Saturday, October 30, 2004

The Day Jim Henniberry Taught Me To Play Guitar

We are creatures of such faith to presume with the most gossamer evidence that our actions yield effects that go beyond our own mortality. Most of the time, we simply close our eyes and hope.

Jim Henniberry was my best friend in high school. He was tall, thin, with milky white skin, Huck Finn freckles, and long curling dusty hair that rolled down his shoulders, like Peter Frampton, but the young Frampton, not the old one of today. He was “pretty”, really, by every definition of that word.

We met in sophomore year running cross-country together. Bonded in pain, we became friends though by every rule we shouldn’t have. Jim was different from me.

For one thing, he had trouble gaining weight. He was always creating concoctions of protein mix to try to get bigger, because it was a struggle for him. Of all my friends in high school, Jim was the most “eclectic”. That was the word we were using to describe the types of kids who tried out for cross-country. They were the kids who understood the joke: “there are 10 kinds of people in the world: those that understand binary and those that don’t.” We not only understood that joke, but we laughed at it.

Jim had a pet tarantula, which he would take out and let walk up and down his arm. While other kids had jobs in department stores or supermarkets, Jim would take the train into the city every Saturday to pick up collected specimens of butterflies from a place in the Village. He would bring them home, then mount them with pins onto framed boards, only to hustle them back into the city the following week. He was paid piecework for each butterfly.

One of Jim’s many prized possessions was a French rolling machine, ostensibly to roll tobacco, but he used it to make perfect joints. He smoked dope, but never around me. He dropped acid, but I never knew until years later.

During each race, he would reach a point where he would scream at the top of his lungs. For the longest time we were under the belief that he was summoning some inner warrior spirit to help him climb the hills, or pass other runners. Only later did I learn that Jim would drop acid before races. I can only imagine what horrific things he saw chasing him through those woods during races. It certainly helped his time, as he was one of our best runners, which gives a whole new meaning to the idea of “performance enhancing drugs”.

Despite these things that made us so different, I would sit in Jim’s house almost every day after school, upstairs, in his attic-room with slanted ceilings and partitioned sleep space. We accepted who we were to each other gently and effortlessly.

Of all of his passions, his greatest was the guitar. Jim was into fusion jazz: the Mahavishnu Orchestra with John McLaughlin, Larry Correal, Spyra Gyra and Herbie Hancock. He had a low-key, stylish Fender Strat with earphones he would plug in so he wouldn’t bother his parents. He was good, but more importantly, he didn’t know how good he was and that made him cool.

We argued endlessly about music. I argued that the Beatles were the greatest musicians ever and that Paul McCartney could play Beethoven’s Fifth using only a tug boat horn.

Jim liked his jazz, and preferred the Stones gritty blues rock over the Beatles’ early pop chord progressions. We argued as if it had meaning, as if the conclusion of this debate would actually change something. These were the discussions of our youth.

One day I asked Jim if he would teach me the guitar. I admit that I had, on occasion, been known to pull out a tennis racket, stand in front of a mirror and belt out a few strains of I Should Have Known Better, or Happy Just to Dance With You. (I was always John Lennon, of course.)

So it was logical that I should ask Jim to teach me how to play. He had an old Harmony acoustic guitar in the corner of his room he said he would sell to me for $25. The first thing he taught me was a bass line to a Mahavishnu Orchestra song: a repetitive run up the E-string echoed by the same 4 note run up the A-String. He would fill around this bottom line with a blizzard of cool licks, bending notes and double bar chords that sparkled. I can still hear the echo and response riff, and I sometimes still play the bass line, imagining Jim playing the lead.

The action on the Harmony was bloody murder. With no calluses yet, it was like fingering one of those wire cheese slicers whenever I would press on a fret.

I took the guitar home and bought a couple of easy play books with the chords pictured above the words. I bought Dylan, Paul Simon, Joni Mitchell, The Beatles, Woody Guthrie. Jazz was okay, but my heart was pulling me toward the more lyrical, the more verbal, the simple three-chord composition that was core of folk/pop/rock music.

Over time, Jim gave up trying to teach me bar chords and more jazz solos. I wanted words. I did learn some bar chords on my own, and as I played more, I was actually able to pick up songs by ear, but I never strayed far from the simplicity of the old adage: “more than three chords is just showing off”.

Much later, when I had my family, I sang to my children often until they no longer wanted me to, and even then I would sneak in every so often just to play.

All of this puts me in mind of cause and effect and how we often change things without ever being aware. I have a son now who is old enough to not need his parents for the basic things; whose core passion is music. I introduced him to the guitar in grammar school and the gleam has never his eye. Not only does he want music in his life, but he wants to make his living by making music.

So I sit back now and think about Jim Henniberry and his impact on my life. I think about how lives intersect at such odd angles. A few years ago, as a wave of nostalgia washed over me like rain, I tracked him down by phone. He was living in Texas when I called him. He had two girls now, proof, I suppose, that LSD didn’t affect chromosomes the way they said it did. We talked fondly of high school and other friends – those still around and those who have moved on.

I am a great believer in closing circles whenever I can, so I told him about the guitar, my son, and how music filled every room in our house, in a large part due to him. I thanked him.

I can’t really say how he took it, whether he was embarrassed, or whether he was not even touched at all. All I know is that it is a very rare moment when we can see someone’s actions ripple through a life and, like a billiard ball, affect change.

Because of Jim, perhaps someday my son’s voice will be added to the vast cannon of music that defines us as human. I don’t think Jim ever thought about that as he played his Larry Correal, or Clapton covers. He wasn’t thinking of my children or his when he tried in vain to teach me that jazz riff. I certainly know I didn’t.

But this is a blessing, just the same. Just like happening upon a rainbow after a storm when no one else is around to witness it. You stop, you look around and see no one else around and you think, “Why me?” You say thanks, and just move on.

MB 2004


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