An Old Friend Comes Home

October 4, 2012

Good Friday, 1968: I wouldn’t turn 15 for five months and was still too young to drive a car, so my mom took me to down Caruso Music in New London, CT. For as long as I’d been interested in playing bass, I’d lusted after a Fender Jazz Bass, with its long slim neck, contoured body and unmistakable headstock. I had saved every cent from mowing lawns and odd jobs and I was carrying exactly what I needed to buy the bass: $225 cash. In fact, I was so anxious to get the bass that I’d decided to buy it with a gig bag instead of saving up for a hard shell case.


Caruso’s was legendary in southern New England. Everything in the store was always 40% off and you paid cash. There simply was no better deal on musical equipment anywhere else in the region. The store itself was on Bank Street and you’d miss it if you drove by quickly. The store front could not have been 20 feet across and looked more like a thrift store than the a bustling music store. As I recall there was only one person working in the store that day: ‘Old Man Caruso’ as we called him. Middle-aged with curly grey hair around a bald head, and a face that always seemed to be smiling. The store had almost nothing on display. Instead there were boxes stacked floor-to-ceiling, front-to-back in the store. You walk in, tell Mr. Caruso what you wanted, he’d go back and pull it out, you’d hand him the money and off you went. It did help to call ahead to make sure he had what you wanted, and if he didn’t have it, he’d order it for you.


I’d called ahead, so Mr. Caruso was expecting me. I walked in with my mom, not a prim and proper lady by any stretch—especially with four boys and especially married to my dad. But little did I know that ‘Old Man Caruso’ was fond of using ‘colorful’ language. Here it was Good Friday, and this guy was sounding more like a trucker than the owner of the best music store in the world. My mom just sort of turned red silently. He brought out my bass in a hard-shell case and I told him I’d only brought enough for the gig bag. That just set off another colorful barrage—all with a big grin on his face. He simply would not let me buy the bass without a hard-shell case. In the end, he threw the case in for free—something that should have cost me another fifty bucks or so.  (Years later I would write him a letter of gratitude after my college girlfriend accidentally backed over the bass with her AMC Gremlin—Not a scratch thanks to the hard-shell case!)


The Jazz Bass was as good or better than advertised. I’d only been playing for a few years and my abilities skyrocketed with a top notch instrument in my hands. My family could not get their heads around me playing bass, so the first thing I did was to move up to the attic of our house where my dad had built a small study under the sloping roof. I moved a tiny roll-away bed into the room, borrowed the family’s old mono record player and I had a place where I could retreat and play with no one around. I put on stacks of vinyl and played along, listening and copying every bass riff I could glean from the scratchy recordings of musicians like Hendrix, Cream, and Jeff Beck. My dad had installed acoustic tile on the ceiling of the room that got dented and dinged from the big wind-up-toy tuning pegs on the Jazz Bass. My poor family must have been going crazy down below on the main floor, although I don’t recall any real complaints and I wasn’t trying to break any decibel records. I was more interested in learning the licks than making my ears bleed.


I played the bass in a couple of great bands in high school. The first was a soul band with two trumpets and a trombone: very fun music and way different for that little corner of New England. They kicked me out of the band allegedly because I couldn’t sing, but the reality was that there were personality conflicts (in a band of teenagers? Really? I took the rejection as a poke and studied voice privately for the rest of my high school years.) My next high-school band was a high-powered blues band. I’d learned 12-bar blues from my days in the attic, and this band drove that ubiquitous form into my very DNA—something that I have used in virtually every band I’ve ever played with since. This band also dabbled on the fringes of jazz, playing a lot of early Jethro Tull. Dan Morretti played sax and flute in the band and went on to become a successful jazz musician in his own right


I took the Jazz Bass with me to college, but oddly enough never found any musicians who weren’t either studio level players or dope heads who played lousy and loud, but thought they were wonderful. After college, I went back to Rhode Island and played the Jazz Bass in a lot of different groups from liturgical music at the university to country to a kick-ass country rock band named Ricochet. I finally figured out how to play bass and sing at the same time—a big accomplishment for me.


In the early ’80s I’d been doing a lot of woodworking and was feeling pretty good about my abilities. The Jazz Bass had taken a number of spills off stages and the like, and it was looking pretty banged up. In a weak moment, I dismantled the bass and striped off the chipped and scratched sun-burst lacquer, leaving the natural wood of the body. I did a meticulous job and was very proud of my work—that was until someone at Carusos told me that I’d probably cut the value of the instrument in half when I removed the finish. But the natural finish still looks great. Live and learn…

The last time I played the Jazz Bass regularly was in the mid-‘80s with a band called Three-Legged Horse, a wonderful trio that played an incredible variety of music. It was the first time I played in a band where the bass was the principle rhythm instrument. I liked having that responsibility and my playing improved exponentially. When that band wound down, I felt that I was in a bit of a rut with the Jazz Bass. The neck had developed a bad bow and I just needed a change of “bass scenery.” In the Summer of 1985 I headed back to Caruso’s, now being run by the old man’s sons. There was now a legitimate showroom and no colorful language drifting about. They put me in a corner with a Bass Walkman and I tried dozens of basses—none of which was preferable to the Jazz Bass. Then they brought me a used Steinberger XL-2. I couldn’t put it down and had to have it.


The Jazz Bass sadly went back in its case where it sat, barely used, for years. The ‘Berger handled like a sports car while the Jazz Bass was like an old Caddy. In the early ‘90s I took my instruments into Caruso’s to be appraised. The store had been relocated and expanded. I wasn’t ten feet inside the store when a guy stopped me and asked what I had in that Fender case. He offered to buy the Jazz Bass on the spot—even with the bowed neck. It wasn’t for sale. He said the Steinberger wasn’t worth anything because they’d been bastardized and mass-produced since I bought mine. I didn’t care—the ‘Berger wasn’t for sale either. He did offer to straighten the neck on the Jazz Bass for me. I wasn’t using it, so I left it. I got it back with the neck straight as an arrow. It was vastly improved, but the Steinberger was still more fun to play.


Over the next two decades, the Jazz Bass waited patiently in its case, making cameos at rehearsals, but never making it to “public appearances.” Fast forward to this past summer—the most intensely active musical time in my life. Although I’d become fairly proficient on the upright bass, I found myself playing much more electric bass with the Bass O’Matics and the Fringe. But I kept looking over at the case in the corner of my studio office, and guilt got the best of me. So I restrung the Jazz Bass and I took it to a couple of gigs. My years of neglect and the Cape Cod humidity swings had taken their toll on the neck and it needed to be straightened again. I took it to the master, Fran Ledoux at Bay Fretted Instruments . The neck had to be heat set, along with a truss rod adjustment, some minor fret work and repair of a small crack in the finger board. 44 years after that Good Friday at Caruso’s, the repair was $27 more than I’d originally paid for the instrument (more of an ironic commentary on the steadily shrinking dollar than a complaint about the cost). The repair was worth every cent! I got the bass back in time for the last Fringe gig at Matakeese Wharf and the old Caddy drove like brand new. I’ve been using it along with the Steinberger at the Bass O’Matics gigs as well. Frankly, it now plays better than the ‘Berger in many ways, and it might be time for Fran to give that headless critter a once over (the Steinberger turned 30 this year with a born on date of May 2, 1982!). For now, the guilt has been banished and it feels great to get reacquainted to the feel of my old bass, especially with my playing style that seems to have grown more aggressive over the years. But I’m just thrilled to welcome this old friend back in my hands again.


The recording and mixing for my CD was in its final stages, but I’d been procrastinating about taking the pictures for the cover. Like most folks, I guess I don’t much like having my picture taken. Laurie, my partner and designated photographer, had been busy on the weekends, an excuse I’d used to justify my delay. But on this partly-cloudy Indian-Summer Saturday afternoon with calm winds and an ebb tide on the Bay, she was free and it was time. I packed the camera and my blonde upright bass into the back of my ancient green Subaru and headed down to Linnell Landing in Brewster. 

As we pulled into the parking lot, the clouds covered the sun briefly. I lugged the bass out to the beach, and unzipped the black, padded cover near a spot in the sand with no stones or debris that could have scratched it. My idea for the CD jacket was to have a front shot of me sitting on the bass for the front cover, and then a back shot for the back cover. I was sure the front/back scheme wasn’t original, but it seemed like a good solution. I slid the cover off and set the bass down on its side in the sand. Taking a deep breath and going against every instinct in my being, I sat down on the bass ever so gingerly. 

Laurie is pretty good with a camera and she started firing away immediately. She’d click a few shots, we’d stop and then take a look at them. We decided what seemed to be working, and then she’ld shoot some more. After a while the sun returned and the day could not have been more picturesque. The sky over the bay was a soft, pale blue, and the early Fall clouds were white velvety puffs with bluish gray underbellies. Below the sky, the tide had retreated nearly to the horizon exposing the rich reddish-brown sand of the Brewster tidal flats. 

The flats have always been my favorite part of the Cape shoreline. At low tide you can walk out for hundreds of yards on the freshly-exposed wet sand, soft and yielding underfoot. The ripples left by receding tide act as reminders that this transitional real estate is only on short-term loan until the next tide. When time allows I love to walk to the farthest edge of the sand and wait for the tide to reverse. The bay creeps slowly back toward the beach, methodically and persistently filling the sand ripples and reclaiming the flats until the next cycle. 

Laurie and I agreed that the colors out on the flats would be the perfect complement to the light golden wood of my bass, so carefully cradling the instrument in my hands, I ventured out onto the damp sand. After walking out quite a distance, Laurie wanted some shots of me playing, so I extended the end pin as far as it would go, and plunked away as the bass sunk slowly down into the soft sand. The low-angle Fall light in the photos made it look as if I was suspended between the sand and sky. As much as I hated to, I eased the beautifully-finished wood of the bass onto the wet, salty sand and sat on it again. Laurie kept clicking away relentlessly. As we were taking the last of the photos, we noticed a group of people gathering on the beach. I’d witnessed this scene often with wedding parties or families coming down for a group portrait by the water. But this time no one was dressed in white, and they all seemed to be migrating slowly out onto the flats. 

I am a believer in the cosmic workings of the universe, and I had no idea what irresistible force had lead me down to Linnell Landing and out on the flats this beautiful October Saturday afternoon, especially with this gorgeous instrument that really had no business in this environment, even on a mild day such as this. And it must have seemed a bit strange for the assembly on the beach to see a couple with an upright bass out there hundreds of yards from the shore. As they drew nearer, a tall man with sunglasses and shock of white hair that stuck out from beneath a brown flat cap made a detour straight over to where Laurie and I were working. He was wearing sandals, and his khaki trousers were rolled up to the middle of his shins. He walked right up to me, and with an expression of shock and disbelief, said “What in the world are you doing here?” 

I explained to him why we were there, and that we were just finishing up. He regained his composure and explained that his dad, a long time resident of Brewster, had recently passed away. Friends and family had gathered for a short memorial and to sprinkle his ashes on the flats as the tide came in. But the odd factor was that his dad happened to be a huge fan of music, and of jazz in particular. And here I was, out there waiting as if his dad had planned it that way. I asked if he wanted me to play during the memorial, but I already knew the answer. I absolutely had to play. It was after all the real reason I’d been sent to this special place at this particular time. So Laurie and I joined in behind the procession and followed them as they walked out to the edge of the sand and water. 

I mentioned that I only needed one thing: some sort of rock or shell to set the end pin of the bass on to keep it from sinking in the soft sand. The man in the flat cap called over an attractive brown-haired lady who was carrying a basket of shells. Each member of the group was to take a scoop of ashes with a shell and then sprinkle the ashes in the sand as the tide washed in. Most of the shells in the basket seemed ornate and not native to the Cape, but I poked around until I found a big, flat sea-clam shell― just what I’d need to keep the bass from sinking while I played. I set the shell into the sand about twenty or so feet behind the gathering, and with Laurie’s help, I positioned the end pin on the shell. 

I remember starting with a twelve bar swing in G, playing a melodic walking line and then branching out in little solo riffs. I let that blend into a gentle bossa and from there into a slow ballad. The memorial wasn’t long and I probably only played for twenty minutes or so. Afterward every person in the group including the young kids came up and thanked me. The widow of the memorialized man took my hand and squeezed it with a tearful smile of gratitude. The tide was on its way in, so I returned the shell to the basket, and Laurie and I made our way back to the beach. On the way she found a smooth heart-shaped stone and asked me to give it to the guy in the flat cap as a memento of the day. Back on the beach, I carefully wiped all the sand from the bass, but before slipping it into the case, I dropped a few grains of Linnell Landing sand inside through one of the F-holes. After stowing the bass in the car, I walked back out to the beach to give them the heart rock. We shook hands and hugged, and I got their address to send them the photos of the memorial that Laurie had taken. After saying our farewells, I walked off the beach as if exiting some cosmic stage, and I sat in my car to soak it all in for a moment before driving home. 

Laurie and I were heading to Wellfleet that evening to celebrate a good friend’s 50th birthday. As we got ready for the party we recounted the bizarre details of the afternoon: all the elements that had aligned perfectly for the strange events out on the flats. The party that night was a wonderful warm gathering of close friends. As we stood in the beverage line, my head was still swimming with images of the afternoon out there on the flats. I happened to look over my shoulder was taken aback by a familiar face. “Laurie, isn’t that the lady with the shell basket from the memorial today?” 

Laurie answered quickly that it couldn’t be, but I looked again and there was the flat-cap guy, only this time without the hat. He was recounting the events of the afternoon to a group of friends in an excited voice. “We got down to the beach to spread my Dad’s ashes, and there was an upright bass player and a photographer out there on the flats―waiting! Dad must have sent him!” At that moment he turned and saw us and said, “Oh my God, there he is! There’s the bass player! And the photographer!” 

It turned out that the lady with the basket was the birthday lady’s sister. They had driven up from Rhode Island to have the memorial and then to celebrate her sister’s birthday. That evening Laurie and I had several chats with our new-found friends. During one of them, the lady asked me “Do you remember the shell you picked out of the basket?” I told her that I’d looked for the biggest, bad-ass clam shell that I could find to keep the bass from sinking in the sand. Then she told me about being at her father-in-law’s house that afternoon before the memorial. I guess the old guy liked to collect shells and then glue them to framed boards to decorate his home. It seems that one particular clam shell kept falling off its board, so she had picked it up and put it in her basket as she walked out the door on the way to Linnell Landing. “That was the shell you chose to set your bass on,” she said. “He left it there for you.” 

This was not the first time I’d found myself caught up in a swirling eddy of the cosmic tide, drawn in space and time to play a small part on a much larger stage. I’ve been told that these events just mean that I’m where I’m supposed to be. But as I think back on the magical events of that day, I can’t help but wonder how the next chapter will unfold, what unexpected turn of events might spring from this strange encounter at Linnell Landing.