By R.A. Jetter
Slow mournful twangs morphed into wild, screeching highs, howling as if hurt, smoothing to a desolate murmur before settling into grief-stricken lows deep enough to gyrate the soul. A narrow beam spotlight, reflected from the black six-string, followed hands, focused on lightning quick movements and deliberate strums… seldom did the audience see his face… only hands, covered with multi-colored tattoos…rough hands that once worked hard for a living and now worked the audience.
The flamed ebony guitar talked. Except, it wasn’t the guitar… the man behind it bared his soul. Fingers of his left hand flew, the other danced on strings, purposefully found correct chords with a worn gold pick. A bandana covered forehead, above shoulder length hair and sideburns, held back perspiration as his sets caught fire, explained a past life, lost loves and future desires. The degree of volume expounded loneliness, despair, anger and hardship.
Danny Mack worked the vintage 1957 left-handed Fender Stratocaster, made it utter things he couldn’t say — without words, yet emotional and filled with poignancy, arousing visions with disturbing insight leapt into the audiences’ minds. They watched his fingers fly up and down the Maple neck and experienced his life of poverty. During that performance, the guitar found a longing soul and whispered sweet nothings to her… from Danny’s heart… promised forthcoming heights of passion. The achromatic guitar elucidated their love-making and caressed her in the after-glow. A feeling of euphoria so well mixed in with the surreal, acquainted her with what was genuine and what wasn’t, yet, Danny’s own true feelings subtley masked. Only he knew what had been found as much as he knew what was lost.
When I met him, I had no idea of his loss or the terrible secret he carried.
Yet, success has its price. Danny carried that price, and his secret, with him twenty-four hours a day, every year. Over the years we pal-ed around, the baggage got heavier. It finally got to him.
I was his best friend… Danny and I spent nine years together, almost 365 days a year. The only time I didn’t see him was Christmas Eve and Christmas Day. Told me it was ‘a private time’ and both of us must spend those “special” days with family.
Had I known then what I know now…
My sis told me about Danny. A summer 1964 vacation at her home in Montgomery, Alabama, would be nice. Dreamlike music drifted to her patio, I followed the notes. Guitar licks emanated from a pickup, backed against the garage door. Sitting in the bed of that crusty, faded gold 1956 F-100 pickup, in a decrepit, armless rocking chair, he strummed strings like they were on fire. He leaned back, rocked with the chords. The parlor of a Victorian Redstone on Chicago’s south side would have made that ancient rocking chair feel right at home, instead, he looked part of it. The guitar did, too. The pickup didn’t. I applauded when he quit, startled him.
He unrolled a pack of Lucky Strikes from his t-shirt sleeve and offered one. I declined and set a cold, sweating long neck on the pickup’s rail. He nodded, lit up and pulled a long drink from the bronze bottle.
I offered my hand, he gripped it with confidence.
Sweat stained his white t-shirt, the scuffed cowboy boots he wore rested easily on the tail-gate, the guitar lazed across his lap. Appearances can be deceiving, I figured just another struggling country western type from his clothes. The evening sun had set but the humidity in the exclusive Montgomery subdivision was brutal. “Danny Mack,” he said, wiping a handkerchief across his forehead and pumping my hand with a hurtful grip. “You been standing there long?”
The nasal tone of his voice confirmed my suspicions. “Heard your guitar from up the street… my sister’s. Had to find out where those soulful tunes were coming from. You’re good.”
“Thanks, just sorta play around,” he said. “Learn something new every day.”
“Ever thought of playing country western professionally?”
“Naw, hate that shit. I like old rock n’ roll, bluesy stuff. Besides, I was in a country western/rock band… once upon a time.” He picked a few chords to accent his words. “My band-mates… they just sorta got tired of my playing. We went our separate ways.” The guitar wailed — short, sad notes, low and grumbling. Finality.
“You’ve got a unique style. Friend of mine manages a couple of groups for a small recording company in L. A. Would you mind if I recorded some of your songs?”
“If you don’t mind doing it while I sit here in this truck.”
“Not at all. Tomorrow evening?”
“It’ll cost you another one of them beers. Uhm… bring a case. Make it about eight.”
That’s how it started… I recorded a few tunes sitting on the tailgate of that old truck, the few he strummed that told a story I understood. His most soulful tunes happened in the cab, passenger’s side, while I sat sweating behind the wheel. Danny Mack was a natural, a virtuoso story-teller and looked the part. He was an attractive man… in a homely sort of way… full salt and pepper beard, sideburns, hair combed back and streaked. The t-shirt sleeved Luckys became his trademark… so did the boots. A huge chromed Texas Brahma Bull buckle on a black belt added to his image… and jeans, cuffed… always faded… never saw a new pair. His was a contradictory look… country western clothes… old rock and blues attitude.
I sent the tapes to L.A. and within ninety days Danny Mack was signed and had a brand new gig… a single act — based in Montgomery… two things he insisted on.
Over the next several months it became clear he didn’t want a band in his name… declined every time he and a group clicked. He preferred session musicians and chose new players himself. Danny even went so far as getting rid of guys that acquired a new groupie girlfriend, though he never fired anyone… always let local management handle it. To say he had his own agenda would be an understatement.
Several times I noticed, Danny was calculating, screening each new musician, though I’d never heard him talk to agents, or saw money paid to a private dick for investigative work. For unknown reasons, he hired loners… unmarried, unattached, those with deceased parents and no brothers, sisters, wives, sons, or daughters. I figured it was because he empathized with them.