Lyrics of Living
Music was always a huge part of my life, but I thought that I would only be an appreciator. My Mom loved good, popular music. We listened to the hi-fi as much as we watched television. I grew up on Billie Holiday, Joe Williams, Tony Bennet, Frank Sinatra, Roberta Sherwood, Count Basie, and the magnificent Judy Garland, always my mom’s emotional favorite. Dinah Washington and Ella Fitzgerald were a soundtrack of life for us. Perry Como and Bing Crosby as well, although then I did not understand that they were all crooners. I thought that word just meant singer. I did not understand that it referred to a particular type of singing.
The first time I heard my generation’s music was the Everly Brothers. My dad worked on juke boxes. When I went to work with him, my job was to slide the inserts inside the jacket that eventually appeared on the box and told you the name of the song and who was playing. I would earn copies and so I always had a prodigious collection of what was then called 45’s.
My Dad taught me about Harry James and Glenn Miller. The night that he married my mom, they went to see Harry James play. My Dad and mom were both credible dancers. My Dad had this fluidity of moving. It was like that in sports and games for him as well. Then he got this little organ. It taught you how to play in a simplified way and was a fad in the late 1950’s. Pretty much like everything else that required eye-hand coordination and rhythm, he was a natural at it.
I, of course, was clumsy. Making my fingers work in conjunction with my ears was a challenge. But I did have this history of passion for music. My Mom offered piano lessons. His name was Frankie Melton and he ran a music shop on Summer Avenue. He was very short. I did not know what the word dwarf meant in real life, only from cartoons and children’s books. But I suppose Mr. Melton was a dwarf.
He taught piano and while learning piano, he taught the student how to read music. I was very enthusiastic, but there was a problem. We could not afford a piano and I did not live with my father.
I tried finding a place to play, but there wasn’t one that I could afford. Once a week Frankie would let me practice on a piano in the back of his shop. I relished those times, but it wasn’t enough repetition for me to learn. Once I rolled out toilet paper and carefully painted in all the keys. My first usage caused irreparable rips. And so it was decided that I would get an accordion. We could afford that rental.
It was not a piano. I was an asthmatic child and the sound of the organ was similar to me to the sound of my wheezing. I hated it. I did learn to admire its durability. No matter how many times I accidentally dropped it or kicked it, the instrument was indestructible.
There followed brief encounters with a coronet, which was not the saxophone I wanted. It was advised that because of the asthma, that would not be a good idea. I played a recorder and then I quit. I was a listener.
There came the day that the music died. My mother married a man who considered all music noise and he liked quiet. The hi-fi was gone. There was no radio. The only music was the radio in the car and the music-hater controlled that as well: the day the music died. I became separated because of my love of music. It was no longer something that I heard around the house. The silence was oppresive.
Music was not noise. To even entertain that thought betrayed my mom and dad. Music was beautiful and inspirational and I felt robbed. The worst part was the feeling that there was nothing to be done about it.
Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley and The Four Seasons changed that for me. Then there were The Beach Boys and The Beatles. I listened and because I had a foundation of allowing music into my heart, I felt. The feeling required a rejection of all that I knew about music. Big Band was slick and I wanted something else. Frank Sinatra was singing some “ring a ding” crap and I needed something else.
My dad teased me about Elvis and I felt stung. He told me that it was awful music. I rebelled and listened to it more. My mom would no longer talk about music and just said, “Joe doesn’t like it.” I hated him for not liking it.
The influence of music on my life is profound. It has shaped me in many ways. I wanted my writing to sound like jazz. I needed my prayers to sound like blues. I wanted my insights to sound like folk and, after Dylan, to sound like rock. Once I could drive, music was a constant companion again. It was a place where it was not noise. All those artists of my childhood were pushed away in favor of my youth. That was a mistake that many of us made.
Raw trumped style because of sincerity. Later, I found myself telling students that poetry was about your ability to use the language to express emotion, not about emotion itself. I didn’t feel that way about music then.
In 1966, Frank Sinatra released “It Was a Very Good Year.” The Loving Spoonfuls released “What a Day for a Daydream” and I loved them both. This strained at my sense of taste. How could I love them both? They represented such vastly different things and yet I sang the Sinatra song in my room and listened to John Sabastian in the locker room. It was a conflict of tradition and new experience that I settled decidedly in favor of new experience. I didn’t understand that my tradition would just take a back seat and wait. I did not know that tradition was ingrained in me.
I had two friends: Frank and Lanny. Frank gave me his Martin guitar to play and Lanny taught me about Lighten Hopkins and Phil Ochs, and so many others. I learned that music was message. And then there was Tom and Nancy.
She could play and to borrow from Jackson Browne, “that girl could sing.” Nancy gave me a guitar. It was a little warped but I loved it because she had given it to me. She had moved on to a new guitar and played in coffee houses and still wanted me as her lover. Oh that girl could sing. And she knew picking rhythms. I asked her to teach me “Don’t Think Twice, it’s Alright.”
The song was far too complex and she listened over and over as I slaughtered it. Finally, she asked that I never play it for her again. Undeterred, I kept on slamming it out without the correct rhythm and off key.
I’m not sure when I began to sing off-key. I don’t think that it happened until after I decided that vocals should include sincere passion. With emotion trumping style, I pressed on. When I was a very little boy, I sang for my school. It was a song that went, “There was a boy, a very strange enchanted boy…” I was on kay then, but that was before the music died and before Elvis and before so much.
I had been led to believe that learning guitar came with blisters that would eventually become callouses. This isn’t quite true. It is difficult, at first, to press hard enough on the strings to get a clean note, but you can feel the note. It reverberates though your body and affects your voice. I could feel the notes. That changed everything. I could always listen but now I could feel the music. I had forgotten what it was like to feel a note. Then the memory rushed back in like an epiphany. It was something new that was not really new but that I had forgotten. Hands on keys and a chord that reverberated up, a rhythm that became part of you, joined with you and connected you to something greater. Writing can be like that too, but that came much later.
Right around the same time as Nancy, I met Tom. We sat in his room as he played his Fender Stratocaster acoustically. The soft riffs intoxicated me. He had the ability to become part of the song. I practiced harder on the old guitar that Nancy had given to me. I only knew chords and sometimes I didn’t know their names. I still don’t. I find configurations that feel right. I mostly do it by trial and error. This makes it hard for anyone else to play with me. Because it did not sound good at the start, I shied away from playing in front of other people.
The connective power of music is its language. Its levels of communication range from the intellectual to the basic instinctual rhythms that rarely use words to form meaning. Hearing and feeling are different. Music has little smell but does conjure aromas. It is elusive, here and then gone. Music is an angel with a temperament like angels have, here and then gone. The music can be summoned but not the accompanying angel.
I have been playing guitar on and off ever since. Sometimes I sit at a piano and those old memories come back dimly. I did learn to use the harmonica but not well. I never did master the single note technique. What I did find that I was pretty good at was music lyrics.
I would write them and then compose the music to match, but at that point my “music” did not have a life of its own. I played the guitar so that I would have something to do with my lyrics. About then, I became enamored with the music of Bob Dylan. My love for his music has endured. When I was a DJ at my local college, I once played Desolation Row three times in a row, but then someone came to the station and knocked on the door and asked me to please stop because it was depressing the hell out of everyone. I had difficulty understanding this but I did play another song. I think it was Mr. Tambourine Man.
It took me a while to like music that I hadn’t listened to often. There were exceptions like Simon and Garfunkel or Jackson Browne. When I first heard Bruce Springsteen, I labeled him a Dylan wanna be and dismissed him. Tom kept encouraging me to go back and listen again. During those years, Tom was responsible for introducing me to more music than anyone. We used to go to the City and hear concerts. The most memorable in retrospect was Elton John’s American debut. He opened for Leon Russell at the Fillmore East.
But I also got to hear John Mayall and Taj Mahal and groups that most people didn’t know about. In those days people openly smoked joints in the audience. Tom arranged to have a concert at our school which was a two year community college. I don’t really know how he did it but he managed to get Carlos Santana and BB King. BB was chosen to fulfill a dream of our friend Mario and his group the Psychotic Blues Band which actually got to open for BB.
That night at the Fillmore, we told Tom and Noreen that I had asked Nancy to marry me and that she had accepted my proposal. In those days, my friend Noreen found Nancy exotic. I found her warm and wonderful without having any idea of what it took to make a marriage work. We parted six months later.
In my mind, whenever I hear the phrase “that girl could sing,” it will always conjure an image of Nancy. Then I got lost and she went into news radio. That was how that song really ended. Even today we are distant friends and that feels so right, so good, so much like feint music.
So for all these years I have played and listened. I feel like a priest of music- a priest a long time in the ordaining. Sometimes I am very alone in my music. I know that I must have faith. I am not sure where my faith will lead.
About ten years ago, my wife gave me a great birthday present: a day in a recording studio. I played and sang and my music was recorded. I split the day into halves in order to get maximum impact. This resulted in the recording of six songs. They were songs that a person could listen to. They were songs that made me proud. Tom came and played on some of them. Then I played at a number of open mics.
The audiences were young but I seemed able to win them over. So, even though I am not playing right now, I view music as a performing and recorded art. I need to hear it on most days. The days when I do not are days not spent especially well.
I worship at the altar of music ever grateful. As Leonard Cohen wrote, “I’ll stand right here before the Lord of Song with nothing on my breath but Hallelujah.” I have nothing but praise for Gary Mielo who taught me about Jazz. I am eternally grateful to all those who have been gatekeepers and allowed me into the gardens of music.
Music is the language of my soul. I think Longfellow wrote something like that. There was a time when I could play, there is nothing more to ask for. I managed to touch music. What else is there to be had?
The Bill Evans recording of “Suicide is Painless” is part of my spirit. “Sketches of Spain” joins it, sometimes. I sometimes hear the songs that I wrote but it never feels right to share them.
The most popular of my songs is called “My New Sneakers” It makes people feel good to hear it. I wrote it with Tom about his daughter KT. She was just a very little girl, four or five. She got this new pair of sneakers and her mom brought her home and deposited her in those sneakers. They were Fire Engine Red. Tom composed the music and I worked the words.
I have been told that children with reading difficulties sing this song with ease, and they smile as they do. I feel humbled by this. I created a combination of words that went with Tom’s music and that brought joy and a fluid sense of things to other people. In my heart I know that this is what makes me an artist, a musician. I feel blessed by the Lord of Song.
Discovering a seminal chord is like finding a world. My first was to slide the A-minor down to the 5th and 6th fret. No one has told me what this chord is but I know that it rings true. It sings of beauty and promise. It can be tinged with hope and sadness. It is a versatile chord.
It occurs to me that I know people very much in the same way that I know music. I consider myself a lunatic who has somehow managed to evade detection. I have been conditioned to believe that anyone who puts up with my lunacy gets carte blanche. We just have these configurations between us. They are like the chords whose names I don’t know.
I love music but sometimes I don’t know how it works. I love people very much in the same way. Some of them become resonant chords that stay with me for a lifetime. Some wander off to the allure of better melodies.
Music is intertwined with people for me. It is that most rare form of communication shared by feelings. It is one of the reasons that I maintain a belief in the eternal possibility.
I enjoy playing for people now. They no longer flee the discordant din. I adore the gifts of music and those who have given them to me. My Martin guitar is in the basement. I’m not playing these days. If I could pray, one prayer would be that playing music would come back to me. But each day I listen.