#109) Out to pasture: the musical death of Charlie Batts

On my last trip to Boston I caught up with a friend of mine whom I hadn’t seen in years. We were grabbing dinner and beers at a bar in Allston and running down the checklist. Who’s gigging where? With whom? Which bars still have bands?

“You ever hear from Batts?” I asked between IPA swigs.

“You didn’t hear?” my buddy said. “He quit.”

“Quit? You mean…”

“He’s done. He walked.”

“Dude, Charlie Batts quit after every gig. Remember that time he said ‘I don’t even know why I fucking bother’ on a live mic right in front of the club owner? He was back at the same room the next weekend.”

“No, man. He really did it this time. Hooked up with an heiress, bought a farm in northern New Hampshire. Two years ago. He’s got no plans of coming back.”

“Wow,” I said. “Batts.” I took another pull of Shipyard.

I met Charlie Batts in ’95 at an open jam at Harper’s Ferry, a blues venue that closed in 2010. He came up to me afterward and said, “You sound pretty good, man.”


He smiled and tilted his head away slightly, averting eye contact and asked me, “So, how do you like Berklee?”

“Wait, how do you know I….oh.” Suddenly I got his meaning and sheepishly asked, “Is it that obvious?”

He patted my shoulder. “You’re playing all the right notes,” he said. “Don’t be afraid to play a few wrong ones, too. I host a jam at Bob the Chef’s on Tuesdays. Swing by. We’ll be playing some early Journey songs this week.”

I couldn’t figure out if he was joking about Journey and never would learn as I ended up skipping the jam. Over the next few years I crossed paths with Batts several more times. The first time he called me for a gig, when I asked what it paid, he said, “Dude, I could call ten other guys and get them to play with me for free.” A few weeks later, I had to put together a cocktail jazz combo and called Charlie.

“What’s it pay?”

One night we were drinking at a second-floor bar overlooking Mass. Ave. I was ruminating over the second drummer I’d lost to California in six months. I speculated that my former rhythm section partner was probably somewhere in Nebraska, spending the night in a roadside motel, dreaming of L.A. success. “They all leave, don’t they,” I said, shaking my head, staring at the glass.

“Shit, I’ve been watching people leave for twenty years,” he said.

For his ribbing me about Berklee, Batts had once been a student there himself, arriving in the mid 70s as a promising teenager on a scholarship. His main instrument was trumpet but he was also a good bass player and could get around on piano and guitar. But he missed a key final exam his senior year because of (what else?) a woman and never quite got back on track. He was always on the verge of a breakthrough; if this one gig happened, it would lead to that, then this would fall into place and he’d have arrived. The recession of the early 1980s took its toll, but he often got in his own way too. There was never a defining, Howard Dean-type moment but Batts always seemed to do his best work when no one was watching and then would alienate a key person at an inopportune time. I was watching him sit in with a band at a hotel lounge one night. He was playing bass, sitting on a barstool. The stage was next to a corridor that lead to the restrooms and every time an attractive woman walked past, he would turn his head without trying to hide it. By the end of the night, the rest of the band members were giving each other looks of disgust. He knew thousands of obscure pop and rock hits from the 60s, could effortlessly solo over the changes to “Giant Steps” and hold course on Bulgarian folk music for an hour off the top of his head. Then he would forget the chords to “Louie Louie.” The axe fell at one club when an inter-racial couple walked in and he loudly announced, “Someone’s trying to get back at Daddy.”

“I wasn’t entirely surprised when I learned that he quit,” my friend said. “The last couple of times I saw him, it felt as if the fire was going out. Remember how he used to call out drummers on mic for rushing? ‘Well folks, sorry that one was so fast but Joey needs to get home for his BJ’? He stopped doing stuff like that. He just started looking tired. Talking less, sighing more.”

“Fuckin’ music business. If it can get to Batts, it can get to any of us.”

“He’d been looking for a way out ever since he got to this town,” my friend countered. “He got one.”

It made sense; after all, what struggling musician wouldn’t take a golden parachute? Live off the land, peace and quiet, no pain in the ass load-ins with double-parking while you’re watching your gear out of one eye and looking out for cops on the other; no scrounging to get people to show up to your gig on a blustery winter Tuesday night.

But Batts had always seemed different; like a small-time Keith Richards, he appeared to possess some mutant survival gene. After every setback, self-induced or otherwise, he always seemed to be able to pull another gig out of his ass. He’d get fired by an R&B band and hook up with a drums and bugle corp. The venue where his jazz combo held a standing Sunday brunch gig would close; he’d pick up a gig at a synagogue. He’d get fired from the synagogue for accusing them of Jewing him down on his pay and get booked by the Pentecostal church across the street.

By the time I was getting ready to move to California, it had been a while since I’d talked to Batts. He called me up for a gig and I realized I hadn’t yet told him. “Huh,” he said, “Well, good luck with that.”

I had one last beer with him a week before I hit the road. One never knew exactly which Batts they were going to get and on this night it was the wizened, Tom Waits-ish version. I was fuming because the woman who was supposed to sublet my place in Boston for the remainder of my lease had pulled out, leaving me on the hook for a couple of thousand dollars. (As it turned out, someone else got into the place, minimizing the financial hit but at the time I was still pissed; my problems were worse than those of the families in Colorado who’d just lost loved ones in the Columbine High shootings).

“So you’re the first person who’s ever gotten screwed over by a chick?” asked Batts.

“Yeah, I know I’m complaining, but I feel like I deserved better.”

“Deserved,” he said and took a beat. “Rewards are kind of an ancient idea.”

I saw Batts on my first couple of trips back to Boston, jammed with him once or twice, went to hear him play. Then we gradually lost touch. I’d occasionally look him up online and rarely found anything. I assumed that he was continuing to subsist under the radar, playing one empty room after another for next to nothing, swearing it would be the last time but being back the next night, pulling rent out of thin air or calling in favors and crashing couches.

“A few years ago, he was doing a regular Thursday and the bar decided to go with karaoke instead,” my buddy told me. “Ten, twenty years ago he would have beaten the crap out of the club owner and ranted about how karaoke is fucking everything up. But when I asked him about it, he just sort of shrugged.”

“Do you think he’s happy?” I asked.

He mulled it over and took a swig. “Yeah,” he said with a slight nod. “I do.”


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