The singing quit. It stopped without comment, and so my mom took a peek. How cute! Along with the pressed black vinyl beside me, I’d spiraled down to sleep. Mom left my steady breath in the bedroom. American Folk Songs must’ve helped me make sense of kindergarten, because Pete Seeger’s album was a daily hideaway.
Once I felt more expansive, I picked up an orange transistor radio, with a telescoping antenna. Each weekend, it gave me Casey Kasem and his countdown. This was the early eighties. The show beamed from coast-to-coast, and with its long-distance dedications, it seemed like everyone was listening. A singular album, Thriller, had us all in its thrall. Do you remember my old P.E. teacher, Mr. Beal? His jump-rope team would headline school functions. As if enacting a badass ritual, his kids met the opening peal of “Beat It” under blacklight, their faces purple blurs as the ropes snapped faster, and faster still.
In grades six and seven, I played the trumpet in band. I got the fundamentals and the team feeling, but I knew nothing of horndog funk or jazz at that time, or I might have stuck with brass. Instead, aluminium cans went dat-a-boom thunk! from vending machines. Like Sprite, with its citric fizz, the sound of current music could be both fake and refreshing. While it might not touch true thirst, who cared as long as life was bikes and diving boards, and Nintendo’s tunes looped through me?
We moved before I entered eighth grade, and another new kid named Sergio said, “Man, you have to hear, ‘Welcome to the Jungle’.” It seemed that I’d better evolve, and fast! Silly though it is, Guns N’ Roses helped set the course of my life. In the school gym one afternoon, a band of five guys my own age turned “Sweet Child O’ Mine” into a siren. I panicked with ambition and envy. Two houses up, Ben and Dave Rushing had a black electric guitar and an amplifier, some M-80 firecrackers, and free weights. We cranked Appetite for Destruction that whole year. Sick of being skinny, Ben counted bench press reps while “Night Train” rolled just beyond his walls. That black guitar called me. I had to make something like this spitting, prideful music, and I thought I might have the hang of it. I needed guidance, though. For over two years, Lisa Purcell schooled me in the back of a small music store. She told me to bend the guitar strings; to make them squirm beneath my fingers. I’d sound like I knew what I was doing.
She laughed as she led me to the fathers of raunch rock, and soon Led Zeppelin, AC/DC, and vintage Van Halen came strutting from my speakers. “Mellow is the man who knows what he’s been missing,” sang Robert Plant. “Many, many men can’t see the open road.” Lisa hooked me up with John, another student of hers, and I joined my first “real” band. We never got a gig or even a proper name, but one of our originals, “Why Do You Sleaze?”, always gets them rolling. It’s a fair question, right? I don’t recall just how we all parted, but my tastes changed.
I hadn’t known jack about music from the 60’s and 70’s, which was inexcusable, given my parents’ record collection. I dug deep into Cream and Jimi Hendrix. I had also found the novels of Stephen King and, alone in my bedroom, I read his eerie and mythic It to the sounds of Are You Experienced? Talk about some synergy! Lisa now thought I’d learn the formal chemistry of chords and harmony, but I couldn’t grasp music at that level of abstraction. I slid right off of it, the same way as with algebra. Where were the goosebumps?
Whether I was with my friends in our cars, or with my head clamped between headphones, I used music to ensure a proper cabin pressure. Clenched riffs could quickly ease for Pink Floyd. I loved that band’s grandeur, and the glinting knifework by David Gilmour on guitar. Cut up before I knew it, I watched Roger Waters reach into my notions of time, money, mother, and walls. Those guys had made songs that lived independently. What would I make myself?
The visual arts moved me more than before, and Salvador Dali was the shit for me then. I learned a bit about psychology and symbols, and took every art class that I could, relaxing with the craft and camaraderie. I admired work that was intricate, or quirky and playful. I discovered the poster artists from 60’s San Francisco, and they led me to The Grateful Dead, who built their best albums from the heartwood I’d loved as a boy. Onstage, though, a near fetish for the present drove their group improvisations. They won some and they lost some. This tension drew me through linked books: The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, On the Road, Look Homeward, Angel.
I got the guitar of my life when I was seventeen, paying $600 for a ’75 Les Paul Recording. It was special in several ways, with more complex electronics and edgier lines than a standard Les Paul. Upon its neck, rosewood joined mother of pearl, and the body was butter-colored. I plugged it into a box of mountaintop sounds. By this time, Lisa had moved on. I tried another teacher but for him, music was quantifiable, like a psychiatrist tightening life to levels of dopamine and serotonin. He had no poetry. I would find my own way, putting open-ended songs on my stereo and blending into them, getting comfortable with scales and modes and flavorings, seeing patterns on the neck that I could slide up or down in the situation. I practiced “lead” guitar most often, working on phrasing, improvising, and building a head of steam. Friends came by to listen, lying back on my bed, and they said I sounded killer! Sometimes, kids I didn’t know too well would ask me if I played, as if I had a reputation. It felt good. But I needed compadres. I needed my own songs, too, not just licks and tricks.
I got an acoustic Fender 12-string with a bright, shimmering sound, taking it out with my boys as we sat on park benches and jammed. Ben would sing sometimes, right on pitch and with full-throated soul, but he had trouble with timing. I could feel him bristle when I hurried to catch his too-hasty phrases. Another buddy, Ryan Graham, brought a six-string with him. His dad, Jim, played with callused hands and sang in a baritone. Jim introduced me to John Stewart and his sepia-toned album, California Bloodlines. Ryan honored his folksy heritage, but he also loved punk, ska, and electronica. He played in a band called Stigmata for a while.
When I started getting high, I especially loved how it enhanced music, giving it greater resolution and impact. It was the difference between a great work in a textbook, and that same piece on a museum’s wall, where you see the built-up paint and brushmarks. I remember driving to an out-of-the-way spot with Ryan, beside suburban woods. We were close to the river and plants pushed around us. After two big bowls, we reclined the pickup’s seats and cued up The Cure, a live take of “Pictures of You” bouncing through the canopy overhead. I could’ve been floating in warm water. Robert Smith sang, “I’ve been living so long with my pictures of you, that I almost believe that the pictures are all I can feel.”
Increasingly, my conceptions of myself and my future were tied up with art. I needed the dreamy, sensual support of these images, but was that, well, masturbatory? I just didn’t know if I had real talent. I had to find out, though. What else could I do?
To be continued…