Window down and the sun warms my elbow as the deep throated scream of a mouth organ asserts itself from the public radio Saturday blues show. Cue the dissolve for a flashback.
[Insert the the strums of a harp interrupting the bass groove. I’m shaking my head violently back and forth, trying to immerse more fully in the memory and erase that damn, incoherent harp.]
It feels like a day for a street festival in Ann Arbor. We’d sit on a paint-peeled porch as the sun was passing the noon mark. We didn’t drink in the morning. Our beverage of choice recipe included plenty of ice, many cans of frozen lemonade and Popov. Our people would gather with the supplies. Sometimes someone would get cocky and bring the Smirnoff. The one with the extra proof.
I don’t think the person who lived at the house with the porch had the blender. I’m sure that we left it there. I’m pretty sure that it was a yard sale find.
It’s a miracle that we didn’t burn that motor out. It’s not like it was a will-it-blend? Vitamix model. No. It was a lowly Oster that probably once belonged to a graduate student. We stuffed it with ice cubes and frozen lemonade and enough vodka to make a slush. We didn’t want to dilute the liquor too much. The ice should have been too much for that cheap blender. But it wasn’t.
Ann Arbor is small enough that the porch could be central. We could get back easily in between bands and when our cups were empty. Or we could just do the brain freeze downing of the slush and leave the cup behind. This method was optimal for dancing, if not for responsible drinking.
We’d find the schedule on a poster plastered on a wall or in the student newspaper. Someone or two would pour over the schedule to optimize our band selections–avoiding the bluegrass and making sure we hit the reggae cover band–and so we would know where to meet up if we were separated.
The best music was the blues. There were old bands and young bands. The young bands were usually made up of white kids who grew up in suburbia and had instruments and listened to Cream, the Stones and others in the British Invasion. They discovered that there was an entire history behind that music. That it originated many generations earlier. There were also the old bands. They were usually more diverse, and had traveled along the circuit from bar to bar. They were done with the circuit and now stayed closer to home. They played when they could. They had day jobs.
When we were lucky, when the sun went down there were bands that were still playing the circuit that would come through. They’d be in the bars after the festival wound down rather than on the street stages during the day.
We’d all be salty and gritty from sweat. Hair would be amuss. Sandaled feet filthy. Maybe someone needed a bandaid. Occasionally someone would bow out due to a sun stroke or bad meat*.
We’d try and get there early enough for a table. We’d order pitchers of the cheap beer. And we’d stand close to what would stand in for a stage, listening to people 10 or 20 or 30 years our senior playing the blues.
We didn’t understand the blues ourselves, but we felt that chord progression. We incorporated the growl of illicit sex–either the cheater or the cheat-tee. Sometimes we couldn’t tell exactly who was wronged. We’d feel the rhythm section through our feet and sometimes the bass would explode directly from our hearts. The thud of the bass drum and the hiss of the snare would knock us woke.
We would stand in front of that stage and sway. We’d sing. We’d dance. We’d make out. We’d feel it. We’d pitch a wang dang doodle all night long.
The tiny snug bars didn’t have dressing rooms or green rooms. The bands would come in, set up and play. They didn’t have a quiet space. For breaks they’d go outside to smoke, get someone older than us cheap kids to buy them a drink. They’d fade into the crowd or hang out near the dumpsters behind the joint. Once, I met up with Koko Taylor in the ladies room. There was a line of cocaine that disappeared from the restroom vanity. Gatemouth Brown and Bobby Blue Bland held services from those risers that stood in for a stage. There were guitarists, horn and harp blowers of renown. We didn’t know.
The bar was dark. It stunk. The floor was sticky. We didn’t tip for shit. We were just college punks, drunk, dirty and loving the blues. And, in festival season, we’d get up the next day and do it again.
[Next time I do a memory, I’m going to fall into the pensieve rather than do the Gilligan’s Island dissolve to the next scene.]
* a euphemism for being sick from drink.