Well, it’s only the second week (Yay – 1 week down, only 51 to go!), and already, here’s one of those types of entries I wasn’t sure I should write. It’s not about harp guitars, it’s about me (worse – it’s about me and someone you don’t even know), but the point of the story isn’t us, it’s really about synchronicity, if that’s the right word.
In response to my blog announcement, I just got an email from my old High School (Hinsdale, IL) Cinema Study teacher, Ed Bulak. It was a note to tell me about his family going recently to a Tommy Emmanuel concert, and really loving (more so) the opening act, Frank Vignola.
Not only did I get a kick out of Ed’s letter, and the fact that he still loves going to acoustic guitar concerts (and not just any, he’s apparently still a true aficionado), but it got me reflecting on life (don’t worry, not too much), and the random events along the way that inform and mold us into who we become, or at least, the interests and passions we pursue.
In this case, it’s that Ed and I – after all these years – both still love acoustic guitar music (he doesn’t play), and even the same players (I totally dig Vignola, after having seen his band at some Grisman Djangofest show in L.A. awhile back, and who isn’t a Tommy fan?). I doubt Ed was aware that Stephen Bennett (whom he had just read about on the blog) is one of Tommy’s longtime pals, but I found it a nice coincidence. I continued to contemplate how my own friendship and collaboration with Stephen and many of you might ostensibly be traced back to the day in Cinema Study class when Mr. Bulak first played us a Leo Kottke record.
Ed was one of the “cool teachers.” You know the type – hangs out with the students instead of in the Teacher’s Lounge, is truly interested in the kids, let’s them grade themselves at the end of the semester (I got an A, in case you couldn’t guess. Don’t believe me?). At that time (this was the start of our senior year, in the fall of 1972), we were already heavily into acoustic guitar, having learned and played mostly stuff like Neil Young and C,S&N (cool, and not overly challenging…though I would tackle Steve Howe’s “Mood for a Day” for that year’s Variety Show). Ed would play records during breaks and between classes throughout the day, and his favorite was Leo. None of us had ever heard anything like it. This was our introduction to not only an album of all-instrumental acoustic guitar but fingerstyle of such impossible magnitude that it changed our lives (especially my life) forever. Sound familiar?
Kottke played the extended Chicago area a couple of times a year, and no matter how far it was, Ed would go, with some select students (my best friends and I) joining him. Being the fearless “adult,” Ed would always just knock and let himself into the green room to chat up Leo, while we hovered around looking uncomfortable, in awe of our god. (How many times can one stammer “You’re the greatest guitarist in the world” without looking like an idiot?)
I still vividly remember the one show when Leo had his inevitable string break (ripping the string forcibly off the guitar while still playing, a great, trademark crowd-pleaser). When done, he asked someone to get him an .013” – and we all sat there waiting for his manager, assistant, someone to go get it. Realizing Leo was traveling alone (as usual), Ed of course got up, went backstage (well, more a closet – this was in a large college cafeteria), dug through his case, and brought the string out. Rather than changing it himself (which we’d seen him normally do), Leo handed Ed the 12-string and asked him if he could put it on while he played the next song (on 6-string). Not being a guitar player, Ed motioned to me and we went back to do it. There I was, now an official “groupie,” sweating cuz I couldn’t get the bridge pin out. Ed finally did, and I tuned it up, and then carefully and quietly strummed a few chords and fingerings on the “holy grail” (this was the infamous new Bozo – remember the huge deal the “independent boutique maker” mystique was in those days?!). When Leo then played his next 12-string piece, I felt personally invested and (unjustifiably) proud (“That’s our string!”). What can I say? – I was a virtuoso-struck guitar geek.
Ah, those were the days – when one could stalk with impunity. I also remember Leo telling Ed about his new dream – to acquire a lute (“Ahh, that low note” he gushed). I’m not sure what type he would have been referring to – in those days one really only came across the 8-course Renaissance lute (something I had acquired that very school year by complete coincidence). Leo of course already had nice low notes – tuning his “open-G” 12-string down a whole step to F gave him a wonderful, growly low C. Alas, the lute thing never happened – too bad, that might’ve led a path to the harp guitar!
I almost never saw Ed once we all moved away, though we occasionally got news about each other through my mom (who, at 83, still teaches special students at Hinsdale and surrounding area schools). The last time I saw him was 2 years ago at the funeral of his fellow teacher, father of one of my (still) best friends. Ed’s black hair and mustache were now snow-white, but he looked otherwise exactly the same. We didn’t get a chance to catch up, but the silent handshake and smiling, penetrating stare between us spoke volumes.
The sunny afternoon in the classroom when Ed introduced us long-haired rockers to Leo’s music remains etched in my memory. I can’t help thinking that the musical path that led me – however circuitously – to “harp guitar pope-dom” truly began in earnest in Mr. Bulak’s class, and our subsequent adventures together.
Thanks for indulging me in my little ramble down Memory Lane. And thanks everyone for all the encouragement and support so far, and for getting that this blog is my personal perspective – designed to be fun and entertaining along with being informative. Lots more to come!