Author: Cornish, Rick

Cello’s Map; a Cautionary Tale
Since attending my first bluegrass festival in 1976 much of my life has been shaped by this music we all share in common. That said, I’ve worked very hard and been very careful not to allow my almost manic pursuit of traditional bluegrass, (listening to it, watching it performed, performing it myself, playing it with friends, building entire vacations around it and, eventually, working to preserve it through a non-profit), to interfere with the other parts of my life. I think family-wise I’ve done okay, (my wife, I’m sure, will have her own perspective on this), and with respect to my career I’ve been able to keep my avocation and my vocation pretty much separate. I say pretty much because once, twenty-five years ago, I allowed the two to get a little too close and the result was a near train wreck that could have destroyed, or at least severely damaged, my career. I’m going to tell you the story of that near collision this morning; I warn you, it’s a pretty long story, so read on at your own risk.

In the early eighties the Grass Menagerie was arguably the least-known bluegrass act in all of Northern California. (We still hold that dubious distinction, but that’s another story.) The band had only one goal at that time, and that was to play at Paul’s Saloon. (For those new to bluegrass, Paul’s Saloon was THE bluegrass venue on the West Coast for many years—everybody who was anybody on the national bluegrass scene played in that little hole in the wall in San Francisco’s Marina District.) The band, Dave Guarantee, Bill Schneiderman, Dave Woerner and I, practiced and we practiced and we practiced. And we sent an endless stream of demo cassettes and promo packages to San Francisco. What we lacked in raw talent we made up for in tenacity. Finally, after about a year of beating our heads against the wall, I received a phone call from the MAN, Paul Lampert. “You guys still want to play in my store (never understood why, but Paul always referred to his bar as ‘the store’)?” “Sure”, I said holding my breath, “when?” “When do you think? (Expletive.) Tonight! (Expletive. Expletive.) Why the (expletive) do you think I called you?”

That night, a rainy Saturday night, the Grass Menagerie debuted at Paul’s Saloon. We stood on the same tiny stage where Bill Monroe and Ralph Stanley and Jim and Jesse had stood. I can’t remember exactly how we went over that first time, but we must have been okay, because a couple months later Paul called back. Bingo, we were in.

Years later, after Paul had sold out and his “store” had become just another fern bar in the Marina, Lynn and I and Brijet and Ed Neff went sailing with him. As Paul and I stood alone steering the sixty-foot vessel underneath the San Francisco Bay Bridge, I finally had the chance to ask him a question that had been on my mind for a long, long time. “Do you remember that first time you called me, wanted us to play that very night? What was that all about?” “Oh,”, he said without hesitation, “it was that little Alison what’s-her-name…you know, the one who’s such hot stuff nowadays. She called me the morning of their booking at the Saloon and tried to hold me up for more money. Wanted three hundred. Hell no, I said to her, I pay what I pay. If that isn’t good enough, go find yourself a street corner.” He laughed that insane, snarling laugh of his. “So when she and her husband backed out, you know, at the last minute, who else could I get with such short notice? Nobody any damn good would have taken it.” A belated ‘thank you’, Alison.

But I digress. Back to the story at hand. After three years at Paul’s, our quartet seemed about as stable as a Lutheran choir when, one rainy, stormy Saturday night at the Saloon, in walked a guy who would change everything. He looked more like a panhandler than a musician (turned out he was both at the time.) This scruffy, soaking wet guy walks in with his fiddle case, listens till our break and then strides up to me with a huge, intense and unembarrassed grin and asks if he can sit in. I ask him what tunes he does and he smiles. "I don't really play 'tunes'," he says, "I just sort of play. But it comes out okay. You'll see." I didn't like the sound of the guy’s answer but there was something about him, something in his penetrating sky-blue eyes that seemed to hold me when he spoke. I said we'd maybe talk about it later and made no commitment.

By one-fifteen the place had pretty much emptied out and so I invited the stranger up on stage, much to the annoyance of the other three band members. To our collective surprise, he grabbed a chair on the way up, plopped it in the middle of the stage, sat down, put his fiddle between his legs as though it was a cello and said, "Let's do it, man." Well, we did it, and it was the kind of music I'd always known I would be a part of someday. His name was Cello, he was a street person, more or less, with a pregnant French wife and above all, he was a brilliant fiddler. Gypsy violinist. Cajun fiddler. Classical musician. Down and dirty rocker. And of course a gifted bluegrass and old time fiddler. He was all of these things, and by the end of the evening, he was also a member of the Grass Menagerie.

The problem was, however, that Cello and his wife (I think they were married), Monique, had no transportation, which is to say, no car. And they lived forty-five miles to the north in the City. Cello had a simple plan; he and his pregnant wife would hitch hike down for gigs. I was skeptical.

“That’s crazy,” I told him, “totally undependable. We’re standing on stage ready to start performing and you’re still at a freeway entrance in San Francisco.” Cello laughed and looked at me like I was a child and he was the adult explaining how things work.

“You ever hitch hike with a pregnant broad, man?” I hadn’t, but I caught his point.

They were able to hitch a ride down to San Jose for the first gig Cello did with us, (it was just a week after we’d met him at Paul’s), and afterward the two of them came home with me and slept in one of our guest rooms. And it was the very next morning that I veered slightly off the well beaten path and toward the train wreck ten years in the future. You see, Lynn and I had just moved into our new home up in the San Jose foothills and it was a damned big house. Two stories, four large bedrooms, huge family room, bigger living room, formal dining room, covered patio; just lots and lots of space. Way, way bigger than we needed. You see where this is going….the Grass Menagerie needed a fiddle player, one who lived in San Jose. Cello and Monique needed a roof over their head. There was the connection. It was simple, to me at least. My wife needed a little convincing. Okay, a lot of convincing, but in the end my crazy new band mate and his French wife were invited to move into one of our spare bedrooms. And they did.

Co-habitation actually went quite well. Lynn and I went to the office all day; Cello and Monique chilled at home, so they had the house to themselves. Each evening when we arrived home Monique had dinner ready….a live-in French chef! (Well, not every evening, but certainly when she felt like it….and when Lynn and I felt like eating vegetarian…, not Vegan.) Cello even did chores around the house. (I remember coming home one day and discovering that he’d drained my backyards entire water feature--waterfall, stream, pond, everything. Cello had a profound connection with my KOI pond and it’s inhabitants, though it had been years since that the raccoons had wiped out the latter. But that’s another story. ) The two of them contributed to groceries. And they were fun to have around. Lynn and I had become adults somewhere along the way…. professionals…..suburbanites…..home-owners and closing in on middle age. I’m not saying we were stick-in-the-muds by any me
Posted:  8/23/2008

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