Power Pickers
of the '60's

Musicians of the Flower Generation


Archive for July, 2009

Doc Watch: ARTHEL WATSON, Tank Commander

This post will be a shorty, and I apologize for how long it’s been since the last one, but in all honesty I’ve been woodshedding for an audition/gig I did Monday, and my mind has been on my  own guitar playing, self-absorbed little putz that I am. I’ll tell you how it turns out, but only if  I get the gig.

However, what I will tell you is I’ve just learned that Doc Watson, unsighted, as you know, was sent a draft notice to serve in WWII, despite his “visually challenged status,” I think is how they’d prob. say that now.  Jeez, my father was rejected because of flat feet. Maybe Southern draft boards were just tougher than our Yankee wussie-boards were then.  Or maybe they thought Doc was an M.D., and they figured if he can practice medicine he can shoot a cannon. That’s ridiculous; everyone  knows Doc  never packs anything bigger than a thirty ought six.  Go figure.

Anyway, I learned about this from Nancy Watson, Doc’s daughter, in a conversation we had day before yesterday. I had called to ask her if there was anything I could do to help move along a Watson Family project, an audiobook, she has undertaken. My contribution would prob. be trying to help her market the project, i.e., find a publisher and/or CD maker who interested in producing and distributing it.

This would be because I live in New York, where there are still some publishers and CD packagers (the CD’s would contain music no one outside the family has ever heard before), as opposed to Deep Gap, NC, where there are prob. are very few or none.

I can’t tell you too much about Nancy’s labor of love, since I don’t know much about it myself, yet, and because I don’t want to betray a trust with her and anyone else in the Watson Family. Doc is the one who put me in touch with Nancy.

But I think it will contain, besides some hitherto (you like that?) unreleased music, music, interviews, photographs and, possibly, a narrative by Nancy that I am pushily suggesting.

Nancy is a folklorist, like myself, and is anything but naïve or unschooled about how you collect, organize and present the kind of information she’s working with. That’s why I would love to interview hershe has interviewed many people, but not herself—and get her to narrate the history and ramifications of the Watson Family over time and place. She knows more than anyone about the subject, and knows how to talk about it.

So, how ‘bout it Nancy? (I told you I was pushy).

Anyway, there’s no reason for me to assume I will necessarily have anything to do with project except watch Nancy create it, but for the record—and isn’t that what blogs are for?—I really want to.

In a similar way, I don‘t know if anyone of you is at all interested in this, but in case you are, remember: you heard it here first.

Written but not rewritten, July 31, 2009.

Bye Bye-O Doc Bio

Had a good chat with Doc Watson and his wife, Rosa Lee, yesterday. We covered a lot of territory in a half hour: music and musicians, kids, Merlefest, computers (still none at the Watson place,) health, doctors and hospitals (Doc’s salty about some of these; tell you why later), and spirituality. That’s always an important subject whenever we talk.

It took awhile, but we finally made it around to the ostensible reason I’d called him: I’d gotten an email request to interview me for a biography on Doc to be released August 1.

August 1st!? Of this year?! An interview today for a book coming out in two weeks?  Plus, the perps  were feeling me out about getting rights to use the photo in my April 7 p0st,  Doc and the Psychedelic Guitar.  (Guitarist, guitar and guitar-maker,  Roy Noble, are pictured above).

“What psychedelic guitar are you talkin’ about, Son?” Doc said, when I told him about the request.

“Uh, well, that mahogany one Roy made for you around 1967.”

“Oh yeah, I remember now. Son, that was a good guitar, but, you know, I couldn’t play it in public if there was hippy pictures all over it.”

“I know, Doc,” I said.

“’Cause I wouldn’t want anyone to think I was a hippy,” he said.

“I remember, Doc,” I said, “and we were  careful to shield you from that. Anyway, these people said getting an interview with me and the photo of you with the psychedel—uh, picturesque—guitar would be great for their biography on you.  And now that I think about it,  since they’ve already created the cover art,  August 1st would be a perfect release date.”

“Huh?” said Doc.

“That’s exactly what I said, Doc, tho’ not in those exact words. Then I realized they must have been talking about an online thing, where all the kerfuffle of getting a real book printed, reviewed and distributed would be eliminated. Knowhuddamean?”

Doc said he thought he did.

Now,  I know I don’t have to tell you, good reader, that a righteous biography represents months and months, often years, of research, interviews, archive-hopping, public records-begging, informant-bribing, etc., before a word of prose goes into the computer. To do one on Doc, you’d want to sell your soul to see private papers, become friends with his friends, win over county clerks, eat grits and hog jowls and so on. And then there’s the empathy thing.

“Doc, has anybody ever approached you about doing your life story?”

“Maybe about a dozen or so. Why?”

“Just curious. Have you ever considered it?” I asked, shamelessly leading the witness.

“Yes, son, I have, and I’ve pretty much decided I don’t want to do it.”

“Any reason?”

“Well, Al, I’m just not that important to have a whole book written about me.” If it weren’t Doc Watson saying this I’d think it was false modesty. But it was Doc.

“Dude!” I say, “a lot of people would disagree with that. People would like to know what you’re like. I know, because I get a lot of questions about what you’re like on my blog, I guess because I’ve known you for forty years and we’re still on speaking terms.”

“Forty years? Has it been that long, Al? What’s a plog?” he says.

“Blog,” I say. “It’s sort of a personal gossip column you put on your computer so nobody will read it.  Mine is called Power-Pickers of the ‘60’s.”

“Huh,” he says, “if you say so. Forty years, Al, you sure?”

“Actually, Doc, 44, give or take a UCLA Folk Festival or two.”


Back to The Big E.   Empathy is usually a sine qua non of any successful biography. If you’re the writer and you’re doing a bio on someone  it’s pretty important you try to identify with him,  which will be tough if you’ve never met him, so I have to make sure my presumptive interrogators never have.  I tell Doc their names  on the off-off-chance that maybe they’d once pulled him out of a barroom brawl or something and he’s been trying to find them ever since to thank them.

“No, good buddy,” he says, “I haven’t been in a barroom brawl for just ages, and I’d certainly know the names of any folks that rescued me from one.” I’m paraphrasing here.

On a slightly deeper level, I think Doc feels that telling his story to be written down and printed in a book would be like bragging. And Doc simply cannot do that. C-a-n-n-o-t!

Recently, when he took his grandson, Richie (I believe that’s his name. Rosa Lee told me, but it was a choice between remembering her name or the boy’s, so…) to Duke University Hospital’s emergency room for what turned out to be blood poisoning  from a botched dental procedure, one of the things I told you Doc spoke saltily about. They didn’t take Richie immediately, because,  Doc felt,  “They have a lot of big shots come in there, famous people, I guess, and they have to take them first.”

“They probably didn’t recognize you, Doc,” I said.  “I bet you weren’t wearing the Hawaiian shirt I gave you, were you?”

Doc laughs. “But that’s just the point, Al. I’m not important enough to butt in line at the hospital.”

“Do you think those assholes who did butt in line are more important?” I asked heatedly.  “Huh. I bet they were wearing Hawaiian shirts, weren’t they?”

“Now,  how the heck would I, of all people,  know what they were wearing?” he says. I can hear the grin in his voice from here. “Son, you’re messing with me, now.”

Doc comes by his humility honestly. He had a hard childhood among hard childhoods. A blind boy raised in some public institution he doesn’t feel much like talking about, in the Deep South,  in the middle of the Depression, can’t have been as much fun as it sounds like. To this day Doc has kidney problems caused by being left alone in places where he couldn’t find a toilet and had to hold his water, so to speak, much longer than he should have.

In fact, care-giving in general was a little different then than it is now. By way of illustration, why don’t you share this little Doc-watching  moment with me.

One season, when he was staying at my itty-bitty Hollywood bungalow apartment, he found, feeling along the wall, an old hand-cranking telephone I’d bought at a flea market. He stood stock still at the discovery,  gradually breaking into his broad smile of delight, which was his version of  “Eureka!”  As usual with him and me  in these situations,  it was right away Mr. Science and the Dumbkopf.

“Son, do you know how this works?” he asks me.

“Um, it rings and you answer it?” I say.

“C’mon, Al, you can get this.”

“Oh no, I can’t, Doc. I told you, I’m not gentile, I don’t understand how things work.”

“Do you know what a magneto is?” he says. He doesn’t wait for an answer. “OK, well then, you’re gonna learn something today, good buddy. Go git me a screwdriver. You do have a screwdriver, don’t you, Al?”

“How ’bout a butter knife,  Doc?”  I say. “Just kidding, good buddy.”

So I get him the screwdriver. He opens the box, feels around in it, does some rewiring from this terminal to that, etc., all the time talking about things like capacitors and armatures. For once I am glad he can’t see my face, because my eyes have glazed over into opacity. He, by comparison,  is completely absorbed in his work.

In a very few minutes he shuts the box, puts two fingers on neighboring terminals at the top of it,  turns the handcrank a few times  and jumps back as if he’d got an electric shock. Electric shock?!  You think? Uh, hello,  Al.

“Son,” he says, smiling gleefully, “come over here. I want to show you something.”

“Uh, you already just showed me, Doc,” I say, edging along the wall where he and the phone aren’t.  “Oh,  look at the time!  I really must go to the—“

“Don’t worry, son, I’m gonna lower the voltage so I don’t fry you to a crisp, but I just want you to see what this thing can do. See, big ol’  magnets like this and coils of wire like these were in all kinds of machinery when I was growing up. Phones, cars, power tools, just about anything that used–”  Suddenly, he stopped and stood stock still, like I described before. But now the big grin and childlike energy gave way to a sadness I wasn’t used to seeing in Doc. Didn’t mean he never felt that way, just that he didn’t often show it.

“Doc, are you okay?” I say. He seems to be staring into the middle distance, like he’s  seeing something I’m not. He’s quiet for some time–you know how ten or fifteen seconds can seem like an eternity in close, intimate quarters–before he finally answers.

“Yeah, son, I’m all right.  I was just thinking about where I was when I learned about magnetos. In that home, I guess they called it, where they’d sent me because I was blind. I’d gotten hold of one–a magneto–, and I was studying it, taking it apart and putting it back together,  you know,  learning what it could do. God, how I loved that thing. We didn’t have much to play with at that place. That magneto was about it for me.

“Anyway, one day one of the sisters or supervisors or whatever they called healthcare givers back then came and took it away from me. Just walked into the bunkroom I slept  in and took it. She never told me why. I asked her and asked her if I could please have it back, wasn’t there something I could do to get it back again,  but all she said was, ‘It’s not good for you to have it.’ I never saw that magneto again.

“So, touch it, Al,” he says, the cloud having quietly evaporated, at least for the moment. “I promise, all you’ll feel is a little vibration.”

I touch it, and, of course,  he isn’t lying, tho’ I wouldn’t like that “little vibration” to be applied to my gonads at Gitmo U or someplace like that if I could help it. But I trust Doc. Never didn’t.

So, without giving offense, Bloomingbrookbooks, or whatever your cyber-imprimatur is, do you think this might be the kind of thing people would be looking for in a biography, or not? No? Well, maybe you had to be there.

BTW, I still don’t understand magnetos.


Taj Mahal and Me (Im the one on the left)

Taj Mahal and Me (I'm the one on the left)

And now, the moment you’ve all been waiting for, breathless with anticipation, nails bitten to the quick…my meeting with Taj Mahal at the Rochester Jazz Festival last weekend.

It was great, even tho’ we didn’t get to play together. We tried, but his post-show obligations to see fans made it impossible. But we still managed to chill for awhile, talk about old times at the Ash Grove, the famous LA folk & roots-music club where so many of us met and started our careers. I’m talking about Taj, Ry Cooder, Linda Ronstadt, Clarence and Roland White, Dave Lindley, Richard Green and a gang of others maybe not so famous, but contributors to the ‘Sixties socio-music movement nonetheless.

But now, Taj. He didn’t look much like the Taj I knew 40-plus years ago, but which of us old ‘60’s counter-culture creatures does? He’s put on a lot of weight since his start-up days, when he was tall and rake-thing, muscular and very sexy.

He’d warned me by email to be ready to see a change. “I’m a different man,” he wrote, “but I’m still humorous.” And he was. When I told him he’d won the weight contest (for most) but I’d probably won the hair contest (for least) he was as quick on the draw as always.

“Hold on, there, Sparky,” he cautioned, taking off his white Panama and running his hand over his glistening head. “I win that one, too. And don’t forget, Boy, shaved is the new hairy. So I win the hipness contest (for most), too.”

I reminded him of a soaring moment he’d had one day in 1965 or ’66, in the slum of a dressing room at the Ash Grove, where a bunch of us would hang out between the folk music classes we taught.

A short, chunky, waspishly funny then-mandolinist (now a steel player) named Herb Steiner had a running verbal joust with Taj about whether Negroes really were inferior to whites, as many “real” Bluegrass players thought. It had always been tongue-in-cheek, Cowboy Herb ostensibly parodying the good ol’ boys as he pretended to be a real redneck Bluegrass musician, when he was actually a spoiled, middle-class kid from Fairfax, LA’s Jewish section.

Anyway, in the middle of one of these exchanges, in a room full of people, Cowboy Herb blurted out, deadpan, “Taj, have you ever smelled a Negro’s armpits?”

The room went silent. Everybody knew this time Herb had gone too far, and the question hung in air like a bad fart.

Taj was sitting right across from Herb and was obviously offended, as were all of us. Nobody would have blamed him if he’d slapped Herb across the face; it was that kind of insult. Taj sat there for a long moment and then started to laugh himself, breaking the tension completely. You could almost hear shoulders relax and lungs deflate with relief.

Then, still a little off-balance but obviously recovering quickly, Taj said, “Herb, as long as you’re going around smelling peoples’ armpits, why don’t you also measure some white guys’ cocks? Be sure to bring a micrometer.” Maybe not in those words, but something like that.

Now the post-incident murmurs of relief changed to whooping catcalls and gotchas as balance amongst the faculty members of the Ash Grove School of Traditional Music was restored.

We talked about Ed Pearl, the owner of, and impresario at, the Ash Grove and the big reunion at UCLA last summer I missed out on, one of the small but painful no-shows I deeply regret.

We reminisced about going to Cantor’s, the big delicatessen a few blocks away from the Club and Taj, a New Yorker, ordering matzoh-ball soup and the waitress saying, “Gee, you don’t look Jewish.” Remember, this was the mid-‘60’s and racial differences were seldom alluded to in public.

And we talked about music. And talked and talked.

The opening act of that evening was the Susan Tedeschi Band, a competent but not exceptional group whose main features were Susan Tedeschi, a terrific singer and good female guitarist (sorry, ladies, but it’s unusual to see a good rock musician without a penis) and deafening sound.

It was generally agreed by everyone in the green room, my wife, Marion, close friends Robin and Mike Weintraub and Taj’s sister, Connie, that the band had played too loud and too long, the latter being the main reason Taj wasn’t reviewed in the next day’s paper; the music critic just couldn’t stay long enough to hear his set and still make his deadline. And, I selfishly submit, it was the main reason Taj and I didn’t have time to jam a little. Bummer.

However, the really important reviews of Taj’s set, those from me and my wife and friends, are now in, and they’re unanimous: he was terrific.

Terrific, partly because his band was a trio comprised of him, a bass player and a drummer (whose names, unacceptably, I don’t have at the moment). And the transparency and discreteness of their sound stood in stark and welcome contrast to the Tedeschi Band’s wall of over-modulation.

Terrific because the two back-up guys played no more and no less than they were supposed to, with no vocal harmonies or

stage-crafty gymnastics. The band’s powerful, sleek sound, absent redundant second guitarists and keyboard players, did nothing but set off the main reason you come to see Taj Mahal: Taj Mahal.

At this point in his career Taj sounds, looks and performs like one of the great bluesmen of the last generation, the ones Eric Clapton and Jimi Hendrix learned from: the Kings (BB, Alfred and Freddie), Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, and yes, Robert Johnson. Taj may well be on his way to legend status.

Coming on stage, unceremoniously ducking his head under the guitar strap, turning up his amp, not looking at his sidemen, was just as I remember Albert King doing it one night in the summer of ’68, when my band (Evergreen Blueshoes) opened for him at the Whiskey A Go Go on the Sunset Strip.

Taj’s very first notes were just what any of the Kings’ would have been: few, clear and biting, their choice pitch-perfect for the blues. He sounded just like some bad-ass dude with a hollow-body Gibson and a Fender amp from Clarksdale, Miss., by way of Chess Records in Chicago, who’s done this a thousand times before but still comes to life when he goes on stage.

It’s the formula that works for BB and all the other bluesmen who got their chops and taste in roadhouses, churches and dance-bands. For some reason, it always sounds like what they play is the truth. Taj sounds like that, like he’s playing the truth.

Anyway, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.