Christmas daydreaming connects loose threads

by Brian Clarey

Crashing the gate.

Man, I’ve been slacking lately. It’s probably stress, or an excess of holiday lackadaisicalness, or maybe I’m just a moron. Either way, I’ve got to sharpen up in 2009. Did you happen to see the corrections section this week? There’s a couple of doozies in there, each of which is completely my fault. How could I forget Doc’s last name? I’ve only interviewed him about a dozen times. In my defense, “Doc” Don Beck, who owns the Blind Tiger, has a remarkably similar name to “Doc” Don Lucas, who is a nationally renowned tattoo artist from Wisconsin who would occasionally come in to drink at Igor’s in New Orleans while I was tending bar. Like 10 years ago. Is that how it happens? When the years slide together in a greasy slipstream, so that events that took place last year are recalled with the same immediacy as incidental crap from other lifetimes? Is this what growing old means? Or am I just totally losing it? I remember Doc Lucas, even though I only spoke with him twice, probably because he was one cool son of a bitch, and also because he lent me a bit of street cred here in Greensboro years ago when I dropped his name the first time I ever interviewed “Little” John Bury, the late tattooist, businessman and philanthropist (of a sort) who brought the Carolina body-art scene to prominence. Little John had a couple of pieces, if I recall correctly, inked by Doc Lucas. Little John was my entrée into the local tattoo culture — the annual Greensboro convention he started has probably been covered by every journalist in town by now — but he also clued me in to the huge subculture of the 12-step program here in the Triad. Most of Little John’s circle were in some form of recovery when I interviewed him in 2001 for ESP magazine, but it wasn’t until years later that I learned another friend and interview subject had followed a similar path. Yes, Ralph Speas, the grand old gentleman who has been documenting blues musicians who pass through town for the Piedmont Blues Preservation Society for, what, like a hundred years now, told me in 2005 that I was welcome at his non-denominational 12-step group.

But Ralph and I share a stronger bond through the blues than our predisposition to intoxicants. I’ve been interested in the form since my Aunt Lisa used to play her records for me back in the ’70s in my grandparents’ house on Morris Avenue in New Jersey. The blues influenced my burgeoning musical tastes and led me to collect records and CDs by guys like BB King, Otis Spann, Buddy Guy, Johnny Winter, David Bromberg, Robert Cray, Jimi Hendrix (specifically the Blues album) and Stevie Ray Vaughan, who broke it down and chopped it up like nobody before or since. It also likely influenced my decision to move to New Orleans, where I was living when I heard the news of Stevie Ray’s passing. I cried that day. But a couple years later I was still in New Orleans and working at a cheesy joint on Bourbon Street called Rhythms where the house band, fronted by Willie Lockett, would occasionally cease their barrage of watered-down French Quarter classics like “Mustang Sally” and “Strokin’” and allow a guest to sit in. And that is where I met Rodney “Guitar Slim Jr.” Armstrong. Armstrong was the son of the legendary Eddie “Guitar Slim” Jones, he of “The Things That I Used to Do,” or so he claimed, but when I met him all he had to his name was a scorching crack addiction, a certificate noting a Grammy nomination in 1988 (for traditional blues) and a yellow Fender Stratocaster with bass frets that, again he claimed, was given to him by Stevie Ray. I can’t verify that, but I can confirm that the night Guitar Slim slept on my couch, my downstairs neighbor, a woman named Betty Hoadley who was also my landlord, awoke to find her front window broken and her television gone. I don’t know that Slim did it, but I do know that the next time I saw him he didn’t remember me. Also, his nose was broken and the guitar and certificate were no longer in his possession. And this is exactly what I’m talking about: This particular train of thought, which spans 20 years and three or four cities, is the kind of free association that’s been plaguing my mind of late, where the threads of my life seem to weave together in a way that actually makes some sense. Crazy. And distracting — if I keep letting my mind wander like this, I’ll never get anything of consequence done. To comment on this story, e-mail Brian Clarey at