Don Bassey gets a leg up on real gigs
Musician adjusts to prosthetic, pandemic
Don Bassey was a kid. It was 1966, Olympic Stadium, Detroit. Front row for The Beatles, 25 feet from the corner of the stage. Or, as Bassey fondly recalled, “spittin’ distance” from the legends.
“I could have reached over and detuned George Harrison’s guitar,” Bassey said.
Cherished musical memories came and went since then, but the Vallejo bass player never forgot that moment. Tops on the list, undoubtedly. But competition may be on the horizon for far different reasons.
It’s not the Beatles, nor is it thousands of screaming fans. It’s a small stage behind a downtown Benicia restaurant. Pre-COVID? Perhaps just the latest in semi-regular gigs for the longtime musician.
Not now. Now this year. Not after losing a leg, pingponging from a wheelchair to a prosthetic, and — finally — performing in front of real, live, alcohol-sipping and yes, mask-wearing music fans.
On April 25, Bassey hopes to stand — with his trusty stool nearby — and play alongside Erik Schramm at Lucca’s Beer Garden for an expected capacity audience of about 60.
Jitters, sure. Though because he’s been playing with a friend or two at his Vallejo home, “I lost the ‘butterflies thing’ as far as worrying about my performance. I’m used to being in front of people,” Bassey said. “This time, it’s thinking about my leg. I’d like to be able to play without having it in my consciousness. I don’t normally go up wondering, ‘How’s my body working?’ I’d just strap on the guitar and get to work.’ When I figure that out, I’ll be back to being relaxed.”
It was St. Patrick’s Day March 17, 2020, when Bassey last performed for real humans. Only a handful at the downtown Vallejo’s Townhouse, but still, real humans.
“It was kinda when it (the pandemic) happened. The feeling was ‘Wow, are we going to be able to do this for while?’ And the thinking was, ‘No, probably not, but maybe a couple of months from now we’ll be back to normal again. They’ll figure this out and take care of it and it’ll be over.’ Instead here we are.”
Bassey — not unlike everyone else — didn’t need COVID-19. But he really didn’t need COVID-19. Not after having his right leg amputated in November, 2019, a last resort of dealing with the pain of cancer from nuclear radiation first diagnosed in 1983.
Formally a reactor operator with the U.S. Navy, Bassey’s health improved with radiation treatments that eradicated the cancer. Long-term vascular damage, however, was too much and the leg had to go.
“Last year politically drove me nuts and last year physically has been hard for me,” Bassey said. “Getting used to having a new leg and trying to operate properly is a challenge. My leg is still shrinking, still adjusting. I have to keep modifying the socket. So it’s been really hard. I didn’t think it would be as hard as it is.”
Bassey paused for a few seconds during the Tuesday afternoon phone call. He pondered those in worst
shape — and those who died from the virus.
“Everything’s been hard for everybody. We’re all in the same boat, so that gives me a place to settle without getting too upset,” Bassey said. “Everybody’s going through a similar trauma. And it has been traumatic.”
Bassey said there’s been a slight silver lining the the pandemic gloom. If the globe was going to be hit with a viral disaster, “it couldn’t have come at a better
time,” he said. Because he was recovering from the amputation, “I was home all the time. I didn’t have a place I needed to go.”
As doors opened, Bassey became aware of how his mobility was challenged.
“It’s hard maneuvering around in the world,” he said. “Everything I do, I have to think and plan ahead. What kind of obstacles am I going to face?”
While he remained inside practicing his bass, Bassey was inspired by other musicians who became creative, including James Riley, a London resident and cousin of Bassey’s significant other, artist and musician Erin Bakke.
“When the shut-down happened, he went up on this roof in this great London neighborhood of old brick homes and chimneys and played,” Bassey said. “First it would be just his guitar and himself and the last time he had a whole band with each member playing on a different rooftop or balcony. It sounded so cool.”
Whether live-streamed “or playing in someone’s driveway or in the corner of a restaurant or a backyard, people are being creative, figuring out how to play here and there,” Bassey said.
It’s music, the Vallejoan noted, that helps keep him young even with 70 looming July 5 and a son “who’s going to be 50 in eight years.”
“My dad passed away at
69. Last month, I went past his age. It was a marker for me,” Bassey said. “I felt like my dad, well, he’s an ‘old guy’ even though he was
69. Right now, I’m ‘only’
69. Rather than feeling like an ancient geezer, I feel like I’m 19. Until I look in the mirror.”
Bassey laughed. with what he — and the world — has experienced the last 13 months, he’ll accept the mostly-gray beard.
“It’s such a strange time we live in,” Bassey said.
Don Bassey and Erik Schramm perform at Lucca’s Beer Garden, 439 First St., Benicia, Sunday, April 25, 2:30 to 5:30 p.m. Reserved seats only $5. For more, visit lucabar.com.