A few days ago I was walking down the street on the kind of sunny day that puts smiles on the faces of normally cranky Bostonians. A young guy with a blond buzz cut in a jeep with the top down was at a stoplight with Jet Airliner--one of my favorite Steve Miller tunes--blaring on his radio.
I mouthed the words and looked up when I heard a honk. It was the guy in the Jeep, giving me a big grin and a thumbs up as the light changed and he roared off down Massachusetts Avenue.
My mind wandered, as it often does, and I started thinking about that song’s interesting history. It was written in 1973 by Paul Pena, a blind American blues singer of Cape Verdean descent, who recorded it that same year for what he hoped was going to be his commercial breakthrough album. But because of hassles with his label it wasn’t released until 2000. When a former member of Steve Miller's band who'd produced Pena's album played it for him, Miller decided to cover Jet Airliner for his '77 “Book of Dreams” LP. As the first single it climbed to number eight on the Billboard chart.
Pena was besieged by personal and health problems, and his album’s shelving left his career in tatters. His wife became terribly ill and he gave up performing to care for her, and when she died of kidney failure he basically withdrew from the world, distracting himself by fiddling for hours with a shortwave radio.
His passion for music was rekindled when he stumbled over a new and amazing sound, singers who could somehow produce two or even three tones at once. The broadcasts were in Russian, so he had no idea what he was listening to. He spent eight years trying to track down the source, and finally found someone who could explain that what he’d heard was “throat singing”—a tradition born in Tuva, a remote region of Mongolia. He bought some recordings and spent three years teaching himself the technique, and when The Throat Singers of Tuva came to San Francisco he went to the concert and met with the group afterward to sing for them.
This story, and the amazing events that followed, were captured in Genghis Blues, a film that won a 1999 Audience Choice Award at the Sundance Film Festival and was nominated for a 2000 Oscar for Best Documentary. His blues career got something of a bump from the film, but sadly he didn’t have much time to enjoy it; his health worsened and he died in 2005 of complications from diabetes and pancreatitis. This incarnation didn’t work out so well for Paul Pena.
It’s bittersweet to watch Genghis Blues now, with this sad, gentle, brilliant, grumpy, droll, rumpled shaggy dog of a man who just couldn't seem to catch a break, except for one moment of triumph that would have been too preposterous for a fictional film. The kind of moment that can happen only in real life.
Maybe no sound ever disappears completely; it just becomes too faint for human ears. Maybe the voice of Paul Pena, chasing the blues away by practicing throat singing in his cramped little room, is still out there somewhere…floating in the ether.