Lessons in Life

*originally published in Sound Waves Magazine April 2018

Growing up, I had a love of music that I will attempt to explain here. It all started in a Catholic church in Groton, Connecticut and the Folk Group Mass. I had been going to church since I had been swaddled and the ancient hymns performed usually out of tune by a failed opera singer and a failed concert organist had been ingratiated in my brain. When the family moved from Florissant, Missouri to Connecticut in 1975, we realized things were a tad different in The North. Hippies were everywhere. Acoustic guitars and long-haired tie-dyed clothed cool people took over the repetitive music portions of the weekly ceremony, and I fell in love. Songs like “Morning Has Broken” and “Jesus Christ Superstar” fit into the service like jelly on peanut butter and I dug it. I was too young to join the folk group, but I wanted in on the action. Somehow.

I started timidly. I asked for a pink 45-RPM record player. I would take my paper route money, any money I could find actually, and purchase the hit songs of the day. Listening actually became quite a favorite activity of mine. I would sit on the floor of my room for hours on end. I wore out Beach Boys, Carpenters, and Barbra Streisand records and the worst pop songs ever recorded like, “The Night Chicago Died,” and “Billy Don’t be a Hero,” and “Sylvia’s Mother.”

But I learned. The Beach Boys taught me how to sing harmonies, Karen Carpenter taught me how to control my voice, and Babs taught me how to make every word and every note count. I used to play tiddlywinks with the insets of the holes in the 45s. I would set them up on the floor shaped into little neighborhoods where I would one day live, where everybody had 45s playing different songs, at the same time, in a symphony of ridiculousness. I remember just sitting on the floor for hours, and with six siblings in the house, no one even noticed. Besides, my parents were forever cranking the Ray Conniff singers on their big album record player. Their music was not my music. Not cool enough, sorry.

When it was time for bed, I would play my clock radio all night long, tuned to whatever station played Barry Manilow and Bread. Those melodies permeated my subconscious every single night throughout my growing years. Even now, I can name those tunes in three notes. I could win a million dollars if that ‘70s show Name That Tune was still on.

Since I had two older brothers, I also learned how to be a cool listener. I would hang out in their room, lie on the floor, stare at the ceiling, and groove to Led Zeppelin, Genesis, Boston and Pink Floyd. I still like to get high listening to the greatest ending of any song ever – “Freebird.” Just kidding. About the getting high part.

But when I watched Julie Andrews in The Sound of Music it really started to click with me. That movie is like a master class in what music is all about which simply is: do-re-me-fa-so-la-ti-do. I could finally visualize how all the sounds on those wonderful 45s were made, and I wanted to know more. I wanted to know everything. I wanted to be in the folk group at church.

So I gathered up some confidence and told my parents I wanted to learn how to play music so I could join the folk group at church. They did what all well-intentioned Catholic parents would do when faced with such a request. They signed me up for accordion lessons! The checkered panted, collared-shirt-buttoned-up-too-tight, thick mustached dude showed up with this monstrous bag of piano keys, and began his lesson. I didn’t have a clue what he was saying or how he was making sound come out of the thing. That thing sat untouched in my room until the next lesson, and the non-learning went on. I explained to my mother that I just wanted to sing and play guitar with the cool long-hair people at church. These pleadings, and pretty much all outrageous requests for the next nine years, were usually answered with the emphatic Hungarian phrase: Uyum Puffum Vogluk kutchya kate a semmed kitick! Didn’t know what it meant, other than, forget it! I would stomp up to my room and slam the door, or sometimes run away which meant, throwing some underwear and some candy in a paper bag and walking down the street to my friend Sara’s house. My younger brother Paul, on the other hand, would handle undesirable answers to requests by sticking his hand onto a hot pile of spaghetti and holding it there for as long as he could.

But eventually, they gave in. “Well, if you’re going to use the lessons for playing in church, that’s alright with us,” they said. I guess you could call this my first lesson in “How to Manipulate a Situation to Your Advantage.” I was eight years old.

Somehow an acoustic guitar was purchased and then I couldn’t believe my eyes, I got to take guitar lessons from none other than Peter Frampton!

Well, he was Peter Frampton in my mind anyway, and he could do no wrong, not with that long blonde hair anyway. He was the Frampton Comes Alive version, not the 2017 version mind you. Turns out, he wasn’t really Peter Frampton, and he eventually opened up a very successful music store in Groton, Connecticut called Ron’s Guitars. He asked me what song I wanted to learn first. “I want to learn them all,” I said. So first he taught me “Angie” by the Rolling Stones, which I can still groove on if called upon by the way. I was amazed at how my fingers could create the harmonies I had learned from the Beach Boys’ voices. You just had to press your fingers on the wood in the right formation – and voila! Majors, minors, diminished, sevenths, ninths. I purchased a huge poster illustrating the fingering of every chord there was and practiced them all. I still have the poster. After about three months of guitar lessons from Peter Frampton, the family fortune ran out, and I was on my own. These were the only professional musical instructions I have ever taken. The best teachers are the ones who don’t just teach skills, but impart wisdom on you or encourage you to think for yourself, and that’s the most important thing Ron did for me. After our lessons were over, I continued to teach myself and still do to this day.

Oh, and thanks Mom and Dad, for that guitar. And well, for everything.

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