I started hounding Nick and Ryan via email about where I could stay once I got back to Garrison Valley. I told them I was coming back soon, although I didn't give them any specifics. I also didn't tell them that I had started taking bass lessons from Knelson.
In the meantime, it felt really good to establish a new routine. Instead of the schedule I had during the school year, which focused on beer, coffee and staying up all night, the new day-plan I set up was tailored to whip my soft ass back into shape.
I started getting up at eight o'clock every morning. My parents both left shortly before the hour, so I had the house to myself. I would get up, eat breakfast, check my email, and then head downstairs.
In the basement was the set of weights I used when I was in high school, and I hit them hard. I went all upper body: arms, shoulders, chest and back, plus a ton of crunches to get my gut back in shape. I brought down the stereo from the living room each morning and blasted the CDs that Jasmine had burned for me, and then took the stereo back upstairs when I was finished.
After a quick shower, I would eat some sandwiches and then strap my bass over my shoulders for the thirty kilometer bike ride to Snow Lake, the town where Knelson worked in his second-hand store.
On Monday, the first time I made the ride, the ride took an hour and left me completely destroyed. My leg muscles felt ripped to shreds on the return trip, and I felt wobbly just walking around the house that night. Wednesday was the worst-- the ride there took an hour and a half and it took almost two hours to get back home. But by Friday I was turning the corner; the rides started getting shorter again instead of longer. My muscles were recovering and I was able to push and accelerate without making whimpering noises.
I knew I was getting in shape, and that was great, but what was really amazing was talking and playing with Knelson. The guy was forty-five and had been playing guitar and bass since he was seventeen. He'd been in a dozen bands that he could recall, and had played all over North America. His peak had come in the late 90s when he played bass with David Coverdale for a club tour of the States. He had a thousand stories, but he wasn't a dick about going on and on about his past. He just loved music, and loved talking about it.
Typically when I arrived, Knleson would invite me out to the back of his shop to smoke a joint. Since my lungs would be almost hanging out of my mouth from the ride, I didn't smoke with him. Besides, it didn't seem to fit with my new fitness regimen. Then we would head back in and start jamming.
Looking back, he wasn't showing me wild, crazy, out of the ordinary stuff on the bass. He was teaching me the songs that different cover bands he'd been in had played; routine stuff like Bob Marley, Pink Floyd, The Stones, or The Beatles. It was all stuff you'd hear on the radio or in TV commercials. But here's the trick: he wasn't trying to teach me songs so I would know them start to finish. He was trying to teach me the concept of the riff, so I would understand the possibilities of the instrument I was playing.
His store was dead. I have no idea how he made a living keeping it open, but since he was gigging small towns across Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba with his band Crankshaft every single weekend, it's possible he didn't make any money on it at all. It may have just been something to do. We had all the time in the world to sit there and play, and sometimes we would play for more than three hours.
On the Friday afternoon of the first week, I showed up and we played for about an hour. He was in a goofy mood, and after taking a break to smoke a cannon of a joint, he picked an electric guitar off the display on the wall. He found a guitar amp and plugged it in.
You can do anything, my man, he said, sitting down. He started tuning the cheap looking little guitar. He was completely stoned, but he had that guitar humming and sounding great in no time. He was one of those guys who just had so much talent and experience that no matter how shitty an instrument he was playing, he could make it sound fantastic.
He loaded a CD into the stereo next to him, smiled, and said Check this shit out. A song started, and I heard a rapper start doing his thing. It was Jay-Z, and the song was 99 Problems. There was a repeated guitar line, probably sampled, that just went bum-bonnnnng, but other than that, I couldn't hear any instruments. And except for just repeating that one guitar line, I couldn't see what we were going to do with it.
This is Rick Rubin shit, man, Knelson said. You know Rubin, he did like, Slayer, but he also did rap stuff. He's one of the best producers ever, man. I read him say something once that was like, I don't know anything about music. I just know about balance.' That's deep, isn't it? That's the key to music, man. It's balance. That's how he can produce a thrash metal band, then go do hip hop.
He started jamming along with the simple riff on the CD, throwing in his own improvisations. It doesn't matter if it's rap, or what. If you understand your instrument, you can play along with anything. You ever here of The Gourds? I shrugged, and he continued. Nah, I can understand that. They don't play radio stuff, you know? They're like, alternative country, or some shit like that. Hard band to pigeon-hole with a genre, you know?
Anyway, these cats are from Texas, The Gourds, and they did this country music cover of Gin and Juice' from Snoop Dogg. That's f--ked, right? Like this real countrified version of this old rap song, and it kicks ass. It just goes to show, if you're a good player and you've got a good song, you can do anything with it.
I could see the pot was hitting him hard. His eyes were red, and he was starting to rant.
The Gourds, man, he went on, are incredible. Now I'm not a country fan. I live out here in the goddamn boonies because my folks are here. Dad has emphysema, and that's serious shit. I wouldn't want to be in Vancouver or somewhere far away while he's here all sick, you know? But playing all these small towns, I have to know a lot of f--king country songs, like, new shit and stuff from way back, and I couldn't give two shits about it. Don't get me wrong; a good song is a good song, but it's boring, you know? But The Gourds? Let me tell you about The Gourds.
I just nodded and smiled. He was going now, and there was no stopping him. Damn pot-heads.
I had the good fortune to catch The Gourds playing an Irish pub called O'Hanlon's in Regina a few years ago. I was absolutely trashed that night. I joined the Guinness club, you know what that is? It's when you drink eight pints of Guinness in a single sitting. Ask the owner, Nile, about joining the club. The catch is that you either have to puke before you go to bed, or you end up having Guinness shits in the morning, which is scary, because it's pure black. There's not a hint of brown in your shit, and there's something really unnatural about it. Like, unwholesome.
Anyway, I was pissed out of my tree and this band gets up there. Big band. They start playing their country shit, and it's a situation where you don't really dig the genre, but you can just recognize the skill, you know? And they had this bass player. I think his name is Jimmy. Big beard on him, missing a few teeth. Anyway, and I'm not going to exaggerate at all here: he was the best goddamn bass player I've ever seen.
This goddamn guy Jimmy, well shit, I can't even explain the way he played. He was up and down the neck of that bass. There was no straight riff, like a time-keeper, depth instrument the way bass usually is. His bass didn't fit into the structure of the songs the way bass usually does in a band. Shit, it's so hard to explain, because this guy was worlds beyond me.
Knelson laughed. I couldn't believe this f--king guy, so I waited around until after their gig ended, got another pint a Guinness for myself and I walked up to him and put a pint of Rickard's in his hand and just said, You are not a natural bass player, are you?'
He took a sip of that pint and started telling me this incredible long damn story about doing a degree in jazz piano. Jazz f--king piano, can you believe that? He tells this long story about doing this degree and feeling it at the beginning and becoming a technical master, but eventually starting to grow disillusioned, like there's so much more music out there to play, right?
Now, memory fails me because I had so much to drink that night, and I can't remember if he was going for his Bachelor's or Master's, but he had to go up for this big final examination, with like, all these jazz heavyweights there to watch him play. He gets up, does his thing, and at the end, one of them tells him that from a technical viewpoint, he's there. But then the guy asks him if his heart is in jazz, because somehow, he could feel in the way Jimmy played that he wasn't living with like, jazz in his soul. Do you believe this shit?
Anyway, Jimmy says, yeah, you're right, jazz isn't in my soul. I want to do something else. So he quits piano. Boom. F--k piano, just like that. And he picks up bass. And instead of jazz piano, he finds himself playing rag-and-bone country. It's incredible!
That's amazing, I said. Did he get his degree?
Knelson stopped playing and stared into space for a moment. I can't remember. It doesn't matter. Anyway, he understood music and he understood his instrument, so he could play whatever he wanted, in any style he wanted. Jazz or country, doesn't matter. That's what I'm talking about. Listen to this shit. He reached over and turned up the stereo.
Jay-Z was just finishing the song. It was big beats: boom-boom-bam, and Jigga doing his thing. It wasn't bad. I couldn't give a f--k about hip hop, but it was a good sound. I guess Knelson was right. It was all about balance. If the song had good balance, it could sound good to any ear. A good song is a good song.
The track finished and Knelson stopped the CD. He started strumming the riff. Play along, he instructed.
What should I play?
Whatever sounds right.
I smiled and started stabbing at random notes, trying to grab something in the right key. I found a few notes and crafted a bass line that followed what he was doing. It worked all right, and he nodded, smiled, and suddenly we were jamming, playing off each other and Knelson started rapping, I got the rap patrol on the gat patrol, foes that wanna make sure my casket's closed...
We played it through, with Knelson playing and rapping the whole way. It sounded nothing like Jay-Z's original version. What did it sound like? Stripped down eighties rock with clumsy rapping, I guess. It was fun as hell for me, and it serves to illustrate my point about jamming with Knelson: he was a bald relic of the hair metal era, but he was also like Yoda, teaching me deeper lessons with each song he made me play.
And each night I would get home with burning leg muscles, so exhausted I could barely sit up during my awkward dinners with Mom and Dad, but eager to get back to my room where I could sit and try to work out some actual songs. I was writing all these horrible lyrics, goofy crap about Jasmine and Sash, or political stuff that I'd learned in Dr. Klein's Economics class. It was all shit, but it felt good to be making stuff up every night.
That night, around midnight, the phone started ringing. The whole house was asleep. Mom had a phone on her nightstand, and she started calling down the hall in a bitter voice: Eric, it's for you.
I got up and stumbled to the kitchen. I picked it up and heard Ryan, my erstwhile guitarist, pissed out of his tree and screaming, Dude, we've got a plan! You there, Eric? We've got a plan, man.
2009, Nolan Whyte