Last Friday, I drove two hours to see one of my childhood guitar heroes, Johnny Winter, at The Birchmere Music Hall. Electric guitar already around his neck, Johnny was led to the stage by two assistants.
They walked him up a long ramp to the platform, then guided him to his center stage seat in front of his band. One assistant held the chair as he sat down. The other assistant adjusted his microphone. Then they just left him there in front of the band and a full house to sink or swim.
I knew he was legally blind, but I didn’t realize how feeble he seemed. He was on a compressed show schedule because of several blues festivals in the area. This show seemed to be one of those, since you’re already in the area kind of dates. I thought there was no way this man could make it through the night, let alone put on a show worth hearing. It was sad.
For a few silent seconds, Johnny just sat there like a tired old man waiting for an organ transplant that wasn’t coming. His thin arms seemed strained to grip the guitar, let alone play it. His band waited. We waited. Eyes closed, he spoke with a voice sounding older than the one speaking it. He whispered into the microphone: “One… two… one two three four…”
Johnny morphed from the led to the leader. Winter didn’t give his band time to catch a breath for the next 1.5 hours. Plus, he did a multi-song encore of loud blistering slide guitar. And he played loud and authoritative lead the whole time. The tired old man became the same energetic guitar phenomenon who, in 1968 at age 24, received the largest advance in music history at the time.
I bought his new CD, Roots, after the show. As I stood in the parking lot waiting to regain my night vision so I could search for the car, I noticed a group of people at an RV in the parking lot. Johnny Winter was inside signing everything from posters and CDs to guitars and body parts.
I gave my CD to Winter’s tour manager, and she placed it on the table in front of Johnny. I watched a tired old man lean forward until his nose almost touched the CD cover. His hand dragged the marker back and forth for a few seconds, then he raised his head so the tour manager could take the CD and put another in its place.
She gave me my CD, but I stuck around and watched him sign a few more items. A kid reached his guitar into the RV. Less than a minute later, it came back out, apparently possessing special powers. At least that’s how the kid treated his signed instrument.
When I got back home, I looked at the Johnny’s upcoming tour dates. He plays across the US and part of Europe this summer, then back to the states, then back to Europe. Not long ago, he toured Japan. And I doubted his ability to put on a good show because of a few back-to-back dates here on the east coast. I’m stupid, but I learn fast.
What did I learn from the tired old man? I learned he’s not one. Or at least he feels like one only when he’s not doing what he loves. It’s hard to notice things like age and fatigue when you’re playing instead of working. That’s when you’re too busy to be bothered by such trivial things.
I listen too much to my own aches and pains, and I’m 20 years younger than Johnny. May I be more in tune with what lies beyond the physical. I want to be more like that tired old man.
An interviewer once asked Johnny if he ever grew tired of playing. He said he gets tired of touring but never of playing. He said he always thought it might be kind of cool to die onstage, but he wasn’t sure if the fans would enjoy it.
His brother Edgar Winter had a hit in the early 1970s called Frankenstein. Somehow I wouldn’t be surprised if Edgar had sung about his older brother Johnny all along. Just when you think it might be over for good, there’s that raspy whisper again…
“One… two… one two three four…”