A Blues Lesson
written by: David Luoma
Balance her on your knee like a baby. It’s not a fence post, kid, and you’re no carpenter. Some cats name theirs. You heard of Lucille, that’s B.B. King’s. There’s also Betsy. This one I’m holding’s Betsy so say hi to her. No, don’t touch. Blonde bird’s eye maple body with mother of pearl laid so sweet into ebony. Can’t find anything better than mother of pearl and ebony so don’t even try.
Look around here. I built this place from zero, scratch. The lowest point, goose egg. It was supposed to mean something, a way of being a man. Being a provider, finally, was how it was worded. See the harps up front, under glass. When you came in, did you see? And be careful or she’ll slip off your knee with your sudden moving. The finest collection of Georgia saxophones ever established. It being almost sale time with fifty percent reduction on everything you can wrap a hand around. That there’s no coincidence. Fine sundown outside, don’t you think? Bend that note for tension. Whiny isn’t it? They call me fatty. You think I’m fat, don’t answer. Fat’s its own blues, you know what I’m saying. Keep the rhythm rolling in your head, waka waka waka. Remember the arrangement. Grimace like it hurts like there’s a pain in your soul. Scrunch your eyebrows this way, almost like you’re communicating with them, which you are.
This place’ll wear on you. Long hard days, that’s what I’m talking about. Profit’s split 50-50 and Betsy rejoicing just because that’s our arrangement. Relax the world’s not ending today. You think you got problems. What are you fourteen pushing fifteen? Long hard days I’m telling you. Profit’s out the door.
Six strings, that’s all there is, just six to tell the world what you got to say. Wear black sunglasses so your eyes are in the dark. Don’t start off about pretty sunrises either. Begin singing, my baby done left me or I stabbed that back door man in Memphis. Slow down, kid, and breathe a little and don’t smile so much and what’s so funny? Sundown’s better and a hurricane’s better still. A name’s what it’s all about as names are earned like a reputation. Here’s to Howlin’ Wolf. How’s that for a moniker? And Limp Leg Johnson, whom I out-chopped in Chicago, vis-à-vis on stage. Don’t shake your head, kid, nod. Nod’s the knowing move and grimace with your eyebrows, that’s the stuff.
Notice that young lady browsing by the cymbals, eying you, so just lay your head back as you know it. Don’t smile whatever you do. There’s a time I was the man, you know what I’m saying. Limp Leg knew it straight out when he was getting burned by you know who in Chicago. They called me Fatty back then for my wide low notes that growled, riffing through the changes. Don’t go for anything pretty or melodious, that only sweetens the arrangement. Syrup ought to be outlawed if you get my meaning. Plaintive was the thing I learned in New Orleans and learned the hard way, working over two sharps. Two sharps that’s the key, just listen.
And for the record, we’re cats, not dudes.
Blues is simple enough when you got a girlfriend because she’s got to leave you so you can feel how it feels and know you know it. Not yet? Well then give it time because what’s the hurry, just give it all the time it needs. Don’t squeeze her neck so tight because it’s the blues, not murder. When she walks out on you it can’t be Redondo Beach because the blues don’t happen in Redondo. Feeling blue is not the blues. Feeling blue is depression and there are pills for that. You get the blues in Kansas City or Chicago or Memphis. You get them alone. When the cops got your name on their clipboard and they’re driving up and down alleys looking for your mug, now that’s something to sing about. In Redondo you get sunburned and you get parking tickets and you get your pocket picked every time you get a dollar.
Come on, keep her neck up, only rockers drop necks. What, you shooting a gun? See that pretty one that’s still by the cymbals over there, appearing as someone acting, like she’s shopping with that smile that’s almost a blush, kid. That’s all rock and roll and spiked red hair, but if she was missing a few alimony payments and nastier than a pit bull, now we’re talking.
Don’t laugh, whatever you do, please don’t.
I arranged them cymbals like Christmas tree ornaments and they look nice, huh? It’s all in the arrangement and the arrangement’s in your head. Keep the rhythm in your head, like chunka chunka chunka. Betsy left me for some green-eyed wonder boy in seersucker and she took me for a fool and now takes half my money too, but that’s another story. This place here was supposed to make her happier than a new set of strings. Fat chance. Jealousy’s good. Prison’s really good. For sure you can’t have any choices or any way out, but only backed into a proverbial corner and the cops handcuffing you, which is really good as long as jealousy’s involved and they rough you up a bit.
When you buy your own guitar go for hour-glass nice with gorgeous humming wood to give a guy ideas. I like it and you should too, when the sundown sun comes through the window, making the glass counter glow like it was a campfire. I got a few ladies hanging up on the wall that’ll knock your socks off. Tobacco sunburst, cobalt. Sale time’s coming as I said and the time to make some cash is now, you know what I’m saying. Look how she’s testing a cymbal with her red fingernail like she’s tapping a ferret cage. Don’t talk to rockers because they’re in your face and obnoxious and screaming, and don’t ever look anyone in the eye. If you make a mistake, play the same riff over the same changes like it was meant to be. Don’t take your black shades off, don’t show them your eyes. When you get your own guitar name her after a girl that left you. Bessie’s cool. So’s Stella but forget Heather. Heather’s a shrub.
Keep the rhythm up, keep it up like I’m always saying. Betsy’s never been one for words but when she walked out she said goodbye forever, stupid, and it made my heart skip a beat. Hold that note longer, letting it just hover by itself, making it beautiful. Timing’s the thing and there’s no getting around that. A cat’s got it or maybe he doesn’t. The sundown sun making the glass glow is getting in that young lady’s eyes like she’s never been in a spotlight. That’s a funny look but keep your hands on the strings and keep playing.
The only thing this place’s about now is the fat chunk of money Betsy’s due ‘cause she owns half.
The thing about Betsy here is my knee fits into an obvious curve in her back and there’s kind of communion, me and her. It’s physical, sure, but there’s also note after note like we’re sweet talking. Betsy used to leave notes under the toaster about how I was out too late and I made noise banging into things in the dark and stupid acting all times in between.
Don’t smile, you know what I’m saying, just keep playing the only way you understand how. Keep the rhythm going and occasionally toss in a grace note that’s something between a yes and a no. And if you make a mistake, play it that way every time. Tilt your head back like, yes, that’s exactly what I meant. Oh, there’ll be things thrown I guarantee, like plates and cups and diverse objects that have symbolic meaning. Like maybe a ceramic green dolphin on the edge of a wave picked up in Malibu. And so when it breaks against the wall there’s something like a string snapping in your head, with the pieces on the floor more sharp than sharp. A double sharp.
She’s looking at you, now you’re talking with your notes explaining. Nod don’t shake. Balance her on your knee. Don’t clip the notes, just let them hang in the air like a sweet sweet smell. Her fire-red fingernails tapping her chin, so for your information, she don’t need to say anything else.
Someday I’m going to sell out and someday give it all up and walk away from it all. You want it, it’s yours. One dollar, that’s all I ask. The store and guitars and cymbals and harps in the glass case. Me and Betsy here will go sit on the beach and listen to the waves hitting like hand clapping and we’ll keep playing with the sundown sun on the horizon all orange and purple and the blue water perfectly flat. A flat kind of flat, if you can picture what I’m saying. And I’ll have an old black boot stuck in the sand for people to drop money. Just one dollar is all I ask.
Don’t smile, whatever you do on God’s green earth, don’t ever smile.
Six strings is it, just six to make it all work and six to make it all not work. Don’t fool yourself into thinking you’ve got a choice either. Keep it going, kid, like there’s no tomorrow like it’s never going to come. That and the crying shame that strums at your head because the money’s due and there’s no way out, just no way out at all.