"I got burned out," he says, "And I stopped, which was a stupid thing to do." He hadn't been home in two years. The road was the road, and the thing that separates great musicians from great performers is the road. If it was easy to do, everyone would be doing it. So David Bromberg stopped.
He played guitar on several of Dylan's albums, and on several of Ringo Starr's albums, and on albums by Phoebe Snow, the Eagles, the Band, Commander Cody, Carly Simon, Willie Nelson, John Prine, Leon Redbone, Al Kooper, Jerry Jeff Walker, Kris Kristofferson, with the craftsmen of "Americana" which I prefer to think of as the spine of American music running between the "main" and the "stream." And he played drobo, and mandolin, and fiddle, and banjo and almost almost anything with strings, and his own albums are masterpieces of storytelling and mood, and he stopped, as every creative person dreams of doing.
My pal Reuben calls me and wants to to go to Colombia and start a creative revolution, and I tell him I want to open a hotel on the beach in northeast Nicaragua where we incubate turtles and when our guests show up for a margarita we give them a squirming baby Ridley's to deposit into the shallows of the Pacific, away from the dogs and birds that would eat them, and those guests would kiss those little squirmers and gently put them into the water to skate past the sharks and the slick big fishes to follow the Moon in long patterns until one night they come back onto our beach and lay a bunch more eggs, and I wouldn't write, wouldn't sing songs, I'd throw away the silly cameras and the other soul-sapping electronica, and just doodle and think and drift with the tiny tides of swell and sway that form the minutes and hours between sleep and swim. I talk like this, and Reuben says, every time, "Let's go, Spikey, let's go."
Dropping out is a dream, stopping a treasure. The desperate need for legacy or family are the great befuddlements of our minds. Nobody will know you were here two hundred years from now, so why not act like it?
David Bromberg stops, and what does he do? He becomes the preeminent authority on the value and provenance of American violins. He has a room where he sits and reads and reads and reads (the fine print) about American violins. It's this room that I am instantly drawn to when we walk into his violin shop in Wilmington. We'll record the interview right here, and we do, and he talks to us not framed by instruments, but backdropped with the reference materials of an expertise that rescues the musician. It is the refusal of most musicians to study beyond their abilities that sinks their opportunities, and so few realize it. But if I had that skill, to be able to sit under a tree and strum a ditty to life and lament my lot so I can get a shot of whiskey and a shot at getting laid, I'd probably retreat to that gift and refuse to venture beyond it, too. So it is with poignant relief that I listen to Bromberg talking about violins and the evolution of their making and marketing in 19th-century America; because here is an expert musician, of the first order, impassioned by this second life, husbanding the woods and strings that brought so much hope into darkness for poor and oppressed people. He touches the shell of a violin, and knows not just the magical creature who lives inside but the forces of architecture and intent that shaped it. House builders look at buildings with this same sort of stereoscopic appreciation: the practicality of notes in songs, yes, but also of selecting the tree and chopping it down and caring for the surviving trees so more songs can be strummed when we grow tired of the ones this violin can play, now. Because there is always a next song, isn't there?
And Bromberg is out again, on the road, and I am in his violin shop to help promote this new act, and he's out because his songs won't let him go without exploring the nuance and mysteries they haven't yet revealed: Pablo Casals, that fucking genius, about the timbre of a string on his cello, "It is just before the string breaks that it gives its greatest sound."
Yes, it is just before the string breaks, for all of us, even the young pups who think they'll have hard-ons forever. Listen to the strumming and imagine what happens when the sound stops. You'll miss a lot of things, but I doubt any of us will miss anything quite so much as melody and rhythm, and rhyme and strings, that puzzle we live by, the delicate assembly of a song.