Column: Bumping into Bonnie Raitt

James Bornemeier
James Bornemeier

Back in my Vermont days, the decade of the 70s basically, I started out as a ski bum at Sugarbush in Warren, first as a red-vested bellhop, then a dishwasher, then a broiler cook in a decent mountain restaurant. Then came a gig as a real estate salesman/submarine sandwich purveyor (more on that combo down the road, perhaps).

Then I landed a job as a reporter for the Montpelier daily newspaper, the Times Argus.

I was there a couple of years when the Sugarbush Mountain Corp. decided to hold a summer jazz festival on the slope of one of its popular trails, with a temporary stage set up just above the group of shops and restaurants at the foot of the mountain. As a practicing jazz fan, I got the call to write a weekend review of the festival. This was a three-fer: free admission, a chance to hang with old pals and check out a roster of pretty good artists for a festival far off the beaten track.

The jazz titan Oscar Peterson, pianist extraordinaire, was the top billing, and I can’t, sadly, recall many other performers, except Bonnie Raitt, who was just starting her run of terrific Warner Bros. LPs and on the cusp of enjoying the long spell of success that followed (with a trough here and there).

At her core she’s a blues singer and a master of the bottle-neck guitar style, but can put down a wrenching heart-busted ballad when called for. The daughter of Broadway star John Raitt, Bonnie has long red hair with a signature silver streak in front. She’s in the Rolling Stone pantheon, both as a singer and guitarist. To her fans, she is a true American treasure.

After a hiatus to heal after some deaths in the family, she has a new album out that sounds like a perfect blend of the old and the present. She has found a good place to be.

The festival was a big success and somewhere my doting review is turning to yellow dust in a box I haven’t excavated for years. I left the concert in an ebullient mood for the 40-minute trip back to the big bad city of Montpelier. On the way down the mountain road, I pulled off to stop in one of several bars in the neighborhood. It was filled with festival-goers who were ramped up by what they had just heard.

It was a small place so I could easily make out the faces and forms of friends and acquaintances milling about and drinking various potions.

I spotted a just-vacated seat at the bar and swooped in to take it. As I dropped down into the stool I saw a flash of long red hair.

I ordered a beer and settled in. I knew Roscoe, the bartender and Robbie, the guy to my left, a waiter and part-time dealer in the very low-potency marijuana that was flooding Vermont at the time, not that I knew anything about that. To my right was Bonnie Raitt.

I have perhaps thought too much about this episode over the years, but, I can tell you, there seemed to be an invisible column surrounding her, a force field whose sole purpose was to not just discourage but prevent, at all costs, the commencement of conversation of any kind. So strong was this force field that I wondered if it would rule out my warning her that, for instance, her hair was on fire.

But, this being Bonnie, her hair was already on fire in its natural hue. Cautiously, I stole a glance and saw she had a beer and a shot in front of her and a pack of Marlboro reds at the ready.

There was a complete absence of joy in the force field and, I noticed slyly, virtually no motion. These observations did not comport in the slightest with her vivid and deeply satisfying performance on stage about an hour or so earlier.

I was sort of backward in college in the craft of striking up a conversation with a newfound woman in order to get to know her better. During my postcollege tour as a naval officer I began to find my footing in this regard. But I was a rank wanna-be compared to some guys I knew who could lay it on so smoothly and effortlessly that they seemed to be members of a subspecies endowed with special gifts of verbal enchantment. I weighed my options.

Option one: Obey the force field. Option two: Say something. This is Bonnie Raitt. You will hate yourself forever if you don’t try.
What, then, to say?

1.“You really nailed it up there today.” Too sappy. No.

2.“What’s your major?” As a joke! No.

3. “Come here often?” As a joke! No.

4. “Can I bum a smoke?” Yes! No hint of adulation. Just a normal guy out of cigs.

“Can I bum a smoke?”

I dared to look into the force field for a response and it slowly came with as much movement as a statue: “No.”

I dealt with Robbie for a while, left Roscoe the usual obscene tip and headed home.

I didn’t bother looking at the statue again.