Written by Bill Payne - March, 2002
I once rented one side of a duplex near Oxnard, California. The Hispanic landlord was very happy to be renting to a college student. He told me the family next door spoke no English whatsoever; I told him I spoke little if any Spanish--I had studied it in high school but never absorbed much other than the accent and a few phrases. He liked the arrangement as the walls were not that thick, and this way we wouldn’t bother one another. Language is either the open door or the barrier to the understanding of others. In this case, the wall (la pared) between me and my next door neighbors allowed for a sense of anonymity. I have lived in a world within a world in southern California most of my life, but it doesn’t mean I was immune from the many influences from the Hispanic community.
I have always had a great affinity for the accordion and the tejano music played on southern California radio; Cuban music is a staple at my house; I have been reading the poetry of Pablo Neruda, Octovio Paz, and Jorge Luis Borges, wondering how accurate the translations might be; have found myself in countless situations where I would have liked to have spoken to someone in Spanish: in hotels, restaurants, airports, or simply been a fly on the wall, listening with comprehension to the banter of chefs, maids, voices from the radio, from television; Neon Park, who painted most all of Little Feat’s album covers, spent a great deal of time in Mexico, which we spoke of often.The influences are many and have only grown. I finally made the decision to seriously approach the subject of the Spanish language last November while on a week long run in Colorado with the band, Left Over Salmon (LOS).
Little Feat guitarist, Paul Barrere and I were invited to play with LOS to help and honor their band mate, Mark Vann. He was suffering from cancer. There were many wonderful musicians invited over a four day period to contribute their talents by joining LOS on stage at three different venues across the state. The atmosphere was enveloped with joy and sadness. Above all, there was a camaraderie amongst the participants, that included: Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, Peter Rowan, Billy Nershi....Michael Kang....Kyle Hollingsworth (from String Cheese Incident), Robert Randolph, Sally Van Meter, John Cowan, and many others. It was four nights of music I will never forget. The audience at each venue were there to show their support and love for Mark Vann, as were the rest of us. It was music and audience participation in its purest form. The communication on stage was appropriately loose. The music was frenetic, lingering, soulful, chaotic (at times, but always in the best sense), magical, and zany. An honest expressive dialogue between people who love to play, and an audience willing to go along for wherever the ride might take them. The concerts were a show of respect and hope for one of our own in deep trouble. There was a lot to reflect upon.
The concerts for Mark Vann seemed to accentuate the importance of living life to the fullest; the need for meaningful communication and the search for new challenges. I read a great deal of books, primarily, non-fiction, when I’m not performing music. That particular trip, I was engaged in reading David Halberstam’s book, “War In A Time Of Peace”, a study of the stark realism of geo-political priorities, where time, human and financial resources, military strategies, media massage, are all focused on the fall of the Soviet Empire and the Gulf War, while a disinclination in dealing with backburner conflagrations, such as Bosnia and Kosovo, left unattended gather strength, inevitably roaring to the forefront, adding to history’s perverse legacy of quicksand, second guessing, and human misery; muffled whispers outside the periphery of one’s hearing graduating to full-fledged deafening screams that can no longer be ignored. Isn’t this the way of most of life's fatal traps? I thought of Mark Vann and his battle with cancer. What were the opening volleys that would later begin to consume him? What do I hear in the distance, but am ignoring now? Thoughts that hit you in the dead of night. My own mortality slammed home with renewed urgency and chilling clarity. I was, once again, taking on the ritual of figuring out who I am, what’s important. The parade of elastic priorities assembling and rearranging themselves throughout the long night.
My life has been enhanced in the last few years by the pursuit of writing. As a musician, I feel comfortable under most conditions to interact with others: on stage, in the studio, at informal gatherings--where there are musical instruments and intentions of playing them. As a writer, I am less sure of myself, but no less determined.
The opportunity to write, and the discipline of having to write, have opened the floodgates on many issues neglected or not acted upon. I have always held a fascination for language and the cultural blind alleys it creates within societies. Those that know the lingo, and those that don’t. Enclaves are created by the division of culture and use of language (especially those that purportedly speak the same language). My thinking with regard to learning Spanish was the thought of entering an enclave whose doors have heretofore been closed to me. The idea of mastering the language, any language, was not the issue. No one masters language. I simply wanted the challenge of learning something new, immersing myself in the process; something I hadn’t done since being introduced to the study of music at the age of five. I also felt that learning another language would give me a better understanding of English. It has also given me a better sense of the language of music.
My keyboard tech, Mark Gilbert, right about the time I was heading over to Colorado to play with LOS, informed me he was going to take a hiatus from the road to learn music (through playing the piano). As I made my initial foray into studying Spanish, I began to think of the daunting task it would be, and thought how the same had to hold true for Mark in his studies of music. After all, there is a mindset to learning, particularly at an older age. Patience is an absolute must. The trouble is, most of us are so geared to having everything happen immediately--old or young. There are no shortcuts in learning, there are only the limitations we impose on ourselves. I wondered what limits I would concoct. It didn’t take long to hit the first brick wall. The conjugation of verbs (regular and irregular), and the demon of memory, or lack thereof. Patience.
The comparison of verb conjugation and learning scales in music seem to run concurrent to one another. They are both foundations in which everything else takes on meaning. Do you have to learn scales as a musician? I know plenty of players that are not all that conscious of how scales impact their playing. But they quickly show what they know when having to play a difficult passage, especially one that moves in and out of key centers. At that point you find yourself translating rather than letting loose and playing. Some of the best players I know are exceptional in their knowledge of scales. Fred Tackett is always practicing a wide variety of scales on his guitar. Steve Kimmock, who I met when I was in Phil Lesh’s band two years ago, is another guitar player of extraordinary talent immersed in the knowledge of scales. Their practice is centered on finger dexterity and finger memory. The same holds true for language. Practicing saying phrases over and over until they become ingrained. Patterns.
I was in attending a gathering outside of New York in January. The driver who picked me up at the airport told me he was a musician. In our talk I found out he was considering taking music lessons but was afraid it might hamper his improvisational skills. I told him I have been down that road, and he couldn’t be further from the truth.
I asked him to think about two things: 1) We talk ourselves out of far more things than we ever talk ourselves into, and 2) He should look at lessons and learning as a way to add to his musical vocabulary, he would lose nothing and gain a great deal more by keeping himself open to the opportunities of learning. He told me he had never thought of it in that way. He was pleased with the conversation and so was I.
A couple of weeks ago I received a call from Colorado. Mark Vann had passed away.
I thought of the audience at the Fillmore in Denver shouting “WE LOVE YOU MARK” while someone held a cel phone on stage with Mark on the other end of the line in the hospital listening. It was a powerful moment. That night, the community responded with love and hope and celebration. There were tears and laughter, warm embraces and handshakes. It was a powerful moment, given the fragility of life. The walls, for one night, were gone. We were one.
Los Angeles, CA