A couple weeks ago, I bought a new CD - "Into the Light," by Bill McLaughlin. It's as wonderful as any of his other CDs - in fact, a little more wonderful, because of the title song.
As I listen to it, I can see Billy playing - my memory sees him, immersed, engrossed, lost on stage to the music.
It has been more than a decade since I saw Billy McLaughlin perform. But I can still see him, in my mind's eye, as I listen to his music.
Billy was born for this. He was a miracle musician - playing his own compositions that, for nearly any other guitar player, would require two guitarists. But for Billy, it took just one. I know that's what amazed so many - his ability to play on one guitar what should have taken two, or even three.
For me, it was the music. It sang into my heart - touched my soul - from soul to soul. The music had come from God to me through Billy, is how I felt. It was like having a conversation with God for me, to listen to Billy play. And yes, there was something miraculous about seeing him play in concert, because he did in fact play all the notes himself, almost with sparks flying from the guitar, almost beyond possibility. But the music itself is what compelled me to return.
"Into the Light" - now, finally, recorded under a CD of the same - was the first song I ever heard Billy play. He was at the Gardenia Center in Sandpoint, at their Sunday service. I happened to be at the service too. He was giving an introduction to his music that he would be playing that night in Sandpoint, and the next night in Spokane. And he started playing "Into the Light." That is where I went, with him. Into the light. I was mesmerized - hooked - had to bring a passel of people with me to the next night's coffee shop concert in Spokane... I bought a couple CDs, and hoped "Into the Light" would be on the next CD. Over the next couple years, I'd look for that CD, and at his Tour Schedule to see when he might be coming back to Spokane from his home in Minnesota....
and then, I lost track of him. There just was so little movement...
Turns out, in 2001, Billy was diagnosed with a disease called focal dystonia. It caused his left hand to seize up when he played the guitar. As he explains, he had symptoms for awhile. "Something had crept in ... into my hand, my wrist, my arm....an unwanted guest that wouldn't leave. I had no name for this visitor who caused my fingers to suddenly curl, caused the music to veer out of control as audiences cringed, caused my solo career to slowly (against all my stubborn nature) grind to a halt." As he also explains, he was almost relieved by the diagnosis, so he could know he wasn't going crazy. Yet it was devastating too. Though only on his left side (hence the modifier "focal"), it could ultimately spread throughout his body. Doctors told him to stop playing the guitar altogether. Instead, this left-handed guitarist decided to retrain his right hand to do what the left had been doing. And he has been on a long road since.
I didn't know any of this until recently. My heart broke for him when I heard. How does that happen? How does one of the most gifted guitarists on the planet come down with such a debilitating disease? Especially a musician whose music comes from such a place of purity....
I wondered - what is supposed to come from this? how is he supposed to use this? or - us? or - something.
I wasn't trying to put a rosy picture on it. I meant it. Music that comes from God, through a human body - there has to be a bigger picture purpose when that same body no longer can perform as it did.
It made me think of Beethoven, going deaf. He was deaf when he wrote his Ninth Symphony - his masterpiece - the first symphony to have a chorus in it (the fourth movement). In the end, his curse became our blessing. His lack of ability to hear outside noise seemed to transform him to a place where he could hear only purity instead. It was as though all his works - amazing in themselves - were just setting the stage for the Ninth.
Except... that's where Billy McLaughlin started... in that place of deafness - not that he ever had to lose his hearing - just that he already did keep the extra noise out when he wrote and played the music he had within. Or so it seemed to me.
Billy's situation also made me think of a passage from "Jonathan Livingston Seagull" - a book I have not read since I was a teen - that I probably couldn't get through today, as idealistic as it is (as I recall it). There is one part of that book that I've never forgotten. Jonathan is trying to figure out how to fly as fast as possible, so he dives from the highest of heights, only to break up at a certain speed. But then he comes up with the idea of pulling his wings into his body. This way, the wind can't pull on his outstretched wings - can't hold him back. It's a brilliant idea. A brilliant move. It works. Jonathan dives, and reaches an unbelievable velocity.
Except he hadn't thought ahead to imagine how to get out of such a fast dive once he got into it. And when he turns to pull himself out of it, he's going too fast. Instead of moving up and out, he crashes into the ocean like he's hitting a brick wall. We wonder if he's dead. He isn't, but almost.
That could have cured him from his desire to go so fast. But it doesn't. Instead, he realizes that he will need to adjust his turn out of his dive to accommodate his velocity. So he practices. And figures out that, at that speed, to change course doesn't require an entire flapping of wings. It only requires the flip of a couple feathers. He practices and crashes a few more times, until he has the formula set. He realizes that not only has he succeeded, but he has succeeded with ease. Once he made one part of his path easier, the whole path could follow, with similar ease, if he just imagined it. And now he could move to the next level.
With Billy, he's become a voluntary ambassador for the Dystonia Medical Research Foundation. There's a PBS special on him called "Changing Keys" (cool title - I'm trying to get Spokane's PBS channel to show it). And as for his music, he's added an orchestra. He continues to compose. In 2007, he generated the above-mentioned "Into the Light" cd - with orchestra. I'm so grateful to hear the music now, whenever I want, on my new CD.
Yes, he's retraining his right hand to do what his left hand could do before. But he's expanded his options too. And while he is not the only one to play his music anymore - at least at this time - not at one sitting, anyway... I wonder what else he might be able to do because his disability asks him to stretch there. I wonder - as he flies - what he will see and imagine to get him beyond, into all levels possible.
And I wonder what I can learn from his journey, as I listen to the first CD recording ever made of "Into the Light." I wonder where I'm trying to do everything myself - could just expand further if I allowed for more than just my individual effort - or a different, easier individual effort than how I am doing it now.
And as I listen to "Into the Light" - that one miracle composition that drew me in, from the beginning... As I listen to it, I can imagine what it might feel like, to fly always into the light.
UPDATE: CBS News just did a feature story on Billy (this a.m., May 27, 2011). Read the article and watch the video here: http://www.cbsnews.com/stories/2011/05/27/earlyshow/main20066772.shtml