Muddy Waters Funeral
excerpted from Coyote Jack and the Bluebirds by Paul Bisson
“Do we have a set list for tonight?” asks Rupert, stepping back from his amplifier and releasing a loud and fluid flurry of high notes. Charlie, recognising the note perfect opening riff to Coyote Jack’s Elephant Man Blues, looks over at their Texan guest with vicarious pride. Go Rupert.
Coyote Jack looks impressed. “Dang boy,” he says, levelling a finger at Rupert’s guitar. “You got that one right. I think you gonna be playin’ all my guitar parts for me tonight!” He turns to Charlie. “This dude is good!”
Rupert shrugs, flicks the pick-up switch on his guitar and belts out the intro riff to Makin’ Friends. Anne Marie kicks in with the bass line and within seconds the two of them are rolling through the intro bars. Charlie fumbles in his pocket for the right keyed harmonica, snatches up his bullet microphone and adds a low trill to the mix. He keeps an eye on Coyote, noting with a thrill the smile that’s leapt onto the bluesman’s face.
Damn they’re good, says that smile. Got me a fine old British blues band here. Good enough to accompany the Texan on a European tour? Charlie watches him clicking his fingers, eyes closed, head tilted back as though drinking in the music. Good enough to qualify as the bluesman’s future backing band?
Only Oz remains silent, his drumsticks hovering indecisively over his snare. What’s he waiting for? Mouth locked around the metal sides of his harmonica, Charlie can only question mutely with his eyebrows.
Come on Oz. Sort it out.
“What’s the matter?” Rupert’s hand falls from his fretboard, though bass and harmonica play on. “Oz?” he shouts. “You know this one, don’t you?”
And he does. Oz does know this tune. He’s heard it before, once or twice, on the CD. A standard Texas shuffle, nothing too demanding, not at this stage of the tune anyway.
Anne Marie and Charlie fall silent, fingers and lips respectively stilled, the latter’s innards beginning to squirm.
“So what’s up?” Rupert glares Charlie’s way and shakes his head, hot eyes flashing his barely concealed disdain. “You’ve learnt the songs, haven’t you? Because if you haven’t…”
“Chill Rupert. I’m good,” barks Oz, his annoyance rising. “I was just waiting for Coyote. He isn’t even plugged in or anything.”
[pullquote]“Chill Rupert. I’m good,” barks Oz, his annoyance rising. “I was just waiting for Coyote. He isn’t even plugged in or anything.”[/pullquote]
Oz looks over at the Texan.
“Aw man!” Coyote flaps his hands, waving them all away. He’s laid the Stratocaster back down against the tire stack, along with the unused tuner. “Just play, y’all! Mr Stubbs here knows my parts better than ah do, so let’s just do it, y’all! Ah’m singing into this one, yes?” He reaches over and pulls the microphone stand closer, lays his fingers on the mike.
“You don’t want to play the guitar?” asks Charlie.
“Sure, but let’s just run a few first, make sure that you guys have got my ass if I decide to go crowd surfin’ or strike me up a relationship with one o’ the ladies in the crowd, y’know? It’s happened before! Once they gits an eyeful of old Coyote layin’ it down they likely to pull me from the stage and then where we gon’ be? Ah needs to know that you cats can cover me if ah’m abducted or any such shit. Yeah?”
“But your guitar…” says Charlie.
“You cats heard of Muddy Waters?” barks Coyote, stopping Charlie dead with a raised hand. He glances round with an air of challenge. “Huh? McKinley Morganfield? You heard o’ that dude?”
“Course we have.”
“Now tell me, y’all. When you think Muddy Waters, do you think guitarist? You think man with guitar? Or do you think band leader, man with a microphone, the motherfucking MAN with a microphone, smooth cat, band leader…you get me?”
“But he did play the guitar,” says Charlie, tentatively.
“Slide guitar,” glowers Rupert. “And very well.”
“Shit.” Coyote looks up to the ceiling lights in desperation. “Not all the time he didn’t,” he exclaims. “Muddy Waters picked up that guitar only when he felt like it, only when the situation decreed that it was time for Mr Muddy Waters to play that damn slide guitar. And when he did…kapow!”
Coyote slams a fist into his palm. Thwack.
“That’s like me, man. That’s just how old Coyote rolls. If ah don’t feel like playin’ the guitar then ah don’t plays it unless ah absolutely have to. And this cat here,” he points at Rupert, “he plays it so well that ah don’t, not right now. Right now ah just be happy singing, like Mud done.”
Rupert’s face remains locked in the beginnings of a scowl, though Charlie spies the corners of his mouth crimp at the Texan’s praise. He remains silent, though strikes a note on his guitar, sliding his fingers up the fretboard in a soft, questioning arc.
“Like ah said to Big Willie Dixon on the day we buried him,” continues the Coyote. “There was a player who knew how to turn less into more, there…”
“Wait a minute.” Rupert tilts his head. “You were at Muddy Waters’ funeral?”
[pullquote]“Wait a minute.” Rupert tilts his head. “You were at Muddy Waters’ funeral?”[/pullquote]
“Well hell, yes.”
“But that was…what…twenty five years back.”
“Ah was just a boy, sure.” The Coyote nods sagely. “Near enough eighteen, ah guess, give or take, but ah made that trip to Illinois all the same. Sonny Goodyear drove me ‘n the rest of the band down there in the back of an old tow truck, sho’nuff. Church was bustlin’ when we got there, but we squeezed on in there and paid us our last respects. Got to say our goodbyes to the man fo’ they stuck him in the ground. Got to meet all them old blues cats as well. Quite a day.”
“Willie Dixon,” murmurs Charlie, who has been listening entranced to the Texan’s story. Muddy Waters’ funeral. Like I said to Willie Dixon. It’s as if the musical gods themselves have brushed through the room. The air twinkles with their presence and for a moment Charlie’s heroes are within reach, a mere handshake away from the man stood before him. Only time stands against them; space has been conquered. It’s almost too much to take in.