You really have to see the Taj Mahal in person to appreciate it. I don’t know if that’s a cliché — it probably is, but then, I’m not much of a world traveler. Still, a few years back I did catch a morning train from Jaipur to visit Shah Jahan’s “ultimate monument to love,” the mausoleum and funerary garden honoring his late wife, Mumtaz Mahal.
My then-brother-in-law and I stood on line for an hour, at least, before finally entering the grounds where, in the distance, the glorious structure rose from the earth, all white marble and sandstone and symmetry. A Mughal poet is said to have written that, in the mausoleum, “the whiteness of the true dawn is reflected, causing the viewer to forget his desire to move towards the highest heaven.” Sublime beauty, all around.
Until, I regret to report, while circumambulating the magnificent edifice, I came across a girl of, I guessed, 12 or 13. The girl, an Indian, apparently found it all somewhat less impressive than did the thousands of other visitors that day. At least, that was my inescapable conclusion as I watched her engrave her initials, with a stone, into a wall of the Taj Mahal. I sighed, heavily.
I was thinking of that girl on Saturday night, leaning against the bar at the Stephen Talkhouse in Amagansett as Henry Saint Clair Fredericks, a legendary blues musician who goes by the name Taj Mahal, delivered a solo performance as sublimely beautiful as his namesake.
I’d seen Taj Mahal in New York a couple times — once at the late, great Tramps, and once, 15 years ago, in Central Park, when Sheryl Crow played a free concert with some very high-profile guests. I’ll never forget the reaction of Keith Richards, elegantly wasted, as he turned around to realize he was sharing the stage with Taj Mahal, who had performed ahead of Mr. Richards’s band in “The Rolling Stones Rock and Roll Circus” back in 1968.
But this was a solo show, just Taj and a guitar. Strong and spirited at 72, he kept a full house spellbound with playful, masterful performances of his easygoing country blues. “Corrina” and “Fishin’ Blues,” to name a couple, never sounded so cool.
“Here’s a little tip that I would like to relate: Many fish bites if ya’ got good bait,” he sang. “I’m a-goin’ fishin’, yes I’m goin’ fishin’, and my baby goin’ fishin’ too.” Here was wisdom, dispensed with a song and a most infectious smile.
About that rapt audience, though: As is so often the case, more than a few Talkhouse patrons, who had paid $150 or more to attend, seemed blissfully unaware that a concert was in progress, an intimate solo performance at that. Standing directly in front of my date and me, a woman spent about half of the show peering into her smartphone, furiously sending and receiving text messages. The other half of the show? That was occupied by the reading back of the correspondence, aloud, to her companion. I sighed, heavily, again.
I guess it doesn’t matter what side of the world you are on, or if it’s Taj Mahal or the Taj Mahal. Nothing, truly nothing, is sacred. Was it always this way?
We left and walked home, a splendid time had, but a nagging annoyance hanging overhead. Up Main Street, a line from Van Morrison’s “Astral Weeks” replayed in my mind: “I’m nothing but a stranger in this world.”
Christopher Walsh is a reporter at The Star and a musician himself.