Taj Mahal and I go back a long way, though he doesn’t know it. That’s how it is with these musicians who take up residence in our lives— hanging out with us late at night, or singing to us through ear buds while we’re hiking. They were up there on stages, working, while we were in the audience, hoping this was a sweet prelude to getting laid. They sang songs that touched emotions deep in us, and they never really knew how far the rippling of their sonic pebbles would travel.
I never went fishing without Taj Mahal’s voice in my head, singing, “Betcha’ goin’ fishin’ all o’ da’ time, baby goin’ fishin’ too, bet yo’ life, yo’ sweet wife, gonna catch mo’ fish than you.”
That one goes back a long way, to a time when Ry Cooder’s guitar was lending authority to Taj’s singing. They were young, and I was young, and, man, it was all so good. We were going to move up to the country and paint our mailbox blue, take a cakewalk into town, and take a giant step outside our minds. And there’s no way for me to know what it was to have been young without revisiting that soundtrack Taj created to accompany it.
There were all those parties, with Taj on the turntable as the evening grew late and settled, when we sat around in the mess we’d made, too tired to start cleaning up, too mellowed out to muster the energy even to go to bed, just lingering in the mood until the needle stuck in a groove, forcing us to let the party end.
Then, down from the mountains, at a gig Taj played in Fresno in the early ‘80s, I lingered to offer a fan’s compliments, too high to make much sense as I tried to tell him what his music had meant to me during snowbound midwinter nights, or those spring days
with friends on the porch when he sang accompaniment to the glory of the season. I gushed, drunkenly, and he was sober, patient, nodding as I rambled, a giant who stood a good two inches taller than I am. I’m nearly 6’3”, so I’m not used to looking up at people. But it felt right to look up to him.
Another two decades down the road and Taj is singing “Moonlight Lady” from a stage in Laytonville, a Hawaiian melody as soft as an ocean breeze. My wife and I dance, stirring the dust, and stirring memories, too, of a hundred nights with Taj Mahal bursting out of our speakers, revisiting the American song book, linking us all with an aural history of shared pain and joy.
He’s bringing all of that this way on Friday, April 18th, playing the Paradise Performing Arts Center (get tickets at www.chicotickets. com or call 530 345-8136). That auditorium is likely to fill up with people like me, those who share personal histories Taj helped to create, but that he can never really quite know.