Raccoon Stories

By Peter M. Zoernig

 

Chapter One

 

Meeting Raccoon

 

 

I first met Raccoon in 1983 at the Michigan Rainbow gathering. His first wide-eyed words to me were “Hey man, you got a car! Let’s go hit the dumpster!” I was up for it, though I was uninformed as to the vast quantities of food available in grocery store dumpsters from coast to coast across America. Iron Mountain, Michigan was not the time or place for me to receive that education, as the nearly barren dumpster yielded up one moldy onion, which Hunter, as he still called himself, put in his pocket and carried back to the gathering undaunted. We’d driven some twenty miles to hit that dumpster and I was not impressed. I had a black Stratocaster with a little battery powered toy amplifier and Hunter poked around on that guitar playing one “happy” little two chord blues vamp in the back seat of my boat-sized Chevy ‘74 Impala. He didn’t sing a word, and the riff was ok but I fancied myself a fledgling bluesman. I liked my blues hard and low-down, and I was only moderately impressed. Like almost all guitar players, I was pretty sure I could do better. That little riff (Polly and Dolly) would eventually become almost a theme song for months of road-tripping, but at the time what impressed me was his tipi - in retrospect a rather gauzy and saggy affair compared to future versions, but it was a tipi. Still no real performance from Hunter at the time, I recall a bedraggled and confused red-haired fellow at the campfire half-heartedly strumming on a flat-top that was laying around, him saying, ‘play us a song Hunter, I can’t play this thing.’ ‘Naah’, he said, crouched by the tipi fire with his knees up in the air, skinning his moldy onion with great interest, which he threw into a coffee can with a carrot and a rock, and a knotted old sock….

 

Back in college (I was a well-edjamacated shit-head, Hunter would say, adding after apparent reflection, ‘NaahYer just a shithead.’) My school had a tent building contest for the Spring Beaux Arts Festival (Beer Arts, Hunter called it). I immediately thought of Hunter’s tipi. There was a Cincinnati phone number which I called to ask Hunter how one goes about constructing a tipi. I got his mother Bessie who informed me that she had no idea where he was, and she didn’t know when he might reappear. That was that, I thought, and I proceeded on my own to find the 1930’s book that was written by Lehman (?) which had a diagram with the proper dimensions. Before I got started, Hunter appeared in Kansas City, a female street urchin accompanying him. A half dozen friends got together and we hand sewed an 18 foot tipi together, which won the tent-building contest. This time he had an Alvarez flat-top, which was coming apart at the seams, and was held together with “spit and Kleenex” as Hunter put it, actually duct-tape and machine bolts. He used his guitar for a pillow, with a straight face informing us that he was adjusting the action. To me that guitar was not remotely playable, but when he picked it up it sounded great and when he belted out a song it was like a clarion sounding. People would appear from around corners to see what was going on, and pow! Instant party. There was no denying the talent there, from the mesmerizing “Sparks” to the hilariously vulgar “Legend of Lupe” to the somber “Lonely Days” to the anthemic “Dumpster Diver”, I immediately wanted a recording, and when he told me he didn’t have one, I said “Let’s make one.”

 

During Hunter’s Kansas City visit I received my education as to the incredible amounts of perfectly good food which is thrown away every day all across America. We hit the dumpster every day. I had a little rather horrible AMC Matador. Not a bad car, just plain ugly. There was a pretty impressive final snowstorm before spring really kicked in, and in the grocery store parking lot they had plowed only half of the vast expanse of concrete. I couldn’t resist driving through the three foot snow barrier the plow had left and I revved up the engine to blast through it in order to drive on the unplowed half. This was soft, powdery snow, but quite a bit of it, about seven inches deep, and a huge explosion of snow was created as I blasted through , accelerating rather than breaking, knowing there was a very large open area of snow to slip and slide around in. I was doing a giant high speed donut in the snow, and as the car spun around there was a cop parked on the plowed side, just observing. I decided that all things considered, I wasn’t doing anything really dangerous, and if the cop was going to bust me, he was going to bust me, and I might as well do a few more really good donuts to make it all worth while. With Hunter letting out his characteristic maniacal laughter, we tore around that parking lot spraying snow for a good five minutes, leaving evidence of a wildly good time in the tire tracks which described beautiful wide arcs created from high speed braking with the steering wheel cranked far left. It was even more exhilarating in a way with the police just watching. We pulled out of there, and drove sedately right past the police car, giving him a respectful salute as we approached the dumpster and filled up the car with boxes full of cheddar cheese, pop-n-fresh biscuits, and broccoli, all looking the same as the inventory inside the store. We gave the police officer another salute on our way out, and he grinned at us, just shaking his head as if to say, “It should be illegal to have that much fun.”

 

We hung out on the street in Westport, myself discreetly keeping an eye on Hunter’s left hand to follow his chords, and strumming “mellow” back-up just trying to not interfere with Hunter’s excellent songs and bullhorn voice. I myself was by no means ready to perform on my own, but I got away with sneaking a little bit of unobtrusive strumming behind his totally together and ready to go musical package. There is no better way to learn for a beginner musician, to be thrust into a performing situation like that with someone who can really play. It’s sink or swim. I hit my fair share of clunkers, but I was listening carefully enough to hear my mistakes and not repeat them too much. Every time I got too far off the mark, Hunter would look at me and say “mellow.” One aspect of his playing that stuck with me was his fingerings - typically a guitarist will use one finger to fret one string. I had trouble with an A chord, because the conventional fingering uses three fingers crammed in there tightly enough to let the adjacent open strings ring out, and my stubby thick fingers just didn’t fit in there- I was always muting some of the notes and having my fingers slipping off the string. Hunter would play that A or an E with two fingers, holding down two strings with his middle finger. As soon as I emulated this way of playing chords, my sound cleaned up a lot, and over the years I have found other thing to do with that extra finger - I can play an A or an E with two fingers, add a seventh with another finger, and still have a finger left over for another trick note.

 

Probably even more important in my musical development was the connection between the rhythmic movements of a player’s whole body being the key to exceptional rhythm. Hunter would dance to his own music as he was playing. He was inside the song. The pulse of it could be sensed in watching any part of his body as he was playing, from the tapping or more likely stomping of his foot, to the nodding of his head, but for a fellow guitar player trying to get some of that awesome rhythm to rub off, the key is the right hand. His hand would go up as though he were manning a pump on a leaky boat to save his life. I noticed he would keep that right hand moving even when he wasn’t strumming the guitar- and that he would get great variations on a rhythm by lifting his arm up and down like a needle on a turntable while keeping that pumping action going. If you were watching , his hand would be going up-down, up-down, up-down, up-down, but depending on whether or not he was actually hitting the strings, he might be hitting only the down strokes, then only the up strokes, then both the down and the up-strokes, and occasionally doubling exactly the speed of his up and down, or halving it. It’s one thing to read about rhythm or attend lectures, but to day in and day out be jamming with someone who can cook up a powerful groove like that and see the magic of it as not “put your first finger on the first fret on the third string, and count a one-two-three-four”…but rather truly a dance, a whole body movement that is itself the metronomic source of the groove, instead of it being a purely mental process. As mysterious as all of that is to unravel for any developing musician, by learning to play guitar from these jam sessions with Hunter, I had a masterful example of how a very simple right hand pumping action can be translated into a vast range of excellent rhythms just by learning to keep that movement going automatically and subconsciously while consciously selecting between down strokes, upstrokes, down strokes and upstrokes, or double time. I never did get as good at it as Hunter was, but my own rhythm is completely based on that concept which I learned initially from Hunter. Every time I see and hear a really great musician, on virtually any instrument, that aspect of the rhythm emanating from a physical whole body movement is clear to me - that player is inside the music, letting the rhythm “rattle their bones.” Whenever I see and hear a musician that has flashy chops but is lacking in the groove factor, I see their fingers move, but their body is stiff, and their forehead is crinkled in a painful expression showing that the source of the rhythm is a mental process, not a dancing physical, joyful body movement that carries itself along. That’s what one great musician meant when he said “free your mind and your ass will follow.”