Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door

Shortly after Camelot, Christian told me that I had to meet his friend, Jerry. Jerry was a guitar player, singer, and songwriter that Chris went to school with. I don’t remember exactly how it all unfolded, but I think there was some odd catholic holiday that we all had off from school or something and so Chris, Jerry, and I got to spend a day together. They both came to my house late in the morning. Jerry had super thick eyeglasses, so when I first met him, I thought he was staring me down or tryin to bug me out, but I was totally wrong. He was a super sweet, friendly guy. Quite animated. When they arrived, we all went down to the basement. I had my Kramer electric guitar and my amp and I also had a RAT distortion pedal that I borrowed from my friend, McKenna. Again, I’m foggy on some of the details, but I think maybe Christian had a bass and Jerry had an acoustic guitar. I think it was the kind that has a pickup hidden somewhere; the kind you plug in. We didn’t plug it in to anything. We just kept the rest of our volumes low, so that there was a nice balance. Jerry then reached into his bag and pulled out something that looked like a rounded picture frame with some springs on it. I was thinking, what the hell is that? Then he pulled out a case that held multiple harmonicas. He snapped a harmonica into the frame and put it over his head.

That’s when I started to get uncomfortable. I had a funky history with harmonicas. My dad had one and he thought he could play it. He knew this one 4 note riff and that’s all he played, over and over. He played it with gusto, very loudly. Then he’d hand me the harmonica and tell me to try. I’d say nah that’s ok, but then he’d make me do it. I didn’t want to do it because it was covered in his spit and it was fuckin gross, but I didn’t want to tell him that. He would be thinking I was intimidated by his musicality, like that I thought I couldn’t do it or I didn’t believe in myself, so he’d insist, and I’d try not to throw up as I blew and sucked on my dad’s spitty instrument. Like if I had just said, “Hey, how about I run this under the faucet for a minute so I don’t gag?” That would have solved all my problems, but I wasn’t always the genius that I am today.

My dad also knew one song on the piano. It was called Heart & Soul I think. Whenever there was a piano somewhere, he’d play it. He’d make whoever was with him play the left hand part, the rhythm part. He’d tell them to sit at the piano with him and show them how to play the left hand part. “It’s easy!” He’d holler at them. Once they got it, he’d tell them to play it over and over and then he’d play the melody, the right hand part. I remember thinking, “if it’s so easy, why don’t you learn to play the piano with two hands and leave everyone the fuck alone?

My dad was also a master percussionist. However, he didn’t play the drums or the timbales or the marimba or the chimes. He played the Hambone. That is, he’d take off his shirt and squat and start slapping his legs and belly with the fronts and backs of his hands. Anytime he was inside the house he was wearing shorts, so the whole sound was of bare skin being slapped. Totally vulgar. If you are not familiar with this type of musical ham slapping, you should go on youtube and do a search for “hambone”, but I warn you, you can’t unsee this shit.

Once we were all set up, I asked the dudes, “So what do ya wanna play?” Jerry said, “How ‘bout Knocking On Heaven’s Door?” “OK, Cool, What’s that? Is that one of your songs? How’s it go?” I asked. “Nah, Man, Knocking On Heaven’s Door! By Bob Dylan.” “Oh wow, yeah…I don’t know shit about Bob Dylan”

It was true. I didn’t know shit about Bob Dylan. I still kinda don’t. I know that he is a mercurial poet, hard to pin down. I know his followers like him more than Christians like Jesus. I know that without him and pot, the Beatles would have continued to be a bubblegum act. I know that his real name is Robert Zimmerman and that at some point in the 80’s he made some really bad born again Christian albums. I know that Blonde On Blonde, Blood On The Tracks, and Desire are the albums of his that I just HAVE to listen to. I know that when I finally did, that nothing happened, that it had not much impact on me. I know, that like The Grateful Dead, I’ve continued to try to dive in, to find out what it is that people hear when they listen, and that time and time again I don’t get it. Or worse, maybe I do get it and I just don’t think it’s that great, but I never want to admit that. Too many talented people, who’s taste I trust and admire have already spoken on it and they all said it’s great, so why can’t I hear it? I do own a copy of Highway 61, and I really dig it.

It turned out that ‘Knockin’’’ was only a three chord song. Jerry showed me and Chris the chords and we were off and runnin’. I had a boom box and a fresh cassette. I hit record and we began. Jerry played a rich, succinct harmonica intro as he and Chris and I all played the rhythm. Mike Kolber had recently taught me that if an acoustic rhythm guitar was strumming open chords, as Jerry’s was, that maybe the electric guitar should play arpeggios or smaller chords with fewer notes to complement it, so that’s what I did and it was sounding fantastic, very three dimensional. Jerry started to sing, and jesus, did he have a voice! He was only like a year older than me, but he had a man’s voice. Loud and robust, he sounded like he’d been workin in a steel mill every day for the last ten years and drinkin whiskey at the bar every night. I couldn’t believe the bold intensity this guy projected. It was chilling.

After that, I think we played one of Jerry’s original numbers, again only a few basic chords involved, but with the three of us playing and Jerry’s harmonica and stark, gruff vocal style, it sounded like we really knew what we were doing. Then, he asked me if I knew You Can’t Always Get What You Want. “Yeah. By the Stones?! Of course I know it…I don’t know how to play it, but I know the tune. I had stolen my mom’s copy of Hot Rocks-1964-1971 about 3 years prior. Jerry laid it all out. Again, only TWO chords in this one, then a third as it enters the chorus. Again I hit record and we started. Well it turned out that I really didn’t know the song too well at all. It has a slow intro, then after the first chorus, it ramps up to double time for the rest of the song. We never ramped it up, we just played the whole song at the speed of the intro. It worked. Our version was slow, like a ballad. It sounded pretty good.

After a few hours, we called it a day. Chris and Jerry packed it all up and headed home. I had the cassette of our day together and listened to it a lot for the next several weeks. I thought we sounded great together and I really took pride in how good the recording was. I had heard that people would get together and “jam”, but it was the first time it had worked out so well with anything I was involved in. The other reason I listened so much is that I was trying to understand how Jerry could sing that way. I didn’t want to sing like him. Coming from me, that wouldn’t be appropriate or authentic. It would be a put on. Coming from Jerry though, it wasn’t. He wasn’t a gunfighter and he was barely an adult, but he sang like one and he believed in what he was doing. He was also a devotee of Bruce Springsteen who I couldn’t stand at the time. His vocal style had a bit of that Bruce thing to it. I guess it’s a working class hero kind of sound.

I never really played with Jerry again. Even though at the time, I was looking to be in a band, and we had sounded so good together, I knew that wasn’t the kind of band I wanted to be in. As much as I love classic rock, at the time, I didn’t want to play it. I wanted to play something informed by punk and art rock, so my search continued. I would see and hear him whenever I was up Chris’ way. Every time I heard him sing, I had to ask myself what real sounded like. As in, for me, what is an authentic expression of what’s inside? As you can probably tell, I’m still askin’.

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