I grew up in a small middle-class town perched on a hillside above the flood plain on the western side of the Monongahela River in southwestern Pennsylvania. The town (as I knew it) was four blocks north to south and four blocks east to west. Ethnically mixed, but racially segregated which was typical for the time. I couldn’t say for certain, but would guess that most of the families in my neighborhood had fathers who worked blue-collar jobs and stay-at-home moms or mothers who worked part time in retail or service jobs.
My father had some college, but no degree. He worked in a government research laboratory where he rose from technician to scientist over the course of my childhood. Before I started school and when money was especially tight, my mother worked at the jewelry counter in the local Kmart. Later, she worked as a home nurse for the elderly and bed-ridden providing long-term or end-of-life care when their family members couldn’t.
We only ever had one car until I was fourteen, so my father would commute to work on his motorcycle every day. He endured rain, snow and brutal cold so that my mother (and his children) would have the car. And when something broke, he fixed it. Heat, electrical, plumbing, roofing, carpentry, cabinetry, flooring, windows, whatever. Five of us shared one bathroom until my father converted the pantry off the kitchen into a powder room. We had one TV channel that came in clearly and 2 or 3 others that depended on the weather. I think we got our first color TV in the late seventies and cable shortly thereafter. My mother packed our lunches into our slightly outdated cartoon-themed lunchboxes every day (a sandwich made from last night’s leftovers, carrot sticks, milk and a piece of fruit).
We didn’t have a lot of money, but I never suffered. There was enough food and always a home. My little town had a lot of undeveloped land around it and was, all in all, a pretty good place to grow up. I had a bicycle to ride around the neighborhood and when I was nine, our parents even got us a second-hand dirt bike to share. It wasn’t in perfect working order…the clutch stuck when it was cold so you had to trot alongside it and pop it into first gear and then hop aboard. Once it warmed up though, you could ride it normally. My point is that we weren’t ‘privileged’. We were a middle-class family in a middle-class town.
I don’t know where the music comes from. I have friends who truly come from musical families. Their parents are talented, sometimes gifted, sometimes professional musicians and they have siblings who are musicians and aunts and uncles…. Me? Not so much.
There are musicians in my family, but not many. At least not many that I am aware of.
- My grandfather and his brother were sufficiently accomplished to play guitar, banjo, mandolin and harmonica semi-professionally in and around Lock Haven, PA in the early twentieth century.
- My father plays harmonica, but never expressed any desire to perform although he is a gifted writer of prose and verse (usually satire).
- My mother and her sister were singers, but neither pursued it professionally although my mother continued to write poetry and I may yet write music for her verse.
- My oldest sister tried her hand at guitar, but couldn’t manage to put in the hours necessary to keep at it. She also wrote poetry (lots of it). After her death, I appointed myself the custodian of her notebook. One day I hope to use her poems as lyrics too.
- My other sister displayed a passing interest in music, but was far better at visual arts. As I recall, she was a bit put out that my parents were willing to give me a second shot at music after I washed out on trumpet.
By the time I was thirteen, I was arguably the most learned musician in my family.
Our public school system had a surprisingly rich music program. I remember being taught the basics of how to read music and singing different harmonies in elementary school. We studied all kinds of music; not just kiddie recordings we had to imitate like Mary Had a Little Lamb or Old McDonald Had a Farm (eieio). We even got to play real musical instruments (drums, claves, wood blocks, tambourines, bells, chimes, and even an autoharp). I am so grateful for that. It gave us all the opportunity to develop an unbiased acceptance of styles and sounds.
As a kid, I had unrealistically high expectations for myself which led to some behavioral issues in elementary school. I can’t say much about it because I was only seven or eight years old, but as best I can determine, my ‘terrible twos’ lasted considerably longer than a year. I do remember a series of tests with a psychologist and learned much later that I was evaluated for ADHD, but apparently didn’t exhibit the classic signs and was never diagnosed. Anyway, I was placed in a special class in a different school during the third grade until the end of fourth grade. The new school was much further from my house and required riding one bus with developmentally disabled kids to their school and then catching another bus to my new elementary school. (In case you were wondering, they were both short buses.)
This was my first exposure to kids who had far greater everyday struggles than I did. Some of them I remember better than others. Some of them were friendly and communicative. Some were not (or not able). I remember it as being both scary and sad.
On the other hand, the time I spent in that special class gave me not only the emotional support and counseling to grow out of this phase, but the ability to study at an accelerated pace and alleviate some of the boredom that contributed to my behavioral issues. (A geek is born.)
My special class had kids with a variety of mild cognitive, behavioral and emotional challenges across several grades. With a single teacher to look after about a half dozen of us, some of us were tasked with helping others and I, in addition, started spending more time in the ‘normal’ class upstairs for science and math. I remember that one of the activities that took place immediately after math class was a spelling test. The teacher (who knew I was a couple years ahead of the class) would ask if I cared to stay for the test even though I had attended none of the lessons. I was more than happy to play this game. I would either ace the test and make the other kids look bad or I’d have a build-in excuse since I was taking the test cold. Most times, I knew all ten words the teacher recited and spelled them correctly. She would grade my test immediately and announce the result (at least if it was perfect) so I could leave and go back downstairs. I can’t remember whether that made the other kids envy or hate me (probably both).
As I mentioned earlier, I started playing my first musical instrument (the trumpet) in third grade. I actually selected the trumpet for two reasons (yep, I actually weighed the pros and cons at the age of seven): it was the coolest instrument offered by the public school system and was small enough that I could readily lug it back and forth to school. I had only barely picked up my leased horn when I moved to the new school. The interruption in lessons during the transition put me behind the other students and my anxiety about being judged inferior by peers I didn’t know fed my general lack of enthusiasm and made this first foray into music a short and fruitless one. I still remember the music teacher asking if I had ‘lost interest’. I had.
At the end of my fourth school year, there was a discussion about what to do with me since I was spending most of my day with the regular class and wasn’t much of a behavioral problem anymore. Ultimately, the decision was made to leave me at the same school for continuity, but move me into the fifth grade full time.
This experience created an odd social compartmentalization of my childhood that is still a factor of my personality. The friends I had in school were different than the ones I had outside school. At the age of nine, I was already learning to divide my time between multiple circles. The kids I played and learned with in school saw each other evenings, weekends and through the summer too. I was just a visitor in their lives from 9:00am to 3:00pm five days a week for nine months. Conversely, the kids I played with in my neighborhood spent more time with each other (at home and at school) than they could with me.
This made the time I spent with either group precious because I knew it was limited and I felt that I would never have the chance to know them as well as they knew each other. So, on the one hand, I became comfortable moving between disparate social circles and on the other hand, I felt like I had to be my own best friend. The result (I believe) is an adult who desperately wants to be part of whatever is going on, but equally afraid of crashing a party where he’s not welcome.
So, moving forward to middle school; this bifurcation of my life became an advantage since I was acquainted with twice as many sixth graders as anyone else. That didn’t make me popular though, just more of a known quantity. What is memorable to me about sixth grade though, is my introduction to the guitar. In sixth grade, we had a music teacher who played guitar. Somehow, guitar was integrated into our regular music class and we had 10 or 15 guitars to use for a couple weeks during the school year to learn some basics. I remember we were told that no one will play the guitar left-handed (because we didn’t have any left-handed guitars, I suppose). I was initially put off by this since I am left-handed, but it was a mandatory part of our sixth grade music class, so I had no choice.
I suppose it’s no surprise, but playing the guitar in the common orientation didn’t turn out to be much of an obstacle for me (turns out I’m pretty thoroughly cross-wired). All too soon, the guitar portion of our music class was over. But then came the turning point for me; there would be a continuing ‘guitar club’ that met after school where we could use the school’s guitars and learn some (gasp) contemporary songs! I was hooked.
You see, I had an older half-sister that started taking guitar lessons and had about as much continuing interest in that as I had for trumpet. The only difference was that we actually still had the guitar she had been playing. When my parents saw that I was willing to stay after school to get group instruction on guitar, they asked me if I wanted to start taking regular, private lessons. YES, PLEASE! (If you saw the Beatles or the Stones as a kid, you knew that no instrument could be cooler than guitar.)
So, from 1976 until 1981, I studied guitar the same way I studied math and science. Every Saturday morning I got a 30-minute lesson at the music store for about $12 and then I went home. I practiced for about an hour each evening until I knew the week’s piece (homework), played it for my teacher (weekly quiz) and got the next assignment (more homework). That’s about as much thought as I put into it. Plodding along academically week after week, year after year. I didn’t hang out at the store. I didn’t really associate with other musicians. I didn’t play the guitars they had for sale or try any of the equipment.
Now, I did play other stuff on the guitar, but it was almost completely unrelated to what I was being taught and almost always alone. My guitar teachers were (Latin) classical or jazz guitarists, but I wanted to play the soft sounds of the seventies (I’m sure my friends would agree that my Native American name would be ‘Fancies the maj7’).
I was kind of embarrassed that I didn’t know who Jimmy Page was or how to play Stairway to Heaven (I still refuse to learn that song simply on principle) when every other guitarist I encountered played pop or rock-and-roll. So again, I found myself at the margin between different musical worlds.
It was during this period (thirteen to sixteen) that I started hanging out with my peers’ bands. This taught me three important things: 1) How to run a mixer. 2) That one person can learn to play more than one instrument. 3) Alcohol does not improve your performance in any category and only temporarily shields you from the embarrassment of that realization.
Regarding point #1: If you’re going to hang out with a band without actually being in it (and you’re a guy), you have to be a technician or a roadie. I’m smart enough to avoid menial labor so I became the sound man. In the beginning, I’d let the band set up the initial mix and just make the necessary adjustments for crowd-induced acoustical drift. Basically that meant if I can’t hear you, I turn you up and if your mic feeds back, I turn you down. I did get better and developed a workable knowledge of acoustics, gain, compression and equalization that allowed me to at least study these topics on my own and use that knowledge for my own recordings.
Regarding point #2: I distinctly remember being at a ‘pre-teen’ dance at the Presbyterian church in my neighborhood with my best friend Bill and seeing someone only a few years older than me sing while playing the keyboard and then pick up and play a solo on the saxophone (it was Bob Grimes and the song was Takin’ It To the Streets). WOW! I thought playing guitar was cool, but playing two different instruments and singing. I was in awe! I don’t even remember who the guitarist in the band was, but I remember Bob. So, I got interested in other instruments and was determined to learn enough to capture ideas without having to rely on other people. I couldn’t afford multiple instruments, but (see point #1 above) I was hanging out with other bands so I could play theirs! A little rhythm on the drums, a couple measures on bass, a few chords on the piano, congas, bongos, Vibra-Slap, tubular bells, vibraphone, whatever.
Regarding point #3: Young musicians might seek to manage their performance anxiety through the consumption of a readily available liquid depressant. Young musicians generally have limited experience with said readily available liquid depressant. Rarely will the entire band and all spectators be so plowed that the rhythmic, cognitive, and/or tonal shortcomings of at least one member is not noticed by his (or her) peers. If you are the first band member to succumb to this temptation, you are likely to be the first ex-band member (unless you own the PA system).
At the age of about seventeen, I decided I wanted to take a break and interrupt my weekly lessons. (I was on book #7 of the 8-book Mel Bay series.) I was shocked and flattered to be propositioned on the spot to start teaching the store’s students. I guess I’d been too busy to notice that I was the only student who had gotten that far. But if I was too busy to take lessons, I was too busy to give them and I never took another guitar lesson either.
Of course while all this was happening, I also went through something of a (ahem) maturation process. Now, there was never a time in my life that I wasn’t interested in girls. There was no latency period in my development; I always wanted a girlfriend and always thought of that desire as distinctly different than wanting a ‘guy’ friend. But now that I was in high school, I had friends who were beginning to feel what I’d felt all along.
Now, different things mature at different rates and although I ‘liked’ girls from the get-go, I didn’t know what to do about it until I had the opportunity to discuss the topic with others who’d begun to discover these feelings too. Misinformation in adolescence is of course a rich and amusing subject (in retrospect), but it is also true that commiseration does lead to consensus.
It goes something like this:
‘Gee, I wish I knew how to make a girl like me.’
‘Hey, aren’t there a lot of songs about falling in love?’
‘Yeah, there are.’
‘I heard (a girl) say she thought (a singer) was cute and has a poster of him in her locker.’
‘I wish I could be like him.’
And that’s how teenage boys start writing poetry and, if they’re even remotely musically inclined; how they start writing songs.
Some of us grow out of it…some of us don’t.
Anyway, like a lot of boys; I started writing romantic poetry about girls I liked even though I couldn’t even summon the courage to make eye-contact. There were many girls like this. They were magical and perfect. A stark contrast to the clumsy rhyming couplets of a chubby, acne-prone, introverted nerd. Still, it was an outlet for (and a means of dealing with) feelings I couldn’t control.
I wish I could remember in some kind of detail when I first put a poem to music, but I have no idea what or when it was. The first two songs I know I completed were written in 1979 or 1980. One started out as a 2-chord instrumental (Dmaj7 & Amaj7) that I ended up calling Terri’s Lullaby. It did have a lyric, but I think I expunged all known copies for the good of humanity. I do have a surviving (but very poor quality) recording of it I made with my friend John Parish back in 1980 or 1981 on a cassette deck in his parents’ basement. Terri’s Lullaby wasn’t my first true song though.
My first true song was a much deeper piece that dealt with my struggle for identity. I was a geek, a nerd, a lonely kid with few friends and too many interests. I loved music, but didn’t want to play in a band or for an audience. I was academically gifted, but wasn’t enthusiastic about my classes or any particular vocation. I loved acting, but didn’t want to be a star.
At exactly that point in my life, Paul Simon released the album and movie One-Trick Pony about the decline and struggle of a once-famous musician and I thought: THAT’S IT! That’s the feeling I have.
I already know that the odds of becoming a famous singer-songwriter are astronomical. What’s going to happen to me in ten or twenty years if I strive for that? I’ll be like Paul Simon’s character (Jonah Levin). Alone, miserable, trying to make ends meet by playing little shows in town after town with a band that is a poor substitute for the intimate relationships and stability everybody wants/needs.
So that was the basis for “Anywhere But Here”. It’s a song that has been with me for over thirty years and it hasn’t changed. But I’ve changed. I’ve grown to realize that just because something is unlikely doesn’t mean it’s not worth pursuing.
Read the next exciting installment. Chapter 2: Growing Up