I haven’t posted here in quite some time. It’s not that I haven’t had anything to say. Most of my thinking, though, has been focused on what a dark and insane time it is we live in. Every time I’ve gone to write my thoughts, I’ve pulled back. I haven’t wanted to wallow in negativity. I’m sure there will be more of it in the future—analysis of what’s going on in this nasty old world of egotism, racism, and greed—but I can’t bear to do it at the moment. I had a nice memory float up today, so I’m going to write about that instead.
Back in the late 70s and early 80s I was a regular at a cafe here in San Francisco called The Tattoo Rose. The cafe was a very nice scene. There were poetry readings, open-mike nights for singers and songwriters, and the food was cheap, so it was a good hangout for people with unusual and interesting ideas. Several years before, I’d abandoned my old dream (a fantasy really) of becoming a musician. I still liked to play, though. I’d never taken the time when I was ambitious to learn music theory properly, so I took advantage of the atmosphere within the cafe to teach myself the nuances of chord construction and scales. The best instrument on which to study theory is the piano, and happily the cafe had one—a piano that was kept in tune and all of whose keys worked! I was a guitar player, but I knew which note was which on the piano, so I was able to work on my favorite aspect of music: chords, harmonies. But all I could do was play block chords. To avoid disturbing customers with my primitive skills, I only worked on it when business was slow.
One of my favorite musicians was Ray Charles. I loved the way he altered the chords to other people’s songs—songs like “Georgia On My Mind,” “Come Rain or Shine,” and “You Don’t Know Me.” He always came up with appealing, jazzy voicings that I could never figure out. All I knew was folk music and rock and roll. None of the Ray Charles songbooks I saw ever used his actual arrangements. They usually published the songwriter’s original version. One rainy afternoon, I was in a music store and found a Ray Charles songbook with the chords that Charles had used. Excited, I bought that book and hurried back to the cafe. When I got there, I found that the place was packed. I couldn’t stand to wait. I had to play those chords now. I took a chance and went to the piano, and when the cafe manager made no effort to stop me, I opened the book and started running through the chords—simple block chords, played very, very softly. People kept talking—it didn’t seem to disturb them—so I kept going. It was such an incredible pleasure to sound out those chords! I felt ecstatic. Nevertheless, I kept the volume low, barely audible. A lot of the chords were unfamiliar to me—flatted fifths, sharped ninths, and so on—and to keep the flow reasonably smooth, I had to slow everything down. I didn’t want to press my luck, so after about twenty minutes I shut the book and stood up to leave. The moment I did, the entire cafe broke into applause. It wasn’t merely polite applause; it was the kind of applause you get when you do a show and the audience has actually enjoyed your performance. As quiet as I’d been, they’d heard my joy—and all those beautiful chords.