sometime around noon there’s a knock on the door, in answer to an ad in craigslist. i bought at last a proper case for the ’64 martin i uncovered in a junkstore in the mountains and was selling off the old gig bag: 25 samolians. as always, a very good deal.
i reach out to shake hands with a short man, stocky and strong, head shaved. he could be a wrestler, a construction worker. he’s dressed like a nobody; he could pulverize my knuckles with the power in his hands.
we check out the bag for a moment, and on a hunch i ask him, would you look at a particular guitar for just a moment? i’d like to get an opinion on this piece.
of course, he says. he’s entirely gracious; time slows down when he speaks in perfectly modulated full sentences. he sits on the couch with the posture of a musician. i bring out the guitar.
i open the case and he leans forward. i pull out the instrument and place it in his hands.
he does not speak, but sets the tiny guitar against his body and lets it sit there for a moment.
he begins at first so simple. just a touch, a ringing. soft, then building, light, and then a sudden hard strike across the stings. he begins to smile. he begins to play.
i sat across, two couches in a living room, and felt the room fall away. he took a chord and bent it slightly, added something that made it now exotic, perhaps eastern, blending into another so precisely, gently. his big hands moved across that slender fretboard with such ease and power, slow, then a sudden burst of melody.
i have heard many guitarists wrack the notes with speed and energy, but i have never heard such longing, such humanity expressed in music. he took the chords of one song and folded them into another, and then another, on and on like a river that bore forth images, the feel of familiar places never seen. he pumped his hand across the soundhole and produced a gently fluttering vibrato in the notes, an effect i had never heard before. and then he paused a moment and looked down.
this guitar… he said. is beautiful.
you play… i said, and stopped.
many people can play guitar, he said. but to be an accompanist, to be a session player, you almost have to sing along in order to learn to blend the two, not to overpower the voice but to work with it, inside it.
out of this barrelman now fell a voice so soft and clear, with such range and platform and, like his playing, pure and powerful, and also with so much arching sweetness, a human voice mixed with the cry of falling angels. i felt the ceiling lift and pull away.
he sang a touch of led zeppelin, i think, traced a phrase of haunting celtic minors which flowed into wistful beatles, then something else – all changed and all familiar. in truth i cannot remember. i was lost as a man trying to follow a bird in flight. he took the chords and lyrics of and i love her which somehow transposed into the trembling fevered harmonies of a kiss from a rose. then without pause he poured out beast of burden, transformed into the gentlest ballad of faith and tenderness.
all i want, he sang, so soft and clear, is for you to make love to me; words of my mother, lost in the old folks home, her mind entirely slipped away. how she would dissolve in silent sobbing whenever someone stroked the old piano in the music room.
and i was screwing up my features to look my best to match the twinkle in her eye whenever she beheld a handsome man. so richard gere has come to see me, she murmured, then squeezed my hand and smiled. richard gere, she sighed softly, with brains.
the guitarist now began his own composition, ellis island. and as the first lines struck, so simple and so high up, above the ceiling, luminescent as cosmic lightwaves taking centuries to strike the telescopes. i staggered to the kitchen racked with tears, warm and flowing, unstoppable and unashamed.
ellis island. moldering gates of freedom. this noble dream that came to life, captured in sound.
we walked back into donna’s studio and in that arching space he began to speak about the sound of music. the hills are alive, he said, his big hands forming out in air the piano chords. you know how it goes, he said. there’s the E and the F and it never resolves.
there’s a tension in the chords that runs through the composition. while they’re dancing in hills covered with wildflowers in the sunshine. the whole song carries this tension. what does it mean? he asked. this tension. what is the song saying? he paused a moment.
the nazis are coming, he said.
i have been in LA now almost all my life, a country boy who came to live among them. our electrician, it turned out, was married to zina bethune. zina bethune, i used to speak her name, stumping through the snows of ottawa. zina bethune, i love zina bethune. she was on a tv show called the nurses in 1964, the year that my guitar was made. i love zina bethune, i used to say. when i was just a boy, in black and white.
and every chance i get i share a racquetball court with tim, an actor of such astonishing grace and power i often imagine i am dancing with some winged, nubian god. and also bax, drywit rockstar with a backhand that needs a lot of work. and sara who came to dance and beloved bernard who may, at will, weave stories of the histories, the mysteries of making art. and john the muralist, and ed who constructed a man who swam in rivers of light made out of sorrow and stained glass.
you can look them up, they’re all online, and some of them are rightly famous. and in that place you will find no trace of me.
enough, more than enough to spend my years among them. to stand inside their company, proximity; to share this city, this mighty rome of our cleft and gaping empire. to live in such a place, among such music, such people, such grace; such worlds inside the sunburned heads of men, played out on the strings of my little mountain guitar.
as a boy, shivering, in love with zina bethune, how could i dream for such a grace to ever touch me, sitting right across from me, upon my dogworn couch? how could i dare to imagine such a place, a majesty, a life?