It’s been one of those times when the pace of events—both interior and exterior—accelerates almost beyond reckoning. Granted, these days I get much of my news from “The Daily Show,” but still: Inauguration! Republican vote-rigging! Somalia! Egypt! I had a birthday with all the attendant thrill and agony, met a bunch of deadlines, and—big news for me—finished my book revisions and sent manuscripts to the kind people who agreed to read them and consider blurbing. (You’ll be hearing more about these spring releases very soon.)
My blog philosophy is to wait till I have something to say rather than adhering to a preset schedule. Usually I have something to say once a week or so, but I couldn’t rouse myself to add to the tidal wave of words engulfing the blogosphere this month. Mostly my reasons have been personal. I’ve been at that familiar stage for a writer: the writing is done. I think it’s good (and response from early readers suggests that I could be right). But that doesn’t mean everyone else will think so. Once again, I find myself putting forward ideas that are sure to gore someone’s sacred ox. Once again, I have granted myself the freedom to mix categories, cross boundaries, suggest possibilities that not everyone may welcome. I took some heart from Nassim Taleb’s point in Antifragile: Things That Gain From Disorder that writers can be antifragile to criticism: “[I]f you really want people to read a book, tell them it is ‘overrated,’” he writes, “with a sense of outrage.” Of course, I hope everyone loves my new work, but whatever may come, I’m almost ready to say, “Bring it on.”
All this hope, anticipation, and effort is a little decentering, though. As always, my antidote is music. The last few weeks I’ve been listening obsessively to Roy Buchanan, infusing my system with Vitamin G (that’s for guitar), drinking in music’s magical powers to activate body, mind, heart, and soul. So if you’re a little glad to see me back in the blogosphere, thank Roy. I do.
If you don’t know Roy Buchanan’s music, you are in for a rare treat. He was a remarkable guitarist who played music of many genres with the utter conviction and commitment of a consummate artist. Listen to “Wayfaring Pilgrim” as you read a bit about his life. His playing on this song winds itself around my heart, opening it like a gate.
Buchanan came up in a hardscrabble world, the child of agricultural workers who migrated from Arkansas to a small town at the southern end of the San Joaquin Valley. He left home young to chase opportunity in music—played with Johnny Otis’s band at 15—and managed to father seven children with his wife, Judy Owens, despite gigging and touring almost constantly for the better part of three decades.
There are obstacles and advantages to coming up without a normative sense of social status or all that much grasp of the rules. Our early lives were very different—city/country, immigrant/American, Jew/Pentacostal—but that marginality to the American dream is something we shared. Sometimes it makes for a steep climb toward a sense of belonging; but it can also grant a power of self-authorization to borrow anything, to braid any form of beauty into the tapestry you weave of your life. When Buchanan heard Hendrix, he integrated that jagged, polemical sound into his playing and made it his own. Listen to his Hendrix-inspired version of “Hey Joe.” Or a beautifully clean straight-up jazz version of “Misty” that makes your cheeks ache with pleasure. Or this amazing live version of Roy’s original composition, his spiritual manifesto, “The Messiah Will Come Again.” The sheer unbounded beauty and creativity of this music grants me permission: whatever you need, it says, use that.
Buchanan struggled with life and often lost the battle. He got addicted, got clean, got drunk, got clean, and died in a Fairfax, Virginia, jail cell a month before his 49th birthday in 1988, locked up on a charge of public intoxication. (The official ruling was suicide, but some people close to Buchanan dispute that.) The most detailed account of his life—which reads like a “Where’s Waldo?” of popular music, with Buchanan playing the Waldo part—can be found at the Vinyl Records site. It gives a lasting impression of a man of great talent who kept being “discovered” (he taught Robbie Robertson to play well, was offered Brian Jones’ spot in the Rolling Stones in 1969, opened for The Band during his last year on the road) without exactly emerging into recognition.
There is a powerful integrity to Roy’s diverse music—something that transcends genre—which emerges so clearly on what might be called standards. “These Arms of Mine” is associated with the inimitable Otis Redding, but Buchanan’s version with Kanika Kress, a Chicago blues musician whose life was cut even shorter than his, surrounds and cradles you so you don’t want it to stop. Buchanan’s take on Don Gibson’s 1956 anthem “Sweet Dreams” is unparalleled. Listening to these songs reminds me that every generation—every artist—is authorized to renew the legacy inherited from the past, and each renewal propels the work toward the next.
You can find an account of Buchanan’s early life and music in a 1971 PBS special entitled Introducing Roy Buchanan!, hosted by Bill Graham. It’s on YouTube in three parts (scroll down under “About” for links to parts 2 and 3). “I think the lonely thing is kind of born inside of a person,” Roy says in part 1. “That’s what makes him play. Your soul seems to be completely someplace else from other people’s, a lonesome feeling. My dad used to call it the blues.”
I’m feeling much better now, and still listening daily to my Roy Buchanan playlist. If you need one more for the road—there can never be too much of Roy’s music—here’s an epic version of “Soul Dressing,” originally released by Booker T. and The MGs in 1965. Still not enough? Buchanan’s original composition, “Pete’s Blues.”