Updated: Dec 3, 2019
It's amazing what you learn about a person from just a 30-minute guitar lesson each week.
For many people, it's much more than just a guitar lesson; it's an escape, it's therapy, it's counseling. Bonding happens. The effects of music play out in many ways.
I have students that are high-powered doctors, surgeons, lawyers, corporate CEOs etc. For many, all they want to do is come into my studio, shut the door and turn off their pager or phone for 30 minutes and talk about music and the guitar. I've had guys who pay in taxes 10 times what I gross tell me they envy me because I do what I love and there's no pressure.
I think that's a somewhat romanticized notion of my life but it's basically true, more-or-less.
In Staying Sane in the Music Business (Part 3) I wrote about how music can transcend what it's being used for (eg. selling drinks) and can have life-changing therapeutic value for the listener even in a most depraved environment.
The same thing can happen with guitar lessons.
Unlike many of my stories this one will use real names and will have no blue dots over faces in the picture.
Sometime during the mid-eighties Irene signed up for guitar lessons. She was maybe around 70 years old at the time. She played piano but wanted help with playing church songs on the guitar.
It didn't take long for me to realize that there was more to it than that.
She was recently widowed and was casting about for things to do to help her through the grieving process.
She told me all about how she and her husband started out living in a trailer on a vacant lot in Kansas City, Kansas, with no electricity or indoor plumbing during the Great Depression. About how they built a garage door company from the ground up into a multi-million dollar business.
When her husband died he had a million dollar life insurance policy. So being the beneficiary, plus the proceeds from the sale of the business meant that Irene was set financially. She bought a new Cadillac every other year but would quibble over ten dollars out of a hundred dollar purchase. The Great Depression was never far removed from that generation.
In spite of the 30-something age difference, me and Irene clicked. She was a feisty, earthy and energetic old lady that I just knew was a real stunner when she was young. If only I had a time machine! Sometimes I wonder if maybe the Hindus are right about reincarnation and how we keep relating to the same souls over and over. That's one way to explain the unlikely chemistry, anyway.
The banter got more personal. At times I feared she was becoming inordinately attached to me. She told me that she loved me "in a spiritual way." She would give me very generous tips on my birthday and before Christmas. I had her over for Sunday dinner to meet my wife and kids. She expressed concern with the fact that I was raising 5 kids and cautioned me against working too much;
"That's what killed my husband" she said, "He never quit working."
Occasionally she would come out to my gigs - usually a son would bring her.
One night she was sitting at a front table on the edge of the dance floor. Two guys got into it right in front of the stage, there were some punches thrown and some blood spattered before the bouncers were able to break it up and throw the participants in the white-trash-male-bonding ritual out the front door. Irene was sitting ten feet from the action.
"I'm sorry you had to see that, Irene," I apologized.
"Oh don't you worry about it, honey! It's not anything I ain't seen before!"
She took guitar lessons for several years. When she finally quit she was actually in tears.
"I'm so sorry. I know you need the money with all those kids and whatnot!"
"Irene" I said, "I really appreciate your concern and all you've done. I've loved getting to know you. But you don't need to worry about me, I've got 80 students a week and a waiting list; your slot will be filled by next week. If you ever want to start back up, know that there will always be a place for you."
Years later, in 1994, I was playing a steady Friday matinee in a club called Mother Tucker's. One Friday Irene walked up to me.
"Irene!" I said, "I was just thinking about you the other day! How are you?"
"Oh, I'm good" she said, "But I can tell by looking at you that you're working too much! You need to slow down or you're not gonna see them kids raised!"
I told her I was working 70 to 80 hours a week but I was taking regular vacations every quarter and not to worry, I could manage.
In 2001 I had a breakdown and collapsed from sleep deprivation and chronic exhaustion. It was quite dramatic. It had all the elements; waking visions, panic attacks, out-of-control emotional swings - the whole nine yards.
"Damn!" I thought, "Irene was right!" Not only that; she had called it when I was only a little over a year into the schedule that caused it.
I recovered, more-or-less, and many more years went by.
About 15 years after the encounter at Mother Tucker's, at the Saturday Afternoon Jam at Harling's Upstairs, Irene walked up to me and said,
"Are you Jay EuDaly?"
"Irene! It's so good to see you! I thought of you just the other day and wondered if you were still alive!"
"Yes I'm still alive! I'm 95 years old and I climbed up them back stairs all by m'self!"
We sat and talked; I told her about my collapse in 2001 and about how she was right about what she said to me at that Friday matinee in 1994. She wanted to know if I was still married and was pleased to hear that I was, and how the kids were turning out and so on. It was a wonderful little reunion. I took a picture of her before she left.
A grandson had brought her up to the club, and as they left I gave her a business card and said, "Stay in touch."
The following Friday, six days later, I received a phone call that Irene had passed in her sleep the night before. My card was on the kitchen table and the caller didn't know who I was but thought maybe I'd like to know.
It turns out I had taken the last picture of Irene, and when I went to the visitation a week later, that picture was the one they used for the service.
I think she came up to Harling's to say goodbye.
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