highly polished, new engineer boots. He finished up by polishing his glasses before mounting his $25,000 1200cc Shovelhead and returning to the condo, dateless again. This all took like 20 minutes.
Ike Curtiss finished his ninth cigarette during this time, then struck the chords to "Hotel California." Having no clue as to what Joe Walsh did with this, I stayed safely in B-minor, working my blistered fingers through every line I could think of from the diddla-diddla school of rock guitar. Yet another dollar flooded the guitar case.
We played until close to midnight when I pleaded out, sticking my fingertips into the ice from a drained Diet Coke. "Thank you, San Francisco!" I called out to the now less-than-steady-on-their-feet pedestrians: a tip of the hat to local lounge metal god, José Sinatra.
Curtiss, who works telephone sales for some marketing firm and makes God knows how much or how little, insisted I take all $6.00 and would hear no more about it. It is the same generosity and from the same place beneath his left breast that his music and voice come from. We talked about playing Mission Beach at the base of the roller coaster, and it looks like that's in the cards. He's a pleasure to play with because he listens and is completely devoid of Eddie Van Halenitis. He's a pleasure to listen to as well. On his own, he sounds like the auditory equivalent of spring rain on fresh-mown grass.
If we do the roller coaster thing, we'll be there all week. Thank you...thank you very much.