A few nights back we were sitting around Café No Sé, sipping some rare, old-batch Ilegal Mezcal that had been recovered from a warehouse in Oaxaca. It had been misplaced during a shipment a few years back.
A two-word question was posed: “2010, right?”
The response was a slow pull onto the middle of the tongue and an inhalation to catch every molecule.
Each batch of booze has a different character. Connoisseurs say it has to do with the terroir (which means the combination of dirt, rainwater and donkey-shit in which the agave grows). But we’re not connoisseurs, we’re drinkers and we tend to believe the subtle changes are more spiritual. Those tastes invoke memories because they imbue their original creation, like a watermark or a broken heart. The batch we sipped from that night was of a harvest two years back. No doubt about it.
That year was sweet with just a hint of the sharpness that lets you know you’re doing something that’s both wrong and right. It had this caress at the end that told us there was no other way to play it out, no matter the burn.
As we silently remembered 2010, Nelson was in the corner playing to the few remaining customers on the piano he’s been making sing for years now.
The three of us hadn’t shared a drink together in a while, because, you know, life and shit get in the way. But right then, with the bar nearly empty and all the stresses of work put off until the following day, it was just perfection. If you’re a barhound, you’ll understand exactly what we mean. If you’re not, you never will.
After working together as long as we have, we’ve got this thing. One of us looks at the other and just knows we’re on the same page. This was one of those times, so as the last note Nelson was playing hung on the long sustain, one of us turned and said, “Play that one Segovia liked.”
Nelson knew where we were heading, and he hit the first notes that rise, then decline.
Alberta, let your hair hang low.
Now, Alberta is one of those songs that is probably as old as you can find in Americana. Some say it comes from the steamboat era on the Mississippi. Some say it’s an old field song, sung at the end of the cotton-day. Doc Watson did a cover. Dylan did two. But Nelson plays it like he’s touching something deeper than any of them. Like he’s still playing it with Segovia. Like he’s still hearing in his soul that double-note at the end of the bar that was part of Segovia’s signature.
They way he plays it always brings back memories of the two of them sitting in the corner. Working. Creating. Playing. His version, their version, is as soft as moonlight and as sad as morning whiskey. Someday, while you’re here, you’ve gotta hear it.
I’ll give you more gold
than your apron can hold
. . . If you’ll only let your hair hang low.
Segovia died two years ago this June. Cancer. And he took a lot with him. But he left so much, too. His stories of traveling the world — 101 countries visited in his less than 54 years — and how he never stopped until his body quit are the stuff of legend.
What he left to his friends (literally all over the world) was an affirmation that our time on this pretty blue marble is an opportunity to dance, and that someday it’s gonna come to an end.
But not tonight, babies. Not tonight.
If you understand that, swing on by Café No Sé and we’ll find one another. Share your stories and share a jug. Sing us that song that lifts your glass and breaks your heart. Let your hair hang low. Reflect on what your brothers, and your sisters, can mean.
MJT and JPR