Consider these two quotes:
“The Fender bass has had more of an effect on popular music than almost any other instrument of the 20th Century.”
“Without the bass, you ain’t no place.”
Quote No. 1 is from The American Blues Guitar, a book by Rick Batey that came out in 2003. It documents the instruments that fueled and sustained the explosion of popular music during the latter half of that other century.
Quote No. 2 is by Big Joe Mahrer, drummer of Big Joe and the Dynaflows. The words were spoken in my garage in Richmond during a jam session, just after Big Joe told me to turn up because, well, the sound was no place.
Yes, I play bass. But I just don’t play it. It plays me. It moves me, fills me with a vibrating pulse of power that is mine to harness or unleash. I confess to visions of King Kong on bass, thundering like a volcano with a force beyond nature, primal, tectonic, the foundation that holds the earth—and all other music—together. Yes, play your guitar and let it shriek and howl, or flutter like a butterbee, let its notes chime or swell—you stand on the terra firma of my bass. Yes, play your drums, beat the heart’s rhythm and the stampede of the wild beast—it is my bass that is the blood that flows with each pulse, my bass that snorts and paws.
It also is my bass that wraps like a blanket around your heart, when you are giddy or sick with love and the comfort you seek is a single note that will keep you warm until the end of time. It is also my bass that is the explorer’s bark, the boat that bears your musical imagination, lets it soar into the wind or break like a wave on some foreign shore of red sand and rainbow birds.
Oh yes, I play bass.
From the beginning, I played bass. Reid, my younger brother, and I built one out of plywood. It wasn’t even plywood, but a thin wood veneer left over from one of Dad’s many building projects. And it wasn’t even a full bass, just an outline of one, a cookie cutout with no hope of making sound.
I don’t remember actually cutting the wood, or attaching the four pieces of scraggly twine that represented strings. I do remember, though, Reid and I holding it in the basement of our home in Burke and pretending that we actually were playing a real bass.
It was an unlikely place for a dream to be born—a dank, musty cellar with an ancient oil furnace in the middle, a green pingpong table on one side and shelves with jars of fruit and vegetable preserves on the other. There in the dimness, Reid and I rocked, and the music pumping in my head then still pumps and drives to this day, decades later, through countless gigs, scores of bands, hundreds of concerts, and into another generation that smiles at my failing hearing, my balding head, my arthritic memory, and my antediluvian songs.
But I still play bass. And this is my confession, my tale of coming of age in an age of giants, of seeing Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, the Who, the Rolling Stones, the Beatles and more, of having the same dream as a million other kids who strapped on a guitar or plugged in a microphone or clicked a song’s beginning with drumsticks—or those who never did but wanted to.
This is the story of my brothers, those of my blood and those of my bands, all of one family. This is the story of the legions other musicians and music lovers who carved their initials on that tree, a tree with still-spreading branches and roots that now reach to the other side of the world.
Oh yes, I still play bass. And it still plays me.
THE BEGINNING: In which is described the various means by which assorted machines in the Graves household were raped, tortured and destroyed, all in the name of rock ’n’ roll.
My oldest brother, Bill, had radio; it was an anachronism, a wooden dinosaur with one transistor in the static pits. As I recall—if you can trust the recollection of a 9-year-old whose idea of a good time was to read late at night by flashlight with the covers pulled over my head—it was about as tall as two shoeboxes and maybe a little deeper. It fit well under his Army issue unbanked bed, and later, after he’d left for college and bequeathed the fossil to me, it fit just as well under mine.
But that radio played the first rock music I ever heard. Late at night, he would tune in WKBW in Buffalo, and from that exotic location—I had little idea where Buffalo was, some frostbitten city up north—would come the wildest music imaginable. The Big Bopper singing “Chantilly Lace,” the Everly Brothers with “Dream,” and others such as “Splish Splash” and “Donna.” The most memorable was the Killer himself, Jerry Lee Lewis, wrenching out “Great Balls of Fire.” The songs were fascinating and sometimes amusing, but they didn’t connect with me like I knew they were connecting with Bill. He was a rebel-in-training, an Oedipus just waiting for Laertes to give him too much grief. Those songs were his songs, symbolically and viscerally, and I imagine that radio gave him his first hint of the tug.
That’s what rock is all about. Some ineffable tug that grabs you by the gut and won’t let up. Its roots are Bacchanalian; the maenads would have fit right in at a Stones concert. The funny thing is that the tug has nothing to do with qualitative criteria. Your instrument doesn’t have to be in tune, you don’t have to sing right on pitch, you don’t have to play precisely or with anything more than rudimentary skill. You just have to connect, hit somebody and pull them with you into some facet of the animus. In its essence, it is no different from other musical forms, for they all touch passions bold as love. Rock, however, was new, custom-made for teens groping for a separate identity and relishing the loud slap in the ears it represented to their parents.
The music was our bonding agent, our glue, much more than any other medium of expression. It also was accessible to anyone who had the inclination to pick up an instrument and join, or form, a band. The standard of competency was low, and the instruments were in the process of being defined. Certainly there had been instrumental masters—Krupa, Segovia, Montgomery—but rock as a genre was so different it was like starting over. Rock guitar, drums, bass—they demanded their own technique, and we were there when the pioneers came through, when Beck (or was it Clapton) fuzzed out on the Yardbirds’ “Heart Full of Soul,” when Ginger Baker went ape-shit on “Toad,” when Entwistle toppled buildings with his dynamite bass riffs in “My Generation,” when Keith Emerson threw daggers and unleashed synthesized demons in “Lucky Man” and “America.”
Even more than Bill’s old box radio, the machine that shaped my musical development was our stereo console. At that time, it was definitely high-tech and high-fi. A turntable built into this half-casket-size box of light wood, probably pine, with golden brown glittering mesh cloth. I can’t remember the first recording that crackled to life on those speakers, but two early favorites were soundtracks—“Ben Hur” and “West Side Story.” Those and the classics–Beethoven, Bach, Tchaikovsky, Mozart–which were standard fare in our house. We loved that stereo, but we ended up raping and torturing it, turning up the volume to 11, playing guitars through it. It survived to usher in a new age, though, because the last sounds it played were the feedback groans of “Are You Experienced.” I’d gotten the album for Reid for Christmas, and the old stereo gave Jimi’s manic guitar playing an even more demonic layer of distortion. Jimi probably would have really gotten off on that.
Maybe part of my love for that sound came from repeated “1812 Overture” cannon blasts. I wore that overture out. It was goose bumps all the way when the orchestra started the long descending passage that ended with those grand chords and bells and barrages. The hugeness of that sound, the volume and intensity, made it a very small step to Hendrix.
That stereo was like a faucet, and through it rock seeped into our household drop by drop. First were the novelty tunes, “ltsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini” and “Purple People Eater.” Yeah, Simon and the Chipmunks were in there, too. Bill raised us up several notches by bringing home some Lonnie Mack tunes like “Memphis,” and soon the Ventures were blazing away with “Telstar” and “Walk Don’t Run.” Those two — Mack and the Ventures — instlled the guitar into our musical identity. Soon the singles began piling up, “Green Onions,” stuff like that.
All that was mostly Bill’s trip, however. The first rock moment at that stereo I can legitimately call my own was when I brought home “Meet the Beatles.” Earlier that afternoon I’d stood at the record bin in People’s Drug Store in Fairfax agonizing over whether to spend the money. I’d seen them on The Jack Paar Show purely by coincidence and flipped. Their sound had that special quality, fresh and yet old in a way that makes you think it had to pre-exist in your own subconscious because it is so right and natural. I bought the record, the last in the bin, and brought it home with just enough time to play the first couple of songs before Kelly Pace picked me up to go to a Woodson High School basketball game. I remember standing hunched over the stereo, my coat on, mesmerized by the sound. It was like listening to something I’d been waiting all my life to hear, only I didn’t know it. So I was instantly hooked on the Beatles. Even put a poster up on my wall. Paul was my favorite (everybody had a favorite). He wasn’t as ugly as the others.
The following year, I was sprawled out on the living room floor in front of the stereo, being beckoned by the Darth Vaders of English rock, the Rolling Stones. The first album of theirs I bought had “Satisfaction,” “Have Mercy,” “Spider and the Fly” _ was it “Out of Our Heads?” Anyway, I became even more of a fan of the Stones than the Beatles. The ominous blues of the Stones appealed to my roguish side, fed the rebel, grated with a bit more raunch than the Beatles. I’ve always been of the school best expressed in Herrick’s “Delight in Disorder,” where gloss is dross. Something slightly out of place, something that creates tension, is far more appealing and exciting than a seamless sheen.
There I am again at that old stereo watching Reid play air guitar along with Jeff Beck as he squeezes out “New York City Blues.” And we’re both going crazy, having our essences tugged, to Them and Van Morrison sweating out “Mystic Eyes” and “Gloria.”
Then, there was the real satisfaction of putting on Paul Butterfield’s Blues Band. He would clear the pipes after mind-numbing stacks of the Supremes and James Brown, soul intruders introduced by brother Gene on visits home from college.
“How can you listen to that rock crap?” he’d say during “Got My Mojo Workin.’”
“How can you listen to that soul junk?” we’d come back. The Fabulous James Brown and his Flames were the center of the known universe at that time, according to him. Yardbirds? Humph. Stones? They’re not only bad — they’re ugly! Gene was a soul man all the way down to his Weejuns, and I must admit that a lot of music I scorned then has fared well over the years (James Brown, OMG!!!). But I’ll never forget the look on the face of Bo King, Gene’s best friend and college roommate, when I cranked up Butterfield’s driving blues, with Mike Bloomfield’s cobra-quick attacks. Bo had an expression of utter incomprehension, beyond dislike, beyond disgust or dismay. “Why do you listen to that stuff?” he asked sincerely. It wasn’t Diana Ross, that’s for sure.
Well, I know I’m rambling, but that stereo meant more to us than we knew. Bill was the first to expand its horizons. He walked in one day from his job in D,C. with a guitar under his arm and proceeded with Edisonian tenacity to jury-rig an input that transformed that mild-mannered console into a tyrannosauras rex of an amp. OK, maybe more like a stegosaurus, but it did make for a loud sound. And volume was all he was after. It didn’t take us long to blowout the speakers. I think the bass guitar Reid and I rented accomplished that. Or maybe when we ran both the bass and guitar through. It wasn’t built to take that. The speakers stayed blown, and as I mentioned earlier, their buzzing distorion came full circle when we cranked up Jimi Hendrix on Christmas day.
While I’m chronicling background, it might be good to give a quick rundown of the instruments that formed each step in the stairway to our rock heaven. In the beginning, there were piano lessons, the All-American kind with my mom as instructor. She was smart enough to know the “importance” (as in, “This is important and you’ll thank me for it later”) of early music education, even if it meant force-feeding, and wise enough to stop just before the gag reflex kicked in and made music eternally unpalatable. This is as good a time as any to give Mom her due, for without the music that overflowed from her soul into our lives we never would’ve achieved stardom and world acclaim. Dad played a huge supporting role, but Mom deserves a standing ovation.
In fifth grade, each of us four boys knew we had to pick an instrument to study. When my turn came, since my parents lobbied heavily (but subtly, or so they thought) for the flute I didn’t disappoint them. But the flute wasn’t really all that cool an instrument for an adolescent guy to play, and flutists were always having to play these incredible passages dark with 64th notes and accidentals, like a tape stuck on fast forward. So I jumped at the chance when my intermediate school band director, Mr. Broyles (a man of great suavitude, modest talent and quick temper), asked if I would like to try the oboe. Actually, Bob Nay and I were eating lunch in the cafeteria when Mr. Broyles came up. Bob was a mediocre clarinetist and I was a mediocre flutist (to be kind to myself) and Mr. Broyles said he’d just gotten in an oboe and a bassoon and would one of us like to play one or the other. Bob immediately picked the bassoon, so I thought, “The oboe, what the hell.” Bob ended up as a mediocre bassoonist and I ended up as a high school solo oboist who studied with the National Symphony’s top oboist, who dangled visions of college music scholarships in front of me. I loved and hated that instrument, for it almost killed my ability to play music in front of people. But perhaps more of that later. Suffice it to say that the oboe taught me to sing, but it also taught me to cry.
While I was studying formally, Reid (a trombone man) and I were forging rock frontiers at home. First, we cut a piece of plywood into the shape of a guitar, on four strings (not guitar strings, just plain old string strings) and pretended to thump along to records. Then we rented a bass for a few days, with surprising results. Reid quickly got bored and resolved to learn the six-string. I, however, was hooked forever by the visceral, primitive tug of the bass. It was a physical instrument — you could feel as well as hear the notes. The bass could be as purring as a massage or as violent as a kick in the gut. And you only had four strings, big strings, and only one note at a time. Slow notes at that, usually. Fat notes. Not 64ths. I could handle that. Also, there might have been opposites at work here, with me studying the ethereal oboe and loving the booming bass, Reid honkng on the trombone and twanging onthe guitar.
We experimented with other instruments. Reid got some drumsticks, and instantly everything around the house became a drum. We beat on album covers, the rug, assorted kitchen appliances. We took the neck off a very expensive banjo and thrashed away on its round, drumlike body. The Dave Clark Five was our favorite play-along group. “Cause I’m feelin’ GLAD ALL OVER.”
Eventually, we got serious. I got a Gibson EBO bass, cherry red with a single humbucking pickup. Later, a Fender Bassman amp from some soul musician. Reid, who spent a winter struggling to learn chords on a hybrid six-string he’d painted 800 shades of Day-Glo paint, bought a Fender Telecaster. We couldn’t play for beans. I mean really. It wasn’t until a year later that I memorized where the notes were on the neck. Here’s a classically trained oboist, on a first-name basis with Handel, Beethoven and all the big boys, and I couldn’t have found a C on the bass if you’d asked me. We were so bad. I remember one summer Reid, Bill and I setting up on the patio in Burke and trying to make it through “Hey Joe,” among other songs. We sucked beyond belief. We killed grass.