My dad taught himself to play the guitar so he would have something with which to sing along. He created a four-finger piano style just so he could write songs using a special musical notation invented, for him, by my mom … a notation that was born and that died with them alone.
He had no use for a melody except as a foil for his harmonies. Even as his death approached he lay on the couch and crooned. He was whistling — somewhat in the Jolson style, warbling two notes at the same time and switching between them with a flick of the tongue — the night before he died.
Mom could read music and play piano. My sister was sent for lessons to a man named Doctor Duckworth, a name that holds magic for me to this day. The house was a-breeze with Sinatra, Broadway, Benny Goodman, Brahms and Rachmaninoff.
I got my own start arranging empty cookie tins on the floor, holding two sticks and banging along with Ringo on Boys or Please, Please Me or even A Taste of Honey from The Beatles’ first US release.
Later, just at the moment when Cat Stevens, James Taylor, Jackson Browne, Joni Mitchell, Carole King, Dylan and the rest of the singer-songwriters were all attacking the charts, in 1972 or thereabouts, we had moved to a small town north of New York City where an improbable man was teaching music at Mildred E. Strang middle school. Paul Palmes was one of those originals, a Dead Poets Society type who would have been drummed out in any other era — for heresy.
Large, dark, thick, bearded and imposing. I recall his evil glower as he read from a biography of a famous composer who had murdered his first wife. His labeling John Lennon’s Imagine as “pure communism” to a bunch of eighth graders. The thrill of the day he had us each write a random series of letters from A to G, Am to Gm, then played them on the piano as though we’d written our first symphonies. The chorus he created, in which I sang and played bongo drums when he arranged for us to cut an album — a professional LP record — on vinyl.
He greeted us, always, with a gusty, “Heeeey, cats” and was one of those volcanic, force-of-nature mentors that only shows up once or twice each lifetime. He opened up channels, gave us — or me at least — the sense that anything was possible
So I grabbed a guitar and framed out some chords to Where Do The Children Play and You Can Close Your Eyes, created Dad-like chords on the piano by ear that Mom helped me straighten out. All was in readiness for a brilliant musical career. The world was my folk-rock, electric-pickup, wake-the-neighbors, song-filled oyster, and I banged away early and late, from the New York City to the Golden Gate, as JT once crooned.
My singing was good and seemed to catch people’s ears. My playing improved and deepened. But I could still only play by ear, and I was undisciplined. I was afraid to play with others in a band because that would expose my ear-only style. Still, it got the girls staring saucer-eyed at me and that seemed good enough.
Some years later, living on my own in Queens, New York, and thoroughly bored with my limited repertoire, I decided enough was enough. I found a teacher on Long Island, a one-eyed man not only famous for his masterful guitar chops but also for his teaching style. He’d written books used all over the world and, for a fairly modest fee even I could afford, he was willing to make me great.
“Learn the neck,” he demanded, “That’s your first priority. Before you bother with harmonics and chord structure and lead styles or anything else, you’ve got to learn the frets.”
Jesus Christ, this was the real thing. This guy was the goods, and if I just did what he said, I would have the excellence I craved. OK then. I had my inspiration, my sweet Guild D-40, and now I had a stallion to ride to excellence, to greatness, to mastery.
Except I was too undisciplined to practice. I would wait until the morning of my next lesson, yank the Guild out of its silky coffin and frantically try to catch up.
Eventually I called it quits and that’s been that.
I can still do all the things I could do by 1985. I can still stay on key and sing the same hundred songs or so and, if I worked at it, I could still squeeze out one of my own. But I don’t. And when I left the United States for Asia, with limited luggage, I left my axe behind. I’m no longer in the market for starry eyed teens.
There’s a moral here that speaks for itself but, for my own edification, I’ll just say that excellence and greatness can be caused, sure, but they can also be left to rot on the vine. The world put music up on a “T” for me, threw me a slow 2-seamer down the middle with no break, put an inside straight in my hand and breathed on it. It was up to me to practice my golf swing, to launch that pitch into the left-center-field bleachers, to play my hand rather than to fold.
In the end, I looked excellence right in the eyes, and I folded.