In 1972 my family left our roaming military life behind in Texas and returned home to the Rogue Valley in Southern Oregon. I was heading into my senior year of high school, which posed some problems, but I was still pretty happy to return to a place I’d lived as a younger boy, the place where both sets of my beloved grandparents still lived.
This isn’t about High School. It isn’t even exactly about friendship, although both are a part of it. Oregon is a funny place. It’s “mellow”, you know? The high school, the teachers, and especially the other students together created a good space for me at the time. I was welcomed in to a tribe of kids who had all grown up together in this small town. It probably shouldn’t have worked for me, but it did.
Being a guitar player, I pretty quickly fell in with other young musicians, some of whom already possessed rather formidable chops. Jamming with them, I soon learned to appreciate John McLaughlin, Jean Luc Ponty, and even the Grateful Dead (this is tie-dyed 1972-73 Oregon, remember). Back in Texas it had been pretty much ZZ Top, Freddie King, Johnny Winter, and B.B. King that I’d cut my musical teeth on.
One of my new musical friends was Marc. We connected over our love of music and parties, but also our wonderings about life, the universe, and everything else. We got through that final year of small town high school together and then launched into the wider world. We didn’t travel far to do that, though.
We both found gainful employment at Bigfoot Fine Wood Products where we learned to operate table saws and rip saws. It was magnificent work, really—altering really large, rough boards into smaller and smaller ones, so that eventually we produced the finest rulers and paint stirrers in all of Southern Oregon. But that was our day job. At night, and on weekends it was about music.
Marc pursued working with his band, playing all over southern Oregon. I just kind of hung out and didn’t accomplish much of anything. I was in love with a girl who seemed to draw all my attention, but that’s a whole different story. Suffice it to say that that particular aspect of grown up life kept me fully occupied.
I’m finally getting to a point, sort of. Marc and I kept hanging out together during that first year out of high school. We would run our saws for Bigfoot during the day, punctuated by ten minute breaks with cigarettes, corn nuts, and Coca Cola. On the weekends we would party, play music, and when the opportunity presented itself, go hear live music.
The college in town would host some pretty well known musicians from time to time. I remember seeing Ravi Shankar, The Sons of Champlin, and a few others there. One time, though, we hit the jackpot. B.B. KING was coming to town. Even in 1973, we knew he was a guitar master. This was a big deal.
Marc and I got there early so we could get close to the stage before the music started. We secured our spot, center stage, no more than 10 or 15 feet away from the guitar player we both idolized. When the band kicked in, we were making eye contact with B.B. as he coaxed the most beautiful tones out of his shiny black Gibson ES-335, “Lucille”. B.B.’s particular playing style, unlike so many of his contemporaries, did not consist of high speed barrages of musical notes, delivered in a technically precise manner. He understood the concept of “less is more, of leaving space in a song, not overplaying, not showing off. He played fewer notes, but just made sure that each one meant something and could stand on its own. Oh my gosh, what a night of wonderful music.
In hindsight, I guess B.B. must have still been kind of young, although back then anyone over 25 or so seemed kind of old to us. So he seemed like an old musical sage at the time. It was a great show that night. When B.B. played, it was anything but the “thrill is gone”. It must have been a different world back then, or maybe B.B. was just always a different kind of guy. But after the show, when the crowd filtered out the back of the auditorium, Marc and I walked up to the side of the stage area to see if we could meet him. It seems strange now, but there were no throngs of fans waiting there. It was pretty much just me and Marc hanging there, hoping B.B. would notice us. And he did. He actually did come down from the stage and graciously spent a few minutes with us. Unbelievable.
I really credit Marc for that moment. I think I would’ve just headed for the exit, out the back with everyone else, but Marc had some audacity in him. I still admire that.
B.B. talked to us about music, about the blues, and the touring life. Then Marc, at the height of his audacity perhaps, asked B.B. if he could play Lucille for a minute. B.B. was kind, gracious, and probably accustomed to such requests. He told Marc, “No, she’s tired and needs to go get some rest.” Before he turned to leave, though, he fished around in his pocket for a moment and pulled out a guitar pick, which he handed to Marc, one of the picks he’d just finished the set with. That was kind of a magical moment that I’ve never forgotten. I didn’t get a guitar pick from B.B.’s hand, but Marc did. I think there’s some kind of lesson there, but again, that’s another story.
The years rolled by. I moved down to southern California, lost touch with Marc, married the girl I was crazy about. That short time of my “pre-adult-ness”, living in southern Oregon, playing music, working at Big Foot, hanging with Marc, falling in love—so many good things happened in such a short time, things that have always stayed with me. I am who I am today because all of those moments add up to create my own story. And I just have to believe that all the good things in all of our lives keep their meaning, that somehow nothing good is ever truly lost.
A couple of years ago I heard from a mutual friend that Marc had passed from this world. How can that be? Only yesterday we were 18 years old, with everything still in front of us. Recently I read that one of the top regrets of the dying is that they’ve lost touch with those they loved, whether they be family or friends. That touched me deeply. And this week we lost B.B. I didn’t really know him, but my sense is that he was true to himself. He created music that spoke to my heart, and obviously the hearts of countless others. Decades later I can still remember that long ago evening, standing so close to him, as he and Lucille created music that was other-worldly, beautiful, mournful, joyful, poignant.
B.B. didn’t play lots of notes, but every note sang it’s own story. There was soul and truth in how he did what he did.
Hearing about B.B.’s passing reminded me of Marc, of the brevity of life, of the importance of making each “note” (or moment) count, of speaking the truth with love to the best of my ability. Life itself is grace. It’s a Gift. May each note you sing be true to who you are, and somehow lead you back to Love.
Like B.B., you don’t need to worry about playing lots of notes, really fast. You can do so much good playing very slowly, from your heart. Leave space. Let your life’s music breathe. Let your words and your actions count. They really do matter. Your life matters. B.B. impacted people in good ways he didn’t even know. So did Marc. So do you.
Love comes to town,
I'm gonna jump that train
When love comes to town,
I'm gonna catch that flame.
Maybe I was wrong to ever let you down,
But I did what I did before love came to town.
I was there when they crucified my lord
I held the scabbard when the soldier drew his sword
I threw the dice when they pierced his side,
But I've seen love conquer the great divide.