© By Jack Bogut
Excerpted from my book – Big Sky Cafe
We never thought we’d have to explain the semantic difference between "stooped" and "stupid," to "Sis" Conway, the barmaid. And we wouldn’t have if she hadn’t blurted out the wrong observation when the new guitar-player walked into the Lyon’s Den to report for work that first day.
It all started when the front door was flung open and the stranger made his rather furtive entrance, bent over like a laughing hyena stealing a meal, glancing around the room out of the corners of his eyes (the primitive brain scans first for danger—then opportunity). Sis took one look at him and said in a voice much too loud for the occasion,
"Boy. He is really STUPID!"
The stranger looked over his shoulder in disgust as he headed for the door marked, OFFICE, in big letters.
After the door was closed, the bartender explained;
"Sis. You don’t even know him. How can you say that he’s stupid?”
“I mean the way he walks, bent over, you know, STUPID.” Sis cheerfully answered.
“Well, then you mean the guy is STOOPED over. There's a big difference between stooped and stupid."
"Whatever!" She said, waving her hand. "We don’t know him yet." Sis was on a roll. "No matter how you slice it, he’s got a permanent ‘duck’."
"That's not very kind, Sis. Maybe he just can’t straighten up. It might be indigestion.”
"How could that be?” She answered. “He hasn't eaten here yet!"
General laughter filled the room.
It was the kind of bored, absent minded, good natured, familiar, thoughtless chatter that you hear among local people who have nothing to say about someone new in town...but say it anyway. One thing for sure, we knew this guy was different from the moment he arrived.
And the accidental appraisal that he might have lived much of his life under a bridge...would unfortunately be born out.
His name was Irish McBride. And he really was a strange looking character. When he walked, he stepped gingerly, like he was either treading on thin ice or his feet hurt. He was bent over so far from the waist, he leaned himself through the room, shoulders pulled forward, almost under his chin. His tail stuck out far enough for a door to hit it on his way through. His legs appeared to dangle from the middle of his torso, ending in two, out-turned flat feet. His silhouette looked more like a question mark than a human profile. He was also a contradiction. For a small man there was a large presence to him. People tended to watch him anytime he moved. All in all, he was at the same time, one of the oddest looking and most impressive people we'd ever seen.
That day, when he reappeared from Kenny Jenkins’ office, I could tell from the look in his eyes he'd overheard the remark Sis had made when he walked in, because he glared around the room before he collapsed into a chair.
"Are you the new guitar player?" Sis asked.
"What's this look like, a bird cage? Sure takes a rocket scientist to figure this one out!" he said, holding up his guitar case. “Go ahead, ask another stupid question.”
Wow! And that was for openers.
People tried in vain to talk to him, ask questions, be friendly, but he just scowled and stung ‘em or looked away without answering.
"I've been ignored and insulted before but this guy's an expert," someone mumbled.
Why we paid attention to him, I don’t know. But we watched every move he made.
Irish whipped out a flip-top lighter and, with some ceremony, lit a cigarette, staring at the flame for a long time while he totally ignored us. We were to learn that was kind of his trademark. Whenever he needed to change the subject or re-focus the environment he'd light up and smoke furiously, pulling the bright red fire ever closer to his lip before stubbing out the butt in an ashtray (or in a beer glass or in somebody's half-eaten sandwich or grinding it out on the floor). Then he'd light another one. In fact, he often lit another cigarette with the one he was still smoking. Maybe he found some kind of privacy in that cloud of smoke that always seemed to surround him, we didn't know. One thing for sure, whatever he did, whether it was smoking a cigarette or insulting people, he did with a vengeance.
The only reason somebody didn’t throw him out was that we figured he had to have talent. Nobody with a personality that rotten could have lived that long unless he did something well. And we all thought his talent must be music. At least that's what all of us in the band were hoping and why the room got very quiet when he reached for his beat up guitar case. We were dying see what was inside.
In a single motion, he raised the battle scarred lid, reached inside and carefully took out an aged but elegant guitar that caught the dim light in the room and reflected it, softly, back in our eyes. We'd never seen an instrument like this one. Oh, we'd seen guitars before; big, electric "Gibsons" that, with the volume turned up and played with a pick, could sound like banshees cutting clouds in half with lightning bolts or a herd of mating elephants leaning on a fence, stretching the wire till it broke. We'd been raised on guitar music that could fill a dance hall, crack plaster, soften cement, cover up inane dance floor conversations, or even bury a bad vocalist; "Gittar" sound (accent on the first syllable), about as subtle as a wounded wasp. Sure! We were familiar with guitars, but we'd never seen on like this before.
There was almost a reverence in Irish’s motion as he lifted the instrument out of the case and gently eased it onto his lap. The finish was well worn around the neck, making it a little lighter in color than the rest of the dark surface but it was smooth and softly shiny everywhere. There were no scratch marks on his guitar, just variations in color where his hands had gently touched it thousands of times. And it had no electrical cord running from it—this was rare! Except for the "dime store cheapies," every serious guitar we'd ever seen was electric. Had to be, just to compete with the rest of the band.
"Nice guitar," some cordial peacemaker optimistically offered.
"What the hell do you know about it?" Irish said, as he ducked his head and put the sling over his shoulders. "Ever seen a real guitar before? Probably not. Gimme the microphone!"
Now that ...created a problem. The vocalist used that mike at the front of the bandstand (it was also the only one we had).
"The singer uses that mike." I said.
"Not while I'm up here. I don't accompany singers." He answered sarcastically.
Dale Carnegie would have hit him in the mouth!
Irish pulled the microphone stand close to his chair, turned the screw adjustment and let the shaft drop all the way down with an electronic and metallic WHAAP that filled the club. The noise was so loud and rude that it brought Kenny Jenkins out of his office and the cook out of the kitchen to see what the hell was going on; didn't bother Irish.
When everything was finally to his liking and the room was holding its collective breath, he focused on the guitar. His fingers and thumb slowly encircled the neck like five small, thin, white snakes and probed their way across the frets as he quickly tuned each string and finally played one sustained, complex chord.
All the lines seemed to vanish from his face as he leaned over and curled himself into an almost fetal position to cradle that guitar like a baby. And then he played something that made every jaw in the room drop like a tailgate. It was the most difficult, elegant and beautiful string of chords and notes we'd ever heard come out of a guitar. And he threw the music into the room like it was nothing. Tom Lyon, the owner, shook his head and said, “Damn!” Heads nodded in agreement. Every note fit so perfectly together that the sum of the sound was greater than its parts. The bartender said later that a fly stopped buzzing just to hear the notes and fell in Lucille Wheat’s drink.
When Irish finished, the place was dead quiet. We were all struck dumb. It was at the very bottom of that silence that he looked up and sideways at us, like Quasimodo, and said:
"We gonna play or not?"
All of us in the band jumped up from our chairs like he'd cracked a whip and headed for the bandstand. And there was no need for discussion about who’d be picking’ the tunes. We all knew instinctively that locked up inside that bad body was our new leader, a real musician who could teach us all something.
We just didn't realize how much we'd all have to suffer to find out how good he really was and how much we had to learn!
That was mainly because, even though we'd been mentally pushed around, we hadn't really been tested by his presence. Then again, he hadn't been tested either - he hadn't heard us: "The Lyon’s Den Rhythm Rangers!"
We were a rag-tag bunch of local musicians who made up for a lack of talent, ability and training with volume and tempo. By circumstance, we were used to working on a bandstand that was little more than a wooden platform in one corner of the room. It was square (kind of fit the music), one step up from the dance floor with a rickety rail around the perimeter and unsupported in the center. Consequently, with all of us up there, the middle sagged like spring ice on a pond.
The platform was fairly rigid along the sides (had to be to hold up the piano), but the sagging center complicated all our lives. Whenever something up-tempo was played, we'd start bouncing around to the rhythm and everybody would wind up involuntarily down slope, in the middle. We brought new meaning to the expression, "that band is really together!" In fact, one night I split the back out of my pants from the belt loop to the zipper, chasing the bass drum; it tended to move downhill faster than the rest of my equipment and, since a thundering bass drum was my signature, I had no choice; I had to keep reaching with my right leg and pounding with my right foot while my stool stood still, putting more and more of a strain on the seam in my trousers until I felt a sudden and profound draft. And guess who thought it was funny?
Yes, Irish. The man who never laughed at anything thought it was hilarious. His eyes almost disappeared as mirth spread over his face. Laugh lines wrinkled back toward his ears as he chortled, bobbing his head, making no sound at all. We caught just a glimpse of tobacco stained teeth as he suppressed a smile.
He grabbed the microphone and explained to the assembled throng how and why a new wind was blowing up my street. He muffled a couple of "Snukks" and asked the audience if they thought I should face the back of the stage and take a bow. They all agreed with applause and laughter. I smiled outside and died inside.
Ten seconds later the crowd was bored with the whole thing and drifted back to the bar. It took another ten minutes for the blood to drain from my face back into the rest of my body. We all decided during the next break that in the future, we would try to never, ever do anything funny on the bandstand again. And so the distance between us and our tormentor grew.
After that little episode, Irish decided he would sit near the outside of the bandstand where he could hook his foot over the side. That way, on up tempo tunes he could avoid meeting the rest of us at the low spot in the middle (which coincided with his opinion of the band). Irish would put half his fanny on the stool, dangle one leg over the edge of the platform, belch a cloud of tobacco smoke toward the ceiling and ignore the rest of us while he played music that soared around the room like an un-caged bird.
If Irish had the personality of a wounded wasp he also had the patience of a horse in heat. He noticed every mistake we made and vilified the offender. He never acknowledged success or praised those rare moments when we did something right or played something together. He expected nothing less. In fact, whether we wanted to admit it or not, we all played our best with Irish in the band (fear is a great motivator); all of us except Arlene, our piano player. Whenever she hit a wrong note or a wrong chord, we all thought, uh-oh! We knew what was coming.
You see, Arlene was a basement piano player. A rec-room musician who should never have played in public for people who didn't know and like her. She just didn't have the ability or nerves for it. She was great with friends who had taken lessons but didn't practice and couldn't play anything but chopsticks. They used to say, "Arlene, you are soooooo gooood!" And she kind of believed them. Until Irish.
Her name had been Arlene Green until she married Bud, “The Ox,” Box. The union didn't last long but she kept the name Arlene Box anyway. Life was simpler if her name wasn't Green. You should know that she was John Green's sister. John was one of the best street and bar fighters in town so she got a certain amount of unsolicited respect wherever she went. And respect can also equate with loneliness.
Nobody would look twice at Arlene Green because of John's reputation for redecorating the faces of guys that made either he or his sister unhappy. It finally got the point where Arlene was known as "Sister Arlene."
"How are things at the convent?" her girlfriends would ask.
Arlene would counter with, "I'll tell my brother you said that!"
That comment was usually followed by nervous laughter and a change of subject.
That's why this situation was particularly hard to take. Arlene knew she had an easy out. She didn't have to take this kind of abuse from anybody. After Irish had been there a week, Brother John had already offered to take Irish out for a good "knuckle burger" dinner but she wouldn't hear of it. She hated violence of any kind so she just suffered in tearful silence.
All of us in the band hated to see Arlene unhappy because we liked her. Besides, she didn't have much of a social life, partly because of her appearance. She looked like a hockey stick with hair and saddle oxfords; not too much interruption in body line from top to bottom. Her nose would have been elegant had it been on a larger person. Just like her figure would have been terrific if she had been half as tall. She had one gold tooth top left of center and thin lips (usually chapped because she chewed them constantly), with just a hint of a mustache on the upper one. She was not terribly confident, but a good person.
She also played sincere but rather tentative, "boom chuck" piano. You know; chords that went, boom-chuck, boom-chuck and a single note melody line on songs like Blue Moon, Ja Da, Dark Town Strutters' Ball, all real old songs nobody wanted to hear anymore but every piano teacher made you play.
And once in a while, if she would get two or three drinks down before Irish put his cigarette out in her glass, Arlene would crank out an inspired, up tempo version of "In the Mood." Irish hated all those songs, but they were the only tunes Arlene knew. He especially despised "In the Mood" because people came out of the woodwork to dance to it. Sometimes they would applaud and Arlene would smile. One time she stood up and took a bow. Irish took a drag on his cigarette so hard he almost swallowed it. It was great!
Irish admitted he was an "Occasional Catholic" and he considered Arlene to be his on-going penance. So he would abuse her constantly, out of the corner of his mouth without the cigarette in it. He would turn his head to let the smoke curl up past his ear, away from his eyes and hurl half spoken verbal stones at her.
"Where'd you learn to play piano, a body shop?"
"How long have you been handicapped?"
"You should have been a prize fighter, with knuckles like that!"
Arlene would lean over, ever closer to the keyboard, until her shoulders were hunched forward like her tormentor’s and put her head down, face turned away to hide the tears in her eyes.
The rest of the band had come to her defense a few times but Irish just threatened to quit and leave the bandstand. One night I suggested that he was an unclean person of questionable ancestry. The sax player referred to a canine in Irish's lineage. Arlene told us to mind our own business; she could take care of herself. Besides, "Mr. McBride" was the best "SHE would ever play with!" We both gulped on that one and decided to shut up.
Irish had no problem with me. I did play "lead" drums (a never-ending solo), but all he had to do was look at me and I'd tone down. The bass player was faking it all the time so he never played loud enough to expose all the wrong notes he knew he was hitting. He played the bass like a drum, more of a muffled thunk than a musical note, usually in rhythm and not objectionable. The saxophone player had poor tone (a split reed, sounded asthmatic), but honked out fairly accurate melody and never deviated, so that left Arlene.
Once in a while, the whole band would be offended enough to leave Irish on the bandstand by himself. Then, if he felt like it, is when the magic happened.
He would hold that guitar gently and stroke it like a kitten. We suspected that he connected the guitar to his body; that it was somehow wired into his soul. At the very least, there had to be some dark place inside Irish that opened up when he played; some musty corner in his mental attic that never saw the light of day; only the glare of a spotlight when he took center stage. Even to this day, he was one of the best I ever heard.
Irish failed to show up for work one Saturday night, and we all had a beer to celebrate. But oddly enough, as the evening progressed, we were all touched with a little sadness when we realized that the only music we'd hear that night would be our own.
Irish never came back. Where he went, we never knew. But after that, with each song we played, we all reached beyond ourselves and tried to be better than we were, to replace some of the magic that Irish no longer poured into the club. We all wanted to release that musical bird and let it soar around the room the way he did. And the best we could do was make acceptable rhythmic noise that sounded OK, just like we did before he got there.
The only thing we were able to accomplish that was remotely like Irish McBride was to be nasty to each other as our frustration poured out. And it was during some of the worst of those moments that we realized we respected, despised, and missed him, and would never forget him.