Last Monday Hans-Ruedi and I practiced out on his terrace, as we frequently do in warm weather. The day had been hot and still, and as we played we could see thunder clouds and occasional lightning flashes to the north over the Hegau across the Rhine, a plateau studded with ancient volcanoes. Hans-Ruedi and I have been playing together for two or three years now, more since Thomm Jutz moved to Nashville. A landscape gardener by trade, he plays upright bass in the Western Store country band from Schaffhausen, and in several Swiss folk music ensembles. We were remarking on the departure of our young friend, Tabea who used to join us for Monday night practice, recently departed for a job in England. “I’m afraid our friend, my neighbor Alfred is also gone. The family has been here since yesterday.”
“He came home from the hospital?”
“There was nothing more they could do for him. He was working until two weeks ago; and now…”
“He was a good friend to me since I came here seventeen years ago. I’m going to miss Alfred. He may be gone already.”
We drank a bottle of Chilean wine as we played; going over some new songs I’d been working on for my next recording project in Texas. We played some old songs too, in no particular order, letting one suggest another. I can’t remember for sure; I know we played “Snowing on Raton,” a Townes Van Zandt song, and “Wabash Cannonball,” trying to get that lonesome train-whistle sound on the harmonica. We played for a couple of hours, immersed in the warm sound of the big upright bass, on a warm, late summer evening, in the warm glow of wine. Darkness grew over the ridge across the river, the rolling mass of cloud looming closer. A sudden wind gusted through the trees; a tossing of branches, scuttling and swirling of dry leaves.
“I think I better get rolling if I don’t want to get soaked. I don’t have a light on my bike.” I put my guitar in the gig bag and zipped it closed. Hans-Ruedi walked me down the stairs and we said goodbye out in the front. Lightning flashed behind us as I hitched the gig bag up on my shoulders and tightened the straps. We shook hands, the way the Swiss always do, and I peddled home just before the rain. Edith met me at the door.
“You’re home early.”
“The weather was getting funky; I thought I’d get home before dark.”
“You need a light for your bicycle.” She used the word Velo, the Swiss-German word for bike.”
“Hans-Ruedi thinks Alfred may be dead already. The family has been there since yesterday.”
“A nice man; such a pity, he was not so old.”
Hans-Ruedi confirmed that Alfred was gone when I ran into him a couple of days later. “And do you know— he died exactly when we were playing. They could hear us and they said he was smiling when he went. He must have heard us. The family has asked if we can play a couple of songs Friday at the funeral service, and I said I would talk to you.”
“Sure, what should we do?”
“I was thinking of “Old Friends,” and the river song, “Across the Wide Missouri.”
“That’s the one.” We agreed to meet on Thursday to go over the songs. The service would be at two o’clock after the people walked over from the cemetery.
Two or three times remodeled, the Evangelical Church in Diessenhofen sits atop the ruins of two or three earlier churches. Once Catholic before the Reformation, it is plain and austere, with clean Romanesque lines, soaring ceilings. Though packed, with standing-room only at the back, it was pin-drop silent when we played “Old Friends,” a song I wrote with Guy and Susanna Clark, early on in the program. The priest, who I recognized from my Rhine walks, delivered a sermon and one of Alfred’s daughters gave a talk. After a group prayer we got up again and played “Across the Wide Missouri.” Hans-Ruedi brought his oldest bass, the one he plays at our practice sessions and my favorite from the several he owns. I played my good Martin, the maple SPD-16M that rarely leaves the house. Hans-Ruedi got a severe case of nerves before; I felt weightless and dreamlike as the first notes floated out. It was one of the most perfect places I have ever sung.
Alfred had many friends and family members, and it took two bars on Diessenhofen’s Hauptstrasse to house the after-service crowd. The family members went to the Löwen and the workers from his firm gathered at the Linden by the town tower. We went to the latter place where we drank a couple of beers. Several people congratulated us, saying the music was very nice. When I got home Edith told me she had heard the same from some of our neighbors who had been at the service.
This was my second acoustic performance at a family event. Not long ago I played for the party following the baptism of Edith’s grandkids, the twins Emanuel and Leander. I felt like I had passed a milestone, some unspoken right of passage with these two events, celebrating the beginning—and end—of life. Our Swiss television debut in July, on “bsuech in” im Thurgau, hardly seemed to merit comparison. But looking back, what seemed strangest was our performance last Monday, when we thought we were only practicing. The rain never did come that evening; only lightning and surging darkness when the gust of sweeping wind came down and carried away Alfred’s soul.
It’s raining now, a soft coming down I can see it thorough the window, dimpling a puddle on the rooftop opposite. There will be no music practice tonight, as Hans-Ruedi is at this very moment in the air somewhere over the Atlantic, bound for Atlanta, and Nashville with his band mates Rene and Martin, to make a record with my old friend Sergio Webb.