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Backpedaling through life with Greg Brown


In a car outside my junior high, as my friend Jenn played me Frank Sinatra’s “I’ve Got a Crush on You.” In an attic buzzed on Tanqueray and English ovals, as I put the needle on Charles Mingus’

“II B.S.” Laying on a shag carpet floor in Provo, Utah, as my first girlfriend played Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.”

The list goes on and on. I can generally pinpoint the exact moment that time froze, all synapses surrendered, and my favorite musicians became part of my life. Headphones. High school. Road trips. Girls, lots of girls. Even more drinks. Crammed houses. Scratchy radios. One rarely forgets love at first sight.

But I don’t remember the first time I heard Greg Brown. That isn’t to say the Iowa-bred folksinger is second-tier—after all, I can’t remember the first time I met my wife, either. Both encounters were like a first exhalation of warm breath on a cold morning, when the steam gives casual evidence to what’s been there all along: Oh, hello there, it’s you. How’ve I been?

Greg Brown knew me already, just like my wife knew me already, like my baby knew me already, like my guitar and my bike and my favorite cooking pan knew me already. The first encounter isn’t what mattered. It’s just the place in the sand where the proverbial footsteps reappeared.

Long before all of this—before that deep, creek-gravel voice made itself clear—Brown was a specter hovering close by, putting all of my triumphs and failures into song. That first girlfriend in Utah, and the endless letters we’d write to each other. Long distance was costly. Stamps weren’t, and kept us close across 800 miles. Brown must have been there, because our adolescent love became “Never So Far,” from Milk of the Moon.

Or the summer fresh out of high school, and the girl who was up for just about anything, as long as it involved stars and blankets. Finding corner stores in San Francisco that’d sell to us, then whiling away the hours on Ocean Beach. Hitchhiking up to Oregon and back, kissing on the side of the highway in Coos Bay. Ripping our clothes off in parked cars, football fields, backyards, alleys. Brown was there, too, with “Summer Evening,” from Over and Under.

The tours. The 10-hour drives with drug seizures at the Texas border, or skidding out on black ice, or an exploded radiator, only to get to the dingy club with 35 people waiting. Sleazy promoters and sleazier security guards and awful opening bands but free beer so who gives a shit. No good food, a racist bartender, but up on the wall there’s a signed photo from a musical hero that makes it all worthwhile. Again, Brown knew it all too well, with “Mose Allison Played Here,” from Slant 6 Mind.

Devils on shoulders have a way of turning into kisses on shoulders that shouldn’t be kissed. We walked up the stairs and turned out the lights, and started something we knew we couldn’t make known. It went on for months. The daytime sun blinded us, but at night we’d fall back into the rush, liberated from the stupid promises we’d made. It ended in a wreck of tears and broken glass. Did we ever even say goodbye? Ah, Brown: “If You Don’t Get It at Home,” from Further In.

Months later. The term “drunk-dialing” hadn’t been invented yet, but the practice sure had. Foolishly thinking that the little Band-Aid of a 1am phone call could repair the gaping wound. Pleading. Crying. Throwing the phone like an idiot. Who was listening in? Brown, of course, with “857-5413,” from Over and Under.

Was Brown trying to earn his wings? Or did he just want to let me know that he’d been there too, and that everything was gonna be OK?

I got the answer when my wife came along, and then the guitar, the bike, the pan, the baby. The blessing of love was back, and this time I wasn’t going to fuck it up. We’d take care of each other, put rings on each other’s fingers and go camping on our honeymoon. I’d paint recycled furniture in the shed behind our little house, and she’d make that incredible enchilada sauce while laughing and singing off-key. Goddammit, Brown, still looking over my shoulder—it’s “Hey Baby Hey,” from Further In. As usual, he was right. Things are going to be OK.

Greg Brown plays Saturday, Nov. 14, at the Napa Valley Opera House. 1030 Main St., Napa. 8pm. $30&–$35. 707.226.7372.