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Amanda Knox, Johnny Nitro and Me

Johnny Nitro is dead. This news arrived via the Internet and SF Chronicle website on the final morning of what would end up being a nostalgia-centric Presidents’ Day Weekend. Nitro was a blues guitarist who fronted The Doorslammers, the house band at San Francisco’s oldest bar and North Beach mainstay, The Saloon. He played solid, crunchy leads and twelve bar progressions in the fashion of a classic working man’s musician – one who’s been at the form so long that it’s ingrained in his DNA. People wonder how some musicians make it look so easy. The answer, invariably, is that they’re at it day in and day out, night after night after night. Johnny Nitro played those licks so many times it sometimes looked like he was doing his taxes or tapping an Anchor Steam. But when he wanted to, he could really tap that Steam.

Nitro died Saturday night in his room above the Saloon. According to the Chronicle, the bar patrons broke in to spontaneous applause when the paramedics wheeled him out, his body covered by a white sheet. I’m familiar with the crowd that frequents The Saloon, and the account seems plausible. I used to go there as a young kid, just prior to and for a while after hitting the legal drinking age. It isn’t the kind of place to order a Cosmopolitan or ask the bartender if they have ground nutmeg behind the bar. We’d typically pull in at the end of the night when the place was packed with sweaty, generally older revelers, cutting loose on the small dance floor in front of the band. I was never much of a dancer nor the type to get louder and drunker as the evening pressed toward last call. I drank, yeah, but somehow my intake wasn’t hitched directly to my volume control. By Nitro Time I could usually be found leaning against a wall, sobering up on a nursed Budweiser and fielding shouted questions from the 40ish guy standing next to me on my size and weight. “WHAT ARE YOU .. ABOUT 210, 215 ..?” This was always another curiously observed alcohol side effect – the tendency for smaller guys to hone their Incredible Human Scale carnival act.

Those Johnny Nitro days faded in to something else, and then something else again, and by the time I was 24 I was ready for a third something else, so I followed my girlfriend who had made a move to Italy. This takes me to part two of Nostalgia Weekend, and watching the Amanda Knox movie on Lifetime TV Monday night. Knox wasn’t my girlfriend, but a current day Seattle native and twenty-something serving time for murder in an Italian prison. Her guilt is a matter of some debate and despite watching the movie I’m patently unqualified to make the call. But having lived there I will say that I wouldn’t want to depend on any government run branch for anything, much less put my fate in the hands of the Italian legal system. Like Knox, I was a language student at Perugia’s UniversitĂ  per Stranieri, or the “University for Strangers” as I was fond of incorrectly translating it. I’d like to think that, unlike her and even then, I had a certain prematurely instilled sense of caution, perhaps linked to that same instinct to be a Budweiser-nursing wallflower at the Saloon a few years prior. But having lived some years since, I can see where a few unfortunate twists of fate might have landed me erroneously imprisoned in an Italian cell. Life is funny that way.

What struck me more than the sensationalized nature of the production or the fact that they were allowed to shoot on location (slip the Italians a few bucks and they’ll re-zone the Vatican for you) was what an impressively beautiful place Perugia is. It’s the Umbrian capital and has a recorded history dating back to 310 BC. The cobblestone streets of the Old City wind through ancient Etruscan arches and in to all reaches of the town, with spectacular views of the Italian countryside. And I lived there. Reflecting on this yesterday and while in email contact with my ex Saloon Days buddies Myers and Miller, I queried as to why, at the time, they didn’t alert me to the fact that I had the world on a string (not my exact words.) They responded that my world-strung days were still within reach – a nice gesture but not the desired reply, which would have been that, like then, I’ve still got it but am unaware. This led to further discussion on who has what by which and where and the nature of human perception. Or, put another way, how I could be in Amanda Knox’s shoes and she in Johnny Nitro’s.

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One Comment

  1. cookie rojas wrote:

    sorry we went to the hallmark answer I like your idea much better, screw grabbing the brass ring, this is the brass ring

    Friday, February 25, 2011 at 11:41 am | Permalink

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