The Story of Bill

by Matt Olson

Somehow, too many of these stories start when I was 18 years old and was almost completely stupid. Maybe that's the way it goes. At any rate, that's the way this one goes. 

When I dropped out of college and moved to The City, I had Bob Dylan aspirations. I had written maybe 6 or 8 songs, all filled with what I thought was appropriate anger and cynicism about racism and sexism and war. I could hammer out simple rhythm riffs with a flat pick and stay in key, and if I tried hard to do Dylan doing his best Woody, it was almost like singing but not really. In any case, I was either oblivious or shameless. I sang on street corners with my guitar case open-- hoping for some coins. I sang in the bathroom of the San Francisco Greyhound Bus station. Excellent acoustics there. I made about $2.25 and got propositioned by a sad gay man in his late 40s. The important part of this story is that I played in public for actual living persons. Never played for a large crowd.... parties with as many as 20 people, yes. Never actually got on a stage. When a friend and I got booked to open for Livingston Taylor at the SF Troubadour, he freaked and vanished. That was as close at it ever got. 

My other musical problem was more intricate and interesting. When I was 13, I heard Mississippi John Hurt play guitar. Pete Seeger had a show on public television; he had Mississippi John as a guest and asked him to play Spikedriver Blues. I was captured. I had never seen anything like it. With his thumb, he kept a syncopated bass/percussion line running as a constant heartbeat through the song. With his forefinger and middle, he played the tune-- and added a couple of little rhythm embellishments. So here was this one guy, playing the percussion, rhythm, and  melody--three guitars in one. At that time, I was only hammering on guitar strings with a pick, and I had learned a couple of folksy, picking patterns. Nothing close to what Mississippi John was doing. Keeping in mind that there were no VCRs or DVRs or any Rs at all in those days, I set about to figure out how to play it. I worked up a couple of attempts and pretend tunes, but something was wrong. It was too much like pattern picking. It was not even close to the independent thumb (for bass and percussion) and liberated fingers for melody that I wanted, but I kept hacking at it for the next 5 or 6 years.

Like many but not all other street musicians, I needed a real job to stay alive. I worked in the mail room of a government employees' insurance agency, and it was pretty much entertaining. Once every morning, I got to push a grocery cart around the building and deliver mail to the employees who wore suits and sat desks and did the real insurance business. I got to know a few people, and I developed some simple-minded, stereotypical expectations. 

Employees ate lunch in shifts. About a third of the company went to the lunch area at 11:30. At noon, the second third ate. At 12:30, I joined the last shift. There were tables, cheap coffee, soft drinks, hard-boiled eggs, and yogurt... not really much more. Most people brought their own lunches. A few of the suits went out for some lunch and liquor. I usually sat by myself at lunch and actually tried to write music-- music with an alternating bass line like Mississippi John played. Most of the lunch gang on my shift ate with a young woman who had seen "Hair" at least 15 times and who claimed to hang out with the folks from Jefferson Airplane. Everyone flocked around her and she entertained all of them with tales of what Grace said or what Marty did or how somebody in the audience at "Hair" got naked. There was always "Hair" when Jefferson Airplane stories were exhausted. The goddess approached me once and asked what my sign was. When I told her "Aardus the Aardvark," my fate was sealed. We would never talk again or become friends. 

One of the usual crowd broke away one day and came over to say hello. She asked if I was writing music, given that I was actually trying to write music, and I confirmed. When she learned that I was trying to write for guitar, she said "You have to meet Bill." And then she explained that he was a claims adjustor who worked for the company and that he played. Why not meet him? 

A claims adjustor! I had learned a little about the company as I wheeled around my cart full of mail. The claims adjustor territory was deadly. Short hair cuts, suits, grim number crunching. I never saw a smile in the adjustor wing. Nobody there welcomed me to the company. I sure as hell did not want to meet Bill-- much less play guitar with a suit and tie guy. My new acquaintance told me she would bring Bill to meet me soon. I just nodded and thanked her. Maybe it wouldn't happen. 

Bill and I met a few days later, and all sorts of dissonance was firing off in my head. Short hair, black suit with black tie.... polished shoes... the whole picture was "Insurance Adjustor." Yet, when he talked, I realized that he was delightfully crazy and that he was just hiding in this insurance adjustor costume. We chatted about guitar music a little, and agreed to meet at his house that Saturday to play some music together. Sounded great-- as long as I could forget about the suit and polished shoes.

When I got to his house, there was a large moving van parked in front of the place. His door was open, but he didn't seem to be there. I knocked and hollered and looked around. I even considered getting back in my car and fleeing the scene. Bill appeared a few minutes later and was glad that I came-- glad that I brought my guitar. I didn't even ask about the moving van, but the news was to come. He suggested that, after we moved some of the stuff out of his house and into the van, we could take a break and play music. I was genuinely pissed, but his mood, his nature, his Billness,  kind of soothed me. I had been conned into helping a guy move... a guy that I had just met. What the hell?

An hour later, we had most of his stuff jammed into the van, and it was time for a guitar break. When I opened my guitar case, Bill asked if he could examine my guitar. This was my second guitar. The first was smashed by TWA on a flight out of Albuquerque. With the pieces of that guitar and $200, I bought the second. It was a Kalamazoo-built Epiphone, not great but decent. I thought it was pretty sharp, and Bill approved. When he dug out his guitar, I felt a flash of phony superiority. His guitar was a beat up, small-bodied, nylon-string guitar. He showed me where Judy had kicked a hole in it. I hadn't met Judy, but now was keenly interested. Forty-five years later, I've talked with Judy maybe three times on the phone. Never actually met her, although Bill insists that I did. And so we tuned up and I stalled.... What would we play together? Bill asked me to play my favorite piece. I used my best "almost" Mississippi John style and sang some awful song about hypocrisy. He nodded when I was done, and said that it would have been better if I had been born 10 years earlier. Too late now. Bill suggested that we play together, starting with a really simple, slow progression in D, and we could explore a bit after we got comfortable. OK, says I, and please show me the progression. 

I wish I could have seen my own face when he began to play. I'm sure my jaw hit the floor. Simple, slow progression in D, indeed. With his thumb, he kept an alternating, syncopated bass line. With his forefinger and middle, he played melody with embellishments. Four partial chords in the progression. And I had no idea in the world where all that music was coming from. Certainly it couldn't be coming from that shitty little classical guitar played by one person. My first instinct was to take my own guitar from its case, smash it into small pieces, and burn them. For sure I would throw away all that nonsensical "music" I had been writing at lunch--and I did. I had no right to even look at a guitar, much less make noise with one. He encouraged me to join in, but I was lost, lost, lost. At some point, when he stopped, I asked if he would teach me-- really teach me. He said sure, but we had to move the rest of the stuff into the truck and drive out to the avenues to unload it. If I would help, I had a teacher. So, of course we moved furniture. During the unpacking process, I came across a large, clear plastic bag full of what looked like hair. I asked Bill what it was, and of course it was his hair- a former 2--3 feet of it. He had to cut it but saved it when he was invited to go on a Federal vacation a few years earlier. No more problems with suits, ties, or short-haired claims adjustors for me.

Over the next months, I spent as much time as I could listening to him play and getting instruction. I spent hours practicing simple little licks and trying to free my thumb so that it could independently conduct rhythm and syncopation business. It took a year until it started to happen--only started. And then I went back to college in Davis.  So ended the three and four sessions each week. I drove from school down to The City almost every weekend. I'd arrive at Bill's apartment out in the avenues by Friday's sundown, and we'd play most of the night. I'd crash on his couch, and as soon as Saturday began to happen, we'd get back to playing. By noon on Sunday, I'd be in my car heading back to college--hoping to get some sleep in my classes. On a few occasions, Bill came up from The City and we'd play the 2 day marathon at my place. Didn't do it often because folks tended to get annoyed.

 What I took from Bill were 3 or 4 tunes, and he approved of my ability with all of them before I left. I also took a lick... actually a couple of licks that maybe made up a phrase. I worked on the tunes endlessly, jamming here and there to expand them. And I worked on the lick-phrase and gradually built a song around it.  When I went away to grad school at Michigan, I would play to him over the telephone. He would listen, give me a couple of critique suggestions, and encourage me to keep playing. And I did. I knew that I was getting just a tiny bit better. I saw improvement here and there in my technique, although my musicianship was and is surely amateurish. On occasions, when I played to him over the phone, he would holler and stop me and ask what I was playing. When I told him that it was this or that song he taught me back in The City, he would claim that he never heard it before. Sometimes he asked me to play it again. I guess that meant I had stopped stealing from him and was taking my own path. Maybe. 

We continued our phone concerts for a few years, and then of course we sort of lost touch. I next saw Bill almost 20 years later. An old friend, a wonderful old friend from my childhood, was in late stage AIDs. He and I agreed that I should fly out to see him before he died. It was January 1992. We had a happy but sad reunion, shared a few stories, and filled each other in on everything that had happened since we last saw each other in high school. My dear old friend was indeed ill, and he was participating in three separate and independent experimental drug programs for people suffering AIDs. The cocktail of medications, probably in combination with AIDs-related dementia, resulted in some delusional kinds of thinking on his part. By the middle of my second day visiting, he was convinced that I had left my wife and daughter to come and be his lover until he died. When I reminded him that I was just there for a visit and would be returning to my family and home and job, he refused to understand. My solution to this anxiety provoking situation was this: I'll call someone I still know in The City, and we'll all get together. The social company would be good for my dear old friend and maybe make a crack in this hard delusion. The problem in my solution, and every solution has at least one, was that I didn't know who I still knew in The City. First name that came to mind was Bill.

I called his number (the white-pages/land-line system in those days), and got an answering machine. After the "beep," I started talking... "I don't know if you still remember me, but it's..." And he picked up... "My Brother!" 

It took him about 30 minutes to drive over and find parking. Of course he brought that same old beat-up guitar-- and a bottle of wine or something. Bill and my childhood friend got along nicely. We toasted his life and wished him ease and peace in his death. And then we played. I think that my dear friend enjoyed most of it.  Bill was clearly still Bill. Genuinely nuts and wonderful. 

One late guitar evening many years earlier, Bill promised that I would play better than he by the time we were done. But he was always messing with my head anyway. When we swapped guitar pieces in 1992 -- had to swap because we only had his guitar there-- he was still masterful and the master. I didn't feel like I had let him down, but there was no way in hell that I was better. My dear old friend didn't quite understand the dance, and he was a little annoyed until he got used to it. Bill would be improvising, chatting, and otherwise tearing it up when I would hear a lick that I didn't know. I'd say "Stop! Do it again."  And Bill would stop and do it again so that I could see the fingers and hear the notes and maybe even do it myself once or twice to lock it down. This doesn't make for a pleasant concert experience for someone who is really ill and fighting for it. The second time I interrupted Bill, my old friend complained about how rude it was and wasn't Bill angry? We both looked at him like he was babbling in an unknown language. Bill said "No, this how we do it. It's what we do." 

And it was. Had been from the beginning. We played late into the next morning, and I tried to soak in as much as possible. I left for the airport that afternoon. My old friend was upset and perhaps mad at me for leaving. We never spoke again. He hung on until March. When he died, his parents had to bury him in a secret place in the high, Arizona desert. The Mormons forbade them from burying him in a Mormon cemetery. Wonderfully tolerant people to this day.

Bill and I talked a few times after that, but the calls were just catch-ups and didn't happen all that often. About five years later, two of my students were heading for the Bay Area... one for grad school at Berkeley and the other to study acupuncture in The City. Neither knew a soul there, so I called Bill to see if he knew of any apartments that might be cheap but decent. When he answered the phone he was shouting. I wasn't quite sure what was going on. The conversation was pleasant enough and we were both glad to talk, but the shouting continued.  I asked him if he knew he was yelling. He stopped and was quiet for a minute. He told me that he had suffered a stroke and that, as a result,  sometimes he talked too loud. In some hopeful attempt to think about the positives, I said something like "At least you can still play music."  But no, he couldn't. He couldn't hit the right strings, and he had stopped playing altogether because it was so frustrating. I reminded him that he once told me "It all starts with one note. If that's all you can do, play that note until it is perfect."  He thanked me for reminding him, but he wasn't hopeful that he would ever play again. 

In one of the last adventures of Wild Bill, he went to hear David Bromberg play some small venue. He edged his way closer and closer to the stage until he was right up front, and it didn't take Bromberg long to recognize an old, old, friend. He stopped playing mid-song, walked to the front of the small stage, and asked "What?"  Bill said to him "You still can't play for shit," to which Bromberg retorted "And you are still short." Neither disagreed.

Although she still will not let me talk to him, Judy showed Bill this story. He approves. I'm good.