The Martha’s Vineyard Times
December 2, 1999
Aspiring to the Void and Finding Art
As great as it is to listen to blues artist Maynard Silva play music, it is almost more fascinating to listen to him talk about it. “For a lot of people, music is a fashion issue. For me, it is language.” And for this native Islander, who just released his fourth CD, “Dancing With El Distorto,” music is also a life. No one is more familiar with the conflicts and contradictions of that life than he is, more familiar with the stark difference between being someone who performs and someone who makes music.
The blues Maynard started playing when he left the Island in 1969 to be a philosophy major in St. Louis wasn’t the factory blues people had gotten used to hearing in these parts. Instead, wen he slipped away from his studies to go down-river to Memphis, he found himself hanging out and playing heavy, hill-country blues at the homes of folks like Bukka White and Furry Lewis (immortalized in Joni Mitchell’s “Furry Sings the Blues”). That was down-home blues, “pre-city blues” Maynard calls it, with more interesting, more complicated rhythmic textures than the formulaic stuff one hears all over the place these days.
When Maynard came back east in 1972, he came back to play. And play he did for 15 years, in Boston and Providence, doing solo work, playing with bands, touring opening for high-profile blues acts. “I melted enough guitar strings to build the Bourne Bridge,” he says of those years. That kind of life necessarily revolves around gigs. When you’re still up at 10 am, as he generally was, it’s an early morning. And your day doesn’t end until you eat breakfast.
In 1987, Maynard decided he wanted a more normal life. He returned to the Island, to a trade he had always known and could depend on, sign painting. (From a seat at the Circuit Café in Oak Bluffs last week, he could point out several signs along the avenue he had painted.) When he first came back, Maynard thought he was retiring from music. In retrospect, he realizes that he had gotten “out of the business to practice the craft.”
Maynard started doing music as a harmonica player, but moved on to guitar when he found the guitarists in his early bands were not completely dependable. (“You can have a band without a harmonica, but its hard to have a band without a guitar,” he notes.) “My first influence was my rage,” he says quoting Robbie Robertson about the shape of his early music. And citing Stevie Ray Vaughan, Maynard says, “I love music that sounds like an old motor running.”
But beyond these aural influences, Maynard had come to understand music as something central to being. “I play to hypnotize myself. It’s all about altered states and using music and the energy of people to get there.” He looks to the visual artist Basquiat for inspiration. “Carlos Castaneda is a bigger influence on me than Muddy Waters,” he states without hesitation.
Maynard’s understanding of music shines through in its latest incarnation, his fourth CD. The project came together at the instigation of bass player E.J. Lynch, down to the Island on a visit from his home in western Massachusetts. The musicians on the album had only performed together a couple of times. But E.J. talked them all into a recording session, a chance for some time when they could just be themselves, listen to each other, and pay attention to the music.
“Everybody there was an improviser,” Maynard recalls. “Guys with big ears who play from their hearts, who believe in the dignity of simple music and don’t condescend to it.” Maynard credits E.J. with turning what might have just been a great jam session into the polished work of a band. In addition to his ability to create dramatic backdrops with the bass, E.J. can, as Maynard puts it, “organize complex patterns of non-verbal communication.” With the pattern in place, it all came together. Rub board player Tom Shaw added rhythmic texture and variety to the work, in the tradition of good, heavy Memphis blues, over Chas Griffiths’ solid drumming. Jeremy Jones on Leslie guitar infused the tunes with a young energy. Multi-talented, multi-instrumentalist Tom Howland filled in with percussion on the acoustic tracks.
Maynard credits Charlie Esposito, owner/producer/engineer of Audiolutions in Vineyard Haven, with capturing the sound. “Charlie’s a great sniper. When something starts to happen, he’s ready to hear it. He’s the best, a genius, totally Zen. Egoless.” Charlie ambient-mic’d the room. “Had mics everywhere,” Maynard recalls. Then, when the group trance set in, Charlie got it down.
The resulting energy leaps out through the music. Five of the eight cuts on the album are first takes, with no overdubs. A different, overlapping five are originals, with three covers filling out the mix. The songs are carefully arranged to shape the energy, electric pieces to start and finish, with two acoustic cuts at the heart of the album. “In music you stretch time, but you always come back,” Maynard says. The CD reflects the pattern.
These days, Maynard structures his life with an eye to what matters the most. His son, Milo a 12-year-old at the Oak Bluffs School, is a beloved priority. When Maynard plays music, he plays the music he wants to play. (He is not, for instance, all that involved in the Island wedding industry. He only did four weddings last year, two of those for friends. When people ask him to play, strict rules apply: “no requests, no polkas, and I get to play as loud as I want.”)
The striking graphics on the CD cover are the work of Maynard’s close friend and love, Basia Jaworska, another important aspect of his life. (Mike Parker pulled Basia’s work into the CD format.) “Basia creates a sense of space around herself. She doesn’t just fill space up. When she came into my life, it was like she put up another pole in the tent, opening up the space.” Ms. Jaworska’s artwork, here acrylic on paper with ink and marker overlay, captures very accurately the sense of what Maynard means when he calls himself a “primitive musician”: a musician who has cooked song down to its essence, to its simplest, most potent core. A musician who is past pretext, past empty technique, past anything that is not the heart of the music itself. Likening what he does to peyote song, Maynard states, “you find your song by singing it. You find your identity by stating it.”
“Basically, I aspire to the void,” he says, “and then someone else calls it ... ” he hesitates a moment. “Art?” I suggest. “Yeah,” he says, and laughs.