Words and Photos by Ken Billett
From overhead speakers, Jimi Hendrix’s whispery voice sings the story of “Little Wing.” The song’s slow tempo and bluesy lyrics transport me back to the late 1970s, when music was just about everything to me. Back then, I couldn’t get enough of whichever artists were considered cutting edge, or not yet mainstream. While most Seventies’ high schoolers were obsessed with Foreigner, Styx, Boston, or Journey (Yuck!), my friends and I gravitated towards Blue Oyster Cult, Rush, AC/DC, and King Crimson. Yes, King Crimson.
Of course, I loved listening to the Eagles’ “Hotel California” (I still do.), Neil Peart’s famous drum solo on Rush’s live album, “All the World’s a Stage,” and “Waitin’ for the Bus/Jesus Just Left Chicago” by ZZ Top. Our high school clique thought we were cooler and hipper than everyone else because we preferred Todd Rundgren’s live album, “Back to the Bars,” to Ted Nugent’s self-absorbed, whining guitar solos.
We’d hangout in front of the magazine racks at music stores, drug stores, or the local 7-11, reading every word of music-themed publications such as Rolling Stone, Creem, and Circus. Soaking up as many details about our favorite and not-so-favorite bands, until a store manager shooed us away.
This ain’t the library! Those things cost money to read.
A love of music, a common thread for many teenagers, was an important part of my identity in those days. Memories of music, friends, camaraderie, and a shared joy of discovery, which would never be duplicated.
Crazy how hearing Jimi’s homage to the women in his life, whom he called his guardian angels, would stir up such memories in me – those “ghosts of my past,” as I’ve called them previously (read Dock of the Bay). A reminder that reconciling who I once was with who I have become continues to this day. With the death of my father late last year (read Winnie Ille Pooh), who I once was and how I move forward, thinking of my own mortality and the legacy I’ll leave, are as complex and complicated as a Hendrix guitar solo.
And, unfortunately, my father’s legacy was equally complex and complicated.
What’s left behind, after the emotions have drained away, can be as murky as the brown waters of the Hillsborough River in Tampa, Florida.
Legacy, according to one definition, is the long-lasting impact of particular events or actions that took place in the past . . . or, the long-lasting impact of a person’s life.
I would imagine many people, at various points in their lives, think about their legacies in terms of family, or career, or the money left behind after they die. “Family” makes sense…we want our children to be good members of society and to make the world — even a small corner of it — a better place. Family legacy, then, fits well with the long-lasting impact of a person’s life.
Likewise, your career or professional legacy can be measured in various degrees of success or failure, regardless of the type of work, and meets the long-lasting impact of the events- or actions-that-took-place portion in defining legacy.
Legacy can also be simply defined as the amount of money left to someone in a will.
Unfortunately, the material aspect of my father’s legacy made returning to my roots difficult, frustrating . . . and, at times, infuriating.
And, unlike Jimi Hendrix, I have no guardian angel to help me through this part of reconciliation.
Fly on, little wing . . . Jimi finished his famous tune with an outgoing solo, and then we were treated to an endless barrage of hits, and a few misses, from the Sixties, the Seventies, and the very early Eighties. Good ole rock-n-roll as we knew it. Classic hits with hard-driving beats, just what you’d expect from a neighborhood bar. In our case, that bar was Gaspar’s.
From third grade on, I lived in Temple Terrace, Florida, right along the meandering Hillsborough River, north of Tampa with the University of South Florida campus close by. I grew up amongst abandoned citrus groves, live oaks covered in Spanish moss — lots of Spanish moss — a winding golf course, and the Hillsborough River, which we simply called the river.
Gaspar’s, located on North 56th Street in Temple Terrace and only a stone’s throw from the river, has been our go-to place when we visited my family. Gaspar’s official name is Gaspar’s Patio Bar and Grille, and that’s where Vicki and I sat. On the patio (actually a wood deck), on the far end, away from the main outdoor bar and the smokers seated on stools.
We munched on delicious Cuban sandwiches and people-watched, as we always do. Comfortable in our surroundings. More 1970s hard rock came on over the speakers, but I wasn’t really listening.
Legacy. After we’re gone, what’s left behind?
In my mind, I wrestled with my demons and my frustrations, acknowledging that my past was not always what I remembered.
Later on, back at our hotel, located near Lettuce Lake Park, a county-run conservation park along the river, we hung out on the hotel’s pool deck. Watching the sun set over the marshlands behind the deck and listening to the traffic noise on Interstate 75, I kept thinking about what’s left behind once we’re gone. Specifically, what was my father’s legacy?
Then, it struck me. Like a heavy metal power chord. Where did my love of music come from? Why was music so important to me? I now live in a city named in more songs than almost any other city in the world.
How did that happen?
Living in Memphis. Writing about the Bluff City and its extraordinary contribution to American music—is that my legacy? And, if so, when, or how, was that seed planted?
A long-lasting impact of particular events or actions that took place in the past . . . was that impact a developed love of music? Music had always been there. Growing up, my parents constantly listened to music, all types of music from Chicago to The Beatles, Carlos Santana, Emerson Lake and Palmer, The Doors, The Who, contemporary jazz artists, all the way to Barbra Streisand. Yes, Barbra Streisand — my father’s favorite.
Putting aside the emotions and frustrations of dealing with my father’s material legacy, do I understand and embrace what he left behind for me? A love and appreciation for music and for the talented musicians who created a legacy for everyone to enjoy, in the past, nowadays, and into the future.
My words and stories used to celebrate those artists. Creating my own legacy.
Maybe that’s how I reconcile the ghosts of my past? And, maybe, just maybe, that’s how I find peace in my soul?
Maybe there had been a guardian angel near by?
I just hadn’t recognized Him.
Ken Billett has called Memphis home for more than thirty years. A freelance writer, fiction author, and nationally known advocate for skin cancer prevention and research, Ken volunteers his time at the Blues Hall of Fame on South Main in downtown Memphis. When not tending to his flowers, Ken and his wife Vicki travel extensively. StoryBoard Memphis is proud to present Ken’s columns Time Capsules and Get out of Town as ongoing features here on StoryBoard.