August 13, 1992. The dead heart of San Diego’s dog days. Full moon, sunset, humidity, and wary egos. The sweat- and beer-damp Spirit Club on Morena Boulevard. Robin Henkel, at a front table, is wearing one of those caps that make look like a gnomish New York cab driver. He is hunched over the National Steel guitar on his lap. His glasses travel down a perspiring nose. He blinks sweat out of his eyes as he picks out slide riffs in the darkened club before opening.
The barmaid is unloading cases of beer into the cooler. Buddy Blue, in a sleeveless T-shirt exposing tattoos on each bicep/ leans against the doorjamb seeking out a breeze. Jerry Raney arrives wearing a battered brown cowboy hat and shades. He carries a guitar case and nods at Buddy, who nods back and jerks his head inside as if to say, Listen. The heat and the cataract moon hang in the twilight like elemental terrorists. The air from inside the Spirit Club is a hot rank breath. You close your eyes, listen and feel, it could be a roadhouse in the middle of a Louisiana summer 50 years ago.
In grade school, say ninth grade, in Chicago, while teachers droned about supply and demand, the Council of Trent, Thomas Hardy and fatalism, a+x over y squared equals...you fucking got me, Father — I was drawing guitars in my notebooks. Rectilinear patterns of fretboards intersected by six clean straight strings forming a coded matrix of transcendence I could not crack. Strings I had yet to suspect could be bent into the sounds that filled my dreams.
My dreams: lean, white, curving Stratocasters and pearl-inlay Gretsch Country Gentlemen; worn, woody Tellys with crisp, biting, trebly truths. Sensual/industrial-looking Les Paul customs, with their challenging/reassuring heft (play what you mean on me). Metal and wood and elegant rococo lines, smooth and provocative, inscrutable, pregnant with the promise of technology and adolescent power. Guitars, especially electric guitars, were and are to me a symbol — potent as a crucifix — of mystery: the sexual meets the divine.
A lifelong fascination shared by many men my age and younger. Why do we not see grown men at classical concerts, their faces twisted in vicarious rapture, playing air violin or air oboe?
This is, I realize, to say nothing of the women who linger over guitar sounds and dream their own dreams. Women who are, in some way, irrationally but undeniably moved by the sound itself — guitar.
Six chairs onstage. One for each guitarist and one for me. Dave Britton is running late. Raney is leaning against the north wall, uncertain if he wants to be a part of this. Uncertain what this is. So am I. Everyone seems to know Buddy Blue, but Raney hasn't met Jaye, just heard of him, and vice versa. Jaye doesn't really know Gazlay, and Gazlay’s looking dubious. Everyone except Britton takes a seat in the row. Blue, Raney, Jaye, Gazlay, empty seat for Britton. I take up a chair at stage left. About 30 more people have arrived. Some of them are musicians, others have congregated in response to the Spirit ad announcing “GUITAR SUMMIT!” and the handful of names synonymous with fret-board pyrotechnics in this town.
Willie Jaye, from Austin, Texas, arrives without a guitar. He is wearing a white cowboy hat over short dreadlock-braided hair, a flowery vest over a black T-shirt. He scopes the situation, “I didn’t bring no guitar. I thought this was just like an interview.” “That’s all right,” someone says. “There’s a lot of guitars around. Maybe you could borrow one.”
“Oh, I don’t know.” Jaye looks around uneasily again. “What is this anyway?” he asks, meaning the occasion, the gathering of guitarists, the six chairs lined up in a row on the stage behind six microphones. He does not seem as interested in an answer as he is in Henkel’s laptop Dobro guitar. Jaye listens and, trance-like, seats himself at a table next to Henkel.
Rick Gazlay arrives looking like one of the Beach Boys from their post-“Good Vibrations” era or a psychedelic tennis pro. Shorts, paisley shirt, ponytail and red beard, a multicolored brow visor, guitar case. He greets Robin Henkel, who often plays around the corner from Gazlay in the Gaslamp, when Henkel is gigging at Croce’s and Gazlay is at Patrick’s II. An onlooker, also a musician, scans the five guitarists, grins, and says, “Roomful of blues, huh?”
“Roomful of Egos,” says a deadpan Buddy Blue. “That’s what they should call it.”
“Is everybody here?” asks Blue. “Where’s Britton?”
“He’s not here yet,” I tell him. “He said he’d be coming, though. I can’t believe everybody agreed to do this. I mean, except Billy Thompson, he’s working.”
Someone said, “Put a penguin up on one of those chairs and just, you know — you could have the penguin say what Billy might have said.”
Raney takes off his battered hat and says, “Yeah, he could just keep saying, ‘This is stupid. I’m leaving.’ ”
“Are we rolling, Joel?”
“Yessir!” Joel is not only the most compulsively affable soundman I have ever known, he is also, as I think on it, the only affable soundman I have known.
Britton arrives. We’re just a few minutes late, and Blue wants to clear the stage by 9:00 p.m. Plenty of time for whatever is going to happen. This could be a hash, a complete failure — a contrived, fatuous session that might have all the dynamic entertainment value of watching ice melt. Or it could be a fireworks display of virtuosity. I find myself hoping for a fistfight, anything but nervous boredom.
Britton clambers onto the stage wearing shorts and dragging a custom-made natural wood Guild guitar (specially contoured to his body, he would later say) along with a Gorilla amplifier the size of a toaster. His straight, dirty-blond hair falls over his face and shoulders; I can’t see what he looks like. I’ve never heard him, only his name uttered by the under-30 metal rock fans I know. Only Buddy Blue seems to know this kid, who says he is 30 but.... He looks like he’s going to blow chunks of Eddy Van Halen all over the stage. I find it curious and reassuring that Britton’s is the smallest amp on the stage. It’s a toy.
Henkel doodles 4/4 walking phrases, punctuating each bar with a slide octave sting like a punch line. Raney sings into his mike: Jerry (not Lee) Lewis singing the blues, “Turn up this fuckin’ thing! Dooo deyooo yooo!”
By the time the levels are set, the club is nearly full, most of them musicians. Fewer than a dozen people I don’t know, some of them presumably with the musicians on-stage with me. “All right, everybody here knows what this is....”
“Except for the people that are doin’ it,” says Blue into his microphone. Laughter from the assembly.
I mention the genesis of the idea and how it mutated — “...so it became getting five or six musicians together who are very good, to play a little bit, talk to me and each other, and maybe comment on each other’s playing. I thought this would be almost impossible because the most interesting players are always working, but everyone agreed to do it.”
“Except the guy that said no,” Blue adds.
“Yeah, there was a guy...but we have six now. Anyway, I thought if you guys could play a little bit, each one individually and then answer some questions.... Maybe you could all play together. This doesn’t have to be terribly serious...or good.’
“No problem then,” Raney grins, his shades back on but his hat off. He fires off a little snarl on his road-worn white Gibson solid-body.
Henkel is already playing a shuffle that is neither slow nor fast — a strut, and it is extremely seductive. I realize there is no way I am going to control what happens here. Somebody is bound to start playing something, someone else will join, and in between the musicians will do what all rock, jazz, and blues musicians do: make wisecracks and fuck around.
Raney’s guitar (bass pickup setting: “mellow” we used to call it on Gibson guitars in my old bands) on top of Henkel’s all-steel acoustic lap-top (the kind of guitar you associate with Hawaiian music) immediately recalls Ry Cooder with the Rolling Stones or the country version of “Honky Took Woman.” It is so unique a contrast in guitar sounds — the 1930s acoustic gin-mill, rhythm/slide/twang and plunk beneath the clean, articulate tenor of the Les Paul sound — that I find myself thinking, why aren’t they combined more often?
Buddy Blue enters in the 24th bar On his acoustic Guild equipped with a pickup. He plays slide on top of Raney, who played an octave above Henkel’s own slide and chordings. Blue’s guitar is unobtrusive but clear, just accents. It shouldn’t be a surprise that Blue can augment Raney so well, given his tenure with Raney’s San Diego institution of a band, the Beat Farmers. But that both of them should announce such visceral and fluid understanding of what would work on top of — well — Hawaiian guitar with Memphisy picking...the phrase cool comes to mind. Cool and a little dangerous. It could collapse into mediocrity in a heartbeat. There is no good reason why all six guitars should not sound like mush, except that everyone, aside from playing very well, also listens very well. Gazlay and Britton take the spear carrier roles immediamente, chopping bassy support out of their two wildly different customized axes — because they sensed, as did Raney and Blue, that it would sound better, cooler than everyone playing lines together.
These three guitarists in 36 bars have set up a mesh of sound over Gazlay’s and Britton’s rhythms that works well. Henkel’s instrument is completely acoustic, Raney’s completely electric, and Blue’s Guild something exactly in between. Jaye had fingered chords quietly, with the volume turned down on the borrowed black Stratocaster as if biding his time, seeing how the sounds shaped up, were blurred or defined. On the third turnaround, Jaye begins to sing, “Early in the morning, just can’t seem to get my mind right...”
His voice is smooth and true, with just an insinuation of sandpaper. Jaye follows his lvric with a slow three-note figure at a treble setting that manages to avoid the register of the other instruments and so can be distinguished.
“Early in the morning, just can’t seem to get my mind right...” Raney pulls a single note in the background following Jaye’s vocal that sounds for all the world like a human voice calling out a gospel embellishment.
“Seems like all my girl wants...all she wants to do is fuss and fight.
“She wants to cuss, drink, and gamble until the risin’ sun./She wants to cuss, drink, and gamble until the risin’ sun.
“Said she wanna kick me out the house/Tellin’ me I ain’t no kind of fun.”
During the course of the disjointed solo that follows, no one is sure who should take the initiative, the engine falls out of the song. This is a hazard implicit in this kind of session. Eventually Raney picks up the slack, possibly by virtue of his distinctive tone and conservative playing; he bends a note, introduces a phrase, unresolved, lets it hang — the other players back off to see what he does with it. Raney plays some teaser fills, and everyone is left wanting more of what he plays. As functional a definition as any for a good musician.
The jam winds down as each player drops out one at a time, leaving Henkel to play the final four-bar strut...just as the piece had begun.
Raney shouts “Faster!” and makes a move to attack his guitar with deranged energy, but he plays nothing. This elicits more laughter.
Okay, Buddy. I’ll start with you,” I venture. “Did anybody play anything that really annoyed you?” “Yeah, everybody,” Blue deadpans. With his short black hair combed straight away from his brow, intense, dark eyes, black goatee beard, and exposed biceps tattoos, Blue looks like a homicidal garage mechanic. His deadpans are effective. “Nah, it’s hard to tell with six guys playing boring three-chord shit. I can’t even tell who played what, but I thought I did a great job.”
Buddy Blue is 34 and has been playing since he was 15. “I started playing ’cuz I wanted to get laid. Anyone I knew who played guitar got laid. Back in those days I was listening to Johnny Winter a lot, Derek and the Dominos. My dad had some old B.B. King records, some of the old Kent [record label] stuff. This friend of mine had this old [Sears 8c Roebuck] Silvertone guitar, and the nut was cracked so you could only put four strings on it. I remember trying to play guitar solos up and down the neck on one string.”
Blue pauses to finish his beer.
Is there one guy who was a major influence on Blue’s playing?
“Johnny Winter, of course; Duane All-man, and I always liked Jerry Garcia a lot. People laugh about that, but I always thought he was an interesting guitar player. I’m not a Deadhead, and I’d like to make that clear. I just always liked Garcia as a guitar player.”
Blue played for some time with Raney in the Beat Farmers, no?
“Yeah, don’t remind me.” Laughter. “I played with the Beat Farmers from ’83 to New Year’s Eve ’85, ’86. I’ve since put but a CD solo and one with my band, the Jacks.” The labels? Rhino and Rounder Records.
Moving down the panel, “What is that guitar you’re playing, Jerry?”
“Ahhh, I don’t know.” Raney looks down at the white Gibson and then up at the ceiling as if it had just fallen through a hole in the roof onto his lap. “A 1960 TV model, Les Paul Junior...or is it an SG? Les Paul Jr., I guess.” El Centro-born Raney has been playing since 1964. “I’ve been playing around San Diego for quite a while, and the scene hasn’t really changed much at all. I keep waiting for San Diego to break through and do something, and it’s never quite done it. There’s never been much of a scene here — gotta go to L.A. Chicago has a good scene there and of course Austin, but I don’t see how anyone playing in Austin can make any money. Too many bands, too many clubs.” Willie Jaye nods, leans forward. “That’s why I’m out here.”
“It’s a good scene though, Austin. I played that festival, South by Southwest. Packed. San Francisco is cool, Vancouver is really cool.”
Raney’s latest album with the Beat Farmers was 1990’s Loud, Plowed and Live! In early 1991 I had tried to get into a Beat Farmers show at the Cubby Bear on Addison Avenue in Chicago. I was told the fire marshall would not allow another body inside.
“We just got a release from our stinking record company, Curb Records.”
Curb of Mike Curb, the Republican politico, yuppie prototype, former lieutenant governor of California?
“Yeah, it took a lot of doing. We were distributed by MCA, so they could just pass that buck back and forth. Curb and MCA. It really sucked. We’ve got some irons in the fire. I wanna go with an independent label, somebody who has to protect their investment if they make a $100,000 record with you. Somebody who can’t just throw it in the can and forget it. Curb records has been known to spend a half million dollars on a band, decide, ‘We don’t know what to do with ’em,’ and just let ’em go. Not even put the album out.”
Raney, along with Joey Harris and on occasion Paul Kamansky, have written much of the Beat Farmers’ originals. “Buddy Blue wrote a bunch of the great ones from the first three recordings,” Raney says.
Can he name those songs? “No, I don’t know what they are.” Laughter. “No, he had a song called ‘Lonesome Hound,’ which is really cool, and ‘Lost Weekend’ we still get requests for and every once in a while try to play and screw it up pretty good.” Blue shakes his head, “Don’t expect me to sing it.”
Would Raney play at least part of a song that he had written for the Beat Farmers right now? “Oh, shit,” he bends over the guitar and after a moment of silence plays a fast 4/4 country discord that sounds, intentionally, like shit. He stops, sings, “Me and yer momma...” The audience laughs; pure Beat Farmers. And then, “No, I just can’t think of anything right now, I usually play with the band.”
Blue suggests “Socialite” and then quickly rhymes, “Stage fright!” Again, laughter from the floor.
“Leave me alone, ask somebody else!” Raney complains but plays a five-chord composition with eighth-note timing that builds to a quick promise and stops. “Actually I wrote that with the Glory Band. It was called ‘High School Letter.’ They used to play it on 91X years ago.”
Raney was familiar with the other musicians’ work except for Jaye and Britton.
“Well, come on down and hear us, man.” Jaye says from the darkened recesses of the club. Everyone notices he has left his chair.
“Where is he?” asks Raney, peering past the lights.
“I gotta take a leak!” Jaye calls out.
Turning to Henkel, I ask, “Robin, do you think two consenting adults should have sex on the first date?” This is followed by dead silence and a blank look from Henkel.
Raney fills the void. “If they both have penises, yes.” This gets a laugh. Henkel still seems flustered. My attempt to get him to relax completely backfires. I quickly ask him to talk about his unusual guitars.
“These are two resonator pan guitars. What a resonator pan is...” He picks up the lap-top guitar with the wooden neck. “Underneath this thing shaped like a hubcap is a piece of metal in the shape of a speaker cone, and that amplifies the sound acoustically. These guitars were conceived probably around the mid-’20s, and there are all sorts of exotic prototypes.” Henkel is speaking very quickly as if worried that no one will find this interesting.
“Prior to the electric guitar in the ’30s, they were trying to make the guitar louder so it could compete with horns or anything in an orchestra. This is one of the first ones made. It was made by the National Company. It was built by John Dopyera, who later quit that company. It is called a Dobro, which is two words together: Dopyera Brothers. There were several brothers, I guess.”
Henkel picks up the second guitar made entirely of steel, including the neck. It looks like an antique art deco bed warmer. He strikes a chord. “This is the National Tri-Cone. It has a very distinctive, grotty tone to it. It’s also got a square neck so you can only play it on your lap.” Henkel proceeds to play the instrument, a fast jump progression, much like one of Robert Johnson’s fiery-paced songs. As with Johnson, it is hard to imagine, if you close your eyes, that there is only one guitarist at work. You can almost hear the scratches on the 78.
“Josh White was the first real blues player I saw, then Son House. The thing that knocked me out the most? I had no idea what they were doing, but the sound of an electric guitar string being bent, as a kid, that just put me on the floor. My dad took me to see Josh White when I was kid. He sent me backstage to get an autograph, so I have an autographed flyer. My dad played a little guitar, folk, etc.”
“The wooden Dobro,” he continues, “is tuned to an A open tuning; root, fifth, root, third, fifth. The metal Dobro is tuned to a D. Like a standard E chord on a guitar tuned a full step down. That’s the guitar I would typically use for the Elmore James stuff, you know, that classic ‘Sweet Home Chicago’ riff. It comes down to what specific song I’m doing.”
Henkel, 40, has lived in San Diego since 1958. Formerly with such San Diego rock bands as Jambalayah and the Ron Bolton Group, he played with Earl Thomas for a year and a half and now teaches three days a week at Blue Guitar Workshop in Pacific Beach. He appears regularly at Croce’s and the Paradise Grill in Encinitas. His guitar collection consists of “more than 10, but less than 20 guitars.”
Willie Jaye returns onstage. He has been in San Diego for three years. (The following week he would win the San Diego Music Award for “Best Blues Artist.”) Jaye is billed as The Texas Hurricane, a name that originated with a former booking agent in Spring Valley. The idea was that Jaye was conceived during Hurricane Carla that hit Texas in 1961. Jaye was born the following spring on Robert Johnson’s birthday, May 8, 1962.
Jaye has been playing regularly at Blind Melons, the Stadium Club, Winston’s, Johnny’s 801, and until recently, Bodie’s. In August, Jaye released his first CD, The Texas Hurricane, which consists of all-original material.
His influences? “Everyone who has come before me, and everyone who is to come. Past, present, and future.” His almost cosmic answer brings into focus the specter of Jimi Hendrix that seems to lurk at the edges of Jaye’s image. When asked to play something, Jaye says, “Well, I’m not really a player.” This elicits laughter from some of the audience, but Jaye does not seem to be indulging in false modesty. Nonetheless, he picks up the borrowed Stratocaster and says, “You all can help me out if you want, it's just one, five, four. This is called ‘Louisiana Girl and it’s on my CD.”
Jaye starts the slow chording down from the fifth and is joined by Blue with a few acoustic riffs. Jaye sings:
If you see me If you see me
Walkin' down the highway when I'm gone
Headin' towards Texas
Stop off in Louisiana on my way home...
Raney pulls notes quietly, riding his volume knob and creating moans like a cat in heat at 4:00 a.m.
I have a woman I have a woman
Nothin' in this world I wouldn't do
Just to hear her say I love you...
Jaye plays high, trebly lines that seem as informed by Albert Collins as by Hendrix and belie his earlier disclaimer.
Said I need you Said I need you
I need you in a most desperate way...
Jaye’s voice jumps an octave on the word “way.” It is a clean jump and underlines the emotional reality of the lyric.
I'm gonna stay right here by your side
My Louisiana girl.
Jaye abruptly ends the song with a dramatic pause between the fourth chord and the root, sings the last line, and strikes the home chord. The audience applauds heartily, and at least two women shout Whoooo!
“On my next CD,” Jaye says, “I’d like to do some cover tunes. Some Willie Dixon, Howlin’ Wolf. I’d really like to cover ‘Axis Bold as Love’ [ Hendrix]. We’ve been doing that lately, and it’s been comin’ out pretty good.”
Is that a tough one to do on guitar?
“No, it’s pretty easy. I mean, if you’re tryin’ to do it note for note, then it’s not yours. When I write tunes, I write them for your enjoyment and you can interpret them any way you want to. If you play an instrument, play it with your own style. Make it you. Don’t try to do it like me. I think a lot of writers might feel that way. They’re flattered that someone likes their music enough to copy it. At the same time, I think they don’t want you to do it like them. That pisses me off more than anything, when guys try to do shit note for note.”
Moving down the line to Gazlay. “Rick, what is that guitar?” It is a thick, solid-body Fender double cutaway with a sunburst finish, the kind of pickups you usually see on a Les Paul, and tuning pegs on either side of the head. In short, an unusual configuration for a Fender guitar.
“I should have Robin explain it to you, ’cuz I don’t know. It’s a weird kind of mutant Fender. Came out in ’84. Nobody bought it but me. I think those are Humbucking pickups in there. It sounds real good and it looks nice. Nobody went for a Fender that looks like this except Robben Ford and Tommy Tedesco.”
“You play a Robben Ford song, ‘Talk to Your Daughter,’ or does that song go further back than that?”
“Junior Wells,” he says.
Blue corrects him, “J.P. Lenoir. I think that’s the original version. Mid-’50s.”
Gazlay, 34, has been playing around San Diego “for years.” A blues guitar eccentric of the first order, Gazlay’s trademarks are the matching plaid, paisley, or flowered visors and jackets, a tendency to lapse into “schtick” onstage or veer from traditional blues arrangements into obscure musical surrealism by Frank Zappa or Captain Beefheart. While his name comes up repeatedly as one of the most interesting local players, Gazlay claims, “I don’t really consider myself a guitar player. More of a songwriter with a guitar. Never sat down and learned anything. Never practiced in my life. Never pick up my electric between gigs.”
His press material contains this quote about the blues scene: “It’s definitely a clique. A lot of rules that can’t be tampered with. I’ve never played straight blues, always mixed in my originals or some fringe stuff. That gets me into big trouble with the blues zombies.” This may be why Gazlay, like Raney, declines to play anything solo, saying, “If I’d had a little notice...if I were going to pull something right off the top of my head, it would end up being blues, and we just listened to, like, three blues things in a row, so I’ll pass.”
Too bad, because it’s a fine thing to hear Gazlay’s lyrically phrased guitar lines that build, arrive at a point, and return with a sense of fiery correctness reminiscent of Michael Bloomfield. Gazlay is one of those guitar players who can play very fast without careening off into musical non sequitur.
Following Gazlay’s independent album, Railroad Dreams, he is, he says, “currently recording a new project. Twelve original songs, titled Moontwang Menagerie. I am very close (well, who knows?) to signing with a famous East Coast independent label.”
About his technique, Gazlay says, “I don’t use a pick when I play. Never have. I use my fingernails. Actually, I have fake nails glued on my pointing finger and my middle finger. My brand is Dream Girl nails, and I carry a nail kit with me to all gigs.”
Gazlay has gone through some 70 musicians in his band over the years and is currently playing with fellow guitarist Tim Quinn. “I like to play with another guitar player in the band. That way, if you play a good solo, at least one guy notices. Hey...” Gazlay grabs the microphone as if he has just realized it was there. “Is this goin’ out on satellite? Is this goin’ to Japan? I wanna say hello to my relatives in Japan. Ching chong woyowoyou wongdow!”
“Ah, okay....who is your favorite guitar player?”
“Albert King is my favorite. And Robben Ford is very, very good.”
“Is it true that stand-up comedy is an alternate ambition of yours?”
“Who told you that? That’s not true.”
“You told me that before we got onstage.”
“I did it, yeah. I’ve been known to do it right in the middle of a gig. The club owners get a little upset sometimes. They’ll yell, ‘Shut up, Gazlay, and play!’ ”
“Any horror stories about San Diego club owners? I mean, ones you can safely tell without biting the hand that feeds you?”
“They enrich our lives,” Gazlay says with gooey sincerity, “and they’re wonderful to work with. It’s a very smooth ride, you just call ’em up and you go, ‘I need a little work,’ and they say, ’Here ya go.’ You say, ‘I want this much money,’ and they say, ‘But I wanna give you more than that!’ ”
Blue interrupts with his reminiscence. “My keyboard player, I won’t mention the club or the owner, but we had a bad experience here in San Diego. My keyboard player, Mighty Joe Longa, beat up the club owner and drove his car through the doors.” This is met with applause from the audience. “True story,” Blue says. “You’d have to know Joe.”
Dave Britton has been exceedingly quiet, just laughing and nodding at what the other players have said so far.
Britton plays with Secret Society and has recently been auditioning singers exhaustively, only to rehire the band’s original front man. “We would ask these guys to sing, and we wouldn’t play anything. We just wanted them to sing a cappella, and this threw a lot of them. Weeded a lot of them out right there. It was like, such a strange concept for them. Sing? You want me to just sing?”
“Play something, Dave.”
Britton cranks the volume on his small amp and plays a 30-second passage with a distorted, biting tone that at once sounds like a chainsaw, a Gestapo siren, a trombone, an F-14 falling from the sky, and a touch-tone telephone being frantically and repeatedly dialed by a satanically possessed amphetamine freak. The notes come in a flurry of deranged arpeggios, glissandos, and trills that sound impossible to produce with ten fingers and are separated by gear shifts on the vibrato bar like screams, orgasmic cries, and howls. The sheer note count is astronomical, and the variety of musical images invoked and strobed through in heartbeats leaves the other musicians onstage grinning and nodding. The audience applauds heartily and Raney, Blue, Henkel, Jaye, and Gazlay join in without hesitation.
“Jimi Hendrix is my favorite rock guitarist, but I listen to a lot, including blues players,” He turns to the others and adds, almost apologetically, “Maybe you can’t hear it in my playing. But Hendrix was a pretty amazing blues player too, and he was the main inspiration for my playing. Randy Rhodes too and...I don’t know...” He lowers his voice. “I’m drawing a blank....”
“John Blank?” Raney supplies helpfully. Blue picks it up, “Yeah, John Blank. He was always too drunk to play live.” The audience is laughing, and Britton is too. When asked if he reads music, Britton says, “Not really. I used to play classical, but it got too hard and I stopped.”
“Does anybody here read music?” No one does, or admits it. “Music lessons?”
“I took guitar lessons in the tenth grade,” Blue says, “and flunked. They eventually made me a teacher’s aide, though, for guitar class because I could play better than the teacher, who was completely incompetent. He could read music and knew some theory and on paper knew everything you were supposed to do, but when it got down to it, he was useless. When he tried to teach kids how to play ‘Puff the Magic Dragon’ and stuff, we were all taking acid and listening to Led Zeppelin and it wasn’t workin’ out. This was at Patrick Henry High School.”
Back to Britton. “I’ve been playing since I was 16. I’m originally from Chicago, Evanston actually. I live in La Mesa now.” Britton has played with Secret Society (formerly Britton) at Club Mirage, Rio’s, the Bacchanal, the Belly Up Tavern, and other clubs around town. Local groups he finds interesting are Psychotic Waltz and Asphalt Ballet.
“A lot of the speed playing you hear,” Britton says, “is fun to listen to, but it goes in one ear and out the other, You can’t really recall it later. It’s technically fun, like, if you can run fast, you do it — if you can play fast, you do it. But you don’t really give too much to the listener besides ‘Wow, I can play fast.’
“Now, if I want to hear somebody who means what they say on a fast solo — Joe Perry. Aerosmith was the first band I heard. I just went bananas. Perry’s got the ultimate feel as far as how a rock player should play. He is a rock guitarist in every sense of the word. I listened to everything I could get my hands on, and it’s a big influence on me as to how a solo should sound as far as technique, approach to style, songwriting. He has a lot of different styles in the context of the band. ‘Walk This Way’ was probably the first rap song around, and it came from a band you identify with as pure rock and blues guitar-oriented stuff.
“I figure I’ve inherited jazz influences from Hendrix and Jeff Beck because those were their influences.”
Blue interjects again, “Dave is a really good guitar player. He’s one of these guys — unlike me, because I consider myself lazy and not a hot-shit guitar player at all — that probably locked himself in a room for six months straight with the guitar and didn’t come out unless he was gonna eat or take a dump. I always admired people with that kind of discipline because I never had it.”
It is nearly time to clear the stage, and everyone (aside from the demurring Gazlay and Raney) has taken a solo shot except for Blue. Would he play one of those obscure songs from the ’20s or ’30s?
“Yeah, sure.” He picks up his Guild and begins a jaunty, dated, almost country chord progression that, at first, is reminiscent of the intro to “Alice’s Restaurant” with diminished chords sliding up the neck. “This is a Tampa Red song from 1929 called ‘What Does That Taste Like Gravy?’ ” he says and begins to sing the title phrase and first line, yodeling on the word “gravy” like a lovesick cowboy.
What does that taste like gravy?
Boys, I bet you don't know
Can you guess what tastes like gravy?
It's fine if you really wanna know
Well I taste it last night and the night before
If I keep this appetitey gonna taste a little more
What does that taste like gravy?
Boys, I bet you don't know.
Boys, I bet you don't know.
Blue winds this up with a very old country triplet progression, and the evening’s spectrum of music is almost complete. The session ends with Henkel once again striking up an Elmore James-like riff that quickly becomes a shuffle. Twelve bars each: Blue runs up the neck on the acoustic; Raney does a melodic, rising passage; Gazlay plays low and fast on the neck; Blue is drilling his slide high on the fretboard; Britton steps in with a fuzzy growl that quickly becomes a wavering tenor sustain; and Jaye punches staccato B.B. King figures. Everyone drops out except for Henkel’s slide work, accented by Gazlay at every chord change. Henkel walks it down to a close, and all six musicians flutter notes in A major around the room like audio confetti.
The session over, the players smile at each other with real pleasure. What could easily have been a homogeneous soup of diddla diddla twang and feedback has come off as richly textured, wildly varied combinations of sounds and styles. The six shake hands, smile, high-five, and nod emphatically. “That was all right...Yeah, that came off...enjoyed that...cool.”
Later I asked the guitarists to comment briefly on others, though Raney was unavailable. It became evident that to try to get any of them to be harshly critical of the others was a waste of time. I’d seen it before, not only with musicians or artists but most anyone who has achieved a notable level of accomplishment at anything — and that is, the better one is at something, the more generous one can afford to be about others in that same field.
Britton: Buddy to me has the greatest feel I’ve heard in a long time. He has that real authentic thing he brings to the songs he writes and the old stuff he covers.
I’ve heard Jerry Raney a lot on record and live a few times. He seems to play the exact part that’s going to fit perfectly in each song. I liked all those guys. I learned a lot. A lot about my weaknesses as well.
To me, Robin Henkel stole the show. It’s like he’s got a little orchestra built into his guitar. He pulls off everything as far as chord comping, the lead playing, and slide stuff. He can do it all. Willie has a Hendrix-y/Texas guitar appeal. I couldn’t really hear a lot of what he was doing because of where I was sitting, but he sure writes good songs. Rick Gazlay I can describe in one word, “rippin’.” Rick rips. I’ve heard him play before, and he just burns his Les Paul onstage. He burns! I couldn’t believe he was that awesome.
Gazlay: I think Buddy’s an expert at staying within his boundaries. He’s not like a flash guy and he knows it. But he always has great taste and just stays within the limits, which is one of the major tricks to playing the guitar.
I think Raney’s great. When he plays you can tell here’s a guy that’s been playing for 25, 30 years. It sounds like it comes so easy for him, and he always plays appropriate stuff. He gets great tones out of that wacky guitar of his. That’s what makes his band so cool, they’ve got two good guitar players, Raney and Joey Harris.
Willie is an audience pleaser guitar player, but he’s limited. Whenever I see him, I think he should get a guitar player because I don’t think that’s his strong point, which is whipping up the crowd. I think he’d be the first to agree.
Robin is the best guy in town at that Do-bro stuff, the John Hammond, tenth-generation Robert Johnson stuff. When Robin starts talkin’, it’s all of a sudden like you’re watchin’ PBS. Some documentary on the guitar. He’s pretty articulate.
Dave, I don’t know. Heavy metal, I guess, is his forte, and I guess I have trouble apreciating that because I don’t know much about it. It was an interesting mix, though, having him there.”
Raney was leaving town the next day when I saw him on the street driving a panel truck. He was on his way to play the Street Scene with the Beat Farmers, and he was stalled behind a parked Bronco. I greeted him and asked when I could talk with him on the phone. He said he didn’t know exactly when he’d be back. I asked him how old he was and the Bronco pulled away. Raney grinned and waved. “Gotta go!” he said and drove off.
Jaye: I liked everybody. Everybody had a unique style and approach to the instrument. Each of us got something from the Old Masters. What I like about everybody that was playing was they each made that stuff sound like them and not somebody else. That’s what I really enjoyed about those guys I was playin’ with that night. Everybody sounded different from each other. Of course we’re all copyin’, we’re all stealin’. We’re all groove thieves.
Blue: I thought Robin Henkel was tremendous, to tell you the truth. I’d never heard him before. Somebody told me he was just some overrated hack— I won’t say who. Just another typical white blues guy from San Diego who tries to pretend he’s black. But I found out he was a natural guy who didn’t try to act like anything but himself, and his playing was just phenomenal. His right-hand technique in particular. It was a treat to find out someone like that is playing in San Diego.
I’ve known Rick awhile. He’s not exactly a shy guy so I don’t know why he didn’t play more that night. Rick is one of the most underrated guitar players in San Diego. He’s got great tone, great attack, a lot of speed, but he doesn’t just jerk off. You know, speed for the sake of speed. He can play a nice slow blues song. Definitely among the better players in San Diego.
I’ve told you what I thought of Dave and Willie. I suggested them in the first place.
Henkel: I was impressed with Buddy. As soon as he said he was gonna do a Tampa Red song, I thought, “What? I didn’t know anyone else had heard of Tampa Red.” Buddy had a neat yodel goin’ in that song. I’d never heard Buddy Blue before, but I’d heard his name for years.
Jerry and I have known each other, sort of, for a long time. I used to hear him sing in that low voice of his, “I’ve got a gal named Bony Maroni,” and I think he was playing that same guitar.
I’ve always liked Willie. I think he’s cool. He’s got a blues background, but he’s into Jimi Hendrix. People are gonna slight him for that, but I’m sure not gonna. I was a fan of Jimi Hendrix. Everybody does what they do. I think people should encourage each other.
I thought Dave was cool. I’m totally impressed by these kids who walk in off the street into the music store, throw their skateboard up against the wall, wipe the ice cream off their hands, pick up a Stratocaster, and play some of the most amazing shit I’ve ever heard in my life. His is a very high level of art form that is not respected as culture. Like chopping a Harley-Davidson motorcycle is not respected as culture, but it’s a true American art form as legitimate as Navajo art. People put down heavy metal or rap as the armpit of music, but try to do either one of them. Try to sound like a rapper if you didn’t grow up in that culture or try to sound like Eddy Van Halen if you didn’t live and breathe and love that stuff and put in a lot of time. My God! Rap and heavy metal, that’s the edge of the art form. People don’t want to hear that, but I think it is. That’s where it’s going.