A few decades ago, I flew to Sitka, Alaska, to perform for the kids at Blatchly Middle School. After I’d finished playing for all the students, while I was chatting with the principal and several of the teachers, a teenage boy walked into the room. He couldn’t have been more than 14. I could tell that there was something different about him. It was not evident in his manner or his walk, but rather in the apparent anxiety the teachers displayed in his presence. Having gigged at thousands of schools in 48 states, I quickly understood that this boy was what administrators call a “difficult student.” Uninhibited, the boy strode right over to me pointing to the guitar in my hands. He was all business. “Can you play ‘Smoke on the Water?’” he asked matter of factly.
Having pretty well completely missed rock and roll as a genre, I was sorry I couldn’t fulfill his request. I smiled and told him, “No, I can’t.” And without thinking I handed him the guitar. “Can you?” I asked.
Glancing sideways, I suddenly noticed the genuine terror in the eyes of the teachers as they stood by in nervous tableau. I immediately realized I had done the very thing that they wished I had not. The principal was biting his lip. Nobody moved or dared say a word. It was clear that they all feared the boy would smash the guitar against one of the wooden desks.
The young man fumbled with his left hang, trying to find his fingering. Then he enthusiastically played a nearly flawless rendition of “Smoke on the Water.” I was amazed. But not as amazed as the teachers. He knew the lick by heart and by the time he finished his solo, the tension in the room was so thick, you could cut it with a knife. The boy looked down at my guitar and spun it in his hands. One of the teachers winced, preparing for the worst. Nobody breathed. Then the boy handed the instrument back to me and said, “Nice axe,” and walked out of the room.
The teachers and principal shook their heads in disbelief. Once they’d caught their breath, they regaled me with stories of the many times the boy had acted out physically or destroyed something.
Though I can’t remember the boy’s name, I’ve never forgotten him. He’s about 30 years old now and probably has kids of his own.
That experience left me fearless. After every concert, I’d invite kids to come up and try my instruments just so they can see what it feels like to hold and play them.
The seed of all song
Lies in the hearts of children
Waiting to be born.