Small-town contrarian

In the New Paltz of the Seventies, I grew up with a preternaturally gifted musician. He sneezed, burped, and farted music. Tables made great sounds when he bumped into them, plates when he dropped them. He walked like music. His universe was in tune and in time and in pure, rich timbre. The powers had seen fit to express the magic symmetries and proportional relationships of pure music in his body and spirit. Or something like that.

He just had that kinesthetic thing. When he picked up a new instrument, any instrument, he didn’t necessarily hold, blow, attack, or stroke it in the way a trained player would, but his naïve address was always musical — the posture, the approach, the interface of someone who intuitively understood the transaction, the cause and effect of the physical gesture, and the nodes of an instrument’s sympathetic response. They liked him. He liked them.

He was no prodigy, just a hard-wired talent. I feel sorry for the prodigies. Come to your senses, people, and stop posting Youtube videos of those those poor young “mindblowing virtuosos,” the six-year-old “blues prodigy” doing a real swell Bonamassa impersonation or the Suzuki Method girl who shreds a Flying V at impossible BPMs. Let them take their lumps playing real music with real people, and maybe save them from the life of the one-trick circus freak who has to be the center of attention or nothing at all. Would you want that kid playing on your song? Thought not. More often than not, musical greatness lies in sublimating the self, not glorifying it.

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And this was the beauty of my friend. If his talent was impressive, his wide, independent, iconoclastic aesthetic was more impressive, his willingness to be moved by anything, well outside the frame of generational taste. If there was a demonstrative contrarian side to his taste — and there was — it was what I now think of a positive, developmental contrarianism. If we were all dissing something — disco say, or the swanky, cheesy production pop of the Sixties that I have now learned to love so well — he’d defend it, champion it, pantomiming parts in it with his gaping smile as he said, “Man, this is shit is baaaad.” He was always right, and everyone in the room left it with a reversed position, a full recant.

I called him friend, but I was too awed around him ever to fully be myself. I was about as loose as a dried stick in his presence.

Years later, when we had it out, I got to confess that to him, and he got to say, “Yeah, I know, and I did that to a lot of people. A lot of it was my fault and my need to be special.” He’s become a really beautiful guy.

He left New Paltz for New York City at 17, a young man of intense talent, great looks, independent spirit, and genuine spotlight charisma. He has a had a lovely career in music, having worked — mostly as touring player — with names you know, mostly in Los Angeles. Still, it tells you something about the corrective norming and scaling that everyone from a small town has to go through from time to time. This was the most natural star I have ever known — touched by the golden light. And he has had, you know, a very nice career.

Maybe the lesson is that every town has one and every city has a hundred?

Read more installments of Village Voices by John Burdick.