The scene was the Women’s Federated clubhouse, one of
Northern Michigan’s many beautiful and historic buildings. Chandeliers, smooth carpet, large handcrafted wooden doors, ornate windows-you get the idea. Although the year was 2004, an angry Victorian era artist of Pakistani extraction was playing classical guitar. Perhaps he was dressed in a ruffled collar and pantaloons; or perhaps a dark suit with a top hat, I really don’t remember. His countenance fierce, he strummed away on his guitar, clearly impatient and offering slim acknowledgement of his “crowd’s” appreciation. In any event, I think we were all successfully impressed with the realization that, yes, he was indeed a master classical guitarist. There was an afterglow at a local professor’s house. A small group of his admirers, cordial, yet reserved, encircled him, while he stood apart his eyes full of both distance and defiance like some hero from the literature of Lord Byron. He was displeased to have seen a sleeping octogenarian (or ninety something, but I don’t know that word) sleeping during his performance, although to me and his the rest of his audience it was the type of involuntary stupor common to the elderly. He continued his act of faux insecurity and displeasure while being humored by college students and professors of a better nature. Myself, I had too much gratis wine, belying my pretense of being a cultural sophisticate, and my own mood was getting characteristically ugly. For some reason, the guitarist recognized that I wasn’t one of his disciples and deigned to speak to me directly. Earlier, I had asked him if he had played with the Grateful Dead awhile back; only once person laughed; the others either weren’t amused or assumed that I was both confused and stupid. He responded with a simple, but only mildly impatient “no.” In any event, I stood out.
“Are you a guitarist or a musician?” he asked.
I told him that I wasn’t.
“God bless you,” he replied.
This proved too much. This bad act of a romantic exaggerating the snares and pitfalls of his art. This angry artist, bucking the trend of popular dismissal of the finer things, strongly appreciative of the few souls that gave the pure artist his due. A few minutes later, I said it.
I didn’t have the witty banter to mock him, nor did I have the musical knowledge to ferret out any small imperfections in his performance and amplify them. So there I was.
No one slapped my back and told me that what I said was hilarious or spot on in the days that followed, but neither did anyone scrupulously avoid eye contact or hellos either. Over coffee, a fellow student told me that he had lived with the maestro of strings while studying under him. Sometimes, while the student was practicing in his room, the Prince of Strings would burst into his room, yelling “I didn’t teach you to play that.”