On the anniversary of the last Jimi Hendrix concert I saw in Berkeley 43 years ago today.
You don’t have to be in a band to play bass. You can play bass by yourself or with CDs, MP3s or with YouTube and still have a lot of fun. I still learn a lot that way. It is actually playing with the masters – past and present – and you can get a lot out of it: learning bass lines just as they are on the recording as well as learning to play the material in your own way. Playing with recordings may, or may not, help you play well with other musicians (that is another post) but it is great for learning by ear and developing your technique.
When I was young – like 1965-1968 I spent hours with vinyl records – dropping the needle on tracks again and again trying to figure out the words to songs, learning the melodies, and ultimately trying to understand what the bassist was doing, but when I first started out doing this it was even before I began to play bass. I just loved the music.
I memorized nearly every bit of Alice’s Restaurant Massacre by Arlo Guthrie, all 18 minutes and 34 seconds of it “with the circles and arrows and the paragraphs on the back of each one” and could recite it, when asked, to my friends in High School almost verbatim. It meant something. I could sing the songs of the day and thought I could hear bass, especially James Jamerson, playing on the Motown tracks. I played flute, before I took up bass, but the only Rock flautist I knew of was in the band Blues Project out of New York City. I didn’t know about Jethro Tull, yet, but I did listen to Hendrix, Santana, The Dead, The Who, The Airplane and pretty much everyone who came through town or lived in the Bay Area. It was an amazing time and place for new music. You could see almost anyone for 3 bucks and you could buy LP records on special for 3 bucks when the band was in town. Most bands played two successive shows (each night) at the Fillmore and if you didn’t catch the first one you could stay for the second. Free apples too!
It was my guitarist friend Bob who convinced me to start playing bass in 1969. Jamming on flute with him was frustrating as he could just turn up to get loud and I was almost passing out from lack of air trying to keep up. My dad would have been against drilling my silver flute to install a pickup, so that was out. Sitting on Bob’s mom’s rooftop one evening my buddy said “Do you know that the four lower strings on a guitar are exactly like a bass?” He then proceeded to teach me how to play “Boris the Spider” by The Who on his old Stella acoustic guitar (affectionately called the Cheese Grater from the effect it had on your hands.) It became the first bass line I learned and I was hooked immediately. For Life.
Hi. My Name is Tim. I AM a music junkie… Is the program 2 steps up or 10 steps down ?
Fortunately I was lucky enough to know Bob as well as other musicians who were at about the same level of skill that I was. They were willing to play with me even when I first began learning bass. We learned our instruments together while we also explored how to create music as a band. If we could scrounge equipment, Bob and our drummer friend “Fish” and I played in Bob’s garage. If we couldn’t borrow amps, we would play through anything, anywhere; Bob’s mom’s TV, tape recorders, anything with an amp and a speaker. A lot of those devices never sounded the same after those sessions, especially if we were fooling around with feedback or distortion. I owe our moms some thanks.
We did not play gigs but we played as if we were on stage no matter where we were; Venues known the World Over such as – “In The Garage”, “On The Patio”, “In Bob’s Mom’s Living Room” or “Outside In The Vacant Lot Next Door On A Hill” (with extension cords.) One summer, Bob and I worked in his Dad’s restaurant in Monterey. The cover band playing there didn’t mind if we used their gear after hours so as soon after they closed, at 2am or so, we annoyed the neighbors all night long playing on an actual stage with a PA and even an echo-plex. “Stone Free.” The (empty) crowd went CRAZY! At dawn I would start cleaning up the restaurant … “You can get anything you want, excepting Alice” … indeed.
When the Jimi Hendrix – Band Of Gypsies – record came out I became obsessed with learning “Power of Love”, initially just like Billy Cox played it, and then eventually throwing in 2 note chords and other things that I was already playing back then. Compared to previous Hendrix material, the tune was so Out There. I did not think anyone I knew would ever play it with me, yet I learned it anyway, dropping the needle again and again on the previous track so I could get my hands on my bass in time, ready to play every note once that track began. I clearly remember convincing myself that if I just kept playing, consistently, the best I could, that one day Jimi Hendrix might just be driving by and would hear me. “Stop the Limo! – Who is that guy? He must be my new bassist. I must play with him!” Apparently I was just not playing loud enough (through my used tape recorder that I used for an amp plugged into a 15 inch speaker.) This was not as far fetched as it might seem as Jimi WAS alive and indeed was playing Berkeley soon. Ok. We lived in Oakland but he might drive by, maybe visiting the Panthers or something. It could happen.
May 30th, 1970. Bob and I hitched over to the Community Theater to see Jimi, as we had to other locations for many a previous Hendrix, Dead, or Santana show. It was tense in Berkeley. He and I had been to the Peoples Park protests, a year before, when the National Guard and Berkeley Police were everywhere. It was our local DMZ. A year later, just after Kent State, things still were unsettled. We had tickets for the second set at 10pm so we walked around the fountain in what was then called “Provo Park” across the street from the BCT, listening to the 1st set (which you could hear, of course, with Jimi’s three Marshall full stacks) waiting for the muse that we all followed to appear. We were also waiting for our chance to see Jimi again.
When we got in at 10 this weird horn band “Tower of Power” opened. Look at these guys! What kind of horn is that? Are they for Real? Are they like “Chicago” or something? We had rarely seen that many non-electric musicians on any Rock stage. They killed, of course. Where are these guys from? Who is that bass player? Do they have an album out yet? Another awesome band to start listening to. Hometown – Back to Oakland.
Jimi really out did himself that night, playing both “Machine Gun” and “Voodoo Chile” and being basically the coolest human alive, rapping about everything from the Black Panthers, People’s Park, and Vietnam, to self determination and how “this is our own little world tonight.” Very much the Sky Church effect. Testify! That wild cross between hip casual excellence and inspired improvisation. Never sounding the same with these very familiar yet always new tunes. The band was so solid with Mitch Mitchell and Billy Cox – in many ways the best lineup of his career – and billed as The Experience again instead of Band of Gypsies.
As we left the show, the last time I saw Jimi play, and we walked up to the Greek Theater to hang out and talk in the night air, I noticed a serious high pitched sound in my head, not there before, that did not leave for hours. Of course I attributed it to the preceding assault I had subjected myself to but it was definitely my first experience with hearing loss. After years of subsequent sonic abuse, that sound is now somewhat permanently a feature of my daily life, usually only going away when I am onstage or otherwise, equally, unstressed, calm and happy, but at the time who knew about earplugs?
Jimi never stopped by to play with me. Huge surprise. I kept practicing and waiting. No one knew he had only a few months left to live, so maybe he just ran out of time. He probably got lost on the way to my house. Maybe he had some ringing in his ears too.
When he died I had to give up that dream of playing with him. I was heartbroken. I began to realize that the idea of leaving High School to play music full time might leave me ill prepared for a lot of what life seemed to be about. It took another decade, but I eventually developed a Plan B that later became Plan A and redefined music as the second full time obsession in my life instead of the first. It happens. I realized that I wanted to keep living in relative health and happiness so it was probably the right thing to do. To quote Jimi, “Who Knows?”
So I started my bass career in two worlds, playing in a group and studying relentlessly on my own, listening to the masters. I have not stopped playing bass since 1969. I have been in a lot of bands, played a lot of stages and indeed made significant chunks of my income from playing bass. I sure as hell had a lot of fun doing it too. I still play nearly every day. I also do other things. I learned to write by hanging out with my drummer at the time, Mick, who kept saying ‘We have this book in mind, you need to write it” but that is, alas, another blog post too.
So what does this have to do with my book? It is probably the whole “path I did not travel” thing. I keep saying “I wrote this book because I wanted to own it”. In some ways, this book has become is my life’s work, though I have also done a lot of other things in life. I am pretty happy about sharing a lot of what I know in an organized way to a lot of people, all at once, instead of one bass lesson at a time, to one person. I think there are a lot of folks “playing real loud” hoping someone will play with them or just hear them. I think if you learn the common grooves and language of music, it makes it easier to play with other folks. But that is another post too.
My guess is that if Jimi had cruised by and found me, this book would not exist. I probably would not be alive today, probably having succumbed to the excessive lifestyle of the 60’s. Purple Haze. It has been a good trade off. I have to say, though, that it would have been amazing to play with Jimi, just once, and I do still miss him. Straight Ahead.