As a teen-aged, aspiring piano player in the great frozen tundra known as Skaneateles, NY, I used to take a 35 mile bus ride into the city of Syracuse every Saturday morning to visit Onondaga Music.
Onondaga Music was owned by a rather sour faced man by the name of Howard Gurseny, Sr. Completely bald, with glasses that covered half of his gaunt visage and replete with what it seemed to me to be an amazing amount of bushy growth of hair sprouting forth from his ear canals and nostrils, Mr. Gurseny would crouch over the cash register grumbling as he eyeballed me the entire time I would be perusing the racks and hurl dour toned exhortations at me periodically such as "are you going to buy that record or what? I don't have all day ya know" as if I was buying a friggin' comic book instead possibly the key to my entire future as a musician...but truth be told, I actually liked the grousing. It heightened the urgency of the shopping experience, and part of the fun of my weekly visit was to find new and creative ways to antagonize him. And he had, as I learned much later down the road while in the midst of my piano plunking journey and education, impeccable taste, and one of the finest record stores I would ever have the pleasure of shopping in.
The store was a one stop-shopping destination for all things musical. The family store sold sheet music, musical instruments, and records. It was the only place in town that where I could find cool platters, especially discs of solo piano. At the time, I was trying to deeply immerse myself in the great boogie-woogie triumvirate of Pete Johnson, Albert Ammons, and Meade Luxe Lewis, because The Rolling Stones had told me to do so (indirectly, of course, through interviews)...ultimately, I figured if I could play like those guys, my eventual gig with Keith Richards would ensue shortly. I had a rich and varied fantasy life at the time.
So to be able access artists like these in the vast cultural wasteland that is Central NY was ...a miracle, really.
As I was pawing through the bins, I came across a record with a series of photographs running down the left side of the cover featuring a wild looking black dude with an eye patch and the title exclaiming "New Orleans Piano Wizard LIVE" or some such nonsense.... I'm embarrassed to admit that at that point in my musical life and bumbling self-education, I bought records more on the basis of what the covers looked like rather than any internal knowledge of the sounds that may be contained within the confines of the shrink-wrapped sleeve.
I didn't know fuck all about New Orleans, and New Orleans music, but I did know that there was something oddly compelling about that dude with the eye patch and the winning smile. I couldn't keep my eyes off of him...he practically shouted at me from the cover, "Buy me, dumbass...you NEED this shit, baby, right now...right now!'
Now understand, my weekly trek to the store was a discipline of high order for me...the bus ride was a drag, and I was a lad of limited funds...my general adolescent mission quest was to amass the greatest record collection in the world, but my paltry allowance would only allow me to amass it at the rate of one record per week.... so even though I didn't have much musical knowledge at the time, it was imperative that I not come home with a dud. So rolling the dice on a total unknown was akin to betting the farm and going all in.
I finally went up to the counter with my risky selection and forked over to Mr.Gurseny the only seven dollars and change I would see until next Saturday.
With an introductory exasperated combination grunt and wheezing sigh, Mr. Gurseny would grumble, "Jeezus kid...are you sure you want to buy that? Or would you rather pitch a tent in the middle of the store and live here? Gimme the money."
He would chuck the cash into the register, slide the record in a paper bag, and carelessly toss it on the counter with a muttered "Here ya go, kid.... now get the hell outta here, and try not to come back."
Secretly, I knew that Mr. Gurseny loved our Saturday morning rituals as much as I did. He just had extreme difficulty in showing it.
I would then purposely clomp down the well worn wooden stairs to the instruments division to artlessly test drive all the latest keyboards, loitering a bit more before I had to catch my bus, and drive Mr. Gurseny's son, Howard Jr., crazier than I had just driven his father. Junior made Senior look like Mary Poppins in comparative temperament, and was a notoriously tweaked individual. Driving him crazy early on a Saturday morning by loudly playing blues licks on cheesy synthesizers, (the latest thing...this was the '70's, remember) wasn't really much of a challenge. I'd eventually get bored and head for the Greyhound station.
Every return bus ride from the Gurseny family store store was a ride filled with hope and nervous anticipation. Each sequential bump, swerve and jolting air compressed stop and whoosh of the pneumatic door flying open and shut that slowly propelled me closer to home escalated the feeling that I was more Jack with a bag of magic beans in his hands than a pimple faced socially awkward teen bouncing around on a highly suspect stained bus seat thumbing the cover of a record jacket. ...Gazing at it, in a dream state, gearing myself for the potential gifts I was about to receive.
The greatest moment of my teen aged week was when I would pull a record out of the bag, slowly tear the shrink-wrap away like Charlie Bucket would to his life-changing Wonka chocolate bar, pull the potential golden ticket of a disc out of the dust jacket and inner paper sleeve making sure to only handle it with my palms and gingerly placing the vinyl platter upon the turntable. Turn the amp on, twist the volume knob up, and wait for that 60 cycle hum.... the final aural cue that I was good to go, countdown will commence, lift-off soon.
And then there's that moment, my favorite part of the ritual, when I would lift the tone arm with my finger tip, hold my breath, crouch to make simultaneous level eye contact with the edge and the needle, and precisely slide (easy now, baby, don't drop it) my diamond tipped stylus slowly into the groove...white noise, feint crackling and the intermittent pop...and then snap. Here we go.
Sorry kids, but finger fucking the flywheel on an I-Pod pales in comparison.
That part of the experience was a constant...but I was wholly unprepared for "New Orleans Piano Wizard, LIVE!'
The slow fade in increasing volume of enthusiastic, hearty applause.... look out, here it comes, that five note descending pickup to "The Sunny Side of the Street".... then the deep as a ditch groove, the artful bending of the melody and phrasing as he establishes the head, the slight ramping up of emotional investment in his playing as he transitions from the bridge back to the final statement of the head before the solo.... Christ, it not only sounds to my virgin ears like he's got hands the size of Virginia hams, its sounds like he's playing with three of them.... the mind wrecking, stratospheric careening-around-Pluto-without -any-brakes solo (holy fuck!)...And then, that voice.
Some have said in retrospect that Booker was a singer of limited ability. They clearly not only have ears of stone, they are stone deaf.
He saved the best for last.... that freaky melismatic, rhythmically powerful yodel
(aahhyifff ahhh nevah, nevah, evah ) a combination preacher, a sand papered seasoned, nakedly emotive tour de force vocal performance that actually focuses your head in real time to the fact that these words that he's singing are not only important, but very possibly the last lyrics on earth that he will ever sing kind of important, so listen up, ye non-believers...he really don't halfta worry, cuz he's got golddust at his feet, ( see what I'm sayin'?), on the Sunny-unny-unnysaaahhheeed.. .Sunny Side of the Street! Yes, babies, A-friggin-men! You can actually sense the energy of what seems to be thousands of people simultaneously orgasming and falling in love through the speakers, but they aren't making a peep....
The teasingly humorous, repetitive ending tags (He's not done with me yet, that rascal). A nanosecond of stunned silence, and then the nuclear explosive sonic mushroom cloud release of love and applause, AAARRGH, all triggered by a single individual, just a man and a piano. Talk about white noise.... are you kidding me? It's the sound of collective humanity that in a split second has all just realized they have witnessed and been in the presence of true greatness. They all just had the collective religious experience of the re-affirmation that there truly is a God, and He has decided not to bestow his works in mysteriously strange ways this time...He had decided inexplicably to whack them directly between the eyes with a ball peen hammer, manifested in the form of James Carroll Booker, one of His more inspired creations.
And as I realized that when I exhaled that during the running time of side one, track one, that breath that I had held when I connected diamond tip to greasy vinyl, I had held through that entire emotional two and a half minute roller coaster ride of a performance. I hadn't bought just any record in Mr. Gurseny's store. I had stumbled upon the Ten Commandments of Art.....I felt like I had found the Holy Grail....by my own fortuitous ineptitude! My life officially changed, radically, right then. And I totally knew it.
See ya later, Keith Richards...I now had better fish to fry.
In my life's journey, Booker has always been my runnin' podner. Sometimes he maintains a low profile for long periods of time, but he's always there for me when I need him. I never met him, and I never saw him play. He died around fifteen years before I got the chance to finally leave the confines of Central NY for good and live as a resident in the city that care forgot.
Life doesn't always end up as a fairy tale, and mine has turned out to be no exception. I mistakenly and naively thought that if you worked hard enough, greatness could be attained, delusionally cutting God out of the equation. Bad move. But no matter how hard I worked, Booker would always have more talent in his big toe nail clipping than I would ever possess in my entire body.
After scuffling to make a living for about eight years, finally establishing myself enough to make an actual living as a musician in New Orleans and then losing the carefully crafted, arduously attained second chapter of my life as a New Orleanian all courtesy of hurricane Katrina, I found myself in the fall season of 2006 back in Central NY.
After the storm I had to clean toilets, scrape paint, gut houses, and sling a hammer to make ends meet in New Orleans, trying to keep the life I had built intact on a quarter of the money and 5% of the self esteem I had access to prior to the levees breaking. My first straight totally manual labor gig since the day I heard Booker and decided to play piano and be an artist, not just a working musician.
My father was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin's lymphoma, and since my siblings had actual lives, and mine was currently discombobulated, I went back home to the place of my birth, the land of lakes, where there are actually four seasons (the longest one being winter, of course), to take care of him and assist in his care.
It very possibly would be the last chance I would ever have to spend an extended period of time with my best friend, my Pops, so it wasn't that hard of a choice.
Since his chemo and radiation schedule was going to last from late August through December, I decided that it might be a good idea to go back to college and finally finish my two year degree and score my GED in the process (I dropped out of high school they day I heard Booker to enroll in a community college and study classical piano. No Chopin equals no Booker).
So on a crisp day in November, I was in a computer lab, finishing off a PowerPoint demonstration for my Astronomy class. I had just gotten off the cell phone, having had a conversation with my girlfriend (who was keeping our life together back in NOLA). And fellas, you know this particular conversation.... the first tendrils, the initial feeler, of the prolonged, passive-aggressive, "shit-on-his-head-until-his neck-breaks" dumping process. Not verbally expressed but more in tone and tenor...the conversation where you know that the woman you love has given up hope on your sorry ass but she's not going to tell you she has, the one where you know in your heart that she will never be capable of telling you the whole truth and nuthin but the truth ever again, and has just become your future ex-girlfriend but the official be-heading is months down the road.... and when it finally happens, it will suck.
Note: The one advantage of getting old kids, is acquiring the vision to see shit like this coming from a mile away, rather than getting surprised by it. The disadvantage is, other than getting old, is the realization that if you have any type of moral center and integrity, you have an obligation to let it organically play out, and its going to be a six-month, tooth extracting, Mexican pissing match, resulting ultimately in heartbreak...and no matter how much time you have to prepare for it, heartbreak will always take you by surprise. You will be hurt, and there is no way to avoid getting hit by that bus. All you can do is prolong the moment of impact to fully prepare to gird yourself for the eventual smash-up.
I don't know what possessed me, but at that moment I flipped the phone to its closed position, I stopped working on the demonstration, googled youtube, registered (my maiden youtube voyage), and typed in the search box "James Booker", as if in a dream.... I'd like to say it was an act of cognizance on my part, but it was more like moving the "cursor" on an Oiija board.
Amazingly, several video choices popped up. I had never seen this major influence on my entire being actually perform before. I threw the headphones on, plugged them in, and clicked onto "Send Someone to Love", not surprisingly due to the content of the recent phone call.
There was my old, old friend. Hello, James...its been awhile...where y'at? I been knowin you been 'round, sorry I haven't checked in on you lately.
I sat in that dingy computer lab a middle aged, balding, 60 pounds overweight, totally depressed to the point of suicide, soon to finally being diagnosed as Bi-Polar man (as some have surmised James was himself), with a dying father; an about to be unceremoniously dumped in six months schlub working towards a high school diploma at the age of forty-seven (how absolutely and completely pathetic). I was finally witnessing the moving image of my muse, the manifestation of what I once thought to be definitive proof of the existence of the graceful greatness of God.... and as I listened to his sorrow drenched voice plaintively pleading and praying, "and if it's not asking too much.... please.... please send me someone to love".
That's it folks...pretty much as close to rock bottom as a man can get. Or so I thought...it is possible to get closer.
As I sat in that lab occupied by twenty 18 year old students at their digital stations standing at the cusp of their adult lives, filled with hope for their bright futures to come and unwittingly assuming the sitting position for their eventual slide down the razor blade of life... I openly wept. Tears streaming, snot running down your nose weeping. I cried for my loss of hope and the loss of my dreams, I cried for all the people in my life that loved me and that I was incapable of loving back; I had driven them all away. I cried for the upcoming mourning and the attendant pain and processing that I was about to go through. I cried for the ghosts of folks that haunt me daily, even the ghosts of those who haven't died. I cried for my crippled adoptive city, a place I jokingly used to refer to as "the vortex of lost souls", but really was the only place I ever felt "found".
I cried for James Booker's lifeless body, dumped in a chair in Charity hospital. I cried at the power and divine beauty of the soul shaking music that was digitally streaming into my heart through the portals of my water filled eyes and headphone muffed ears; if the existence of a Booker proves there's a beautifully benevolent God, than why has He forsaken me? I cried because Booker knew me, he still spoke to me... he still loved me, and Booker never gave up on me. He never abandoned my soul. He's right there on that computer screen, and he was there at the start of my adult life, and he will comfort me now at what seemed to be a logical time to start planning to end it.
And I thought...I can't think of a better person to have function as the "Booker" ends of my life.... and I laughed at this incredibly horrid pun. And felt a little better.
Because I felt a little better then, I'm still here on this planet feeling better still.
It's so swell, when you're well.... words of wisdom. All you need is love? Maybe, but I'm not entirely sold on that philosophy. But I do know beyond a shadow of a doubt that most assuredly, if love is all you need, you still need a little Booker too.