My Uncle Rey was an artist whose creativity spilled over. Most but not all of his brilliance went into song and his guitar strings, or on to his canvases and sketch pads. Most but not all of his brilliance was less recognised than it ought to have been. Uncle Rey generated. He didn’t self-promote. (His children channel the same talents and energies.)
Uncle Rey taught me what little guitar I play, and from a young age he kindled my love of music. When I was an undergraduate, he and Penny fed me once a week, fuel, as Rey and I learned and played a lot of Bob Dylan, a lot of Neil Young…
Early last Wednesday morning I was out late with some friends in Detroit — singer-songwriters, fine ones. When the bar closed, we ended up in a top floor apartment, passing a guitar around. In this company, each song seemed better than the last. One friend urged me to play something. I haven’t played in years, let alone sang in front of anyone, and I said so. I’ve resisted playing a million times. But for some reason, on this night I only protested for so long.
I played Neil Young’s “Sugar Mountain.” My unpractised fingertips screamed in pain, and (in this company) I sang as tentatively as you might expect. Yet I summoned this bewitchingly simple song, remembered most of the verses, its chords, the timings, the emphases. As I remember those few moments, my friends smiled and sang along, maybe even a little surprised.
In the late afternoon on the next day, my mother called me on the telephone. She was distraught: her dear brother and best friend, my Uncle Rey, had died suddenly in the night. We consoled each other, but after awhile I couldn’t help but ask when precisely my uncle had died.
Rey had passed away in the early morning, at the very hour I was in a place and with a set of players he would have savoured. At the very hour I was attempting “Sugar Mountain.”
Uncle Rey and I used to play that song together. I hadn’t played or sang for years.