Monday, July 18, 2011

A rocker remembered

Terry Tanger played with his fingertips protected
during a show at Shank Hall in April 2010.
It's not easy listening to the first song on Terry Tanger's self-produced CD, The Vicodin Sessions. Not today, not right now, because Terry is gone at age 55.

It's just the facts of life and you're gonna do it until you die

It's just the facts of life and you're gonna do it until you die

It's a fact of life that Terry Tanger was a rocker until the day he died, or at least until he was too weak and ill to pick up a guitar and play it. The last year wasn't easy.  When the pain grew severe -- just pushing the steel strings down on the frets was excruciating  -- Terry looked for ways to get around it.  He needed to play, but a lead guitarist can't go out there in gloves.

Not that Terry didn't try. He tried everything. The last time we saw him -- the only time we saw him -- he played a reunion show with Those XCleavers at Shank Hall in Milwaukee. It was a year ago in April. To help blunt the pain that night he affixed the tips of blue surgical gloves to the ends of his left fingers before driving the band through its catalog of dance-til-you-drop songs. 

If you never heard Those XCleavers at least know that they once opened for the Police and U2.  They were a tight, kick-ass band, a favorite in Milwaukee clubs, playing an amalgam of punk, ska, blues, reggae, whatever. Wherever they played a herky-jerky dance crowd would form, shaking to those funky beats.

Bass player Tom Lesions had tipped us off before the Shank Hall show -- alarmed us, really -- by saying "Terry's not doing too well. He doesn't have all his organs." Other than family and close friends, who really knew how sick Terry was? How fortunate we were to have experienced that memorable show. The poor quality of this video does absolutely no justice to the band, but here's a glimpse of Terry playing guitar that night:

Terry recorded The Vicodin Sessions in his kitchen, in one take, while recovering from surgery. He used two channels on a multi-track cassette recorder and played a 1966 Fender Newport acoustic, a 1938 Oahu lap steel guitar and various Hohner harmonicas. The music is raw and unvarnished, in a most beautiful way. You can hear the pain.

The Vicodin Sessions, in its purest form, a simple story. A lament over situations, fortune, and lost love. There has been little new in American popular music for over one hundred years. Songs, with lyrics or not, are the accompaniment to our lives. If we took the time to put them to some kind of order, they would be a soundtrack. Writers are best when they write what they know, and musicians have been writing about that that got away for ages.

Those were Terry's words. No doubt they'll be playing his soundtrack today during a memorial gathering at the Milwaukee Yacht Club. We didn't learn until reading a staff-written obituary in the Journal-Sentinel newspaper that Terry, a good guy by all accounts, had a wife and a career in banking. All we knew was that music had been his calling, from that first day he picked up a guitar as a preteen.

Those are just facts of life.

1 comment:

  1. Great writing Jim. I just found out now in Tampa, Florida. One of my favorite bands ever. I have pictures of them playing at high school dances. I recently pulled out their music and was grooving so much that I looked them up to see if they ever still played. Really a sad thing to find out.