Friday, January 29, 2010

How it all began

Pretty sure no one is tuning in to this station, so I'll just blather on about music. I wrote a pretty serious memoir back in the late 1990's and a great deal of it concerns music and songwriting. So, I'll go back to the beginning (at least the guitar part of the story) and snip out some extracts from the memoir and pass them along when I don't have anything new to say. This part starts in 1977 in the City of Chicago, after having quit my job and then taken a 6 week journey through England, Scotland, Ireland and Paris.


When I got back from Europe, somehow I got pointed in the direction of the Old Town School of Folk Music (perhaps my mother told me about it, I'm not sure). I signed up for the first class available after my return and the rest is almost history. Practically the first thing that they teach you is how to tune your guitar. Then they teach you how to play Row, Row, Row your Boat and Go Tell Aunt Rhody and a lot of other old chestnut songs that you can play with one or two chords. I took lessons until sometime in 1980, but after a while I began learning mostly from watching other people perform.

I met Terry and Ed in March of 1978 when I began the third set of classes at the Old Town School. Terry was a psychologist, working at IIT at the time, who was a big ham and wanted to be a Rock 'n Roll star. He was a big Elvis fan which should have turned me off right there, but they were both good guys. Eddie was a pharmacist. We didn't know it at the time, but Eddie was on some pretty serious anti-depressants. He had problems with women and also with his family, and both were tearing him apart on the inside, but he seemed like such a nice guy.

The first session we took lessons together was on a Saturday morning. We started going out to lunch occasionally and started to become friends. We were all pretty serious about learning the guitar and were at about the same level. The next session we took was on a Wednesday evening and that was really the beginning of our deepening relationship and an even more serious turn towards the music. There was an open stage on Wednesday nights at this little club a few blocks from the school and a large group of folks would go there and hang out and play after the lessons were over (maybe around 9:30).

Our teacher at that time, and for a long time after, was Bill Hanson. Bill was a country music fan who had a little group that would play regularly at the Single File on Wednesdays. None of us really liked Country music all that much, but Bill was an okay guy and we learned a lot of popular music from him. Our playing was beginning to improve dramatically and we started practicing together more. Ed eventually picked up the bass and started to perform with Bill and his group. Terry and I finally got up the nerve to get up and play a couple of songs at the File. I think originally it was mostly Terry, with me just hanging in there. Being a natural ham, he was infinitely more comfortable on stage than I was.

We performed together maybe one or two times and then Terry decided that he wanted to do things on his own(probably play Elvis songs). I started to practice my singing more and fortified by about a six pack, I began trying to play at the stage all by myself. The first time, in the summer of 1980, I was so nervous that I forgot the words to whatever song I was singing(I think it was Part of the Plan by Dan Fogelberg). It wasn't a glorious beginning.

Alvin, another teacher at the school, who was at the time the host of the Open Stage, took me aside after one of those early attempts and told me that I really should be working with Terry. He talked about how I had no stage presence, but had the makings of a good solid musician and Terry had the charisma, but needed some grounding. I thanked Alvin for the advice, but told him that it was really Terry's idea to split up, and that if I was going to get better at performing then I'd have to do it alone (at least until I found someone else to work with). I want to say that this was sometime in 1979, but it may have been late 1978.

Alvin, who knew a million songs, but wasn’t that great a performer, was disappointed. I'm sure he didn't want me taking up valuable space on his list of Wednesday night performers. But I persisted, and Terry persisted at doing his own thing and eventually we started to get reasonably good at it.

Sometime in 1979, Mike Blackburn appeared in the classes that we were taking and joined us at the Single File and later at other clubs. Mike was probably a better player than any of us and was good on stage. He'd actually lived off playing for a while in Florida when he was just out of college. He was also a cop, but a good guy none the less.

I started writing songs not long after I began playing. One of the reasons was that I didn't entirely see the point of singing and playing songs that "professional" musicians had already done better than I ever would. I wasn't much of a singer in those days. I was too afraid to open my mouth when I got outside my living room. The first two songs that I wrote, which were quite forgettable and not very musical or poetic, were Plutonium Meltdown Blues and I want to be a Spaceman (I wonder if I even still have they written down anywhere?).

I took a songwriting class at the OTS in the fall of 1978 and it was during this class that I wrote the first two songs that I still perform: The Psychologist Song and Miguel's Song. The seminar was taught by Bob Gibson (who died in 1996 in his early 60's). We started out having to write a song about the American Dream and after a few weeks, Bob didn't think it was going too well, so he had us try to write a song based on one of the stories in Working, by Studs Terkel.

I wrote Miguel's Song in the way that is somewhat typical of my songwriting. I began playing around with a chord change that I had recently discovered (A major 7 to A7 suspended 4th) and I liked the way it sounded. About a week later, I was walking home from class at the OTS. It was December and pretty cold, with a bright moon. I was passing the Lincoln Park Conservatory, watching my cold breath, when one of the phrases from the song came into my head. Then a few more came.

I picked up my pace to get back to my apartment more quickly. The walk from Fullerton to Diversey is long enough on a cold night, but with a song bursting into one's head, it must have seemed like an eternity. All I remember is that when I got home, I put the words down and polished them up in less than an hour. It might've taken me a few days to get the music straightened out, but I knew that the chord change I'd been playing with would play a prominent part.

1 comment:

  1. I thought you were a great player back then 1979 and I think you're a great player and performer now. And I'm just a big dumb cop