Shades of Blue
|Me at 19
My twenty-year-old granddaughter asked what music I listened to when I was her age with a look in her eye that suggested it was one hundred years ago. In that instant I hoped I didn’t have that look on my face when I asked my grandma what it was like to be a Suffragette. But, I fear it was the same wide-eyed, I just uncovered King Tut’s Tomb, kind of look. Sorry Gram.
But then I got to thinking; what did I listen to? And why does it matter now?
At age 18 my Dad took me to my first blues concert – it changed my ear for music, perceptions of life in general, and I believe deepened my story telling capabilities in a way nothing else ever could or would.
He took me to Portland’s (now defunct) D Street Coral which was a big old barn with a stage, a rowdy bar, tables, dirt ground and a wooden dance floor – and sometimes we went to local piano bars where, because I was his daughter, neighborhood women didn’t bother him, and women who didn’t know he was married to my mother (another very long story) thought he was with some pretty young thing and so stayed away so he could drink his Black Velvet, get lost in the music and be left alone.
Dad was that handsome ‘Cool Cat’ kinda man with his black leather coat, Italian boots, and wavy black hair with sideburns, who all my girlfriends had crushes on and a man who to this day remains a mystery to me. But, back then I was that Cool Cat’s mascot of sorts. It was with him, at a BB King concert that I first saw a young woman he said was worth following, Bonnie Raitt. He was right about that. Dad had good taste in music. So, while mom (a professional singer) sang for the Portland Shriners, and at local venues that were gateways to her innocent 1950’s, and while she dreamed of dancers like Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire – sugarplums in her head – Dad gravitated to the darker side of town, culpable people and music stained by life.
And so, at 18 sitting in a dark, smoke filled, dirt floored blues club, I wore my black leather Mary-Janes one of my favorite vintage (1940’s) dresses and lit my first real cigarette, not one of my grandma’s half smoked Salems that my cousin Deb and I snuck from ashtrays and smoked in the back of the house via clandestine efforts rivaling Hogan’s Heroes, no, this was a proper cigarette, a Camel, with a filter, lit by a lighter, and inhaled right in front of everybody with no fear of retaliation. I couldn’t have felt any cooler. Then, I nearly choked to death.
Without looking, dad passed me a glass of water as if he’d been holding it ready for the inevitable – on stage Maria Muldaur sang Midnight at the Oasis. Then, finally able to breathe again, I took a drink of beer, out of the brown glass bottle which was the only way they served it, and sitting there, blues throbbing through my body, that dirt-floored roadhouse on musical fire, I knew I’d discovered something that would never leave me; midnight at my own oasis. It was alone time with dad, no little brothers, no complaining-kvetching mom, just us listening to music and getting lost in that glorious smokey, blues-infused darkness.
All these years later I realize that on many of those nights my father was depressed, deeply depressed, never recuperated from Korea and married to a woman he couldn’t deal with in a job he didn’t want and strapped with four kids when all he wanted to do was return to Italy, ski the alps, and cruise vast oceans painted shades of blue that at that tender age, I’d yet to see and could barely grasp. So, while I was being oh so cool, he was getting lost in the midnight dreaming of forbidden blue oceans and a time in his life that slipped by so quickly, no doubt wondering, how did I get here?
At 20, still recuperating from the sugary promises of my childhood crush on bands like The Monkeys and The Beach Boys, I was a closet fan of Johnnie Rivers (Secret Agent Man), and starting to notice girl singers like Ann and Nancy Wilson (Heart) who could rock the moon, and yet I remained ever faithful to the electric blues of BB King which became an undeniable truth that would settle deep in my bones for life. To me the blues was/is like an old friend, the first taste of good scotch, a first glass of Dom Perignon, or a warm fire on cold night – seductions on a cellular level.
But then into my life came the sharp edged truth of Bob Dylon who I was introduced to by a zealous Spanish boyfriend who played Flamingo Guitar, introduced me to dark red wine, underground Flamingo Bars, and who wanted me to run back to Spain with him, so he could ‘possess’ me.
I quickly dropped the eager Spaniard but kept the Dylan.
So, against a backdrop of Beatles-mania, funk, emerging disco, and left over doo-op, I was drawn to Heart, Jerry Rafferty, ZZ Top, The Doors, Roy Orbison, Van Morrison and most memorably ‘Pearl’ otherwise known as Janis Joplin who died the year I discovered her, and who (for me) was soon replaced by Stevie Nicks, but never forgotten. Janis Joplin, BB King and Bonnie Raitt were more like a religion to me, than music, a religion that began in those dark blues clubs and sultry piano bars my father loved.
My tastes haven’t changed, only grown more eclectic now that I have traveled to those places dad longed for and seen the many different shades of blue he once described. Now I embrace music from my travels; Irish bars where a diverse and ever ready community show up at the local pub armed with instruments ready to play their hearts out at the drop of a hat. Or Spanish Flamingo; fingers afire with all the passion of a long, slow kiss – relevant rock, even some rap, always R & B and forever the timeless grace of Leonard Cohen’s hard-earned, hard learned poetry. Leonard’s poetry reminds me of that trapped man who was my father – my father who died at age 54 with his music, those deep aching blues still inside him. (Listen to Leonard’s Hallelujah)
This is just a ‘tip of the ice-burg’ explanation for my granddaughter.
And so why does this matter? It matters because for me, and maybe you, there’s a memory behind certain songs that is a story waiting to be told, remembered, and embraced. And we are after all, story tellers, right? So what’s your song? Your memory? Write it out.
In writing this tip-of-the-ice-burg I realized that I have a much bigger story and that soon I need to write it all.
For you dad….