Roland White struck me as a princely person, courteous and caring. The responsibility for the band—his band—seemed to be all on him. And he could handle it, too. He’d been doing that job for years, since they all were little kids. He had large, sympathetic brown eyes that often wore a look of ‘where-did-I-put-what-happens-if-I wonder-whether-anyone-I-hope-they-won’t….’
Sometimes he’d tell me in detail what I should do to get healthier. Take a multivitamin (he named the brand). Drink gelatin to strengthen my nails, especially if I wanted to keep using my fingernail as a pick. Do the Daily Dozen. It was important to keep your shoes polished, not for health but just because it looked more professional, which was actually good for your health.
He was easy to talk to, easy to listen to. I listened but didn’t take his advice. I meant to. It just seemed at the time like my physical health was the least of my problems, though of course my shoes have always been near the top of any list. But it felt good just having someone care enough to give the advice.
Eric, Leroy and Billy were nice as well. (Nice—that meaningless word; let’s assume I mean that each of these people had some kind of quality that makes your day better. For instance, that Billy Ray would touch his nose to his chin.) And so was Clarence, nice, in his particular way, which was generally guitar-related. He didn’t talk much, as everyone knows. He had some issue with his L’s and his R’s, which made it not that easy for him to pronounce his own name. But he didn’t need to talk to spend a lot of time trying to teach me ‘Black Mountain Rag’ and ‘Journey’s End’—a solo JOHN COHEN said would take a road map to play. He’d just show me again, and then again.
I didn’t learn well at the time; I wasn’t Appalachian enough to realize the value of hard work. Also, letting go of the chords in order to pick a solo gave me vertigo. Plus both songs, of course, would require a pick, and I was convinced I could not, could not, ever use a pick. I couldn’t hang on to it. Clarence would just shrug and say, “Okay, use the matchbook then.” In those days, we all smoked; there were always matchbooks around to pull the covers off of, and they do work, sort of. And eventually he gave me a pick. To own. “Keep it.”
I wish I still had that pick. I could sell it to TONY RICE, assuming I didn’t want to embed it in the peghead of my Martin, or my own forehead. Tony Rice reportedly has Clarence’s guitar now. Which one, I wonder—the D18 from those early days?
I read in Roland’s book that Clarence shot his guitar with a BB gun, and that the hole was still there. And that he once filled his guitar (the same one?) with sand and there was still some sand inside. If that’s the guitar we’re talking about, then I am very, very jealous, Tony, but I’ll get over it. Anyway, I once tipped my D28 off a stage and broke its neck, and later I dropped a waffle iron on it for good measure; that’s the kind of thing I learned from Clarence.
It’s just a guitar.
It’s just a guitar.
When Clarence was killed, it was as if a guitar limitlessly full of music got smashed to splinters and all the music flew out, everywhere, back into whatever unknowable deep space music comes from.
But right know he’s not dead, just very engrossed in his sandy, BB’d guitar, and I am asking Roland why they don’t ever let his brother take a solo when we all so much want to hear one, and Roland is looking kind of worried and explaining that it’s because if Clarence played a solo then he, Roland, would have to play rhythm guitar or the song would sound weak, and then he wouldn’t be on mandolin—which was okay for maybe one song, and well, maybe if the mood were right on the last set they might do one that way. They might do ‘Journey’s End.’
They did ‘Journey’s End.’ The one I was learning. I am always, always learning ‘Journey’s End.’
But my time at the Ash Grove was up, for now. Ed and I had had a terrible quarrel (one in which I now publicly admit I WAS WRONG, sort of) and #1 one and I decided we needed to escape to New York City. Not a completely miscellaneous idea, since I was from there and my father still lived in our same old apartment on University Place.
I said goodbye to Clarence in the parking lot, and in a passionate burst of instruction I listed a bunch of guitar players and kinds of music I thought he ought to listen to. Please! Listen to flamenco! Classical! Manitas de Plata….Julian Bream….Django Rheinhardt…….
[Note: Apparently JOE MAPHIS had the same idea, that Clarence could well widen his musical base, and I know Django was on his list, too. For that matter, Joe himself was a terrifically wide-based guitarist. And he had a dandy motor home he and his wife ROSE traveled from gig to gig in; he gave me a tour of it, and that greatly influenced my future life.]
For some reason it seemed incredibly important that I give Clarence this advice. The temptation to influence a young talent is hard to resist. In fact people were constantly trying to influence me. And Clarence probably took my advice about as much as I took theirs. I should have been looking to my own musical base instead of standing around in parking lots telling other people how to become great. But, see, he wasn’t ‘other people.’ He was Clarence, who was—remember?—almost me. Anyway, he nodded and said something, one of the two or three words he ever used, like ‘yeah,’ or ‘okay.’ Then there was, ‘Bye, I’ll see you.’
Next morning #1 and baby and I loaded all our possessions into the trunk of the ’49 yellow Buick convertible we had bought two days earlier from the fly-by-night mechanic shop across the street for fifty dollars and headed east, not knowing that the car had only 300 miles left in it. Sometimes rambling is more like running.
Journey’s end? Not hardly. Not yet.