To quote the great 70s art-pop bards, 10cc, "big boys don't cry." Only in that song, and in life, sometimes they do.
You may do it when your dog or cat dies. When a romance implodes, when a loved one slips off the mortal coil, when you are faced with the life unsettling loss of a job or place to live.
And, sometimes, when one of the music god Apollo's anointed masters really wails on an electric guitar.
It's that latter situation that is my particular sonic and emotional peccadillo. It's one that has been activated, without warning, on rare occasions -- when a truly talented player strikes a note that cuts through to my soul, unleashing an emotional showdown with the eternal happy/sad that is the human condition.
Let me start off by saying these are not moments I was ever particularly proud of. They are when an otherwise (quasi) emotionally stable fellow is reduced to a moist, sniveling, chest-heaving, snot-oozing mass by just a few seconds of soulfully-manipulated sound.
But maybe I and you too should be happy about this. Proud that we are emotionally capable of being split open, then healed by, the sprit conjuring sound that a humble six-strings and other instruments can carry.
Carlos Santana surely is. In many interviews, I have heard him emote about being reduced to tears by music -- by the wail of Coltrane, the muted swan of Miles' trumpet, the electric blues of B.B. King and Peter Green. Maybe that's why he's one of the few people capable of triggering these emotions -- en masse -- with his sound.
Probably the first time a single guitar note reduced me to tears came courtesy of Jimi Hendrix. The day after he died, a friend and I took a long bus ride to purchase his just-released album, "Band of Gypsies." The song was "Machine Gun," recorded live at the Fillmore East. Legend tells Hendrix was lectured by promoter Bill Graham about all the guitar humping and showman shtick he did during his first set the night he premiered this classic. So for the second, Jimi just decided to shut him up and play his guitar, stock still and expressionless and like no one before him, to let his immense and unchallenged instrumental talent do the talking.
For many guitarists like Vernon Reid, this version of "Machine Gun" is said to be the ultimate moment, a sonic expression of the pointless horror of war itself, and the most electric blues ever. At the four-minute mark, Hendrix begins his solo with a phase-laden, bent scream -- a single note that captures all the terror and cost of war, a single note that lasts about 12 seconds. Maybe the biggest, most badass note ever played in rock or blues, and the note that triggered my first waterworks response to guitar.
But that's only the beginning of a nine-minute sound painting, an ever-changing blues containing dive bombing planes, and yes, lots of machine gun sounds. Thankfully it was not only committed to record but to film, on a fuzzy video that can be seen on YouTube today (Writer's note: Get our your handkerchiefs).
Now Santana himself was also the purveyor of a doozy for me. He's got quite a few tear-inducing performances in his cannon, but the absolute is his performance of "Europa: Earth's Cry, Heaven's Smile" from his 1981 live album, "Moonflower."
As Carlos begins his solo on this ballad at 2:49, he takes a cue from Jimi, who he worshipped, and unleashes a feedback-riding scream that goes on for 12 seconds. Carlos's solo continues on for four more minutes of primordial electric blues, powered by his woodshedding/duo work in the years immediately prior with jazz/fusion great John McLaughlin.
So how does this relate to Prince the guitar player, and my teary time under his spell? Prince is now being belatedly venerated as a guitar great. I think it's because he was always a great student/fan of guitar, something overshadowed by his talent as songwriter, producer, singer, live performer and public provocateur. I can say with little doubt that he dissected and drank from the fountain of the above two and other guitar greats to build his six-string house of style.
Now Prince's guitar brought me to tears, quite unexpectedly, in one of the worst of possible places -- a movie theater.
On a summer weekend in 1984, my wife-to-be and I decided to seek relief from the Brooklyn heat by going to see a movie. After a quick "eeny meeny miny mo," we chose "Purple Rain."
The movie itself was a mixed affair - great live performances, incredibly cheesy fashions, soap opera melodrama, some very bad first-time acting, but pretty enjoyable nonetheless. But as the movie finales with the title song, I felt something stirring in my gut, and in the corner of my eyes. I had to feel for Prince -- his father's tragedy, his (filmic and real life) Napoleonic Complex and the fact that he finally gave faithful bandmates/soulmates Wendy and Lisa some love, by writing a great song around their much bandied about chord sequence.
And like Jimi and Carlos before him, he starts his solo by swinging for the fences, with a long drawn out scream, one that instantly started my chest heaving and my eyes tearing up. As he digs deeper into his electric blues, more tears came. My partner looked at me with lots of different eyes - complete puzzlement, embarrassment and, thankfully and finally, some sympathy. The tears and heaving continued as the ending credits began to scroll. Before they would subside, we skulked out, me now in sunglasses, a prop to shield the shame of the only crying he-man in the theater.
At that time, I wanted to kill the little bastard, for embarrassing me in front of the wife-to-be and half of brownstone Brooklyn. Prior to that moment, all of my musical tears had been shed in private.
But you can't argue with human emotional reflex. Prince was one of the artists who really touched people. We're only now realizing that so much of that spiritual connection came courtesy of his mastery of the six-strings that have been mastered by so few and enjoyed by so many.