Sippican Cottage

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A Man Who Has Nothing In Particular To Recommend Him Discusses All Sorts of Subjects at Random as Though He Knew Everything

Inside Baseball And The Beatles

We’re visiting the Hope and Anchor bar again, that magical nightspot where you can wander in and find Glenn Tilbrook, formerly of Squeeze, and a motley assortment of whoever’s handy banging out whatever tune comes to mind. Can’t Buy Me Love is a great tune to come to mind. It’s a hardy perennial.

Here’s the inside baseball for you. In the past I played music for money, often on short notice, sometimes among total strangers, so I notice such things: About eight bars into the song, Glenn realizes that the bass player doesn’t know the song. You can see him turn his torso towards the laggard, and his eyes recognize the mild sort of panic in the other musician’s eyes. He stays turned through one verse, making very deliberate chord shapes way down the neck, so that the bass player can see them. A good bass player knows something about the guitar, and by looking at the position of the fingers and the spot on the neck, he can sort out the chord changes. Once around should do it, and does. If you want to know what being a bandleader is like, Glenn is trying to sing like Paul McCartney, play like John Lennon, and coax George Harrison through playing the bass at the same time. If he’s like me, or most any other human, he’s desperately trying to remember the words at the same time.

I learned the knack of watching the guitar player’s hands out of self-defense, mostly. Many guitar players can’t tell you what they’re playing. They learn things by rote, or by ear, but they can’t tell you beforehand what they’re about to do. They often don’t know the correct key of the song, they can only tell you the first chord, and if the first chord of the song isn’t based on the tonic note of the scale, they’ll misidentify the key to you, and you’ll end up chasing them around and playing majors and minors wrong because of it.

A very long time ago, I wanted to play the drums. The public school wouldn’t let me. When I was a man, I could do what I pleased, so I went to the drum shop, and bought the set of drums you see my ten-year-old son playing in Unorganized Hancock music videos. I took a few lessons, and then got a job playing drums in an open mike night at a disreputable Irish bar. The impresario that ran the show paid me fifty dollars a night to come, on two conditions: I had to bring the drums; I had to keep the fact I was the only one being paid a secret — no one else got paid except him. I played the drums for the first few songs, and then I played the bass, which was my natural instrument, and then when more people came in I’d just play darts all night and drink Black and Tans for free. It was a great job for a Monday night, which is a graveyard in the music business. My liver and hearing might have other opinions.

The impresario, who I’ll call “J,” had a very fine Irish tenor voice, could play nearly any instrument you could produce, and was some form of an insane person. He liked taking drugs, drinking, and having sex with lots of ugly women. He was as reliable as phone service in a tunnel. But he could sing, and run things, and he got work. He started hiring me for all sorts of jobs, after he found out I could more or less follow along with him on the bass by watching his left hand on the guitar neck.

I was broke at the time, had no regular music jobs, and would play with anybody for a few bucks, so I was game. But man, some of those jobs beggar description. I started doing an Irish duo thing with him. It was in another, much more disreputable Irish bar, and there were glasses and tables and fists flying around the joint with a regularity that bordered on boredom. He would sing and play busker tunes on the guitar, and I’d follow along as best I could, which wasn’t very well, partly because he would turn away from me mostly. It was every man for himself with that dude, morning, noon, and night. I couldn’t sing harmony with him on a good day, and there were no good days, because it was all I could do to just follow along with him. It was like chasing a moving musical bus.

When the crowd got really unruly, which is really saying something, he’d sing Carrickfergus, or Danny Boy, in a lilting operatic tenor voice he owned, but hoarded, mostly, and it was so compelling that he’d stop traffic outside and everyone would weep and sway in each other’s arms for a bit. Then he’d tell the audience if they had a request to write in on a twenty and send it on up, and it was right back in the mosh.

One day, I showed up to the job, and he wasn’t there. There was another fellow holding a guitar, and staring at me. “J couldn’t make it, so he sent me.” I set up my equipment, hung the bass around my neck, and looked at the other fellow. And he said, “J said you know all the tunes, and all I’ve got to do is watch your hand on the bass neck and follow along.”

It was a very long night, and I never laid eyes on J again.

6 Responses

  1. Ha!! Your "J" reminds me of a guy I used to know, in the multi-instrumentalist busker line, except lacking the tenor voice and more reliable. Probably. He would play any crowd. I was most impressed the time somebody produced an accordion and he took it up and made it fit in without driving everybody away.

    In my limited musical career, the gauntlet of the open-mike night taught me more than anything else. I got to play with a wide variety of talented and no-talent musicians, of course; but the important lesson was about crowd-pleasing. The band could be pretty awful but the crowd could be having a fine time. That busker guy I knew, for instance, could convince a crowd they were having a great time no matter what the hell was going on in the band. That was a talent I definitely did not have.

    Earlier I would have sneered at the concept of condescending to be in a bad band or play bad music just to please a crowd and make a buck, but then I found myself having a great time playing terrible music with awful musicians for tin-eared crowds of drunks. Ha!! That explains bands like Foghat, I thought to myself.

    In any case, I figured out that I would only ever be a amateur musician. People who make a career of playing music competently – or excellently!! – night after night amaze me. I just don't have that kind of endurance.

  2. ya know. I have a brother who tells great stories. I have a friend who tells stories great.
    You tell great stories greatly. Amazing gift you have there.

  3. You're in for it now, Sipp. Ace's moron horde has been made aware of your boutique. They're a bit rough around the edges, but in a tasteless way.

  4. Hi Everybody- Thanks for reading and commenting, and for your kind words. If you like my stories, and haven't already read it, I have a book of flash fiction stories for sale on Amazon: The Devil's In The Cows It's Amazon Prime eligible, and Amazon thinks it's popular enough to discount it down to seven bucks. Or bad enough.

    Hi Matt- Ace and his "moron horde" were very kind to me when my father died, so they're more than all right with me. My Father Asks For Nothing

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