Friday, February 26, 2010

Music: How to Be a Screw-up and End Up a Musician

Inspired by Mr. Ed's honest account of his path in music, I thought I'd follow suit with my own tale of my love of the art of sound.
PART ONE: The young lad as guitarist wannabe John Lennon.

When we read the lives of the great composers, it almost reads like mythology. One would suspect that hyperbole and fact get mixed up even in the bios of Mendelssohn or Mozart. I have no doubt that many are born with great gifts for music. I just wasn't one of them.

One thing's for sure, I was deeply affected by sound. I can remember crying one afternoon while my father mowed the lawn. I hated the noise. There's another memory I have of crying on a boat. The noise from the engine was too much. Yes, you can say it: I was a pussy boy. Forget me, imagine my poor dad. Probably thought his youngest son was a huge sissy. He never lived long enough for me to ask him. God love him.

As a kid, there was a 78 inch record we had of Laurel and Hardy where the sound of this horse neighing, no doubt just a voice-over guy doing a wacky impression, that would raise the hairs on my neck.
I do remember some marvelous music teachers that I had. One teacher taught us rhythm and pitch by getting us to sing these call-and-response songs: Who stole the cook-ie from the cook-ie jar?, the teacher would sing as we would all clap in time. Each kid would answer, usually a classmate, and we'd all fit that kid's name into the song.

Then came the miracle of 45 inch vinyl where I learned about the Fab Four, the Stones, Dave Clark Five and Motown. The Beatles came as thundering gods and their power came from the 45's that always had a paper sleeve and that small black disc that listed the song, artists and total time of the cut. Beatlemania was in full swing (even in the small mill town of Belle Vernon, PA) and I distinctly remember walking up an alley to a neighbor's house and my friend's sister was outside was spinning Eight Days a Week on one of those small, portable players. Of course, The Beatles were a firestorm on every level. John Lennon singing I Should Have Known Better is one of the reasons I became a musician. Today, that song still brings a rush of joy.

At another friend's house, we were horsing around in the basement and there was a small, very cheap electronic organ. The thing was really just a toy with about twenty keys and chord buttons. Whatever little horrible moaning and wheezing this thing did, I liked it, but it was not the instrument that caught my ear. That was to be the guitar.
I heard that revelatory sound one afternoon. On the front porch of my next door neighbor's house sat Timmy Koons with a guitar. He was showing a kid about my age a song on the guitar. I am going to say it was called, "69," because that's the only lyrics that were ever sung during this riff-based pop ditty. Soon, little me was over there watching intently as he demonstrated how the magic was done. I think he even let me try. The guitar was way too large for me, but still-that sound. That sound.

It wasn't until my parents got my brother a plastic guitar that the story of my musical life really began. You see, there is a great disconnection between the music that comes to you with great enjoyment and ease when it's played by other people, but it is a far, far different thing entirely when you try to make music on your own. This was a lesson to be learned.

My parents were getting a bit freaked by my brother's wild side and decided that a music instrument might be something to take him off his course of destruction. He had no interest, but I took a shine to it. Soon, I was jumping around the house, strumming the thing like mad. When I say jumping, my usual was to climb on the furniture and jump off like a maniac and as I said, strumming the damn thing like hell. Yes, I was generally considered (and still am) the more well behaved of the brothers. I can't imagine it right now telling you this story, but there it is.

This action of mine drove my brother insane and one day he placed the guitar on the floor and put his foot through it. Needless to say, my parents weren't happy and neither was I. No more guitars were brought into the house until my uncle, the wise man that he was, asked me at a family gathering, "Would you like to take lessons?" I said yes. What the hell did I know?

Soon, I was in "downtown" Charleroi taking lessons at Paranzino's. Waiting for my first lesson, I remember looking at all the music books and saying aloud, "I hope I don't have to read music." Oh, the rich irony. Every student who has fought me over reading might relish reading that.

Mr. Paranzino was a patient man his young student mixed up notes and stumbled through the music. The room was very quiet. Now, with thirty-three years of teaching experience, I wonder what was going through that man's head. All said and done, I enjoyed my weekly lesson.

I remember practicing the songs from the book in my room. When I had the bare basics mastered, little tunes like Reuben Reuben were really fun to play. It's hard to imagine HOW such a mature thought could have possible entered my head at such an early age, but when a friend was begging me to go out and play, I do recall thinking, "If your friends call you away before your finish your pieces, you might not learn to read music and play guitar." I was already protective of my guitar time. That has not changed in thirty-eight years.

Books came and went. Chords were learned, but music, especially the rock music I listened to, seemed unreachable. I didn't have a clue how to even begin to emulate or even play anything of what I heard. Again, that chasm between our listening life and the skills of making music on our own.

At this point, I think the guitar meant a chance to imitate Lennon or be in Alice Cooper's band, maybe attract a few girls, but basically I just liked it and nothing deeper than that.
I couldn't tell
If the bells were getting louder
The songs they ring
I finally recognize

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