Sunday, September 03, 2006

100 Greats in 100 Days #051: Dean Magraw: Broken Silence

I could be a self-righteous son-of-a-bitch when I was young (now I’m probably just a son-of-a-bitch, full stop). Growing up in the dead-boring, striving-to-be-middle-class suburban bedroom community I did, there wasn’t much in the way of live music. They cut the music programs in my high school before I got there: this was in the days before middle-class parents had become convinced that extra-curricular activities (don’t call ‘em avocations, anymore—parents mandate them for their kids) would help them aim their 13-year-olds more surely at top schools. Back in the early ‘70s, the conviction was that top grades in hard sciences was what got kids into Ivy Schools and that money spent on anything else was wasted cash. I wasn’t facilitated by being the second Coyote offspring to go through my home-town’s public schools: my brilliant elder brother (too smart for just about any room he’s in) had blazed through them five years before, just prior to winning a full ride to Harvard at 16, after taking a year in Europe where he wound up as translator and part-time comptroller at American Express in Amsterdam. So I always got the pleased-and-relieved reaction from lady teachers, “Oh, you’re David’s brother!”

But I started finding my way a little bit in the folk coffeehouses that still sprang up like dandelions after rain around the North Shore of Massachusetts. A lot of these places were run by people who’d either experienced the great Sixties Folk Revival in Boston/Cambridge (documented in Eric von Schmidt’s masterpiece chronicle Baby Let Me Follow You Down), or by people who’d just missed the boat by being too young. I didn’t have other experience of live music—never was a band rat, never played in a junior high garage band, only went to a few rock ‘n’ roll parties—so I took my cues from the vibe of the coffeehouses. Which was, more or less, hushed, reverent, and—let’s face it—pretty well precious and holier- (or “folkier”) than-thou.

A coffeehouse was actually a pretty good place to play music: the musicians loved these clubs, because people didn’t smoke or drink and they would shut the fuck up while the music was on; the shows started and ended reasonably early (and you didn’t have to load out through a garbage-stinking service entrance at 2:00 in the morning). It was a little weird to listen to greats like Martin Grosswendt, Geoff Bartley, Paul Rishell, and Paul Geremia play the country blues in the parish hall of an Episcopal church, but the musicians liked playing there.

On the other hand, it wasn’t the greatest place to learn to hear music, if only because it gave you (OK, “it gave me”) some pretty rigid ideas about what were and weren’t acceptable behaviors around the music. I was there to listen, and, like all the other natural-fibered older folks around me in the coffeehouse audience, I expected a certain reverence about other folks’ listening behavior.

All of which goes to mean that I was a self-righteous son-of-a-bitch in a music bar. I would shush anybody, even the scary-looking biker guys and failed poets who hung out in the back room of the legendary Idler, a bar on the southwest edge of Harvard Square where some of those same Folk-Revival bluesmen held court. I could be sitting in the back room of the Idler when one of these guys was playing, and if somebody at the other end of the room started talking, I’d get in their face (it didn’t hurt that I was 6’5” and looked a little like a biker myself, having just moved back from Texas).

But even though I was a snot, it was my favorite place to listen to the solo guitar virtuosity of my hero, the Zatoichi of the guitar, Dean Magraw. He’d come out from the Twin Cities to study at Berklee, and like so many others, had quickly realized that the place was more adept at churning out carbon-copy studio players (and at charging them outrageous tuition) than fostering original creativity. He wound up playing the folk and jazz clubs of the area and teaching widely.

Dean—I realize now—was only about eight years older than I at the time, but he was such an astonishing virtuoso, his style an ungodly blend of Norman Blake and Doc Watson’s flatpicking prowess, the funk of Charles Mingus and the country blues, and the modal and harmonic sophistication of bebop and Indian classical music, that he seemed light-years ahead of me. He played the widest possible diversity of tunes, from the aforementioned Mingus and McCoy Tyner, Ravi Shankar and Roland Kirk, Doc’s and Norman’s and his own tunes, and his technique was amazing. He might have been the first musician I’d ever met who could truly play anything he heard.

When a musician gets to that place—when the physical technique, and the kinesthetic connection between the ear (inner or outer) and the fingers is as immediate as the hearing itself—a lot falls away. The battles fought with the instrument and the ear fall away, and the difference between a good gig and a great one comes down to the degree to which the player can enter a zone of relaxation, comfort, and confidence—because that’s when the ideas flow. Dean might also have been the first player I’d ever seen enter that zone—that place where the ideas flow unchecked. Late at night, when the people there were listening rather than talking, and it was quiet enough that the PA was behaving, and he’d maybe had a little bit of the smoke, he felt comfortable experimenting, and the music that flowed out of that was absolutely transcendent.

I don’t know if I was his most frequent listener, following him around to the little folk and jazz clubs he played, but I might give myself credit for being his best listener.

He played with Chicago-born accordion and concertina virtuoso John Williams—and buried Williams, and plays widely around his native Minneapolis with ambient-music maestro Steve Tibbetts, mandolinist Peter Ostroushko, and a host of others. But his greatest, most intimate, and most beautiful music, I think, is the solo guitar stuff.

I was later blessed to work alongside Dean at the late and much-lamented guitar workshop, a magical place at which the owners—though in the end they proved to be piss-poor and unethical business managers—had an incomparable ability to recruit brilliant and compatible personalities. I took every class he taught and practiced every exercise he gave me (and still use some in my own teaching), and hoped that someday I’d be able to get within some kind of hollering distance of his chops, ears, imagination, and, most of all, his freedom. Tibbetts put it, “It’s guitar, but it’s so liquid, lyrical, and effortless, that it’s like listening to a dancer.” When it was late enough, and quiet enough, and friendly enough, and he was relaxed (one way or another) enough, he would just go somewhere, and we would be lucky enough, maybe, to go partway there with him.

He played a lot of things, and I loved a lot of his arrangements (he had a version of McCoy Tyner’s Passion Dance was just heartbreaking), and his versions of old bluegrass tunes were equally good: he wasn’t a conventionally “good” singer, but he loved things like Norman’s Church Street Blues so much that it didn’t matter.

I heard a lot of the blues players in the Boston/Cambridge folk revival, and noticed pretty early on that there was a range of concepts of what you did with the blues. There were the literalist quasi-musicologists—who knew all the details and the matrix numbers and the alternate takes, and could sometimes play gorgeous, 78-perfect versions of the originals. There were the poseurs—who tended to dress self-consciously for the stage, and for some reason seemed to think that a crucial hat was what would make them seem cool. There were the inhabitors—who got so deeply into the music that they could play the old tunes with total unself-consciousness, and could “go to” the place people like Blind Willie Johnson did: Martin Grosswendt was like that; so was Paul Rishell. There were the hipsters—who made everything they played work beautifully within a kind of uptown idiom: Geoff Bartley’s fantastic, sexy version of Chuck Berry’s Maybelline comes to mind. If I fell into any camp, it was probably a trap: the trap that you had to play your version of this or that Exactly Like The Record—if only to show everybody else that you had the chops and ears to figure it out. I never really go to where I inhabited the music that way.

But then there were the ones who owere just free—sho seemed to hear it all like One Big Music, who had worked so hard, for so long, that they could check their egos at the door, knowing that what they mostly needed to do was simply to get out of the way, and let the music flow through them. Dean was like that. His versions of tunes were deeply his own, and sometimes bore only passing resemblance to their originals. But he managed to find another kind of beauty in each of them.

My favorite tune of Dean’s was his version of Blind Willie McTell’s Statesboro Blues. It’s a tune that had been covered and re-covered throughout the Folk and Blues revivals: Taj Mahal had done a fantastic semi-acoustic version with Jesse Ed Davis, the Allman Brothers had produced maybe the definitive electric version (captured most memorably on Live at Fillmore East), and Willie’s own original—high-pitched, whiney vocal; fingerpicked 12-string guitar approximately the size of a church organ; absolutely magnificent—is nothing to sneeze at. Most everybody who played it paid at least homage to one of those versions: even the Allmans’ stop-time version took off from Taj’s earlier shuffle settings, and most of the folkies I heard copped Willie’s 12-string partner.

Dean went somewhere else with it. He borrowed Willie’s dropped-D tuning, but beyond that, everything in his version changed: the groove (from a shuffle to a more bluegrassy straight-8ths), the technique (from fingerpicking to flatpicking), and the tonality: from bluesy sevenths to lovely, simple, diatonic triads.

But even greater than all of these lovely—and, given the canonic nature of Willie’s original and all the versions—daring changes, was what he added: a stunning, simple, eloquent D-triad-to-G/B riff, tumbling down the to the low strings. It was the one Dean lick I learned first, and the one I loved best, and the feeling it created in me when I heard it, and when it cycled around again in the tune, was the one that, for decades later, was the feeling I wanted to hear in my own music.

It wasn’t until almost two decades later that I found my way to the olace of freedom that I was hearing in Dean’s music—when I stopped trying to play everything, and, with the assistance of some wise musical elders, and one youngster with wisdom beyond her years (at least about me), decided to have a go at doing one thing well. I finally accepted I couldn’t do what Dean did—but I might be able to light out for the territory he had mapped before me. For 10 years at least after that, I carried around badly-recorded analog cassettes of those shows, playing them over the sound systems of the bookstores or restaurant kitchens I worked in, until they literally frayed into tatters or were lost in various moves.

There’s another thing that Dean showed me, years before I understood what it was, or why it was so powerful, or how much I wanted to find it in myself and my own music. And it’s a hard thing to talk about, in the typically-macho world of jazz, blues, and, shit, even of Irish music. But it’s a true, real, and important thing. It’s about love.

I wasn’t exactly a disciple, but, as I say, I was probably about the best listener Dean had. And I would always look forward to that moment in the evening, when it was quiet or intimate or relaxed or high enough—usually in the back room of the Idler—when he’d play the Statesboro Blues. I knew and loved all the other versions, but there was something about Dean’s—its beauty, originality, simplicity, eloquence, or things I couldn’t even name—that outstripped them all for me. I’d wait to hear that beautiful opening riff, because I knew the feeling it created; I knew how I felt while he played it. And I came to believe that he understood that.

One night at the Idler, when Dharmonia was occupied elsewhere, I’d trekked down from Porter Square on the Red Line to hear Dean play another sparsely-attended solo gig. It was the last set, I think, and I had managed to shush (or chase away) anybody noisy, so there were just a few of us left. Dean went into the opening riff of Statesboro, and could practically feel my eyes roll back in my head. I looked up at the stage, and caught his eye, and saw him smiling at me. And I knew, at that moment, what I heard in that tune, and his music, and how to understand it: I knew, for that four minutes, that he loved me, and that this was the music’s deepest message.

I’ve spoken before in these pages about love: of the musician for the music, of the teacher for the student, of the listener for the player. Finally, most privately, riskily, and eloquently, Dean Magraw and his Statesboro Blues taught me about the sacred love of the musician for the listener: about why many musics—no matter how earthly—because of this capacity, are “sacred” musics. Because of the emotions whose creation and communication those musics make possible. Because they enable musicians (who are, let’s face it, not necessarily some of the nicest or most communicative people in the world) to express love.

Dean Magraw’s music showed me the possibility of love within that sacred space. Beyond these limited words, I can’t describe it—but this record will take you there.


Saxybair said...

Beautiful, insightful and eloquent. All music, in its own right, is sacred.

coyotebanjo said...

Thanks for the kind words.

Perhaps you might enjoy this other one as well, on another Twin Cities icon:


Dr Coyote

masbrow said...

Beautiful! Moving!