click for homepage

       The Barcelona Review

Author Bio




Whenever someone says to me, “Man, that (substitute any art form and artist name here) really has talent,” I always remember those days when a true definition of that word began forming in my mind.  It was the era between Eisenhower and Nixon and before the complete destruction of America by the corporation plague, a generation of citizenry was vaccinated with democracy and this preventative injection made it possible for people of all ages, faiths, and incomes to create and hear that most blessed of sounds known only as Rock. So it was in those melodious days, those days of incense and peppermints, when joy could still be plucked from steel strings and exuberance beaten from tom toms and conga drums that I heard the great Who gods of call and response play:

    sheet music of The Who's My Generation  
       From Hendrix, Joplin, Clapton, and Jagger to Page, Morrison, Plant, and Dylan, all the gods swaggered and strutted across stages, generating history before my eyes for less than ten dollars a seat. Brash brass notes escaped from Clarence Clemmons' tenor sax and rode the wind, revenants of the be-bop era. I was a young and easy audience in those wine bota and Zig Zag paper days, in the time before the demon Ticket Master came to rule the magical sounds of earth. I worshiped them all, even Elvis a little bit, with truth and reverence but not with knowledge.
       I thought that these gods were where they were because they had talent, a nebulous sort of shadowy essence mystically dusted over a few special beings singled out by some unknown energy from the herd of us less fortunate wannabe’s whose fingers could not pluck in harmony with our synapses firing and whose voices mangled the air with obnoxious grunts and squeals in places where there should have been song. Oh, it was true the gods did have talent in great quantities and they worked hard, practicing, sacrificing their lives in some cases, to make the music that defined my generation and influenced every generation thereafter. But talent, genius, the muse, inspiration, whatever you choose to label it, wasn’t their only gift. These artists also had clever business managers who were media savants, record companies willing to gamble millions promoting them, and most importantly, they were baptized by luck. They were blessed, or cursed depending on your viewpoint, to have been in exactly the right place at the right time in history and to have been heard by exactly the right people who could respond with national exposure and in huge dollar signs to their call.
       This insight, the knowledge that genius and fame are not synonyms came to me the first night I heard John Schilling play his Fender Stratocaster. He was the greatest guitar player the world never heard. When I think of the music of my generation, of all the wonderful concerts I attended in New York, Chicago, New Orleans, Atlanta, Denver, even Montreal, events that are now part of our collective mythology, my memory always brings me back to one summer in 1972. This was during the first year I spent living in a small commune in the Catskill Mountains of New York state, sixty miles up the Palisades Parkway from the George Washington Bridge and the City, a million miles from my childhood home in the evangelical cornfields of the Midwest, and light years from the killing fields of Vietnam. In this place and at the time where the day-glo montage of “head” music began to drip like candle wax onto the leather sound of Southern rock, I became aware that the music creating my lifestyle meant most when defined by the speed, agility, grace, and poetry with which John Schilling’s vine-like fingers overgrew his guitar frets during a fertile and feral flood of imaginative improvisation.
       This journey into what lay beyond the minimal melodies of rock & roll began as a favor to Spyder O’Neill. I had ended up in New York because my friend needed a ride home after our final semester at Kentucky Wesleyan College and because, as the Chuck Berry song says, I had “no particular place to go.” Once there, the sexually open young women and the protective mountain geography around the towns of Chester and Goshen felt so comfortable to my war-broken psyche that I stayed.
       Now, Spyder and I were camped in a ranch style home on Goose Pond Mountain along with six other friends of varying genders and I still drove the most dependable car of the three cars that spent most of the time jacked up and torn down in our gravel driveway next to our semi-organic garden. It was a 1962 powder blue Dodge Lancer with two hundred and thirty thousand miles to its credit and, like a Timex, it could “take a licking and keep on ticking.” Consequently, when John Schilling called his old junior high school pal Spyder asking for a ride to something referred to as a “gig” and said he would buy the gasoline, my friend deferred the assignment to the only unemployed member of our household, me.
       Schilling was already a legend in this eclectic but cloistered area of pine trees, Jewish resorts, backwoods bars, and disco style nightclubs. An authentic “Johnny B. Goode” to the hipsters and the greasers alike, Schilling had quit high school to play music and made what could be considered a fairly decent living in those days traveling the music circuit around New York and New Jersey with three other band members. They covered popular songs that included everything from “Stairway to Heaven” to “Tumbling Dice” to strange Buddhist chants when the drunken audience demanded them. Because of this larger-than-life local reputation, I expected a cross between Jim Morrison and Eric Clapton as I drove along Main Street in Chester, New York, toward his downtown apartment. What I got was something very different.
       All the buildings in this area of Chester were a vintage from an ancient era, but unlike wine time had not improved their substance. A feed store built in the late 19th century to serve the dairy farmers in the county and vacant since the Great Depression stood broken and nailed shut beside unused railroad tracks that were overgrown with weeds in a cul-de-sac at the end of Main Street. I whipped the Dodge around and drove it up the other side, which was lined with an open but vacant pizza parlor, a shuttered general store that seemed consistent with some Green Acres episode on TV, a bar fronted by four drunks without four teeth between them, and a faded row of two-story shotgun houses. Each story in these rental houses provided families with small two bedroom apartments and landlords with more income than they deserved.
       In front of the last house and beneath a lamppost, John Schilling stood on the curb. Shrouded in a dim yellow glow from the bug-splattered bulb, he seemed a cross between a garish, poorly-dressed scarecrow and an anorexic tax accountant on speed. A cigarette dripped from the circle of what appeared to be a mouth without lips. A Navy surplus pea coat hung from his skeletal frame. When he reached for the door handle as I pulled alongside, I noticed his long, slender, feminine fingers ended at the tips in wide, heavy calluses such as a butcher or meat packer might have. When he opened the door and smiled, I saw his chipped teeth, blackened and crooked from years without dental care. The wraith of death had finally caught me. Or, so I thought until he spoke. He looked directly into my eyes with a clear penetrating honesty and he allowed me to look back, hiding nothing from me. I loved him instantly.
       “You going to sit there staring, brother, or help me load my amp in the back seat. I’m a fucking tiny little fellow,” he said, his brown eyes shining beneath a waterfall of dirty blond hair.
       In war, you develop a sense from someplace in your primal brain that allows you to size another person up quickly, and most of the time accurately. That intuitive ability helped keep me alive in Vietnam and returned with me to the States as part of my emotional baggage. John was not the person I expected. He was much more, and I felt able to trust him without reservation from the moment the car door slammed shut. Reaching into the huge pockets, he extracted two cans of Shafer beer, handing one to me. The metal was damp from condensation and cold in my palm.
       “Wife doesn’t like me drinking so much in front of the kid, so I sneak them from the frig,” he said and winked surreptitiously.
       I grabbed a pack of Lucky Strikes from above the sun visor, shook one out and held it in front of him. He took it, lit it and then, mine. We settled in for the thirty minute ride to a small Jewish bungalow colony tucked away in the Catskills somewhere above Goshen. The mountain road was devoid of traffic, other than a few farm trucks and an occasional commuter on the way to his mountain paradise home after an anxious day on Wall Street or Madison Avenue.
       The sun began to unfold into dusk covering the tops of pine trees in a cinnamon glow and the only sound was the uneven hum of the Dodge’s worn tires over asphalt. It seemed hypnotic, almost mystical, in this land where Rip Van Winkle slept for twenty years. Neither John nor I could add anything to the moment other than the hiss of exhaled smoke. This silence also indicated how comfortable we each found ourselves in the presence of the other. No adolescent need to exchange life stories, one-up each other with our adventures, or brag about our sexual exploits crowded the silence. Believe me when I tell you, John could have bragged. The better I came to know him and the more time we spent together, it never ceased to amaze me how often he got laid.  Even though we lived during an era when young adults traded sex the way children traded baseball cards and marbles, John’s diseased and disheveled appearance should have slowed down he onslaught of groupies he fought off after every show. It didn’t.
       Months after this night, I realized that the guitar undressed them, drove its sound deep inside them to some primeval, previously unreachable, moaning point. This epiphany crept into my brain unannounced during the wee hours of a Sunday morning after a particularly energized performance of the band at a Staten Island night club on Saturday night. They had jammed for hours, improvising on standard melodies and rocking the house with genius and joy. John had caught the eye of an Italian cutie on the band’s last break and made arrangements for a breakfast solo performance in her apartment. He asked me to drive his wife home from the club. I gave her the ride and broke one of the cardinal rules required for male friendship by making love to her in the back seat of the Dodge Lancer in downtown Chester beneath the same streetlamp where I’d first met John. Later that day, guilt-ridden and overwhelmed with male angst, this thought blossomed—what motivated my lust was more the desire to get closer to John’s magic than the desire to put another notch on the old gun.   
       “Turn here,” he said finally, and we followed a lane off the highway through the woods. The lane opened in a meadow, covered now with gray shadows of twilight. We could barely make out the small cabins ringing a lake. In the center of the colony, we found a gazebo and a deserted Quonset hut that appeared to be the clubhouse. A poster hung from the gazebo railing – Free Concert for the Children, Local Guitar legend Jon Shiling, One Night Only, 7-9 p.m. – and Japanese lanterns hung from the ceiling giving off a neon rainbow glow.  The place looked like a ghost town. We had yet to see another human, although a couple of well manicured poodles trotted by.
       “When’s the rest of your band going to show up?” I asked.
       “Oh, it’s just me tonight, brother. The owner didn’t want to cough up enough money for the band.”
       “How are you going play dance music without a drum beat?”
       “I’ll manage. Want to give me a hand?”
       We slid the heavy Marshall amplifier across my back seat, set it on the ground, and rolled it up the ramp, placing it strategically in the center of the open gazebo. John went back to the car and retrieved his Fender while I plugged various jack chords into the receptacles he had shown me. As he connected his guitar to the amp and began quietly tuning the strings, a rotund, balding man with a thick gray mustache rose behind me as if he had bloomed from the ground beneath my feet.
       “You the manager?”
       “The what?”
       “The manager, the keeper of the schedule, collector of checks.”
       I looked at John. He raised his head, shook his long, thinning hair from his eyes, and smiled his crooked smile. He nodded once.
       “I guess I am tonight.”
       “Well, we got ourselves a big problem.”
       “What kind of problem?”
       “Cabaret opened tonight at the Drive-in movie on Route 7,” he said while staring at his shoes. “It’s got Liza Minnelli. She’s Judy Garland’s daughter, you know.”
       “I heard that rumor a long time ago.”
       The faint hum of the amplifier began to fuse with a few quiet notes from the guitar as John warmed up on the gazebo platform behind us.
       “Well, what?”
       “That means the camp is empty.”
       “Empty? You mean there’s no one left here at all?”
       “Not with Liza playing in a new movie. All the mothers took their children and that brings us to another situation, you might say.  Why should I pay a musician if no one’s here for the music?”
       “Because you hired him and it’s fair.” In those early post-Vietnam days almost everything made me angry, or at least righteously indignant. Even though John and I were barely acquainted, the idea of his being cheated bothered me. My voice rose. “You think his time isn’t worth something?”
       A low chuckle, almost like a burp, sounded behind me. I would hear that trademark laugh hundreds of times over the next few months whenever John found himself at the mercy of one of life’s situational ironies.
       “Hey Mac…hey brother…easy does it…man’s got a point…a fucked up point, but a point nonetheless. No use playing or paying for music without any beautiful teenage Jewish girls to appreciate my brilliance. I may have a solution.”
       What we worked out was this: Ten dollars for my gasoline and our time, a bottle of Wild Turkey from the man’s bar, and three hours undisturbed (unless the disturbance occurred as a bevy of young women) in the Quonset hut, along with a few of John’s other friends. Thirty minutes and a call from the pay phone by the tennis courts later, Spyder showed up riding in a car load of Chester hippies and tailgated by a beat-up Ford panel truck painted with the words Valastro Plumbing. In the truck, two of John’s very talented musician friends, Tom Nigra and Tony Valastro, had brought more equipment and a cooler full of iced down Little Kings Ale in wonderful bright green bottles.
       What happened was this: We carried Tommy’s bass guitar and amplifier, along with John’s, into the hut. Tony unpacked his shiny chrome flute. We lit a candle. Someone passed a joint. We drank the bourbon and the ale and stared at the red pin points of light that blinked on the amplifiers like little dying stars in the dim shadows of the candle flame. John and Tom began a rhythmic pulse of barely audible bass notes and guitar chords, giving birth to an erotic old Bo Diddley melody that Ronnie Hawkins wrote for him in 1963.  

       I walked 47 miles of barbed wire,
       Used a cobra snake for a neck tie.
       Got a brand new house on the roadside,
       Made out of rattlesnake hide.                              
       I got a brand new chimney made on top,
       Made out of human skulls.
       Now come on darling let's take a little walk, tell me,
       Who do you love…

       As Tom’s raspy baritone howled the call, as we all sang back the response—who do you love, who do you love, who do you love—the darkened hut transformed to Sub-Saharan Africa, where the American blues technique of call and response originated as part of the very structure of society. Prophets intoned their messages and citizens participated by chanting back, directing the village’s response and creating an exercise in democracy. More importantly, it connected the individuals and made them a collective. Most importantly, it set them free.
       From that ancient beginning, that transformation of individual young people trying to survive ordinary lives into a primal, unified force for joy, our small crowd of appreciative listeners transmigrated onto a new plane of existence, flown there by the haunting lilt of Tony’s flute as it replaced the vocals. Not even the clink of an ale bottle or a cough could be heard as the flute song reverberated off the metal walls in the building. The only other sounds were the gentle rhythms of support from both guitars and the hiss of Tony’s breath as he sucked in air between the high notes. Oh, other things sounded in my mind in layers of echoing images, waterfalls,  owls and canaries, spring rain hitting a small lake, a summer breeze through willow trees, sunshine drifting into my bed on early mornings of love.
       Just when I believed it might be impossible to feel anything but fuzzy and warm, John hit a single note and a high pitched squeal, as if a tuning fork had been struck or a cacodemon turned loose, harmonized perfectly with the flute. Tony dropped back into a support rhythm and we transcended, energized by the crackle of fire that flowed between the Fender and the flickering candle, traces of light and waves of animated air shook our small group. John’s fingers tap danced between the frets so fast it seemed like the notes he played weren’t able to keep up. The amplifier's translation lagged behind like something you would expect in the sound track of a badly dubbed Kung Fu movie. I couldn’t contain a burst of raw and feral laughter as the journey began.
       A river spilled over the blistered land, a silk scarf fluttered from a barren tree branch, marbles rattled over a tin roof, nightshade opened and flowered an intoxicating death, a crippled man hobbled around a lake six times and finally dipped his toe in, polyphonic flocks of grackles scored the wind while trees wheezed below them. My friends, poured into the air around me, rose and fell in rainbow waves as if some giant grandmother shook her quilt. I lay face up on the floor of the hut soaked by night sweats as the ashes of stars sifted through the sieve of John’s wa-wa pedal. Inside my brain, neurons wasted by smoke and bourbon struggled to connect, banging off the guardrails of consciousness like insane bumper cars at an empty carnival. A rubber tree moaned in the monsoon wind and I heard wet leaves whisper along its limbs, lovers' fingernails rasping for the soft coming of spring.
       Then, the exhausted silence came. Thirty minutes had passed in an instant. The same could be said of the next few months. I practically lived with the band, chauffeuring John to rehearsal in Tom Nigra’s basement, following the U-Haul trailer full of Hammond B-3’s, drums, and microphone stands to low rent backwoods bars and high end Long Island disco’s. I hunched over napkins in dirty, pre-dawn Waffle Houses writing song lyrics for John’s music. Sometimes we all just lay on the floor of that Main Street shotgun house worn out, listening to the baby cry.  It was a time when I realized the possibilities for joy in life could come from the pursuit of aesthetics completely devoid of material goals, an idea in direct opposition to my Midwestern, middle-class upbringing.
       John Schilling never got rich or famous playing his guitar, but I never saw him unhappy. Music called and he responded. I’m sure he would have liked to “make it big” because that’s one thing all professional musicians grade themselves by, what degree of fame they attain. But that thought was a mere shadow hiding behind the reverence in his eyes when he held the Fender close to his heart, a vague aspiration tagged onto the pure pleasure he felt just tuning the strings. He would have liked to “make it big” with some record label because that was the goal of his band and he loved playing with them. But all he really wanted out of life was the chance to play music for and with his friends. He had three vices that I knew of—cigarettes, bourbon, and women. Rumor has it that one of those vices, or maybe the combination of all three, eventually killed him. I don’t even know for sure that he’s dead, and I can’t imagine his life with no music in it.
       What I do know for sure is that rock & roll defined my generation, made us, for better or worse, who we were and how we would be remembered, more so than music ever influenced any other era in history. Not only that, but it allowed each generation after ours to imagine a new source of social power through the electronic voice of youth. And, what I do know for sure is that when someone says “hey listen to this great guitar player” that picker gets measured in my head against the best picker I ever heard.
       In one of his lectures, the great Spanish poet Lorca referred to an intangible quality present in some artists called duende. Lorca said it wasn’t inspiration or muse, but an entity more personal than either of those. Originally, I believe duende was some kind of monster in human form according to Spanish folklore that devoured its victims' souls. I've always thought of it as being truly alive in the presence of death, of feeling the overwhelming sensory joy of living, conflicted with the knowledge that you have to die. It's that ambivalent energy that brings out our best creative work. When duende flows from us, what we achieve ends up greater than the sum of its parts. Lorca didn't say we have it all the time. His message to us is that we should REACH for it ALL the time. Some people simply don't have the magic inside them at all. Some people have it and fear it so much they can't reach for it. But, a few people are willing to stand on the edge of the abyss every time they pick up a pen or strum a guitar or sing a song or play a piano or paint a picture. These people find themselves inseparable from what they’re doing and the culture and art of the world is better off for it.
       Schilling happened to be one of those people. The things he did with six strings generated magic and the magic was in the connection of the guitar to his soul. The essence of his being was joined to the instrument. In this way, the music came alive and when you heard it, you became part of it and more alive yourself. If that sounds a bit maudlin or overly sentimental, it may simply be that you never had the good fortune to hear him play.

© Jim McGarrah

The Barcelona Review is a registered non-profit organization