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"Michael Bay was really cool about it. We talked on the phone a bit and got our songs together, and that's how it started," Boyd says. "We just learned a bunch of tunes as we jammed together."
The guitar was always there, lying in wait beneath the couch in the living room.
It was a little Buckeye-brand acoustic number, purchased long ago by Bay's grandmother and likely assembled in a nondescript warehouse somewhere in Chicago in the first half of the last century.
Bay—born in Austin, Texas, though his whole life has transpired in Cleveland—was a shy kid growing up, but he really dug music. He voraciously consumed his parents' hi-fi records, finding vinyl-clad solace in the melodies and in the words crackling out through the speakers. Music made sense to the young boy—more sense than trying to talk to anyone about his feelings. Hell, even considering such a thing brought on bouts of pain.
"No one has ever suffered the way you suffer at 14. You're all alone in the world," he says, effecting a teenaged whine and smirking over thoughts of his introverted youth. "The guitar became this thing that belonged to me."
So he started playing. Always practicing, he found he could broadcast his deepest feelings through six strings and a fretboard. "Playing guitar was a way to let the stresses and troubles disappear and also a way to kinda express myself. Words were difficult, so here was a way to express myself and be a part of a larger world outside myself." Like he would later go on to describe the fortuitous and absolute magic of the Telecaster he would one day play, the pieces of the whole just fit perfectly.
As he grew up and continued drawing lessons from the notes of guys like Eric Clapton and Duane Allman, Bay grew comfortable with the pathways of his adventure. This was it. Being one to always find the beauty in life, Bay as young man had found a quickly expanding toolbelt for sharing his heart with those around him. His family saw in him an empathetic soul with a desire to do good in this world.
"I asked my father what should I be when I grow up. I figured he knew my strengths and weaknesses better than anyone," he says. Bay's father, in turn, posed a Socratic dialogue:
"What do you think about when you should be thinking about something else? What are you doing when you should be doing something else? Where's your heart and your passion? That's what you should do." "Really? It's that simple?"
"It's that simple."
And so Bay continued playing guitar and thinking about playing guitar. He was listening to Pink Floyd, early Cream, At Fillmore East, Hendrix's Rainbow Bridge—all sorts of great stuff. Through John McLaughlin he picked up on John Coltrane, Miles Davis, Duke Ellington. "That's where the whole thing started. I became interested in jazz and a much wider range of music," Bay says.
The question of practicality demanded an answer along the way. How does one become a musician? Can you make a living doing this? It seemed simple, of course, but the road to dreams is never paved with ease. His father certainly couldn't tell him; there was no musical background in Bay's family. "We didn't travel in that circle," he says. Money, of course, would be an issue. Gigs, too.
His father set him up at a six-week trade school, where he learned the craft of welding. "That was what he did for me: Here's this trade with which you can make reasonably good money." Bay hated the work, but the welding job opened doors financially that would push him further toward a goal that he had set. He treasures the opportunity his father granted him.
"It was what I needed to do at the time, because I didn't know how to make a living as a musician," he says. "What helped me get through it was: Right now, my practice is that I have to go to work every day. This is my practice. I wish it was the guitar, but I have to do this thing to make these other things happen. So, this is my practice eight hours a day, and then I go home and practice guitar."
The paychecks funded a music education, wherein Bay met teacher and mentor Ralph Russo. Soon, the opportunities started flowing and Bay had the privilege of quitting his day job and setting out for the dream. He played in a jazz trio now and then, bummed around a few cocktail lounge bands, spent a little while in hibernation—woodshedding his craft—and carted his guitar out to any ramshackle blues clubs that would have him. There were nights when he waited until 2 a.m. to get onstage for a song or two. Good nights.***
In the early '90s, the Jimmy Landers Blues Company spent Wednesdays leading a jam night at a place called Mr. Z's. Anchoring a corner at West 117th and Lorain, it was one of several tiny blues centerpieces in Cleveland. Using nickel-wound strings to hatch out of his self-made shell, Bay began seeking out clubs like this. "I walked in and I was like, 'How does this work?'" With each passing week, Bay was playing around town more and more.
The jams were always a fun break from regular gigs. And Landers' jam night proved to be a valuable stomping ground as Bay's talents began coalescing. This young gun had started showing up to play, and people were wondering who the hell he was.
"Jimmy Landers would let me sit in on the first set," Bay says. "Even then I understood what an honor that was—to be allowed to play with the house band." Week after week, he hung out at Mr. Z's, honing various skills and talking shop with the others.
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