As Sally and I get ready to leave Portland, it occurred to me I have been clear why I am leaving, but not so revealing about why I came here. So, this tale will be one of a series of vignettes about how I got here and why I stayed for 40 years. Here goes….
I came to Portland to stay in 1982. However, my first visit was in 1978. For almost a year, I lived in Salem for about a year with my girlfriend. I had been working in my home desert after school about as aimless as one can be. A college friend, who was doing graduate work at Willamette University, sent me a postcard which suggested I come to Salem. I went to the library (yeah, pre-Google) and read about Salem, Oregon. On a river, which meant it was the anti-desert. State Capitol. Hey, I had a new degree in Political Science, maybe that could be a thing. I left the desert, without a clue, and ended up working graveyard shift at a freeway gas station and growing pot in a closet. Now there’s living large.
My college friend had a boyfriend who was at the law school. He was a car geek, who made moonshine in the basement and had a love of the blues music. I didn’t yet know blues, only knew it was the foundation of rock. We lived almost across the street from each other. One day, he walked over and said that Muddy Waters was going to play in Portland. Was I interested? Sure, I said. Great, he said. But I needed to drive us to Portland to score tickets because both his Porsche 356A and Austin Healey were not running (note: way cool cars, but running wasn’t their thing). Off we went in my little Toyota Corolla Deluxe. Deluxe was a relative term for the Japanese cars of the 70s.
My first time on the streets of Portland started at the Memorial Coliseum exit off I5. Mark had a little sheet of scribbled notes and an alarmingly positive attitude. I recall seeing the black box arena and how we seemed to go in circles. We ended up in a head shop/music store and parked in an alley out back. Smell being a powerful memory, I remember the overwhelming aroma of incense, then popular to cover the smell of still felony marijuana. We got the tickets but didn’t linger, as the price of gas and tickets had exhausted our entertainment budget for the month.
Funny thing about where we bought the tickets. Many, many years later, I pulled into the weird diagonal head in/back out parking lot behind my all-time favorite music store in Portland, Music Millennium. Standing in on the sidewalk, looking at my car, it hit me. This was where I parked when I came to buy the Muddy Waters tickets. By then, I had been in Portland for decades and made friends with the owner, Terry. By then I had been to about 100 blues shows, but only at that moment did I realize that this was where my connection to Portland started.
The show was in an industrial area at a club called The Euphoria Tavern. It had an unlikely entry up a few steps on a street lined with loading docks and parked trucks. (The place still exits behind the Office Depot on MLK. It has had a dozen venue lives, and I once saw the queercore Portland band Team Dresch there.) Once inside, the place was pure Portland hippie funky. Beat up wood chairs, a few wobbly tables, and some rows of church pews up front. I recall a little before the music started, but what I didn’t know then was that Muddy’s backup band was a collection of blues royalty. Pinetop Perkins on piano, Jerry Portnoy on harp, Bob Margolin and Luther ‘Guitar’ Johnson on guitar, Calvin ‘Fuzz’ Jones on bass and Willie ‘Big Eyes’ Smith behind the drum kit. The band came out and played and played and played. Muddy Waters was nowhere to be seen. I mean, the music was great, but we came to see the man and I was getting antsy. Beers doing their job, I went to the restroom.
It was a two-urinal facility. I took my place and got about my business when an old, black man in a shiny purple shirt, black jacket and porkpie hat appeared at the urinal next to me. I could hear the band still playing (over the years, I have come to love taking a piss with live music in the background) and I had seen Muddy’s picture on Mark’s album cover. Yup, I was taking a whizz with Muddy Waters. Here is the bit of dialogue locked into my memory of my first trip to Portland.
Staring at the wall in front of me, with a slight head tilt and a little side-eye, I said, “Aren’t you supposed to be playing?”
Never looking my way, I heard his gravelly voice, “I’ll be gett’n there. I’ll be gett’n there.”
We finished our work and I hung back, so he exited before I did. Following him out, the small crowd saw him for the first time. The band switched to his walk-on music. People stood, clapped and hooted. One of the band members stepped to the mic and yelled, “Muddy Waters! Muddy Waters! Muddy Waters!” (I later learned that blues headliners always make the same sort of entrance after the backup band plays for a while.) That day, Muddy was the age I am now. Perhaps he was a prophet on that long ago night. Because what I didn’t know about Portland that night was that four years, and thousands of miles later, he had it right. “I’ll be gett’n there. I’ll be gett’n there.”