A story of how music cuts across all barriers.
Usually this space is reserved to tell you about a band, artist or album you might enjoy. This week is going to be a little different. I’d like to tell you a story, although music is at the heart of it.
This story begins at the Local Performance Hall after it had moved to Cherokee Boulevard. We had been playing weekly shows there for a couple of years and had, as a matter of course, seen some interesting characters come and go. One night, I noticed a fellow I had never seen before sitting at the very back of the bar, as far away from everyone else as he could be. He was a tall fellow and despite looking exceptionally road-worn and tired, you could see that he had once been a powerful man.
He never spoke as far as I could tell and the only time I saw him smile was when we were doing one of our profanity-laden call-and-response tunes where the audience gets to hurl invectives at the band. That amused him. He was there every week, though; he became something of a silent fixture. One night, I saw him sitting in his usual spot—and there was a woman sitting with him. Truth be told she appeared as road-worn as he, but it was nice to see that for once he wasn’t alone.
We took our set break and he approached me. I can’t imagine what it took for him to get up the nerve to do it, given his painfully shy demeanor, but he asked in a heavy Russian accent, “Could I borrow guitar for moment please? I want to play song for girlfriend!” He smiled as he said it and I smiled back and said, “Sure thing, man.”
The big, rough-looking Russian took my guitar and after a few false starts his fingers began to glide over the strings, coaxing out some of the most beautiful, haunting, tragic music I have ever heard. He started to sing and though I could not understand a word of what he said, a lump rose in my throat. When he was finished he thanked me half a dozen times and handed the guitar back.
I insisted he play more, would not take “no” for an answer, and when our set break was over, I brought him to the stage. He was nervous, and so used to being ignored that I was afraid the attention was going to make him balk, but he sat down and began to play. For the next ten minutes or so the usually rowdy bar was completely silent save for the man and his music.
When it was over a crowd surrounded him, there was praise and smiles and pats on the back and drinks were bought and the joy in his face is still one of the most beautiful sights I have ever seen. Sometime after that, someone, I don’t know who, but bless them for this, gave him his own guitar and from then until almost the day he died, Igor, the big Russian homeless man, could be found playing on the bridge or in front of Jax Liquor Store.
Music knows no borders. Igor said to me once as we were playing together, “Music is universal language, no?” Music crossed a language barrier, a cultural barrier, a social barrier and it gave a poor, homeless, Russian immigrant a chance for a much-deserved taste of respect and admiration.
He was a tremendously skilled musician and I (and many others) might never have known that had it not been for a chance encounter in a bar one night.
Igor passed away a few years ago, and at the wake I was presented with his guitar, which still sits in my office. It reminds me of him and it reminds of what music really is, or can be. Is there a moral to the story? There are several that I can see, but I’ll leave it to you to find your own. I didn’t set out to impart a moral anyway; I just wanted to tell you about a man who was a wonderful musician a wonderful human being and a great friend who spent too many years homeless and invisible to most people.
A man named Igor.