CLARENCE WHITE: What Did He Know and When Did He Know It?/JIMMY RODGERS, the Movie
Memory still seeping from brain. Missed the late Clarence White’s birthday on June 7. I’m lucky to make it before July 7. I don’t have a tickler file, but I will now. Well, I’ll try to learn how to set one up so I don’t do this anymore. I don’t like missing birthdays like Clarence’s, because he was someone I knew well enough to feel he was in, and affected, my life.
He came into it in 1963, when I was still in Berkeley, playing Bluegrass and trying to stay in school while being almost completely consumed by the music. My then-BF Dave Cohen had spent the summer of 1962 with me and Lonnie Feiner in our 2-rm shack right next to a defunct RR spur line in the Berkeley flats.
David, resident folk music guru and school founder at the Ash Grove, LA’s premier folk-roots club of the late ‘Fifties, throughout the ‘60’s and into the ‘70’s, kept talking about two guitarists who were giving him shit-fits where he lived (at the Club). One of them he wished that a “a train would run over his hands” (not really. Well, maybe really. He certainly did later). That was Ry Cooder. The other he said was simply a young genius, and there was nothing he or anyone could do about it. That was Clarence White.
When I came back to LA, in June of ’63, I witnessed the two guitarists for myself, and agreed with David: Ry, at 16, six years younger than Dave and me, was everything Dave said, a great finger-and-flat-picker and with deep musicality, at least to my ears.
Clarence, at 19, three years younger than Dave and me, was simply off the charts. I’d never heard any guitarist like that. It wasn’t technique, which he had up the geez. It was concept and inclusion. He seemed to be incorporating music he must have heard as a child, but had nothing to do with country music or, for that matter, guitar.
Tho’ he might be playing something that would seem to be in the Bluegrass canon, like, say, Under the Double Eagle, you’d suddenly hear something that came out of contemporary jazz or Latin or a movie soundtrack. It would be so fleeting you’d think you hadn’t heard it, but he tended to play the piece the same way every time, like Charlie Parker, and you’d realize the reference was intentional. It might not have been consciously identifiable to Clarence, tho’ I’m pretty sure he was conscious of putting it in the music. And here is the musical question of the day, for me, at least, for the last 47 years: did Clarence White know he was a genius, whatever the hell that would mean?
I mean, he spelled one of the Country Boyss songs “Prity Poly” on a set list; he encouraged his brother, Roland, to buy my 1956 Chrysler New Yorker, which I even warned him was a wreck; and he somehow failed, in a couple of shows, to give Doc Watson proper credit for using some of Doc’s song arrangements and exerting profound influence on him, choosing, instead, to credit a made-up character, “Cluny Rakestraw,” as his the source of his licks. There will be a whole post devoted to this incident soon; now is not the time or place to get into that, but it deeply wounded Doc, and I was there when the shit hit the fan.
Of course, none of these things have anything to do with genius, an intellectual characteristic that seems to be independent of other psycho-cerebral properties in the individual that is blessed–or cursed–with having it.
And I’ll tell you this: Clarence was dull as dirt in conversation. He didn’t seem able to talk about music at all, tho’ he was completely open about showing licks to people who asked him to. But his way of telling you how he came up with them was something like, “Yeah, Roger (Roger Bush, the Country Boys’ bass player and co-lead singer with Roland White) and Billy (Billy Ray, their banjo player) and my brother and I were messing around last Saturday with Billy’s car and…”(you finish the sentence; Clarence never did).
But, like spelling and used car judgment, lack of verbal clarity is no sign genius is not present. And genius was alive and well with Clarence White. Check out this morsel of Sally Goodin’ from probably 1964 or ’65 recorded by me off the stage of the Ash Grove during a Country Boys set. And, no, they were not the Kentucky Colonels, yet. It was still a year or two before that became whut she rote. And, no, Clarence wasn’t playing any electric yet, either, let alone co-inventing a steel guitar resembulator. That was also for the fast-approaching future. This is just straight, acoustic flattop country pickin’, albeit capo’d at the 2nd fret and played in open G position. I apologize for the rude cutoff of Roland’s last solo. I didn’t have the whole thing and didn’t have time to fade it. Remind me, and I will. Sorry, Roland.
Anyway, I’m going to have to leave the question of Clarence’s self-awareness for the moment, in order to get this post in before the end of the month, which is tonite at 12. Maybe I’ll catch it when I talk about his seeming rip-off of Doc Watson’s material in 1964. Then, again, maybe not.
Meanwhile—and lucky you—I found some scenes from a putative screenplay about the legendary Jimmy Rogers, the Singing Brakeman of last Century’s Great Depression. I won’t apologize. It’s some of my better writing, and the empty cavern of cyberspace deserves it.
[This is the opening crawl of the film, starting just after the credits and running and playing over something visuals and audio I haven’t figured out, yet.]
Jimmie & the Kid – Prologue
This is a film about learning how to look inside yourself for answers. Actually, it’s a film about a guy who comes into peoples’ lives (particularly the life of a young, talented musician) and connects them with their goals. He’s done this before, for Elvis, BB King, Ray Charles and the Beatles. And not in some cornball, symbolic way. He mentors people, one-on-one, in the art and discipline of believing in themselves.
His contact with them is, and has been, made possible thru technological innovations in communications–breakthroughs such as records, radio, TV and the Web–which he was able to turn into feedback loops, in certain circumstances, like when he and Elvis met in 1952 across a seven-inch Hallicrafter’s VistaVision TV Receiver …but we can do that later. First things first.
“Jimmie & the Kid”
SCENE I – THIS BAND SUCKS.
INT: Dark, nearly-empty bar. Youthful, garage-type band is finishing set. We hear ragged cut-off of final chord, unenthusiastic applause of two or three people. Dispirited band shuts off amps and puts instruments away.
Band Member #1: …because we suck, that’s why. Why do you think, dickhead?
Member #2: Jesus, chill dude. I was just critiquing our performance.
Member #1: It’s a dumb question, “Why don’t we have better audiences?” We don’t give anybody with two ears any reason to come, that’s why.
Band Leader: Okay, guys, that’s it for the negative energy. This is nothing but a numbers game, okay? We’ll hit the right combination one of these nights, and all of a sudden, from out of nowhere, we’ll be recording for SONY and playing on Saturday Nite Live. And the only way to do that is to be ready, okay? So I want everybody to learn “Purple Haze” for rehearsal tomorrow. You can get it off the Web. JIMI.COM. Anyway, that’s the deal. “Purple Haze” by tomorrow. Everybody got it?
Most of the others groan their “OK’s, Yeahs, See you tomorrows” and file out bandroom door and into street. But one of them is relunctant to go.
Leader: Whazzup, Ben? You got a problem with something I said?
Ben: Just the usual, Wolf. We never spend any time trying to find our own way. We copy other peoples’ music, don’t play it as well as them, and then we wonder why we don’t go anywhere. I think we should–
Leader: I know. You think we should do your songs.
Ben: No. All our songs. I think we have to at least try to create our own sound by seeing what we have to offer each other, and building on that.
Leader: Right. Good thinking, Ben. Just sit around, like, ’til our juices flow together–you know, like, gel, right?–and then pick up our money. Listen, Leonardo: you don’t get seen if you don’t have a following. And you don’t get a following if you don’t do the standards. That’s our meal ticket. That’s the only way we’re gonna get the freedom to, like, find ourselves, okay? Trust me, I know this business. Now: you with us, or not? I got no room for rebels.
Leader: Meaning, are you going to learn the guitar part to “Purple Haze,” or are we going to have guitar auditions tomorrow?
Ben: [Pauses a beat. Then, trying to be “up” and a team player] Uh, okay, Wolf. I’ll work on it tonite. I should have some of the stuff down by tomorrow.
Leader: Why, thank you, Ben, I really appreciate that.
Ben: Sure, Wolf, don’t mention it.
He finishes packing up his Fender Stratocaster guitar, turns to leave bandroom. But a girl, LIVVY, stands in his way. She’s been trying to get his attention for a while. Finally…
Ben: Livvy. I didn’t know you were here. God, you didn’t see that carnage, did you?
Livvy: You mean your set? Ben, I heard what you said, I mean about you guys finding your own sound, and I think you’re right. But… I don’t know…this band is running so scared, maybe they can’t. And having Count Dracula for a bandleader… (Takes a step closer to him). Have you ever thought about doing your own thing? You’re good enough to.
Ben: Livvy, thanks for the vote of confidence, but I don’t think that’s the right way to go, for me at least. I like playing with these guys, I just don’t like playing other peoples’ music with ’em.
Livvy: [moving a little closer now]: Would you like playing music with me? I know I’d appreciate your contributions.
Ben: Livvy, Livvy… you’re wonderful. And I love being with you. But maybe not now, not tonight. I gotta–
Livvy: I know, I know. You gotta work. But…look, Ben, this thing, this obsession with [whatever] is eating you up, and now it’s starting to go for me. Call me when you’ve made some decisions, okay? Gotta go. [Gives him peck on cheek] See you…when I see you.
Ben: Livvy, wait a second.
But she’s gone. He stands there, holding his guitar, and looking down at the open case. His body slumps in disappointment.
– Dissolve to –
SCENE II – BEN’S BEDROOM
INT: BEN’S bedroom in his parents’ house. He’s booting up to get the “Purple Haze” video. Flying fingers go thru a welter of computer commands until he gets to a place where he should have been seeing the video by now. Instead, he keeps getting a message saying “Website cannot be displayed at this time. Try [XYZ].”
Goes thru search the old-fahioned way: Singer/songwriter, 20th Century, guitarist, American, dead before 35, slept in RR cars, first name Jimi, etc. Right then the phone rings. He picks it up, and, after listening for a moment gently blows off the telemarketer. But camera stays on computer screen, with its ten-second “Default to closest spelling” message pulsing rhythmically. We watch as BEN’S accidentally-inputed “JIMMI” corrects itself to “JIMMIE,” so that when he returns to his screen it is not JIMI HENDRIX that he sees on it, but JIMMIE RODGERS, the legendary father of Country Music and originator of the blue yodel. For a long minute BEN just sits there, gaping at the friendly face with the crisp conductor’s cap perched above it. And then, in a matter-of-fact, this-ain’t-gettin’-us-nowhere tone of voice, the picture talks.
Jimmie: What’s the problem, Ben? Never seen a hillbilly before?
Ben is stone silent.
Ben: [Beat]. Uh, not talking to me from my own computer, I haven’t. How…how do you know this is me? I mean…my name?
Jimmie: C’mon, Ben, this is low-end hacker stuff. Ask me a hard one.
Ben: [Long beat] Okay. How are you talking to me from that side of the–what’s going on here? Wait a minute. I’ve seen you before. You were famous, or something. What did you say your name was?
Jimmie: Well, they gave me a bunch of different ones: the “Singing Brakeman” was one. “Blue Yodeler” was another. But most people knew me as just “Jimmie.” Jimmie Rodgers.
Ben: (looking at him carefully): Right. Okay. Wow, you go back a long ways, don’t you?
Jimmie: [Does some quick mental math] Seventy five years. Your great-grandfather’s time. In fact, I knew him. I used to stay at his house whenever I was–[Suddenly notices Ben’s guitar leaning against the computer tower] Hey, is that a pre-‘Sixty-three Strat?
Ben: Yeah. It is. But…wait a minute! They didn’t even have electric guitars when you…
Jimmie: Dude, chill. Might as well try to figure out how we’re having this conversation in the first place.
Ben: You’re right about that.
Jimmie: Listen, Ben: you’ve cleared a reverse pathway into this computer screen to talk to me; that’s how bad you want this band to happen. Problem is, the band’s looking outside of themselves for the way to make it happen. That’s bassackwards. It’s always an inside job. Always. And it isn’t making it happen, it’s letting it happen. But you already know all this. Pick?
Ben: [After long beat] Beg your pardon?
Jimmie:[Spells it out] Do-you-want-to-play-some-music? (Jesus.)
Ben: I don’t–
JIMMIE dematerializes on computer screen, appears in a chair on the other side of the room, railroad overalls and all. He tunes a 1925 Martin 00-28 guitar, and starts strumming an E Seventh chord and playing punchy bass runs to set up a blues in A. He’s also humming (or singing) some generic blues to himself, e.g.: (OPTY)
“You never miss your water
’til your well runs dry
You never miss your water
’til your well runs dry
You never miss your woman,
‘Til she says ‘Goodbye’ etc.”
BEN tentatively picks up Strat, starts playing along. It takes a few moments for them to get used to each other, but by the time they hit the third chorus they’re grooving. JIMMIE motions to BEN to take a solo. He does, starting out simply and sparsely, working up to some real solid, authoritative blues licks. He finishes in a burst of minor-blues arabesques, sad and pretty. JIMMIE acknowledges, goes on singing…
Jimmie: “Well it’s–“What’d you say the name of your band was?”
Ben: Band Name (OPTY)
“Well, it’s ‘B’ for Band Name,
‘B’ for Bumblebee.
‘B’ for Band Name,
‘B’ for Bumblebee.
And it’s ‘B’ for something
You got my guarantee
Lee-oh-lay-hee, yay-hee, yay-hee
At the last “line” BEN’S head jerks up, but Jimmie just keeps playing and singing, as if a real yodel was something you hear every day. But he does slip Ben a little grin.
Jimmie: You gotta take risks in this business.
JIMMIE sings one more chorus, goes out with final, plaintive yodel. There’s a moment of silence after the last chord rings out. Then…
Ben: Wow! That was great! You really… I don’t know, Mr. Rodgers–
Ben: Jimmie. Right. Okay. Ummm, what do I…? I mean, you said maybe you could get us some kind of–
Jimmie: Uh uh. Uh UH! I said maybe I could help you get your band headed in the right direction. “Moving to customers,” we call it. (Altho’, I’ll tell you: that’s a mixed blessing. None of my business, of course. Just, don’t say I didn’t tell you.)
Ben: God–I don’t–just tell me what to do. That’s all. I’ll do it, whatever it is. Hey, maybe you could come to one of our rehears–
Jimmie: Whoa, whoa. Dude, you are, like, not listening to me? I don’t tell people what to do. I just…visit. Try to get somebody to play a little music with me, like I just did with you. That way, I keep my hand in, they get some face with a genuine cultural icon. There’s really no secret. But if it makes you feel any better, if you need symbolism or something, I’ll do you an incantation.
Ben: God, yes!
Jimmie: Okay. Here, gimme your hands.
Puts guitar down, grabs Ben’s hands in two-handed, cross-armed grip, right hand to right hand, left to left. He purses his lips, closes his eyes, takes a wheezy, unwell breath, and chants:
“Band be on,
Band be hot.
Believe in yourselves,
Or Band be not.”
Ben (a little haltingly, with JIMMIE’s help):
“Band be on,
Band be hot.
Believe in yourselves,
Or Band be not.”
Jimmie: Good. [Starts to gather himself up to leave. Extends hand to BEN] Ben, it’s been awesome. But I gotta go.
Ben: Hey. Wait! Jimmie, how do I stay in touch with you? I mean, do I just punch in–wait a minute, I don’t even know what to punch in. How can I–
Jimmie: Dude, lighten up. I’ll see you again if it’s meant to be. But I can’t promise anything. Try the mantra. Couldn’t hurt. See you around.
Starts to dematerialize, maybe we see him going back into computer screen. Then, just before going non-interactive…
Uh, by the way…that song you were playing this afternoon, right before rehearsal? You know what I’m talking about?
Ben: How do you know what–
Jimmie (a little testily): Do you know which song I’m talking about?
Ben: You mean (some Nirvana hit)?
Jimmie: No, no. something about a woman? Lili, maybe? My memory sucks.
Ben: You mean “Livvy?” That’s not really a song; that’s just something I was fooling around with on my own time. You know, just–
Jimmie: Well, whatever. That’s your business. I gotta go. Carbolic acid. [Starts to rematerialize as dead, still artwork on computer screen].
Jimmie: That’s goodbye in any language. (I knew Groucho.)
JIMMIE disappears in computer-screen explosion. BEN sits there, dumbly trying to digest what just happened. In a minute he picks up the Strat, plays the ten or so notes everybody knows from “Purple Haze,” quickly puts guitar down, picks it up again, starts playing around with lyrical minor blues. He picks up momentum, and when we leave him he is just starting to commit something to music paper. He seems revitalized, if only for the moment.
– Dissolve to –
SCENE III – ???
Over next few meetings JIMMIE puts BEN (and maybe whole band) thru paces: riding the rails, doing tent rep shows, auditioning in radio station, recording while vomiting blood, riding the rails, making and losing real money, hanging out with Will Rogers, riding the rails, yodeling, etc. We will also see Elvis looking preppie, BB King trying to play Bebop, Elton John playing accordion. Etc.