Musical Love Trip to Aspen
by Kyle K. Mann
“I hear Elvin Bishop is lookin’ for a harp player.”
I tried to act casual, but my heart was racing. Blues harmonica gigs were rare, and my money was running low.
“Yeah,” the guy laughed. He knew I’d been in Beefy Red, a mighty band that had played the Fillmore West and had broken up the previous year. I’d spent most of the intervening time since then on the Big Island, body surfing and lava watching. Now I had returned to Marin County, looking to kick my musical career back into gear. I smiled at the informant patiently, waiting for him to continue.
The dude chuckled, “Only one problem, he and his band just left for Aspen.”
I nodded. My fortunes had just turned, and a detail like that failed to trouble me. “No problem. White is there, and I can hang out with him.” White had been the bassist and a singer in Beefy Red. Now he was learning classical bass and playing in the Aspen Music Festival. The signs were right.
The guy laughed yet again, but with a look of wonder. “But you’re broke, right? No car? How you getting there?”
“I’m hitchin’ it, man. Thanks for the info.” I walked out of the bar and left him scratching his head, puzzled by my optimism.
Back in the early 70s hitchhiking was normal and surprisingly easy. People trusted each other more in those times, and gave rides without fear, even to a longhaired type like me. So it was that I set off the next beautiful June morning from my hometown of San Rafael, California on a mission, little dreaming what was in store.
I had reached White on the phone, and he was cool with me showing up. I’d also called my friends and family, and gotten mostly disbelief. The general consensus was that I was not thinking clearly. I politely scoffed at such notions. All was well! I would prevail!
In reality, of course, I was leaving Marin County with nothing but hope, a couple changes of clothes and a bag full of harmonicas. I’d been couch surfing in the weeks I’d been back from Hawaii, and my novelty value was wearing thin. I stuck out my thumb and promptly got a ride to Davis, nearly to Sacramento. Signs were good.
But the next couple hours I stood there at the freeway entrance, I was discouraged. Nothing. I was just starting to think I had indeed made a bad mistake when a nice guy in a late model car pulled over. “Goin’ East?”
“Yes sir!” I hastily loaded my pack in the back seat, introduced myself, and we were off.
The driver was a bit older than me, maybe thirty. His hair wasn’t long, but long enough to let me know he was hip. As we headed up the Sierras on the I-80 he sounded me out, and when he concluded I was ok told me he was going to Denver. Denver! I was set!
We motored over the mountains past Reno and a colorful sunset in the desert, cruising all night. I caught a bit of sleep, and sometimes chatted, exchanging life stories, and sometimes I mused to myself over my prospects. Was I that crazy, or was my belief correct? Only one way to find out.
Dawn found us at the Utah/Colorado State line. We had headed south at Salt Lake City in the night and were now on the I-70. Up we went into the Rockies, with me grinning in anticipation. I’d never been to Aspen, and looked forward to seeing the fabulous resort town.
We had breakfast in Grand Junction, with me spending some of my last dollars on pancakes and home fries. Delicious! My driving buddy was amused by my enthusiasm, and wished me well when I got out at Glenwood Springs, deep in the Rockies. 24 hours earlier I’d been standing forlornly in Davis, and now here I was, beaming like a loon, only a few miles from my goal.
A couple rides later and I was marveling at the green-clad peaks surrounding Aspen. I cautiously hid my back pack, walked into the lobby of the Continental Hotel and briskly asked the desk clerk for White’s room number.
White was stunned but pleased to see me. “Just don’t let the hotel people know you’re crashing on my floor,” he laughed. And indeed, no one ever questioned me or hassled me in any way in the days that followed. It was a remarkably cordial environment. Now, I had to find my gig.
Elvin Bishop is legendary, and was even in 1973, as one of Paul Butterfield’s great guitar players, the others being the superb Buzz Feiten and the all-time foundational master Mike Bloomfield. Bishop and Bloomfield were in the version of the Butterfield Blues Band that was elected recently to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. So this was no schlub I was asking to hire me. Still, I felt sure it would happen.
The next night I approached the club Bishop and his band were playing in. I arrived between sets. Bishop was playing a pinball machine in a side room. Too perfect, I thought.
“Hi Elvin, my name’s Kyle and I heard you are looking to hire a harp player.”
Bishop grunted, shoving at the game to move the ball. He was good. “Now who told you that?” he asked in his Oklahoma accent.
Not a question I was expecting, but I plowed on. “I’ve been playing harp for years in bands, and I’m sure you’ll like my playing…” I wanted to pull a harp out and blow him a lick, but the background music in the club was too loud.
“Sorry man, but I can’t add anyone to my band.” He grunted again as he shoved the pinball machine just hard enough to sent the silver ball spinning into a lane that racked up points. He glanced at me sidelong. “See, it’s like this… we are already cutting the pie too many ways as it is.”
I stood there, crestfallen, feeling like a tub of cold water had been thrown on me. My dreams were in ruins. “Ah, yes… I understand,” I mumbled. I didn’t really, since I knew I could get an audience clapping wildly, given a chance. I’d done it plenty of times. “Well, thanks…”
Bishop looked over again, not unkindly. “But hey, good luck to you,” he said as I turned to go, crushed. I stumbled out of the club, blithered by the encounter. Damn, what a whipping.
White was sympathetic, and supportive. “Don’t worry man, something will come up. Why don’t you sit in with the Big Band and me at the Jerome Hotel? Gary Gray will love you” White was right, band leader Gray from UCLA’s jazz program was a Godsend for my morale, being extremely enthusiastic when White introduced me, and a few nights later I played one of the great gigs of my life at the storied Jerome, with a 20 piece horn section that blew the roof off. My solo over that horn section riffing had people patting me on the back and buying drinks. If only Elvin Bishop had heard that!
Still, I had a big problem… stone broke and no prospects to speak of. I woke on White’s hotel room floor in my sleeping bag. He was at a rehearsal, so I went out for breakfast with my last few dollars. Better go to the health food store and get some yoghurt and a muffin, I thought. It will go farther.
At the store I glanced at a bulletin board, then with great interest. A notice read “Harmonica Player Wanted.” I did a comical double take. Really?
It turned out to be the craziest job ever… walking the Aspen sidewalks blasting on a harmonica with a gigantic customized signboard. It came up to my neck in front, towered three feet over my head in back, was covered with squeeze horns, slide whistles, and real lanterns that lit at night. My boss turned out to be a fine fellow named Dan Arrow, and he advertised half the businesses in Aspen on his unique sandwich board. The first day on the job I got 20 dollars in tips, plus what he was paying me an hour. In 1973, that was decent cash.
I’d play to the street crowds with a big chordal harmonica Dan gave me. Tunes like Wabash Cannonball and Oh Suzanna would do for a while until I’d start blowing some blues harp just to break it up. People would snap photos and give tips. Not quite what I was expecting, but now I had cash!
And now I could take White out to dinner and buy myself a nice shirt or two. I picked one up that was featured in the window of a fancy store. My luck had turned again, and that’s when I met Carol.
She was standing there with her friend in the game lobby of the Continental, this tall curly-haired beauty. I’d been playing foosball with White and a couple pals,when I noticed her. I started talking and instantly fell head over heels in love. A couple nights later she accepted my invitation, delivered in a mock-English accent, to engage in “a bit of light necking on the veranda.”
We went on a memorable date, thanks to White lending his car, in the Maroon Bell Mountians outside of town. Flowers were everywhere up there. In another week we were a couple, in three I’d convinced her to go back with me to Marin. Turned out she was a world class violinist. Yeah!
But as the weeks went past I realized I wanted to drive back with her. The season was almost over, August was getting on. What to do? Problem: no car.
Fate stepped up again. Dan Arrow had a running Plymouth Valiant in his yard he wanted to get rid of. “Call it a tip for a job well done,” he laughed. Completely illegal, and with snow tires on the back. Those little knobs made a clatter as we drove on the pavement. But what the hell.
We thanked and hugged everyone goodbye, White waving in the rearview until he was gone from view. Carol grinned engagingly as we set out, grinding up and over the Continental Divide where at the top a tourist took a fabulous photo of us, and down to beautiful New Mexico and Arizona to the Grand Canyon, where I only had eyes for her, and finally home to Marin.
Next problem: no home and low funds. A couple days of crashing with friends was enough… it was time for a miracle! So we are driving past an apartment in San Rafael and see a sign that said Free Rent. No, not kidding. The owner told us he was selling the complex and wanted to say he had full occupancy. He only asked for a deposit, and we had enough money for that. It was nice, had a pool and a view of Mt. Tamalpias out the back door.
We moved in at once. Remaining problem: no jobs.
I suggested Carol call the Oakland Symphony, but she laughed sweetly. “Oh no Kyle, you don’t understand. They will be starting rehearsals next week for the new season.”
Off my insistence, she phoned. Turned out they had three last minute openings and were auditioning in a few days. Bang, she landed third chair, right behind the Concertmaster. I loved that girl. Talented, lovely, funny… She was the center of my universe, the first live-in love of my life. We never had an argument that I can recall. What bliss!
As for me, I adopted Dan Arrow’s idea to toney Mill Valley, and sold advertising on a sandwich board and played harp strolling around. So I never did get a gig with Elvin Bishop, but I got something better…
Cut. It’s over 40 years later. Carol and I had broken up, sort of accidentally, after a wonderful, magical year together. Now in 2015 I’m planning to flee the USA and retire in Costa Rica. But… In the dentist’s chair, with a head full of nitrous oxide, a voice speaks. “Before you go south, you have to go north.”
I was aware Carol was living a thousand miles north of Topanga. Ok, I called. Next thing I know I’m driving up to see her.
And you know what? There’s no love like a First Love!
By Kyle K. Mann