Communication Currents

Kind of Blue: Re/playing Memories and Stories through Music

August 1, 2014
Theater & Performance

Has listening to certain music ever taken you back to a particular place, time, and a flood of memories? Performance studies scholars claim that music works on us; it materially moves us into new places of possibility over years of listening, singing, playing, and dancing along. It’s a deeply embodied, intimate knowledge that keeps resonating as it continually recreates our identities, relationships, and individual as well as collective historical moments.

Listening closely to music I have loved and returned to across many years, I suddenly hear silent spaces in between the soundtracks of my daily life and re/member the man who first taught me to truly listen to music, to perform, and to engage deeply with artists and audiences.

Miles Davis said that music can serve to open up spaces for stories buried in the bottom of our memories. Listening to Davis, I am taken back to my hometown of San Angelo, TX, where I am always haunted by the sudden death of my favorite uncle, a man I have tucked away into family photos, old mix tapes, and dusty album covers. Music compels us to listen beyond the music into absences from the past and traverse music’s complex mappings of place, time, culture, memory, and the politics of representation. As we revisit the music and musicians we love, we can consider how our lives have been and always will be transformed by music. What are your musical citations, your stories about/around/between music, and how can music help us to re/member, to play our complicated love stories in ways that matter?

On April 19, 1999, there was a single car crash on the Barnhart Highway out past Mertzon, TX, about 30 miles from my hometown of San Angelo. The driver turned right at the single flashing-light intersection, possibly headed toward Sterling City, when his beat-up old car rolled over. San Angelo resident Grady Davis Gaston Jr. (a.k.a. “Buzzy”) was pronounced dead at the scene. He was only 46 years old.

I have been able to travel many miles away from my home in West Texas, but I always carry part of my uncle and his huge collection of vinyl with me. These records remind me of who I am and where I come from—when I stop to listen. Uncle Buzzy introduced me to Miles Davis, Joni Mitchell, and the Beatles at a young age. He accompanied me on guitar in the third-grade talent show when I precociously sang The Beatles song “Something”: “Something in the way she moves/Attracts me like no other lover.” I fell in love with performance and music on that musty proscenium stage next to Buzzy. As a kid, I got to spend a lot of time with my uncle; my brother and I often stayed at Granny and Grampa’s house, where Buzzy almost always lived.

We would listen to his huge vinyl collection together, and he would tell me about Miles Davis and jazz music, which always sounded exotic blaring out of the old console in my grandparents’ humble, hodgepodge living room on Grierson Street. I still have the mix tapes Buzzy made for me, with Davis front and center. My uncle gave me my first earth-shattering Joni Mitchell album, Blue, and he filled my Top 40-saturated ears with Eric Satie, Phillip Glass, jazz, rock, folk, blues, and country and western music. He taught me how to listen to the architecture of music, to hear each intricate part that added up to a whole gestalt, and to study carefully the details of artists’ lives, liner notes, album covers, and musical performances as an interpretive act of love, desire, and survival.

We also played baseball, went for long walks in Santa Rita Park, sang together, and danced around and around the old circular coffee table screaming to The Beatles’s “Birthday”: “You say it’s your birthday/It’s my birthday, too, yeah!” My many hours and years of listening to music with Buzzy, our relationship defined by the music we shared, became a deeply situated, embodied knowledge and a bridge for me into becoming a performer and scholar.

Buzzy was “kind of blue,” a bearded, long-haired musician born in 1953. He smoked marijuana in the late 1960s and 1970s, got busted, lost his best high school friend to suicide, tried numerous times to finish a college degree in music at the University of North Texas, and never really left home or held down a job for long. He somehow lost his cool, his confidence, and his ability to perform in the adult world.

Growing up, my family mostly attributed Buzzy’s sometimes severe anxiety, sensitivity, and explosive rage to his drug use. He was a wildly talented and intelligent musician, a “yellow dog Democrat,” and a handsome, baby-faced man. He could get onstage to play at my elementary school talent shows or at local music festivals and jam with friends, but he backed out suddenly from playing at my engagement party in Granny’s backyard. I had been gone quite awhile by then— I jumped from San Angelo to Lubbock to Austin to St. Louis to Chicago. Maybe I had put too many miles between myself and my Uncle Buz? Perhaps his undiagnosed illness had gotten worse over time?

After leaving home, I still dearly loved my boyish and at times difficult uncle, but like other family members, I had grown increasingly frustrated with his periodic explosions, seeming laziness, and total reliance on the limited resources of my grandparents. We walked on eggshells around him and worried about what would become of him. I realize now that his mental illness did not allow him to escape the narrow confines of West Texas as I had and grow into the artist he was meant to be. Few of us knew exactly how to “listen” to Buzzy. He had no medical insurance, and, as working-class Texans, we did not gravitate toward psychotherapy. Like Davis, Buzzy was a complicated figure of violent creativity.

Was music an escape for Buzzy, as it is for so many fans and musicians? A way to cope with daily struggles, to survive, and even transform inside the intense beat, wail, and rhythm of sound? Buzzy taught me that music is a way to expand our narrow worlds when we need shelter and stimulation and joy; it is also a visceral means by which to feed our inherent need for playfulness and rebellion. I wonder what happened to my uncle in that beat-up old car right before he crashed. Was he jamming out and singing along to the Leon Russell tape found in his car stereo? Was he suddenly blinded by the pain of migraines he had been suffering, pain so unbearable he was told not to drive? Was he buzzed on the beers he was not supposed to drink because of the migraine medications? Was he asleep at the wheel? I like to imagine that he was simply enjoying the drive, headed nowhere in a desolate, limited landscape.

Some days, when I feel the familiar beat and thrum of my own jagged anxiety and fear, I think of my uncle’s illness. I did not see his body when he died—I did not want to—but I now wish I had seen him because his death has never felt quite real to me. Music and this personal narrative allow me to finally eulogize my uncle who gave me so much love, art, play, and unconditional support as a girl. Buzzy taught me the importance of listening, the discipline of performing, as well as the pain of “being stuck” as an artist, and the huge risks required to step onto a stage.

Joni Mitchell croons, “Blue...songs are like tattoos/You know I’ve been to sea before/Crown and anchor me/Or let me sail away/Hey Blue, there is a song for you” (“Blue”). Can you hear the push and pull of endless possibilities in the music? I can. To my Uncle Buzzy, who finally found a way to sail away into song.

About the author (s)

Deanna B. Shoemaker

Monmouth University

Associate Professor