Monday, March 16, 2009

Sleep Easy Jeff Beck

On top of the indignity of coping with a severed digit (which is coming along quite nicely, thank you very much) I learned last week that my dreams of being one of the great guitar players on Planet Earth have pretty much screeched to a halt. My fret hand, which I had the presence of mind not to stick in the lawn mower like I did with my picking hand, has developed increasing pain in the first joint on my index finger -- the finger and joint I use most to get that vibrato trill B.B. King is justifiably famous for. It took me years to get that trill down-pat and apparently it was that weird twist, shake, note bend, and pressure that made the joint swell up about triple its normal size.

I'll never forget when I complained to my first wife Denise about soreness in that joint. "Show me where it hurts," she said, suspiciously sympathetic. I showed her and she put her fingers on the joint. "Here?" she said as she squeezed hard and laughed. Sparks and lightning bolts shot out from the joint. I did not find it one bit funny. I slept with one eye open after that.

So, after years of trying to just put it out of mind, I finally went to an orthopedic specialist, the son of a surgeon I remembered from my days at Smith + Nephew. This young whippersnapper showed me the x-ray of the finger and pointed to a healthy joint with nice lining, cartilage, and floating space between the bone. Then he directed my attention to the joint in question. "The trainwreck," as he phrased it. I've looked at hundreds of bone x-rays in my career with S & N and I know what a bone-against-bone joint looks like. Well, I got one. Option one is aspirin or Advil; two is prescription stuff; three is a cortisone shot right between the bones; and four is to fuse the joint so it doesn't bend at all.

I'm going for option two.

Like just about all kids my age, I didn't know really what an electric guitar was until the Beatles unleashed them on us Yanks. They were impossibly expensive, loud, and difficult to master but I wanted one anyway. On my 15th birthday I was given a $25.00 acoustic guitar from a discount store called Dixiemart. It was a classical guitar and the strings buzzed. Nontheless, I picked out the rudiments of "Spoonful" and "Sunshine of Your Love" by Cream. In those days of course, Eric Clapton was God and I, like a million other fretbusters, worshipped God religiously.

The sound of an electric guitar when I was a kid always prompted a search for the source -- we would ride our bicycles all over Parkway Village in hopes of hearing it up close and watching the player. I remember being Shanghied by my parents into going as a family to a hymn sing on a Saturday night, a fate worse than Lawrence Welk. I couldn't believe my eyes when I saw an older man there with an electric guitar. I watched him all night and never once heard a note come out of his amplifier. Had he been audible at all I'm certain someone would have told him to turn down.

It was much later when I heard about this new music called "blues" and about these incredible guitarists from England. Clapton was probably the best of the lot early on, but fell from the firmament, one of those musicians daunted by his own genius. My two favorites, possibly because they were so obscure to most of my high school peers, were Jeff Beck and Peter Green. Since the early 1960's Jeff Beck has never lost one iota of ability or creativity. He has had weak albums, weak bands, weak songs, and fallow years, but never has his playing been weak. Peter Green who had the best blues tone of any guitar player I ever heard (well, maybe Albert King shared that best-of) succumbed to drugs and madness and is today medicated to the nines and trotted out on stage for a few moments for those who remember.

My brother and I briefly met Jeff Beck backstage in 1972. He was a true gentleman and a role model for any uppity star who can't appreciate fans. I will never forget his kindness.

I wanted to interview Peter Green in the worst way. I wanted to be the guy who brought him back from the dead and tell the world his sad, haunting story. Be careful what you wish for... I managed to get his phone number and called him in England. Within seconds it was painfully clear to me that I was dealing with a very sick, disturbed man -- he wound up hanging up the phone in my ear and I have left him alone to his darknesses ever since. Lesson learned.

I sold six prized guitars to afford my trip to Bintou in Africa. The trophy guitar was my Gibson Les Paul tricked out like Peter Green's to get that tone. Many people told me I sounded "just like" Peter Green. Bless them. I certainly tried.

I recently bought a Les Paul copy made by Agile, my only guitar now. I wanted to customize it again and trick it out to sound just like Peter Green.

Maybe some day.

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