I was rummaging around on my hard-drive, looking for something I know is there, someplace, or at least it was, some time long ago – I mean, there’s stuff on this drive that goes back to 1984, when I bought my first MacIntosh – and not finding it. But I bumped into some stuff I’d forgotten was there. Here’s some passages that didn’t make the final cut for Beethoven’s Anvil, my book on music. The first is about a golfer who rose above his usual level while playing against Tiger Woods.Then we go to music and end up with a band from upstate New York, The Out of Control Rhythm and Blues Band. I played with them for a few years and two gigs stand out in my mind as being a cut above the others and, believe me, there are some very find gigs among those others.
What, you might ask, do golf and the blues have to do with one another? Simple, you do them with your body.
Bob May Rises to Woods
Let us, for a moment, return to athletics. During the period in which I have written this book [I was working on the book in 1999-2000], Tiger Woods established himself as arguably the greatest golfer in history, and he is not yet thirty, which is a prime time for golfers, though other athletes are often on the decline by that time. In particular, Woods became the youngest golfer ever to complete a so-called Grand Slam, winning the four most prestigious tournaments in the game – the British Open (open meaning that both professionals and amateurs compete), the United States Open, the Master’s, and the PGA (Progessional Golfer’s Association) – and, beyond that, winning three of them in a single season.
However, it’s not Tiger Wood who interests me. Yes, he may well be the greatest golfer in history. And whatever role natural athletic endowment plays in that greatness, one must also consider the amount of time Woods spent playing golf at a very early age. By the time he was five he may well have logged more hours playing golf than any other five-year-old in history. Given what we now know about the brain’s maturation, that implies that Woods’ may be more intimately attuned to the requirements and rhythms of golf than any other player. And that is why he will raise the bar on golfing excellence. But, as I said, the mystery of his excellence is not the mystery I want to think about.
I’m interested in the man he beat to win the 2000 PGA. That man, Bob May, is slightly older than Woods – 31 years old at the time, as against Woods’ 24 – and was, as they say, a journeyman player. No one would have picked him to finish in the top 10, much less to play so well that he was tied with the phenomenal Tiger Woods at the end of regulation play, thereby forcing a play-off. Woods, as we know, won that play-off – oddly enough, by recovering from some spectacularly bad shots – and, in doing so, was simply being Tiger Woods. This was certainly an above average performance from Woods, but it was within what we have to assume is his range.
Bob May played above himself. This was not in his normal performance range; it was an exceptional game. What, physically, does that mean? In a general way it surely means that the muscles in his body and the neurons of his nervous system were coordinated more exactly than they’d ever been before. And this coordination was in effect, not for a minute, or an hour, or even for the five hours it takes to play a round of golf. For golf tournaments are contested in four rounds played over for days. Thus, for four days in late August of 2000, the 31st year of his life, Bob Woods was more synchronized and harmonized than he’d ever been. He was, to use a theological term, inspired.
Granted that, without a deeper understanding of bodily movement that statement doesn’t have much teeth to it; but it will do as a ball-park characterization. Things clicked and, once they got started clicking, they stayed that way.
High on Music
How are we to weigh and understand the following testimony, the first by Branford Marsalis, the second by Eric Clapton?
 High, you feel high. It's easy to do it physically, but it's hard to do it mentally. I feel that musicians who say it happens every time they play are full of shit. The sublime cannot be routine. Three times, and you never forget them. It's with a combination of musicians, it's never just me. It's a massive rush of adrenaline which comes at a certain point. Usually it's a sharing experience; it's not something I could experience on my own. . . . other musicians . . . an audience . . . Everyone in that building or place seems to unify at one point. It's not necessarily me that's doing it, it may be another musician. But it's when you get that completely harmonic experience, where everyone is hearing exactly the same thing without any interpretation whatsoever or any kind of angle. They're all transported toward the same place. That's not very common, but it always seems to happen at least once a show.
Are these guys talking about the same thing? Branford’s experience happened only three times whereas Clapton’s seems quite common and almost predictable, despite his disclaimer. Is one a better musician than the other? Or do rock and jazz make different demands and give different rewards? All of the above?
As for myself, I experienced musical ecstasy in my mid-20s. It didn’t last long, but for a few moments there was nothing but music and light. It was a powerful experience, one I thought about for years. But I can’t say I feel any need or desire for more such experiences, not any more. My routine level of musical performance is much higher now than it was then, my capacity to groove with others is much deeper. Still, there are gigs and there are gigs.
Out of Control
For about a decade near the end of the previous century I played with the Out of Control Rhythm and Blues Band in upstate New York. We had about three or four gigs a month—mostly local clubs, private parties, and weddings. In my six or seven years with the band two gigs stand out above all the others, and one of the two was just a bit better than the other one. We played these gigs within the space of a month—I believe, in fact, they were no more than a week or two apart.
The gigs were in very different venues. The first one was for a Parent’s Day dance at Skidmore College, an exclusive private school in Saratoga Springs. The second gig, the better of the two, was a club date in a sports bar in North Troy that had a large biker clientele that night. Two very different venues,two different crowds, but both were dancing crowds, which certainly affected the band’s performance.
Band personel shifted from year to year, but none of the players were full-time professional musicians. During the period in question the band consisted of a lawyer, an advertising executive, a commercial photographer, a car salesman, two men who drove trucks for beverage distributors, and me, a freelance technical writer and independent scholar. I don’t know whether the other players judge these gigs as highly as I do—though they certainly felt they were good at the time.
And I should emphasize that my judgement of these gigs is not a judgement about my own playing. I got a fair amount of solo space in general, and I had my usual slots for these gigs. However, I don’t remember anything outstanding in my performance at these particular gigs—that’s a different list. I remember these gigs because the band felt loose, free, rockin’ and tight as a frog’s bottom. We were in synch, among ourselves and with the crowd.
I do not know whether or not anyone in that band was ecstatic on either of these nights. I certainly was not. Nor do I think it matters much, aesthetically, morally. Intellectually, that’s a different matter. That’s about understanding what happens. We’ve hardly even begun that journey.
* * * * *
Bob May’s inspired performance was his alone. Out of Control’s inspired performances belong, not only to the seven musicians in the band, but also to dancers in the crowd, and to the others as well, though in lesser measure.
Beyond this, I don’t mean to imply that the band’s performance on those two gigs is comparable to Bob May’s performance in any way other than the fact that he played above his game, and so did we. His routine game is surely better than ours was, and so was his transcendence. That is not the point.
Every athlete and every musician has her routine game. And at some point in her life, and maybe more than one, she plays above her routine level. Most of us have had an experience in some sphere of our lives that lifts us out of ourselves and thereby becomes a touchstone against which we measure our lives. If we live long enough and well enough we may even grow beyond measuring our lives against those moments while still treasuring them and telling stories about them, to our children and grandchildren, our nieces and nephews, to our friends and their children. Those story-tellings are themselves moments of sympathetic communion with our fellows and the connected tissue of those tellings is one of the means by which we preserve and assert our values.