Friday, April 06, 2012

"Like space travel"

They can't all be gems.

I've been told this countless times when a column I've written has gone over about as well as a turd at a wedding. Sometimes I catch them before I send it to my editor, sometimes they get by me and make it in the paper. I woke up Sunday before last to write my column and it was all about Bobby Keys, the session saxophonist and semi-permanent sideman for The Rolling Stones. I hand wrote it all stream of consciousness like I do to get my thoughts and ideas down before going back and rearranging the puzzle of words, metaphors and punchlines. I thought it was ... okay. But then I woke up the next morning and rewrote an entirely new column and felt that it was better. That's the one you read last week.

I thought the original, the Keys version, was more time sensitive because his book, "Every Night's A Saturday Night," had just come out and I'd gone up to The Booksellers of Laurelwood only days before to hear him tell some stories about his episodes with Keith Richards, Elvis Presley, John Lennon and the like. So that column has no home unless I publish it here, which I will.

The book is good. It's not up to the level of Keith Richards's memoir, "Life," but a lot of the stories overlap and Keys is an encyclopedia of the music of the 1960s and '70s. I feel that, by the end, he comes across more as a hanger-on than a respected musician. He spent a lot of time broke, sleeping on someone's couch and hoping that Mick Jagger would deign to allow him to go on tour with the Stones just one more time. And this is when Keys was in his 40s, too old to be living like he did when he was 19.

His stories, though, of playing saxophone on Elvis Presley's "Return To Sender" (he had no idea he was playing on Elvis's record), or of how that great solo on "Can't You Hear Me Knocking" came about (one take), makes it worth any music fan's time to read. There is plenty to just skim past, but you'll want to re-read the chapters about his time spent with John Lennon, and how he went to England to record with Eric Clapton, but ended up on George Harrison's first solo album instead.

Keys pursued his dreams at the cost of family, health and sanity, at times, but he used his talents to the best of his abilities and it's that pursuit that is the theme of this column-that-wasn't. Here it is in all of its unpolished glory:

Because of my love for literature, and in an effort to pass that passion to my children, I took a couple of my kids to The Booksellers of Laurelwood last week for a book signing by Bobby Keys for his new memoir “Every Night’s A Saturday Night.” The kids left my side as soon as we entered to peruse the young adult section, only occasionally wandering by to hear what the longtime Rolling Stones and session saxophonist had to say.

On the way to the store, my son had asked who Keys is and I gave him a brief synopsis, including the fact that while on tour with the Stones they lived the life of excess. “What does that mean?” he asked.

“Drugs and booze,” I said. “The kind of things we don’t do, but others do and then write about so that we can read all about it.”

“Like space travel.”

“Exactly like space travel.”

It’s difficult, isn’t it? Warning your kids against a life of over-the-top debauchery when someone is out there who went toe-to-toe with Keith Richards and, not only lived to tell about it, but is still functioning and succeeding. The key (so to speak), I think, is to focus on what got him there: the talent and drive to succeed.

To this end, I introduced my 14-year-old son, who plays baritone and alto sax, to Bobby Keys. “I hated high school band,” Keys told him. “I liked the band bus, though. It was better than the football bus ‘cause we had girls on ours.”

Okay, so back to the music. Encouraging our kids in their pursuits is easy, it’s the fun part of parenting; the no-brainer. Explaining that things can be carried too far is trickier.

But it’s all tricky. I was talking with someone recently who was saying she’s glad she doesn’t have kids because there are so many difficult decisions to be made.

And there are.

It’s like space travel; it’s like being locked in an airtight capsule that’s whipping around the Earth at 17,000 mph and there are no brakes. There is no stopping to take a breath because there is no air up there. The best we can do is make minor adjustments to the flight path and hope that any single adjustment doesn’t send our kids hurtling into deepest space. Or on tour with the Rolling Stones in 1972.

I love music. I’m a huge Stones fan and would love nothing more than to see my kids excel at something they love as well, whether it’s medicine, finance, painting, cooking or the baritone sax. The trick is to make the right decisions, give a gentle nudge here and there and hope it’s in the right direction.

There may be nobody better for mentoring in pop music today than Bobby Keys, I just should have nudged him in more of a musical direction last week. I didn’t ask him for parenting advice, though he is a father himself. He has a son, his name is Huckleberry.

Bobby Keys during the recording of "Exile On Main St."