About 25 years ago, I was driving cross country for the reasons you might expect of a 20-year old who was utterly lost. Where the hell was my life? It had to be somewhere. It was not in the big city suburb I grew up in. Not in the rows of desks at that sheep factory called High School from which I barely graduated and not in any of the sheep factories of higher learning, none of which I bothered to apply to in favor of a succession of waitress and waitress-like jobs and hanging out in bars, and not in the telenovelas of the lives of those I met but had no way to connect with because no one spoke my language. Where was my life? Where were my people? Some hints could be found in books, yes. In music, certainly.
But what did art and music have to do with me? How could I find a life to relate to when I didn’t even know my own location? I could find no discernible roads, no apparent steps to climb, no conceivable destination to maneuver toward. Lost. So I figured, what the hell, I might as well drive around. At least that way my body would be doing what my mind already was, and there’s something oddly satisfying about matching those two up. I got behind the wheel and headed in the only viable direction for a music lover in Boston (or anywhere, really): South. And West.
After a few weeks, as luck would have it, my car broke down in Austin, Texas. According to my navigate-by-vibe road plan, I was heading there anyway, mainly because I heard you could listen to actual people play real music on instruments they were born to hold. You can tell the difference between music played because you’re trying to get over and music played because that’s what your momma and daddy did and so you picked it up too, to see what you had to say. I heard they had players like that in Austin, especially the blues guys.
This is what I wanted. I wanted to find the world that resonated with such sounds so I could live in it. With the great purity of adolescent longing, my aim was to eviscerate the opaque presence of whatever was marketing my own life back to me. Music could do that. Hey, we’re talking music here. Music is food. Music is life. Music is the proof that goodness exists, and that there is a way to meet joy and love and despair and all manner of inner states in their non-conceptual form. So of course I loved music, all kinds, but for this skinny white girl, Blues cut the deepest. If I was going to drink in any tradition, it was going to be that one.
In fact, without music and Texas, the trip never would have happened. One night, I was sitting in the front seat of my cab (yes, my cab) at 2am outside a Boston nightclub on a sticky August night, waiting to see if anyone had misplaced their designated driver. My cab had no A/C because, well, girl cabbies don’t get respect, so I had the windows down, seat slid all the way back, smoking a cigarette, feet sticking out the driver side window, radio on. Loud. Two songs came on in sequence that presented me with my own personal one-way ticket out of Palookaville.
First: “Dancing in the Dark,” by Bruce, which had these killer, killer lines,
Man, I’m just tired and bored with myself…
…I want to change my clothes, my hair, my face.
I ain’t getting nowhere, just living in a dump like this.
There’s something happening somewhere, baby. I just know that there is.
I heard that last line and I don’t know what happened next. I snapped.
It was over.
I was done with the cab, Boston, this version of being alive, you, me: my clothes, my hair; I didn’t care if I ever saw my own face again. Done. There was something happening somewhere and for sure that somewhere was not here. I didn’t know what I was going to do tomorrow except that it was not in any way going to resemble today.
Next up, “Cold Shot” by Stevie Ray Vaughan. My reaction this time had nothing to do with lyrics and everything to do with the scream of joy that burst from my heart at the sound of a Texas shuffle and, more, something about the naturalness of SRV, 80s drum sounds notwithstanding. In this moment, I got what “cool” was in general and in music in particular and I stand by my definition to this day. It means not being in a hurry. Even if you’re playing fast, you take your time. Texas musicians are the ultimate in what’s-the-rush musicianship. I mean just listen to any Willie Nelson song from any era. With every verse, you’re not sure if he’s even still in the room but then, just in time, without a bone in his body, he comes in a moment before the moment disappears. That is cool.
But I digress.
So I quit my job, put everything in the back of my sister’s car (somehow I scammed her into “lending” it to me) and began to drive.
Until one night many weeks later when I was heading into Austin and realized, oh crap, I’m about to miss the exit, swerved to catch it, and ran over a meridian strip, busting up the front end of my poor sister’s car. Wallet check revealed about $119. Poof. I lived in Austin.
I needed a place to stay while I figured stuff out and so did what anyone would do in such circumstances. I went to a bar. I waited and watched for someone who might give me a place to stay in exchange for as little as possible, which, when you’re 20 and cute is basically everyone. Soon the people at the table next to me were buying me drinks and it turns out that amongst them were two other cute girls in their 20s, sisters, Kathy and Linda, whose 3rd roommate was moving out in two weeks to go live with her boyfriend and I could have her room if I didn’t mind sleeping on their floor for awhile. Mind? I was thrilled. As fate would have it, Kathy was a waitress at Antone’s: Austin’s Home of the Blues and she said they were hiring and I should apply, which I did, trembling. Antone’s? Antone’s?? If you knew anything about blues music at that time, you knew this was where Stevie got his start and also the Fabulous Thunderbirds and that at Antone’s there was a crew of musicians who could nail your heart to the wall without looking up. They were called the Antone’s House Band and if there were ever a group of musicians who were not trying to market themselves to you, it was they. Soulful, deep, deep, soulful, night after live-music night, backing up John Lee Hooker, Albert Collins, James Cotton, you name it. The night I went into apply, Otis Rush was playing to about 10 people and I had what was as close to a satori experience (as I now might call it) as I’d ever had, before or since. Don’t ask. I can’t describe it. No one could.
I was hired, due to having been a cocktail waitress twice before, once in a nightclub in DC called The Bayou (only recently defunct) and the other time in the bar of a restaurant, lunch shift. If you’ve ever worked lunch hours in a bar, you’ve pretty much seen it all in terms of drunks so I was in and it was at this exact moment that my real life started.
Pretty much everything good in my life can be traced back to that moment. I found a home for my love of music. I learned everything you could ever want to know about how to listen to music and I heard things that would blow your mind, if only I could turn my ears inside out and broadcast what they have taken in. The house band produced a serious boyfriend for me. I heard and hung out with and deeply dug all the blues guys mentioned, plus Albert King, Memphis Slim, Jimmy Rogers, Eddie Taylor, Junior Wells, Barbara Lynn, Hubert Sumlin, forget about it, the list goes on beyond, beyond, beyond.
After about a year, the happiest year of my life for sure, Antone’s started a record label. I didn’t work in the daytime, so was deemed an eligible employee and that’s how I started a 10+ year career in the music business. Anyway, there’s so much more to this story, endlessly more, but suffice to say at this point that I made a lasting and potent connection to the Blues, the kind of connection you know will last because it had always been there to begin with, you just didn’t know it.
So that is road #1. But one road does not a crossroads make. The Buddha produced the second road and at some point, a point to be later described, I drove to Mississippi, sat at the intersection of Highways 61 and 49, picked up the live wire of blues in my left hand and the live wire of dharma in my right and stuck them together to see what would happen.