I was back in the US for a year in 1979-80, then headed off to Europe again, busked up the money for a plane ticket to Pakistan, and flew Aeroflot from Paris to Karachi. I hitchhiked north to Lahore and Rawalpindi, then across the border to Amritsar, India…
…or, actually, to the road to Amritsar, where a Frenchman who had managed to get his Citroen 2CV all the way from France to India had the misfortune to let me take the wheel and I promptly totaled it in a head-on collision with a truck. The story is a bit more complicated than that, and it wasn’t entirely my fault, but the damage was done. So we spent a few days recovering in Amritsar, then I took a train to Delhi.
In Delhi I got a cheap bed in a shared room with a half-dozen dissolute hippies — among them the co-founder of Celestial Seasonings teas, which he’d started as Rocky Mountain Herbals, gathering the herbs himself.* He’d sold out to a partner and headed for Nepal and parts east, aiming to become an expert in opium. I don’t know how expert he was, but he took me along on one of his local buys, explaining that you shouldn’t smoke the Indian stuff because it was cut with plastic. So we ate it, and it was a very pleasant, low-key high…
…which is, more or less, how I would characterize my stay in Delhi, until the morning I woke up to find that someone had extracted all my money from the pocket of my jacket, despite the fact that I always rolled up the jacket and used it as a pillow.
That presented a bit of a problem, since none of the local hotels or restaurants would hire me to play unless I had a work permit, and the couple of times I tried busking the populace seemed to find me mildly amusing but did not subsidize my efforts. So then I got the bright idea of going to the US embassy and offering my talents to the United States Information Service as a cultural emissary who was already there, and hence cheap.
Oddly enough, they went for it. I designed a concert-cum-lecture in which I provided a capsule history of American music, from ballads and field hollers through blues, country, swing, rock ‘n’ roll, and a couple of hits of the 1960s — notably Otis Redding’s “(Sitting on) The Dock of the Bay.”
I’d worked out this guitar part more or less by accident: I was playing around with the idea of fingerpicking while slapping a steady rhythm on the downbeat, and it seemed to fit Redding’s song — which meant I practiced this a lot as an exercise but virtually never played it in public, because who needed another version of “Dock of the Bay”?
Answer: my audience at the India Institute of Technology. The concert went well, I got my first review ever, praising my “zest” and “educative quality,”** crashed for a few days with some students there, then played a second concert at a girls school, was paid a few hundred dollars by the USIS, and caught a train to Bombay (now Mumbai). In Bombay I did one more embassy-sponsored concert, picked up some work as an extra in Bollywood movies — that was me among the tourists on the runaway bus rescued by Mithun Chakraborty — and as a British policeman in Gandhi, standing on the dock with my back to the camera, restraining the surging crowds as the Mahatma arrived from South Africa.
Meanwhile, I spent my evenings on another dock, looking out towards the fort and playing for whoever wandered by — which, once again was unremunerative, but I met a lot of nice people, got stoned when interested, and even found a bed now and then.
As the song says, with allowances for distance:
“Eight thousand miles I’d roamed, just to make that dock my home…”
*I cannot vouch for the accuracy of that Rocky Mountain Herbals/ Celestial Seasonings story, nor do I remember the guy’s name. He did keep a voluminous scrapbook of philosophical quotations like the ones on the tea boxes, but that’s not exactly proof. I lost touch with him, aside from one postcard a year or so later, sent from a jail in Thailand.
**I take no responsibility for the odder bits of history in the review, or the description of African American work songs as expressing “a joy which no adversity could repress.”