Sitting in "The Garden” of Blues
Dimitris Epikouris is the author of the books “Blame It All on The Blues” & “Fifteen Raindrops In An Ocean of Blues Tales” and for more than two decades, has been quietly accumulating a collection of rare guitars.
He’s also an admirer of Epicureanism. For Epicurus, the purpose of philosophy was to attain the happy, tranquil life, characterized by ataraxia - peace and freedom from fear - and aponia - the absence of pain - and by living a self-sufficient life surrounded by friends. The school of Greek philosopher, called "The Garden," was based in Epicurus' home and garden.
The pure bluesman and author, talks about his book, the blues in Greece, Hound Dog Taylor, Chicago, Jack Kerouac, and his boozing with buddies.
How did the idea of the book “Blame it all on the Blues” come about?
The book depicts certain thoughts and emotions that emerged when I returned to Greece from the US, after ten years of absence. I experienced a strong culture shock and I realized that the average Greek is a very confused individual regarding his religious and sociopolitical views. He may think of himself as being European or the descendant of the ancient Greeks but in reality, I am afraid, this is not the case. So, having some firsthand experience with the camouflaged conservatism of modern Greeks, I decided to sketch out their idiosyncrasy and depict their true mentality. That’s how the book came about.
How does the blues music come out of the book’s pages?
I use the blues music as a vehicle to help me explore the microcosm of the Modern Greek society and its taboos. There are quite a few reasons that led me to do this. The first is that this particular music genre has extremely effective, soul searching elements that can be used as tools to penetrate the abyss of human existence and help us see what we, as humans, are made of. The second reason is my personal passion for this particular kind of music. I strongly believe that the blues is not just any kind of music that some people around the globe enjoy. It is an ideology, a kind of philosophy that enables us to see life as it is. I can think of many other reasons but it will take a lot of space.
When did your love for collecting guitars come about?
Oh Mike, man, you have just pulled at my heart’s strings. I have had a passion for guitars as long as I can remember myself. Unfortunately, my dad didn’t want me to go to a music school and learn how to play the guitar. He was afraid that I would quit school. When I was fifteen years old, I asked him to buy me a guitar and send me to a music school but he refused. I kept insisting so one day he got so mad that he started chasing me around the living room table. Being unable to catch me, he grabbed a heavy marble ashtray and threw it at my feet. Luckily, I jumped and didn’t end up with a broken leg or an ankle. After that incident, I said to myself: “When I get my own job and make some money, I will buy many guitars.” I did. I have 26 guitars and my kids love them. My son, who goes to a music school, is very proud of them and doesn’t want anybody to even touch them. Unfortunately, I never learned how to play the guitar. Just a few chords, that’s all.
How experiential can the blues be in Greece?
Believe it or not, I am one of the greatest supporters of the Greek Blues scene. I strongly believe that we have one of the best blues scenes in Europe. It seems that the Greek people, who discover the blues, never let it go. That is why I am so passionately determined to help the Greek bands reach a wider audience. Nevertheless, I am not the first to make such an attempt. Our common friend, Nicolas Carelos, was the first who tried to make the blues music popular in Greece. He owns the oldest blues club in Athens. Thirty long years of endless efforts! That guy is the oldest blues father figure in the country. I think we owe him a lot.
What is the story behind the title of book?
Panagiotes Gekas, a young Greek language school owner is dying of cancer and he chooses to spend the remaining of his time with his nephews who have inherited his guitars and his passion for the blues music. He narrates his life and how it relates to the blues music.
Panagiotes begins narrating the story of his life starting from his childhood years. His dad Mr. Theophilos Gekas, is a sweet professor of religion and his mom, Julia, a high-school linguistics instructor. Panagiotes’ grandparents from his mother’s side are awful people. His granddad, Panagiotes Leventopoulos is an authoritarian, religious freak who behaves as the absolute ruler of the family and has the habit of belittling everyone while having a strong Oedipus complex for his daughter. He hates Theophilos and continuously gets involved in the family’s finances as well as the upbringing of their children.
One day, little Panagiotes discovers some old blues LPs and begins to play them. His mother, who catches him doing so, gets very upset and orders him never to play that kind of music in the house again. She later on tells her father about her son’s “discovery” and Leventopoulos rushes into the house, gets the blues LPs and throws them into the garbage can right outside the house. When he leaves, little Panagiotes jumps inside the garbage can and gets them back. With the help of a friend of his and a music teacher, he begins learning a lot about the history of the blues music. He ends up falling in love with it.
Little Panagiotes also discovers an old picture inside one album cover. In the picture, there is a man who holds a guitar and embraces his mother Julia. The phrase: “I hope we will be together forever. Tasos Mentes” is written on the back of the picture. Little Panagiotes, keeps asking his parents and the rest of the relatives about that “strange” man Tasos Mentes who was embracing his mother in the picture. Initially, his mom and dad panic. They don’t know what to say to him and they feed him lies. They tell him for example that Tasos Mentes was a cousin of his mom somewhere in the US. Little Panagiotes doesn’t buy their lies and that aggravates his granddad very much.
The years go passing by and little Panagiotes’ passion for the blues music makes him learn English and become a university student studying English literature at the University of Athens.
The years are rough. There is the military Junta in Greece, freedom of expression and other civil rights are suppressed. The lack of democracy and freedom makes little Panagiotes appreciate the blues music even more. He has come to the conclusion that if all the people had been exposed to blues music, there wouldn’t be any exploitation and any wars.
While at the university, he meets some friends and he forms a blues band. His friends introduce them to Christos a much older guy, a former harmonica player of an old Greek Blues Band called “THE BLUES ADDICTS” and the owner of a small record store in Monastiraki. Panagiotis visits him quite often and learns about his former band.
Christos narrates to Panagiotis the story of his former band and begins talking about the members of that band which was quite famous many years ago. Suddenly, little Panagiotes almost faints when he hears from Christos that the band leader of the BLUES ADDICTS was a guy called Tasos Mentes, the strange man who was embracing his mom in the picture!
Little Panagiotes keeps visiting Christos to find out more about that mysterious man.
What he ends up finding out is that Tasos Mentes was a Greek musician who had studied in America, had gotten very deeply into the blues music and when returned to Greece, he formed a blues band that had a very promising career. Another member of the band was an old black piano player and a former postman who was a friend of Tasos in the States. Tasos had helped that guy overcome his alcohol problems. The black guy considered Tasos as his son, followed him to Greece and became the piano player of the “BLUES ADDICTS”.
It was when the “BLUES ADDICTS” had started getting significant recognition from many record labels that Tasos met a girl called Julia (Little Panagiotes’ mother) and fell in love with her. Julia and Tasos wanted to get married but Panagiotes Leventopoulos (the granddad) had some serious objections. He wanted his daughter to marry someone he could manipulate. However, Tasos wasn’t that kind of guy. There was a big fight between the two. Tasos expected Julia to stand by his side but that never happened. She was a scared little girl brought up in an old fashioned, conservative Greek and fanatically religious family, which used to spend their summer vacations in monasteries. She had no personality of her own. She was finally forced by her dad to abandon Tasos and marry an old childhood friend that she knew from the monasteries, Theophilos Gekas.
Rumors had it that she was 2 months pregnant when she abandoned Tasos. Tasos committed suicide by jumping off an apartment building. The death of Tasos caused the disbanding of the “BLUES ADDICTS”.
Little Panagiotes, also learns that Tasos had a brother Spyros Mentes who was a famous doctor now retired and isolated in the island of Syros. He pays him a visit and brings him as a gift some old tapes from his brother’s music. After the initial shock, Spyros Mentes explains to little Panagiotes what he thought that had happened. At the end, Spyros Mentes gives the guitars of Tasos to little Panagiotes as a gift from his “dad could be”.
It is not clear if little Panagiotes is the son of Tasos. The author chose to leave that unclear and let the readers wonder although it really doesn’t seem to be an issue here.
Surely, this just a small synopsis and the dialogues as well as certain events that are in the book are not described here because it would take many pages.
How do you wish your book to be remembered?
As an attempt to rediscover our lost human disposition. As an attempt to cross-examine ourselves and what we keep inside of us that we may not be aware of.
Do you think old blues figures like Robert Johnson, Bukka White, Lightnin' Hopkins are pulled out of your book?
They are all present not only in the book but in my life as well. They are part of me and everybody else who is a passionate lover of this music. The reason is very simple. They were real people!
Is there a part of the book that you like most?
Well, It would have been better if a book reader had answered that question. Anyway, I think that I attempt to discover the reason why some people who were revolutionaries in their youth, who fought against the social taboos and dreamed of a better and more liberated world, ended up being miserable bureaucrats, authority addicts and corporate cogs with an endless and incurable addiction for power, publicity and money. I believe that the reason is that they haven’t listened to enough blues music in their lives. If they had let the blues music grow on them, they wouldn’t have been transformed into what they are today.
How and where did you get the inspiration to write that book?
I did it by observing people and by recording their social behavior.
What musicians have influenced you most as a writer?
I wouldn’t say that certain musicians have influenced me in terms of writing that book or the other 3 that followed the first. As I said before, I draw my influences, by observing social phenomena, the way people behave, think and form their mentality. The blues music is the vehicle I use to record my observations.
Who were your mentors in writing?
I hope I won’t disappoint you but not being a professional writer, a “schooled” author, in other words, I have no particular influences. My writing is simple and it reflects the stimuli I get by observing people. I am a simple guy, I live a simple life, I have no hopes, no dreams and no visions. I am a very down to earth person who believes that friendship is the greatest thing in life. Our “grandfather” Epicurus, the Hellenistic philosopher (that’s where my pen-name is derived from) said that “friendship is a matter of the utmost importance: it contributes, more than anything else to the good and pleasant life. It is also the cohesive force that makes society and human cohabitation possible at all”.
When was your first desire to become involved in the blues?
If being “involved in the blues” means doing the best you can to help people discover it, I began “being involved” when my students exhibited an interest in learning more about it. Concerning myself, I must have been around fifteen years old when I “met” the blues for the first time. I had an English teacher from Chicago, Illinois who gave me some LPs to listen to. Her name was Marialena Giamilis, a Greek American who ended up teaching English, here in Greece. Hound Dog Taylor, Paul Butterfield Blues Band, Big Mama Thornton, Muddy Waters and Koko Taylor. When I played them, I became an addict, a blues addict and I remain one up until to this very day.
Is “blues” a way of life?
Absolutely and that is because it is real. Albert King once said that “If you don’t dig the blues, you got a hole in your soul.”
Is there any similarity between the blues in Chicago and the blues in Athens?
There is an enormous difference. Chicago is a big place. Very recently, a good friend of mine, a young Greek American, Spyridon Alexopoulos who was born and raised in Chicago, plays the guitar and sings the blues with his amazing, jaw dropping voice, came over to visit his roots and spend some time with me and a few of my blues friends and musicians. The blues is still alive and kicking in the States especially in the Chicago area. The oldest blues club in Chicago, the Kingston’s Mine has been renovated and keeps hosting the biggest names in the blues world. However, here, in Athens there are only a few clubs that play the blues and that’s sad because there some many talented blues musicians around who desperately need a “home” to play their music.
How is your relationship with the Greek blues bands?
I love and admire all of them, both the “old timers” and the new generation bands, which, by the way, are very promising although they have “big shoes to fill”. Unfortunately, playing the blues in Greece especially in the middle of a non-ending financial crisis that has devastated the people, isn’t what I would call “the best career prospect”.
Which musician would you rather be?
Well, since I am a story teller myself, I would choose Doug McLeod, a great blues musician and a superb story teller.
Does the media help the blues?
In a country like Greece, I am pretty sure that most of the media people are unaware of what the blues is all about.
I wonder if you could tell me a few things about blues.gr
I think that Yannis Roussochatzakis is a go getter. He created something out of nothing which is very important. The site could be the real home of the blues if some people get together and work hard for that purpose. The site has tremendous prospects but it needs determined people to make it shine.
What was the first gig you went to?
I saw Mighty Joe Young at a club called “Hangar 9” at Carbondale, Southern Illinois. I must have been around 19 years old.
What was the last record or book you bought?
The album “Brand New Eyes” by Doug McLeod. The “long black train” is one of my favorite songs. Now, about books. I usually buy history books but I haven’t bought one in a long time.
What advice would you give to Sonny Boy Williamson?
I would accuse him of not trying hard enough to convince Robert Johnson not to drink from that pre-opened whisky bottle that contained poison and cost him his life……… (that’s a joke of course)
What would you say to Jack Kerouac?
I would thank him for his book “On the Road”. I would advise every youngster to read this particular book if he wants to understand what life is about and how thin the line is between sanity and insanity.
What would you like to ask Peter Green?
He is one of my favorites. I would ask him how it feels to be so successful and famous in such a short period of time. I guess, he would reply that it isn’t something easy to handle (judging from his personal experience and its consequences).
What do you think of Batis (rembetiko musician)?
I think he is a great guy. I recall reading an interview of him saying that he isn’t afraid of death. What an Epicurean approach to life!
What mistakes of the Greek blues scene would you want to correct?
Who am I to undertake such a task? Besides, I am just a blues lover and that’s all. I think there much wiser people around who can really make things work better for all the people in the Greek blues community.
Give one wish for the blues
To become more popular and to receive the publicity it deserves.
Is there anything that you miss from the 60’s -‘70s ?
The spirit of revolution.
What are the things that you miss most from your years in Chicago?
The rich blues scene.
Which things do you prefer doing in your free time?
Spending time with my two kids and my blues friends. I have a very dear friend, his name is Bill Zacharichev. Besides being a superb guitarist and a blues lover, he is my alter ego, a true friend in Epicurean terms. He is the guy who helps me organize various blues events here in Greece.
Which historical blues personalities would you like to meet and booze together?
Sorry, I’ll pass on that. I would rather booze with my blues friends who are to me historical personalities, indeed. Elias (Zaikos), Nick (Dounoussis), Dimitris (Ioannou) and Stelios (Zafeiriou), Paul (karapiperis), Bill (Markos) and Alexandros (Antoniades), Thodoris (Alexiou), Yannis (Pachidis), Dimitris (Doulgeridis), Panagiotes (Daras), Sotiris (Zisis), Lefteris (Besios), Stathis (Evangeliou), Andreas (Kastanakis), Tasos (Dritsos), Paul Xenos and so many other wonderful musicians but most of all, wonderful people.
Do you agree Rembetiko is the “Greek Blues”?
Both reflect social dramas and represent people who had been left out or rather cast out by society. Both deal with human emotions and life’s ups and downs. I would say that they share the same social perspective and background. In terms of music, however, they are different.
What does Ηound Dog Τaylor’s phrase: “Ι couldn’t΄t play shit but Ι made it sound good” mean to you?
Well, the way I see it is this: If somebody wants to play the blues, he doesn’t need a high end guitar, a superb amp and one hundred different guitar pedals. The blues music is simple and it comes straight from the heart. Hound Dog’s gear was bought from SEARS, an American department store that sells cheap household items. In addition, the blues music can’t be played well by the “Berkeley school” gymnasts. It needs people who are “buried alive in the blues” to play it right. The blues veteran Jimmy Thackery said once that “The blues is the easiest kind of music that can be played badly and the most difficult one to be played well.”
To which person would you like to send a copy of your book?
I wish I could send it to everyone interested in reading it but I have no copies of my own besides the two ones I have kept for my kids.
Would you prefer your kids to be rock or blues fans?
Blues fans for sure.
Who some of your favorite blues musicians of today are and how has the blues music business changed over the years?
I admire Buddy Guy who keeps making wonderful music besides his old age. I also like Bryan Lee very much. His two live albums (Live at Old Absinth House-Friday & Saturday) constitute the epitomy of the blues to me. I don’t think I can tell you much about the blues music business since it is not related to my line of business which is teaching foreign languages. In the States, there is definitely a blues music market. Here in Greece, it is mission impossible.
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