Let's Play One in G
Have you ever answered the phone and heard the person on the other end say, “Are you sitting down?”
I have. And not once was that question followed by an offer of a pile of loot, a dream vacation, or a new car. In my experience, the next sentence is bad news 100 percent of the time.
Not that my life has been full of tragedy. But I’ve heard enough bad news that I’m a little on guard. Sadly, sometimes I anticipate lousy news that doesn’t even exist.
That’s what happened last week after a friend texted to say he wanted me to hear a new song he’s been working on. The link showed up in my inbox a few minutes later. I downloaded the file and pushed play.
It’s a ballad. That caught me off guard because the last few songs he sent were up-tempo.
I was taking everything in on the first listen — how the song was structured, the production, trying to guess who played what. Just letting it wash over me. Then I played it a second time and really listened to the lyrics.
About halfway through, I realized I was crying a little bit.
The lyrics I was hearing seemed to be the words of someone who’s dying.
I told myself it was probably just a story. It’s fiction. My old pal is writing from someone else’s perspective and serving as the narrator.
Or is he?
In the past 10 years, I’ve known at least seven people who were taken too soon. I’m not sure I can handle another one. So I texted my buddy a few comments about the song and then followed up with: “And BTW — if those lyrics mean you’re dying, then tell me now.”
He got back to me a few minutes later and said he’s not leaving any time soon.
He told me he had a dream about being at his own funeral. The dream led to this song. It’s the message he’d like to send back from the other side to everyone he loves, letting us know everything is cool.
So there’s nothing to worry about for now.
However, that song and the texts back and forth got me thinking about another friend. He was one of those seven people I mentioned above — the ones who went too soon.
Just Grab a Chord
I never told Dwayne Bernard how much I appreciated the cool thing he did for me at his brother's Christmas party about 15 years ago. I don't know if he would have remembered what happened. It was probably one of those lopsided life moments that are significant to one person and barely register for the other one.
I met Dwayne through his brother Derek, who was one of the first guys I knew who was into Americana music as much as me. That was a tiny fraternity back in the day — basically Derek, Deputy Mike, Conso, and me.
Derek is a professional musician, and Dwayne used to play in his band before starting his own thing. I didn’t see Dwayne very often. Sometimes a group of us would get together for a movie, and I’d also run into him at Derek’s annual Christmas party.
The party was always on a Sunday, which was an off night for most of Derek’s musician friends. That was key because the shindig was more about having a cool jam session then it was about decking halls and roasting chestnuts.
Derek’s rule was that if you could play any instrument, then you were supposed to bring it to the party. It could be a guitar, a harmonica, or the flute you played in high school. Because let's be real: How are you gonna play Can't You See without a flute?
Didn’t matter whether you were a pro or a complete hack like me. Derek just wanted people to join in.
That was good for me because I’m not even good enough to qualify as an amateur. But Derek’s party gave me at least one chance every year to dust off my guitar and pretend to be in a band for a few hours.
It was intimidating to sit there surrounded by great players. But Derek was a good coach. “Just grab a chord and hang on for the ride,” he told me the first time.
I’d hang on the best I could, but I know my limits.
One year at the party, the guys were playing a song in a key I didn’t know and using chords that I’m pretty sure they made up on the spot to mess with me. It got to the point where I couldn’t keep up. I finally stopped trying, leaned back in my chair, and finished my beer.
Before I could walk away and grab a cold one, the song ended and Dwayne, who'd noticed my frustration, gave me a little wink and said to everyone, “Let’s play one in G — THE PEOPLE’S KEY!”
Yes! The people’s key. I’d never heard that phrase, but it made sense.
In case you don’t know, the key of G is made up of the G, C, and D chords. The three easiest chords to play on a guitar.
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Someone reading this is probably “tsking” disapproval because I left out A minor, B minor, E minor, and some weird variation of F. But those are all icing. If you can play G, C, and D, then you can play hundreds of rock and country songs.
And if you manage to add in the Em, then you’ll feel like a god.
“Let’s play one in G.”
Dwayne called that audible for me — and I loved him for it. I was back in the jam session.
I’m pretty sure it was Brown Eyed Girl. I can play that one like it’s my job. As long as I'm by myself with my office door closed.
Who Am I to Judge?
A few years later, on a cold, windy day in January of 2010, I drove down tree-lined country roads to the Nam Knights motorcycle club compound in Bithlo, Florida. I was there with a few hundred other people to pay my last respects to Dwayne.
The big guy known for his laugh, jokes, and music was gone. He left behind a daughter, a fiancé, three brothers, nieces and nephews, bandmates, and hundreds of bikers who loved to ride with him and hear his band play at their parties.
I’d never been to a service quite like this. It started when a pack of about a hundred Harleys roared into the compound. They were tailed by a pickup truck pulling a smoker full of pork for the party we were about to have. There was plenty of food and beer, a big bonfire, and lots of great Dwayne stories.
I knew Dwayne was a loving father, a great brother and uncle, a funny guy, and a talented musician. What I didn’t realize until that day is that he was also a dedicated humanitarian.
A biker minister talked about Dwayne’s compassion and said there would be a bunch of homeless guys out there wondering what happened to him.
Most people ignore those scruffy, anonymous men at stoplights. The ones holding scrap cardboard scrawled with “Homeless Vet” … “Hungry” … or “Need Food.”
Not only did Dwayne pay attention to them, but he didn’t mind holding up traffic for a few extra seconds so he could hand one of the men a dollar as the light turned green.
A lot of people argue that there’s no sense in giving money to “those people” because they’ll just spend it on booze or drugs. Dwayne didn’t care about that possibility. He defaulted to: “Who am I to judge another person?”
I’m cool with that.
I don’t know if the guy holding a sign at the stoplight is a lazy bum, or if he experienced some personal tragedy that was too much for him to handle. Something that pushed him over the edge.
So after that memorial service, I started putting down my window more often to hand over a buck at intersections. It might help someone buy a meal or a bed for the night. Or it might go for beer. I don’t know, and I really don’t care.
All I know is — the guy who gets the buck should be thanking Dwayne, not me.
"Sha la la la la la la la la la la te da — just like that."