Once Upon An Upright
I'm with Mae regarding musical instruments. As my pal Howlin' Hobbit once observed, "Some people have paintings and photos and posters on their walls. Thaddeus has guitars." A base canard, that — they aren't all guitars. I've never met a sound-making device I didn't want to mess with and/or compose for, up to and including mainframe CPU's and chainsaws (my ballet Les Sacre du Tronçonneuse is up for a Grammy nomination in "Best New Work On A Nontraditional Instrument"). And one of the chief objects of my unwholesome lust has always been the upright bass.
Because, face it, upright is The. Coolest. Instrument. Ever. Just as you can have a marching band with a tuba and a kid with a kazoo, you can have cool with a bass and, well, nothing. But not without it. Try it: set up your sexy sock cymbal, your susurrant brush snare, your plangent piano and Harmon-muted trumpet and smokey saxophone and crooning vocalist in skintight sequins. Go ahead. I'll wait. No cool. Now, clear the stage (wait, tell that vocalist to stick around...) and bring on the bass. Cooooooool.
And ten times the cool of hearing and seeing a bass is the cool of actually playing one yourself. One plucked note and you're instantly transformed into an awesome combination of James Joyce, Marlon Brando, Pablo Picasso and Barack Obama. Which is to say, Paul Chambers, Ron Carter or Charles Mingus, to name but three. The bass player is the heart, the bones, the brains and the guts of the music, the crossroads where rhythm, harmony, pulse, arrangement and drive intersect.
Then there's the not insignificant factor that bass players work. The old bluegrass joke has the picker teaching his idiot son three notes and telling him he'd get another lesson later, only to be told later that the kid couldn't make it because he had a gig. It would seem that if there's any job security in the music biz, basses have it and trombones get bupkis. Bup. Kis. Guess which instrument I want to play.
But there's a small, insignificant detail: to play the standup bass, you have to have a standup bass. Not being possessed myself of a particular simple life, it was many and many a weary year before I was planted and rooted enough to consider even borrowing one from a friend. Luckily, at that point I was moderately affluent from a recent refi, because within two weeks of receiving the borrowed bass, and having just reached a fevered pitch of practice praxis, it fell over one groggy morning (I never touched it! I swear I never touched it!) and busted the neck. $350 later I concluded that the upright bass was a 6'3" crystal vase in disguise and foreswore its pursuit on purely fiduciary grounds.
A year or two after the Curious Incident Of the Busted Bass In The Night I picked up a used guitarron at the local Guitar Barn, a striking, surprisingly full-sounding instrument that in size, weight and portability escorted standup back to the snooty jazz club from whence it came. Delighted to finally possess a useable lowboy, I was content. Life was good.
And then the donkey got sick.
My friend lives on a six acre ranch in the San Juans with dogs and cats and also donkeys, and wouldn't you know it, one of them got sick right in the poorest days of autumn. Needing a vet, he called me as a semi-knowledgeable musician friend to determine what his vintage yard-sale Kay was worth. Unable to resist Demon Temptation, I offered all I could afford, though less than it was theoretically worth. He took it, telling me that he'd rather I had it than anyone else. Buying his bass and saving his ass (bar har), I was once again in the realm of delusion, practicing scales until my hand trembled and imagining empire, or at least gainful employment. Never mind the floorspace it usurped, never mind that I needed to buy a bow, who cares if the soundpost needs resetting or the tailpin sticks? It's a bass. A bass.
But (and you just knew there was going to be a but, didn't you? Sure you did), fate and my body intervened. About twelve years ago I tore a muscle in my left shoulder doing construction and developed a pinched ulnar nerve that deprived me of sleep, work and even guitar playing for several weeks until ice and ibuprofen talked it down. My doctor prescribed stretching exercises which helped keep it from returning, and I became more recondite about manual labor. But a week into practicing, the same old feeling started creeping back into my back and crawling down my arm. I tried to pretend it was something else, sleeping funny or heavy lifting. But when I stopped practicing upright, it went away. And when I started up again, so did it. So much for my fabulous career as the foundation of acoustic music.
Happily, or at least less grievously, I've found a worthy recipient for the instrument, one who is both an active musician and penurious enough to deserve the Remarkably Affordable Bass Award. My shoulder is much better, thank you, I've resigned myself to living this life as a guitarron honcho, and once it's gone I'll be relieved of the temptation, every time I pass the instrument, to try just once more. Oh upright bass, why can't I quit you?