108 chances

June 14, 2007   |   Leave a reply

memphis slim at antone’s in austin, tx, 1986-ish
(mel brown under the hat behind him, sitting at the b-3)

Buddhists say that in every moment there are 108 opportunities to wake up fully and completely, to transcend the sorrows of this world and attain bliss without end. You might find your moment in the sunset or the blossoming of a flower, from making love, hearing your teacher’s voice, taking a sip of water, falling ill, or stubbing your toe. For me, one such moment came while listening to the blues in a bar in Austin, Texas where I worked as a bartender. For a few hours, I transcended the sorrows of this world and felt around in the space of bliss without end like a blind man in a hotel room. I never actually saw it, but I know I was there.

On this particular night, Memphis Slim was playing at this club, Antone’s: Austin’s Home of the Blues. He was an influential piano player and blues shouter who had expatriated himself to Paris in the 60s. Tonight, my night off, he was going to play his first stateside gig in more than twenty years. Joining him was the guitar player with whom he had recorded in the 50s, Matt “Guitar” Murphy.

I came in through the screen door in the alley out back, waved to whoever was tending bar that night, kissed my friends hello, and made my way to my favorite seat-directly stage right, a few feet from the steps leading up to it. From here, I could just about read the set list on the floor by the mic stand. I looked around and realized that 250 of the 300 or so people in the room were my friends and acquaintances and that I was seated amidst these lovely people in the best seat in the best house, getting ready to hear the best music. So I sat back and swallowed a tab of Ecstasy.

The house band played a few numbers before bringing Memphis Slim up to a standing ovation. And you almost had to stand to see all of him anyway-he was so tall, so elegant and slender, black-haired still except for one beautiful gray diamond at the center of his forehead. He sat down and began with “Mother Earth,” one of his best-known songs.

I don’t care how great you are,
Don’t give a damn what you’re worth.
When it all comes down,
You’ve got to come back to Mother Earth.

His playing was completely relaxed and his voice boomed out, commanding and round. Everyone was already in love with him, with where he came from, who he was, what this night represented, the songs he played-but he didn’t care. He just played. It was very simple and totally perfect. I listened on. My new boyfriend, the guitar player, was on stage backing Memphis Slim, and he sounded like a genius to me-knew exactly where to fill, where to lay back, where to mimic the old records, where to throw in something completely new, all in service to the song. Between numbers, he would look to make sure I was still there and wink when he saw me. This was already ecstasy, no?

I began to feel happier and happier, maybe even beyond the beyond of happiness. Was it the drug? Or was it the music, present and real, emanating from a generation that was just about to pass on? Maybe it was the warmth I felt toward my friends or that I was in love with my new boyfriend, on stage, playing like a dream, so subtle, so exact. Soon these thoughts and feelings passed out of ordinary existence and became like songs themselves-songs of home, of rest, and of contentment. I listened to how they were contained in the music I was hearing, and how they weren’t. With each note, each perfect fill, each full stop, my sense of happiness escalated. I began to ride great waves of wellbeing. At a certain point, I wasn’t sure if I could handle much more.

What comes after happiness? Have you ever asked yourself that? Well I took a little peak over the edge and saw the incinerating quality of bliss. It could singe you and scorch you and there wouldn’t be anything left. I drew back and breathed, long and deep. Then something ceased to be and its cessation is what caused me to notice it, like when you turn off a television you hadn’t realized was on. I stopped being afraid. I stopped being anywhere but right there, on the spot, and simply being there fully was delight itself. I realized that until this point, my entire life-every decision, every relationship, every job, every haircut, every word-had been driven by fear. I saw that this was completely, utterly unnecessary and I started to laugh. How silly I’d been to spend my whole life thinking anything could harm me! Everything was perfectly fine exactly as it was, always had been and always would be. The times I had been happy and the times I had been sad were just moments stacked in perfect sequence to create the perfect composition that was the perfect now. I drew in the antenna that checks the environment for malicious content because there was nothing to guard against, nothing at all. There was a sudden feeling of great space and in that space I saw that what had appeared as fear was actually just another form of ecstasy. This is what I saw, what I knew. Then, like every moment, it passed into non-being-along with the song I was hearing, the song I wasn’t hearing, along with Memphis Slim, the Blues itself, and all those friendly waves and kisses. I was alone again with my conventional mind. So I exhaled and came back to Mother Earth.

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