Last month, when I was telling somebody that I had been the bass player in a garage band in high school, he asked, “Why? Weren’t you good enough of a guitar player?” For a second, his question brought me up short. I certainly wasn’t a good guitar player. I could strum only a handful of chords and, as long as they were simple, just barely in succession. But I wasn’t a good bass player either, so skill—or lack thereof—had nothing to do with it. No, I actually wanted to be a bass player. It’s hard to pinpoint why, exactly. I was a fan of Gene Simmons at the time, but whether it was because he was the bass player or because he was a cool Kabuki vampire, I don’t know. I do remember the moment when I really heard what a bass does, though. It was when I was listening to the Little Chute High School Jazz Band. The talented multi-instrumentalist Tony Vohs, who seemed to me to be able to play whatever he picked up, was on bass, which I didn’t just hear, I felt, just behind my heart, not as a rumble, but as a joyous urge to jump out of my chair, to move, to dance, to express that glorious sound through action. He was at the heart of the music, propelling it forward. That’s what I want to do, I told myself. And so, when some friends of mine and I decided to start a band, that’s what I tried to do.
It was at about that time when I really started to listen to the bass parts on my favorite records, too. I ached at the melodiousness of Paul McCartney’s work on songs like “Rain” and “Don’t Let Me Down,” the off-kilter syncopation of Sting on the first couple of Police albums, the virtuosity of Stanley Clarke, the way Donald “Duck” Dunn rode the groove in those great songs that inspired John Belushi and Dan Ackroyd to share their amateurish love of them with the public. I could go on, but it would just become a litany of names poorly varnished with adjectives. Still, I got to thinking about how much the bass guitar moved me while attending a Femi Kuti concert this past June, as I watched how effortlessly the bass player tossed off infectiously danceable lines, recalling the astounding bass work of Classie Ballou, Jr., whom I saw a number of years ago with Zydeco legend Boozoo Chavis in Milwaukee. You can’t listen to Boozoo’s music, or more accurately be in the presence of it, without wanting to dance, and there’s no doubt that the bass has no small part in that. For those of you who denigrate bass guitar playing to the ranks of those not good enough to play something with more strings: tell it to Bootsy Collins.