Posted by Chiron on September 25, 2012 at 19:29:35:
Poster's IP was: 220.127.116.11
A Centaur Layin’ Down the Bottom
Now, I’m no writer, don’t get me wrong. Okay; maybe every once in a while I’ll submit an article to the Chicago Tribune, and the Kane County Chronicle still has me on editorial retainer for the Entertainment section, but all that’s on the side. What I want—what I really want—is the blues. I’ve blown harp on stages all over this city—from the Checkerboard on the gin-soaked South Side to the well-lacquered Green Mill. I’ve played at the House of Blues and on the corner of Wacker and State. I’ve blown with the best of them at Bluesfest and had my off days at the Harlem Avenue Lounge. None of that pays the bills, though. I got this tiny little basement pad (they call it a “garden apartment”) on Damen and Armitage that I split with this guy Paul, a bartender at the Red Fish and one of the sweetest bass players to ever shake the floor. I got a lovely old ’76 Oldsmobile I still owe half on; I’m still paying on my Victoria Vibro-Lux (a Fender Super-Reverb re-issue with some extra boost—worth it at twice the price), plus I gotta feed the habits with Camels and Old Black Jack. You ever meet a blues man without a couple of vices?
So I’m bouncing at this blues club in the Loop, right off the Congress Expressway. You’d know the name of it if I said it, and you’d know the owner’s name even better. But I like my job here a lot, so I don’t think I’ll mention either if it’s all right with you. I’d rather be playing, of course, but I don’t usually get more than a few gigs a month. Work for harp players can be hard to come by; the market’s kinda saturated. Usually I open for other acts, but on Mondays I host the “Blues Monday” open jam sessions, and sometimes a big Friday or Saturday night act asks me to come up on stage. I got to do that with Matt “Guitar” Murphy from the Blues Brothers. Man, that cat can play. I’ve been on stage with Koko Taylor, Albert King, and William Clarke. And I’ll tell you—unless you’ve been there, with the drums popping out a sweet Texas shuffle and the bass thumping right along, with a Fender Telecaster sparkling through a big ol’ tube amp (tubes only, please!) jacked right to the redline, and a wonderful old Hammond B3 swirling out through Leslie speakers, there just aren’t words to describe it.
Working here pays the bills, or helps, anyway. And, of course, I have my hand on what is most likely one of the main nerves for blues in this city. I’m in the vortex. My shot will come. People will know my name, you bet. Until then, I’m just biding my time, getting my chops down, doing the grind to keep everything on the level. You gotta take the good with the bad when you’re on the slab. Sure, some nights you get a spectacular crowd, and whoever is lucky enough to be on stage when the joint is jumpin’ like that sure gets a big boost. There’s nothing like playing to a crowd that’s just eating it up, cheering you on while you testify. On nights like that, even the lamest group of hacks sounds like a studio cut, and you can just about see the sparks jumping off the guitarist’s fingers. Other nights, a real class act will roll in, unannounced, and just get up there and start wailing. The other night Shemeka Copeland popped in. She had a nine-piece backup band complete with horns with her and damn! we just happen to have our axes, too. Mind if we blow a little bit, honeychile? They just about ripped the roof off the place.
Other nights, like the jam nights, can be a real drag. It’s usually a bunch of hacks that come in, turn up way too loud and play the same old licks, making those guitar-gasm faces like no-one’s ever heard before what they’re laying down. Other times it’s a bass player that never learned how to use a tuner. Or a drummer that, when you ask him or her to put down a T-Bone shuffle, just looks blankly back at you. Sure, they’ve never heard of a T-Bone shuffle, and they play like it.
Some nights, though, someone walks in who just about makes everybody’s jaw just hit the floor. I want to tell you about a night like that which went down a few years ago.
There’s nothing colder and bleaker than rain in March, and I think it goes double in Chicago. You’ve had enough of winter, but of course in Chicago in March winter’s just coming around the backstretch. A ways to go yet, winter in March in Chicago. Of course the clubs love it like that, because it drives people in off the streets. It also drives in the musicians. A lot of musicians are free and looking to jam, because Monday night is never a big gig night. There’s blues to be had all over the city every day of the week, but Monday is when most of the musicians are free, whether they play jazz, rock-‘n’-roll, metal, grunge, punk, oldies, whatever—on Mondays everyone gets back to their roots, and everybody, whether they love ‘em or hate ‘em, knows the blues. Our open jam nights are usually pretty packed but nothing really to write home about, with a balance of pretty good very well-offset by not-so-good.
Last month was one of those nights—pretty boring. On boring nights even bouncers get sleepy. I had played a one-hour set with the house band and was back to bouncing. The house band here is pretty good. There’s Marty on drums. He’s killer. Doug plays trumpet and keys. Smoking on both. There’s my roommate, Paul, on bass. He plays a Modulus five-string through the house’s Trace Elliot full-stack, and man, he’s got some sweet chops. There’s me, on harp. And finally, there’s John, on lead vocals and guitar. He also plays keys, but whether he’s singing, bending, or tickling, he is something to watch. He’s been around, too—went on tour with Otis Rush when they were opening for Page and Plant. Jimmy Page and Robert Plant, please and thank you. I’ve got a picture someone took on that tour and it shows John, Otis, a keys player named Dave Rice, and then Plant, and then Page. Two rock icons and this guy John played with them. Inches from them. He’s appeared on albums from The Freddy Jones Band to Luther Allison. If the club has a resident blues guru, other than the owner, John is it. His presence can be intimidating, too. Why, I once saw this tall and skinny drink-of-water bass player get on stage with John and faint dead away. They’re still laughing at that guy.
So I was just leaning against the bar, not much going on. Some large white lady who was trying desperately to be black was caterwauling something on stage. I looked over at John. He yawned.
Just then the door opened. And this guy came in—I’ll tell you, you’d have thought you’d have heard about a guy like that on the news. A lot of guys go out of their way to be different. You know—tattoos and stuff, or they’ll paint all kinds of wacky stuff on their ax or they’ll dress really funky. There was this one dude come in last month all dressed up like Stevie Ray Vaughan. Too bad the guy couldn’t play like Stevie Ray, know what I’m sayin’? But this other cat, man—he didn’t have to work to look different.
He was pretty tall—not as tall as some of the guys I’ve seen in here, but still pretty well up there. He came in wearing a big ol’ black overcoat that didn’t fit too well—more on that later. He had a bass case that kept bumping against his side—not his hip, really, because he didn’t seem to really have hips, not like you and I do—but his side, which he really did have a lot of. And when he came in off the street and his feet hit the floor, they made muffled clop-clop noises on the well-soaked weather mat just inside the front door. I guess what I’m trying to say is that the guy was half a horse. For real. I mean, he had hooves—four of them--and a tail, all of which he looked like he was trying to cover up with the tails of that overcoat. It wasn’t quite up to the drill, if you take my meaning. Everything was pretty well out there for everyone to see. He was half a horse—maybe more of a pony, really. Or maybe three-quarters of a pony. Look, I guess what I mean to say is that, where the head of the horse should have been, there was this guy. The top half of a regular guy, anyway, wearing this big black overcoat that fit fine up top but kind of fanned out to cover at least some—but not much--of his bottom half.
I jumped up from my bar stool and hustled over to the door. The girl running the cash register—a real sweetheart named Mandy—had this dazed look on her face. I got all prepared to toss the guy out; I mean, we get enough freaks in here already; we don’t need a couple of genetic-engineering mutants or whatnot. I looked over at the owner, sitting in his reserved corner by the head of the bar, and he sure wasn’t looking at me.
“Hey hey hey,” I said. “We got health regs to follow here. We don’t allow animals in here. This is a public place! What, you wanna bring the FDA down on us?”
I suppose my brain had yet to register what my eyes were seeing. I suppose further that, in retrospect, what I had said was pretty rude.
“I’ve got some I.D.,” he said, reaching into a pouch he had tied around his waist. I suppose it was then that I realized it was no costume. Why wouldn’t any decent costume designer build in a couple of pockets? And besides, why in God’s name would anyone wear a costume to a blues club, of all places?
“I didn’t ask you for I.D.,” I said, rather nastily. I puffed myself up. I’m a big guy anyway; 6’4” and well over 300. This guy was just a bit taller, but really skinny; I could see that despite the overcoat, and the part of him sticking out behind was all sharp points and angles, like the skin was stretched tightly over nothing but bones. He probably didn’t weigh much more than I did. I could take him.
He held two cards out to me. One was a standard Illinois state ID. I didn’t bother with that one; he looked about thirty. The other was about the size of a business card. It said something like,
The bearer of this card,
serial number 285-33-5988-00EE,
is entitled to freedom from
discrimination based on race, shape or ability
as per the Anti-Defamation Act, Article 29
Of course, I don’t have the serial number or the article number memorized. Something like that, though.
“I ain’t never heard of no Anti-Defamation Act,” I snarled, using my worst grammar and trying to sound evil.
“Check it with your boss, then,” said the guy, looking tired but resigned, as though this were an argument he’d had often. “I’ll bet he has.”
I growled at him just to make sure he knew who was in charge, and went over to the old man. “You ever heard of this?” I said, with proper respect to his greatness.
He looked at it, then took it in one divine hand. “Yeah,” he said after a bit.
“What should I do?” I asked.
“I dunno,” he said, inclining his regal face to me. “I ain’t never seen nobody that was half nag.” Like all bluesmen, when speaking he was a master of understatement. He took a hard knock from his gin and tonic and shrugged. “That boy wanna play?”
“Hey!” I yelled over my shoulder at the guy. “You come to play?”
He just nodded.
He looked puzzled. “Don’t you usually have blues here?”
“No, what instrument?”
He laughed a little and managed to look chagrined. “Oh. Bass.”
I turned back to the old man.
“Never do get enough bass players in here,” he said. “Sign ‘im up.”
I nodded and took the card back over to the guy. “Okay,” I said. “There’s a list over there. You just write down your name and what you play. What is your name, anyway?”
He seemed to mull that one over for a little while. “Does it matter?”
“Well you’re gonna have to have one so John knows what to call you when it’s your turn,” I spat. Something about this guy made me want to be as mean as possible. That would haunt me later.
He shrugged and turned to the check-in counter, moving with that strange muffled clop-clop noise. He seemed to move with some difficulty, but at the time I didn’t know it for what it was. He leaned over and wrote something on the sign-up sheet. I looked over at what he’d written.
“Shy-roan?” I asked, letting a little mocking laugh creep into my voice.
“It’s pronounced ‘Chiron,’” he said, sounding a little miffed.
“’Kee-ron?’” I snorted. “What kinda name is that?”
“It’s Greek,” he said, and walked over to the far corner. I realized what it was about his walk that seemed difficult; despite having four legs, he limped. Badly, in fact. I noticed his right hind leg was held at an odd angle, and he never put weight on it for long. When he stopped, he shifted all his weight in back onto his left side. As he hitched along, I noticed other patrons turning to stare. A few gazed uncomprehendingly, then hurriedly got up and left. The old man won’t like that, I thought.
The guy settled in the far corner and turned around. I noticed that he paid careful attention to what his hindquarters were doing, as though he were afraid he’d knock something over. Also, he kept his tail dead still. You know how horses always swish theirs around a lot, almost absent-mindedly. This guy’s just hung there, as if he knew one untoward whack with it would get him launched into a bar fight he’d probably lose. Like I said, he was really skinny—I could see the shape of his bones underneath the parts the overcoat didn’t cover. And though I guess anybody who was half a horse could do some damage with a well-timed kick, I didn’t think he was physically capable of anything like that. Despite what he was, he sure didn’t look like a fighter.
He turned his case on end in front of him and leaned on it. I watched him watch the crowd for a while, then forgot him. I turned back to look at him once or twice. He could have been a statue for all the movement he made. Once, one of the busboys bumped into him from behind on his bad side, and he staggered a little, but recovered quickly and resumed his former motionlessness. He was pretty boring to watch.
Around midnight, John jumped up on stage as the current group was swinging into a huge ending on their “finale.” John’ll do that—he keeps recycling the groups so everyone gets a chance to play. He lets bass players play through a few groups most of the time, though, just ‘cause there’s so darned few of them. Bass is funny that way. Nobody wants to be the bass player. It looks so boring. You rarely get solos, the lines are all the same, and there’s little glory. But all the bass players I see look like they’re having a good time. Bass players are kinda the black sheep of any music outfit. They’re invisible, but irreplaceable. They bridge that no-man’s-land between drums and guitar, and without them everything just falls apart. Because of this a bass player has to play intuitively. He or she has to know where the music’s gonna go before anyone else does. This takes a rare gift that can’t be learned, or at least no one wants to try. There’s always a bunch of kids taking guitar lessons, ‘cause they wanna be Jimi or Eddie. There’s almost as many kids that want to be drummers, so they’re taking lessons so they’ll sound like Ginger Baker or Neil Peart. Nobody wants to be the bass player, unless they want to be Les Claypool or Flea, and those guys are about as far from blues as you get. Most bass players come to it naturally, building what they know from mishmash of styles. Bass players are almost always born, not made. I think they know that, and it makes some of them a little weird.
Everyone on stage took a little bow or gave a little nod as John introduced.
“Okay,” John said, “let’s give a big hand to everyone on stage. We got Mick on drums—“
A dapper little balding guy in a cool tweed jacket twirled a pair of Vic Firth Jazz 8Ds.
“—and Gogi on bass—“
Gogi came here from Japan three years ago to study cello with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra. He also plays some of the funkiest blues changes I’ve ever heard on a beat-up Fender J-bass.
“—this here’s Randy on guitar, and James on guitar—“
Two average looking schmucks, one with a Telecaster, and the other with a well-distressed Strat, nodded as their names were said.
“—and Mr. G on harmonica. Give ‘em all a big hand.”
A smattering of polite applause, most of it genuine.
“Okay,” John continued, “we’re gonna keep this jam-train a-rollin’ and get some new guys up here. We got Lars, from Finland, on drums—“
A short blond-haired guy with a brilliant smile climbed the short flight of stairs to the stage and sat down behind the big old Mapex seven-piece set.
“—aaaand we’ll get Tony up here to play some guitar, y’all know Tony the bartender here at—“
A wave of hysterical applause drowned John out as Tony, an olive-skinned young guy with aquiline features, came out from behind the bar and jumped up on stage with the ubiquitous Telecaster, this one a sunburst with a white pickguard. He lit a cigarette as he tuned up.
“—And…we got a Henry G. in the house? Okay, we’ll have Henry up here to play some guitar, and Marcus to blow some harp—“
A big guy with a Northwestern T-shirt bulging over huge muscles dwarfed a gold-top Les Paul as he jumped up on stage next to a short fat guy wearing a porkpie hat and taking harp after harp out of a tweed briefcase.
“—and let’s have…er, Chi—um, how d’you say that? Shy—“
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the guy straighten up and laboriously make his way to the stage. Every head turned, except John’s, who was still trying to puzzle out how to pronounce this strange fellow’s strange name.
“—Shy-roan? Is that it?” John squinted at the sign-up sheet; he never wore his glasses on stage. “Let’s have Shy-roan up here to play some bass—“
The place went dead silent as the guy—I know his real name wasn’t Chiron, so I won’t call him that—limped up to the stage. His hooves made bright taps on the hardwood floor, very loud and very obvious, their off-kilter cadence very prominent. Their salience was made even worse by the utter dead stillness of the surroundings. A blues club that’s dead silent? You’ve never experienced anything so creepy.
He made it to the small area to the right of the stage and took his bass out of the case. Most blues bass players use Fender J- or P-basses. A few, like Paul, use Moduluses. This guy pulled out a well-used Washburn 5-string, natural finish. I say well-used because one could see, even from the distance I was at, that there was a big thumb-groove above the neck pickup. For those of you that don’t know basses, what that means is that the player rests his or her thumb atop the pickup closest to the neck, and as they play, his or her thumb wears a hole in the surface of the guitar. It’s a mark of someone who plays a lot. Other than that, I saw nothing out of the ordinary with the guy’s gear, except maybe that a Washburn is not often seen in blues. It’s more used for rock and roll, or perhaps by bassists—the rare few--who play in theater settings.
He took off his overcoat and set it aside. Underneath he was wearing a no-frills white dress shirt—nothing fancy, its casual air made all the more apparent by the fact that he had nothing to tuck it into. As he moved closer to the well-lit stage, I saw that his bottom half was nearly all black—a deep, glossy black with burgundy highlights. The black seemed to end only at one of his back legs, the bad one. That one was black until just above the place where it curved forward again, and then it was white, as though he had on one sock. I’m passing all this detail on because it serves only to reinforce that the guy was real. Even now, almost a year after, I have a hard time believing such a guy—such a person—even existed. Putting it all down here helps to ram it back home.
I didn’t know if he was going to make it up to the stage. I mean, it’s only three steps, but even so it was a near thing. He got his front legs up fine, but with the back ones he’d take each step slowly, one at a time. He’d step up with the good one, and then sort of drag up the other one. It took a while, a time made to seem even longer by the fact that everyone was clearly watching him. He didn’t seem to let it bother him; he just took his time, putting the strap on his bass as he went.
He got to his place in front of the big Trace-Elliot full stack and plugged in. I hoped he was in tune; I hadn’t seen him use a tuner. He stared awhile at the amplifier controls, then finally pushed in the “Mute/Tune” button. Deep rich bass tones filled the stage, becoming staccato as he warmed up with a quick scale. He turned slowly, every once in a while taking that careful glance over his shoulder at what his hindquarters were doing. Satisfied that he wasn’t going to knock anything over, he turned to face the other players, shifted all the weight on his hindquarters to the left side, and waited. Everyone, including me, was still staring at him.
I couldn’t hear any dialogue, but I got it later from Tony that it went something like this. Henry, the big muscley guy in the Northwestern T-shirt, asked something like,
“So, what the hell are you supposed to be?”
“A bass player,” said the guy.
Marcus jumped in before Henry could say anything else, as he so clearly wanted to do. He’s always been a pragmatic kinda guy, is Marcus, bless him. “You know ‘The Stumble’ by Freddie King?”
“Yeah,” said the guy. “I think I remember that one.”
“Oh, Christ,” said Henry. “This is gonna sound horrible.”
“Shut up,” said Marcus. “Well, it starts on the 4. We do it in E, so that’s an—“
“An A; got it,” said the guy.
“Okay,” said Marcus, unfazed. “Well, it starts on the 4, then to the 1, then to the 4, then the 5, then back to the 1. There’s a stop right there, so pay attention. From the one it goes to the 4, then a sharp 4—but only for you, now; we-all gonna be doin’ something else--then a quick turnaround that goes 1-6-2-5-1. You got all that?”
“There ain’t no way he got that,” moaned Henry. “Look at him, Marcus! He probably gotta stomp on the floor just to count to 4.” He swore to himself. “Hell with it; I’ve been in disasters before. This gonna be a circus act, it gonna be a circus act. But hey, boy—“ Henry fixed the guy with a nasty look—“when this over with, you best get on back to the freakshow. Hey you; you speak English?” Henry was addressing Lars, who was, as you will remember, from Finland. I learned later on that he is a studio drummer there, and blues is his passion, so of course he well knew what he was doing.
“Sure do,” he said amicably, without a trace of accent.
“Okay, start us off,” said Henry.
“A-one, a-two, a-one two three…” counted Lars, and off they went. I gave you all that dialogue, that which I got secondhand from Tony, because the general consensus of everyone on stage was that disaster was imminent. I’m telling you, as an experienced blues man, that they sounded great. I had known and played with all the other players before, with the exception of Lars, and I can tell you that they all knew their stuff. That funny half-pony guy dropped right into that groove like he’d been born there. “The Stumble” is a bright happy Freddie King instrumental shuffle, kinda chunky, and the bass usually just rides on the root. The changes can get a little weird if the tune is new to you, and there are no lyrics to cover any mistakes. He didn’t make any—none that I could hear.
They wrapped up “The Stumble” after everyone got a chance for a solo—two or three of them. Then they went into one of Henry’s, a slow blues tune in B with a strange progression in the verse. Sounded great. From there, they went into “Never Make Your Move too Soon,” and from there, “Born Under a Bad Sign.” All reasonably easy tunes, but none of them following the typical 1-4-5 pattern for blues. The guy fielded all of them like he knew them. Maybe he did. But according to Tony, they had had to tell him the key and the basics, and then off they went with no problems.
John pulled them off after one more, a funky R & B thing called “Cadillac Assembly Line.” All the others got off and sat down. John kept the guy up there.
He stayed there for three more groups. I spoke to John later that night. He said that he didn’t have any more bassists on the list, so he kept the guy up there as long as he could. Maybe so and maybe no, but usually when John runs out of bass players, he just puts Paul back up there. I think that John was impressed. This is not totally inconceivable, but just about, considering the sheer volume of people with whom John has played. And it’s not like our strange friend was doing anything fancy; it was only that he got up there and played songs that were supposedly new to him as though he had written them.
In any event, the guy climbed slowly down off the stage, after hesitating and looking around as though for some sort of hand-hold. There was none, so he seemed to just grit his teeth and went down very carefully, dragging his bad leg down each step. He put his bass away and made his laborious way back over to the corner, where he stood and watched as the house band went back up for one final set.
I had pretty much forgotten about him again when John, Marty, Paul and I wrapped it up and got down off the stage to a smattering of applause from the few stragglers—mostly drunk—still in the club. I wasn’t aware that one of the stragglers was our strange friend until I heard John yell, “Hey! Wait up! Hey you—er, Shy-roan, or whatever! Hey!” I looked up to see one white hind leg and a black tail disappear around the corner towards the exit. John jumped off the stage and ran after. I followed.
We caught up to him just outside the door. Again, he looked resigned, as though he wanted to run but couldn’t. With that leg, I could understand why.
“Hey, I was checkin’ your shit out,” said John. “You play good.”
“Thanks,” said the guy. “I like blues a lot. You guys sound great.”
“What’s your name? It isn’t Shyroan, is it.”
The guy glanced at me. I caught a sardonic glint in his eye.
“It’s pronounced ‘Chiron,’” he said, “and no, it’s not my real name.”
“Do you mind telling me what your real name is?”
“Well,” replied the guy, “I think ‘Chiron’ will work for now. Think of it like you would ‘T-Bone’ Walker, or ‘B. B. King.’”
“Fair enough,” said John. “You should come back and play with us again.”
“Maybe I will,” said Chiron. “It’s a nice enough place. Not like some others.”
“You’ve never been here before—I think I’d have recognized you,” said John. “You sound like you been playing for a while. How come we haven’t seen you around?”
Again, he seemed to consider his words very carefully. After a bit, he said, “Well, let’s just say I’ve been recently liberated.”
I couldn’t stand it any longer. I jumped in and promptly put my foot right into my mouth. “Look, I gotta ask,” I blurted. “Just what the hell are you, anyway?”
Out of the corner of my eye, I could catch John burning a killing look into me. Okay, strike one. The guy just gave me a regular ol’ look, all raised eyebrows and half-lidded eyes. “I’m a bass player,” he said, and turned to go. “Be seeing you, maybe.”
He made his limping way down the street, the irregular clop of his footfalls marred by the occasional scraping sound as his weak leg dragged on the sidewalk. We watched until he turned the corner at Wabash and Roosevelt.
John turned to look at me. “Nice going, dickhead,” he said disgustedly. “You can’t tell that the last thing he wants us to worry about is what he looks like?”
“Well, I mean, he—“
“What? He’s different? Hell yeah he’s different. So’s Ray Charles. So’s Itzhak Perlman. You ever heard them play, man? Course you have. They’re gods when they play. You of all people should know that the last thing music has to do with is looks. Blues in particular. Blues belong to everybody.” He thought for a minute. “Even centaurs, I guess.”
I swear that was the first time I had ever heard the word. Yeah, I know it now—Christ, you better believe I know it—but I guess I had never read any of the right books. I’m into John D. MacDonald. Joseph Wambaugh. Stephen King. Shit you can sink your teeth into. I never read C. S. Lewis, or Piers Anthony, or Paul Kidd, or James Kaan. Dungeons and Dragons? The closes I ever got to that stuff was when I was kickin’ the shit out of those geeks out behind the gym when I was in school and I’d come across them after football practice with their funky dice and their books and their notepads. They were different, sure. I let them know with my fists how different they were.
I guess I think a little differently now. And I’m learning—or trying, anyway. Went out the other day and bought a Bullfinch’s Mythology. It was the first non-fiction book, other than harp exercises, I’d ever bought. I learned all about centaurs—but what I learned first I learned from John, that night out there on the sidewalk out in front of the club.
“Even what?” I asked. Like I said, that was the first time I had ever heard the word. It doesn’t surprise me that John would know. A cat as good at music as he is has to be pretty intelligent. He went to college, after all, and even when you’re a music major (or music grad student, as he was), you pick up a lot of seemingly irrelevant knowledge along the way.
“Didn’t you ever read?” he asked. “Anything besides those blood-and-guts cop novels and horror stories you read all the time? He’s a centaur, man. A for-real centaur, right out of classical mythology.” His eyes got a faraway look, and his voice got kinda far-away, too. “My God. I had no idea they were for real.”
“A…a centaur?” I asked.
“Yeah, man—half horse and half human. They were all over the Greek myths. His voice and mannerisms grew more animated as he warmed to the impromptu lesson. “Most of them were drunk scumbags—always rapin’ and pillagin’ and generally being a pain. There was this one battle between a group called the Lapiths and a bunch of centaurs. It went down at a wedding party, if you can dig it—someone brought out some wine and all hell broke loose. Ovid wrote about it in his Metamorphoses. Crazy. Another time, this guy Hercules—you’ve heard of him, right?”
I said I guess I had.
“Well, he’s only Hercules when told by the Romans. He was Herakles first, and he was Greek. And he had this woman—Deianira—and one day they went to cross this river, and a centaur, Nessos, offered to carry Deianira across for Herakles. So he’s cool with it, but Nessos decided to take off with Herakles’ woman. Well, Herakles is supposed to be this incredible archer, so he shoots, and Nessos died cursing Herakles’ name. Nessos got the last word in the end, though.”
I nodded, trying to look interested.
“But there was this one centaur—Chiron. The spelling varies, I guess, but I’ve seen it both times about the same, so—anyway, and he was good. He was everything the other centaurs weren’t—he was intelligent, well-read, kind, reserved—and he taught all—or nearly all—the really big Greek war heroes, like Achilles and Jason and…and…oh, I can’t remember who else. But he taught music and medicine and archery and…well, I guess anybody would want to be like he was. God knows I would. If I had to choose a name, and I looked like that guy tonight does, I guess Chiron’s as good a name as any. Anyway, most of the centaurs in modern literature are modeled after Chiron—they’re scholarly, forthright, honorable—name a adjective that means ‘pretty cool’ and they’re it.”
“Sounds like you like this guy,” I said
“I like how he plays, that’s for sure,” he replied, turning to go on back inside. “I sure don’t care what he looks like, or that he might fall over going up and down the stairs. He plays good, that’s all. And bass players aren’t exactly coming out of the woodwork.”
John pushed the door open, hitting the little bell that hung from the lintel and making it jangle. So John was impressed, and that’s no small feat. On top of that, by some guy that had just walked out of a Dungeons and Dragons game. Okay, so what next? Was a unicorn (okay, I had heard of those before) going to stroll on in some night and sing like James Brown? Dragons who played drums? Harp-blowing elves? A fairy with a Stratocaster or a garden gnome with a Les Paul Jr.? After tonight, I was ready to believe anything.
Well, no unicorns ever showed up, or fairies or orcs or fauns or dryads, but our friend came back a couple months down the road. Same black overcoat, same Washburn bass, same limp—only this time John pronounced his “name” correctly. As a matter of fact, the guy was the first bass player to be called to the stage. Again, with players he didn’t know, playing songs he might never have heard before, and again, he played like a professional. A few ugly moments here and there—a harp player, warming up while the guy made his hesitant and precarious way up the stairs to the stage, turned and gaped at this strange bass-toting amalgam for a while before grabbing his stuff and jumping off the stage and out the door, never to return. Another time, when the joint was really packed, our friend stopped suddenly on his way out and backed up quickly to avoid a busboy—they never watch where they’re going, and they’re always in a hurry—and backed into another guy, making him spill his beer. Could happen to anybody, but the mook holding the beer had all kinds of nasty things to say. “Horse’s ass” was by far the nicest; he had a whole bunch of interesting anatomical references. I tossed that guy out myself. When I turned to make sure all was well with our interesting friend, I found only empty space. I looked at Mandy by the door. She just shook her head. “Just a second ago,” she said apologetically. For a gimpy freak, the guy sure could move quickly and quietly when he wanted to.
He came and went, and those of us who worked there grew kind of accustomed to seeing him. He’d show up a couple of Mondays in a row, then we wouldn’t see him for three or four months. In the winter, he wore his long black overcoat. In the summer, his white dress shirt. One evening his limp was much worse. This was after a stretch of about six months where we hadn’t seen him at all. I asked him where he’d been and responded with one word—“healing.” I couldn’t get any more out of him, so I dropped it.
Of course, a blues club in Chicago is always a major tourist trap, so there were always a lot of little shrieks and gasps and the occasional rapid departure when he walked in or as he made his lopsided way to the stage. But he sure was a good player, no doubt, and all the musicians—the regulars, anyway—grew to respect him, some grudgingly. Some even requested the chance to play with him, when they saw his name on the list, and so the sight of him in his usual position, with his usual air of nonchalance, grew quite common. I got pretty used to seeing him up there, lost in the music, his head hung and gently bobbing in that way that only bass players seem to have, his hindquarters jinked over to the left, and one front knee—whatever you call the front knee on something with four legs—flexing slightly with the beat. He never moved from his spot, and he never got crazy. He just bobbed and jinked and flexed.
Finally one night John kept him onstage for the final set—the one the house band usually covers. The thinking goes, we get up there for the first set, ‘cause we’re good. I mean, any band with John fronting it has got to be good. Just hear him once and you’ll understand. And, like I said, Marty is a professional drummer in every way. There’s nothing Doug can’t do on keys or horn. Paul’s an equally proficient bassist, and I’m not half bad myself. We get up there first, and that’s the hook, to get the crowd into the music. Hopefully they’ll hang around. The last set is the thank you—you all stuck around, and some of these jam groups were good, and some weren’t, but you’re still here, and we appreciate it. If John had asked our strange friend to play the opening set, a lot more eyebrows would have been raised, but as it was, a murmur ran through the regulars when they saw John talking to Paul just before the closing set. Paul just shrugged and sat down. He’s good enough that he doesn’t have to worry about someone taking his spot. But still, kinda strange.
Everyone had stepped down to take a break. I saw our friend with a tall glass of water at the far end of the bar. Everyone else had moved the other way. John walked over and spoke to him. I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but I knew what John was saying, and I could tell from the guy’s face what his answer was. They moved over to the stage.
John walked up the stairs behind the guy. Again, we wondered if he was going to make it. There’d been a few times on the stairs where he’d had to try more than once. He’d drag his bad leg up the next step as far as it would go, but sometimes it wasn’t far enough, and he’d have to try again. I thought once that he was just going to have to reach back there and grab the thing and lift it by hand. But he always made it eventually.
Anyway, we got up there without Paul. It felt weird, that was for sure. But, if you looked out of the corner of your eye at the guy, and you didn’t really look down, he didn’t look all that different from most of the blues bassists I’ve worked with. They all seem to drop into their own little world; their faces go all blank and they even move the same way. The little in-and-out motion of his one front leg looked a lot like the knee-flexing Paul did. The head-bob when the groove was heavy looked just like the head-bob Gogi did. And the neat thing was that he played as well as Paul or Gogi. His chops were a little different. He was more soulful than Gogi, and more technical than Paul, but still just as solid.
We started off with a fast-paced delta rocker called “Rockin’itis.” Nothing too crazy, but the bass has to be pretty tight and buttoned up because everybody else is going nuts. He took it in stride. From there we went to a slow Bobby Bland swingy number called “Blues in the Night.” John took about ten seconds to explain what he could to Chiron, but ten seconds just isn’t enough time to explain everything that goes on in that particular piece. No problem. In fact, he played great, throwing in all kinds of jazzy variations and even muting the strings with his right hand to make that electric Washburn 5-string, about as far from a traditional blues bass as you could get, sound for all the world like a big thumpy doghouse upright bass. I tried not to stare. From there we went to another Freddie King tune, “Pack it Up,” which is really more funk than anything. John called the tune back to me, then turned to the guy. I thought to myself, Okay, I’d like to see John explain this one. Really, “Pack it Up” isn’t some blues tune you could fake easily. It’s got all kinds of crazy changes and stops and really doesn’t follow much of a very evident pattern. You gotta practice that one. John looked at him for a while, then just said, “Pack it Up. It’s in F. Keep up if you can.”
I’d never seen John, a professional blues musician if there ever was one, fly into a tune without making sure his musicians were up to the drill. I was shocked, but John was already starting. I jumped in on the intro, wincing in anticipation of the bass that wasn’t going to be there—but there it was. John hadn’t said anything about centaurs being psychic, but that guy must have been. Either that, or very perceptive to body english, which every musician uses to a degree. I learned later that that was part of it, but not all of it. The guy was right there, nice and punchy, and when the change to the flat 6 came around, there he was, right where he was supposed to be. He made the progression back up to the 1. The next change went to the 4. He went back to the flat 6, and that’s the only mistake I ever heard him make. He played the rest of that tune perfectly, if not flashily.
The last tune we played was “Broke and Hungry,” a fast funky Walter Davis thing where the bass player is always working hard. John quickly showed him the intro and the general progression, and off we went. The bass in that tune is hard and deep, with lots of staccato accents on the octave. The guy pulled it off nice. I thought to myself as we played that “Broke and Hungry” is a nice closer because it gives everyone a solo, and because the bass is so cohesive, the bass solo has lots of room to get crazy. Was John going to give the guy a run? I took my solo, and had a good time with it, drawing deep and bending notes viciously, my amplifier growling nicely the whole time. Worth every cent, that amp. John burned a few on his Gibson ES 347, then, still playing, walked over to the Hammond B3 and, without dropping a measure, pounded out some pure gold on keys. I tried to hide my awe, but when you’re playing with a guy like John, sometimes you just can’t. Marty took a few rounds, his bass drum popping and snarling as he got all kinds of out-of-the-box. Finally, John passed a nod over to the guy.
He moved his left hand way up the neck and started his solo by tickling some neat high melodious stuff out of his bass. Pretty cool. Nothing too fancy, but still decent. He chugged along back down near the bottom, occasionally doing a brief thump-and-pull in the Larry Graham style. He never got real technical, but I’ve heard worse solos out of a bassist.
We wrapped it up in fine style, with a big dramatic pause before pouncing on the final 1, Marty machine-gunning his bass drum to keep up with wildly-flailing cymbals. John was raking his guitar mercilessly, and me drawing so hard I thought I was going to inhale one of my own cheeks. I looked over at the guy. He was working the root. Again, nothing fancy, but solid. John brought the neck of his guitar down in a chop to cut us all off, and we were done. By that time, of course, only the die-hard regulars were left, but they’re die-hard for one reason—John. They applauded wildly. A valiant effort, you bet, but 5 people don’t a screaming mob make.
Climbing down from the stairs, I turned around. The four-legged guy was right behind me.
“You play real good, man. You ever take lessons?”
“No,” he said, and that was it. He started down the stairs. Holding his bass just below the headstock, he took the stairs one at a time. There were only three, so his front legs were just almost on the ground by the time the back ones were starting the stairs. He led with the good leg, putting the bad one down next to it before stepping down to the next riser.
“You okay, man?” I asked. I caught a look at his face just in time to catch a wince.
“Yeah,” he said. “I just hate stairs.”
“Yeah,” I answered. I tried to sound sympathetic. “What happened to your leg?”
“Stairs,” he said, and that was it. He limped slowly away without another word, toward the corner where he’d left his case.
I thought of following, but I realized that I was really supposed to be on the door. The bar was officially closed and it was time to roll the barflys and Latey Nateys out of here. Most went easy, but every night there was one person who was gonna go out the hard way. I didn’t have a chance to talk to our strange friend, who paced lopsidedly out the door about ten minutes later. I was arguing with Levi, a connoisseur of Johnnie Walker who had made the mistake of thinking that closing time didn’t apply to him.
I just saw a flick of tail out of the side of my eye.
I figured he’s spent a few minutes talking to John. I gave Levi the heave-ho and
walked up to John, who was wrapping cords. “That guy talk to you any?” I asked and grabbed an XLR cable.
“Little bit,” said John. “I just asked him where he studied and he told me he taught himself.”
“He sure taught himself well,” I mused, mostly to myself. John overheard me and thought I was talking to him.
“Yeah, he’s really in the pocket.” he said. “The old man was asking about him.”
“The boss?” I asked, incredulous. He’s played with everybody. “What, does he want that dude to play with him?”
“Nah, I don’t think so,” John replied. “He was just asking if I knew anything. Like where he came from, stuff like that. Also said he felt sorry for the guy.”
I could understand that. I’d thought about our strange friend a lot. And I’d decided that, yeah, okay; maybe being a centaur had its benefits. You could run fast, and if someone gave you any shit you could turn around and kick the holy hell out of them. But a lot of drawbacks. People staring. People quicker with their fists than their brains, lashing out. There was always a religious zealot or two ready to ruin your day quoting Scripture and casting you out as some kind of demon. And little things, too. You sure couldn’t use a revolving door, for one thing. And you couldn’t get into a car, either. Maybe a van, and certainly riding the bus wouldn’t be a problem, if the bus driver would even let you on. But I love my Oldsmobile, a ’76 two-door, the last year of the Colonnade body style. It’s got a built 350, Edelbrock intake, Isky high-lift cam, headers, a Turbo Hydramatic 350 with a shift kit, 3-inch straight exhaust, no cats, BF Goodrich raised-white-letter on Olds Super Stock wheels. It’s awesome and I love it, but I’m almost too big for it. A centaur? There’d be no way.
On top of that, whatever had happened to his leg kind of crossed whatever upsides there were right off the list. Our interesting friend had all of the drawbacks and none of the benefits. I felt sorry for him too. He couldn’t even run away when they were coming for him.
We didn’t see him for four months. When he came back it was summertime. We’d had a stretch of hot sticky weather that had broken only the day before, and tonight it was raining. He came in about 20 minutes before the opening set. By now we were used to seeing him and were on friendly terms—well, as friendly as you could get with someone so reclusive and shy. We all greeted him warmly, and he and Paul talked shop for a little while before John buttonholed them both. I saw John slap Paul on the shoulder, who was nodding enthusiastically.
Three-fourths of the way through the opening set, John asked for a round of applause and introduced our strange friend, who was waiting off stage. Paul hit the “Mute/Tune” button on the front of the Trace Elliot bass amp and unplugged, conscientiously leaving the line cord looped over the face for easy access. The guy came onstage from the opposite side, mounting the stairs in his slow way and moving carefully across the stage as he pulled his Washburn over his head. The applause died a little more quickly than I would have liked, but at least no one was booing.
We jumped into “Bright Lights, Big City,” a Jimmy Reed tune in A that bass players--good ones, anyway—like because the bass gets to play the double-stop guitar chords while the guitarist solos. Our guy was right there, playing the chops nice and lazy, just like the record. The pocket was so deep you could have built a house there. I got to take a nice long burn on that one and I didn’t waste the opportunity. It’s funny how good players can make each other play better.
John closed the set with Freddie King’s “Same Old Blues,” a real heartbreaking slow 6/8 in D. It’s tricky because it has stops of differing lengths over an augmented 5-chord. If you’re gonna play this one, you gotta have theory, something not many blues musicians, who rarely get away from 1-4-5 12-bar, have. I’ll say this for our friend: either he was lying when he said he taught himself, or he taught himself a whole lot.
Morning rain keeps on falling
Like the tears that fall from my eyes
As I sit in my room
Staring out at the gloom
It's the rain, it's the same old blues
I can't help, I can't help but thinking
When the sun used to shine on my back door
Now the sun is turned to rain
All my laughter is turned to pain
Yes it's the pain of the same old blues
Sunshine, sunshine is all you see now
But it all, it all looks like clouds to me
When I sit in my room
Staring out at the gloom
It's the rain, it's the same old blues
Yeah, yes it's the rain, it's the same old blues
John killed it; as he always does, howling out the vocals in a desperate, pleading baritone that got raspy as he neared the top of his range. He’s really good, and he used every trick he had that night, dive-bombing the enraptured crowd with deep bends and screeching tone. Listen to a Freddie King tune some time—in fact, listen to that one, “Same Old Blues”--and then imagine someone who sounds just like that—better, in fact-- and you’re three rows away, and maybe you can get a piece of an idea.
Our friend hung right in there, and what a pocket he set up. A bass player who knows how to use space as an instrument is a rare one indeed. Horsie-boy knew just when to let the other instrumentation breathe before tastefully filling back in, and I am telling you, we sounded spectacular. The crowd knew it too. I was afraid that our guest would have quelled some of the reaction, but we actually got a standing ovation. I don’t know if you know what that feels like, and it’s a shame if you don’t because I don’t have words to tell you. What is even better, though, is sharing it with someone who’d never have had the chance to experience it before, and the look on our friend’s face, a face nearly set in stone from a lifetime of forced restraint, restriction, and resolve, was something I’d almost have traded my Oldsmobile for. For the first time, he was smiling. That, my friend (and if you’ve read this all this way, you are certainly my friend), was really something. That was a good gig.
There’s no need to wait around to get called up to the jam when you’ve played with the host band, but after making his usual slow and careful way down the stairs, our buddy went over in the corner and hung around to watch. This time, however, no one went out of their way to avoid him. In fact, some went out of our way to speak to him. I think he might have made a few friends that night. It was a good time for him, I hoped.
If only it could have stayed that way.
He left sometime during our closer. I guess he didn’t want John thinking that he was waiting around to be called up again. He walked by the front of the stage, stopping in front of Paul. He put both hands in front of him, praying style, and bowed over them in a gesture of thanks. Paul did a little hammer-on pull-off in acknowledgement. We were stomping our way through “Sloppy Drunk” and I sketched a little salute his way as I started my solo. I didn’t see him walk through the door.
We finished to applause from the usual five remaining people. I was standing by the door seeing the last of the drunks out. Levi, a regular and consistent campaigner, glided squishily over the threshold and turned right down the street. I was just locking the door when I heard him call my name.
I stuck my head out the door. He was standing at the mouth of the alley that ran behind the building.
“Come on, Levi, what?” I whined. “I ain’t letting you back in.”
“I ain’t wanna come in, muthafucka,” he said, strutting. “I jes’ want you to know they’s someone beating the shit out yo’ nag friend down there.”
I grabbed the police baton we keep behind the counter and lunged out the door. Levi continued his graceful sashay down the block. I reached the mouth of the alley and turned the corner just in time someone kicking someone else who lay sprawling on the rain-soaked bricks.
“Hey! Hey, motherfucker!” I yelled. I hefted the baton and took off down the alley. The mugger saw me coming and knew he had some time. Last I checked, I weighed in at about 350. Speed wasn’t my thing. The mugger knew this. He kicked the centaur in the back just as hard as he could. The lower one, not the upper one. I don’t know much about anatomy, but I sure thought that a hard kick in the spine could paralyze a person. I didn’t want to think about how complicated that could get, so I just concentrated on not tripping over anything.
It looked like he was unconscious. The mugger turned and kicked him in the back of the head, but it looked like maybe he pulled that one a little. The centaur lay half on his left side, one hind leg drawn up close, the bad one stretched out, and I remember thinking that it was a shame he couldn’t have fallen on the other side, protecting it better. It turned out I shouldn’t have worried about that one. The mugger stepped over his head, addressed his front legs, and stomped down on one. Hard. I wasn’t sure if that popping sound I was so sure I heard was the bone breaking. I was yelling by that time.
The mugger looked down, spat. How I would have loved to bust that guy’s skull. How I would have loved that. Instead I got within five yards before he started running. I heaved the baton after him and missed by twenty feet. I saw his face and ended up giving a description to the cops, but so far they haven’t caught anyone. Looks like that asshole is gonna get away with it.
I got down on one knee next to the guy’s head. Blood was running freely from a cut underneath one eye, and the other eye was quickly swelling shut. One lip was split. He was breathing, though. Both sets of ribs moved in tandem. The smooth black hide reflected the bright orange of the sodium arc lamps. He lay on the bricks, his tail in a puddle. I shook him by the shoulder. “Hey, man, c’mon. C’mon, buddy.”
That went on for a few minutes. I was getting ready to run back to the bar and call an ambulance. Would an ambulance even take this guy? How would we get him in it even if they would? I had just gotten to my feet when he coughed.
“All right, all right, man,” I crooned, kneeling again. “That’s it. Come on back, brother.” I put my hand on his arm and shook him gently in what I hoped was a congratulatory way.
“Don’t shake me like that,” he groaned. “Oh, my head.”
“Is your leg broken?” I asked.
“I don’t know,” he said. “Probably.”
“Can you move it?” I asked.
“Right now I am trying to concentrate on not throwing up.”
“Okay. Just lie here. I am going to bring back a blanket and then call an ambulance.” I got to my feet again and started back toward the club.
“No,” he said, flailing about with one hand and catching my ankle. His head still lay on the pavement, but a note of fear had crept into his voice. “No more doctors.”
“Dude, you need to go to the hospital. Your leg is broke. I gotta call the ambulance.”
He lifted his head and looked at me over one shoulder. “I stay out of hospitals. I’ve been poked and prodded and had gloves up my ass since I was small. I’ll be okay. Please don’t call an ambulance.”
“I’ll do like you say, but I think you’re crazy. You probably have a concussion, too.”
He gently put his head back down and closed his eyes. Well, eye. The other was already closed and would be for some time. I said nothing more and just went back to the club to get something to cover him with.
When I got back to him he was propped on his hands and trying to get up. I guess it was hard enough with one leg on the gimp, but with two it just wasn’t happening. Part of the problem was the slick surface. The hoof on his good front leg kept sliding out from underneath.
“Here,” I said. I tossed the blanket on the ground and turned my foot sideways. “Brace it against this and give me your hands.”
He gave me both hands and socked his hoof up against the side of my shoe. “On three.”
His front half came up but, with nothing to brace a hind hoof against, his back end stayed on the ground. I was at a loss, but the brick surface was slightly uneven, and so after casting about for a bit for an edge to wedge against, we tried again. This time he came all the way up. He hissed in breath as he did so, and I began to wonder about his ribs. He sure had a lot of them, and a couple of cowardly bigoted thugs could easily spring one or three.
Before he could go down again I threw his arm over my shoulder. “Just stand here for a minute,” I said. Looking down I saw that he held one foreleg slightly cocked; the hoof touching the ground but not planted. I couldn’t tell if that was a good sign or not.
His head hung; his breathing was ragged. I could see the back of his head; his hair was matted with blood.
“Where’s your bass?” I asked.
“The other guy stole it.”
“What other guy?”
“The other guy,” he said, as if the emphasis explained it. “The one with the baseball bat.”
“They beat you with a baseball bat? Where’d they get you?”
“Oh….here….here….here…” He pointed to at least five different places, three below the waist and two above, one the back of the head. One of them coshed him over the melon and took his bass, and the other stayed around to tune him up a little more. A little over the top, you’d say, and I agree, but like I said, there was something about the guy that just told you to be mean to him. I guess the bastards who had done this picked up on that vibe, and I guess they got him pretty good. I guess he was lucky he wasn’t hurt worse.
He sagged a little. His head drooped farther. I waggled him gently. “You still with me, man?” I asked. He mumbled something in reply. I didn’t get all of it, but I got something that ended with apartment. He wanted to go home.
“Back to your apartment? You sure you don’t want me to call 911, man? You look like you have a head wound. It’s bleeding.”
At the mention of 911 he brightened. Jerked, more like it. God, what could possibly have been done to this guy that, beaten unconscious, in need of stiches and with possibly a broken leg, that could put him off doctors so badly? I mean, I guess in his case there would be a lot doctors would want to investigate, but the more I thought about it, the more I understood where he was coming from.
“No. Please don’t call 911. Thanks for your help. I just need to get back to my apartment is all. Just need to lie down. I’ll be fine.”
“Yeah, well, before you can lie down, you have to get there. Can you walk? Can you even put weight on your leg?”
He tried and couldn’t.
“Can...” I never thought I would say this to another sentient being. “Can you walk on your hind legs, maybe?”
He didn’t answer, and I guess I should have known that wasn’t possible.
“Well, look…if I kind of help out your front end, can your back end take care of itself? I mean, I know you have one bum wheel back there, but can it do the job for a little while?”
His head still hung. He didn’t answer.
“Try walking with me. I’ll hold you up. Let’s take a step.”
I bore up under his arm, my own arm around his back. I pulled forward; he lurched and I heard a clop as he took a step.
Another step. Another clop, then two more as his back legs followed. We made our way slowly out of the alley, me acting like a crutch. It didn’t work well, but it worked.
He came around a little more and was able to give me directions. Down two blocks and over three. There aren’t any garden apartments in the Loop; his building mercifully had an elevator that worked.
Up to the 9th floor. In the elevator he seemed to go out again. I could hold up the front end okay; in college I worked in a paper mill and could buck 150 pound bags off the truck on my shoulder. He weighed a lot more than that but I only had access to half. His hind end started to sag.
His head slumped against my chest. I freed my right hand from his arm and blasted him once across the face. He snapped awake.
“Oh, Jesus, that hurt.”
“Wake up, dammit. Which apartment?”
Mercifully right across the hall from the elevator. We had to wait while he dug out his key. He was with it enough to support his front end on his own while he drunkenly dug in his pack, but his hind end sank down again til he was sitting like a large black dog. He finally located the key and fished it out. He pushed it in the lock and turned it, then pushed it into the deadbolt and turned it. The door swung open on hinges in need of oil.
He swiped a hand under his nose and it came back bloody. He looked at it dully. Finally, and with a resigned sigh, he lifted his head and looked at me with one eye. The other was a faint gleam in a dark slit.
“Thanks, I guess. I’d invite you in, but…”
Of course I’d already seen too much. He didn’t want me to know his real name, for Christ’s sake. Now I knew where he lived. Seeing how he lived would be more than he could handle. I knew that.
“No problem, man. How are you gonna get to the bedroom?”
“I’ll just hold onto the wall.” His hind end came up reluctantly, one leg struggling mightily, the other struggling feebly. He braced himself against the doorjamb and began to hop. He made two and stopped. His head sagged again.
I nodded understandingly. “Hurts, I know. You try to move and it starts up the sledgehammers. A concussion will do that,” I said. I stepped in front of him, back-to. “Hold on to my shoulders.”
This was something else I thought I’d never do; give a centaur the equivalent of a piggy-back ride. But it worked. Down a short hallway and to the left. The bedroom contained a king-size mattress under a brown woolen coverlet, and that was it because the bedroom wasn’t very big. I got him alongside it and he let go. He gave himself a heave and got most of himself onto the bed and collapsed. I guess his body knew he’d made it to the waystation because he was out again by the time he came to a stop.
I let myself out. I couldn’t lock the deadbolt, but I turned the button in the center of the doorknob. I hoped that would be enough, but then there wasn’t much in the apartment that I could see to steal. I didn’t look around, though; just down the hall. I’d seen enough, and more than he would have wanted.
I got back to the club, but the doors were locked. All my stuff, including my keys, were in there. I wasn’t worried; I rarely drove to work and kept a spare key strategically hidden. Luckily I had my wallet with me.
On the bus ride home, I had a chance to look at myself in the garish glow of the fluorescents. Blood was smeared across my shirt. That would have been as he was losing consciousness in the elevator. Of course his nose had been bloody. Of course he was bleeding from assorted other cuts. And, of course, to wake him back up, what had I done? I tried to forget.
In some of my studies (like I said, I did my homework) I had read that the blood of a centaur was supposed to be poisonous to humans. That was from the story of Nessos, who had ran off with Herakles’s girl Deianira and gotten shot. His revenge as he slid off the world by his fingernails was to instruct Deianira to collect some of his blood.
The arrow had pierced Nessos’s back and continued through. He had been leaping as the arrow struck on an upwards angle, and it came out just beneath
his left shoulder. It had pierced his heart and left lung. A perfect shot, but Herakles was legendary for a reason.
Deianira had leapt clear as the centaur staggered; he released his grip on her as he clutched at the arrow. He was trying to scream. What came out was a bubbly gurgling sound. Perhaps the lower set of lungs could have compensated, but Nessos’s upper chest cavity was rapidly filling with blood. He was strangling, drowning. He lay on his side at the south end of a large scar in the earth that marked his landing, trying to turn his face to the flawless blue sky, mud caked in his beard and hair, blood running from the corners of his mouth, his nose.
She got to her feet and walked over to the twitching pile of limbs lying in the muddy grass on the river’s south bank. The River Evenos had been high for most of the season and had shrunk back a bit, leaving soft, newly exposed earth. She sank to her ankles; one of her sandals disappeared. She didn’t notice.
There was fight left yet in the dying thing; she approached him from the west. He couldn’t see her, but he could hear her. One hoof lashed out with surprising strength. He was going, but not easily.
“You fool,” she said. Was she crying? Might have been. “It’s only me.”
His response was another gurgle. Her stomach went into a free-fall.
She stepped daintily over his legs, watching carefully lest she trip. A tricky job; occasionally one would flail briefly. He was going, but not gently.
She knelt by his head. “Why? Why, you idiot?”
He coughed, grinned. “I had to try, that’s all. He’s a good shot, rot him.”
“That try has cost you your life. Perhaps Olympus will smile upon you for your courage, or curse you for your ineptitude. Me; I wish you’d waited.”
His head came out of the mud with a sucking sound. He was going, but not quietly. His eyes were wide, sclerotic. “You do?”
“Guess you’ll never know, will you?” she replied, and that angered him. He wanted to lash out and could not. He was fighting for breath; his ribs
expanded in their labors and his upper chest cried out in agony. The brain was the last to go at the expense of all other systems. He could feel himself dying; already his hind legs lay paralyzed as his body shut down its most distal regions. Soon his forelegs would go, and then his arms. While he still could, he wanted to dish out some punishment of his own. With the last of his strength, he grabbed Deianira’s wrist.
He could still move fast, she thought with dismay. Though his forelegs now moved only weakly, his arms were still strong. Before she could pull away, his hand grabbed her arm. The veins stood out in proud relief, but not for much longer.
“Listen,” he hissed, his voice little more than a gurgling whisper. “Take some of my blood. Get something to hold it in and keep it. You love Herakles, right?”
She said nothing, trying to pull her arm out of his grip. It was fading; the veins that has stood out in such desperate detail were falling away, collapsing as the two hearts within began to stutter.
“Right?” he demanded, giving her wrist a shake with what would be his last movement.
“Of course,” she said, and his head fell back into the mud with thump and a splat.
He prayed to his father one last time: Please…let her not know…
“Then,” he said through lips that were turning blue, staring with eyes that were
losing focus, “keep some without his knowledge. Do it, before he gets here. That river won’t slow him down long.”
“Should his love for you ever falter,” gasped the dying centaur, “pour some of this upon him and his love shall be restored. It’s an aphrodisiac of sorts. He--”
He meant to continue, but his final breath left his body, not as words, but as a faint rush of air—hhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh
The bus hit a pothole and I lost track of my daydream. What the legend—myth—whatever—went on to say is that Deineira did as he advised, collecting some of the creature’s blood in a vial and later pouring it onto Herakles’s cloak. Of course Nessos had been lying, and Herakles had burned in agony.
This looked just like regular ol’ blood to me. Same color and everything. It had soaked through the fabric and must have contacted my skin in at least a couple of places. If I was going to die, so be it. I was pretty wiped out and a little death would have been restful.
I got home, fished out the spare key from the hidey-hole (don’t ask, ‘cause I ain’t sayin’) and let myself in. I cracked open a beer and watched videos of Elmore James on YouTube. I drank beer and smoked cigarettes until I got sleepy, which was about half an hour in. I went to bed and woke up seven hours later, bright noontime light filling the apartment, a half can of Olympia on the desk blotter next to the ashtray. Blood poisonous to humans? Only if it was slow-acting.
I wasn’t due back that evening until 7. I went in at 5 anyway. Nothing to do, and I didn’t want to hang around my apartment thinking. I drink when I think, and I didn’t want to do that either.
No one asked me about our strange friend. In fact, his name wasn’t brought up again until the next Monday night jam. Paul said he was thinking about getting a Washburn because he liked the way our friend’s bass had sounded.
“Check the local pawnshops,” I said, a touch of anger creeping into my voice. “I bet there’s one just like his around town somewhere.”
“What the hell are you talking about, man?” he asked. I told him what had happened. As I neared the end of my story, John walked up and demanded I tell him the whole thing all over again. When I was done, he said nothing for a while. Just looked at the floor.
After a bit he looked up. Not at me, though. His eyes were far away.
Finally, he said, “I’m gonna put the word out. Maybe someone will spot it and we can get it back. If it’s been there for a while, the pawnshop owner would never believe our story, but we can always buy it back. Washburn’s aren’t Gibsons or Fenders, and that one’s really beat up. Maybe we won’t have to spend a lot.”
“I’ll kick some in,” I said.
John nodded and started to walk away. He turned back and asked me if I’d been to visit.
I said I hadn’t. “I got the feeling that he maybe wanted me to leave him alone.”
“Yeah,” John said. “Well, maybe I’ll swing on by.”
“He asked me not to tell anybody where he lives.”
He looked at me with what might have been contempt, were it not for the gleam of wry humor in his eyes. “Come on, man,” he said. “How many centaurs do you know of living in the Loop? Last I checked, there was only one. I bet I can find him if I ask around.”
“Well, if you do find him, give him my best,” I said to John’s retreating back. He moved fast when he was on a mission.
True to his word, John was able to track down our interesting friend within a couple of weeks. I didn’t get a chance to talk to him about it until the next jam, and not until we were wrapping cords at the end.
“So, did you ever find that guy?” I asked.
“You know. Sea-biscuit. Horsie-boy. That half-pony dude. That bass-player with the beat-up Washburn and the hitch in the get-along. Trigger.”
He just looked at me. “Come on. Say it.”
“Jeez,” I whined. “Fine. Sen-tor. Did you find him or not?”
“Yeah, I did. Toldja it wouldn’t be hard.”
“You found him? Really? Did you get a chance to talk to him?” I immediately regretted what I’d said. John probably thought I was an idiot; this would only make it worse. Of course he didn’t talk to the guy, because the guy didn’t really talk to anyone.
“Actually, I did.”
Clank as my jaw hit my belt buckle. I grabbed it and put it back into place so I could talk.
“Really? He okay? Those guys tuned him up pretty good.”
“He seemed to be. I guess he got off lucky with the leg. Coupla cracked ribs, both above and below. They rang his bell pretty good; concussion but no skull fracture. Looked like he was doing okay. I asked about it and he kinda just waved it off.”
“What do you mean, asked? You talked to him?”
“Yep. He let me in, in fact.”
“You got to go in his place?”
“What’s the big deal?” He pulled his long hair back behind his head and secured it with a rubber band. “So did you.”
“Yeah, but I ain’t gonna creep somebody’s place while they’re lying unconscious in the next room,” I said. “I’m an asshole but not that big an asshole.”
“Not quite,” he said and I gave him the finger.
“Seriously, man, what did he tell you?”
“Dude, I got his whole life story. Well, the Cliff’s Notes edition.”
“For real? Spill it! Where’d he come from? He break out of a lab somewhere? How’d he learn to play bass like that? Why’s his leg all messed up?” I went on and on like a hamster on a wheel. John just wrapped cords. “I’ll tell you sometime,” he said. “I gotta get outta here and meet some friends for a late one.”
When John wants to leave, he leaves. But little by little, I got it out of him. It took a while, but that was okay, because it was a while before we saw our friend again.
I heard it all; how he was found out in the woods somewhere as a little baby. How some hiker heard him crying and took him out of there. No parents. No history. No explanation. How he was raised by a veterinarian who had been on the team of scientists accumulated to investigate this strange lifeform. The vet brought him to live with her out in Sycamore, on a big piece of land sheltered from view by a lot of trees. She had him home-schooled, then tried to mainstream him into the local public school. Things went well there; he even made some friends and acted in the school play! Near the end of his first year, though, someone pushed him down a big flight of stairs. I guess he was getting picked on fairly regularly by the same bunch of guys when, one day, they caught him. He made a break for it, but had to go down some stairs and, if you think about it, it makes sense that he had to go slow. Watch your dog or cat doing it sometimes, then imagine someone with that shape doing the same thing. Your head’s way out over your front legs, you’re on the verge of falling on your face. I’d take my time, that’s for sure. One of the thugs caught up to him pretty close to the top and tackled him. He got one leg caught in the banister, not only breaking the bone but dislocating the hip, along with associated soft-tissue and nerve damage.
I heard how, after recovering as much as he was going to, he graduated from a non-traditional school for non-traditional students--kids with physical, learning, or emotional disabilities--and went on to college. After grad school, he supported himself as an online tutor, freelance writer, transcriber (for college students who can’t type) and income from a trust fund set up by his aunt. He moved to Chicago a few years ago, thinking that there’s not much in the big city that could attract much attention. He was hoping to blend in.
And where does the blues come in? John answered that one.
“He told me that he had a lot of down time growing up,” he said. “He was always fascinated with music, partly because the ‘real’ Chiron of all the ancient myths was a teacher of music. But Chiron taught the lyre. Our buddy picked up the bass. His aunt, who raised him, had one—an old P-bass just lying in the closed. Guess it belonged to her ex. He said he just gravitated towards the bass and let it go from there. He also said that he had a lot of time to practice, and played along with records. He did another stint in a lab in his late teens, and got to know one of the janitors. The janitor was a blues man who played bass too, and they talked a lot. That’s who gave him that Washburn. He was really sad to lose that.”
“But…but…how does he know so much?” I demanded. “You tried to faze that guy and couldn’t get him.”
“Two reasons, I think,” he said, taking a sip of Boddington’s Pub Ale. “One is, he’s a good listener. A good player who knows his theory can often predict what a change is gonna be by what the other players are doing. All you gotta do is open your ears up and you’ll notice a lot. And the other thing is…”
“Come on, man. Don’t leave me hanging,” I begged.
“Well, how much did you look around when you were in his place?”
“Not much,” I admitted. “I just got his gimped-up ass on the bed and scrammed.”
I took a knock of my Jack-and. “I didn’t feel right prying into his space.”
“Yeah, well, he showed me his study. Man, it is wall-to-wall and floor-to-ceiling with blues albums. CD’s, cassettes, and vinyl. Do you know how many albums were only released on vinyl? Chess, Black Diamond, MaCoo, and that’s the stuff from the 50’s. This guy’s got a copy of Son House doing ‘Clarksdale Moan’, along with ‘Mississippi Country Farm Blues,’ on Paramount, and that one is a 78. You know how much that one’s worth?
“Couple hundred?” I asked. I thought I knew my stuff.
“Nine thousand,” John said breezily. “This guy knows all these tunes because he has recordings of all of them, and over the years with nothing else to do, he just played.”
That was some story. A lonely story, a story of a lonely person living a life of self-imposed but necessary exile, with not much but the blues to fill the emptiness. A person who knows he’s different; knows he has to hide from everybody, knows that, if he ventures out past the walls of the fortress (prison?) he’s gonna get hurt; but unable to resist the pull that blues has on so many of us.
Apparently, that pull was still too great. We saw him one more time. Last week, in fact. Here he came, same black overcoat, and—miracle of miracles, same beat up bass case. Of course, it’s not the case that’s important; it’s what’s inside. And thanks be to He who holds holy all that thumps, what was inside was what we all had hoped so much to see…a gnarled-out Washburn with a big groove worn into the wood above the neck pickup. Marty had seen it hanging in a pawnshop window on the south side and had bought it back. John had delivered it. He said the guy cried a little. We all took up a collection. It hadn’t cost much.
One front leg was framed in a thin plastic brace. I waited until he had gotten settled in his corner, then sidled up from the side. I elbowed him. He looked around at me.
“Hey,” he said. His face lit again in that smile. “Thanks for…well, thanks.”
“Well, you looked pretty rough. I mean, barely conscious and all. I was trying to get you to go to the hospital.”
“I avoid them if I can.” He shifted around a bit. “Besides, I’ve had worse than that.”
“You have?” I asked. I didn’t mean for my voice to sound as incredulous as it did.
“Sure.” He shrugged. “I’ll recover from this one.” He looked back and down at his bad leg. “Guess you heard about that one.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Someone jumped you on some stairs? Something like that?”
“Something like that. I always sucked at stairs. Up is no problem, but down is always spooky. I gotta hold on to something and go slow. I guess they knew that and picked their spot.”
“Yeah,” I said. “Sounded nasty.”
“Thankfully, that was the worst it’s ever been. Usually it’s name calling or people throwing things. I don’t walk along roads that have ditches anymore because people have a way of making me dive into them. I guess I’m allergic to pickup trucks because it’s usually those that are doing it.”
“And you choose not to fight?” I asked.
“Yes.” He looked at me fixedly. “I choose not to fight.
“Anyway,” he went on, “thanks.”
“No problem, brother,” I said. “Glad to see you up and around. I was sure your other leg was broke. That would have sucked. ” I looked down. “They’re both on the same side.”
“Yeah,” he agreed. “Got lucky.”
“So then what was that popping sound I heard when he stomped on you?”
“Cartilage in my knee,” he said. “A minor tear, I guess. It swelled up pretty good for a few days. Once my head stopped aching, I could hop around okay. I could put some weight on it after the third day. By the fifth the swelling was down.”
“Does it hurt?”
“Only if I tweak it the wrong way. That’s what the knee brace is for.”
“Hey, I been meaning to ask you that. Is that what you call that? A knee? What do you call it on a horse?”
“I wouldn’t know,” he said. The grin again, but this time with a wry twist. “I’m not a horse.”
“Yeah, I know that.” John was giving us the let’s-go wave. “Time to hit,” I said. You get your name on the sign-up list?”
“Nah,” he said. “I don’t mind listening.”
And he stayed in his corner all night. He wasn’t on the list, so John didn’t call him. As the second-to-last jam group was getting rolling, however, John made his way over to that corner. They talked for a good long bit. Our interesting friend nodded once or twice.
As the five or six guys on stage were wrapping up the folding, spindling and mutilation of Howlin’ Wolf’s “Cause of it All.” John bounded up the stairs. He introduced everybody playing. I recognized some of the names; good players who happened to get into a group that never quite got it out of first gear. That happens sometimes. You take what life gives you, and you play with who you play with, and you make of it what you can. Sometimes it’s more than it should be. Sometimes, no matter how hard you try to make it fly, it just won’t. You just gotta have faith that the next jam will be better.
John was calling us back to the stage. Everyone present and accounted for except for Paul. I looked around and saw him back in the corner, talking to our interesting friend. Paul made a come-on gesture with his head, and they both started over, Paul speaking with his hands as much as with his mouth, as he does. They got to the foot of the stairs and I saw Paul take out a coin.
By this time I could hear them. “Heads,” called the centaur, and Paul grabbed the spinning quarter out of the air and slapped it down onto the back of his other hand. “Heads,” he grumbled good-naturedly. “All yours, my man.” He swept an arm towards the stage.
Horsie-boy was almost too excited to get his bass out of the case, and, after getting up the stairs, did his best to hustle across the stage. It was the first time I had seen him hurry, and I noticed as he did so that he just left the bad leg out of the equation and hopped over on three. I also noticed his hands were shaking as he plugged into the tuner for quick double-check. By this time John’s foot was tapping. There were, as usual, only a handful of people in the club by this time. John was just anxious to play.
We all got settled and ready, and then jumped down hard onto the intro of “Champagne and Reefer,” a Muddy Waters tune where the guitar is doing some vicious pull-offs. I liked playing the part of Little Walter and blew some aural sex underneath the vocals, saving my best licks for my solo. I glanced over at Sea-Biscuit, who was bobbing and jinking and flexing just like always. He was working the root again and was locked into Marty’s right foot like they were married. He made that rhythm section nice and tight. The dark green plastic of the brace he wore caught the garish glare of the stage lights.
Yeah bring me champagne when I'm thirsty
Bring me reefer when I wants to get high
Yeah bring me champagne when I'm thirsty
Bring me reefer when I wants to get high
Well you know when I'm lonely
Bring my woman set her right down here by my side
John tickled his way through a solo then turned Doug loose on the B3. He does nice work. He took 24 bars and handed it back to John.
Well you know there should be no law
On people that want to smoke a little dope
Well you know there should be no law
On people that want to smoke a little dope
Well you know it's good for your head
And it relax your body don't you know
John stepped back from the microphone and looked at me sideways. I stomped on the overdrive button and gave her the beans, catching one or two approving nods from people on the floor as well as from people on stage. It’s always nice to feel appreciated. I burned a couple of times around, then I made eye contact with John and drew my right hand across my throat in a slash. I was done. We did the turnaround and John took a deep breath.
Everytime I get high
I lay my head down on my baby's breast
Well you know I lay down be quiet
Tryin' to take my rest
Well you know she done hug and kiss me
Says Muddy your one man that I love the best
I'm gonna get high
Gonna get high just as sure as you know my name
Y'know I'm gonna get so high this morning
It's going to be a cryin' shame
Well you know I'm gonna stick with my reefer
Ain't gonna be messin' round with no cocaine
We all pounced on the last syllable, then swung into the outro. Nice and traditional…sharp 1, 1. I was bending over my amplifier and messing with the treble when I heard a thumping, as of footsteps. I realized that hooves weren’t going to make clip-clop noises on the carpeted surface of the stage, and realized a second later that our friend was making his way over to John.
He bent down a little to whisper in John’s ear. John brightened and said, “Yeah, we know that one. You wanna sing it?”
John backed up. The centaur approached the mic, his upper body turned slightly perpendicular to the lower half. Had he stood directly in line with the mic stand, his hind legs would be pretty close to the drums, and he seemed to sense that we liked space.
John counted us in to a tune by Tony Joe White called “Rainy Night in Georiga.” We landed on the down beat, a slow 4/4 cadence in D that alternated with the minor 7 chord. Twice around, and I saw Secretariat look away from the mic and clear his throat briefly. Both sets of ribs swelled as he took a breath. He delivered lyrics in a smooth tenor, not what I would have expected to hear coming out of that body. Yet there it was.
Hoverin' by my suitcase
Tryin' to find a warm place to spend the night
Heavy rain a-fallin'
Seems I hear your voice callin', it's all right
Well it’s a rainy night in Georgia
A rainy night in Georgia
Oh, it is rainin' all over the world
I feel it’s rainin’ all over the world
Neon signs a-flashin'
Taxicabs and buses passin' through the night
The distant moanin' of a train
Seems to play a sad refrain to the night
Well it’s a rainy night in Georgia
A rainy night in Georgia
Lord, it's rainin' all over the world
I feel it’s rainin’ all over the world
We jumped back down to the minor 7 chord as we swung into the bridge.
How many times I wondered
But it still comes out the same
No matter how you look at it or think of it
You just got to do your own thing
John and Doug doubled each other on the solo over the bridge form. Then back to the verse, and we pulled it back to let it breathe, let the air get in there.
I find me a place in a boxcar
Take out my old guitar to pass some time
Late at night when it's hard to rest
I hold your picture to my chest and I'm all right
But it's rainin' down Georgia
Such a cold, old lonesome night in Georgia
I feel like it’s raining all over the world
Sometimes y'all it just rains
We pulled up into a nice big ritard, coming up from the minor-2 to the 4, and back down to the 1, John adding a nice 2nd in there for color.
There was lusty applause, not only from the 10 or so people left, but from the bartenders, and the guy watching the door for me while I was onstage. John was grinning. Our friend had a shy smile on his face and was moving carefully back towards the bass amp, trying to walk backwards and not knock anything over. I was watching him when I heard a small chorus of gasps from the corner of the bar. The corner where the owner and resident divine leader himself usually sat.
A small figure wearing a porkpie hat came to the stage and climbed the stairs. I’d played with his holiness before once or twice, and it was never an announced thing when he decided to sit in with the house band. Once it was during the opening set, once during the closing. It took me weeks to come down from the high the first time, and almost that long the second time. Here he was again, pulling his Stratocaster over his head. He looked at me as he walked regally to the vocal mic.
“Happenin, killer?” he asked. He slapped John on the shoulder and nodded at Marty and Doug. A sound technician was almost falling all over himself to get to the stage so His Royalness wouldn’t have to plug in his own ax.
He struck a couple of chords for a brief sound check, and my eardrums cringed. His Perfectness always liked it a little (a lot) louder than the average world-renowned Grammy-winning blues artist.
“I love this band, you know?” he told the crowd genially. “And I been watchin our guest all night, and I decided I didn’t want to pass up this chance.”
He looked back at us, then beckoned to the centaur. ‘Chiron’ sidled over slowly, looking as though he wanted to faint, vomit, and run all at the same time. His Emphatic Bluesomeness threw an arm over his shoulder.
“I believe the blues is for everybody. We all got the right to enjoy it, and we all got the right to play it. And I have played it all over the world.
“I have always loved the fact that people know blues wherever I go,” he went on. “You can go to any country and everybody understands. Blues don’t need no translator. And when I am gone and done, I want to be able to say that I have played without regard to race, creed, character—and now, shape. If you like the blues then you are my friend. That ain’t need no conditions. And now, I can tell the world that I have played with a centaur. And he sound pretty damn fine.”
He looked back at Marty. “’Damn Right I Got the Blues.’ Count it off, Marty my man.”
And that is the story of how a centaur, a creature supposedly out of a mythology book, came to our club and laid down the bottom. And while he was doing it, he showed us a thing or two about ourselves, and about what appearances, misconceptions, and prejudice have to do with what a person is really like on the inside, when compared to what they look like on the outside. And of course, that would be nothing at all.
I hope we see him again. If we don’t, I hope he’s still out there playing blues with somebody. Good bass players are hard to find.
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