“Thrill is Gone” and Vietnamese Jazz Bars

It’s a cliche: listening to a song can conjure up memories associated with past encounters with that song. But my knowledge of that power still does not diminish the little start of surprise I experience when I come into contact with the fine-grained, specific recall that a particular piece of music can bring about.

Early this morning, I idly browsed through my RSS reader, looking for morning coffee accompaniments and settled on Matt Taibbi’s latest piece on the shenanigans of Capitol Hill’s Masters: Goldman Sachs. Tucked away in a corner on Taibbi’s blog was a link I’ve been studiously avoiding for some time now: Rolling Stone’s lists of the best 100 this, the best 500 that (albums, guitarists, singles; take your pick). But finally, tempted to inquire into this latest episode of ranking- and list-mania, I clicked on “The 100 Greatest Guitarists,” and jumped ahead to numbers 1 through 10. Nothing but the best for me.

Safely ensconced at No. 6 is BB King, the subject of a brief appreciation penned by ZZ Top’s Billy Gibbons. Just below the piece is an invitation to sample “Thrill is Gone,” that Roy Hawkins classic, which owes much of its popularity to its being a BB King perennial. I accepted the invitation in my own way, by returning to my own “copy”. As the lush tones of King’s classic filled my earphones, I found myself in Newark in 1991, tending bar at my friend Kim’s jazz and blues restaurant and bar, mixing drinks and listening yet again, thanks to a customer’s generosity at our jukebox, to the very same piece.

Back then, I worked at Bell Labs, and thus was gainfully employed. But a curious fascination with the esoteric skills of bartending pushed me to ask my Vietnamese friend if she needed help behind the bar counter of her inner-city establishment. She did, on Fridays and Saturdays. So on those two nights of the week, I moonlighted, driving the 40 miles from Middletown, New Jersey to Newark and putting in a seven hour stint till 2AM in the morning. Our clientele was exclusively made up of local residents, regulars each and every single one of them. Many were keen to make a dollar last a little longer and added liberal quantities of ice to their beer and wine as they sat at the counter and engaged me in that peculiar brand of conversation that only takes place between bartenders and their customers.

They liked giving the jukebox a whirl. Their selections were my soundtrack for work; their preferences became mine. I remember many of those conversations–sometimes edgy, sometimes morose, sometimes nostalgic–quite clearly. Others I cannot quite recall. But I can always remember those power chords in the background, the same ones that transported me this morning, back from Brooklyn, New York, across the intervening waters, to Newark, New Jersey.

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