Lloyd Thayer

Lloyd Thayer
Steel Guitar Rant: Gauging the Good Old Days

By Lloyd Thayer
July 2006

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My friend Joe always tells me that if you want to see real anger, steal something from a thief. My take on that is if you want to see some really questionable behavior, ask a musican to write about music. So at the risk of being both angry and questionable, I will attempt to write a few thoughts here about music from a “musician’s” point of view.

The third most frequent question that I am asked when playing music in the subway or on the street is some variation of “What do you think about the current state of the blues?” Or, “Do you think blues is dead?”—or “dying,” etc. My first response to that would be, How the heck would I know? I’m sitting in a subway station playing the Dobro and trying not to use my sense of smell!

But then again, I suppose it doesn’t take much sense to look around at the many blues clubs that have closed, or the few that have remained open but now only offer blues shows once in a blue moon, to know that the landscape has indeed changed. Is this a bad thing? Is it a good thing? Who can say? For people who have gone out of business, lost money, and put their lives into running clubs that they really cared about, these must be painful times, perhaps more than we can imagine. For blues fans who like to go see live music in clubs or see their favorite acts come through town on tour, it may indeed seem like the dark ages are upon us. But I also wonder about how accurate we are in our judgments, or if it’s even possible to make sweeping generalizations about these things and come to any real conclusions.

If you read between the lines of these questions, what people are really asking is, “Weren’t things somehow better in the ‘good old days’?” Again, I think that’s difficult to judge. Having been around for awhile, I do think that things come and go in cycles, especially in music. I also think it is very difficult to predict these cycles, which is why the music business tends to be such a freak show. So what will happen? Will the blues scene continue to decline, or will it begin to grow again? Well, I sure don’t feel qualified to judge that, but perhaps I can say a few words about trying to figure all of this out in a nice neat package.

I don’t know much, but I do know that people tend to romanticize and exaggerate their musical experiences. For example, here’s an experience I’ve had many times: I get booked on a bill with multiple bands. I’m told to arrive at the club for soundcheck by 6 p.m., or I won’t be let in since the doors will be locked after that until the show starts at 9:30 p.m. I arrive at 6 p.m. and find there’s no soundcheck. The sound person is on the premises, but seems to be competing in the drinking Olympics up at the bar. When I ask for an additional microphone for my instrument, he acts like I’ve just insulted his mother and sneers, “Can’t you plug that thing in!? Buy a REAL guitar.” There is no room to tune up or warm up in, and no food for miles. I wait patiently and watch three other bands battle feedback, a horrible sound system, and a crowd that talks loudly through their sets. One of the bands seems to play the same song for their whole set and that song bears a striking resemblance to a Coors Light commercial I’ve seen a few times. Another band has members that seem like they have never met before. The club is packed. You could not fit any more people in there without a lubricant. There is no room to move or breathe. It is impossible not to have full body contact with complete strangers. Strange unidentifiable odors fill the air. It is four degrees outside. Nowhere to run, nowhere to hide. Finally, after midnight, I go up and do my four songs. People are talking so loud that I can’t even hear my own instrument. There is a gentleman in the front with no shirt on who keeps screaming, “Play Robert Johnson!” at the top of his lungs. Since I began my set with “Love in Vain,” I decide it’s best to ignore him, but I wonder if that’s wise, since he keeps saluting me with his plastic beer cup, the contents of which are coming dangerously close to my head. As I finish each song, there is no applause. On my third song, I notice a woman in a red shirt in front of me, with her back towards me, talking on her cell phone. Each time I attempt to play my harmonica, she turns violently toward me and gives me a dirty look. It is clear that I am disturbing her cell phone conversation, which works out well, since she is actually disturbing my harmonica solo. When I’m done with my set, the owner tells me there is no money for the musicians, because not enough people came to cover the clubs “expenses.” The club was packed, people paid to get in, they were all paying for drinks—where does the money go? As I attempt to leave the club, a few people tell me that I am “awesome,” including the woman in the red shirt with the cell phone. In the bathroom, one guy tells me that I could not get any better on the Dobro. He then vomits in to the trash can, and without missing a beat asks me what kind of harmonicas I play. I suspect he might want to share one, so I pretend I have lost my voice from singing too loudly. I drive home two hours, sleep five, and get up and go to my day job. A few days later, I read in the paper that the show was awesome and that it was THE place to be for the most amazing blues experience. As the writer goes on and on about how cool everything was, and what a great club this is, and how great the scene is, I wonder if he was at the same show I was at.

And so when I have read about the “glory days” of blues in Chicago when Muddy Waters or Sonny Boy Williamson were playing at Pepper’s Lounge or the 708 Club, I wonder, what it was really like there? Were the musicians who were playing at those clubs having such a glorious experience? Were they getting paid, were they having fun? What did it REALLY sound like? Was the audience in a blissful reverie, hanging on every word or note? Were they clapping for impassioned solos, or just trying to tie one on after a long day at work? Were the club owners making money hand-over-fist, or just getting by? Did they respect, or even like the acts they booked, or were they just out to make a buck? And on and on and on…

In the end, I know it’s impossible to get into anyone’s head and say what they are thinking or feeling, but I think it’s too easy to look back with rose colored glasses and glamorize the past. I would suggest instead that people back then were simply people, like you and me, doing the best they could, on the day they were given. Times were no better or worse back then; they were just different. I would bet there were people back then who lamented the state of the blues, or who said the blues was dying, and others who simply did not appreciate the great talent that was all around them—just like today.

Little Walter has been quoted as saying that in the early ’50s, Memphis Minnie, Tampa Red, and others of the previous generation were thanking him for “saving the blues” from an early death. Sound familiar?

In a way, it doesn’t really matter what it was like back then, because all we really have is today, in our world right now, where we live. So what can we do with that? I think the only real thing we can do is just love the music the best we can, and the rest of it will take care of itself.

And what does that mean, you ask? Well, I can’t tell you what to do, or what it means for you, I can only tell you what it means for me. For me, it means I can try to learn about this music as much as I can, and love it and live it as much as I can. I can go to live shows, and actually listen to what goes on there and tell the musicians that I really appreciate what they are doing. I can buy their CDs or sign up for their mailing lists. I can tell the club owners how much I appreciate it when they book blues acts. I can listen to the many great blues shows on the radio. Sure it’s great to listen to old Little Walter records, but how about giving a new person a chance? Someone I’ve never heard of? There are so many great musicians in this area, and they are playing great blues all over the place. All we have to do is go out and listen to them, and tell them that we care about them, and that we are listening. We can tell a friend about them…and so on.

These days are uncertain, to say the least, but we have more access now to this music than anyone has ever had, and it’s up to us to make the most of that. In the end, this community is and will be what we make it. I realize that for many of you, I’m preaching to the converted, and I apologize for that, but I believe that the blues really is in our hands. It is the best music in the world, and it’s up to us to take care of it with each and every day that we have.

Til next time…

Lloyd Thayer teaches a summer Dobro class at the Passim School of Music in Cambridge. Classes meet on Mondays at 6:30 p.m., from July 24 to August 28.

www.lloydthayer.com

www.clubpassim.com/musicschool

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