It was music -- rock and roll, really -- that brought me to California in 1969. Since then, music and I have treated each other with various degrees of love and dismissal: gaudy and debilitating good times, lies, recriminations, heartbreak, fleeting glory, and a whole lot of stories I can't use because they sound made up, purposely invented to make me look good and music's world look bad. In short, very much like a marriage. Almost 40 years later, my first wife and I can be found sitting around, rocking on the front porch. We never mention divorce or the state of polygamy we live in with Language or Prose or whatever she's calling herself this week. And we almost never allow anything to come between us on Friday nights. One way or another, music is a refuge and oftentimes from wife number two.
No longer the member of any regular band and no longer anything like a regular concertgoer, I don't even have a decent stereo system, just a shrieking bashed-up boom box. What I do have are my instruments, when they're not in pawnshops. Since my neighbor Ryan has loaned me his Yamaha Portable Grand DGX-505 keyboard, and my friend Jose Sinatra has allowed me to hold in safekeeping his late brother's Fender Bassman amplifier, there is little I cannot do, no one I cannot sound like. The keyboard has an entire set of drums (also strings, brass, accordions) programmed into the thing and with the bass amp I have Charlie Watts's or John Bonham's foot on the kick-drum. Were I to crank it up to eviction volume, it would sound as if both were in the room.
Along with this is my prize, a blond, hollow-body Epiphone of the ES-335 type, for those who know about these things. Far from the most expensive guitar I have ever owned, it is certainly the best, though it might not be for anyone else. It is the guitar John Lennon played while wearing a fur coat on a rooftop in the movie Let It Be. I play it through a Beatlesque VOX amplifier of the type I've always wanted to own. I have a used Japanese Standell Bass guitar that's lightweight and cheap, an acoustic Stagg (some surprisingly accurate Chinese thing) with a pickup, a microphone, my slides, capos, and even a function on the VOX I never knew was available, a wah-wah effect for those pesky Iron Butterfly moments.
Having silted up, at my age, with these things around me, I have become anyone I've ever wanted to be, musically. This may be a more common occurrence in these techno-lousy days than I realize; but 56 years + as many years of practice on these instruments + anyone I've ever wanted to be musically = a lot of people. And that's precisely what I've eliminated as well. People.
After years of being surrounded with bungling, incompetent egomaniacs for decades in the musical arena, I can now honestly say I am master of my musical ship. I'm thinking of calling myself Master & Commander, possibly the Johnny Beats, the former carrying that gravitas I think I've earned.
For the first two decades of my musical career, it seemed that everyone who had this kind of fantasy assemblage of good equipment was some version or other of some trust-fund hippie drug dealer with a name like Riff or Keif, smelled like patchouli, and was almost certainly doing my girlfriend. The irony here is that I came by these toys by way of my second wife, Language or Prose; not exactly like dealing drugs (although the IRS thinks so), but not unlike, in my case, something I've inherited. It's a modest collection of gear, but even with my handheld cassette recorder, the one I use for interviews, and my shrieking boom box of a playback system, I've spent more than a few Friday nights in a private rock-and-roll fantasy of being the band and eliminating the whiners, the speed freaks, and folkies...not to mention the Yokos.
I am finally blessed with very sympathetic neighbors, primarily Ryan, of course, and then Margaret downstairs, who not only does not complain but has complimented me. This combination of benevolent neighbors and good equipment is unprecedented in my life, but I'm 56. It has been an ongoing surprise to me that not only can I still play decent rock music past 40, but I am still improving. I think a lot of players in my demographic bulge are enjoying this slow surprise. Hey! There's an album title.
The downside is that although I can play, say, "Johnny B. Goode" pretty much flawlessly -- in a technical way -- the butane on the thing is a little unpredictable, if you know what I mean. Chuck Berry was imitating his piano player Johnnie Johnson, and I can do that too; but I can hear Muzak at the edges -- say, the corners of an elevator or a dentist's waiting room.
But then there is bedtime, on Friday night or any other night, an embarrassingly early hour now. And one can hear, maybe, a little sadness in the silence right after I call out hoarsely to the books, the telephone, my huge movie poster for The Man Who Would Be King, "Thank you, San Diegoooo!"