Editor’s note: Lenny Breau, son of New England country entertainers Betty Cody (who still lives in Auburn) and Hal Lone Pine, performed extensively with his parents around Maine and adjoining states during the 1940s and 1950s, before becoming a much respected artist in his own right.

“One Long Tune: The Life And Music of Lenny Breau,” by Ron Forbes-Roberts; University of North Texas Press; 325 pages. $29.95.

Leonard (Lenny) Harold Breau (1941-1984), considered by peers as a genius with the guitar and perhaps the best player in the world, began his career singing “Popeye the Sailor Man.” That was in Bangor while touring with his show-business parents.

Later, they moved to Canada, where Breau grew up. Although he is popular in central Maine, he’s more noted as a Canadian artist with Winnipeg as his base.

Born in Auburn, Breau practiced the guitar day and night, in bed and at the dinner table. The people in the places he abided lost precious sleep. Although he couldn’t read music, he used his prodigious memory to memorize songs performed just once (playing by ear), plus he listened to LPs at low speed. He learned music theory from educated musician friends. One influence was Chet Atkins, who ran a recording studio in Nashville and was a world-class guitarist in his own right. He did two of Breau’s better albums.

On occasion, the narration in “One Long Tune” gets technical and will lean toward guitar lovers – for example, “…a G7 chord, which contains the notes G-B-D-F (Root 3rd-5th-minor 7th)…”

In places it is rough going for the casual reader. However, in many sections author Forbes-Roberts’ esteem for Breau overcomes him and in more humanistic language he writes: “The listener is left only with the impression of luminous beauty and poignant expression beyond the simple musical categorization.”

Breau never felt the urge to court fame or fortune, and Canadian Revenue will attest he failed to pay taxes unless reminded. He never got a driver’s license and was childlike in many ways. While creating in his head as Mozart did, his wife often dressed him.

In the early 1960s, Breau started drinking and doing drugs. He began with marijuana and soon got into LSD. At some gigs, he consumed 15 hits of LSD. At this point, he could still create, and the drugs affected only his guitar playing. Next was heroin. On occasion, Breau nodded on the stage from shooting up. Over time, his marriage dissolved, and his live-in girlfriends walked out. When trouble overwhelmed him, he would return to Auburn and his mother. Drugs would be a problem up to his death.

And yet Breau was a dedicated and vastly knowledgeable musician when straight. He used all the fingers of his right hand to blend chords. This allowed him to merge different types of music, such as country western, his favorite jazz, classical and flamenco. Breau attracted a wide range of fans and guitar aficionados. He gave guitar clinics in Los Angeles, with each one instantly selling out.

Where Mozart saw music notes, Breau heard sound. Breau believed he “painted in sound” and regarded himself as a “colorist.” He visited art museums and admired the French Impressionists, especially Monet and Renoir. He liked the soft, watery and colorful style of the painters. His guitar playing, whether with his band or solo, was thought to be visual to listeners.

Breau’s death was first classified an accidental drowning, but later changed to homicide. The coroner’s report read strangulation. Breau spoke to his mother on the phone a few hours earlier.

I went to my local library and checked out a documentary of Breau. Forbes-Roberts did not exaggerate. Some of Breau’s harmonics (of many types) are, indeed, like Monet or Renoir. I listened to clear, sharp tunes that had weight in the air, like tin butterflies that soften into paper ones. There is lush imagery sprinkled throughout his songs, including those in his constant jam sessions.

One has to be a bit technical to describe a genius practicing his art. The book should appeal to both the expert and to the lay reader.

Forbes-Roberts is an award winning music journalist. He has a degree in classical guitar and is a career musician. He writes of his reaction to Breau playing at a 1969 Los Angeles gig: “Suffice to say that hearing this piece of inspired musical poetry made this author an immediate and lifelong Lenny Breau fan.” The author worked on this biography for six years, conducting more than 200 interviews with Breau’s family and relatives, spouse, close friends, producers, dozens of musicians with whom he worked, managers and many others who were close to the legendary guitarist.

Edward M. Turner is a freelance writer living in Biddeford who has published stories, essays and poems. His novel, “Rogues Together,” won the 2002 Eppies Award for best in action/adventure.


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