WHAT THE RIGHT HAND DOESN'T KNOW...
In Fall 2000, I began to experience pain that originated in my neck and referred through my right arm and hand. By the beginning of January 2001, it had become all consuming, my foremost thought day and night; a kind of occupying foreign power that had taken over my body. And there were times when my right hand just shut down, refusing to do as it was told.
Visits to every relevant specialist, endless hours of physical therapy, fistfuls of pills, and innumerable diagnostic tests were for naught. One particularly memorable exam consisted of having needles planted up and down my arm, entrenched so deeply they drew blood, each serving as the conduit for an electric shock. The lab technician, a West African gentelmanman with quite a few scars, calmly and matter-of-factly informed me that such tests were like torture, in that people's capacity for enduring the pain varied greatly. I suspected he brought this up because of personal experience.
Finally, after failing to get relief from oral steroids, I took my last stand, a visit to a neurosurgeon. He gave me the kind of bad news that was good for his business. I had a pinched nerve in my neck, the result of a disc injury, and in his opinion my best option was the knife, his knife. When I asked about potential negative effects of the operation, he responded with dull dispiritedness, in a Newtonian – Gingrich, that is – tone: "Well, death…quadriplegia." But, he reassured me in a manner I am told is typical of his specialty, he hadn't lost a patient yet from this operation, after many times at bat, either in toto or below the neck.
I resigned myself to a seemingly inevitable if scary surgery. The risks seemed tolerable. The pain was not. Beyond the formidable physical hurt lay the existential prospect of never being able to play my instruments again.
Life is my music. The great dramaturg in the sky had chosen to climacticize my very real sense of terror by scheduling for me a performance just a few days before my surgery. It was a really interesting one I desperately wanted to give, not just a gig, and with a favorite longtime collaborator. But my right hand's intermittent work stoppages were not on my side.
However, "the show must go on" is an article of faith among my musical tribe. And fortunately, as so often happens when I play, I caught and coasted on a wave of benevolent neurotransmitters. It was an ecstatic performance, generously received by a supportive audience. Under other circumstances, this would have made for a great night. But the adrenalin and dopamine retired for the evening not long after I finished playing. And then the purportedly miniscule yet very real possibility that I wouldn't be doing this ever again kicked in.
The surgery worked, more or less. My right hand came home. The pain receded, though different, redistributed, post-surgical pain will surely follow me the rest of my days, doubtless in no small part because I now support my head with a good deal less neck than I had before.
And my right hand has never been quite the same.
And then there was the trial. After 3.5 years of unanticipated – and decidedly unwanted – Workers Compensation litigation, my attorney and their attorney determined I was "13.5% permanently, partially disabled," a figured derived from an out-of-court settlement, rather than my embodied reality. My lawyer had originally asked for 19%.
My doctor, on the other hand – actually on the hand in question, my right hand – observed that I had lost one of three reflexes in my right arm. What did that mean for me as a player? I can't quite put my finger on it and that's only partly a pun. I can't quantify the loss of feeling beyond what my doctor told me, but I know it's there. I find myself looking a great deal at my right hand when I play. That's unusual and typically unnecessary, since there are only so many places it can go and they should all feel different.
Forty-six years ago, I began my guitar journey on a borrowed instrument. So, like a lot of other lefties, notably including country music immortal Lefty Frizzell, I play right-handed. Understandably, my right hand has never been my greatest asset. But now, it had become a distinct liability. My less kind, co-instrumentalist colleagues might describe its post-operative technique as somewhere between awkward, ugly, and non-existent. A merciless self-critic of my playing, I would not at first have disagreed, although I would eventually embrace the idea that, rather than any of those negative things, my technique was simply unorthodox and suited to different music.
It never occurred to me to quit. My arm felt so much better after the surgery that I dove right back in. By "felt," I mean of course that I was in much less pain, not that my sense of touch had improved.
My first performance, just days after the end of my six-week disability leave from my teaching job, was, for reasons unrelated to my recovery, the best day ever in my musical life. It was a performance of one of my own compositions at the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, in the old Lorraine Motel, where the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated by James Earl Ray. Among those with whom I played was tenor saxophonist Herman Green, introduced to me as an alumni of the Count Basie Band. There was a nice chemistry – figuratively that is – between us. I ran into him again that night on Beale Street. I later learned that Herman had also worked with Lionel Hampton, Miles Davis, John Coltrane (!), Isaac Hayes, and Booker T. and the MG's. And now, he had played with little me. (At 5'3. 5", I mean "little" literally.)
Every bit as cool as performing that day, I was also invited to speak. The occasion was the opening of not one but two exhibits celebrating Black-Jewish relations. As my reward for coming to Memphis to play my Afro-Semitic composition, Shema Africa, I got to address an audience of King's people, mostly members of his tribe and mine. My cup had runneth over.
This was a bass guitar gig. I was still too wounded and weak to bring my beloved '66 Fender Jazz, which is almost as tall as I am. So I had to borrow one, have it carried for me, and play seated. But it was still the instrument of choice upon which to be reborn. A bass has only four, widely spaced strings, each of them a quite different magnitude of round and fat, easy to discern by touch even for tactilely challenged me. I was back in the damn game! Hallelujah!
There's something about bass and guitar and National Steel and even ukulele, all my main instruments, each played in a tight, warm embrace. I imagine Gertrude Stein would have understood that they're all a little like San Francisco that is, nothing like Oakland. When you hang onto an instrument for dear life when you play it, there's some "there there." I played piano for a few years, too, but I could never psych myself up to play it in public. I was never comfortable playing an instrument one sat at, like a desk, rather than being joined to like a lover. Hugging my sonic dance partner would become all the more important as this phase of my guitar journey evolved.
Being a soloist is very different from being a band member or a leader. Some aspects of it were quite liberatory. Scheduling rehearsals was easy, as were managing personnel and finances. The big question that remained was what might I do as an individual artist. It was a new world for me, one I was facing as a member of the partially, permanently disabled list.
I sing only under duress and no one was forcing me. So I developed two, related repertoires. I tell stories, accompanied by ukulele or guitar. They're non-fiction and political, often concerning disability issues. I'm incapable of fiction, but I also find it unnecessary. Life is plenty strange. I just say what happened. People usually laugh.
More important though – I'm only an occasional storyteller – I started composing a repertoire for solo acoustic guitar. That's not quite accurate. It was a repertoire tailored precisely to what my hands could and couldn't do, intended for my performance only. If that sounds something like what pop musicians who write their own material do and nothing like what classically trained composers (like me) do, that's pretty much the case.
The difference, of course, is that some musicians, including many more guitarists than you might reckon, have impaired hands, arms, and other guitar-related body parts. They include Django Reinhardt, Jerry Garcia, Joni Mitchell, and Bruce Langhorne, who played lead on a couple of Bob Dylan's most influential albums in the 60's.
Even before my injury, my technique was odd, a major departure from what I had been taught. This owed in part to being left-handed but playing right-handed and also to years of playing mostly bass guitar. What this at means is that my better, far more coordinated left hand is on the fretboard and I usually anchored my right hand with my thumb on the instrument above the strings. I usually only use two fingers on my right hand but I ca pluck the strings very hard. Injuring my hand only amplifies these tendencies. I'm not a believer in fate, but it does seem as if the idiosyncrasies in my technique before my injury – the exceptionally deft left hand and the limited, two-fingered right – enabled me to function far more proficiently with my impairment.
The oddities in my technique had already led me to an emphasis on unusual tone colors. I was always able to play more natural harmonics – high, flute-like tones that are achieved to touching, rather than pressing down the strings with the left hand – than most other players. But the limited facility of my disabled right hand led me to explore this technique even more thoroughly, such that I can play many more – and higher – natural harmonics than anyone I've ever heard. In addition, for reasons too technical for non-guitarists to want to hear, plucking with two fingers while using my thumb as a crutch enables me to play chords of up to twenty notes on a six-string guitar.
My solo guitar music isn't remotely like anyone else's, though people seem to enjoy it. An able-handed guitarist could play my compositions, but would almost certainly never have figured out how. And I'm not especially keen on teaching anyone else the techniques, except perhaps a similarly impaired player, should I encounter one who wishes to learn. The music is mostly slow, quiet, and ethereal. It's rooted in blues, Eastern musics, and jazz.
Conceptually more perhaps than sonically, it reminds me of all those impoverished country blues players, many of whom were disabled, though none to my knowledge with hand injuries. But, until the blues revival of the 60's, when white people started listening, they often played on wretched instruments, some of them homemade, that wouldn't do what a good guitar could. Rather than bemoaning their situation, these artists became great individualists, composing and performing works suitable to these "disabled" guitars. Lacking formal training or quality instruments, these men and (occasionally) women developed far more unique styles than many more well-heeled players with better and much more expensive, but more uniformly crafted instruments ever could.
I am currently finishing my first solo guitar album, Spectral Blues Although my choice may not meet the approval of all readers of this journal, I chose not to tell the story of my hand in the album's liner notes, preferring that the music stand – or fall – on its own merits. . Few if any artists I know of, given the opportunity to represent themselves, broadcast their impairment status in the documentation of their recordings. (Of course, blind blues singers, who often adopted "Blind" as a title, are the exception.) I have chosen to follow that tradition of letting the music – and not the artist's body – speak for itself.