Submitted by guest contributor Tim McGregor
In the summer of 1991, I wasn’t married yet and I wasn’t dating seriously. I went to a lot of parties with the art crowd in Houston. I had met a lot of these people at gallery openings and they weren’t the artists, they were the gallery owners and wealthy benefactors that funded the galleries and bought the paintings. My day job was working for the Japanese government in the furtherance of their desire to fund the removal of abandoned anti-personnel landmines from post-war zones. I worked to advance the Japanese governmental agenda through the UN in Geneva, Tokyo, Brussels and Phnom Penh, among other places, and when I had downtime I was pretty much left to myself in Houston. My office was a briefcase and a computer.
I went to a party one Friday night at the home of a friend in Houston’s most trendy and expensive neighborhood, River Oaks. It was a huge mansion with the tasteful décor one would expect from a patron of the arts. It consisted of maybe 15 bedrooms and a large and beautifully landscaped grounds surrounded the place. I checked in and chatted pleasantly with the hostess and several friends upon arrival, and then I wandered out by the pool where there was a three-piece blues band playing softly and enjoyed the music. We were about 50 yards from the house across a rolling expanse of lawn. A few strategically placed candles provided light. The area was almost left in darkness but the moon was full. It was a beautiful, warm and humid night in subtropical Houston.
The blues band was three African Americans in their 60s or 70s and were probably famous, but I didn’t know who they were. The vocalist was a woman and they were playing Billie Holiday tunes soft and low. The music was very pleasing. As I meandered toward the picnic tables set up under a veranda next to the pool, also dimly lit by candles, I met a friend who was talking to some people and she introduced me to them.
“My name is Tim,” I said, extending my hand to the three or four people there sharing a cigarette.
One of the group said, “My name is Jeff Baxter. You might know me as ‘Skunk.’ I was a founding member of Steely Dan and I played with the Doobie Brothers.” He had the beret, the long goatee and the tinted glasses of the guy I had seen on music videos. Suddenly I realized I was in the presence of rock and roll royalty.
“I’ve seen you on videos. Love your music, grew up on it. Gave me a lot of joy, thanks,” I said.
“Nice words, thanks,” he replied.
I left the subject behind in order to not make him uncomfortable. As the cigarette came my way, I took some and passed it and got just a little bit more relaxed and outgoing. I had a harmonica in my pocket, a 10-hole Hohner Blues Harp, the harp that I had learned to play in high school in the ’60s. You call it “playing blues harp” in the music world and “playing blues on the harmonica” with non-musicians. I played every chance I got when I was driving or at home and could hold my own in the harmonica world if playing along with recordings were anything to judge by. I learned to play by listening to John Mayall’s “Room to Move” and a lot of blues, including Sonny Terry and Brownie McGee.
I pulled the harp out of my pocket, and in the darkness around the picnic tables in the subtropical night of Houston let loose with a long, low wail from one of Woody Guthrie’s train tunes. I played softly so as to not disrespect the band, out of earshot on the other side of the pool. I built the momentum, visualizing a train moving faster and faster down the line, and then brought the short improvised piece to a close softly as the train entered the station.
There was an agreeable murmur from the small group.
Right about that time, the band took a break and left their instruments behind. They had a drum kit, an electric guitar–I think it was a Gibson 235, the hollow-body with the tailpiece that comes back from the bridge–and an electric bass all set up and ready to go.
“Hey Tim, you want to play something?” Baxter asked me.
I was quite surprised at his question, but over the falls I went. “Sure, what do you want to play?”
“That’s a D harp, right?”
I checked the key stamped on the side of the harp. “Yeah, D,” I said.
“OK, I’ll play blues in A and follow you,” he said.
The sense of unreality of playing with–no, leading!–the co-founder of Steely Dan, the soundtrack to my high school years, rang in my head. I had a terror reaction. For about a millisecond, I cringed in pain, but we were moving toward the instruments and I didn’t have a lot of time to think about it.
Baxter picked up the guitar, strapped it on and bent down to turn the amp back on. He strummed a soft chord on the guitar and nodded to me.
I didn’t know what to play, so I let out a long wail on the harp and started in on James House’s “Walking Blues” (1930) as the Paul Butterfield Blues Band album East West had passed it down to me. Baxter immediately recognized the old standard and fell right in. We did two verses with the music only, and then I pulled the harp down and sang the first verse: “Woke up this morning, I looked ’round for my shoes. Yeah, you know I got those mean old walkin’ blues.”
Baxter was outstanding and I held my own. We played for about 10 minutes, riffing on that same tune, doing call and response between his guitar and my harp, with me inserting a verse now and then. In terms of what I was doing at that moment in time, riffing with the one and only Skunk Baxter, it was extraordinary.
The band came back from their break and we brought the session to a dignified close, getting a round of applause from the band and the few people standing in the dark at the side of the pool. Baxter and I went back to the small group. I banged the harp against my hand to dry it out and slipped it back into my jacket pocket. He congratulated me and I congratulated him, and we returned to the general conversation with the people standing around the pool.
That humid night in Houston was fun and very satisfying. Musically, it was a once in a lifetime moment.
About the Author
Tim McGregor had a plan to be a novelist by age 33 but life got in the way. He now has an autobiography ready to shop, which will be joined by a SF eco-thriller that he is finishing now. His technical writing has been published by the National Academy of the Sciences and he is also a poet, with two collections and one poem licensed for commercial use. WEBSITE | FACEBOOK