Small Town on the River (Bill Morrissey)

When I got back from Europe toward the end of 1979, I set out to make a reputation on the US folk scene. It was exhaustingly slow going, but Dave Van Ronk was helpful as ever and gave me an enthusiastic introduction to Len Rothenberg, who had a club in Cambridge called the Idler. The result was a couple of gigs opening for Paul Geremia and then for John Koerner. I don’t remember anything significant about what I, Paul, or John played, but after one of those gigs a small, quiet guy came up and introduced himself. He said his name was Bill Morrissey and Dave had told him to check me out, and invited me to come see him when he played the Idler in a couple of weeks.

So I did, and it was one of the greatest shows I’ve ever seen.

If you didn’t see Bill perform at the dawn of the 1980s, it is impossible to convey what he did onstage. In a lot of ways the shows were similar to what he did for packed clubs and concert halls after writing a couple of sappy romantic songs and getting national radio play ten years later. But in other ways, they were utterly different. He was fresh off the New Hampshire bar circuit, and had developed a show that would kill in a smoky, noisy bar where the patrons had come to talk with each other while some kid with a Bill Morrissey LPguitar sang Simon and Garfunkel or Beatles songs in the background.

Bill would captivate those bar crowds, playing whole sets of original songs. His method was to intersperse comic monologues that were ferocious, smart, nasty, insightful and passionately local with songs that were about the kinds of folks who were listening — and who had never heard anyone actually sing about their lives and problems. He wrote about dead-end lives in New England mill towns, from the inside, with infinite empathy, moments of wary optimism, and a lot of dogged fatalism. (For example, “Oil Money,” or “Soldier’s Pay.”) He once told me that bar owners loved him, because his sad songs made the guys switch from beer to whiskey and his perky songs gave them the energy to get up and order another.

The perky songs tended to be equally inside and local, for instance “My Baby and Me“:

Baby’s wearing make-up, got on Chanel Number Five,
Put on a dress with a little frill.
I’ve got a jacket and a tie, I splashed on some Hoppe’s Number Nine,
I guess you could say I was dressed to kill.

Bill’s masterpiece at that point was “Small Town on the River,” which he always introduced as a fictional history of Newmarket,marelli's fruit New Hampshire. It blew me away when he played it that first night, but pretty much everything about that night blew me away and I only realized how good it was a couple of months later, when I discovered that after hearing him sing it three or four times at live shows I knew it all the way through. That’s never happened to me before or since — five verses of dense poetry, stuck in my head because they were so perfectly crafted that each line led to the next, inevitably and unforgettably.

Bill and I spent a lot of time together over the next few years, drinking and talking late into the night, kidding around, listening to music, and eventually forming a record company and producing each other’s first albums. As an artist, he was striking not only for his talent but for his diligence: I remember him spending almost a month writing the song “Barstow,” sitting at the typewriter every morning for several hours, writing and throwing away and writing some more, and eventually coming downstairs and singing it for us.

So one day I was doing an interview on WERS and got to talking about Bill, and I went on a long peroration about the amount of hard work he put into his art, and as an example said, “I mean, a song like ‘Small Town on the River’ doesn’t just pop into your head as you’re walking down the street.”

A few minutes after I got home, the phone rang and it was Bill. “Thanks a lot for what you said on the radio,” he said. “I really appreciate it, and it’s really true, in general… but I’ve got to tell you: I made up ‘Small Town’ while driving into town to get cigarettes, and I’ve never changed a word.”

(One note, which Bill always provided: the P.A.C., mentioned in the last verse, was the Polish American Club in Newmarket, where Bill liked to drink and shoot pool and listen to the old guys’ stories.)

Diddy Wah Diddy (Blind Blake)

This was another song I’d taped for my European rambles, but it wasn’t till near the end that I felt ready to work out Blind Blake’s guitar part. Blind_BlakeIt was by far the trickiest arrangement I’d attempted up to that time, but I finally got it more or less to my satisfaction — not exactly the way Blake played it, but a decent simulacrum.

So then I flew back to the United States. I’d been away for a bit over two years, and in those days before the internet that meant I’d been out of touch with all but the few friends who were willing to put up with the vagaries of transatlantic mail and the possibility that their missives would end up unclaimed in some poste restante bin.

The first thing I did was check in with Dave Van Ronk — I flew into New York from Brussels, called him from the airport, and he gave me couch space for a couple of days. I don’t remember if it was on that visit or shortly afterwards that he told me about a new organization called Hey Rube!, Hey Rube cardwhich was trying to function as a sort of folksingers’ guild or union. They were holding a fundraising weekend at the Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs, NY, featuring U. Utah Phillips, and Dave suggested I go, if only to meet Utah.

So I did, and met Utah, who over the years became a close friend, as well as Jane Voss and Hoyle Osborne, and Andy Cohen, who had hitchhiked over from his home in Kent, Ohio. Andy was and is a terrific ragtime-blues player, and I immediately gravitated to him, and we played a couple of things, and then he asked, “You play any Blind Blake?” I was primed and ready, but before I could respond, he added, “And don’t say ‘Diddy Wa Diddy.'”

Alas, Ry Cooder and Leon Redbone had both recently cut that song and their myriad fleet-fingered acolytes had picked it up and recycled it ad infinitum, so the serious blues aficionados were heartily sick of it. And that was that. I assembled a repertoire of more obscure songs, kept this around as a finger exercise, and by now my version has drifted quite a way from Blake’s original. It’s still a fun song, though,  and an enduring mystery…

The Boxer (pleasures of busking)

Public performance is always a reciprocal process– the performer does something, the audience reacts, the performer reacts, and so on, in a comodius vicus of recirculation. So when every so often someone says, “Play your favorite song,” my reaction — though I sometimes try to be polite and not express it — is to think the request is ridiculous.

What they mean is, “Play what you love to play for your own pleasure.” But what I love to play for my own pleasure — in the sense of what I’d play if I were by myself, with no pressure to please someone else — is usually something I’m working on or trying to learn, not something I want to play with other people around.

By contrast, my pleasure when I’m playing for other people is to find something that pleases them and me both, which may be a song I would not have the slightest interest in singing if they were not there. Which, in numerous instances, was “The Boxer.”

I hadn’t heard that song (or at least hadn’t noticed it) before getting to Europe in the late 1970s. I inevitably knew some of Simon simon and garfunkeland Garfunkel’s music, could play “Sounds of Silence,” had heard “Bridge Over Troubled Waters,” “America,” “Mrs. Robinson,” “Me and Julio,” and some other stuff, and we even had the Bookends album at home. But “The Boxer” was part of my European experience, along with “Heart of Gold” — and in both cases, that experience was hearing amateurs and other street performers singing those songs in their various voices, with their various skills.

I’m guessing I learned “The Boxer” from Doug, who played bass with Vince and me on the Paris subway trains, because it was his stock in trade — some people actually called him “The Boxer,” because for a while he made his living by getting on a train, singing that song, passing the hat, going to the next car, singing it again, passing the hat, and so on. (I similarly knew a guy who made his living in the London tube singing “Mr. Tambourine Man.”) The logic was simple: it was no fun playing on the trains, so you might as well maximize the economic returns, and that was the song that got the most money.

busking in antwerpAs I explain in the video, “The Boxer” was particularly popular in Europe because everyone knew it and the chorus just went “Li, li, li,” so they could sing along without knowing any English. And it was a well-written song, with some interesting lines, so I picked it up.

I didn’t play it all that much, because I generally found I did better by singing and playing old pop tunes, thus distinguishing myself from the hordes of people singing Dylan, Beatles, and Simon & Garfunkel. But, especially when I went around the bars late in the evening, someone might request this, and I’d do it, and everyone would sing along, and it was fun — at those moments it was one of my favorite songs, because it’s a nice feeling to get a whole room of people exuberantly singing along with you.

Truck Driving Man (Paris Metro/Vince McCann)

That trip through Morocco in the winter of 1978 ended with my guitar being stolen, then a week in Agadir as guest of a Chicano hashish smuggler from San Antonio, Texas, with whom I traveled back to Spain. I went on from there to northern Europe, he went to Madrid, then jail, then was deported to France… and at some point I ran into him in Paris and he brought me to Le Mazet.

Le Mazet was the buskers’ bar, on the rue Saint André des Arts, down a passageway from the Odéon metro station. It was populated by male musicians from various countries and teenage French girls  who worked as “bottlers,” collecting the money. The musicians were basically lazy, and would play the trains for a couple of hours, then come back to the Mazet, change their coins into bills, and have a few beers. Some of the girls were harder workers and would do their two hours, then trade in a tired busker for a fresh one from the bar and head back to the trains. The money was split evenly, half for the busker and half for the bottler, so the busier bottlers were doing pretty well.

Le Mazet did pretty well, too, since it had a captive clientele — the only other place that would change a big haul of coins into paper money was the National Bank, which was open only for limited hours and didn’t serve beer. At the Mazet you would ask the bartender for a tray, arrange your money on it in ten-franc piles, and he’d give you the notes. Then, late in the evening when the banks were closed, the waiters from the nearby cafés would come to Le Mazet for change.

I spent many happy hours drinking, chatting, and trading tunes in the Mazet, and sent Van Ronk there when he had a gig in Paris, and he wrote a funny piece about it in his (entirely fictitious) notes to my LP. Almost forty years later, I’m still in some kind of touch with a couple of musicians who were regular habitues. In particular  VinceVince McCann, a tall, sharp-nosed, longhaired Irishman who took pleasure in being as insulting as possible and is a fine honky-tonk country singer. We teamed up with a bass player named Doug Ley, from Ithaca, NY, and worked the trains as a trio: Vince and I would sing something together with Doug harmonizing on the choruses, then one of us would sing while the other bottled the car. Doug played stand-up bass and we figured a lot of people paid us extra out of sympathy for him hauling it on and off the trains.

They were right to sympathize, since we maximized our profits by only working a short segment of the Metro, from Odéon to Porte d’Orléans and back. That route was perfect for our purposes, because it divided neatly into three segments with a major station followed by two or three minor stations, so you could do a eight- or nine-minute set for a captive audience, bottle them, change cars, do another set… and then you had to climb up and down the stairs to change directions, with poor Doug schlepping that bass. Le MazetOdéon to Montparnasse-Bienvenue, Montparnasse to Denfert-Rochereau, Denfert to Porte d’Orléans, then back again, over and over till we got tired and headed to the Mazet for another beer.

It was work, not art, and Vince and sang the same two numbers, train after train: “Good-Hearted Woman” and “Truck Driving Man.” Both were from Vince’s repertoire, the first learned from Willie and Waylon, and the second presumably from Buck Owens, though a lot of other people had recorded it, including a memorable version by Leon Russell. Neither became part of my solo repertoire, but we played them day in and day out for long enough that both are permanently wedged in my memory.

St. Louis Tickle (Dave Van Ronk)

This was Dave Van Ronk’s first venture into classic ragtime, and spawned an entire generation of ragtime guitar virtuosos. Dave Laibman, Eric Schoenberg, Ton Von Bergeyk, Leo Wijnkamp, Guy Van Duser… they all started out with “St. Louis Tickle.” Dave had been singing and playing the second section since the late 1950s, as “Buddy Bolden’s Blues,”  then worked up the next two sections as a solo guitar instrumental, which he recorded in 1963 for his In the Tradition LP. That’s the best-known versioragtime jug stompers - front covern, which most people play, but the following year he formed a band with Barry Kornfeld on banjo, Artie Rose on mandolin, and Danny Kalb on guitar (along with Sam Charters on jug, washboard, and vocals), and they worked up all four sections for their Ragtime Jug Stompers album — after which Dave buckled down and charted the remaining parts for solo guitar, though he only recorded that version for the CDs accompanying his guitar instruction book.

I learned the full version from Dave, but frankly was more excited by his arrangements of “Maple Leaf Rag” and “The Pearls,” which seemed more intricate and sophisticated. But one night in  Málaga a flamenco aficionado invited me to a late-night basement tablao, and at some point I ended up with a guitar in my hands, and I tried to find something they would appreciate and kept striking out (though they were polite about it) until I played “St. Louis Tickle.” At that point, everybody got quiet and paid attention, and said nice things afterwards. I figured if they liked this, they’d love “Maple Leaf Rag,” but I was wrong — they were polite, again, but this was the one that struck them as something special.

I still don’t understand that, but it happened again in Morocco, under even more striking conditions. I was hitchhiking from Casablanca to Agadir in the winter of 1978, and stopped in a tiny roadside village — I don’t remember the details, but someone invited me to spend the night, and we had a fabulous meal, all the men seated around a large earthenware stew dish, eating with our hands and mopping up with hunks of fresh, flat bread. (Incidentally, that bread was the universal stomach-filler in every Moroccan home I visited — I only saw couscous in restaurants and when some French hippies had me to dinner in their van.) (And yes, it was just the men eating in the main room. The women and children presumably ate in the kitchen; I only once stayed long enough in a home that I was accepted as family and ate with everybody.)

Festival-Ahwach2-012Anyway, after dinner they asked me to play some music, and I sang various things, and they were polite about it… and then I tried “St. Louis Tickle,” and the old men got up and started dancing. So I played another ragtime piece, and they sat down again and were polite. And damned if that didn’t happen all the way through Morocco: I never found another tune anyone would dance to, but whenever I played this one, if there were old men around they would get up and start shuffling in a circle, like they recognized it as a traditional village tune.

I still can’t explain that, but it sure made Dave happy when I told him the story.

Angie/Anji (Bert Jansch/Davey Graham)

One of the differences between the 1960s or 1970s and later decades was that there were a few basic guitar pieces that were pretty much universal. If you were a folk-blues player in the US, you knew “Freight Train,” “Buckdancer’s Choice,” and Doc Watson’s “Deep River Blues.” In Northern Europe, those tunes might show up as well, but if you had the chops you were also expected to play “Angie,” or in France might substitute “Windy and Warm.” traum bookThose were a little fancier, and I actually don’t remember that many people doing them, but I sure was asked for them all the time. That first two-year journey, I didn’t yet know “Windy and Warm,” but I’d picked up the basics of “Angie” with the help of a Happy Traum book — my memory is that I hadn’t actually heard it when I picked up a version from his tablature, and only later found a copy of Bert Jansch’s recording somewhere and made a cassette tape of it.

I knew Jansch’s work from Pentangle, though what particularly struck me was his singing. I had heard and loved John Renbourn’s Sir John Alot of Merrie England LP before I knew about any of the other English guitar masters of that generation, Jansch’s playing didn’t grab me the same way, and in those days there was no way to find Daveybert_jansch lp Graham recordings in the US and damn hard to find any in England — I knew Graham’s name but it was probably another thirty years before I got a chance to hear his original version of “Anji” (as he spelled it).

Nonetheless, by the time I went to Europe I had a sort of half-assed version of Jansch’s version and pulled it out now and then when someone asked for it or something like it — in France, for example, it tended to satisfy requests for “something from Marcel Dadi,” though I don’t think Dadi actually recorded it. And I remember playing it in Spain that first winter for the family that worked as guides to the prehistoric paintings in the Cueva de la Pileta near Ronda, and them saying it sounded like Paco de Lucia. So it basically served as my generic contemporary European-sounding guitar showpiece.

I was still playing a pretty messed up version, but got lucky when I was back in Málaga in the winter of 1978-79. I showed up at the house of some friends, Kika and Eugene Huellin, who rented rooms to young women studying Spanish, and one of that year’s young women turned out to play guitar. She asked me to play “Angie,”  and then asked why I didn’t play the last section, and I said I didn’t know it, so she showed it to me — she’d learned it off the Paul Simon version, on Sounds of Silence, which I didn’t even know existed.

So that’s that story, until the incredible resurfacing of Davey Graham recordings in the 21st century. His version of “Anji” is the least of it — the stuff that blows me away is his ability to get all the rhythm, soul, and virtuosity of hard bop: Junior Mance’s “Jubilation,” Carl Perkins’s “Grooveyard,” the Adderley Brothers’ “Work Song,”  Horace Silver’s “The Preacher,” Art Blakey’s “Buhaina Chant,” Mongo Santamaria’s “Afro Blue.” It’s one of my favorite bodies of guitar work ever, especially the live recordings at Hull University and the St. Andrews Folk Club, which show him in full flight in a way the studio albums never quite manage.

Which said, although I learned a few of Renbourn’s pieces and have listened assiduously to Graham, what sticks in my fingers is pretty much Jansch’s version of “Angie.”

Bad Dream Blues (Dave Van Ronk)

Though Dave Van Ronk was not principally known as a songwriter, he wrote some damn good songs. But before he got into songwriting in more ambitious ways, he recorded a handful of blues songs for which he took author credit. He didn’t consider these fully original compositions, since they had a mix of old and new verses, some adapted, some borrowed, set to guitar parts and melodies that were likewise a mix of traditional influences and personal quirks. They were original (or unoriginal) the way a lot of blues songs are original: as he liked to put it, “Blues is like a kielbasa — you don’t sing a whole one, you just cut off a section.”

blues projectThis was one of those original blues, which he recorded a couple of times in the mid-1960s, on his Just Dave Van Ronk album and more powerfully on an Elektra sampler of the current blues scene titled The Blues Project. (One of the featured artists was Danny Kalb, who shortly copped the album’s name for his blues-rock band.)

Like “Keep It Clean,” this was one of the arrangements Dave did during his transitory love affair with open tunings, and was likewise dropped from his repertoire when he decided re-tuning was too much trouble. The odd thing about both pieces is that the tuning gave them a distinctive flavor, but the basic arrangements were clearly based on standard-tuning models, and he could easily have come up with something suitable in standard had he cared to. This one is reminiscent of some of Mississippi John Hurt’s charts in E, and I just took that route.

As I recall, I didn’t actually learn this one. I just happened to think of it one day during that winter in Spain, and started fooling around with it, and found that I knew most of the verses. I’ve always thought that was the mark of a particularly well-written song: it sticks in your head, because the pieces fit together so neatly that one reminds you of the next. When I heard Dave do this I don’t remember noticing that it was more than a loose assemblage of generic verses, but when I started singing it, they all fell into place in a particular order, and if I’ve sometimes left one or two out and needed to jog my memory, they’ve mostly stuck.

Peanut Butter Conspiracy (Jimmy Buffett/shoplifting)

I’m pretty sure I got my first Jimmy Buffett album after the Europe trip, but it fits this part of my songobiography because this was the first song of his I learned, and I learned it as a souvenir of my brief life of crime. That period began during the week or so I lived under a bridge in Carcassonne with a Guyanan guy named Rohan and an English guy named Martin. (Yes, Rohan and Martin. I later lived in Morocco next to an American named Byron and and Englishman named Shelly.) CarcassonneThey had dragged an old mattress under the bridge, and we all slept there and pooled our resources.

It was the fall of 1978, and they were waiting for the vendange (grape harvest) to begin. In those days, the vendange was still done completely by hand and swarms of young folks would descend on the South of France from all over Northern Europe to do the picking. The problem was that a lot of them arrived early in hopes of finding a good job, and then were stuck for a couple of weeks before the work started.

Rohan’s solution was to go out every night and search through people’s garbage. He was careful to select items that were still wrapped or otherwise seemed safe and sanitary, and it was surprising how much he found. (To be fair, he also accumulated full bottles of wine by pouring together the dregs from discarded bottles, which was pretty foul, but we were young and strong.)

Martin, meanwhile, shoplifted. I’d probably taken occasional candy bars from stores before, but he was serious and professional — the biggest difference being that I was terrified of getting caught, while he didn’t mind getting caught if the result was nothing worse than a night in jail. Back in England he’d done time in borstal (reform school) — which he assured us had been good for him — but in France he usually just got an angry lecture, which he considered irrelevant.

So Martin would head off to the stores, and I went with him because he had no idea what to steal — laughing-cow-cheeseI mean, he was in France and could steal the most wonderful cheeses on earth, but was taking La Vache Qui Rit because the package was familiar. I didn’t actually steal at that point — I was busking and contributed loaves of fresh bread, which were too big to steal and didn’t get thrown away. But I studied his technique, which was to fill up the crotch of his jeans — as described in Buffett’s lyric — a particularly good spot because, even if someone noted the bulge and thought it looked suspicious, they might be embarrassed to mention it.

To make a long story short, I went on to pillage the supermarkets of Paris — never small groceries, only the Monoprix and Uniprix, which could obviously afford it — and dined on steaks for a while. And then, hitchhiking through Denmark, I stopped at a supermarket, shoved a nice lump of cheese down my pants, walked out, and was promptly accosted by a polite employee, who said, “We believe you have an item you have not paid for.” I admitted that to be the case, and he said, “Please go back and pay for it.” Buffett LP

So I did, and that’s the last time I ever shoplifted — the moral being that bougie wannabe hoboes are hopeless lightweights… and to make it worse they celebrate their crimes with Jimmy Buffett songs.

If You Leave Me Pretty Mama (Germany/Austria)

This was the one Van Ronk original on Dave’s first album, and another song I’d brought to Europe on cassette. I don’t remember where I took the time to figure out the guitar part, but in my memory it is forever linked to my first performance at a rock festival. (Which was also my last, but why mention that?)

I was hitchhiking out of Salzburg, Austria, and it was getting late when a van pulled over and a bunch of long-haired guys said they weren’t going far, but if I needed a place to sleep I could come with them. They were members of a rock band, headed for a house in the country where they all lived together. Of course I said yes, and we spent the evening playing music, and it turned out they were having a rock festival on their land in a couple of weeks and offered me a spot on it. So I traveled around a bit, came back to their place, and did the gig.

There was nothing particularly memorable about the festival itself — aside from the moment when I went into the house to use the bathroom and interrupted the guitarist’s lovely lady friend shooting up — but the headliner was aLes Brown LP Scottish singer and guitarist named Les Brown, who was living in Austria at the time. He was a fair blues fingerpicker and knew Van Ronk’s repertoire, so we hit it off and he took it upon himself to give me some tips on playing around northern Europe.

His two main tips were that there was lots of work in Germany and I shouldn’t take a gig for under 200 Deutschmarks (about a hundred dollars). That sounded like a lot to me, but I headed west and spent a month or so wandering from Tübingen up to Münster, and booked a half-dozen gigs for a couple of months in the future — my first tour of anyplace, ever. At that point American folk-blues guitarists were an easy sell in Germany: I’d just walk into a club with my guitar case, say I wanted to book a gig, and they’d book me. Not a single manager asked to hear me before giving me the job.

It was also very easy to find places to sleep — if I was playing on the street I’d put a sign on my guitar case saying I needed a bed for the night, or if I didn’t feel like playing I could go into a pub that catered to young people and ask the bartender for advice. I remember one giving me the address of a student commune, and I went over and rang the bell, and a young woman opened the door, stark naked. I explained what I wanted, and she took me to a big room with several mattresses on the floor and pointed out which one I could have for the night. It was like that in the 1970s. (And no, I didn’t sleep with her. She was on another mattress, and we both were there to sleep.)hildegard_doebner

There are plenty of other memories of that month or so — a run-in with the cops while sleeping in a park in Dusseldorf, for example — but to finish up for the moment, I had the good fortune to wangle a guest set followed by a gig at the legendary Folkclub Witten, the oldest folk club in that part of Germany (maybe in all of Germany), run by a force of nature named Hildegard Doebner. I don’t remember much about the gigs, but she was wonderful, and when I later met and worked for Lena Spencer at the Caffe Lena in Saratoga Springs, I was instantly reminded of  Hildegard.

One other thing: Les performed a song at the Austrian rock fest that has stuck with me ever since, and I just hunted it up on the internet and present it for your delectation. He wrote out the words and recommended learning it for the US soldier bars, and I didn’t want to do that circuit, so never learned it completely, but I got the chorus just by hearing Les sing it through. It turns out to have been recorded in 1961 by a Germany-based country singer named Eddie Wilson, and the chorus went:

Dankeschön, Bitteschön, Wiedersehn,
Noch ein Bier, kommen sie Hier.
Grosser und kleiner und nicht verstehn,
I wish I could sprechen sie Deutsch.

None of which has anything to do with “If You Leave Me, Pretty Mama,” a lovely example of Dave Van Ronk’s early style, except that I played it that afternoon for Les and remembering it triggered the chain of memories.

Blues on My Ceiling (for Hazel)

By a quirk of memory, this urban, late night, heartsick song always makes me think of a sunny afternoon on a grassy hillside in Tuscany.

Like “Miss Brown to You,” Judy Roderickthis Fred Neil composition was one of the three songs Judy Roderick sang on a Newport Folk Festival collection, backed by John Hammond on harmonica. I loved her version, included it on my homemade cassette of contemporary folk songs, and had just figured out how to play it during the few days I spent in Annecy.

From Annecy, I hitchhiked east and slept by the side of the road near Chamonix. I woke up wet and cold, stood for a couple of hours with my thumb out in a grey, steady drizzle, then got a ride through the Mont Blanc tunnel and emerged on the other side of the Alps, in warm, sunny Italy.

I hitched down to Rome for a week or so, then up the coast togabellino Grosseto and inland to Gabellino, the smallest town I’ve ever seen on a map. It was only on the map because it had been a way-station for travelers between the coast and Siena since the middle ages, and it was still just one building, an inn with a few bedrooms and a restaurant.

I was there to visit my ex-half-sister-in-law — she had been married to my half-brother Dave, or actually was still married to him, but hadn’t seen him in over a dozen years — who was living on a mountaintop a few kilometers from Gabellino in a small stone house with no electricity, raising sheep and chickens. Her postal address was:

Someone pointed me in the right direction and I walked up to her house and she was out back feeding the chickens. A while later we were sitting on a grassy hillside with a bottle of local wine and I was playing songs for her. This was one of them and she particularly liked it, and since I never played it much after that, it always reminds me of that afternoon.

Which, I grant, is not much of a story… but a few years later Hazel came back to the United States and when I booked my first cross-country tour she came along for the ride, and we had so much fun that she rode along on each tour I did after that, twice a year for the next three years. I drove, and she smoked endless cigarettes, cooked incredible meals, and kept annotated set-lists of every show with stars next to the songs she liked and instructions on what to do differently on the ones she didn’t. By the end she was living in California and I’d drive out there on my own, pick her up, and we’d head up to Vancouver, east through Montana, eventually end up in Boston, and she’d catch a train back to the West Coast. She was one of my favorite people ever, and it’s strange to think that when I met her on that mountaintop she was just 35 years old, and now it’s damn near forty years later and she died in Lucca, about a hundred miles from Gabellino, a few years ago.

So, this one’s for Hazel.