(My current columns and older ones will alternate from now on during the pandemic.)
One of the most unforgettable musicians I’ve ever known has played his final note.
A friend for many years, Russ Martin died at 67 of ALS, Lou Gehrig’s Disease.
He was one of the most vital, most alive people you could hope to meet. His enthusiasm for life, his passion for music, his twinkling blue eyes and the smile that lit his face like a light on a dark stage … no one who knew him well will ever forget those things about him.
We met more than 30 years ago. I was getting into playing in a band again after a long layoff and contemplating some lessons to knock the rust off when a flyer in a window caught my eye.
“Lessons with Russ Martin,” it said. “Play guitar. It’s the most fun you can have with your pants on.”
He was teaching then at the old Musicians Pro Shop in North Boise. The shop’s owner introduced me to the man behind the flyer that had made me laugh. He was slender and slightly built, with a full beard and sandy hair that fell to the middle of his back. He looked like a combination of Robert Plant and John the Baptist.
“You’re interested in some lessons?” he asked.
“Right. It’s been years since I played much. I have a lot of catching up to do.”
“No problem,” he replied. “We’ll have you gnarly in no time.”
So began a friendship that would last the rest of his life.
My band began to disintegrate not long after that. One by one, its original members wearied of rehearsing and quit. The group Russ was playing with also was nearing its end.
“You wouldn’t by any chance be interested in joining our band?” I asked him.
It seemed like a long shot. All but one of the members of his group were professional musicians. The members of mine were all amateurs. I expected a polite thanks-but-no-thanks, but he surprised me by suggesting that the groups combine.
“You and I could be the guitar players,” he said. “We’d have your bass player and my drummer and singer. And we’d definitely use your group’s name. I’ve been looking my whole life for a band with the right name for me, and the Mystics is perfect.”
There was, in fact, something almost mystical about him. All that was missing were a turban and a crystal ball.
The new band’s original lineup didn’t last long. Within a few months, I was the only amateur left. Musicians came and went, but Russ remained a constant for 15 years.
Guitar players often hate each other. It’s a competitive thing, an ego thing. It was never that way with Russ and me. He was so much better than I was that there was never a question of competing. Instead, we bonded over a mutual love of the instrument, perusing guitars and amplifiers, buying increasingly better and more expensive ones. We loved guitars in the way some people love hot rods or golf or fly fishing.
It’s fair to say that he was a bit of a loose cannon when it came to details. We’d boarded a plane to Seattle for a concert one weekend when he surprised me with a rueful admission.
“You know the Robben Ford concert we’re going to – the one tomorrow night, May 16?”
“What about it?”
“I got mixed up. It was actually on April 16.”
When we wanted to order T-shirts with the band logo, he told me to check out a shop called Seven Seas T-shirts. I looked and looked, but couldn’t find it. Its actual name was Two Oceans T-shirts.
“There’s a new restaurant coming to town,” he told me one day. “It’s called Pepper’s.”
The correct name: Chili’s.
His sense of direction, or lack of it, was notorious. On road trips, we’d sandwich his car between those of other band members so he couldn’t get lost. He did anyway.
On a trip to North Idaho, he escaped the sandwich, made a wrong turn at New Meadows and drove most of the way back to Boise, arriving at our destination six hours after everyone else. Another wrong turn took him over icy Galena Summit in the wee hours of New Year’s Eve. We were about to call the State Police when he turned up the following afternoon, having been rescued by a sheriff’s deputy.
His playing compensated for these lapses, and his innate charm made it difficult to get angry at him over them. He could charm anyone, and virtually everyone who knew him loved him.
We didn’t see much of each other after he left the band to play with an old friend from his formative years. He’d played with us longer than any other group, but he seemed to want to make a clean break.
Still, my old friend kept a place in my heart. When word came of how sick he was, I went to see him. He couldn’t walk or speak. He communicated by pointing to letters on a board. He was on heavy duty pain meds and a feeding tube and had lost more than a third of his body weight. A shell of the vibrant person he once had been.
My last visit to him was with one of my daughters, who had grown up with him. He looked at her and slowly, agonizingly, spelled “U R beautiful” on his board. He died not long after that.
I like to think he’s at peace now, smiling that thousand-watt Russ smile, his eyes twinkling, playing like an angel on the guitar of his dreams.