The Day His Music Died

Drake Levin died a few days ago. Drake was the kind of guy who will have a party thrown in his honor that takes two weeks to plan. He had a smile that was bright enough to light up a poker room. He played guitar like someone who was a pop star in the 60′s and since then had been gigging in the blues scene for 45 years in San Francisco. Many great things will be said and thought about Drake because he had a golden heart and he touched everyone with it. So I’ll go ahead and talk about me.

I met Drake at Artichoke Joe’s Casino right after I moved to California in 1997. He played a lot of poker, and we played a lot of poker together. We made the music connection, and soon we were partying away from the poker rooms. We had made the conversion from “buddy poker” to “real life buddy.”

I’d been to Drake’s house lots of times over the years, so it was no big deal to go visit him during his final months, which I did twice. The second time, which was a couple weeks ago, my buddy Alex was there too. Drake was physically weak and feeble. Mentally he was all together. We sat around for a long time and talked about everything under the sun. When Drake launches into a story about “jamming with B.B.” or whatever, it’s stunning. The wealth of experience. And the casualness of it all.

Drake walked across the room and came back to the couch carrying the acoustic guitar. He sat down, and he hugged it on his knee. He put his left hand on the neck, and his right hand above the strings, and he moved his hands, but the strings didn’t get pressed hard enough into the neck, and his right hand wasn’t cooperating either. Not much of a sound came from the guitar.

After a few notes, Drake picked up the guitar and handed it to me. In the most unfrustrated tone, he said, “Here, take this. I can’t play it.”

I took the guitar. He said, “Play ‘Slowroller.’” That’s a song I wrote, about a poker hand. It’s a bluesy groove, in E.

This morning during my quiet time I was doing some deep recollecting about Drake. I put us both back in the Casino, and I watched him play poker. I put him on stage in San Francisco, and I watched him play guitar. I guess you could say Drake was a player. Then I beamed myself back to the last visit at Drake’s house, and as I was recalling the particulars I wrote about above, a wave of melodrama came over me, and it occurred to me that I might have heard the last note Drake ever played. And if that isn’t dramatic enough, he then, literally, handed his guitar to me. And when he said, “Take this,” it’s as if he had said, “Take this, the instrument of my life, and continue my song when I’m gone.”

Dear Drake,

I accept. I vow to remain smaller than the groove, and to let it have its way with me. Rest in peace.

Tommy