How The Grinch Got Scrooged in Asheville
At some point in my life, the
magic of Christmas vanished and was replaced by a cynical outlook that
manifested itself most overtly through my use of the “Xmas” abbreviation.
Not even 30 years old, I was the kind
of curmudgeonly, Scrooge-like grump who stole money from the Salvation Army
bucket, cursed the little children gazing at the window displays, and, on one
memorable occasion, actually brained a sidewalk Santa Claus with his own bronze
bell because he was too damn jolly.
I especially loathed the way the
U.S. economy depended upon millions of Americans spending their hard-earned
cash on pointless gifts as the countdown of shopping days left until Christmas scrolled
by in the month of December, all to the tune of another melody-less remake of an
old holiday classic pimped to sell Old Navy sweaters. Christmas, in my mind,
had been twisted into a sad advertisement for poor-quality garments made in
China and faux sentimentality. Friends would drop by just to laugh as I railed
against the blatant prostitution of the Christmas spirit. I was a soul
tormented by the commercialism I perceived being foisted upon the American public.
A few days before Xmas, I would
journey home to the place of my youth – Richmond, Virginia – and attempt to
ignore the ebullient display of holiday cheer by my tradition-oriented mother.
In fact, the only time I was smart enough to keep my big, fat mouth shut was in
the presence of my friends’ young children. I could see in their eyes that this
holiday was still magical and perhaps even holy, despite the mountains of
poorly rendered plastic toys over which they claimed dominion.
Nonetheless, something wonderful
would happen every Xmas Eve once everyone had nestled into their homes all cozy
and warm: quietude. Blissful, sweet silence pervaded my soul, and it was in
this silence, as the street sounds faded and the night descended, that I discovered
the real joy that is Christmas: a time of reflection and appreciation of family
and friends, sharing old memories and making new ones.
Eight years ago, my entire
perspective on Xmas changed. In August 2000, my close friend Allen Woody,
bassist for Gov’t Mule, suddenly passed away. Woody had a great sense of humor
and was truly a caring person and a good friend. His death tormented me at a
time in my life when I really didn’t need any reminders of mortality, and I
know I needn’t mention how this affected the people that loved and worked with
Shortly after Woody’s passing, Warren
Haynes called me and asked if I would participate in a tribute to Woody at the
Roseland Ballroom in New York City. Nervously, I accepted the invitation and soon
found myself whisked away to a night of good friends and great music. My
performance of Woody’s bass lines that night, while not perfect, seemed to provide
some solace for those in attendance. I had so much fun that I offered to fill
in for Woody anytime the Mule needed me. While everyone in the Mule camp was
awash with grief and not sure of what the future might hold, Warren graciously
thanked me for my offer.
As Thanksgiving approached and the
holiday commercials began to flood the airwaves, the call came again: Warren wanted
me to come to Asheville, North Carolina to play with the Mule for his annual
“Xmas Jam” to benefit the local chapter of Habitat For Humanity. I agreed,
thinking it would be a fun time and also help to break up my drive from Athens
to my parents’ home in Richmond.
Xmas Jam 2000 turned out to be a
great time, the biggest in the event’s history up until that point as the show
had moved from the small clubs of Asheville to the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium. The
Allman Brothers Band performed that night as well as the reunited Aquarium
Rescue Unit (featuring Col. Bruce Hampton, no less). I took the stage with Gov’t
Mule, and we played a few more songs than we had at the One for Woody benefit
earlier that fall. The Christmas spirit seemed to flow all around us, and much
to my surprise, I discovered that the old Scrooge mood in me had lifted. In
fact, I felt downright Christmas-y. I don’t know if it was something in the
eggnog backstage, but I found myself imbued with the spirit of giving and it
painted a magical glow on everything around me. There was something truly
wonderful about coming together with friends both onstage and off to change the
lives of some folks that really needed some help. It seemed like a no-brainer:
play some music, catch up with some friends, and help build a house.
Over the seven years or so I’ve
played the Xmas Jam, I’ve had the great fortune to play with Gregg Allman, Bob
Weir, Marty Stuart, Jorma Kaukonen, Bruce Hampton, Stockholm Syndrome and a
host of others. And believe me, it has NEVER been work regardless of the amount
of rehearsal time required for the gig. Beyond the musicians, it takes a whole
lot of work to put this celebration on year after year. Despite the long hours
and toil required of those who make this event happen, you will see nothing but
smiles on their faces, and it’s because they’re getting something intangible in
return for their labor. I believe it’s the true spirit of giving.
Friends of Bill W. have a saying,
“You keep what you have only by giving it away.” I can personally amend that to
say, “You can regain what you have lost only by giving it away.”
Playing Xmas Jam gave Christmas
back to me. Ask anyone who has seen me in Asheville at the Xmas Jam and they’ll
tell you that I always say, “My Christmas begins HERE.” It feels great to do
something positive for so many by doing something that I love so much. I can
only imagine how Warren and his wife and manager Stefani Scamardo must feel.
I’ve seen the mayor of Asheville
present Warren and Stefani with the key to the city more times than I can
imagine. They must have a special shelf in their place just for those things! The
city elders need to go ahead and just build a statue of Warren somewhere in Asheville.
Just make sure it’s made out of solid milk chocolate. Warren would like that.
Artwork by Marq Spusta (www.marqspusta.com)