I fell into music at age fifteen with a guitar bought at the green-stamp redemption store. I wrote painfully overstated songs of teenage love on it —
I think of all the things
I had a chance to do
I think of all the times
I had a chance for you!
I learned to sing like Bob Dylan, only worse. With the green-stamp redemption guitar I joined the folk-mass at my (Catholic) church. It was an unruly group — soon we were playing bongos and serenading the faithful after communion with songs like Carly Simon’s tongue-hanging-out-of-the mouth love song “Anticipation.”
The folk-mass group became a rock group outside church. It was the early seventies. Music was still bigger than video games. Having long hair in high school, as we did, was still an ideological statement. We didn’t smoke dope; we didn’t know anyone who had it. We confidently played mostly original songs, songs about perfect love, nature, and spiritual peace —
Lead me to you
Only love can change the world
We were notorious for our off-key harmonies and broken strings. At one gig we ran out of replacement strings and I led the band through the last song on a three-string guitar.
Soon I had a twelve-string guitar. It was the middle seventies and I played in no one’s band. I sang meandering melodies full of hearts, wings, flowers, mirrors, mountains, glorious truths, teachings, and the unrequited love of a distant woman. As the seventies and my twenties progressed I played less and less, more and more devoted to other pursuits, reading literature, writing poems, then exploring pioneer thinkers and ground-zero spirituality, Krishnamurti, solitude in the woods as a prelude to a whole menagerie of present fascinations. Maybe old singers never die, only disappear into darkness looking for their light.
Back in the weirdness of adolescence music gave me a mysterious link to childhood, its spontaneity, grace and verve. Music kept that spirit before me through times when self-hatred and society urged me to be nothing more than a safe, fully insured adult, a man with a plan. It kept me in access to my full brain and body, it kept beauty in the world and in people.
My favorite songs are my own. They are personal storehouses of association, memory, people, experience. They’re like the trees I’ve grown up with. Other people’s songs can work the same magic.
Some of the songs I now like most make me feel just happy in an entrancing way: old Beatles’ songs, bright tunes from the sixties. They’re good to sing with routine chores.
Other songs I can’t get away from, they come at me, grab me by the core and shake me till my hidden grief and sadness and love spill out, making me empty and full at once. One by Dan Hill never fails, for reasons that may go way back, still suiting where I am now. It starts —
Welcome, baby boy, to a brand new
world . . .
It began with a lullaby, and the music was love. “Your father says I can’t carry a tune,” said my mother, who kept right on singing and rocking through four children.
Through grade school in a tiny New Hampshire town, the music was the church choir, “and a little child shall lead them.” Suzy and I were the littlest angels and thus it was up to us to catch Joseph when he fainted during the Christmas Pageant, which he did every time the King carrying incense approached the manger.
By the time my increasing size placed me toward the back of the procession, I was sent off to a preppie boarding school, where I was told my voice wasn’t good enough to be in the choir. Devastated, I could only listen and learn the songs but never sing them. When my daughter was born, I would only sing to her when there was no one else around. When she grew up, I stopped singing.
Atlanta in April, dappled with dogwoods, a new city, new beginnings, new friends. “We’ve just started a singing group, do you want to join? We really need sopranos.” The name of the group was Schola Nova: “New School.” We sang mainly for the love of singing, always a capella, frequently finishing a song in a key several notes lower than the one we started in. We were pretty awful at first, but we had a good time. Now, five years later, we’re pretty good. Good enough that we were asked to record an album of Christmas music to be distributed nationally next year.
The music in my life is a mountain cabin full of friends. Strains of Joni Mitchell come through the open window, but I know it’s really Carol pretending to be a radio. It is Beth and Nancy wearing rhinestone-studded dark glasses and reducing us to hysterical giggles with their Motown number a la Supremes. And do I hear Eric Clapton? No, it’s just Chris and Karen’s version of Dueling Guitars. (“Who said you can’t learn to play the guitar when you’re 33?!”) And later, it’s everyone around the campfire singing impromptu 13-part harmonies, or disharmonies, depending on how much of the beer we’ve gone through.
The music in my life comes from the people in my life, and the music is love.
I exist and I’ve got my electric guitar. I’m projecting my vibrations into the world and they sound like an electric guitar. I’m relating to others and playing with the other musicians in the band.
Sometimes I’m too aggressive and play too much and too loud without listening enough to the others. Sometimes I’m too quiet and afraid and don’t give enough. Sometimes I get attached to some thought or emotion that comes up and get distracted and make mistakes. Sometimes I can relax and “be here now” and then I can hear the music as a whole and really feel the meaning of every note and the joy in every beat. Then it seems as if the music is happening by itself and I’m just dancing to it. I wrote a song about it once:
I remember now!
I saw a silver stream
in the mountains
I heard it ring,
and saw it change to silver strings
running through my fingers
at the fountain.
At dusk, the drone of the hustling city gives way to a certain stillness. Now the song of the universe can be heard. A bird at the window chirps “prettyprettypretty.” The insects begin rhythmically chanting their names, “cricket cricket.” A jet scrapes across the sky. Car tires whoosh down the street. A far off train plays its lonesome note and a siren wails like a sad saxophone. Mothers in the neighborhood call their children home.
The music never stops, but often we are too busy, too full of noise to stop and listen.
It certainly does not seem to be a good night to be out, but there’s been hard rain and dense fog all weekend and the desire to be among one’s fellows in the world is too strong. On Laneda Avenue it’s clear many others suffer from the same fever. Opening the door to the San Dune Tavern, the charged air wraps my skin much more warmly than my coat.
Moving along the bar towards the stage, there are so many people on whom to slap a greeting; they go unacknowledged until my guitar is propped in the corner and a beer is in hand. The famous fireplace on the far wall plays to quite a crowd. Besides being Valentine’s Day, the next morning brings a national holiday, so the tavern stands host to many weekenders, plus the normal local friends and family.
Presently on-stage are Baila and Steve, accompanied by an entourage of friendly helpers. These two aspire to quality music and meet success wherever they perform their swing jazz and soulful melodies, switching instruments on every song. Larry deftly fingers his mandolin on the breaks. Doug adds another guitar and harmonizes. Don shuffles along on the piano.
The standard participant in these spontaneous San Dune nights, Randy is proud to play his accordion for his family, who are visiting. Digging out his instrument from the attic a year ago for the first Open Mike, he had not played since high school. Still, he bravely pushed and pulled a few chords between raucous jokes. Now he praises his mom for putting up with him all these years, then plays a string of melodies for her which are all tuneful if not always recognizable. In turn, she performs a few traditional standards which invite the whole tavern to sing gustily along — waltzes and polkas that express the fine spirit of such community gatherings.
Folk music is again spotlighted. In a black shirt, dark glasses and with his hair slicked back, Laurien twangs a few country favorites in his nasal drawl while Larry takes advantage of another chance to pick his mandolin. Three or four songs into their exchange, they are joined by Big Jim from Seaside, an older man whose body is shaped by years of standing over the microphone with his electric guitar. They please the crowd with fifties rock classics and rolling rythyms.
Then it is my turn to solo, although I am more in the mood to accompany someone else’s lead. Two of my own songs come to mind, songs of general thanks and best wishes for my friends around the room and my wife at home with our children. Then in reaction to Reagan’s decision to manufacture nerve gas bombs, I sing one for peace by Dave Mason called “Can’t stop worrying, can’t stop loving.”
Counter-balancing the original music, Swede follows on piano with the Maple Leaf Rag and a few other well known ditties for sing-alongs to include the audience once again. By now it’s getting late and the rock-and-rollers are chomping to play. The drinkers are louder and anxious to stomp their feet. After a few more acoustical combinations of folks who have never played together before, at midnight the tables turn and the volume rockets to a heavy beat until closing time.
If an eight or ten dollar fee was charged to see these musicians at Portland’s Memorial Coliseum, I imagine the turnout would be very low, the response most unimpressive. Some, if they were to choose to pursue the late hours and long tours required, might actually possess the talent for such great performances. More importantly, all are strong individuals in the local community who make music for the sheer joy that good melodies inspire. They are not afraid to stand in front of strangers and hit a sour note or two because they hit so many more that sound good enough. The spirit of community is the important thing, my favorite kind of music: all together Sunday nights at the San Dune Tavern.
Christopher Kline deMoll