Finding Common Ground in a Foreign Land: A Treatise on the Universal Power of Music
Updated: Jun 4, 2022
I needed a haircut, or at least my wife Lauren thought I did. You know how it is, guys. At a certain age, you don't exactly give up but you don't look in the mirror nearly as much as you did in your 20s and 30s and 40s, so you don't really know when you need a haircut. But she does because she has to look at you. And so, I deferred to Lauren's request. She booked an appointment for me on a Friday afternoon at a place I had never been to before in the heart of upscale West Hartford Center. I had already run the gamut of places in West Hartford -- super expensive unisex hair salon that serves coffee or wine to customers; reasonably-priced but refined men's barbershop in the vicinity where they'll pour you a glass of single malt scotch neat, if you like; cheaply priced old school Italian barbershop where the former hippie proprietor sports a grey ponytail, has photographs of himself and his girlfriend at Woodstock back in 1969, and has posters of The Sopranos, The Godfather, Goodfellas and Frank Sinatra plastered all over the four walls of his tiny shop. I even went to a low-budget quicky Supercuts and was actually quite satisfied with my haircut there. But Lauren wasn't pleased with that cut or any of the others, so she booked me an appointment at this new place after reading glowing reviews online. "You can keep it long in the back," she assured me as she dropped me off at this establishment on her way to Whole Foods. "Just tell him you want it neat and cleaned up." Considering that I now possess fewer hairs on top of my head than Popeye or Homer Simpson, this meant mostly trimming the sides and the back. Just a routine clean up.
Upon entering, I sensed from this cluttered emporium of vintage DC Comics posters, vintage Pez dispensers still encased in their plastic bubble containers, various bobble head dolls and an odd assortment of paraphernalia and kitsch, that I was smack dab in the middle of some arrested development Pee Wee's Playhouse type scenario. Harmless enough, I thought, if a tad obsessive. But when I spied the poster of Donald Trump pictured on a $1,000 bill, another poster of Hilary Clinton behind bars and a copy of "Donald J. Trump: A Story of Triumph in Photographs," I knew I was in the wrong place. The barbershop owner and his rough-hewn friend just hanging out that afternoon both looked like they might've been among the insurrectionists that scaled the walls of the U.S. Capitol building on Jan. 6, 2021. Definitely Oath Keepers material. The kicker, though, was when the hefty haircutter directed me to sit in an empty barber chair, then draped me with an American flag barber's cape. My unkempt head was now peeking out from a snug-fitting red, white and blue tarp teeming with stars and bars. I didn't even know such places existed in West Hartford Center, a supposed bastion of bleeding heart liberalism.
Now I'm freaking out, fantasizing that these Oath Keepers will somehow find out that I not only voted for Joe Biden but that I also pray nightly for Donald Trump's imminent jailing so that he can't run for president in 2024. And I'm suddenly imagining myself as the Adam Driver character in Spike Lee's Blackkklansman, infiltrating the bowels of enemy headquarters. In the midst of this paranoid inner dialogue, the haircutter says to me, "So what do you do for a living?" Neutral enough question, so I tell him: "I'm a writer. I write stories and do interviews for music magazines. Mostly jazz and blues. I stopped writing about rock when I stopped relating to it, maybe 30 years ago or more." And his face lights up: "Oh really?! That's interesting. And I know what you mean about not being able to relate to today's rock, not after growing up with the great bands we had in the '60s and '70s."
We're finding common ground here. And then he takes me completely by surprise: "You know what jazz artist I really love?" he says. "Ella Fitzgerald! She was so incredible. Such a beautiful voice. Man, could she sing." Now he's right in my wheelhouse. "Yeah, I saw her perform twice growing up in Milwaukee," I tell him. "Once was with an orchestra and another time she played duets with the great guitarist Joe Pass." And he goes, "Wow! You're so lucky to have seen her! Man, I wish that I could've seen Ella in concert. Wow!"
By now, any thoughts of politics or Donald Trump or the Oath Keepers have faded into a lively discussion of music. "I don't like country music," he continues. "Too boring. But I just discovered that I love bluegrass, especially banjo music." Seeing more common ground, I offer, "Yeah, I had a bluegrass phase in the mid '70s. I would follow Earl Scruggs around to concerts wherever he played around Milwaukee. Also the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band." And then I said, "You ever hear Steve Martin play the banjo?" At that point, his dangerous-looking pal seated by the cash register chimes in, "Oh yeah! He can PLAY!"
And now we're just three guys -- two potential Oath Keepers and one overly-educated jazz-loving snowflake lib that they would probably love to own (or hang) -- talking about music we love. As I left his shop, I shook the haircutter's hand and said, "Don't forget to check out Steve Martin!" His pal reiterated, "Yep, that guy is a helluva banjo player." I left feeling heartened that music can be a bridge to understanding, as Sun Ra once said. And that Oath Keeper dude gave me one helluva nice haircut to boot!