We’ve talked about a lot of technical music stuff in this book, but to wrap things up I think we need to kick back for a moment while I tell you a story.
Hey, it wouldn’t be a book by Patrick Costello without at least one story now would it?
I was just a teenager when I had my first epileptic seizure. I don’t remember the seizure itself. All I know is that I was eating French toast watching television one moment and the next thing I knew I was being rolled through a CAT scan. To say it was a terrifying experience would be understating it more than a little a bit.
It was almost a full day before anybody got around to telling me what was going on. I was sitting in a hospital bed hooked up to an IV when this doctor strolled in and informed me that I was an epileptic. I’ll never forget the disinterested way he said it. He could have just as easily been informing me that I had a soup stain on my tie.
He hung around long enough to knock off a list of things I was never going to be able to do. He also informed me that I was going to be on medication for the rest of my life. He was wrong on all counts. Then he wandered off before I could ask a single question.
I thought that there was somebody in the next bed, but the blinds were closed so I couldn’t see him. In fact, I didn’t even know for sure if anybody was over there until the doctor was leaving and I heard this guy on the other side of the curtain cursing. I was too confused to pay much attention.
I just sat there by myself for a while until my folks came in to see me. We didn’t talk about what was going on that much because we really didn’t know for sure what was happening. Dear Old Dad brought my banjo and stuck it in the corner but I wasn’t in the mood to play.
Later that day one of the priests from our parish came in to see me. He was just as distant and as preoccupied as the doctor had been. Somewhere in the middle of his spiel he blurted out that God was punishing me.
He never said what he thought I was being punished for because he never got the chance. The curtain around the next bed flew open and there was this really big guy cursing and screaming at the priest to get out.
I thought I was flipping out again. Between the shock over what the priest had said and the sight of that very angry, very big dude thrashing around all I could really do was just sit there and watch the show unfold.
The thing I’ll never forget about the big guy was his tattoos. Back in the early eighties you didn’t see too many people in my hometown with that much ink on their skin. His arms were covered with spider webs, flames and dancing skeletons in so many colors that my eyes had a hard time taking them all in. He was the living image of an outlaw biker from a B-movie.
So there I was with this goofy priest on one side and the illustrated man on the other side when I finally realized what the big guy was so upset about.
He yelled at the priest about my visit from the doctor and that I was just a kid and the last thing I needed to hear was any kind of guilt trip. He said a bunch of other stuff that really can’t be printed here, but he basically gave the good father the choice of leaving or getting his fanny kicked up between his shoulder blades. The priest did the smart thing and left.
After the big guy calmed down he said a few things about how much my current situation sucked but that it wasn’t my fault. Then he tossed me a pack of cigarettes and a couple of dirty magazines and went back to sleep.
I was still in a blue funk the next morning and through most of the day. The biker dude got sick of watching me sit there and mope so he tried to give me a pep talk, but I wasn’t buying it. I was pretty much convinced that my life was over.
Finally he told me to get out of bed and go do something. I asked him what exactly he had in mind (I’m editing the language here pretty heavily, folks) and he pointed to my banjo case and suggested that I go play a few songs.
Then he said something I’ll never forget. “Maybe that’s why your old man brought it here. Maybe he’s trying to tell you something.”
So I put on my robe and walked out into the hall carrying my banjo and dragging an IV stand.
I wound up spending the day going from room to room playing the handful of songs I knew. At first I felt like an idiot walking up to strangers in a hospital trying to play the banjo with a tube sticking out of my arm, but after the first couple of visits something started to happen.
People were welcoming me with open arms. It was like, “Hey! The banjo’s here!” and the patients that I visited fussed over me like a member of the family. I played the banjo and sang songs like “You Are My Sunshine”. After listening and signing along for a while they would start talking.
They talked about anything and everything you could imagine. What they were afraid of, what they were dealing with and what they had done right and done wrong. It hit me that the music (not just the banjo, but the act of making and sharing music) was creating some sort of a connection with the folks I was visiting. They saw the banjo and found an opportunity for something. It’s hard to say what that something was because it was different for everybody I met that day. Some of them made me laugh and some of them cried on my shoulder. A couple of times I had family members stop me on the way out the door for a hug. People kept thanking me like what I was doing was some kind of a big deal and it took me a little while to realize that, to them, it was a big deal.
Someone had simply cared enough to show up. Somebody had come along with a smile and a couple of old folk songs to let them know that they weren’t alone. I was reaching people. I was making a difference, however small, in the lives of the people I was meeting.
I was also finding out that I had something I could share. I wasn’t useless. I had this banjo and I could use it to brighten my corner of the world even if only for the space of a few tunes.
By the time I wandered back to my room I knew what I was going to do with my life.
As I said earlier, we have discussed a lot of technical material in this book. I don’t want you walking away from this thinking that technique is the only thing involved here.
We work in a heartbreakingly transient medium. When a song is over it’s gone. We can play the same song over and over again but because of the variables involved we can never truly play a song exactly the same way twice.
With that in mind a “perfect” performance really doesn’t mean much. Nobody is ever going to remember if you play every note in a banjo solo with lighting speed or accuracy. People will hear it, say, “That’s nice” and immediately forget about it.
What people will remember is a feeling of connection with the musician. If all you can do is change a couple of chords and sing “Skip To My Lou” you can walk out your front door today and start singing for and with people. By the end of the week your hometown will be abuzz about how well you play.
A master banjo player isn’t the person who can pick the most notes. It’s the person who can touch the most hearts.