Turns out I like to write all kinds of stuff but only sometimes. I have a bunch of Acoustic Roots Stories done but people seem to be taking offense. Memories get clouded and bad feeling come up. I will publish them but not yet. In the meantime, I’ve been asked a few times to write down the story of my early years in music. So far it’s been pretty well received so I thought I’d share it. This is just the beginning of a crazy, ridiculous life with guitar and music. I don’t think it’s anything that anyone would expect but maybe that makes it interesting. To me it was just day to day life and somehow seemed normal in the context of the place and time. So here you go. Let me know if you want more. The stories get bizarre and very funny, at least I think so:
It was somewhere around 1971 or 72. I was working at a music store in Bryn Mawr, PA selling guitars. The owner, Harry Rosenbloom and I didn’t exactly get along, but i iwas learning lots and lots about guitars as well as being able to acquire a couple of guitars and an amp at dealer cost. I had started there in 1969 and through a fellow employee found my guitar teacher, Jerry Ricks. Jerry was a blues guy, not only delta blues, but the much sweeter Piedmont style as well. He owned John Hurt’s old f30 Guild with the light burst and used to let me take my lesson on it. Before he passed away, John Hurt asked that the guitar go to Jerry. Priceless. He was also a great teacher with a legion of young white teens learning authentic blues. John Hall (Hall and Oates) had the time after me and used to wait on the steps. After two years of lessons, Jerry told me that he had nothing left to teach me and that if I wanted to be a guitar player I should move to Nashville. He thought it would be manageable and knew my interest in roots American music. What better place to be a guitar player in the earliest 1970s?
I went home that night and told my parents that I was going to move to Nashville. I can’t imagine what must have gone through their heads. A lot of Huh??? and I’m sure some relief. My father immediately told me that I was a fool. “Who the HELL do you think you are?” “You can’t be a musician” “There are a million great guitar players there” “You can’t do this” This is what I remember but it was a long time ago so I’d say it was along those lines. They asked when I was leaving and I said, Tomorrow, but in reality I think it was a couple of days later. I packed my little suicase, my Telecaster and 1970 Vibrolux I bought while working at Medley Music. Thanks to my father’s words of encouragement, I was kind of backed into a corner and couldn’t change my mind even if I wanted to. And I wanted to. I was getting pretty scared. But i packed up my ’71 Gold Duster and left.
I had a grand total of $200.00 in cash. That was all the money I had. Gas was about twenty five cents a gallon and food for a day was about a dollar.
I was in no hurry whatsoever. I had been picturing billboards in Nashville advertising work for guitar players. Once I actually left the house that fantasy disappeared and was replaced with pure fear. I was a pretty scared little person anyway. That’s really how I saw myself, a scared little person, and a classic introvert. How was I going to do even something simple like walk into a diner for breakfast? And How the Hell was I going to move to Nashville and be a guitar player? I mean fear doesn’t really cover it. Much closer to an ongoing series of panic attacks that kept telling me to go home. But the thought of even one “I told you so,” kept me going although admittedly at a snail’s pace. I could have taken the PA Turnpike to 81, 81 to 40 and into Nashville in about 14 hours total. I took what was then the very rural Rt 30 which was pretty much all farms ten minutes from Bryn Mawr. Then at the crossroads of Carlisle a decision. 81 would have been a smooth trip but way too fast. I took the old Lee Highway, Rt 11, all the way through Virginia. It was a beautiful and rural road back then. it went through a lot of towns and took a long time to get through Virginia. I had to stay in a motel. I wanted to stay in a motel and give myself a chance to think. There goes six dollars. Next morning it was off to Bristol and I40 into Nashville. I had never been in the South and didn’t realize how quickly the world could change. Everything was different in Southern Virginia. But Tennessee. I wasn’t really ready. I was stopping as much as I could and went to a Morrison’s Cafeteria in Knoxville. I went through the line and found some stuff i could eat. Mac and cheese, jalapeno bread, iced tea, and pecan pie. I paid at the counter and there was a “gentleman of color” in a tidy uniform waiting to carry my tray. I had NEVER, ever seen anything like this. He called me “Suh” but had about forty years on me. I told him I’m happy to carry my own tray and he said, “Please Suh, don’t make a problem for me.” Holy Shit!! What??? I really had no idea.
I finally got to Nashville and took the long way into town, past the old airport on Airport Rd. Very depressing part of town which kind of fit. It was hot. Hot and humid like I didn’t know existed. It was late afternoon and I had no idea what to do. I saw a depressing Scottish Inn and got a room for $6.00. I had bread, cheese, and mustard and hunkered down for a night of the cold sweats of panic. I took out the Gideon’s at one point which was no help at all. I didn’t leave the room except to get a newspaper. I knew I had to do something. I looked at Rooms for Rent and found an ad for a furnished apartment for $150.00 a month. I had $160.00 left so it sounded reasonable. A month would be plenty of time to find a job playing guitar. Nevermind that I really didn’t know how to play, didn’t know the repertoire or styles of country music. The only thing I could play with even a tiny bit of confidence was the more rootsy acoustic blues stuff. I had been playing in country bands in New Jersey starting in about 1969. I would drive to the crazy redneck Pinelands country bars for fifteen dollars. I played mostly with a trio. A drummer who was some kind of diagnosably challenged person and a great singer and rhythm guitarist who I in no way was ready to appreciate at the time. I do remember that he loved Hawkshaw Hawkins and played awesome chunky rhythm on an old Gibson 150. I would have been smart to learn from him but I wan’t smart.
I called about the room and was given directions to Mrs. Anderson’s office on the West Side. Turns out there couldn’t have been a better neighborhood for me back then. I walked into Mrs. Anderson’s office in a beautiful old Nashville craftsman on 21st, a block or so off of West End and the old Anchor Motel. There was a young man at a desk in a dark outer office and Mrs. Anderson, a stately elder Southern woman, was in the brightly-lit back office. I told the nice young man that I was the one who had called about the room. i might have been shaking a little. Okay, I was shaking a little and really, physically looked like a scared sixteen-yaer-old. Mrs. Anderson called out from the back and told me the room was $150.00, first and last and $150.00 deposit. Uh Oh. Here’s a touch of reality. I had no idea that if an apartment was $150.00 that I would need more. So I told her I only had $160.00. She tsk tsk’d and asked what I did. i told her I was a guitar player. Again, I had no idea. And I was kind of even lying a little. But I was trying to think of myself as a musician. The Henry Hill method. Mrs. Anderson said, “Oh, Ah don’t re-ant ta mahsishuns.” More reality. The young man at the front desk (I wish I could remember his name. He was slight and had a small limp and wrote songs. I think He had a hit some years later with Crystal Gayle during the Don’t It Make My Brown Eyes Blue era) spoke up very quietly and said, “I have a good feeling about this boy, Mrs. Anderson, why don’t you give him a chance.” “Weull, Ah don’t know. No, ah Don’t think sew. Ah don’t rent to musicians anyway.” But the awesome young man continued quietly and persistently telling her to give me a chance. She did. Amazing. I received a stern warning about her dead husband’s favorite chair which was in that room . A bright orange naugahyde chair you couldn’t sit on in the Southern heat without sticking to it like glue. There was a bed, the chair, a desk, a filthy old, horrible couch, a kitchen in an old closet and a bathroom that had been a closet.
Mrs. Anderson’s was on 21at Avenue South right next to the Anchor Motel. I don’t think that neighborhood is there anymore. It really should have been preserved in a museum. The whole house smelled like an indian restaurant. Vanderbilt University wasn’t too far away and there were two medical students from India upstairs from me. They would never say one word to me let alone show me how to cook their food. It was torture. Ethnic food in Nashville was limited to a Chinese restaurant across West End. The only thing I could eat was the eggplant. But it was good. And they had rice without fatback in it. Next door was Bart, a way, way off but absolute genius from Dothan Alabama. Bart used to walk the streets at night looking for student’s textbooks in unlocked cars. He would rifle through the cars looking for books on specific subjects. Seriously. One early morning i got a call from the police at about 1AM. Bart got caught stealing advanced trigonometry books from a woman student’s unlocked car. Apparently she was a little freaked out. He never broke in, just opened doors, but he did have a large library of textbooks. I went down to the police station and poor Bart was sitting at the detective’s desk obviously very scared. I started. I told the detective that Bart was a genius with an insatiable desire for knowledge. But his genius had left him unable to deal with society, etc. etc. Some of my earliest and best bullshit. They let me take him home. He was peeved that I told the police he was mentally “off” and couldn’t deal with society. I think I just stared at him.
The first night in Mrs. Anderson’s was hot and more humid than I had a vocabulary for. I was scared and uncomfortable. There were huge windows, on the only wall with windows, facing the alley in the back. After I settled in, which was putting my suitcase on the floor, I went out looking for food. Amazingly, one of the first hippy food stores ever was right across the alley. The Sunshine Market:
I couldn’t believe it There was nothing like it in Philly. I bought a box of textured soy protein and a potato. Eight dollars left. I would mix the TVP with water and “fry” it in a hot pan. And a baked potato with salt. I really can’t imagine what i was thinking. I had just finished my meal and it was dark and I was scared and anxious. I was always anxious but now even more so. All of a sudden I heard some amazing bluegrass music. The song ended and I could hear everything in my room. “Little Jenny is gonna pass the pitch pot now. Y’all be generous.” I didn’t know what a pitch pot was and thought they said Piss pot. It was starting to get strange. I walked the ten or so steps to the one story brick building just across the back lot and alley between 21st and 20th. There was a bus parked out back. Flatt and Scruugs on the destination banner over the windshield. What??? I went in. No cover, no tickets, just the pitch pot and no obligation for someone with eight dollars to his name. I was astounded. The Sunshine Market, the famous (long gone) Bluegrass Inn, The store with the quarter poker machines that Waylon would play all night and leave a mound of orange bank wrappers behind. And best of all, the Christian Coffeehouse. I swear I was in heaven. This was the last thing I was expecting. Only thing missing was pot. That didn’t last long. I had resigned myself to no pot in the South. I really thought everyone would be all religious and family and stuff and no drugs. Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha. When I got back to my room that first night I really, really wanted a hit or two and was trying not to get desperate. I really thought there was none there. I was so innocent. What was that smell coming from next door? Huh? I knocked and met my neighbor, Bart, for the first time. Turns out the local rock DJ, Moby, lived in the basement apartment and knew the people who were bringing Red Bud from Columbia via low flying WW2 cargo aircraft into a landing strip on a farm in North Carolina. Things were getting interesting. OH yeah, I found the right neighborhood.
The second night in Mrs. Anderson’s was looking nasty and depressing. There were gaps at the tops of the windows and huge moths were flying in to bask in the overhead light ten feet above the floor. I never had an easy time killing anything, so I got a paper bag, stood on the orange naugahyde chair and would trap the moths one by one and put them out the front door of the house. They must have thought I was playing some kind of crazy game with them because they kept flying back in. Lots and lots of them. And big, Southern type moths. It was horrifying. I didn’t know what to do so I put my Tele in the trunk of my car and drove downtown. It was just a block to West End Ave and a right turn, across the bridge over the train tracks and downtown. It was different then. There was the Wheel, Demon’s Den, Tootsies, and the Merchant’s Lunch. No porno bars then and Roberts was really a Western wear store with a counter for Buds and burgers. Second Ave was old warehouses and Sho-Bud offices and factory and Randy Wood’s Picking Parlor where I once went in to drop off my Tele for an overnight re-fret and there was Norman Blake at the potbelly stove playing an old Martin. Not even a hint of the hubbub that’s there now. Not even a whisper of it. Merchant’s included an incredibly interesting array of characters. If you ever heard that song by The Red Clay Ramblers,
it was right on.Buds at 9AM with your eggs. A long counter on the right, booths on the left and a small stage in the back where Satch Wright used to sing Hank Williams songs sadder than Hank did. There was heroin there then although I was pretty unaware of anything like that. And parking was easy. No traffic or meters or the need for lots. But every night amazingly incredible music and musicians and tourists all over the place. Hard to imagine the music that was being made in those clubs then, especially Demon’s Den where Buddy Emmons used to like to hang out and play after a long day of sessions. It was all a surprise to me. I was only in town two days and knew nothing about the culture or geography.
The Wheel looked like the least intimidating club to so I went in and sat in a booth. I got a Bud. i had learned how to make one can of beer last four or five hours if I needed it to. I think a can of beer was like twenty five or fifty cents. The booths were on the left wallt, the bar in the back and a fairly high stage on the right wall. There was a great band playing with a great guitar player. Just watching him added to my panic. More reality. Maybe my father was right. Well, he was right of course. Really, who did i think I was? I must have looked like a scared teenager with a can of Bud sitting alone in a booth. Bartenders always made big eyes when they saw my ID saying I really was old enough for a beer. The band took a break and the guitar player came over and sat down for some reason. He said hi and asked if I was new in town and if I was a guitar player. Huh? I said yes to both and that I had just gotten there yesterday. He told me his name was Richard Bass and I told him my name. We talked for a bit and I said that he looked like a rabbi to me and what was his real name. He asked me quietly, looking around to see if anyone was listening, if I was Jewish and I said Yes. He told me his real name was Barish. I used to play little league on Barish Field where I grew up on Long Island. Richard was from Connecticut but the field was named after his family. Crazy. Anyway, he asked me if I wanted to sit in with the band on the next set. I was kind of flabbergasted but stayed calm. This was the last thing I would have expected but it was very common on lower Broadway at the time for musicians to sit in all over the place. I didn’t even know the practice existed. I had thrown my Tele in the trunk of my car before I left and told him i had my guitar in my car. He said to go get it and I declined. He told me I might as well go back home now. Something snapped and I got my Tele and played with the band. They were the house band at the Wheel when they weren’t on the road with Faron Young. The legendary Deputies in one of their best incarnations. Ernie Reed on fiddle. I’d never heard fiddle, let alone amazing fiddle playing, let alone ever played with one. Or a perfect rhythm section. None of it. this was brand spanking new for me and it was happening right there at the core of country music. I’m still blown away by the sets of circumstances and really by the fact that I was able to do this. Not even the playing, just the fact that a really scared little introverted person was so backed into a corner that he was able to completely overcome his true nature to just be left alone. People have always projected some kind of hip, partying, sex-crazed guitar player onto me. Nothing could be further from the truth and most eventually figure that out. I’m really just a total nerd. The quiet kid in school who never says a word and many don’t even remember as I found out at our 30 reunion of South Side High School in Rockville Center, New York. I would sit at home after school and listen to records. It started with the Beatles in 1964 which is when I first started with guitar. No parties, no girls, no sports, no beer, no prom, no beach with groups of friends. Not hip or cool at all. So how the hell was I able to get on stage with an iconic band like the the Deputies? If that night hadn’t happened, I probably would have gone home in a few weeks. (Just looking now, i see that Richard Bass Barish passed away about a month ago.) Richard told me sternly to plug in my guitar and play. I had no pedals, just straight into the Vibrolux. I was so scared I really don’t remember anything at all about the music.I played the whole set. Richard and I talked after. He advised me not to tell anyone in Nashville that I am Jewish. He said I would never get any work and would likely have to take a bunch of shit. So much to think about when I got home at about 3AM exhausted, confused, and pretty happy. I had a very tiny black and white TV. There was only one channel at that time of the morning and just two more during the day. The only thing on TV was Jim and Tammy Bakker crying and asking people to send in their wedding ring diamonds so they could properly worship God with an amusement park and little town venerating the Almighty. Stranger still. I was starting to feel a little like Dorothy must have felt when she woke up in OZ. Or like Alice after falling through the rabbit hole.