Banjo Bill Wyle

Copyright 1997 by Steve Saroff

Banjo Bill Wyle was a great, unknown musician who traveled between Los Angeles and Missoula, playing his five-string banjo and singing traditional bluegrass in the bars. I met him in Luke’s in October 1976. Luke’s, which is gone now, was a folk house bar where there was some kind of live music most nights of the week. Banjo Bill played on the off nights — Tuesday or Wednesdays usually — and I often played harmonica with him. The last time I played with Bill he got mad at himself for being what he was — a bar musician playing for drunks — and abruptly stopped playing and began yelling at the audience. He yelled, “Is this what you want? To sit here each night and do nothing, nothing, nothing?” He put his banjo back in its case and walked off the stage and out into the night, leaving me alone. I was still young enough to be mostly selfish, and instead of leaving then too, catching up with Bill, and maybe taking him out to eat (since he was always broke) — I played  hard blues by myself up there. I was 18, what did I know?

Here is more about Luke’s:

My first guitar

I was a some-times bartender at Luke’s when I was eighteen. It was an easy job. Just beer and the glass of sweet wine. Had to act dumb while at the same time pretending to be cool. But I was there because of those stories. Watching, listening, pulling in all the faces and names and paying attention to who was framed, up in black and white, sixteen by twenty, doing time before their gold star.

Luke’s had these beautiful giant Lee Nye photographs from the old Eddies club – there’s always going to be history, right back to the pre-Cambrian – Portraits, and if the person died, in the bottom corner someone would put a gold star…

It was good place for me, a kid really.  A lot happened over the   beer. A lot of people needed to talk.

And then Bobby the Dog Man would come in with his dogs. Three or four large ones. In the winter he would spend his days in Luke’s, nursing a fifty cent beer long past flatness, feeding his dogs stale bread taken from some dumpster. “Listen,” he would say to me, “I may be crazy but I know a few things, I just drank up all my drinks too soon, that’s all.” And he’d tell stories about trapping Mink and Otter and how on some clear, winter nights he would get his dogs to lay across him and sleep, a warm, warm, blanket. He told me once, on a winter afternoon when the air was thick with wood smoke and frost, “I’m not really crazy, I’m just lost,” then started to cry, and then told me, You’re my only friend.

I gave him free beer from then on.

Now he has a gold star.

The night Lukes shut down - a father and son outside.

Sometimes there was The Snake Woman, who would come in with her snake. She had a black snake which she would pull out and hold in front of any man who would try to talk to her, and yell insane stuff, always sexual and always nasty, so bad that no one would laugh, and so loud that sometimes the band would stop playing. After I had listened to her once for about an hour while she told me about all the men who had just been trying to take her home, that I was worse than any of them because I “Sucked Souls.” I asked her what she meant, and she said, “You just listen but you don’t say anything, and you are a kid. You suck souls.” I made the mistake of laughing then, and she jumped up from her barstool and screamed, “You laugh at me! I’ll piss on your grave, I’ll eat the flowers that your parents leave for you, I’ll dig the worms out of your rotting body and fuck each of them, one-at-a-time.” And all the while waving a five foot black snake at me, which she had been keeping someplace under her clothing.

Oh Yuk.

No free beer for her.

Gold star now too.

And not often enough there was Adam, who would knock over bar stools and talk to them.

Adam was never mad nor sad. The musicians would invite Adam up onto stage because he would sing and dance with the microphone in a way that would make people happy. When he drank, he would tell me that someday we would all learn the language of the rivers, and learn enough to wake the mountains, which were really only sleeping giants, and that the mountains would then pick up all of us and hand us to God in Heaven.

Gold star on Adam’s picture now.

I miss Adam.

Luke’s is gone, turned into a luncheon-white-kind-of-puke-of-a-place, and all the other bars seem to have become sanitized too.

This world changes, this town has changed, but I like to believe that the need to talk and to listen is still the same, still something human, something real in this too, too stainless world.

Me at 19
Me at 19

I’m scratching these words down and remembering the boy I was half my life ago. Listening then, remembering now. Remembering the ghosts of Luke’s. Ghosts of everyone who has needed to talk, which is what I need to do as well, which is what I am trying to do now..

photos and writing, copyright 1997 by Steve Saroff