If It Weren’t For You Meddling Kids
I remember pulling the guitar from beneath a pile of sweaters and trashbags filled with old shirts and folded polyester pants, feeling like I had unearthed a family secret. I sat in the door jamb of my grandmother’s closet, held the guitar to my chest and plucked at its only string, a flaccid low E that rumbled against the neck and quickly fell silent. The sound , incorrect as it was, filled my head with strange visions. I retreated to the basement and stood in front of a mirror with the small-bodied acoustic cradled against me. I turned and watched myself. I slid my fingers down the neck and imagined how fleet my fingers would be when I played a solo. I tuned the E string up so that it didn’t just fart out a half-note. It might not have been in tune, but it sustained. I sat on the edge of my bed and played that one string until my fingers were raw. My limitations being what they were, in that one afternoon I was able to figure out the bass line to Pink Floyd’s Interstellar Overdrive and the bass line to Stand By Me, and a little sliver of the iconic Blister In The Sun guitar riff. Memories of songs started folding in on themselves and my brain was swimming with song snippets and nascent melodies and hummed refrains and thumping rhythms. I had gone through the looking glass.
I had no idea who the guitar belonged to, but I laid claimed to it, justified in my decision to do so by my willingness to act as a faithful steward of the instrument. I didn’t bother to purchase a full set of strings, because I felt satisfied by all of the possibilities the guitar presented in its single-stringed state. And indeed, as the weeks drew out, I taught myself bass lines from a handful of my favorite songs, and was bolstered by my efforts into daydreams of a new life emerging, a brand new world in which I would be a musician. It dovetailed with the hopelessly romantic notion of myself as a poet, and many of the afternoons I spent in the basement with the guitar slipped away into reverie (How long would my hair get? How could I make it curly? I’ll need a leather vest at some point. Is it illegal to kiss two girls on the same day? I’ll travel by bus because airplanes are scary. Red guitars. I’ll look good in spandex. I wonder if Robert Plant always writes in calligraphy.)
The more I dreamed of it, the further the fantasy got away from myself. The invention of this new me steamrolled into someone else entirely, which in hindsight seems peculiar because it all stemmed from the physical act of a little me strumming a single string on a crappy old acoustic guitar. Nevertheless, the possible future selves spun out in several different directions. I could be an old-time soul singer, or a hippie, or Henry Rollins. The guitar became an act for me, and the time I spent with it was time during which I could invent a thousand different versions of myself. I could strum out two notes on that E string and sing about hard times I knew nothing about and feel it deeply, like I was tapping into something greater than myself. I was the littlest Bowie, and in my basement I was creating an army of Ziggy Stardusts.
Whenever I listen to the album we’re featuring this week, I think about the kid in the basement who has stumbled into a created self that feels like a kindred, albeit completely distinct and separate, spirit. The Legendary Marvin Pontiac has a rich back story. The son of a Malian father and a Jewish mother, Marvin’s formative years were spent bouncing around Detroit and then Mali, and the music he was surrounded by deeply influenced him. He left home at the age of fifteen and took up the blues harmonica in Chicago. He released a single on Acorn Records in 1950 and had a minor hit in Nigeria that same year with a bootlegged version of his song Pancakes.
He bounced around Texas and Louisiana for the next twenty years and slowly went insane, drifting in and out of mental institutions until his death in 1977. He was hit by a bus. The recordings he left behind were cleaned up and released as a greatest hits compilation on the Strange and Beautiful imprint.
The songs flash with a glimmer of genius: playful lyrics backed by innovative guitar work, a perfect marriage of West African shimmies and American blues shuffle. Looped harmonicas swirl around in the songs like something unraveling, and Marvin Pontiac’s whiskey-addled growl sounds worldly and wise. The lyrical whimsy comes off as wise rather than puerile, like an old man who has seen in his many years just how absurd it can get.
Which may have been exactly what saxophonist John Lurie was feeling when he fleshed out these tunes in the voice of Marvin Pontiac. John Lurie, leader of the inimitable New York loft jazz group The Lounge Lizards and star of Jarmusch films, created his alter ego Marvin Pontiac in much the same fashion that Bowie created Stardust. Perhaps Lurie fell into a little dream of himself that blossomed into something that was too big to contain in his imagination. Since Lurie could never be the son of a Malian/Jewish union, a troubled soul who forged his musical sensibilities in the fires of Chicago’s blues clubs, he made one up, and as this week’s playlist shows, the rock stars, the poets, and the barking old artists that we invent inside of ourselves are capable of becoming more real than we might expect.
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The Legendary Marvin Pontiac – Greatest Hits
1. I’m a Doggy
2. Small Car
3. Now I’m Happy
5. Runnin’ Round
7. Bring Me Rocks
9. Wanna Wanna
10. Sleep at Night
11. Arms & Legs
12. She Ain’t Going Home
13. Little Fly
14. No Kids