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Critical Mass

News of Pete's passing strums a dissonant heart

By Philip Martin

This article was published August 3, 2014 at 3:07 a.m.

Pete was 18 months older than I, a grade ahead, which was significant when we were in high school and in the years immediately afterward. Had we been brothers, I might better understand why our relationship was always defined by our ages; as it was, we were collaborators, but never quite -- or never merely -- friends.

We didn't pal around in high school; his crowd was different from mine.

After high school, I spent nearly a year in Brazil and then enrolled at Louisiana State University. I went home to Shreveport one weekend and wandered into a beer joint where he was playing his Fender Rhodes electric piano and guitar and harmonica and singing his songs. I was surprised how much I liked them.

I didn't like much. In those days, I was far more judgmental and harder to please. I justified my attitude by the fact I had written a few record reviews for national publications and a lot of them for local ones. I got free records in the mail and I kept a cheap Japanese guitar to bang on. I had taught myself a few chords and written a few songs.

When Pete went on break, we spoke. A few weeks later I went back to Shreveport -- with my notebook and guitar -- and over to his garage apartment. He showed me how to play a simple shuffle rhythm and advised me that my Yamaha was crap. We talked about the blues -- about how Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee didn't really get along -- and about Woody Guthrie, whom we both adored. But he loved the Doors, while I thought they were fatuous. I loved Bob Dylan; Pete thought him a fraud.

We wrote a couple of songs together. One of them I still play; the other is lost, although sometimes I recall a snatch of it. He played them at his next gig, or at least he told me he did. When I returned from school a few weeks later, I carried over to his place a fresh notebook full of lyrics and chord symbols and a red Ovation 1124 Country Artist that I had bought at a suspiciously low price from a guy in a Christian rock band.

Over the next few years we were songwriting partners. We acquired an attorney, who drew up the paperwork for our publishing company and made sure our songs were copyrighted. (We went 50-50 on them, like Lennon and McCartney, regardless of who had written what.) I'd mail him lyrics and sometimes cassette tapes; when I was in town I'd try to catch his shows. Sometimes -- usually not -- he'd call me up on stage to play a couple of songs (usually, but not always, our songs) with him. On a couple of occasions, we played together in fern bars where no one came to listen to the music anyway.

It seems strange we were never in a real band together. But I was never a full-time musician and I don't know that he ever worked at anything else. For a time we were on parallel tracks. I wrote, with someone else, a song that won a national contest. Later, with my own band, I cut a record with one of David Bowie's old producers, and Rod Stewart's guitarist sitting in. We made a video. (I am so glad that YouTube did not exist back then.)

Pete kept on playing clubs in Shreveport and New Orleans. He had a serious blues band on the side and a loyal following, he made a good living and lived a good life. Girls liked Pete. They liked him a lot.

...

Then one day he packed up his Volkswagen Rabbit diesel and headed off to Florida to play clubs there. We didn't keep in touch, although I remember that a couple of years later he either called or wrote to tell me he was auditioning for the lead role in a movie about Jim Morrison. In 1985, he sent me a tape of a demo he'd cut of our songs with a full band. Gregg Allman had heard the tape, he told me, and maybe something would come of it. Maybe a record deal.

I never heard another word from him.

I thought about him occasionally, wondered how he was doing. Every couple of years a mutual friend, Eddie, who'd played bass in bands with both of us, gave me a bit of news: Pete was in Sarasota, still doing music. He had a lot of gigs. Pete was in Miami, playing studio dates.

Then 15 years went by.

In 2011, Eddie called me out of the blue to say that he had just put together a new band, and they were playing some of my old songs. And some of the songs Pete and I had written. Did I have the lyrics for the old songs? And did I have any new songs?

I did have the old lyrics. Much to my wife's dismay, I keep things. I pulled them out, sent them to Eddie. And because I had told him I had a few new songs -- I actually had a few scraps of inchoate music -- I started pulling them together into something semi-coherent. I sent off a raw scratchy batch of demos, and Eddie told me he liked them and asked me to come down to Shreveport sometime and play with his band.

I told him thanks, but I'm retired.

...

And I went back into my "home studio" -- my office, where I keep a MacBook Pro, a drum machine I never use and a few microphones -- and started writing music in earnest. One of the things I realized when I started singing and playing again after all those years is that you really do get better with practice. To put it charitably, I am a minimalist guitarist with a songwriter's voice, but I found that, after a year or so of playing nearly every day, I was able to make recordings I actually kind of liked.

In a few months I had enough material to put out my first solo album (Gastonia; you can find it on iTunes and other digital outlets, including Spotify). And because technology has made it fairly simple and cheap to do things like that these days, I broke a little better than even on it. So I decided to put together a second album, which I'm working on now.

There were a couple of songs Pete and I had written more than 30 years ago that I thought I might want to include -- songs he used to do, that I'd never performed. I found the old cassettes he'd sent (like I said, I am a pack rat) and listened to them and worked out my own versions of a couple of them. I decided to contact Pete, because they were his songs as much as mine and, though it seemed unlikely there would be any money involved, it seemed like the right thing to do. Besides, I wanted him to hear what I'd been up to.

I didn't think he'd be hard to find. He was a working musician. I figured I'd find his old MySpace page, his Facebook, his Twitter feed, probably some performance videos posted to YouTube. Maybe even a website.

Instead, I found his obituary. Not right away; at first I found nothing. I adjusted the search parameters and found a reference to his obituary. That led me to a newspaper archive where I found the thing itself, along with a photo that looked like it had been taken in the 1980s. There wasn't much information. He died at home, in Florida, in 2007.

Most of the time when we make a fuss over people dying it's at least partly because their deaths remind us of our own mortality. Obviously, Pete and I weren't close. So maybe there's something unwholesome and self-aggrandizing in this little hard knot of grief I feel. If I'd missed him, I would have looked for him when he was still around to be found.

Still, he was important to me. I courted his approval. I took his criticism to heart. We were never really friends, but I think I genuinely loved him.

I keep things. Too many things. And let too many people go.

Email:

pmartin@arkansasonline.com

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hettsr says... August 4, 2014 at 12:19 p.m.

So enjoy your artlcles, The potent power of movie music and the News of Pete's passing. Keep up your wonderful articles.

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