Monday, February 8, 2010

Dead Weight

After sitting in on blues harp (harmonica) with most of the best Kansas City blues bands of the mid-90’s, I moved to New York and joined the Dallas Fisher Band. Besides Dallas, I was always the only original band member, and since dozens of players came and went during my tenure, I liked to think of myself as the band’s “anchor.” As with most ego-based, self-delusional behavior, the actual truth lies somewhat left-of-center. And, depending on whom you ask, the term “dead weight” pops up with uncomfortable frequency.

I was, in fact, often trundled around like just another beat up and ugly looking amplifier, and because most performance stages have no ramps, I had to accept the fact that my dignity would, from time-to-time, suffer at the hands of whomsoever’s hands were helping me “get to work.” The first major adjustment I had to make was reinstalling handles on my wheelchair.

In 1976, during my first visit to Craig Rehab Hospital in Denver, I was taking a leisurely spin down a sidewalk out in back, and some well-meaning therapist/aid/do-gooder/who knows? must have decided that I was going too fast for my own good. Without saying a word, she ran up behind my chair, grabbed my handles firmly, and stopped the old E&J on the proverbial dime. Of course I came to a stop several yards farther down the sidewalk, with more than a few concrete raspberries on my hands and arms. Onlookers were, to say the least, aghast. Ten minutes later, I was sitting in an office chair down in the basement shop, watching a maintenance guy hacksaw off my handles. (Nobody had ever mentioned how much easier it would be to put on shirts, jackets and/or coats!)

Twenty four years (and several new chairs) later, after a bass player and a guitar player nearly hurt themselves hauling me on stage at the Joyous Lake in Woodstock, NY, I dug out the handles that came with my Quickie and bolted them back on. (Don’t let anybody tell you I didn’t suffer for my art!) But even having handles doesn’t always help all that much. In the late 90’s, we performed at the Walden Days Festival, a street fest in the town where my grandparents lived some 30+ years before. The stage was set up in the town square, right in front of the building where I spent a summer answering to 60 female factory workers doing “piece work,” women who called me many names that had nothing whatsoever to do with my own.

There was this decorative lattice-work wall that zig-zagged at the rear of the stage, but only after being hauled up the back stairway did we realize that it was nailed and screwed into place. Neither the zigs nor the zags were ADA standard, and only by flying was I apt to get past them. Before I could ponder my options, our latest guitar player said “Give me this!” The “this” in question was my right rear wheel. I had barely time to hang on, and looking back, I suspect that stunt car driver, Joey Chitwood never performed a more hair-raising two-side-wheels maneuver.

It’s little wonder that our new guitar player was so cavalier about tossing me around; turned out he installed office safes in NYC during the day. What’s a 170 pound gimp in a 20 pound wheelchair? But I swear to you that a hush fell over the crowd that day. They held their collective breath while I teetered precariously around that stage set on my left wheels. Once they let out that collective breath with a collective sigh of relief, I could apparently do no wrong. In an hour’s time I went from being the guy nobody ever notices, to getting more applause and compliments than I’d gotten during my entire tenure with the band.

I was definitely onto something there. Unless you’re James Cotton or John Popper, harp players are largely dead weight anyway, and if it wasn’t for the fact that I had a van, and my publicity/promotion company supplied all the band’s posters and press kits, I would probably have been dropped long before. But suddenly I saw all that changing. Picture it: a red-white-and-blue sequined jumpsuit and a long silk scarf. Each entrance more dramatic than the one before. An ambulance standing by. Audience members wagering amongst themselves on whether or not I would live long enough to play my harps at all. I figured we could build ramps and jumps like the skateboarders and trick bike riders use. There could be thin cables and pulleys, and, well, you get the idea.

Okay, so my fifteen minutes of rock star fame probably came and went right there in front of the Civil War Memorial, on the otherwise quiet streets of Walden, NY. That’s not such a bad thing. And for an old gimp playing harmonica, I guess it was a little like flying: Any landing you roll away from is a good one.

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