Very Special Paper, Indeed

Musical InstrumentsIt is 1988.

My father lives in a hunting cabin off the highway near Missoula, Montana. It is Spartan in its décor. There is a cot. A small fridge. A bathroom. He isn’t here much. Most of his time is spent in the Rattlesnake Wilderness, where the U.S. Forest Service maintains a cabin for the rangers.

We have returned from town. His neighbor, a young man with long, wavy black hair, is outside. The man wears a black T-shirt and black jeans. My father has described his neighbor to me as being ‘crazy’. This diagnosis stems from an obsession the man seems to have with paper. My father tells me he has spoken about the ‘special paper’ he needs for his project. He can’t get it in Missoula. He must get it shipped.

We get out of the car and my father introduces me to the ‘crazy’ man. We start talking and my dad excuses himself, leaving us alone. I mention I play music. His interest is piqued. “We should jam some time,” he says. I tell him I don’t have my guitar with me.

He smiles. “Come here. I want to show you something.” The crazy neighbor takes me inside his hunting cabin. It’s the same model as the one my father occupies but this guy had a different decorator. The walls inside his cabin are covered with musical instruments – guitars, basses, a lute. There are instrument cases leaning against the walls – cellos, violas, violins. There’s a piano and an organ, and some kind of electronic keyboard.

An Atari computer displays musical notes arranged on a staff.

My father’s crazy neighbor turns out to be a composer. He plays these instruments. ALL of them. He tells me he is composing a ‘heavy metal’ symphony.

Adjacent to the computer is a tall stand that looks something like a drafting table. Sharpened pencils and a drafting brush for clearing eraser crumbs rest on an oversize sheet of paper, printed with repeating lines of musical staffs. It is the paper a composer uses for writing out all the different parts for the instruments in an orchestra.

Very special paper, indeed.

Live, From L.A. It’s Saturday Night!

Big BandIt is 1978.

Vince Carroll, Chris Callard, Kim Long and I enter the Roxy Theater as Steve Allen’s Big Band plays. We are late because Vince was working at Vons and couldn’t get off early. He picked us up straight from work and is wearing an ensemble that – well, he doesn’t always look like this. And it’s not just the polka dotted tie/striped shirt combo. He has decorated his shirtfront with a good-sized purple ink stain from marking prices on canned goods.

The show has already started. We get the last table in the place. An usher brings us in between numbers. I knew Steve Allen as a comedian from television’s Golden Era. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I knew he had written a song or two but as the band goes through their set, I recognize every song. The man is wildly prolific and a damn fine songwriter.

During a break between songs, Allen addresses the audience.

“This is the part in the show where I’m supposed to introduce someone in the audience. Last night the stage manager handed me a card with the name Dr. Sydney Weinstein. I try to keep up with what’s going on in the world but wasn’t familiar with Dr. Weinstein’s work. And, as it turned out, someone was just having a joke on him.”

The audience laughs.

“But tonight, the name on the card is one I recognize. He is a man who has helped bring live television back and I am pleased to introduce Mr. Chevy Chase!”

The spotlight comes on and I am in it. I blink and applaud as I look around. A man at the next table stands and it is, in fact, Chevy Chase. He waves and nods. The band resumes their set.

Chris and Vince are aspiring stand-up comedians. At the end of the show, Vince makes a bee-line for Chase’s table.

“Mr. Chase!” he exclaims, grabbing the comedian’s hand and pumping it furiously. “I’d just like to thank you for making me laugh!”

Chevy Chase takes in the striped shirt and polka dot tie, and the purple Rorschach stain. He pumps Vince’s hand right back, grinning.

“And I’d like to thank YOU for making ME laugh.”

Little Boy Blues and the Busy Box

It is 1995.

It is a warm Spring evening in Louisville. Outside, the fireflies dance in the heavenly Scratchingscent of magnolia blossoms. My brother, Scott, my young nephew, Charles, and I are in the living room of a 150-year-old Greek Revival-style mansion. The room is filled with antiques, the perimeter of the ceiling marked by dental block molding. Cardinal Hill was once the manor house of a vast plantation. Now it’s ‘just’ an amazing house.

We listen to NPR, which is playing blues music. Scott and I are talking. Charles sits in a high chair with his ‘Busy Box’, an updated version that uses computer chips containing prerecorded sounds of fire engines, animals and even a generic ‘Mommy’ saying “It’s time to go home now”.

Charles happily works the buttons, making different sounds. Scott and I listen to the music. It’s real blues, black blues from the soul of the South. It’s hypnotic. I nibble a little Blanton’s. We are, after all, in Bourbon County.

Gradually I become aware something’s happening with the music. Not the music on the radio. I’m listening to an old black blues singer turning his soul inside-out, when it dawns on me that Charles isn’t randomly hitting the buttons on his ‘toy’.

‘Scratching’ is using a recording to create a rhythm by playing just part of it, over and over. Charles is ‘playing’ the sound samples, but cutting them off in such a way that he is scratching with his Busy Box. He alternates the fire engine with the police siren in perfect time with the music as the singer tells us about his hard life.

Then Charles switches it up and Mommy takes over. As the blues riff starts again, she begins to chant.

“Time- “

He hits the button again, cutting off the sample. Then he hits it again.

“Time- “

The guitar completes its phrase and Mommy comes back around.

“Time – “

And then Charles lets it go.

“Time to go home now.”

He looks up at me, grinning. This is no accident.

He knows exactly what he is doing.

He is three.