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It Was Just a Slight Detour

Pop Music* Guitarist David Bromberg dropped from sight after years in demand. He's still a string man, but now he's selling violins besides touring.

June 14, 2002|MICHAEL OLLOVE | BALTIMORE SUN

WILMINGTON, Del. — Having not laid eyes on David Bromberg in more than 25 years--and even then it was from the cheap seats and through a haze of cigarette and marijuana smoke--I didn't have much to go on. As I looked around the quiet coffee shop, what I had in mind were the words from one of the songs he sang, "I know I ain't good-looking, but I swear I'm some sweet woman's angel child." Like I said, not much to go on.

He was skinny, gawky and 30-ish back then, with rimless glasses, thick, curly hair, and a sparse beard and wispy mustache that you'd only excuse on a 14-year-old. But if his appearance suggested tentativeness or naivete, nothing in his music or his performances confirmed the impression.

Always around Bromberg was the air of the troublemaker. Not in the sense of violence or malevolence, but trouble in its most appealing version. His musical persona was brazen, sassy and comically subversive. As we emerged from Vietnam and Watergate, Bromberg offered the sort of sly rebelliousness that hewed closely to the self-image many of us flattered ourselves with.

What may have failed to register, except in the most visceral way, was how learned his music was, how deeply it tapped into the richest strains of American music: folk, blues, country and rock, with nods to Dixieland jazz and Irish.

Bromberg, now 56, had a large following, particularly on college campuses, but you could never say his was a mainstream name in pop music. He recorded albums, but sitting in a studio was torture to an impatient man who yearned only for the live performance. While he was not the best known of the old Greenwich Village folk crowd, hardly any article about Bromberg from that period failed to use the phrase "a musician's musician," largely because of those, including Bob Dylan, Richie Havens and Jerry Jeff Walker, who sought him out as a sideman.

"He has a completely personal style of playing the guitar so that just from his finger work, you know it's David Bromberg," says Jay Ungar, who played fiddle in Bromberg's band in the 1970s. "The tone, the attack, the phrasing. It's very bluesy and gutsy. But he also has this sweet side of playing."

Although accomplished and commanding, Bromberg largely disappeared from public view in the early '80s. Although his music never seemed dated or cliched, Bromberg himself seemed to have all but vanished.

But you never really vanish, at least not to yourself. I might have lost track of Bromberg, but he never did, even as he completely reinvented himself--or, at least, his career. David Bromberg, audacious musician, had become David Bromberg, violin salesman.

Obviously, I had some catching up to do, which is what brought me to this Wilmington coffee shop, where I was told the troublemaker was quietly having a sandwich.

And, unmistakably, there he was, sitting alone at the table in the rear, thicker than I remembered and grayer, but still with oversized glasses and that same ungovernable beard.

Not So Unflappable

out of the Limelight

He quickly proved that the unflappability evident in his music did not extend to the man.

"This is the worst period in my life to do an interview," he said. His life, he said, was in upheaval. He had just arrived from Boston, where he had attended an important but pressure-packed violin auction. The next day, he was to begin one of the mini-tours he still does with his band each year. He is also relocating his family from Chicago to Wilmington while making a risky change in his business. In a few minutes, he had to take off to the Philadelphia airport to pick up his wife and the younger of his two teenage children, and later he was to meet with band members to go over their program.

I wanted him to take a deep breath. Actually, I wanted him to take a Valium. But he agreed to let me accompany him to the airport.

On the way, he related that in the late 1970s, he left New York to follow his manager to Northern California--a disastrous move. "There weren't people around that it was any fun to play music with." So he didn't. He didn't practice and he didn't compose. When he did play, he felt he was only faking it.

After a while, Bromberg came to a troubling realization. "I decided I wasn't really a musician anymore."

It was a cataclysmic self-discovery. Music had been the inspiration and the engine of his entire life, and had put him, the son of a Jewish psychiatrist from the suburbs of New York, on a wholly unexpected path. From the time he was a child and a black caretaker exposed him to gospel music, Bromberg had been a musical sponge.

He taught himself the guitar as a teenager, but when he learned that blind blues guitarist Rev. Gary Davis lived in New York, Bromberg tracked him down and begged to be taken on as a student. Davis agreed, but the lessons would not be limited to his apartment. He had Bromberg lead him to black churches and clubs to hear the best gospel and blues around.

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