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Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Rick Larson: Greatness At the Margin

GREATNESS AT THE MARGIN
by
DC Larson

A guitar is buried in Marshalltown, Iowa. This is why.

A flash point is possible in grassroots-level live music. An organic, vital moment in which emotional and sensory phenomena coalesce in a connected soloist's muse articulation. The spark surges through the crowd, electrifying the atmosphere and leaving listeners viscerally touched.

Skin crawls. Grins erupt. Shouts ring out. And all is right with the world -- at least for that moment.

Marshalltown's Rick Larson found his way into that magical moment of greatness -- more than once, if truth be told -- as had so many unsung beat champions before him.

My brother, he knew his life's purpose from an early age. He got his first guitar when 12, and devoted himself to single-minded pursuit of earthly calling.

The demands of post-teen life typically compel would-be players to eventually pursue 9-to-5 careers, relegating live music to weekend sideline status, if even that. But Rick never stopped.

Because he and music were of a piece. And to him, no other pursuits mattered.

He never cut an album, shot a video or graced a magazine cover. What he did was infinitely more important. A veteran of the bar band culture, he helped to keep blues and rock and roll alive before average people every night.

For them, plagued by trials throughout the work week, the release and revelry offered by live bands is positively salvational. A person can be put down by a boss during the day, but they can be ten feet tall on the midnight dance floor.

Songs to which grassroots blue collar crowds today shout and thrill have roots in America's rich cultural mosaic and wonderfully diverse heritage. Tempos, melodic inclinations, and engaging rhythms from a score of shores met here and became new and as one.

American songs derive from the Appalachian Mountain country, and humming streets of Chicago. They hail from the highways that crisscross the land, and from the farmlands. From the cities, swamps, and suburbs. And they are born from common experiences, telling of human struggles, aspirations, pains, and triumphs.

It is through the efforts of anonymous players that folk stories and voices survive from generation to generation. A country's music serves as both popular record and expression of singular character.

Rick was professionally active in central Iowa from the 70s through the mid-90s. Indeed, the area live music circuit was richer for his indefatigable participation.

He co-founded numerous central Iowa groups: Amo, Armed and Dangerous, Party House, Ice Age, the Vipers, Commotion. And too many more to mention. Singer/harp player Mark Goodman and drummer Frank McDowell were usually in the mix. Accompanying players included keyboardist Doc Lawson and guitarist/vocalist Dave Taylor.

Of course, sometimes, formal band names or line-ups were not even needed. If a sudden gig opened up or a last-minute party jam presented itself, Rick would be there. Guitar in hand, amplifier on.

No prisoner of stylistic convention, he was as likely to rock the house as finesse a melody. He made all the right stops, from red-hot jumpin' to cool-blue orating. His intoxicating soloing interpreted heartache, passion and kick-out-the-jams exuberance. Lesser players were made conscious of their limitations.

Stevie Ray Vaughn, Keith Richard, Chuck Berry, Buddy Guy, Joe Strummer, Pete Townsend - these were his influences. He played the music that spoke to him, and it became important to his audiences.

Rick had something crucial to worthwhile musicianship: an absolute and unfeigned direct line between his heart and his art. He believed in each note he touched.

True, a few of the better chart songs sometimes crept into the late night sets. But only the better ones. For Rick, ignoring his instincts and selling out his musical integrity were simply not options. The gold ring mattered less than the music. The moment.

Devoted rank-and-file bar musicians like Rick who keep music alive -- who realize that all-important moment -- are infinitely more significant to real world listeners than is the trendy WRIT LARGE corporate music-product industry that takes them for granted.

For every transient and fabricated chart sensation, there are innumerable unsung authentics. And greatness belongs to them, too. Probably most of all.

For it is indeed possible to reach greatness in isolation from the 'big picture,' without the whole world's being aware.

Rick did.

His guitar fell silent in 1998. We laid to earth with him the cherry wood-grain, Gibson SG Standard that had been his earliest performing guitar. It was only right that they remain together into perpetuity. Together, they had realized the moment.

That is how I know that greatness can indeed flourish at the margin.

And that is why a guitar is buried in Marshalltown, Iowa.

END

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