You gotta give

I left home at 17, dropped out of high school, became completely indigent, lived with various girls (until their parents threw me out of their homes) and played in a band. By the time I was 18, my band had played all over the country (which was noteworthy, as I could barely play my instrument) and my life was changing drastically. My band was called Zu (eventually, the name became Material), after the performance space we rehearsed in which was owned by Giorgio Gomelsky. Giorgio had produced The Yardbirds in their heyday (and utterly exploited their master tapes in order to pay his rent over the years) and was involved with a host of other luminaries from the European, progressive rock and jazz music scenes.

Giorgio organized a cross-country tour featuring our group, remnants of the band Gong and a ragtag bunch of various other musicians. One of these musicians was a jazz drummer named Stu Martin. One doesn’t hear about him these days, but Stu’s CV reads like a who’s who of modern jazz music from the mid-1950’s through the mid-1970’s. He played with everyone from Quincy Jones to Count Basie to Charles Mingus. Stu had been drafted to play with Gong (an unlikely pairing, and he eventually dropped out due to the poor organization).

Stu was a real character. He was ginger, relatively short, usually high and always on. He brought his son (who was named Zeke Zack Martin) on a few shows- Zeke was 5 at the time and according Stu, could already identify several different types of marijuana by taste or smell. Sadly, Stu also had an appreciation for heroin, which eventually got the best of him.

I had never encountered anyone like Stu before. He was an incredible drummer, with an elegant jazz feel yet fiery and explosive at the same time. He played with a lyricism I’d never seen before. He had two EMS AKS Synthi’s which he would program simultaneously and play to. He was also the type of person who would say exactly what was on his mind without any inner dialogue, self-editing or any prior thought regarding the consequences. For how small he was, I found him fairly intimidating.

And, at that time, I was a snotty little kid. I had no manners and I was fairly disrespectful to most people I knew. It was basic insecurity on my part, but that didn’t really matter to anyone else. Gomelsky didn’t like me much and the other individuals in the Zu scene found me barely tolerable. I had just left a family situation which was utterly oppressive- there, my only outlets had been illustrating and making bleeping noises on a synthesizer I’d purchased with the money I made one summer working at Flushing Meadow Park pushing an ice cream cart around the lake. Now, I was hanging around real musicians and trying to fit in. I didn’t really know how to hang and I knew it. Underneath the facade and the braggadocio, I was petrified.

All this found me one afternoon at Gomelsky’s place, telling Stu Martin (of whom I’d grown terrified by that stage) that I had access to two large Buchla Series 200 modular synthesizers if he ever wanted to use them. We were standing in a very tight makeshift hallway and Stu turned to face me. He moved toward me and I found myself completely cornered in the very tight space. I began to feel my chest tighten up as my breathing became more shallow.

Stu pushed his face up into mine and began a tirade unlike anything I’d ever heard or will ever hear. I initially thought he was going kill me, because he had a look of complete insanity in his eyes. I interpreted most of what he was saying as a blur- it was driven by this boundless, limitless fiery energy. His rant was equal parts inspiring and utterly terrifying. It started along the lines of “I don’t give a fuck about your goddamn synthesizers” and took off from there.

I was completely paralyzed. I felt the words and the intensity of his personality forcing their way into my consciousness. I felt ridiculous. I felt foolish and I wanted to die right there. The other members of my band intermittently walked past the spectacle of Stu backing me up against the wall, talking at high velocity right into my face and kept giving me little smirks. I was getting basted and they were enjoying it.

At one point, I realized that Stu was saying something over and over again. In the midst of the chaos, he kept repeating this one phrase. Deluge aside, that phrase was at the heart of what he wanted, what he needed desperately to say to me. He kept saying, “You gotta give”.

He told me about how on a tour in Austria, he’d been confronted by a bunch of thugs in a bar. They called him a Jew pig and told him to come outside so they could kill him. He said sure- they went outside and he pointed into the sky. He told them to look at one large cloud- because that was his grandmother who’d been killed at Auschwitz. He then told them they could try to kill him right there, that he wasn’t going down without taking some of them with him or they could go back into the bar and have a beer with him. I’m not sure why that story stayed with me. Perhaps it was how it contrasted with what he was trying to tell me. Or, perhaps it was completely synchronous with what he was trying to tell me.

“You gotta give”. I remember Stu saying this now as clearly as I did when the words were leaving his lips. I saw his eyes soften and tenderness come pouring out of him. He knew I had no idea what he was talking about, but he took the opportunity to tell me just the same. I felt what he was feeling, even though I had no idea about what any of it meant. I just knew that what he was saying was way over my head, I looked like a fool to my band mates, I’d been humiliated and I was scared. He had me backed up against that wall for an hour and a half.

But, all these years later, I’m starting to get an inkling of what Stu was imparting to me. I know that he wasn’t in control of what was coming out of his mouth- he was merely a vessel for a greater intelligence. I began to see how much compassion there was in him which made him so infuriated with me and at the same time directed him to tell me what I needed to hear. Life was never about a bunch of gear in a room and it still isn’t. I wasn’t going to impress him- certainly not by telling him about some synthesizers. Stu didn’t care- he’d been in a band with John McLaughlin. He was teaching me one of the greatest truths about being alive. To wit; when we are done doing everything we need to do out of fear, out of desire, out of insecurity, out of the need to do something/ anything, the only thing left is to give. To be of service.

I mused over Stu’s phrase for many years and thought I had a bead on it frequently. The meaning kept deepening over time and I can see that I never really understood it. Like all great truths which are verbally imparted, they can’t really be understood- they can only be felt.

There it is. You gotta give.

8 responses to “You gotta give”

  1. Hi Michael,

    This post brought to mind, all those little moments when my parents said things to me that I was sure were true even though I did not understand them at the time. Out of respect for them I filed them away. As all truths come to pass with time, it is clear that they cannot always be understood, in the moment, they must be lived.

  2. Michael,

    As I read this blog, my heart rate increased, skin turned pale, body started to shake and my pupils began to dialate as though I was a witness to your experience with Stu in that hallway. Glad that experience helped shape you into who you are and where you are today. Thank you for sharing that with others who might possibly (if lucky enough) experienced something remotely close to what you encountered with him that night. Look forward to any further blogs you post.

  3. Michael,
    Thanks for that story about Stu Martin. I was on that tour with you playing with NY Gong and Mother Gong,wish I spent more time with Zu band on stage. Some of the best moments were the sound checks,making up some fine music. There were some great players in that yellow school bus going cross country! I also had some close encounters with Stu,your story above brought back memories of his amazing playing,energy,and aura. He laid into me about being ready for any kind of gig that would come down the pike. He told me he would get any audition he ever went for from circus bands to big band. He questioned me as to my abilities to make it in a Be Bop setting,could I cut that?He implied that I could play some stuff but can I play up tempo Bird tunes? He was realistic about that and to this day I am still preparing somehow. He was one of those rare individuals who could fit in with the jazz police and also the free avant-garde in the most stellar way! I had him as an instructor at the Creative Music Studio in Woodstock NY. I once watched him do a drum master class. He had all the drummers playing a drum roll. He had them playing loud and soft. When their hands were ready to fall off he had them get real soft and quiet yet all drum rolling away. He told them that if they listen carefully they would hear in that drum roll anything they would ever be able to play or hear musically. Now he had their attention.(of course this place became a Zen monastery a few years later) As their arms were going numb he proceeded to lecture on the history of the drums. His theory: drums were the first instrument,not the voice. “First there was a PUNCH, then a scream!” Stories abound with Stu. We also for a while did a live radio show with Stu that included live improvised music to written on air skits. Jack DeJohnette was a close friend of his and Jacks wife Lydia was involved as well. Other memories abound but will move on now.(like his big wood arrow for an earring!) Zeke is playing in the Boston area these days I believe. Yea,Stu gave out a lot! Thanks Michael,hope to cross paths with you in the near future! Don

  4. Michael,

    I truly enjoy reading your blog. There is a human quality to your words and admissions that is beautiful. Thanks for the continued effort to be true to yourself, I find it highly inspiring and it gives me hope for myself.

    Best of holiday wishes!