[Part II of a Quaker Jew Screwing Around in G for the Honor of the Truth, chapter 4 of my unpublished autobiography Extra-Ordinary. SB SM]
Screwin’ Around in G
One of the transcendent words of my generation is “cool.” “Hot” has morphed from jazz to women. “Groovy” has gone the way of flower power. “Boss” and “gear” came and went with the British invasion, but “cool” has endured. I was many things in high school, but cool was not among them. Mason Watson, on the other hand, was cool. He was quiet, but friendly, had the blond hair of a California surfer, played the guitar and reportedly was more advanced with the ladies than the rest of us shmoes. He had a ready smile, with a chipped front tooth. For the rest of us with even, white teeth, that was cool.
Mason had a reputation as a troubled kid or troublemaker, but I’m not sure why. His quietness might have been interpreted as attitude. Maybe it was because he was being raised by a single Mom, and in the 60s that was enough out of the ordinary to provoke people to pass judgement. Maybe it was the defiance of having an unfixed front tooth. I dunno. Mason lived only a block away from me, and I would pass his house walking to and from school. Sometimes we would see each other walking and we’d hook up. Before long he’d wait for me, and we’d walk together. The walks became part of the daily ritual.
For the Honor of Truth
Mason and I both attended Moses Brown, motto “For the Honor of Truth,” founded in 1784. Moses, brother of Obediah, the founder of nearby Brown University. It was a Quaker School, long on tradition and formality, firmly rooted in the English tradition of all-male prep school. We were required to wear jackets and ties to class every day.
February 9, 1964
On February 9, 1964, my sixteenth birthday, The Beatles appeared on the Ed Sullivan Show. I had bought a used Harmony guitar the summer of 1963 and spent the next two months in a boy cave teaching myself to play the requisite four chords required for rock and roll. When school started in September, I found that Mason had done the exact same thing. Inevitably, we started showing each other what we knew. Today it’s called peer-to-peer learning. Back then it was just “foolin around at Mason’s house.” Initially, Mason had a four string tenor guitar. He was left-handed and played upside down, that is, with his bass strings towards the bottom. Despite his unorthodox style, he was really good, a fact that I attributed to having played a little longer. Plus, Mason had an older brother, named Sedgewick, who also played and was undoubtedly a source of inspiration and learning. Sedgewick (he’s the first and only person I’ve ever encountered with that name) had a solid body electric guitar. Soon, Mason had one, too, and not long thereafter, so did I. Mason had a Gibson Les Paul Junior with a sunburst finish. I had a white Fender Mustang with a red jeweled pick guard and dual toggle switches for the pick-ups. He taught me the standard chord progression that is the foundation of 90% of blues and rock songs. He taught me about barre chords and about changing keys. What little I know about music I owe to Mason.
1965 Fender Mustang
After a while we started sounding … well, not quite good, but ok. Then, one day in the spring of our junior year, Mason asked me if I wanted a job playing music with him at a Brown fraternity party on Saturday night. We’d make $25 each, a not insubstantial sum when you could fill your gas tank for less than $5. I sputtered that I had never played in front of actual people before … that I wasn’t ready … that we only knew a few songs. Mason managed to cut me off at every objection. I’d be fine, he assured me. Just watch and follow along, as I did in his bedroom. He had already recruited a drummer–another kid from our school–and was committed to playing the party. He wasn’t about to let me off the hook. Just pick him up at 7 pm. Buoyed–or was it beguiled–by Mason’s confidence, I agreed.
Saturday night arrived without so much as an intervening practice. As we set up to play it was obvious that the drummer was even less confident, and more nervous than I. The basic plan of attack was that Mason would start each song, I’d join in as soon as I recognized the key and chord progression, and Bob, the drummer, would keep time … nothing more. Our repertoire–ha!–consisted of Louie, Louie, already a rock ‘n roll cliche by 1965, Twist & Shout, a bunch of Chuck Berry songs to which Mason played almost identical intros, Moondawg, a Beach Boys surfing’ tune that I was allowed to sing on and make barking noises as if howling at the moon. Since we didn’t have many songs, we’d stretch them out, typically doing first verse, second verse, instrumental, final verse, instrumental, final verse, even longer instrumental, final verse … you get the idea. We were to play from 8 pm to 11 pm. I was completely self-conscious, and spent the entire evening staring alternately between Mason’s guitar neck and my own.
I was oblivious to several facts that I came to appreciate only later. First, these were college kids on a Saturday night. They were undoubtedly drinking like crazy. Mason, to his credit kept the music loud, fast, and moving. There was little time for tuning up or dicking around between songs. That was very smart of Mason. We had exhausted our repertoire midway through the first set when Mason called out the next tune, Screwin’ Around in G. Wait a minute. I didn’t know this one, but too late, Mason was already into the intro. I followed along, tentatively at first, but with a little more confidence as I recognized the familiar pattern of the standard blues progression. We weren’t good, but we weren’t that bad, either, especially by the end of the night. Our mike stand was knocked over a few times by over-zealous dancers, and our shoes were sticky from the spilt beer, but no one seemed to mind. Because we repeated ourselves so many times during the evening, the songs got better as the night went on. Ironically, the one that stood out as sounding best was Screwin’ Around in G.
That turned out to be the only time that Mason and I played together as a band.
Summer vacation came and we went our separate ways. By September he and I were ensconced in different bands. We still commuted to school together, but now in my car, a 1960 Pontiac Catalina. We chatted about all the usual stuff … music, cars, classmates, and football. We were both on the varsity, a squad with the unlikely nickname as the “Fighting Quakers.” Mason was the starting halfback. He was pretty good, but the team was pretty bad. He took a constant pounding. He never complained, because this was the part of the 1960s that was a vestigial extension of the stoic 50s. Complaining was not allowed.
Then, one day during the football season we got the news that Mason had been kicked out of school. No one ever told us why. Explanations, like complaints, weren’t allowed at the time, and it never occurred to any of us to press the issue. It was well-understood that any of several infractions–cussing out a teacher, getting caught drinking, going too far with a girl–could get you kicked out of school which was a pre-cursor to the ruined life that inevitably followed. Maybe his mom couldn’t manage the tuition payments. That day, he wasn’t at football practice. The next morning, I didn’t pick him up to go to school. Just like that.
He’s my personal James Dean.
I did see Mason one more time. The Saturday following his banishment we had a home football game. Now there was a new halfback to take the punishment that was once Mason’s. As the first half ended, word passed quickly, in whispers, that Mason was at the game. I saw him directly in front of us, sitting on the hillside directly between us and the field house, poised where we would have to see him. He was smoking a cigarette, looking cool. A week ago that would have been offense enough to get him kicked off the football team. Now, however, he had nothing to lose. The players mostly looked down to avoid him. I wasn’t about to do that. The sun must have been behind me, because I remember him shielding his eyes. “Hi Mason,” I said. He smiled his slightly snaggle-toothed grin and said “Hi, Step.” It was a syllable that said a lot. He was now a documented bad boy with a ruined life ahead of him. I was still intact, a future without limitations before me. But he was still Mason, and he was still my friend. That was it. We were, after all, in full-uniform football warrior mode, watched closely by teachers and coaches. “Hi Mason” wasn’t much, but it was enough.
Later, we were told that he was drunk and had been escorted off the campus. And I never saw him after that. Occasionally, I would hear some scrap of news about him, then I heard he died, way too young and way too abruptly. I never knew the circumstances of his passing, either, but I can’t imagine they were good. It’s the small things that get etched into memory–the cigarette, the upside/down guitar style, the Les Paul Junior.
Les Paul Jr.
For me one of the etched lines came on one of our last trips into school together. I asked him something that had been nagging at me for a while “Hey, who originally did that song that we played that night at Brown, Screwin’ Around in G?”
“That was just me,” he said with a quiet laugh, “screwin’ around in the key of G.” That night, my professional debut, I was entirely content to follow Mason’s lead.