Low life

If all else fails, there’s always basket weaving

8 May 2021

9:00 AM

8 May 2021

9:00 AM

The only thing left for me now is to embrace humility and take up basket weaving. In our dog and ferret club in the 1990s we had a ferret guy called Ron. Ron was an old sweat Royal Marine and he applied Royal Marine levels of commitment and organisation to our dog and ferret shows, as a strategy, I think, in his battle against the bottle. In the Royal Marines, he told me, anyone suspected of alcoholism was sent on a basket-weaving course. All his ferret cages were hand woven and I went to his house once and his TVTimes had a beautiful basketwork cover.

Or the harmonica. I’ve lately made a serious start to learning to play licks on the blues harmonica. It is harder than it looks and I’m beginning to wonder if I’ll be around long enough to master even the simplest Sonny Terry or Magic Dick harmonica lick. I began a month ago by watching tutorials by harmonica virtuoso Adam Gussow. Typically the tutorial begins with Adam Gussow sitting in an austere room that’s probably never been smoked in and harping an inspiring but mind-bogglingly complicated blues riff, which is the fruition of 25 years’ solid practice and live gigging and possibly an iron-willed abstention from self-abuse. The lesson then consists of him breaking the riff down into sections and telling you which holes and when to suck or blow.

But even spelled out as patiently as this I find it impossible to make a melodic noise. I can get the right hole easily enough. There are ten and of those you might use only four. But I don’t have that fleetness of thought required for knowing when to suck and when to blow.

There is more sucking than blowing with the blues harmonica. And some of the sucking involves not only the mouth but the throat, lungs, diaphragm, abdomen and soles of the feet and I’m black in the face before the end of the first bar. And just when I couldn’t feel more demoralised, Mr Gussow might say something like, ‘The blues: you either have it or you don’t. If you haven’t, you can still master blues harmonica with dedication. But to really play it you must feel the blues in your body and soul.’

So by this stage of the lesson I am convinced that I haven’t got the blues and that I’m wasting my time. To verify this sad state of affairs, I searched YouTube for clips of harmonica beginners showing what they can do after four or six months’ practice. There are a surprising number of these videos. Many appear to be single men in bedsit or sheltered accommodation who have taken up the harmonica at the suggestion of their drug/alcohol key worker. Perhaps they have also arrived at a place where the only thing left to them is humility and a Hohner Blues Harp in the key of C.

You look at the interior decoration of their room — often 1960s sitcom. Anyway a sort of polar opposite to the Prime Minister’s elitist psychedelia. (Poor Boris. Nobody likes him but the people.) You look at the talent and wonder how long since he last had a drink. He stubs out his fag and speaks. He’s been learning the harp for six months, he says. He reaches out to adjust a knob on his amplifier and cups the microphone to the harmonica. The backing track kicks in. If this bloke ain’t got the blues, you think to yourself, then who has?

As he starts to play you notice three things. One is that he’s still a beginner. Two is that the gulf between the enjoyment he gets from playing the harmonica and mine from listening to him is psychotically wide. And three is that an electrified harmonica sound is not necessarily electrifying. On the other hand, however, you can also watch other videos of electrified, broken-down old men in semi-dark rooms who will absolutely blow you away with the sound they make through a blues harmonica. It is these chaps who drive me back reinvigorated to my Blues Harmonica For Idiots handbook and the notation for ‘Silent Night’.

So far I have resisted the temptation to substitute practice for a vintage microphone and a vintage valve practice amplifier with a ‘delay’ switch for that ‘dirty’ Chicago blues sound which is the Holy Grail of most beginner harmonica players, of whom I am one. What I have instead is a bathroom hewn out of solid rock and tiled. After the demoralisation of watching Adam Gussow’s virtuosity, I go down here and sit on the lavatory seat and practise simple two-note riffs.

My new, simplified ambition is to learn to play Ron ‘Pigpen’ McKernan’s 30-second harp interlude on the Grateful Dead’s live version of ‘Big Boss Man’. Failing that, I might think about taking up basket weaving.

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