Before meeting Arthur Rhames, his legendary status had preceded him. Even though he was only in his early twenties at the time, he was probably the most talked about up-and-coming musician on the New York scene.
Arthur, with a heralded virtuosity on the piano, guitar, and saxophone, possessed incredible promise for a successful career. His musical goal was to extend the work of John Coltrane and the great masters of Jazz. His career goal was to be considered the greatest musician of the century.
Upon meeting Arthur for the first time, what immediately impressed me was the enormity of his hands, height and body-builder physique. After getting to know him better, what struck me most, though, was that he did absolutely NOTHING in moderation. Talking, eating, working out, practicing music, staying awake for days, sleeping for days, studying and practicing nutrition, then later doing drugs and drinking – all done with voraciousness. He pushed the limits of what was humanly possible to everything he did.
For a couple of years, we were next-door neighbors. We would get together whenever possible to practice/play together. Even though we were the same age, he was more of a teacher to me. Still, he would always ask me what I was playing and show him; what fingering was I using, etcetera. His insatiable hunger to learn about everything was infectious!
My favorite moment performing with Arthur (which I recounted in a One Final Note interview ten years ago http://www.onefinalnote.com/features/2005/finn-james/ ) was when we played an outdoor block party on the Fourth of July in New Paltz, New York. There were a few hundred in attendance. Arthur was on an alto sax and I was playing the tenor sax.
We never would speak about what we were going to play beforehand; we would just start playing. (It was a tradition I maintained for almost all of my performances and recordings; the height of spontaneity.)
Appropriately, Arthur started playing “The Star-Spangled Banner.” Immediately, echoes of Jimi Hendrix came to mind. Right away, it was shaping up to be a transcendent musical experience.
As we simultaneously improvised an epic concerto embellished with reharmonizations and modulations, the intensity continued to build towards nuclear proportions. About 10 minutes into the construction of this musical monument the audience began to cheer. 10 minutes later, the waves of cheering and applause escalated with intensity. It was an ocean of urging enthusiasm.
By this time, I was completely drenched in sweat; finding myself playing from the knees. We were on this Fourth of July playing for God, for Country, for the Spirit of Freedom, for all the Brave who had given their lives for us to be here and now stretching out on this anthem. We were performing for this astonishing audience; everyone sharing their energies; all of us beholding this moment in common – bearing witness together.
The entire concert set was this one uninterrupted song. The power of the music and the support of the audience propelled us both into a state of boundless, elevated energy. For a brief moment, my eyes opened. There was Arthur, in silhouette, also playing from his knees! The sky had turned a brilliant shade of majestic purple, purple haze; the ebbing sun crimson, set in brilliance.
Soon after the musical apex or climax, we recapitulated and concluded the finale to a thunderous applause that continued long after we had left the staging area. It was an acknowledgment that we all had experienced something memorable. Arthur and I had been to the mountaintop. If I never played again, I was sure that I had just experienced the full reward of my life’s efforts. I owe this experience and fond memory to Arthur.
Soon after, Arthur moved away. I had received intermittent reports that he was still drinking heavily and taking drugs with a reckless abandon. Then, there was no news of him at all.
It had gotten back to me there was a search for Arthur. Days later, a friend found him living in a cardboard box in Penn Station. He was homeless, penniless, and sick. Arthur had AIDS!
My old friend, John Esposito (a fine musician currently teaching at Bard College and was Arthur’s pianist in the Eighties) told me that Arthur was hospitalized in New Jersey. Immediately, we departed to visit him.
When we got to Arthur’s hospital room, there was a long and bony, frail and emaciated person propped up in bed. His eyes were yellowed and bulging. We must be in the wrong room. The bedridden man said something, but I didn’t recognize his voice. It was soft, weak, hoarse; feeble.
Yet, after a brief moment we could hear that this unrecognizable person WAS Arthur. His identity proven only by of the content of what he was saying.
Arthur was contrite, yet hopeful. He began by saying how this illness had humbled him. He thought that he was indestructible but now knew that he is like everyone else. The human body is fragile.
He said that he had always wanted to be admired and adored by the world, to be known as the greatest musician ever, but now he realized that this was wrong.
I can recall his exact words. He said,” IF I COULD ONLY GET HEALTHY AGAIN…ALL THIS WOULD BE WORTH IT IF I COULD REACH JUST ONE PERSON. I DON’T HAVE TO REACH THE WORLD, JUST ONE OTHER PERSON.”
I cried after this. We all cried together. Arthur soon got tired and fell asleep. That took all the energy he had left.
A few days later I returned alone. It was Christmas Day. I bought a Yamaha classical guitar for Arthur to play in bed for when he started to feel stronger. I was excited. I thought that this gift would help him feel better; optimistic.
When I got to his room, it was evident that things had taken a turn for the worse. Arthur was sweating profusely in a bed of ice; his teeth were chattering with a clacking sound. It was terrifying. Alone in his room. No nurses to be seen, no guests. Christmas all alone. It was sad. His hands were shaking, Arthur motioned for me to get his plastic urinal. He couldn’t speak. He could only shiver.
“Arthur. I brought you a guitar. It’s yours. Merry Christmas.” He didn’t hear a word. I don’t even think he could see me. He was in a state of delirium, suffering from acute pneumonia. I laid the guitar case up against the wall and left.
Arthur died soon after; December, 27, 1989. He was only 32 years old. His whole life ahead of him.
He didn’t get his chance to get well, to reach one other person like he wanted to, but he did reach John and I. His final statement to us WAS music. It was with his words; the perfect finale to a flame that burned bright but brief.
In his found humility, he was able to teach us Real Greatness. At that moment, he achieved the Greatness he had always so strongly desired.
Whenever I start feeling unsatisfied, that I’m unimportant, that Circle and Spear isn’t reaching a large enough audience, I remember Arthur.
Greatness is a simple act of kindness.