Dateline: Olympia, Washington, 6:15 am, Monday, June 4, 1979
I woke up for school and groggily made my way to the kitchen, poured myself a bowl of cereal, and noticed, there on the kitchen table, a record album. There was a note lying next to it:
This is from Washington.
Have a good day!
I picked up the album and looked it over. Stand! by Sly and the Family Stone. Neatly taped to the back of the album was another note, written in nearly perfect handwriting:
Hope you like this!
We can talk all about it on the way to the Eric Clapton concert—if you don’t have any homework. Ask your mom if it’s all right. In the meantime, stay strong, Young Brother.
I quickly took the album, the bowl of cereal, and went to my room. I didn’t have to be at the bus stop until 7:00 am and I didn’t have any homework to do so, provided I was particularly cursory in my teeth brushing, showering, etc., I could buy enough time to sneak in a couple of songs or more before I had to head out the door. I unwrapped the cellophane off the album, took the vinyl out of its sleeve, threw on my headphones, turned on my stereo, and dropped the needle…
I spent that entire school day counting down the hours until I could come home and put the needle back into those grooves. And what was this bit about an Eric Clapton concert?
“So what’d you think of what Sly was laying down, my young brother?” Washington’s voice was deep, authoritative, and smooth. He was probably in his early thirties, but to a fifteen-year-old kid, he seemed impossibly old and wise. And to a white European born kid, he was impossibly cool: he was bald, bearded, and black—not African American. “African… shit,” he corrected me, laughing, “I’ve never even been to Africa, nor am I ever going to go. I’m a proud black man from The Bronx—and that aint America!” He dressed flamboyantly, in wide lapelled suits and shiny shoes, and drove a big Lincoln Continental. I can remember thinking that he reminded me a hell of a lot of Isaac Hayes.
So just who was Washington? And what in the hell was a fifteen-year-old Matt Dillon lookalike doing hanging around with someone that looked like he should be the lead actor in some urban Blaxploitation flick?
Okay, here’s how this happened. You’ll need a thumbnail sketch of a backstory:
My parents split up when I was around twelve-years-old. The short story is this: my father worked for NATO and the U.S. military—which put us, for most of my life, in Europe. We moved to the U.S., to Washington State, ostensibly for a short term of work that my father had to do at the army base there. One thing led to another, I guess you could say, and my parents found themselves separating soon after our arrival and then, finally, divorcing. My mother moved us about twenty miles south of the army base (where we had been living with my father) to the town of Olympia, Washington—close enough for her to commute to work out at the base yet far enough away to reasonably start a new life, was her thinking, I suppose. I’m sure she found out the hard way that there is no amount of distance you can put between yourself and your imagined destiny dashed.
My mother worked as the manager for an on-post pub. As is predictable with a job like this, she worked exclusively at night. We rarely saw each other—she was at home whilst I was at school and I was at home when she was at work. Consequently, I spent my adolescence mostly absent of any adult supervision—or guidance. I had to find my guides through life, my role models, where I could.
Most of these were in the form of musicians, authors, actors. I cut my leftist teeth on articles about and books by Che Guevara, was completely bewildered and amazed by Hunter S. Thompson’s writing for Rolling Stone magazine, imagined maturing into calm and cool analogues of Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood characters, and I practiced my guitar for hours every day in order to be as good as Carlos Santana.
But these were people I would never meet, impossibly perfect and narrowly presented exemplars, not fully realized people whose flaws and scars were visible and accessible to me. Not only did I not have a father, I had no one that would come near to being anything like a father in my life, no one to teach me how—or how not—to be a man.
There were men in my life, sure. My mother was an attractive, newly single woman who worked in a bar—a bar that served, almost exclusively, men. (While there were some women soldiers on the base, they were relatively far and few between and most never set foot into the high-testosterone environs of the bar that my mother ruled with an iron hand.) In short, there was a relatively consistent cast of characters that seemed to flitter into my mother’s life, for a time, some long enough to make me wonder, if only briefly, Should I pay attention to this person? Could, someday, this person be my stepdad?
Sometimes, on Saturdays, during the school year, or weekdays during the summers, I would go to my mother’s work with her—she would, oftentimes, need help in the walk-in cooler, help with loading heavy-for-her cases and cases of beer and food on delivery days. It also provided us some time alone together, in the car, for me to catch her up on how things were at school, etc. I would go with her and, after the hour or so of loading was done, and after she had extracted the little information about my day-to-day that I was going to allow her—I was a teenager, after all—I would be stuck there, really, for the rest of the night.
I stayed out of the way, mostly, but listened to the good and loud jukebox (this was the 1970s, remember), played the odd game of pool with servicemen. Other times, I would bring my guitar so I could practice or, during the school year, I would bring homework to complete, both in the back room office. It was on these evenings at my mother’s work that I could watch firsthand the revolving characters in my mother’s story jockeying for her affections, all of them strutting and full of proclamations, like so many birds performing mating dances. If I could have, I would have spared them a lot of effort and heartbreak, I would have told them that, for them, my mother was a lost cause. She would prove me right—my mother remained hopelessly in love with my father, the man that betrayed her and left her to raise her only child alone in the world, until the day she died.
But there was one man in all of this cacophony of testosterone that was different: Washington. Imposingly tall and just plain big, Washington commanded respect–figuratively and officially: in addition to being intimidating in appearance, he was the highest rank of soldier in this non-commissioned officer bar. He approached me at a table I was sitting at, just after I had made a few selections on the jukebox. I was closing the book on some math homework.
“Curtis Mayfield, huh?” he said sitting down across the table from me. “I wouldn’t have guessed.”
“Uh…”, I didn’t know what to say. “Sorry?”
“Freddie’s Dead—the record you put on. That’s Curtis Mayfield—from Superfly.”
“Oh, right,” I said, finally understanding. “Yeah, I know. I loved that movie. That song is great.”
And that’s how it started. We talked—well, rather, Washington talked, I listened (and learned)—for the rest of my mother’s closing shift. I didn’t tell him much about me beyond that I loved music, was an aspiring musician, and that I hoped, one day, maybe, to write a book—or be an actor, or a rock star—but I think Washington knew all he needed to know about me at that first meeting. He knew I was a kid that needed a hand; that my tough-as-nails mother worked hard to provide me with whatever I needed, but there were just some things she couldn’t, no matter how hard she tried, give me. With the aid of the jukebox, (and my access to unlimited free plays) by the time my mother was closing up the bar, I got a musical history lesson, my mind reeling at the social and political meanings behind songs that I had only, heretofore, had been humming because of the catchy melodies.
Shortly thereafter, my mother would bring home LP records, articles cut out of magazines, cassette tapes—all passed to her from Washington, all designed to educated me about music and music’s place in the sociopolitical spectrum, of the world around me. A world that, with every new LP or magazine article, grew ever larger.
The school bus finally came to my stop. I bolted from the steps in a single bound and ran home, hoping to catch my mother before she went to work—I wanted to know about this Eric Clapton concert. And, after that, I was going to absolutely blast that Sly and the Family Stone album.
My mother explained that Washington had tickets for Eric Clapton and that I would be his guest. If my grades were where they should be and that if I had all of my homework finished by Saturday afternoon, she agreed to let me go with Washington to see Eric Clapton at the Seattle Center Coliseum, on Sunday, June 24, 1979. Washington pulled up to my front door right on time that day at 3pm—allowing time enough to see my mother for any instructions regarding my care, etc. before we left. I bounced nervously, anxious to get moving, to get on the road as quickly as possible.
Seattle, in 1979, took a little over an hour to reach by car from Olympia. (It takes at least twice as long these days, and depending on the time of day, maybe as long as three times. My sympathies for anyone that has to drive anywhere on Interstate Five in Washington State at any time of the day, really.) Washington’s car, a 1978 Lincoln Town Car, combined with his dress and, well, his resemblance to Isaac Hayes, felt to me right out of the movies. He had a bumping stereo that pumped out smooth Earth, Wind, and Fire as we glided along the freeway, lesser mortals obediently moving out of our righteous way.
“So, once again, what’d you think of Sly?” he asked.
Look, if you want to know the truth, I about wore the grooves out of that Sly and the Family Stone album. I don’t know if it was because I liked it so much—the absolutely rocking I Want to Take You Higher, for example, just kicked my ass—or that I thought that, frankly, it was just so fucking cool that this music was passed onto me by, well, a cool as hell, badass black man. I told him how much I loved it, how I loved how the band was made up of not just men, but women too, and that there were both white and black people in the band. And, while I kept this to myself, I was also intrigued that they hailed from San Francisco—the city where my father now lived. A place I imagined as I dreamed it to be: a magic city where all was good, everyone was forgiven their sins, and where my father would love me and want me to be in his life. That’s what I heard in between the thumbing bass lines, the horn blasts, the driving drumbeats of Stand! and Everyday People. It sounded like redemption.
Later, we talked about Eric Clapton. “Me? I like that song The Core,” I said, proudly referring to a song on the new Clapton album, Slowhand, that felt like a sleeper selection, one that an ‘intelligent’ listener—or what I thought an intelligent listener was—would choose. I was hoping I would hear Clapton play it that night. (Sadly, this would be left off the setlist.)
“Yeah, not bad, not bad. That has a nice groove to it, a bounce,” he agreed. “Very nice, very nice. But, listen, what I want you to really pay attention to tonight is the opening act. That’s who we’re really going to go see, that’s why we’re there.”
I just looked at him quizzically. The opening act?
“Muddy Waters. Bluesman,” he said these words as if they were statements of import too big to be cluttered with exposition, too important to be bogged down by sentences of any kind. I’ve come to know that he was correct.
Washington went on to explain Muddy Waters’ influence on everyone from Elvis Presley, to The Rolling Stones, to The Beatles—pretty much ALL rock and roll—my very lifeblood at that time. In short, I was going to witness, was going to lap up the water from the very spring that forth came most every bit of music that I held dear to me.
As persuasive as the talk–the sermon, really–about Muddy Waters was, I have to admit that after going into the arena, buying a t-shirt and a program—all Eric Clapton ‘products’—I was amped up to hear Layla (No, he didn’t.) or Badge (Yes, he did!) and pretty much forgot about the lesson that Washington laid on me about Muddy Waters.
But then the lights went down.
And then, in the midst of the happy hippy crowd, the lighters being held up high in the darkened auditorium, the pungent smell of 1970s pot in the air… holy shit.
Just that. Holy shit. This fifteen-year-old witnessed the difference between originality and imitation, this kid got, in the words of Washington that night, churched up. This was the real deal.
When Eric Clapton took the stage about an hour later, there wasn’t much left that I had to give. Muddy Waters was, flat out, the most amazing person I had ever seen or heard and I tried my best to let him know it. Booming and powerful, his voice oozed experience, life’s loves and losses, and all in that undeniable phrasing in his voice and his guitar that I had heard in the DNA of every single rock band or musician that I had ever admired. They were, all—The Stones, The Faces, all of them—just driving Muddy Waters’ car around the neighbourhood, looking and sounding good for a few minutes a song. But it was in Muddy’s garage that that car lived.
Yeah, sure, Eric Clapton was good—great even. His accompanying band was fantastic—his guitar player, Albert Lee, was especially impressive—but none of them could hold a candle to Muddy Waters. Not even close.
I left that stadium, that night, changed. Not just my ideas about music, but my worldview. I learned, in that hour of watching an old bluesman play the blues, the true importance of being yourself, of being an original. I have never forgotten it.
Nor have I forgotten the lessons of my friend, Washington. It is because of Washington that, to this day, Sly and the Family Stone, Curtis Mayfield, Bobby Womack, Stevie Wonder, Gladys Knight (and The Pips!), Bill Withers, just to name a few are easily accessible on my ‘go to’ shelf of music—where I keep the CDs that I can get access to at a moment’s notice. And that’s not to mention my several collections of soul 45s, one-hit wonders from hard working bands that got lucky with that one gem that made it to ‘70s AM radio soul and r&b charts, if for only a couple’a weeks or so. (Nothing else will spin my mood around better than hearing, at a healthy volume, “Brothers Gonna Work It Out”, by Willie Hutch. Try it for yourself—use that hyperlink—and tell me if, for four minutes and forty-seven badass seconds, it doesn’t absolutely kick the living shit out of what ails you.)
We went to a few more shows, Washington and me, and I was the grateful recipient of more LPs (jazz greats John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme, Miles Davis’ A Kind of Blue, for example). He continued to educate me about American soul and real rhythm and blues. Let me make it clear, I LOVE this music. For me, it is THIS that is the definition of true, authentic American music. Yes, I know that there is a strong and perennial argument that jazz is the ultimate, the definitive, American musical art form. While I would find it difficult to mount a confident argument against this statement, I just don’t think you can get closer to what real people were dealing with, or a message delivered by real people more than you can with strong ‘60s and ‘70s soul and r&b. I dare you to put up something, anything, up against Bobby Womack’s Across 110th Street. Hell, I double-dog dare you. It’s no contest—it’s Womack, first round, by knockout.
I enjoyed this student-mentor relationship until Washington, finally, was relocated to Europe. I never knew what happened to him, but I hope he’s out there somewhere, enjoying a deep groove, a swinging beat, a smile on his face, a snap in his fingers. I hope he has even the smallest idea of what an influence he was in my life—one that impacts me, still, today. Every day.
We are gifted with the gift of others—their perspectives, their experiences, their knowledge—accept that gift whenever you can. Thank you, Washington, for teaching me the value of being true, of being original. Thank you for teaching me to be myself.