It started with the music…
… the music of a big V-8 in my uncle’s 1963 Pontiac barreling down two-lane country roads between Creve Coeur, in Central Illinois, to my grandmother’s farm outside of Lawrenceberg, Tennessee. “How Much Is That Doggie In The Window” and “Detour (There’s A Muddy Road Ahead)” snapping and crackling on the AM radio, and pulling in distant radio stations in the middle of the night. I learned about ionospheric bounce of low-frequency AM broadcasts, and in my father’s ham shack (as in ‘amateur radio’), how people used other frequencies to have informal conversations, eventually confirmed by mail, with hams on the other side of the world. But that was talk, not music. There was music in that car, and there was music in church, and there was even a little music at school. I was terrible, and I don’t remember getting much help with my singing technique – breathing, first and foremost, along with pitch, tone, and vibrato control. But, I heard good singers and I tried to copy them, and in church I discovered the joys of singing bass lines in the chorus as I entered my teens. Too young to drive, so you might as well sing in the choir; there were girls, at least and it was good, clean fun. We participated in all the services – Sunday morning, Sunday evening, revivals, and Christmas productions.
In the second grade, my teacher played a Peter, Paul, and Mary album for the class, and then there were the Beatles. Then, a 3 1/2″ reel-to-reel audio tape arrived at our house, and on it we heard my grandfather, who had been a real life cowboy and trick rider in the U.S. Cavalry, was playing a little tune on a guitar, something above and beyond the usual audio letter we had been exchanging. My father and I were inspired to become guitar players, and we went together on a 6-string Silvertone acoustic guitar from Sears. He still has it, and it wasn’t a great guitar, but it was good enough to start with. We started practicing with my uncle in his basement, and were soon performing to captive audiences in nursing homes. I returned to the music of PPM, sang in a duet with my girlfriend, did some talent shows.
I soon had the yearning for an electric guitar – my first guitar partnership with my dad had gone so well – and with a second guitar, we’d both be able to play at the same time. Again, Sears had an ultra-fancy electric guitar with an amazing number of features. Four pickups, multiple switch settings, a mute, tremolo bar… it was foreign-made, of course, and it must have been designed by someone who was told to look at every electric guitar ever made and include every feature possible. The Teisco Del-Ray came with a small amp that had tremolo / vibrato, and knew that this guitar would make me a rock star. I eventually figured out that it was beautifully set up to play surf music, but I was getting into what we used to call ‘hard rock.’ Still, it was fun to play with all the buttons and knobs. My musical peers were playing real guitars – Les Paul’s, Fenders, Rickenbackers – and neither me or my guitar were on an anybody’s ‘A’ list. And, they were using real amps – Fenders, Acoustic, Peavey, even Marshalls. Not me – I had a Sears Silvertone bass rig with a 200 watt head (supposedly), and two 15″ speakers (cheap ones). It had one redeeming quality – it was big, and I got to flex my muscles moving it around.
I was passionate about it, all of it – singing in the choir, playing folk music or solo in a coffehouse, rocking out with a garage band, endlessly repeating ‘Paranoid’ or ‘House of the Rising Sun’ just for the pure joy of sounding something like the original, at ear-splitting volume, in dank basements, unable to practice our windmill for fear of taking out the lights. And, some of those claustrophobic venues were beautifully adorned with black light posters and draped fabrics and the sweet smell of incense and herbs. There were girls there, too, and they liked the music. That’s when you get hooked, right in there somewhere, and the next thing you know, you’ve spent more than 50 years in pursuit of a few more moments like that. My dad still has that guitar, too, the one with all the switches. He’s 83 and healthy, but I guess that guitar will come back around one of these days, and I bet it still works.
I would have been more than happy, along the way, to have been just a one-hit wonder. Even a one-hit wonder can claim to have contributed… something. And now, nothing seems to be forgotten, and even one-hit wonders can still play out, and even tour. Instead, I’m still one hit under. And there’s a million other guys out there just like me; some are gear heads; some are death-metal noodle freaks; and some are exquisite players as good as any studio cat in Nashville, LA, or New York. We were the ones who might have made it; we could’ve been contenders… maybe we didn’t get that one break. Whatever. So, we haven’t made it to the show – not yet – but the show isn’t over.