The musician Frank Fairfield looks like a gangster from the 1950s. His hair is greased back. His smile is knowing. He seems like a man capable of great violence, if the situation called for it. Luckily for me (and everyone else in attendance at Monday’s $3 “budget rock” night at the Jambalaya in my humble town of Arcata), ol’ Frank chose the life of a musician, rather than a life of crime.
Frank had the soul of a vaudevillian, it seemed. When I strolled into the practically deserted venue around 9:45pm there sat Frank, alone on stage, a single spotlight shown on him. His face was lowered as he strummed his guitar. He was dressed in a simple button up work shirt, with gray wool pants and a tattered old sports coat that looked like it had seen just about every weather known to man. Frank’s voice reminded me of the 1930s blues musician Robert Johnson, who, legend says, sold his soul to the devil to become a better guitar player. His voice quivered dramatically as he played, tapping his worn leather shoes in time to the music. After a few songs about life on the road, women he had loved, and great regrets, he set his guitar down, took a drink of water and stared out into the audience. It was now well after 10pm and more than 30 people had arrived since I had been there. Frank smiled and picked up his banjo, hopping into a tune that would make Steve Martin smile.
A tap on the shoulder jolted me out of my blissful trance. There stood my friend Pat, smiling at me. Beside him were Zachary, a bearded fellow who dresses like an English Lit. professor most of the time, and his long-time girlfriend Darlene, whom I tend to go to for advice in regards to my perpetual “girl problems.” They’re a couple whom I am proud to call my friends (awwwww!).
“Did we miss much?” Pat asked, looking a bit panicked.
“You’ve only missed the greatest half hour of white man blues of your life!” I informed him with a laugh. “This guy’s fucking fantastic!”
As Frank plucked away diligently at his banjo I hopped over to the bar, ordered a tall PBR, and was back in my former spot in no time. Zachary looked at my beer choice and laughed. We both fancy ourselves to be beer enthusiasts, who usually favor the darker side of beer (the darker it is, the more I love it). I defended my choice, saying “I always buy PBR at shows, man. It’s a tradition.”
I buy PBR at shows for the same reason I eat peanut butter and jelly sandwiches at lunchtime. It’s cheap, it tastes good, and it gets the job done. So there. Now I’ve defended PBR. It’s a whole lot better than Bud Light, Steel Reserve, or Natural Ice, let me tell you!
My eyes gazed back at the stage, where Frank lovingly set down his banjo and picked up his fiddle and started playing. I was pretty much in love with the guy at this point. What’s not to love? The man played 3 instruments, and he played them well!
As he played an old-time jig furiously on his fiddle a few horse hairs from his bow went flying across the stage.
“That’s how you can spot a good fiddle player, by the wake of broken bow hairs,” I whispered knowingly to Pat, who nodded solemnly.
I used to play the violin, as some may recall. I took lessons when I was a shy and sensitive high school student. I never really got good enough to brag about it, but I rather enjoyed myself. My brother Matthew was taking trumpet lessons at the time, and I felt it would be good for me to attempt to learn an instrument as well. Why not? I was too shy to actually talk to other people (read: most girls), so why shouldn’t I use the free time that I had for good, rather than for evil?
I didn’t stick with it, sadly. I enjoyed playing, but my instructor’s insistence that I “practice for at least an hour every day” didn’t sit with me very well. I retired my violin to be returned to the music shop and I walked off into the sunset, never looking back. Except when I come across a violin/fiddle player who can actually play, then I get more than a little jealous and curse myself for giving up on my musical dreams. But fret not, gentle reader, for I purchased a banjo as a graduation present to myself not too long and I’m getting pretty good, if I do say so myself!
I sipped my beer thoughtfully, gazing at the stage while Frank blazed through another fiddle number. I stood as if in some kind of trance. “This guy’s good” would be an understatement.
I hopped back to the bar to grab another brew and my thoughts turned to my brother Matthew’s wedding. We’ve always been close, Matthew and I. “Thick as thieves” some might say. For as long as I can remember Matthew has been in my life. I mean sure, there have been times when I wished he’d never been born (such as that instance in the 90s where he slammed the car door on my thumb and then laughed at me as I burst into tears), but for the most part I rather enjoyed the little bugger’s company. And now he’s married and gone to live in Oregon. I’m happy that he found someone to be with, naturally, but I miss him at times. When the minister said “I now pronounce you man and wife” my entire childhood flashed before my eyes and it took all of my willpower not to fall on my knees and weep like a baby. We’ll always be brothers, I know, but things won’t be the same, and I’m still working on accepting that fact. The times they are a changin’ Bob Dylan once sang, and he was right. It was such a bittersweet moment.
I paid my $3 for the beer, left my usual $1 tip and headed back to be with my friends and enjoy Frank’s musical prowess.
After the show ended I headed over to the corner of the joint to buy Frank’s LP. I have a record player now (thanks Max!) and it’s been really fun slowly amassing a record collection for myself (as if I didn’t collect enough stuff already, what with the comic books, movies, and literature and all that jazz!).
I took my newly purchased record on stage and introduced myself to Frank, who turned out to be one of the shyest, must humble musicians I’ve ever met.
When I told him how much I’d loved his music he could barely look at me, his eyes fixed to his shoes while he muttered “Oh really? You liked it?…. Wow…. Thanks.” As if I were doing him a favor by liking his stuff!
“Yeah man, you were great!” I shook his hand and asked him to sign the record, which he did (in itty bitty writing, which I found to be strangely endearing).
I walked out of the joint to find my friends waiting patiently for me.
“Bought yourself some wax, eh?”
“Yeah! I’m pretty excited about it!”
I hugged Zach and Darlene goodbye and me and Pat hopped into his car and sped off to my friend Joanna’s bonfire, talking all the way about our love of blues and all things soulful and beautiful. It was a good night.