[Editor’s Note: Today’s post comes to you via my good friend Brian Gorman, who works for an accounting firm, but is also one of my favorite writers on the entire planet (his letters to customer service are the stuff of legend). I hope you enjoy his heartwarming story as you finish up the work week and get ready for the holiday weekend.]
By BRIAN GORMAN
Ok bear with me YHT readers, like the opening to a Rush song I’m afraid this post requires a rambling introduction before it gets to the point and rocks out.
If you’ve seen Gorman in the last five weeks or so you may have noticed a pathetic and (and yes occasionally comical) limp- I have a busted knee. The origins of this are mysterious and painful so let’s skip that and flash forward to yesterday when I pulled into the parking lot of a VCU Medical Center lab for my scheduled MRI, wincing every time I applied the clutch with my left foot. I was late of course, and in an ironic twist I was so focused on keeping this knee locked and angled correctly while climbing out of the car that I slammed the other one squarely into the door panel and thus ended up shuffling my way into Radiology on two throbbing joints by making little kicks with straightened legs and swinging my arms like a middle-aged power walker. The lady behind the desk watched me come in and blinked wordlessly at me about seven or eight times before handing me the clipboard.
Twenty minutes later I was allowed to limp into the magnetic MRI room. For anyone that has never been in an MRI machine, it’s basically the lamest, most annoying roller coaster ride ever. They lay you down on a little plastic platform and slowly ramp you into this huge machine with a narrow tunnel that makes you feel like Spock’s corpse being rolled through the torpedo bay at the end of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. These things cost like three million dollars each and take high-tech pictures of your flesh using of all things sound waves; as a result the most remarkable thing about them is the horrific noise they surround you with during the 35 minutes or so the imaging takes. Allow me to briefly describe this noise- it’s sort of a turbulent whir accompanied by an uneven ear-splitting clacking sound so it kind of sounds like an amped up combination of a vacuum cleaner on its last legs and a careless garbage truck crew, all of this interrupted intermittently by terrible sounds I can only describe as “screech- beeps.”
Or so I’ve been told. In actuality I only got a faint taste of all this because, as luck would have it, I was busy listening to something else.
The technician manning this machine was an older black dude with billowy white hair who studied me curiously through tiny glasses for a minute as I made my mini-kicks, power-walk entrance to the room. After the guy got me settled in and finished giving me the three basic instructions (don’t take in any metal, don’t move an inch, and don’t bother screaming ‘cuz I sure as hell won’t hear you) he produced a pair of bulky plastic headphones and offered them to me.
“Most folks like to use them,” he said, “It can get a little… w’ahl… noisy.” When I accepted them he asked, “Something in particular you want? We get some FM radio in here. Or I have a few things.”
Ever the passive listener, I shrugged. “Whatever you got.” It was a little after 7:00 AM and I was groggy and indifferent, my hopes of a nap fading. But the grin that appeared on his face gave me the feeling he had something in mind.
Shortly after I took my little Wrath of Khan ride into the tunnel and music began pouring into the bulky headphones, I felt my own widening grin come creeping on and I went on smiling to myself in the dark for the next 30 minutes or so. Oh you’ve got to be kidding me. It was Muddy Waters. I was so pleased and also so proud of myself for having remembered the name of the song that (had I been allowed to move) I could have hugged myself. The song was called “Got My Mojo Working,” one of his hits. I never remember titles like that! It sounded like a live version from his earlier days and featured a rollicking piano solo that I assume was his half brother (and legend in his own right) Otis Spann. Like most of his songs, this one had a steady but soulful chug to it, and shimmied with a Chicago style electric feel that must have still been new when this one came along.
I kept my fingers crossed for more Muddy but my new friend the MRI tech must have put on some kind of blues anthology (or maybe his own mix) because the next two tracks were something totally different I had never heard before. The second one I’m pretty sure was John Lee Hooker because of the familiar drawl in his voice coming on thicker and sweeter than mo’lasses. He was finger-picking an electric guitar too but this was far closer to “front- porch” blues than Muddy- it hummed along strong and sad while a harmonica echoed the rhythm and he sang something about feelin’ sorry, crawlin’ like a snake, and wantin’ to crawl back on your floor baby. Awesome!
The third track was something much older- Skip James or Josh White maybe if Pandora has taught me anything, but I really have no idea. It sounded kind of distant, as if it had been sung into some antique recording machine and left to settle and fade on a shelf growing lonely for the better part of a century. And it was just soft enough that I could hear the MRI machine in the background, but all the clacking and screech-beeps that monster of a machine could muster became just a gray dusk behind a brightening sunrise. What the headphones produced was just a single acoustic guitar and a single voice but they both had such power- such sincerity- that they came through clear as day, complementing each other in tone so well it was like each knew what the other had to say.
What was the song about? I couldn’t tell you for sure. But what is any blues song about? There had been some good times, and a woman maybe, but now there’s not- so you can find me down in the Delta somewhere thinkin’ on that with a few strings and some chords but barely enough money to buy my next drink.
The fourth track on the other hand was unmistakeable. It was the master himself B.B. King doing a live version of “3 O’Clock Blues.” He was being backed up by a blues band that really brought it to life- it sounded as if the piano and saxophone were coming from different parts of a room instead of a stage, each going off of their own riffs and being drawn back to the center every time B.B.’s vibrato voice came rolling back up. I could close my eyes (and why not? I had nothing else to look at but a vibrating curved wall) and imagine that room as some tight Beale street joint in the 50s, smoky and late enough in the evening that the band swayed on their feet and blew alcohol fumes into their horns to keep them going. My toes were itching with the temptation to keep the rhythm but I resisted, fearing blurred images of my knee.
Finally just as B.B. was winding down the last few measures of “3 O’Clock Blues” the tech guy rolled me backwards out of the torpedo tube and helped me off. The machine was quiet- it had ceased its clacking and screech-beeps at least two minutes earlier. Whether he had been reviewing the images in his little booth or had deliberately let me hear the rest of Mr. King’s track I’ll never know- but I was happy for it.
“Pictures came out well” he said, “We’ll roll them over to the doc and you’ll be feeling better in no time.”
But in a way I already was. I was still limping when I got down from the table but I’ll be damned if the old knee didn’t feel noticeably better the rest of the day. And even if it hadn’t, Gormie’s heart did. The blues, according to the legendary Leroy “Lefty” Bates, “is when you drop your bread on the floor and it lands jelly side down.” Or, as Leon Redbone put it, “The blues ain’t nothing but a good man feelin’ bad.” To me it’s also been one of the neatest tricks a human being can conjure- finding something sad and hurting on the inside and drawing it out through one’s voice or fingertips as something beautiful for the peeps around us. It heals. You hear that?