|OBITUARY: To Paul...
There's a big hole and a deafening silence where you're supposed to be, Bubba. Can't we take it from the turnaround one more time?
Your death hit me hard. Even though I haven't played in your band in 20 years, turns out you were a major force of nature in my life.
You were the reason I moved to Portland in 1981, and not Austin like I'd planned. I met my wife at one of our gigs 24 years ago. You gave us a feather duster as a wedding present. What a kidder. She and I honeymooned in Seattle, during a weeklong gig that somehow got booked over our post-nuptials. The night before my daughter was born, I was onstage with you, remember? And had to leave the gig mid-set for a trip to the maternity ward.
Thanks to you, I got to meet my blues heroes - B.B. King, and Hubert Sumlin, and many others. Without you, I never would have gotten to know and learn so much from Jim Mesi, D.K. Stewart, Paul Jones, and saxophonist Chris Mercer, our unofficial and unheralded sixth member.
I played on your first single, the first four of your 13 albums, and hundreds of nights in smoky clubs with you. Harmonica-player jokes aside, you helped set a new bar height for that lowliest of instruments. Small, portable, lightweight, in your hands it became something much bigger. With it I heard you squeeze out your soul, from tortured to jubilant.
You could hold your own with any of the legends. Blowing that tiny harp, dirtied up through a vintage amp, you could ignite a crowd. You dwarfed those harps in your chubby white hands, yet commanded them in a way only a devoted artist could.
But you truly set yourself apart pulling the trigger on that chromatic. It was wider, broader, more melodic and with it you injected a little jazz into your blues, extracting cerebral shading, nuance and heartfelt emotion. It was a sound all your own.
Yet for all this, Paul, you could be a bastard to get to know. I stood next to you for almost a decade, knew you as a friend, bandmate and road compadre, but never really knew you. Many people could say the same. You were always the Buddha of Northwest blues, though a demon-filled Buddha of enormous appetites. Maybe one is always slightly uncomfortable in the presence.
I felt as though I'd entered a Ph.d program when I got the gig, somehow passing the audition one slow Monday night at the long-closed Sack's Front Avenue. Here I was in the scene that Brown Sugar built - you and Mesi and Lloyd Jones, the seminal players of a scene I became a part of but still can't adequately explain. But then, none of us spent much time trying, did we? We'd found music that floated our boats, music with soul, danceability, joy.
It was your name up on the marquee when I joined. Drummer Paul Jones tirelessly took over managing the band. We hit the road in earnest and released our own Criminal Records. We had paychecks instead of cash at the end of the night, tour vehicles, road crew, band merchandise and marketing. Our shows got show-biz tight, with intro songs to bring you up on stage, and big finishes to get you off.
Remember Salt Lake City? Our proudest moment. We opened for B.B., then shuffled off to a club date across town. B.B.'s sidemen came to sit in, and lo and behold, the King of the Blues himself walked in, ordered a cocktail and stayed to hear us play. For a bunch of young guys from Oregon, it was an unbelievable night.
You and I spent a lot of time hanging out. You could be clever and sharp, intimidating and hysterically self-deprecating. You could also be nearly indecipherable, as if what came out of your mouth was only part of what was on your mind. I began to see flashes of future brilliance, though, with your shoe boxes full of lyrics. But getting you into the studio was tougher than eating undercooked ribs. You never felt ready, never felt good enough. You could be a maniacal perfectionist (how many retakes does it take?), sure, but I always knew you had more in you.
I knew you could carry a grudge, too. For decades. I witnessed it firsthand. You left a few important relationships unresolved, but that's water under the bridge. I know we parted not on the best of terms, but the substance abuse was too much. Your subsequent exploits have been well documented. No need to go into those. I think prison saved your life, for a while. I watched you go on to be a respected songwriter and steady performer with a global reputation, and I was proud to say I once played in your band.
We got most of the old band back together this week, and played the old tunes. "This Ol' Life," indeed. It was warm and friendly and we told every story we knew about you. You'd have loved it.
I knew the day was coming, Bubba, but nobody is ever ready to hear the news. Paraphrasing B.B. King's line about Florsheim shoes and Gibson guitars, I remember you once said, "As long as there are Stacy Adams [shoes] and Hohner harmonicas, I'll keep playing the blues." Thanks in a large part to you, so will I.
(Don Campbell, who writes frequently for the Oregonian, played bass with Paul deLay and still plays the blues in Portland.)