B.B. King’s masterful Blues album Live and Well helped me struggle through 1969; a year of loneliness, sadness and regret in jungle fatigues. The ten tracks on that LP imparted a spirit so strong, a heart so resilient, that the troubles in my world seemed less menacing and a bit more tolerable. I came to understand that, far from being a unique artistic miracle, such musical commiseration and encouragement is the very purpose of The Blues.
I was hooked on The Blues; intrigued by the stories in the songs, enchanted by the 3-chord, 12-bar structure, drawn in by the spare, vivid language, and amazed by a wide variety of styles. Delta Blues thumps along like weary footsteps through thick bayou mud, sweltering in humid heat; Piedmont Style skips along like a hill-climb heartbeat, and Chicago Electric fuses electronic Jazz tonality with the clamor of an urban soundscape and a heavy rolling bass line. Blues was a fusion of music, history, philosophy, psychology, and hard-won strategies from frontline of the War of the Sexes.
I had played guitar and sung Top 40 Pop music in my teen years, as a member of The Chaparels “For the ultimate in sound!” was the tagline brag on our business cards) We were street-corner harmony singers who had worked our way up from simple trumpet/accordion/acoustic guitar accompaniment to the `60’s 5-piece combo configuration: lead, rhythm and bass electric guitars, organ and drums. Our vocal experience served us well in replicating popular songs and we added rich vocal arrangements wherever possible. If The Beach Boys were Barbershop Surf, we were Barbershop Blues.
I sang lead on the grittier numbers, building my style by copying other white performers – Eric Bourdon, John Mayall, Jim Morrison, Al Kooper – who imitated black Blues originators. So, the Chaparels and I were out of sync with, and at least one level removed from, the spirit of authentic Bluesmen. We were neck-deep in what was then referred to as Blue-eyed Soul.
After Live and Well had worked its magic, I got clear about creative lineage and the flow of influences. I re-shuffled my music library to reflect that sensibility and focused on learning directly from “roots” performers. My vocal style changed quickly, since listening to the records gave me the tones and timbers.
But finding a guitar teacher with direct linkage to any of The Greats presented a problem. Learning from a master traditionally required an internship, paying years of dues by playing back-up guitar, learning trademark riffs firsthand and modifying each gem just enough to avoid losing the essence or looking like competition to the mentor. I set aside the notion of a protracted apprenticeship and emulated B.B. King and Mike Bloomfield solos to develop a vocal guitar style. The goal was to make the guitar sing when I wasn’t singing.
As with most dreams, once I stop chasing them, they sneak up out of the blue and nudge me.
The San Francisco Bay Guardian, like many alternative press weeklies, had a thick classified section that routinely included dozens of treasures for students of sociology, speech and spectacle. Under “Personals” I read, “Mature male looking to meet someone who, through no fault of their own, has taken the life of another. Call me. We’ll have lunch.” Under “Trade / Barter” I found, “XXL Lesbian Dominatrix wishes to trade Hummel Figurines for fetish clothing. No freaks.”
But remarkably, under “Music Instruction” I found a shocker, “Blues Guitar taught by Blues Project founder. Reasonable. D. Kalb.”
Danny Kalb? Well, he wasn’t an Original Great but he was mentored by master folkie Dave Van Ronk and he drew his deep inspiration from Son House, Skip James and Mississippi John Hurt. Plus, he had played an astonishing inventive lead guitar in the band that was regarded as a Jewish-American answer to Protestant-British Blues bands like the Yardbirds and Bluebreakers. In pre-Clapton is God! days, the King of Strings title was a toss-up between Kalb and Bloomfield. Both were steeped in the muddy music I loved, but Michael wasn’t advertising to find students.
I called Kalb and we talked about my experience for a few minutes and agreed on a lesson date and time. During the intervening days I worked out an arrangement that I hoped would sound less-than-embarrassing; a minor key shuffle with a few un-ambitious breaks. After all, I told him I needed a full-on style overhaul and underplaying would provide him plenty of creative leeway to shape me.
His modest two-bedroom apartment was divided into living and instruction areas and we settled into the guitar studio bedroom on two straight-back wooden chairs facing each other. This seating arrangement has proven effective for instruction or interrogation; all communication, verbal and physical, plainly visible to both parties.
“Show me something.” Danny said matter-of-factly as I stabbed my stiff little fingers at the fretboard. He added a few backing chords, nodded and made facial expressions that conveyed, “Not completely hopeless.” I was overjoyed.
Then he said, “Play a progression in G.” and over my simple accompaniment he drizzled a sparse, emotion-filled melody line that brought Muddy Water’s spirit into the room. I blew the chord change at the turnaround and stopped cold to just listen to him. Kalb held a long quivering blue note and stared at me.
“Why did you stop?” he asked.
I made a lame excuse about being distracted, but he wasn’t buying it.
“You won’t learn much by stopping every time you screw up.”
I remained silent, willing to take his admonishment rather than open my mouth and sound like a rank beginner, or worse, a star-struck fan.
“Again.” He said.
I played on and, with that, acknowledged our baseline student/teacher agreement. In that room, mistakes weren’t failures. They were how I would stretch my abilities and grow more familiar with the voice my fingers coaxed from my guitar.
Each time Danny showed me a new phrase or dazzling embellishment, I had to fight a powerful urge to simply stop playing and watch. I’d heard all kinds of musical figures and fill-ins and phrases in thousands of Blues songs, so I recognized where each lick he played fit into the grand cosmology of the genre. But sitting there, agog, as Kalb played them with effortless elan was virtually a metaphysical experience.
We took a break. Danny offered me a soft drink from his fridge and we sat on his living room couch, chatting about the music business and performance life in general. I knew a bunch of session musicians he worked with and he knew a bunch of comedians I worked with. We realized that over the years, we had both shined and sweated on the same S.F. stages.
I also knew what had happened to the Blues Project and, not wanting to evoke painful memories for my new teacher, had prepared a mental list of don’t ask questions. In retrospect I may have been overly cautious. What group in the 60’s didn’t have crippling problems with Hindenburg-class egos, drugs, throngs of adoring groupies, financial follies, and incompetent management. After all, how does one take a vibrant, yet fragile musical association up from dingy clubs to international notoriety given the availability of unlimited physical, mental, and emotional temptations?
Danny surprised me. Unprompted, he gave me the whole story – cool and objective – in a few frank sentences.
Yes, there were creative differences. Yes, there were stresses. And yes, a punchbowl spiked with a hallucinogenic amplified his problems immensely. But musical marriages are ephemeral things. As with any marriage, the partners must, necessarily, grow together or grow apart. The list of successful multi-decade, hit-making groups is relatively short due to frenetic touring schedules, creative burnout, or the whims of ravenous audiences.
On the other hand, hundreds of mediocre, one-hit wonder bands hang together and tour until they die. I suppose it’s a matter of choosing what you are driven to do or how you hope your obit will read.
“I`d rather be dead than singing "Satisfaction" when I`m forty-five!” said Mick Jagger, who, by his stated desire, should have begun his dirtnap in 1988.
With each lesson, Danny and I became more and more relaxed – me about my technique and him about speaking frankly during the odd observations we use to fill awkward pauses and silences. One evening I accompanied him to a friend’s home-studio recording session where he ventured into Jazz improvisations so intricate I began to see the notes as shapes and colors. No spiked punch there, but the unlocking of melodic and harmonic recesses within my head I had never known existed. When I mentioned this realization to Kalb, he shrugged as though I had said, “Today’s Wednesday, but it feels like Friday.”
A few weeks later, Danny invited me and my wife to a gig he was playing with ex-Blues Project flutist Andy Kulberg in North Beach, San Francisco. We sat in the shotgun ginmill, among a dozen or so die-hard Blues Project fans. There was another group of people at the bar, absorbed in examining the dusty liquor bottles on the back-bar.
Kulberg launched into his trademark Flute Thing and half the room moved to the groove. Danny joined him and Blues Project magic filled our ears. It turned out to be a great evening, despite the absence of the four other original band members. Danny’s attitude was relatively upbeat as we left; the three of us squeezing into my Fiat 124 Spyder – a two-seater with a laughably small back seat that could barely hold two small bags of groceries.
I re-capped some of the great moments of the performance as we worked our way out of the city, but soon noticed the mood in the car had changed. Danny grew dismissive and distant. My wife, sitting sideways in the back, shot me a look in the rear view mirror. As parents we were both familiar with the silent signal - Someone is having a meltdown.
My teacher, my new friend, launched into a harangue about America being the cause of immense suffering throughout the world. I looked at Laura’s eyes in the mirror and she blinked and shook her head in disbelief.
Where the hell is this going?
“You were in the Army.” He said, “You saw what this country did. We’re criminals.”
As with an intransigent child, the content was nothing; the tone was the message.
That’s where I made a regrettable error by trying to explain my point of view. “Yes, I was in a war zone, Danny. In a country that has been at war since its inception. A thousand years of senseless violence. And I saw how those people had adapted to incorporate their pain into the big picture of their lives. They still had weddings, celebrated births, hung onto hope and dared to dream. They fell in love and found a reason to carry on and make each day a gift of immeasurable value.”
“We were killing them, Marty!” he said, “Making their life hell on earth. That’s evil!”
I went on, attempting to defuse what appears to be a powder keg he had been lugging around for decades. But, in the crosshairs of his anger, regret, and insecurity, I was given no quarter. The war had ended more than ten years before this outburst, but for Danny the issue was suddenly front-burner hot. He wouldn’t make eye contact with me as we drove to his apartment and after Laura shot me another knowing look, I adjusted my perspective. I had been an attentive student, building a friendship and even ferrying him to and from this gig. I resented having to be The Parent at this point; it’s always been a role I refuse to play with another adult.
“Listen Danny, I don’t know anyone who knows the Blues like you do. And I’ve heard you speak brilliantly about black people and the painful situations they had to sing about to tolerate. I would be way out of my league to presume that I could second-guess your decisions and motivations, but when it comes to war? You have no experience whatsoever. If you want to mouth protest clichés, stick them in a song. But I won’t get past the first stanza.”
I may not have changed his mind, but I sure as hell had his attention.
“And here’s the kicker. Slavery was an abomination. But, without it, you’d be playing pop songs about moons and Junes. Life is suffering and music – comedy and prayer are how we cope with that pain, sadness and regret. It seems odd that, after what seemed to be an enjoyable reunion with an old friend, you start snapping at me like an old biscuit hound growling at a puppy for merely standing by the food dish. I’m your friend, Danny. Please keep that in mind when you feel like crap.”
“Friend.” he growled, turning to look at Laura, who met his glance with no emotion whatsoever.
Silence until we arrived at his apartment complex’s parking lot. Laura shifted uncomfortably and said,
“Thank you for the invitation and great music. I’m sure we’ll all feel better tomorrow.”
Kalb shoved the door open and climbed out. I climbed out and stood in front of him.
“Danny, I want to keep taking lessons. I want to be friends. You do you know that, right?”
“We can’t be friends.”
“Why not?” I asked, incredulously.
“Because your wife agrees with you and you like her more than you like me.”
Now I felt like I had had seconds at the Acid Punchbowl. I tried to unravel what he said and view it in a way that allowed me to regard him as a coherent, considerate human being. I couldn’t do it.
And there it ended.
Because musical marriages – even teacher/student marriages – are ephemeral things and the partners must, necessarily, grow together or grow apart.
The Kalb Higgins Blues Project lasted a couple of months. And, at this time, no re-union is planned.