I remember when I was just a kid of 12 years old, my 17-year-old cousin Rowena, who was out visiting the family from Los Angeles, introduced me to the music of Jimi Hendrix. We were out shopping with my mother when Rowena decides to buy this album called Smash Hits. Once we were back home, Rowena puts it on the turntable and, well, that was pretty much the end of me. Any chance that I might ever have become a doctor or a lawyer was forever derailed from that point forward. Of course, my grades in science were never that good and I can’t remember ever being that interested in the law, but ... well.
Anyway, like I was saying, I think my mother may still have that day marked on a calendar somewhere as the day her son became possessed. There was no exorcist strong enough to separate me from my newfound love of the electric guitar, and that was before I even knew how to stumble my way around a fretboard. For days, weeks and months after Rowena had ended her visit and returned home to Los Angeles, I would literally spend hours staring at electric guitars wherever a picture of one could be found. I even drew a real-sized picture of a white Fender Stratocaster, more or less for purposes of blatant worship and idolatry. Later, in school, I made a tiny version of a black-and-white Stratocaster in wood shop. The teacher, Chet Preisser, just shook his head when I showed it to him. My mother still has it on her desk at home in Denver. The drawing is still in the closet of my old bedroom in the back of the house.
I would go to music stores and just stare through the windows at guitars. When the store salespeople would let me, I’d go in and strum a bit, imagining how I’d sound if I only knew how to play. Later, I’d stare at guitars for hours on album covers as I listened to music in my room with the door closed. If I saw someone playing a guitar on TV, no matter what type of music was being played, I’d stop whatever I was doing and watch.
I freely admit it; the electric guitar was my golden calf. I just knew that if I believed in it enough, that somehow it would deliver me. Sad and pathetic, I know, but that’s the way it was.
It wasn’t long before my mother decided she couldn’t take much more and she bought me my first guitar, which was acoustic. I bought a chordbook and played that thing until it couldn’t be played any more. But all the while I was teaching myself, I had my eyes set on getting an electric. Soon enough I spotted one I could afford in a Sears catalogue. It was called a Sears Silvertone, and it came with its own little amplifier. Somehow I managed to talk my mother into letting me sell her my coin collection for the amount I needed. Mothers are wonderful, long-suffering creatures.
Once the guitar arrived, I could sleep again. Kind of. In between times I was playing the Silvertone so loud that I was banished to the garage out back. I would go there faithfully every day while it was warm and practice my “songs.” Once I even tried to play the guitar with my teeth like I’d seen Hendrix do. Not a good idea. All I remember was a blue flash of light exploding in my face, and next thing I knew I was sprawled up against the car trying to figure out what had just happened. It would make a really good story to say there was smoke coming from my mouth but ... well ... there wasn’t. I was, however, a little bit shook up.
Anyway, I got my first Fender Stratocaster during my freshman year in college. It was a sunburst color, and it was used. There were more than a few defects with it, and I’m pretty sure the guy who sold it to me ripped me off, but I could have cared less at the time. I finally had my Stratocaster — even if it wasn’t a white one. That would come nearly two decades later here in Detroit at the annual guitar show at the State Fairgrounds.
So after all this, I’m sure you’re wondering why I spent all this space talking about guitars and music. Well, it may sound like a bit of a leap, but it’s because of two people who died recently. They were two extremely special people who left a mark on this city — and on me — that will never be erased.
By now, if you’re a follower of Detroit blues, then you know about the deaths of Famous Coachman and Willie D. Warren. They were two of the biggest names on the local blues scene, and they departed this life within a week of each other during what would have normally been a season reserved for ritual celebration. Both of their funerals were last week. Some people asked me if I was going to go and I responded that I wasn’t able to. The truth is that I don’t really know why I couldn’t get myself to go. Maybe I couldn’t see them like that. Maybe I didn’t want to remember them like that. I just don’t know.
But what I do know is that it was my love of the guitar, which led to a love of the blues, which led to a love of Detroit blues, which is what eventually led our paths to cross — and which is what led to a deep love for both Famous Coachman and Willie D. Warren. If you somehow don’t know who they were, then you should have known. In simple terms, they were the best in so many ways. Flawed, certainly, but still the best. Love is what made them the best because it was their love of their art as something greater than themselves that elevated them to who they eventually became. Only someone who recognizes and acknowledges the essential power of art can truly present it as the gift that it is to as many people as they did. Time and time again. Throughout their lives.
Love is a strangely powerful thing.Keith A. Owens is a Detroit-area freelance writer and musician. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org