And honestly there’s enough ammo in that sentence alone to have kept me celibate for 3 lifetimes, but thanks to Mumford & Sons, banjo players became cool a few years back and the curse was lifted.
Moby, who was also an overweight and socially awkward kid back in his day, earned his nickname when someone saw him swimming and referenced the great white whale. The nickname stuck. It wasn’t until several years later that I even realized it wasn’t his actual name; he was just Moby. He was the epitome of jovial and kind, far beyond intelligent, an absolutely fascinating wealth of musical history, jazz chords, and incredible stories, and – for several years during my late teens – the bass player for the bluegrass band I was a part of. My first encounter with boxed wine was during a fundraising event we played together at a ridiculously fancy art museum. Only Moby was paying attention as I steadily refilled my plastic cup with the mysterious substance of the grape gods. Then, somewhere between the 4th cup and the 5th song, he leaned over to me on stage and said, “You’re wobbling and your tempo is shot to hell. You may want to switch to water before the next set.” Moby shot me his famous smile and kept the tempo steady while the drunken banjo player pranced all around it.
I fell asleep in the back of my parents’ station wagon on the way home. Music is hard work for a kid, evidently.
For all of his musical knowledge and razor sharp wit, he was one of the greatest encouragers I’ve ever known. Long after my days of being a musician had passed – throughout my marriage and divorce and the years after – I would get phone calls. Sometimes emails. How was I doing? Had I kept up with music? Here’s the latest inappropriate joke. God, that man loved to forward email jokes. Shortly after my divorce, either because they were desperate for company or knew that I would be, he and two of his retired genius friends would get together at the local Chinese buffet every Thursday and invited me to join. We were an odd gathering of three retired geniuses talking about things far above my pay grade, and the young photographer kid showing off random photographs. They’d all act impressed then go back to talking about flux capacitors and quantum physics or some such while I searched for the next cool photograph to show them.
The last time I actually saw Moby (and I’m so desperately thankful for this memory), we were outside the Chinese buffet and he bear hugged me. We’d hugged a lot before that, but this – this – was a gigantic bear hug. He said he loved me and was proud of me. I told him I loved him, too. And because I’d long since sold every musical instrument I had, he said, “Now go find a damned banjo. You need to keep playing.” And that was it.
Several weeks later I was in a music shop in Bozeman, Montana, and I had a friend shoot a short video of me playing banjo to send to Moby. I sent it along with the text, “Here, you old pain in the ass. I hope you’re happy.” I got no response back. I tried to reach him a couple more times the next day – more sarcastic texts, and then on the third morning of no response I checked his Facebook page from my phone. And all I saw were messages of condolence from friends flooding his page. He’d died suddenly of a heart attack a few days prior. As that knowledge sank in, I cried like a complete fool in the living room of a friend I was staying with. And then, out of nowhere, the crying mixed with laughter. Moby would have loved the thought of me sending inappropriate texts and jokes and giving him a hard time for not responding, only to find out that he had died. I felt like a complete asshole, and he would have laughed hysterically. And then he would have told the story to all of the waitresses at the Chinese buffet.
Shortly after Moby’s passing, I wrote a letter to his daughter telling her how much I loved her dad. She responded with extremely kind and thankful words, and somehow in the exchange of letters I learned she had his upright bass. The same bass I’d stood next to for so many days and nights on the road playing music. And I wanted to photograph it. I couldn’t formulate why exactly, I just knew I wanted to.
Five years later found me on the road for an entire month: from an engagement session in San Diego, to a wedding in Boca Raton. When I realized my trip would take me through Portland, Oregon, I wrote to Moby’s daughter again and asked if I could photograph his bass while I was in town.
She graciously agreed to load it up and meet me with it at a park in Portland. And for the first time I can remember, I briefly freaked the hell out while waiting on her to show up at the park. The one recurring thought was: I don’t know how to shoot an upright bass. I saw in my head what I wanted – bass/trees/nature/light. But it was heavy, preparing to photograph a piece of a really dear friend. While our final goodbye had been wonderful, I hadn’t been this close to him since. And in the same instant the anxiety showed up, the calm came in right behind it. I was just going to shoot it. Whatever happened, whatever lighting, whatever conditions, I was just going to run with it. You can successfully kill something by thinking it to death.
I made it right up to the moment when she parked and got out of her car; then the tears came. Thankfully not the ugly cry tears. The I’m a dude and I’m not going to talk while the tears fall out because talking with a quivering voice sucks and isn’t manly tears. We hugged for a short eternity and she asked if I wanted to carry his bass – not because she wasn’t able to, but because she knew what it would mean to me. At this point all speech was gone from my throat, so I nodded and carried it to the nearest gigantic tree.
All of the pressure of trying to make it perfect vanished somewhere into that forest. And for the briefest of moments I stood at the base of a giant tree with my friend again. With absolutely no words spoken, I said I missed him. I said thanks for showing me it was okay to be a complete dork and be creative, and that all the people who are trying to be cool aren’t actually cool at all, and that I loved him. And I just started shooting.
I don’t think I took more than a few frames, all while his daughter sat watching several yards away and cried with me. It was the most intensely personal thing I’ve ever shot. And I remember the moment when I made the photos I’d wanted to make from the beginning. A flood of more emotion and a silent “ Yeah. That’s it. That’s the shot.” I helped her load the bass back up, hugged her for another eternity, and thanked her as much as I could for allowing me that opportunity.
I want there to be some bit of helpful knowledge for you to take away from this, those of you who are kind enough to read my ramblings. If anything, it’s this: shoot what scares you. Shoot something personal. We all fight and claw and chase dollars and have things that we have to shoot. I get that. Bills need to be paid. But take all of that creative madness you have within yourselves and create something just for you. No monetary reward. Not necessarily any recognition. Just create something with that crazy talent you have that means something to you. A short distance beyond being scared to death of failure is the satisfying knowledge that you kicked fear’s ass.
That evening I ended up in yet another music store, this time in Portland, Oregon, and found a banjo to play for a few moments. I honestly couldn’t think of a better end to that day than making some music, all the while hearing Moby’s voice in my head saying, “About damned time, kid.”
Followed of course by that goofy, wonderful smile.
Sincere thanks to my good friend and ridiculously talented photographer Kevin Lau for snapping behind the scenes shots along the way.