Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Mowers and Reapers

Ed Jackson was a real pain in the ass to work with for the first couple of weeks. Arnie and I had met a couple of months before when we both hired on to do lawn maintenance and warehouse work for the new community college. We got on right away. Arnie was streetwise scruff, no college but smart, a little younger and a lot shorter than I am, but focused and calm and handsome in a dark, Italian way. Me, I was the white-bread boy, veteran of three different colleges and four years in the Navy, but forever the beginner at everything I did, newly married, just finding my way. We discovered right away we were both musicians and that eliminated any need for shyness. Musicians, serious ones, share more than an interest. We speak a common language that makes little sense to others. We harbor brotherly feelings toward other musicians, as if we were a subspecies of humans with our own set of challenges and passions. Which, of course, is exactly what we are.

Then Ed hired on and it was Arnie and me working one side of the big garage, and the new guy working the other side for a couple of weeks. He struck me as standoffish, a loner, not interested in conversation, though truthfully Arnie and I made little effort to get to know him.

Then finally we all three ended up on a job together, mowing and hauling clippings and rakings. Arnie and I talked about music, about gigs and instruments and venues we'd known, and groupies. Ed heard us but said nothing. Until lunch, when he surprised us by walking over with his sandwich and sitting down only a little ways from us.

"So you guys play?" he said. "I play too. A little."

"How little?" I asked.

"Been playing guitar for a few years. And writing songs."

Arnie and I looked at each other and grinned. Arnie played guitar, a little, but mostly blew mouth harp. But his real background was sound reinforcement. For me, that meant he was one of the wizards behind the curtain who made it possible for hired-gun bassmen like me to stand on stage and be heard. He, on the other hand, was in awe of musicians with the chops and balls to get up in front of an audience. We shared mutual respect for each other. But we both knew there was another kind of musician who had a kind of natural talent so rare it actually (sometimes) made it possible to make a living at music: the songwriter/singer.

"Really. Arnie, you have a guitar tucked away somewhere here, don't you? How about you sing us something, Ed?"

He did, and we were blown away, and we became a trio after that. We huddled and traded jokes and songs and gig stories. Soon we started skipping out to a local abandoned house that Arnie spotted in order to eat our sandwiches in private and then share a doobie for dessert. Then our conversations would get loud and raucous and silly for the sake of silly. We would have partied together after work too except I had a new wife looking for me to come home each afternoon.

Of course I wanted to start a band. We'd need a drummer, so I called a friend of Arnies he recommended. I got a tentative yes, so I went to Ed. "What do ya think? You, me, Arnie, and Arnie's friend Jesse? We could make a few bucks, drink a few beers, have some fun?"

Ed said no. Didn't even think about it, just nixed the idea on the spot. "Sorry Mike, I don't have the chops for one thing. I've never played with a band." Didn't have the chops didn't fly for me. I'd heard him play. His songs were good, well written, great rhyming and alliteration and, well, they moved me when I heard them. Deeply felt. Authentic. A little sad, most of them, but some were just the opposite, as if he had written them to cheer himself up. And his playing - not the usual three chord blues-based changes. Unusual but appropriate passing chords, closer to jazz than to rock. He may be shy, but the guy was a real natural.

I asked Neese, my wife, if we could use the sun porch of our little house to jam in, or maybe even practice for a gig. She didn't mind, so I invited Ed and Arnie over. Saturday afternoon worked for everybody. I didn't tell 'em, but I'd invited Jesse to bring his drums over too. "It's just a jam," I answered Ed when he saw the drums. "No big deal." I dragged an old guitar amp my brother had given me from the attic and set up an extra microphone so his acoustic guitar could be heard over the drums. It didn't do any favors for his guitar's tone, but it more or less worked. Ed played rhythm guitar and sang, Arnie wailed on harp between verses, Jesse turned out to be better than I'd hoped on drums and kept his volume down, and I played bass through my practice cab. The result? Pretty damn good for a first jam, I thought. Jesse and Arnie did too. They both agreed right away to do it again the next week, same time same place. Ed did too, reluctantly.

Over the next year, the fun factor and the music just got better, to everyone's surprise. Arnie invited an old friend who used to play lead guitar in a blues review band but had quit when he injured his hand in a work accident. Mel was quiet and humble and apologized constantly the first few times, but he had a fine ear for melody, got along well with the rest of us, and grinned with gratitude at the end of each song we played. One of his old band mates owned a club in town. The next thing we knew, we were on stage, wailing and making all kinds of joyful noises. Thus took birth Mowers and Reapers, the town's newest blues/jazz group. We played for three years straight, never made any money to speak of, always had a good time, and, though we dissolved the band finally, remained friends for the rest of our lives.


  1. I love the way you narrate this story. It reads as if you're having a conversation with the reader and what an interesting tale. I wish I could hear the music too. Love the band name too. Great to see you writing flash again, Mike. :)

  2. When the music came up I supposed you were drawing on your background. Then "Mike" was mentioned. That's a meaty dynamic between these folks.

    Welcome back to #fridayflash, Mike.

  3. Thanks John and Rachel. This isn't strictly biographical, but yes, I've enjoyed this dynamic several times in my so called "career" as a musician.