By Doug M. Dawson
Percy Rainbow felt he’d seen a lot in his nearly seventy years, though he really hadn’t. He started life in the deep south, migrated up to Baltimore to work in its factories in the late 1950’s then made his way to New York. He had an older cousin named Ellwood who started a small printing business in the Bronx and offered to take Percy in and teach him the trade. Percy caught on all right and when Ellwood died in the early 1980’s he inherited the business. Ever since that time Percy had kept things going, though he never seemed to be able to make the business grow. He hired one assistant and was thinking of taking on another, but that was mostly because he was getting old and he couldn’t do it all by himself anymore. He’d been married for a while in the ’70’s and had a son, but both the wife and boy left in their own good time and he hadn’t heard from either in years.
It was a lonely life, but he had his business, he had his drinking buddies and he had his neighbors. He also had his collection of guitars and occasional gigs in bars, where he sang and played the blues. He’d spent a good part of his life listening to recordings of old-time bluesmen like Leadbelly, Blind Lemon Jefferson and Muddy Waters and he could play all their licks by heart. His singing wasn’t bad either and he’d always felt he missed his real calling as a southern bluesman just by being born too late. He may not have had a career as a professional musician, but he did have a trunk full of original songs. He’d taken guitar lessons over the years, learned a lot about harmony and chording and studied music notation – something the great blues masters never did. He’d had many songs published and more than a few were out there “on the circuit” – being sung by various singers and bands. He even received royalty checks – not nearly enough to support him, but enough to make him feel he was recognized. Many musicians and fans knew him, appreciated his songwriting and to him being appreciated was what mattered.
He lived in a rent-controlled tenement building in the South Bronx. The place wasn’t great and it wasn’t terrible. He’d never been robbed in all his years there and he figured that was because robbers probably went to more affluent-looking places. Other reasons were the three strong locks on his door and the “neighborhood watch” – the organized cadre of residents who kept an eye on things. He had a number of guitars that could be fenced, but he reasoned that when he carried one of his guitars to a gig people only saw the case, never the guitar and never realized he had a whole collection of them and that several were quite valuable. Then again, they were mostly the acoustic kind, with the “f” shaped holes like a violin or the big round hole in the middle and these were harder to fence and therefore less likely to be stolen than the much more popular electric guitars used in rock and most popular music. He called the latter “canoe paddles” – solid sticks of wood with almost no tone of their own, that could only be used with an amplifier. Such contraptions, invented by the likes of Les Paul and Leo Fender, had so taken over the music business that they were all most people thought of when the word “guitar” was mentioned.
It was Thursday and Percy was a little more tired than usual after work. He stopped at the deli on the way home and bought several days’ worth of food – as much as he thought he could carry. He only bought a quart of milk because the half-gallon and gallon sizes felt as heavy as barbell plates. He bought a steak he planned to broil and some asparagus spears to boil on the stove. By the time the grocer piled the bread, potato salad, jar of peanut butter, canned veggies and a plastic cup of tapioca pudding into the bag he wasn’t sure he could carry it the half-mile to his home, but somehow he managed. Without a car it was a long walk, but it was his main form of exercise and as he’d never once had to stop and rest, he figured he’d be all right. As he walked, he wondered what he’d do when he couldn’t carry his own groceries anymore. Sure, you can pay people to shop for you, but one of these days he’d retire and then who’d have money for such things? By the time he made it to the top of the three flights of stairs and started to fumble for his keys he’d put all such thoughts out of his mind.
When he finally set his groceries down on the kitchen table his hunger dominated his thinking. He was really looking forward to the thick, juicy steak and he put said steak on some tin foil, put it on a rack in the broiler section of the oven then turned on the gas. He poured some water in a pan, dumped in the asparagus spears in and placed it on the gas range. He turned the knob on the burner and stood there staring, waiting for the flame to come on.
“Damn!” he said when nothing happened. He put aside the pan, lifted the range’s top cover to see if the pilot light had gone out then turned around, walked over to the oven, opened the bottom drawer and looked inside, hoping to see flames. He saw nothing but a pitch-black oven and decided to call one of his neighbors.
“Gas went off this aft’noon boss,” he was told.
“Anybody doin’ anything ’bout it?”
“Building super’s being sought.”
“Being sought? What the hell’s that?” asked Percy incredulously.
“I don’t know any more than you,” said the neighbor. “Being sought means can’t be found, don’t it? That what it means to me.”
“Sorry, didn’t mean to get on you,” said Percy.
“It’s all right, man, we’re all pissed. The dude’s never done us wrong before, so he’ll show up, maybe tonight if we’re lucky.”
“But I got to eat!” said Percy, sounding like he was ready to cry.
“You got a microwave? Nuke you a dinner, man! I don’t even have one.”
“Yeah, man,” said Percy. “Talk to you later.”
Percy looked over at his small microwave oven. It looked pitiful on its small stand, nothing around it, like a lone soldier guarding a solitary post on the frontier, no one but his commander knowing he was out there. Suddenly the urge to write a song hit Percy. He was getting hungrier by the minute, but like Duke Ellington used to say, his head would already be on the pillows when that idea for a new song would arrive like the proverbial stork carrying a baby. Sure, the Duke wanted to sleep like anybody else, but when a good idea hit you had to get up and write it down before it was gone or that idea would leave you forever, kind of like the stork carrying the baby away because he thought you didn’t want it.
Percy walked into his tiny living room where sat his large, old Gibson “f” hole guitar. He picked it up and started strumming. He played it every day then scrupulously cleaned the strings with WD-40. They were so clean they didn’t even need to be tuned on some days. Percy went through a familiar 12-bar blues pattern centered on B7, A major and E Major chords and played a familiar “turn-around” used by generations of blues musicians. He smiled when he recalled that day in the late ’50’s when he first noticed that pattern. He was listening to the radio when Buddy Holly’s hit song “That’ll Be the Day” came on. In the middle was a guitar break that ended with just that blues turn-around. He’d never forgotten it. He thought about his current predicament and words starting coming to him. It was turning into a comical blues song – if there could ever be such a thing. It was about a fellow who could think of nothing but that juicy steak he was about to cook when he found his oven wasn’t working.
Percy juggled the words in his head for about a while then wrote it all down on paper, chord symbols too. He’d been playing, singing and writing music for so long he didn’t even have to play a new song on his guitar to write it down; he just heard it in his head. A few minutes later he was singing the whole song from memory. “That’s what a little musical training will do for you,” he thought to himself. He picked up his big Gibson and ran it through with guitar accompaniment – just to make sure it sounded the way he heard it in his head – it did. Then another idea hit him; he’d call some of his neighbors, all stuck in the same oven-less boat, many of them without their own microwaves, and sing it for them. They’d have a few laughs then everybody’d pitch in with the food he’d ask them to bring and they’d all have a sort of cook out. It would be like an indoor picnic, one with the blues and a microwave oven. That’s when the title for the song hit him.
It took a few phone calls and some cajoling but gradually people started filing in, ’till he had eleven people in his living room, including himself. Somehow the shared experience of being without gas brought everyone together. Finally, they were all settled down and quiet. Percy used his thickest, hardest guitar pick, the one that produced the most volume from his guitar and he started with a chord lead-in then proceeded to sing:
“Gas range, she ain’t workin’,
Oven conked out too.
That’s why I be sittin’ here –
Wit dem mean ol’ microwave blues.
I be sittin’ here nukin’,
Nukin’ all night long.
Hope I don’t glow in the dark
By da time I finished this song!
Whole thing start on Thursday,
When they cut off the gas.
But I still got the juice on,
‘lectric comin’ out my ass!
I say I be sittin’ here,
Wit’ dem mean ol’ microwave blues.
Might make it till Monday
But I won’t hold out to Tues.!
Wonder what I’ll cook me –
Chicken or a roast
Meat loaf or a pizza –
Might make me some toast.
“I be sittin’ here nukin’,
Nukin’ all night long.
Hope I don’t glow in the dark
By da time I finished this song!”
Percy ended the song with an improvised guitar solo, one that was pure blues. Even though it was instrumental it recalled everything from the field hollers and Negro spirituals of slavery days to the gravel-voiced “Oh-yeahs” of Louis Armstrong and the last few notes of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue.” Percy hadn’t played anything like this in so long that even he was surprised by what came out, as his fingers flew around the fretboard and cajoled lonliness and heartache, even defiance out of his guitar. He ended his solo with that famous turn-around, the one that Buddy Holly made famous long ago, only he didn’t play it like the slicked-up white man’s version from the record, but rather like the rendering of a blues man – someone who’d lived a long life, been around, seen it all, done it all. When he finished everyone sat in silence for a few seconds, like they’d just witnessed something rare and special. Then everybody commenced applauding and laughing, for the song and the whole get-together were more than a bit comic, an attempt to deal with one of life’s little adversities with humor.
Somebody yelled out “Got to get me some food!” as he got up and headed for the kitchen and the microwave oven. At that everyone rose and formed a line, with their food in their hands as they waited their turn to cook up a quick microwave meal.
“It’s a cook-out man!” yelled one neighbor.
Another added “No, man – it’s a nuke out!”