“I’ve got some guitar players coming over tomorrow afternoon. I’d love it if you could join us,” said the message from Grover. I thought, “I used to be a guitar player.” I breathed dread, but I’d disappoint myself if I didn’t go.
I left my walker in the upper hall. Held on to the rail, steadied myself with Bobk, the Ukrainian cane, gingerly made my way to the basement. Buzz was working out the chords to a Django Reinhardt tune. Jazz manouche. Swing. Joe was playing clean melody lines over the rhythm that Buzz set up. They paused while Grover introduced us. “Scott’s a guitar player -- although I don’t know if you still play much…”. “Just a bit,” I said. I had a couple of Josie picks in my pocket. “But I brought some harmonicas.” I gave the thirty second explanation of how the short circuit in my spinal cord had messed up my hands. They’d just seen what it’s done to my legs.
I sat across from Buzz. Watched, listened. Grover’d moved in four houses down when he married the widow Doreen. I’d met him a year before, at the wedding reception. We’d talked briefly about guitars and maybe getting together sometime, but it hadn’t happened. Then, a couple of weeks earlier, Doreen invited us to go see him play at Joe’s Pizza. He did some James Taylor, a Billy Joel song. Some Jim Croce. Hank Williams with a few jazzy flourishes. Other than The Weight and one or two others, they weren’t songs that I’d played, but they might’ve been. Lynn said that his setlist intersected ours. He sang in a smooth, comfortable tenor. I went to his basement expecting more like that. Songs I was familiar with. Guitar players who did the kind of stuff I knew. It wasn’t like that.
Grover picked another tune from Buzz’s fat book of jazz guitar. They worked out more chords. Lots of chords. Chords with 9ths and 13ths and flatted 5ths. Diminished and augmented chords. Chords I knew about, but had never attempted to play. My genres were “three chords and the truth.” I was decent at fingerpicking, but I’d never improvised lead or played the jazzy tunes where each beat takes a different chord. They were comparing different fingerings and moving rapidly up and down the necks of their guitars. I could follow what they were talking about, but I had nothing to contribute.
We were going around the circle and it was my turn to call the next tune. I said I’d pass for a bit and listen. I liked what they were doing, but I couldn’t see a place for me in it. I wondered how long I should stay before making a graceful exit. But when it came back round to Grover he picked It’s A Wonderful World. That was familiar so I tried singing it. The key fit. “Can we run through that one again?” I sang stronger, starting to feel a little confidence. Buzz went into Ain’t Misbehavin', and I picked up a harmonica and found some space for it. Nothing fancy, but it worked. When we were done, the others grinned and nodded encouragingly.
When the turn came back to me, Grover asked if I was ready to pick one. “Okay, but I’ll have to go in a different direction. More along the lines of what you were doing at the pizza joint.” “Sixties and seventies?” Grover asked. “Sure. Let’s try something simple. Neil Young’s Helpless?” Grover nodded and explained to Buzz who Neil Young was. Buzz is 87. I picked the tempo. Joe played lead. Buzz found some fancy chord variations. I sang, played some harmonica.
Joe did a jazzy instrumental version of a Beatles tune. Buzz went back to Django and I fit a bit more harmonica. We did some Billie Holliday. Grover backed me while I sang Angel From Montgomery and my slow, dark version of All Along The Watchtower. He noticed that I’d rewritten some of the lines. I shrugged. “Dylan changes it every time he sings it. I just made some updates.”
Here’s the thing. Even at my best as a guitar player, I’d never have been able to keep up with them. I’d’ve gone over, seen what they were doing, been completely intimidated, never even taken my guitar out of the case, never gone back, and felt miserable about the whole thing. But Boutch had given me his harmonica and said, “You may not be able to play guitar again, but don’t ever stop playing music.” Josie had given me the guitar picks with her picture on 'em to push me to keep struggling with the Telecaster. So up in my study I strum rough chords and sing, finding ways to compensate for my weakened diaphragm. I record those rough chords into GarageBand and play harmonica. Boutch died, so I’m obligated. The Josie picks obligate me, too.
We tried more songs I didn’t know, or barely knew, and finding harmonica lines was exhilarating. I was way outside my comfort zone and it was good.
Django Reinhardt had only two good fingers on his left hand, the others badly damaged in a fire when he was eighteen. So he invented a new way of playing jazz guitar that has influenced every player since. When Renoir’s hands became so arthritic that he couldn’t hold his brushes, his assistants tied them on and he created the late, burnished paintings, full of joy and grace and light. When Wilma Rudolph was five and stricken with polio, the doctors said she probably wouldn’t ever walk without the leg brace. Her mother said she would. Rudolph said, “I chose to believe my mother ,” and won three Olympic gold medals in track at the age of twenty.
I’m not quite willing to say that my sense of gratitude extends to the fact of my transverse myelitis. And yet. And yet. Without it, I would’ve left Grover’s basement feeling intimidated and embarrassed and I wouldn’t have gone back. This is better.
Django played. Renoir painted. Wilma Rudolph ran.