Every once in a while some idiot that I’m not particularly fond of begins to like me, and so I sing for ‘em. That usually solves the ‘budding friendship’ problem right there. To put it another way, I have a talent for making Bob Dylan songs sound worse than even he does! All of which wouldn’t be bad if I could play guitar. I can’t, hardly. Lead guitar requires knowing some musical notes, whatever they are. Bass guitars are unfathomable –they don’t even have the correct number of strings. Playing rhythm guitar means keeping a beat, which is another total mystery to me.
“Don’t feel bad, Fatty,” the St. Thomian calypsonian Mighty Whitey once told me on a drunken, bar-crawling night in Brenner’s Bay, “you’re just tone-deaf. A lot of people are. It’s nothing to be ashamed of unless you play a musical instrument.”
I actually played my guitar for Mighty Whitey a couple of times and I’m here to tell you he was such a kind, empathetic, loving fellow that he never allowed it to affect our relationship.
Barefoot Davis, another St. Thomas guitar picker, also tried to ‘spin nice’ about my playing. “Don’t let the critics get you down, Fatty, no matter how accurate they may be!”
I assume he was trying to cheer me up.
Yes, playing music is, for a guy like me, ego-bruising. When I announced to my wife Carolyn that I was going to start playing professionally, she went behind my back and secretly purchased stock in companies that manufacture ear plugs. Hardly a ringing endorsement.
Whenever I practice on my guitar in the cockpit, she sticks her head out from down below and says, “Maybe we should run the engine awhile to charge the batteries and bring down the refrigerator?”
Even my own brother, Morgoo the Magnificent, is a critic. When I told him I was gonna play in bars, he quipped, “You mean, like, just after they announce Last Call?”
Luckily, there’s something called ‘open mic’ night on almost all the islands of the Lesser Antilles.
Here’s how it works. Let’s say a bar has warm beer, watered down rum, flat champagne, dirty ice, stale rice, and rude staff. All of the above tends to ensure that bar is empty, right? But if the owners are smart, they realize they aimed too high for regular customers, not just losers. So they lower their sights and invite the local musicians.
Yes, alcoholic musicians are the last resort of the poorly managed liquor establishment.
The PR spin is, of course, both very cool and totally untrue. In theory, the musicians draw in the music lovers and it’s all one big love fest between artist and patron. Nothing could be further from the truth. The sobering fact is that open mic nights are intended to bring in the musicians who, realizing how awful they sound, have worked up a powerful, suicidal thirst that needs immediate drowning.
Sure, there are a few non-players present, but those are just the ugliest of the self-loathing suicides who hate themselves so much they decide, ‘I think I’ll go and hear Cap’n Fatty warble the long version of Hey Jude that awkwardly morphs into Puff the Magic Dragon and then, even weirder, Mister Tambourine Man and that should gave me the courage to pull the trigger’.
You learn the darndest things if you play as badly as I do. For instance, one night in St. Croix about half the audience walked out in the middle of my first song. I noted those departing tended to be younger.
“I guess I’m not a hit with the younger generation,” I said weepily to the manager of The Creepy Cruzan as I emptied a nickel and two cents out of my Big Tip Jar.
“Naw, it ain’t that,” consoled the manager, “it’s just the older folks can turn down their hearing aids.”
“Boy, you really know how to nurture the talent,” I said glumly.
Dick Solberg of The Sun Mountain band can be diplomatic. Once, after jamming with him awhile, he noted that I had “enthusiastically played some of the right notes, even if, alas, they weren’t played at the correct time.”
St. John songbird Joe Colpitt is another local musician I rely on for advice. “Oh, I wouldn’t do that,” he said quickly in response to a query about what type of recording equipment I should buy.
Chris Carsell is yet another Love City musician who tries to put a good spin on my guitar picking. “Fatty and I have played together at a lot of bars which are now out of business,” he once said while introducing me.
Still, every dog has his day.
I was playing nightly at Amanda’s Coffee and Tea in Langkawi, Malaysia, when a tall, lanky cowboy strolled in. He looked totally out of place among the Muslims. I mean, it was as if he’d fallen out of a casting call for Deadwood. There was still hay in his hair, for gosh sakes. You could smell the campfire on him. He walked, well, saddle-sore. There was mud on his chaps. His boots were hand-tooled leather (later, I discover they had Topsider soles).
“Howdy, Pardna,” I said. “What’s your name, game, and where ‘bouts you from?” He was shy, and liked to put an hour or two between his softly uttered words.“ Gene,” he said, and grinned as if it was such a huge joke that it would make his horse belly-laugh aloud. Then, much later, “I play, too. Nashville,” he said.
Now, believe it or not, Malaysian Muslims are as much into American Country & Western as they are into hiding their body parts, and a number of Nashville escapees wander through in search of faint applause … say two or three per century.
Anyway, Gene Nelson was a professional songwriter and author of eight gold records, eight different million sellers-including 18 Wheels and a Dozen Roses and Doctor Jekyll and Bubba Hyde.
Like many cowboys, his sense of direction was a tad off. I asked how he’d come to sail into Langkawi?
“Made a left at El Paso,” he said.
“How are you adjusting to boat life?”
“The spurs are hell on the teak,” he admitted, shifting around the strand of Midwestern wheat in his mouth.
It was just like he’d fallen out of that Lyle Lovett song about the boat and the horse. But Gene had played Lost Wages for years. He backed up Rodney Dangerfield on guitar, which is far, far too goofy of a thing to possibly invent. And now he was way-down on his luck. He’d backed up every loser in America and Europe, and worked his way down the list of global guitar players until he was backing up yours truly in a mostly-empty bar (well, empty coffee shop) in Malaysia.
Gene plays like an angel. He is, by far, the most talented guitarist I have ever had the honor of sitting next to. It was immediately apparent that, if I wanted to sound really, really great, all I had to do was turn my guitar off. Gene could easily play twice as good as me while not even breaking a sweat.
Oh, it was fun! I’d strut the stage, point dramatically heavenward, jerkily dance, and awkwardly ego-pose like, well, Mick Jagger on a double-dose of crack-laced Lipitor. I’d also windmill my arms, swivel my hips, and make horrible faces while pretending to pluck my guitar strings.
Gene, on the other hand, was immobile on stage as if I’d stolen a statuette from Madame Tussauds Museum.
Despite my singing, a growing crowd of C&W fans started showing up to see us and hear him.
It was the first time I’d ever been in front of a music audience that I didn’t feel sorry for. It was an odd, unaccustomed feeling.
Things went extremely well for a couple of months, and then I had to sail away. Gene half-heartedly played for a couple of more nights until he was told, “You’re good, but you’re no Cap’n Fatty!”
Gene then wandered away into the Malaysian night; to the sorrowful soundtrack of a lonesome cowboy’s harmonica, softly playing to the rhythm of a horse’s fading clip-clops.