My daughter Alexandra, who is fourteen, recently announced she is launching a movie company, Windsor Montoya Productions, and would like me to work for her. She has already hired her mother Elisha, her brother Conor, and Sylvia Espinosa, her best friend. Pay will be deferred until our movies become popular on YouTube and someone gives us the money to make a big-budget movie. I do not question her visions of the future, but before I make my decision about joining the movie company, I have asked her to clarify what she imagines my role in her movie-making process will be, and she is currently composing my job description.
In the meantime, I continue to arrive at Mona’s—the one and only bakery/café in Carmeline Creek—every day circa 10 AM, greet my wife Elisha (she who works at the counter) with a suggestive wink, claim my customary window table, go to the counter and flirt with Elisha, return to my table with muffin and tea, write, socialize, and depart Mona’s for home and walking the dogs circa 1 PM.
Today in Mona’s, while awaiting Alexandra’s elucidation of her vision of my niche in her movie company, I am joined by my good friend Zorro Blackbird, who also happens to be our piano tuner and the accordion player in the jazzy folk trio Romantic Twaddle. I am the guitarist in that trio, Elisha our ukulele player, and we all sing. We play every Friday evening at Mona’s from eight to ten when Zorro is in town. Alexandra says she intends to use Romantic Twaddle’s music in some of her movies and may even make a few movies about Romantic Twaddle.
Zorro, fifty-three, is a burly five-foot-eight with olive skin and long black hair. He has been out of town for the last two months touring with Bailey Jones, and because I’m on a kick these days of interviewing my favorite people, I take this opportunity to interview Zorro and record our conversation in my Notebook #4: Drawings and Overheard Dialogue.
Paul: Were you born with the name Zorro Blackbird?
Zorro: I was. My mother is Wailaki, my father Pomo. My father loved the Zorro television show from the 1950s, so they named me Zorro. My three sisters are named after the goddesses Athena, Aphrodite, and Venus.
Paul: What inspired you to become an accordion player?
Zorro: I started playing ukulele when I was five and took up the guitar when I was seven. When I was ten, I heard a man playing the accordion at the county fair and thought it was the most beautiful music I’d ever heard. On the way home from the fair, my mother told me she played the accordion before she had kids and she still had her accordion. When we got home, she got the beautiful old thing out of her closet and said if I promised to practice every day, she would give me lessons.
Paul: Do you play accordion with Bailey when you tour with her?
Zorro: No. She’s a solo act all the way. She doesn’t even have other people play on her albums. My job is to keep her two guitars perfectly tuned throughout her performances.
Paul: Are you onstage with her?
Zorro: I’m on and off. After her first song, I come on and she gives me her guitar and I give her the second one. Then while she’s playing her second tune, I’m offstage tuning the first guitar, and so on. I wear black clothes and come and go like a shadow.
Paul: Why doesn’t she tune her own guitars?
Zorro: She’s not good at tuning when she’s performing and she gets extremely frustrated when she can’t get the tuning exactly right. So rather than drive herself and her audiences crazy, she has me tune for her.
Paul: How did she find you?
Zorro: Her previous tuner is an old friend of mine, Rufus Strunk, the fiddle player, and he recommended me. I went down to Berkeley and met with her, she tried me out at a gig in San Francisco, and I’ve been tuning for her ever since. Five years now. She tours twice a year and each tour lasts two months. I’ve been to England and Europe with her three times and all over America and Canada many times.
Paul: Any end in sight?
Zorro: Well… the guy she’s currently involved with thinks he can do the tuning, so she might give him a try. We’ll see.
Paul: You sound doubtful.
Zorro: I don’t think he can do it. But love is blind and time will tell.
Paul: What will she do if he hands her a guitar that’s not perfectly tuned?
Zorro: She’ll fire him and then call me and beg me to come finish the tour. (laughs) Probably offer me a big raise.
Paul: Will you go?
Zorro: Oh yeah, if she asks me. Her next tour starts in four months, and unless I find a gig I like better, you bet I’ll go. She pays me two thousand dollars per show, and we do about forty-five shows each tour.
Paul: Will it ruin her relationship with this guy if he can’t tune her guitars properly?
Zorro: I’ll be very surprised if she hasn’t dumped him before the next tour. But if not, she’ll dump him the first show he screws up, which will very likely be the first show. I know it seems like tuning guitars should be easy, but to tune those guitars exactly as she wants them, twenty times each concert, you have to have an impeccable ear and a delicate touch and not be intimidated by the magnitude of the situation. 2800 people in Carnegie Hall? That kinda thing. Every night.
Paul: Is she difficult to work with?
Zorro: Not for me. But she’s a perfectionist, and when people don’t give her what she needs, she can be… difficult.
Paul: Does Ellen [Zorro’s wife] go on tour with you?
Zorro: No. She’s happy to stay home making her art and taking care of the grandkids, and… it’s good for us to be apart now and then. We’ve been married for thirty years and we have a tendency to get very ingrown. And we’re always happy to see each other when I get home, so…
Paul: What do you do during all the hours between shows on a tour?
Zorro: We’re travelling, we’re checking into hotels, we’re setting up, we’re doing sound checks, eating, sleeping, and I accompany Bailey when she does television and radio interviews, which she does a lot. There’s not much down time. It’s a very intense two months. She’s not just famous. She’s a cultural icon.
Paul: I hope you won’t be offended, but I’ve never really understood her appeal. What do you think it is about her that makes so many people love her?
Zorro: I’m not offended. Taste is subjective. I’ve actually thought quite a lot about why so many people love her.
Paul: What have you come up with?
Zorro: Well… her voice is not powerful, but it’s warm and appealing and nobody else sounds like her. She’s very down to earth, and I think lots of people prefer singers they can identify with, you know, singers with voices that aren’t spectacular. She doesn’t intimidate anyone, yet she sings beautifully. And when she performs she seems vulnerable and very honest and very funny, too. People laugh their heads off at her shows. She’s a wisp of a woman singing songs full of longing. A sweet voice and a well-played guitar. One reviewer called her the queen of quiet angst, but I don’t think angst is the right word. I think the word is melancholy, the good kind. She makes people cry, and people like to cry.
Paul: So what are you gonna do between now and the next tour?
Zorro: Tune pianos. Play music with you and Elisha. Work in the garden, babysit the grandkids, go on some adventures with Ellen, come here for coffee, talk to you, go to the beach. See what comes my way.
Paul: Have you written any new songs of late?
Zorro: Not for a long time, and that’s an interesting thing about touring with Bailey. My songwriting stops, though I take along notebooks and a guitar and I think I’ll write poems and new songs, but nothing ever comes when I’m on tour with her. And then I get home and after a couple months the melodies start to come again and then I’m on tour again and the flow stops.
Paul: Why do you think that happens?
Zorro: I know why it happens.
Zorro: Because being her tuner uses the same creative energy that would otherwise go into my own work. I know that sounds crazy. After all, I’m just tuning her guitars during her concerts. But when I’m on tour with her, my entire focus is on facilitating her creative expression. And to do my job well, I have to give her everything I’ve got or the guitars won’t sound right. They just won’t. I can’t tell you why, but it’s true.
Paul: And you’re okay with all your creative energy going to help her? At the expense of your own creativity?
Zorro: You know, Paul, helping her is creative, and I love helping her. I love hearing her play those guitars for thousands of enraptured people. I love coming and going on the stage like a shadow. I love bringing those strings into perfect tune with each other. I love hearing how well they sound with her voice, and I love knowing she is empowered by what I do for her.