“I do believe musicians have a duty, a responsibility to reach out, to share your love or pain with others.” – – James Taylor
No, this entry will not be about Dr. Seuss. Someone suggested that I write about my experiences of playing live music. (Or “Dead” music – – I once made a feeble attempt at “The Wheel). It retrospect, it’s only thinking about it now that I recognize how long I’ve been doing it. I got my first guitar at age 14 and just let it sit there for two years as I had no clue how to make music come out of the darn thing. Then one day one of my brothers grabbed it and strummed a few chords and I jumped up and yelled “How do you do that?” The very next day I went out and bought one of those $1.99 Mel Bay chord books and I was off to the races. Some very slow races, anyway.
When I turned 16 I actually sent away for a kind of spendy elaborate guitar music-reading course and it was really very good. It was about halfway thru it that I decided that “plectrum” style wasn’t for me, as taught in the course. I much preferred all fingers on the strings, even though I had no clue what I was doing. For the next few years my buddies and I would drink beer on my folks’ front porch and play what little we knew. Having hit a stuck point quite a while ago, I remember hearing “Maple Leaf Rag” on the radio one day and being absolutely mesmerized. I looked everywhere I could and finally found a ragtime book for guitar with an accompanying cassette tape and learned a few songs. I was doing cartwheels! It felt awesome play this stuff! So one night out on the front porch I brought out my guitar and my friends gave me that familiar eye-roll and their “here come the same three chords again” look and I instead dazzled them with my newly learned tunes. Still, it was just three songs . . .
I continued developing enough to where I could mimic some singer-songwriters and Christmas of 1981 ushered in the first day I ever played in front of anyone other than my beer buddies. My friend Chris pushed and pushed until I finally agreed to play at my office Christmas party. I was really quite surprised at the reception. I didn’t do anything else in public for awhile, and in 1983 my friend Paul died (it was his dream to be a professional musician) and I put the guitar down for awhile simply out of grief, though I did compose a tune about him that I played at the post-funeral gathering. I kind figured I was all done.
Somehow lost in the shuffle was a quick little ditty that I wrote and titled “Lost In Oz.” It’s still my favorite song that I’ve ever written, and every now and then those who had heard it would ask for my latest rendition. Then holy terror hit: I was about 4 months sober in the spring of 1989 and someone suggested that I sign up to play at the first annual Apple River Jam in Somerset, a gathering of sober artists. I agreed figuring it would be a gathering of 10 or 15 people around a campfire. Piece of cake. Wrong. I arrived in Somerset a few hours before my set and was ushered into the sound truck to, well, check sound. I was used to somebody hooking me up to a little 4×4 soundboard. This was a sound truck. Yikes! Plus, the professionally done stage was huge – – to this day the biggest stage I’ve ever played on. The rest was a blur. Though I do remember making a lot of jokes in between songs and uncharacteristically moving around a lot as I played, mostly to offset the stiff crosswind that was blasting through me during my set. Still, what a treat. What a memory.
I began playing at the Day By Day Cafe in St. Paul fairly regularly in 1991, and though I enjoyed it very much, was not real pleased with the configuration and started to look for other places. I still though, remember my last night at the Day By Day thru a fond, somewhat heartachy little memory: toward the end of the night, a little girl came running up to me as I sat on the tiny little stage and she requested “Sweet Baby James.” She really looked disappointed when I told her I didn’t know the song. It was just as well that I wouldn’t be playing there any more.
I made my way to the Ginkgo Coffeehouse after hearing about their open-mike nights, and managed to get myself booked with another fella and shared the stage a few time s. After a couple of years, enough was enough. I complained to the owner about this other guy would rush me off the stage before my half of the night was over so he could make sure he could get all of his friends onstage to play a song or two. Fed up, I put down my guitar for awhile. I had no idea it would be for 12 years. This was 1994, and truly figured I’d played my last guitar chord.
In the year 2000 I got my first keyboard, took a few lessons, and mostly began teaching myself how to play. After a year of sporadic lessons, probably a total of 3 months altogether, my teacher showed me a chord chart and said “this is gonna open up a whole new world for you.” Boy, was he right. I began composing my own instrumentals, some of them pretty elaborate. In ’02 I had progressed enough so that one of the ministers at the Lake Harriett Church asked me to be “music director.” Translation: I was to play a song or two during services. However, I progressed really quickly and one day, unbeknownst to me, a writer from the St. Paul Pioneer Press showed up,as he was reviewing services in the Twins Cities. I still have a copy of the article at home in which he stated that “the service began with a few songs by accomplished pianist Michael Basques.” Gawrsh. And I’d only been playing for two years.
This lasted another two years, and I’d not played long enough to notice with either piano or guitar that musicians occasionally go thru stale periods. This was mine. I was also broke, and ended up hocking a beautiful setup just so I could pay rent and survive a couple more months where I was living. I still miss the Yamaha DX7 and the awesome monitors I had. I’m also still bent on carrying out a vow to myself that I will one day take up the keyboard again. I truly consider it my main instrument. My friend Judy Durum once picked up an ephemeris after I told her my birthdate and time, and she excitedly said “Get a piano. And don’t wait.” I’ve never forgotten that. I will indeed play the keyboard again.
In ’06 I got the yen to play in front of audiences again, and while a friend of mine was going thru a difficult time, I wrote a song for her. The only problem was I didn’t have a guitar. Or a piano. I somehow figured the song wouldn’t sound very good on a kazoo. So I went and got a guitar – – about 3 months after I wrote the song and basically lied to my friend that I would play it for her soon. I guess “soon” is relative, as I did in fact play it for her in May of the same year. (footnote: before I even thought about buying another guitar, I ran out and got the sheet music for “Sweet Baby James.” I would not be caught without that one again.) It was in May that I played at yet another coffeehouse, this one situated inside a video store on Snelling Avenue. One day while getting some coffee, I saw a small signboard advertising a musician, and asked the owner if I could play there. He said sure, so I asked him where the music room and stage were. He opened a door to another section of the store and as we walked into it I thought I’d landed in Oz. I saw a beautiful large stage, then tested the sound system and pronounced it amazing. All of this in a room that seated 50 or 60 people very comfortably. This was the place I would play to full houses at for the next two years. I absolutely loved it. I also absolutely loved stopping in the middle of every show, waiting for the folks to quiet down, and then letting everyone know that they were sitting in what used to be the Video Update porno room. You could just feel the love in there. I also enjoyed changing the words to the old Bill Withers song after my announcement and singing “Just The Three Of Us.” Ah, memories . . .
The video store closed in ’09, so I was once again without a regular place to play. I made my way over to what was then the Coffeegrounds, and presented the owner Dave with a demo cd. He agreed to have me, and I’ve enjoyed my dates there very much. One year I forgot to book my annual birthday show far enough in advance, and Dave was unable to accommodate me. I found a cozy little shop in West St Paul and played my show there, then played there once again in the summer. When I called to book my 2012 birthday show, the person on the other end of the line said simply “we can’t book you.” I asked her if they were no longer booking music. Hesitatingly, the young lady said, “No . . . um, . . . the owner just doesn’t like your music.” Oh. So I never played there again. It was such a humbling experience that I’ve effectively blocked out the name of the place – – I honestly can’t remember it. If anybody would like to find it, I would suggest driving around West St Paul until you come to a coffeehouse that has spray paint on the side that spells “our coffee tastes like poop.” Not that I would ever do such a thing, of course . . .
So now I am playing this coming Saturday at the Underground Music Cafe, formerly known as the Coffeegrounds. I’ve sincerely not known better, more memorable gigs than the ones I’ve played here. It’s only in the last two years that my confidence has gotten me to the point where I’m playing songs I wouldn’t have dared to even try ten years ago. I feel the emotion of each tune go out and envelop the crowd all night long, and while I obviously can’t experience what it’s like on the receiving end, every time I play at this place I feel like I’ve communicated with everyone there on a level far beyond words. For anyone who has ever come to a single one of my shows at the Grounds/Underground, I feel like I owe you forever: no, I”m not a professional musician, yes – – -there are likely too many people in the Twin Cities to count who dwarf me talent-wise, but every night I’ve played in the last two years has been absolute magic for me. I owe that all to you. I take great pleasure in rehearsing, in the honing and refining of my voice and guitar-playing, but as much pleasure as I get out of it, there’s nothing even close to comparing to the rapture of playing for a crowd and making everyone laugh. You’ve all offered me your souls for two hours or so, two hours that really become an eternity in the most glorious sense. I love playing so much. The title of today’s post is an obvious take off on the Dr. Seuss book “Oh, The Place You’ll Go.” I could easily change it to “Oh, The Places You’ve Taken Me.” In case you haven’t figured it out yet, allowing me to play for you brings me quite simply to the very depths of my own heart. The truly ecstatic part is, it allows me to touch yours. That minute I connect thirty or so hearts is something I’ll never be able to describe. And it includes the accompanying bafflling, elusive, beautiful treat of experiencing each heart individually. Beginning with your own. Thank you so much for letting me in.