Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The Day The Music Died

Greensboro's music scene in the 80's has been a topic I've discussed a few times here. Many people are not aware of how many musicians, actors and the like have come from NC. NC has produced more than its share, but that is not totally relevant, just a bit of info.

The phenomenon known as the Somewhere Else Tavern Sunday night open jam is what I'm addressing here. Those who were lucky enough to be around for those events and had the opportunity to participate still talk about that period of time fondly. We all find it slightly frustrating that we've never been able to encounter an open mic or jam situation in which those in charge, or participating, seem to "get it".

My critic friend and I have discussed this at length, trying to analyze what ingredient was unique to that place and time which made the thing work so well, and produce such outstanding live, spontaneous music. Why was it so good that name bands who were booked at Greensboro's Coliseum would sometimes rush over to the Tavern after their show hoping to jam with the Somewhere Else Crowd?

It certainly wasn't the upscale neighborhood or the state of the art facilities. The Tavern was in an edgy neighborhood, and may as well have had sawdust on the floor. You drank your beer out of the can, unless you were willing to down that piss they called "draft beer" out of a plastic cup.

In their defense they did eventually get the license for liquor by the drink, and when Burley wasn't pinching pennies he could make the best Long Island Ice Tea ever made.

I think everyone who had the good fortune to be a part of that scene for any length of time agrees that the essential catalyst that allowed the mix to produce magic was Aubrey Henley, known in music circles as McGoo--possibly due to his whimsical resemblance to the cartoon character (I never knew for sure). What I do know is that he could contain a stage full of guitar players, percussionists, etc. so that they would play with, not all over, everyone else.

How he made it work, I can't say. But when he was manning that B3 and admonishing the band to "Bring it down, y'all!", all but the most diseased of guitar players would heed the advice.

The style of music played did not fit any particular category as no "purists" were in any position to dictate their own dogmatic ideas like "blues only, and these are the rules that make it blues", etc. Since I was rarely home and had no significant music collection, the majority of songs I played at the jam were new to me. The first time I heard most of them was when I played them.

I consider that a blessing because I had no preconceived notion of how it should be. That way I just tried to fit something in to aid the overall tune and not be so bad that McGoo threw a beer at me or something. Actually he never said a cross word to me. He had to up the urgency of his requests for people to tune or tone down a bit once in awhile in the case of over eager guitar players who did not have the sense to play background when it wasn't their lead.

That much was organized; you did not take your time until it was your time. He'd say something like, "break it down band, tell it, Johnny!". He called me Johnny most of the time. Some people do and it is perfectly natural in those cases, usually. Not many people but some.

Maybe it was the timbre of his voice that helped. He had a sort of screechy, gravelly sound going. I heard it was due to an injury received in Vietnam, where his job was to chauffeur either a colonel or general around in a jeep. Someone blew something up and he caught shrapnel which affected a vocal chord. Maybe a true story, and maybe not. It seemed feasible, and I'm pretty sure the jeep driver aspect was true.

I was really tentative back then but that is where I learned how to play a lead break in a song with a band. Once in awhile I really got hold of it, and once in awhile my time would go double the usual. They say you can't really teach people how to do that thing of jamming and fitting when and where you should. I don't know. It was one of the more astute Berklee grads who told me that.

I have noticed in my musical adventures since then that most people I've played with can't really jam like that, or don't. It was a huge surprise when that sunk in. For a long time I was talking a language foreign to those players because they'd never actually participated in a jam that might change directions or be begin with someone just making up a riff and going from there. Especially not on a stage in front of a crowd.

And many of those players were very good, better than I. But in the school of jam, barely pre-schoolers.

Often there was a standing room only crowd. Word got out and it became the cool thing for the hip yuppies in the area to attend.

I've never even heard of a similar scene, or one that approximated The Jam. It was open, so if you had the nerve and thought you could hang, you could get up there. You may have a tough time if you thought you were going to get up by yourself and sing a ballad with no other musicians on stage. It was a jam. Can you lend your ax to what they are playing? Better be able to do that because it wasn't just a showcase for front men. If you were able and good, you could earn some front man time.

If there were a ton of players there, sometimes you had to take turns. Instruments like harmonica are not often good in multiples. So, if there were other harp players there, it was good to either get up there early so you didn't have to wait, or just wait until a break so you could have your turn when it started back up.

Another trick for guys like me was to play on the songs most harp players wouldn't play. It may mean playing very mellow sweet straight harp or just floating little notes in here and there. That became something I enjoyed doing and it gave me more chance to play.

But nothing worked very well for long if McGoo wasn't there. He and Dwayne (not sure he spells it like that), the sax player , had a two man band and played various venues throughout the state.

They were the heart of the jam, and McGoo was the heart of the heart. He was like no one I've ever known. Edgy, yet as kind and gentle as they get. He was something, and it is the world's loss that the movie makers and people who make you famous did not broadcast these things nationwide or worldwide.

Maybe that would have spoiled it. I don't think McGoo cared about such things. He finally married a good woman and had a child. He cared for friends and family and that was that.

At some point the jam died. McGoo got a regular job and was absorbed in the family life and caring for his people. And about four years ago Aubrey died. I don't know the exact day, but I'd have to say that was the real day the music died.

1 comment:

  1. "Break it down band"...

    ...very well said Johnny.


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Ballistic Mountain, CA, United States
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