It’s not always something soothing, like a Brahm’s lullaby, that puts babies to sleep. Madeline was born alert, with her ephemeral blueish eyes as spaciously wide open as cumulus clouds in a Missoula sky. From that moment on, it seemed obvious that to devour every salacious moment this world offered, Madeline would absolutely have to stay awake.
But staying awake night after night with an enthusiastic child is not exactly what the average music-obsessed but sleep-deprived parent desires. Something had to knock this child out and put her in a blissful somnambulistic state.
That something turned out to be the raucous guitar musings of Texas-born blues guitarist Johnny Winter. Born into a musical family, young Johnny and sibling Edgar appeared on local TV shows and entertained frequently for family members. Later, in his teen years, Johnny would sneak his guitar into Texas hot spots and sit in with Muddy Waters, who Winter has often described as his “adopted father.”
But, Madeline? Night after night, I sang to her or put on those classic children’s tapes. These tapes alluded to teddy bear picnics, fluffy bunnies, twinkling toes, and Beluga whales. The stellar melodies were sung by youthful up-and-coming performers with crystal-clear voices. The background generally consisted of gentle strumming, arpeggiated piano, or tender violins, with the occasional belch of a blues harp.
The songs consistently put me to sleep, but not the intended target. Madeline’s big pupils stared, or often glared, at me. Both my husband and I started the evening out enthusiastically, pouring through Pat the Bunny and One Fish, Two Fish, but by midnight we were complete wrecks.
“I have an idea,” he said, one night. It was a cold Chicago evening, but we swaddled Madeline up in a powder-blue coat with matching mittens. “Let’s go to Dunkin Donuts and get some coffee,” he said.
After securing the bouncing being in the back seat, he plunged the key into our dingy mini-van’s ignition, stuffed a Johnny Winter tape into the aching vehicle’s deck, and took off. The theory was, he exclaimed, if he had to stay up this late, he should be able to hear “his music.”
Fussy about his blues, he relished the thought of a solid half-hour listen of classic Winter. The track “I’m Not Sure” from Second Winter features Johnny Winter excavating electrifying lead work alongside brother Edgar’s pianistic pastiche. Feeling guilty and conscious of the decibel level, I glanced back at my innocent babe. I felt torn between two loved-ones.
I suggested we first play one of our more child-friendly selections, but I could tell by my husband’s firm, white-knuckled grip on the leather-clad wheel and his thumping shoulders that the battle was already lost. Winter’s scratchy voice had splayed its iconic patina over the dashboard. I expected to soon hear wails of protest from our bald, backseat captive.
Ten minutes later, we spun through the Dunkin Donuts drive-through, the sole customers. No other vehicles could be seen through the icy rear-view mirror. Not even the quintessential crack-riddled Chicago cabbie. Nobody else was dumb enough to be winding through the wretched coldness of a weekday night with a young innocent strapped to a car seat.
Normal folks have the kids zip-locked in Sponge Bob pajamas, tucked in at seven. These “good” parents deserve their rewards. They bury their noses in dog-eared mystery novels or sip Frangelico while watching reruns of The Honeymooners. Either way, their offspring remain blissfully, merrily asleep. They completely piss me off.
We ordered some piping hot drinks as another classic, “Highway 61”, blasted away like the images of firing cannons in Francis Scott Key’s vivid anthem. A knowing glance and grin from the cashier lifted my spirits. Her kid must have kept her awake, too. Misery loves company, God, it’s true. I half-realized the brew would keep me up for hours, but it was damn good. Who cares? We waved to the server and gunned the motor. I courageously looked back.
An innocent smile was gracing Madeline’s delicate face And those voluminous eyes? The incessant fluttering of her blonde eyelashes, pulsing like worn windshield wiper blades, resulted in this: her big, wild ones were finally glued shut!
Was this a fluke? Compelled to seek truth, we continued this odd experiment. Bundling up the babe, we drove briskly around many more times on subsequent eves. We even played the “baby tapes” once or twice; we enjoyed subjecting this young child to Pavlovian experiments at the bewitching hour. Parenthood is forever, but payback is sweet.
What was the result of those saccharine-infested kids tapes? A quick glance backwards reminded us that these cornball sentiments did nothing for this youthful music obsessive. Her stare (ummm…glare) screamed out that Madeline would not stand on ceremony. “Rock me on the water, Momma. Lady sing the blues,” suggested her wince.
So, night after night of slide guitar and wails from “Red House” became the bluesiest bill of fare. At the first sign of infant fatigue, we cranked up the volume. That pairing of midnight coffee and sometimes starchy confection became, strangely enough, our scant “date night.”
Year later, I was granted permission to interview Johnny Winter and was invited by his second guitarist, Paul Nelson, to meet him in his touring van prior to a gig. During the interview, I retold this event.
No, I didn’t quite have the nerve to admit that it was my child who was lulled to sleep by the dynamic speed of Johnny Winter’s lightning fingertips. Instead, I chickened out. I told him the saga, but left out the names of the central characters, rendering them anonymous. Still, Johnny laughed, and said that this turn of events was “strange.” Yep. Fast forward.
Madeline is now nine and still loves to milk the bedtime ritual for all its worth. Now, however, even the promise of a twilight trip through a high-profile drive-through donut shop won’t get her to count sheep.
Also, until she is 21, she’ll not be able to join the club scene and hear hits like “Lone Wolf” done up live. Sadly, she’ll think Taylor Swift can really belt out the blues. And, though she’s visited Texas, those memories revolve more around barbeque and aquatic life than “roots” music.
Still, I’ve met Johnny Winter, and I know that he’s got enough soul to outlast all of us. Maybe his fingers have slowed down since that point in time, but he still loves the blues as much as Madeline loves the Disney Channel and… Elvis. (Yeah, we went to Memphis to see Sun Studios, and she’s never recovered). To that end, I’m still eternally grateful that Johnny Winter gave two urban-dwelling, second city, bedraggled parents the greatest gift of all, something that can’t be bought at the five and dime or a random fast-food establishment.
It’s something parents shamefully crave, despite trying to appear cool and immortal. Johnny handed it over when it was most welcomed, when the well had indeed run dry. So, thanks for the ZZZZZs, Johnny, I owe you one.
And that all-knowing patient cashier? Yeah, she smiled at us through that foggy, rolled-down car window, night after shivery night. She was generously tipped, by the way. So, Johnny, if you and Paul drop by after hours, coffee’s on the house. The Red House.
// Notes from the Road
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