Doc at the Radar Station

Even during busy months, I try to absorb at least some new music. This May, I barely had time to keep up with obituaries, and will admit to getting all Righteous Brothers over the band possibilities in Rock and Roll Heaven. If they had ever played together, I’m convinced the combined talents of Doc Watson, Chuck Brown and Adam Yauch would have been…well, the most ill-conceived trio in the history of popular music, but don’t let that stop you from loving any of their music. Really, if any of you discover a deep bond among these three that doesn’t involve Doc Watson’s alleged involvement in the 1979 movie Disco Godfather, you’re trying too hard.

The first time I saw Doc Watson play live would have been pretty impressive for most guitarists, but I suspected something was missing. The second time I saw him, and sadly the last, was a solo show at a much smaller venue. I’d rank that one as the second or third-greatest showcase of guitar virtuosity I’ve ever witnessed (right after Andres Segovia, and in a virtual dead heat with Richard Thompson at the top of his game). Doc was meticulous as a flatpicker, storyteller, and singer. As a lifelong city guy, I got a great reminder that any sophistication and flair I could muster would likely seem backward in comparison to the pride of Deep Gap, North Carolina. Doc had a warmth and grace that made it easy to forget the skill it must have taken to pull off those dizzying runs on his guitar.

The range of material Doc liked to perform went well beyond the sort of old-timey traditional bluegrass that most probably associate with him. I think he cared much less about preserving “authenticity,” or defining his role in the musical world, than many of the folk music revivalists who helped bring his music to a worldwide audience. In an interesting biography of Doc Watson’s life and work, flatpicking scholar Dan Miller explains that in the early sixties, musicologist Ralph Rinzler had to persuade Doc to borrow an acoustic guitar for use in recording sessions, because Doc had been playing an electric model. Doc found inspiration in all kinds of places–old-timey or modern, black or white, city or country–using his fast fingers as a radar.

Doc’s only serious flatpicking competition may have come from his own son Merle, who broadened Doc’s range and deepened his love for the blues before his death in a 1985 tractor accident. Doc honored his son’s memory by starting the annual Merlefest. When he mentioned his son at the shows I saw, you could see the love and loss etched into the lines on his face.

Doc Watson, Blues Medley (“Deep River Blues,” “St.James Hospital,” “Nine Pound Hammer,” “Daniel Prayed,” “Mountain Dew”)

Doc Watson and Merle Watson, “Don’t Think Twice,” “Make Me a Pallet”

About Roger Moore

rocklobster3.JPGRoger Moore is a writer and musical obsessive who plays percussion instruments from around the world with an equal lack of dexterity. An environmental lawyer in his unplugged moments, he has written on subjects ranging from sustainable development practices to human rights and voting rights, as well as many music reviews. A native Chicagoan, Roger lives in Oakland, California with his wife Paula, who shares his Paul Weller fixation, and two young children, Amelia and Matthew, who enjoy dancing in circles to his Serge Gainsbourg records and falling asleep to his John Coltrane records.

Roger Moore’s Musical Timeline

1966. Dropped upside down on patio after oldest sister listened to “She Loves You” on the Beatles’ Saturday cartoon show. Ears have rung with the words “yeah, yeah, yeah” ever since.

1973. Memorized all 932 verses to Don McLean’s “American Pie.”

1975. Unsuccessfully lobbied to have “Louie Louie” named the official song of his grade school class. The teacher altered the lyrics of the winner, the Carpenters’ “I Won’t Last a Day Without You,” so that they referred to Jesus.

1977. After a trip to New Orleans, frequently broke drumheads attempting to mimic the style of the Meters’ Zigaboo Modeliste.

1979. In order to see Muddy Waters perform in Chicago, borrowed the birth certificate of a 27 year-old truck driver named Rocco.

1982. Published first music review, a glowing account of the Jam’s three-encore performance for the Chicago Reader. Reading the original, unedited piece would have taken longer than the concert itself.

1982. Spat on just before seeing the Who on the first of their 23 farewell tours, after giving applause to the previous band, the Clash.

1984. Mom: “This sounds perky. What’s it called?” Roger: “ It’s ‘That’s When I Reach for My Revolver’ by Mission of Burma.”

1985. Wrote first review of an African recording, King Sunny Ade’s Synchro System. A reader induced to buy the album by this review wrote a letter to the editor, noting that “anyone wishing a copy of this record, played only once” should contact him.

1985. At a Replacements show in Boston, helped redirect a bewildered Bob Stinson to the stage, which Bob had temporarily confused with the ladies’ bathroom.

1986. Walked forty blocks through a near-hurricane wearing a garbage bag because the Feelies were playing a show at Washington, D.C.’s 9:30 Club.

1987. Foolishly asked Alex Chilton why he had just performed “Volare.” Answer: “Because I can.”

1988. Moved to Northern California and, at a large outdoor reggae festival, discovered what Bob Marley songs sound like when sung by naked hippies.

1991. Attempted to explain to Flavor-Flav of Public Enemy that the clock hanging from his neck was at least two hours fast.

1992. Under the pseudonym Dr. Smudge, produced and performed for the Underwear of the Gods anthology, recorded live at the North Oakland Rest Home for the Bewildered. Local earplug sales skyrocketed.

1993. Attended first-ever fashion show in Chicago because Liz Phair was the opening act. Declined the complimentary bottles of cologne and moisturizer.

1997. Almost missed appointment with eventual wedding band because Sleater-Kinney performed earlier at Berkeley’s 924 Gilman Street. Recovered hearing days later.

1997. After sharing a romantic evening with Paula listening to Caetano Veloso at San Francisco’s Masonic Auditorium, purchased a Portuguese phrasebook that remains unread.

1998. Learned why you do not yell “Free Bird” at Whiskeytown's Ryan Adams in a crowded theater.

1999. During an intense bout of flu, made guttural noises bearing an uncanny resemblance to the Throat Singers of Tuva.

2000. Compiled a retrospective of music in the nineties as a fellow at the Coolwater Center for Strategic Studies and Barbecue Hut.

2001. Listened as Kahil El’Zabar, in the middle of a harrowing and funny duet show with Billy Bang, lowered his voice and spoke of the need to think of the children, whom he was concerned might grow up “unhip.”

2002. During a performance of Wilco’s “Ashes of American Flags,” barely dodged ashes of Jeff Tweedy’s cigarette.

2002. Arrived at the Alta Bates maternity ward in Berkeley with a world trance anthology specially designed to soothe Paula during Amelia’s birth, filled with Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan, Ali Akbar Khan, and assorted other Khans. The project proved to be irrelevant to the actual process of labor.

2003. Emceed a memorable memorial concert for our friend Matthew Sperry at San Francisco’s Victoria Theater featuring a lineup of his former collaborators, including improvised music all-stars Orchesperry, Pauline Oliveros, Red Hot Tchotchkes, the cast of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and Tom Waits.

2003. Failed to persuade Ted Leo to seek the Democratic nomination for President.

2005. Prevented two-year old daughter Amelia from diving off the balcony during a performance of Pierre Dorge’s New Jungle Orchestra at the Copenhagen Jazz Festival.

2006. On a family camping trip in the Sierra Nevadas, experienced the advanced stage of psychosis that comes from listening to the thirtieth rendition of Raffi’s “Bananaphone” on the same road trip.