Finally, over many stolen hours, over many years, by the time I was forty, having acquired just enough skill on the guitar, and somehow blessed with the complete absence of stage fright, I was able to get a small taste of my adolescent Rock ‘n’ Roll fantasies by joining my first performing band. I eventually became the poster boy and spokesperson for the it’s-never-too-late-to-be-a-musician musician.
By 2012, I felt ready to put myself out there. I don’t recall if I had placed a Craigslist ad and he responded, or I responded to his ad, but that’s how John Wilson, lead guitarist extraordinaire, and I met. We jammed for the first time in his living room while our kids played outside on a trampoline, and eventually we became friends and then bandmates.
The first band I was invited to join was started by a member of our neighborhood jam, Will Clark, and he named it Bakertown, a reference to our local live volcano, Mt. Baker, which resides approximately 60 miles east. After a year, Will moved to Arizona, and John Wilson took his place. We played a fun mix of mostly recognizable and dance-worthy Rock ‘n’ Roll covers, through which I had my first experience of that infectious, addictive positive feedback loop: the joy of making the music transmits out to the audience, which gives the audience joy, and the audience’s joy is reflected back to the musicians in their smiles and dancing bodies.
After Bakertown quietly and civilly dissolved due to mounting schedule conflicts from other commitments, I recruited a drummer friend, Burrell Jull, to form a new band, and then moved on to looking for the other pieces of the puzzle with another Craigslist ad.
After a few auditions failed to yield a lead guitarist, Burrell and I jammed with Scott Gilbert, a musical kindred spirit, a guitar player who could crank out the tastiest licks and sing lead and backing vocals, a former chef, and current HVAC mechanic for six months a year at McMurdo Station, Antarctica. We hit it off immediately, and when we were done playing that first night, Scott pulled a rabbit out of his hat and said, “Hey, I know this great bass player who’d probably be into this!”
Enter Chipps Monahan, a Duck Dunn, Rick Danko, John Kahn kind of player, we named ourselves Landing Party, we played an eclectic mix of mostly obscure Rock tunes, and we became close friends.
Now, there are plenty of aspects of being in a mostly-amateur bar band that no one has the heart to tell you about, trials and tribulations that painfully and regularly lead you to question whether or not it’s even worth it. There are ample reasons why local bands of guys and gals with day jobs rarely stay together for very long, most of which could be summed up as the futility of trying to fit the square peg of life into the round hole of the music world: weekly rehearsals; late nights in dive bars; the financial black hole of music gear acquisition, loss, and replacement; clashes over personalities/egos, creative differences, substance abuse, levels of commitment, etc.
But damn if that doesn’t all fade away that one night, maybe just on that one song, when all the gears seem to synchronize, you feel the power of that electric guitar in your hand, coursing through the cable and bursting forth from your 40-watt tube amplifier, you hear you and your bandmates actually sounding good, arguably better than you have any business sounding, and you step to the microphone, and suddenly you feel like a frickin’ Beatle, like Bob Dylan, like Bruce Springsteen or Tom Petty, like Joe Strummer.
“Hey, are you guys available next month?” asks the bar manager after the show.
“Hell. Fucking. Yes!”
Fast forward 10 years…
Sleepy alligator in the noonday sun,
Lyin’ by the river just like he usually done
Calls for his whiskey
He can call for his tea
Call all he want to but he can’t call me.
— Grateful Dead, from Alligator, 1967
It was sometime in February 2018, and it was just our weekly Monday night rehearsal. We drank some beers and we played our minds out in an old repurposed rural schoolroom on 10 acres, no neighbors to disturb. The good feelings generated by making this music often propelled me into the rest of the week.
We were called Sleepy Alligators, and we played the music of the Grateful Dead.
My old friend John Wilson and I were chatting at his July 4th BBQ in 2015, when he shared that he’d begun to delve deep into studying Jerry Garcia’s guitar technique, and he asked rather casually if I might be interested in being in a band he was thinking about starting, not initially to play gigs, but rather as a vehicle for exploring Grateful Dead music, and pushing ourselves to grow as musicians.
Since Landing Party was only a 6-month commitment each year, I very quickly answered John, “YESSSSSSSS!”
John recruited all of the other bandmates and led us on a long, strange trip.
By the time we’d been together for two and a half years, we were practicing in a space on a property in the nearby countryside where our keyboardist lived, and we were playing at a skill level that I truly never thought I’d be capable of. We played our first show in the summer of 2016, and we just happened to come around at a time when there was a resurgence of interest in the music of the Grateful Dead, thanks to three of the founding members teaming up with a young guitar slinger popular with millennials, forming a band called Dead & Company. There was great skepticism and doubt amongst the old guard Deadheads like myself, but John Mayer checked his considerable ego at the door, invested in studying the music and the ethos of the band, and managed to find the sweet spot, honoring and bringing back, without mimicry, the vibe of Jerry Garcia, while injecting his own, unique voice, youthful exuberance and massive talent.
Deadheads were flocking to the Dead & Company shows, but they were also hungry for more, and so when we appeared on the scene — the only band in our two-county region exclusively playing Grateful Dead music — we found ourselves joyously riding coattails, embraced by folks who, if they were lucky, normally saw bands that only played a Dead song or two at most. A whole evening of Grateful Dead music, as we provided, two 60-minute sets with an intermission, allowed for the glorious illusion of being at that most unique, wonderful, ecstatic of things: a Grateful Dead concert.
Two and a half years in, we had a fairly devoted following, we were in demand at various venues rather than having to always solicit gigs, and by that February our upcoming spring and summer schedule was already filling up with bookings.
It was heaven. It was a dream come true.
Back to that Monday night, we were working on an instrumental piece called Slipknot, close to if not the most difficult piece of music we played. There’s a chord change that occurs several times in the song, when, as I’m busy playing up at the twelfth fret, I suddenly need to move my fingers very quickly down to the third fret and form a diminished chord shape that I’ve always struggled a bit with, a chord that’s hard enough for me to form when my hand is already right there in the vicinity. And while I had finally mastered this move over the previous months of practice, that night…I Just. Couldn’t. Do. It.
Now listen: I can endure the mild-to-intense muscle twitching, I can even get through the cramps, because I can usually avoid them by not physically exerting myself too much, in which case they only happen periodically. But you mess with my music, just as I’ve reached a level of success I’d worked so hard for over so many years, and you’re damned right that I’m angry and finally ready to seek out medical attention.
In the midst of what would prove the most bittersweet spring and summer of my life, playing several shows a month to crowds of increasing size and enthusiasm, and yet slowly but surely losing more and more strength in my hands and fingers, in July I was diagnosed with ALS, and a Halloween show that October would prove to be my last performance, as I could no longer make it through a gig without making obvious mistakes that I could no longer afflict on my bandmates and our audience.
It was Just Like Tantalus’ Blues, I was Tantalus, and the fruit and water were now just out of reach.