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Music Was It

Preparing for a performance at John O’Donnell Stadium in Davenport, 1973.

Music was a significant part of my life until it wasn’t.

The beginning was clear as daylight: the Beatles performance on the Ed Sullivan Show, Sunday, Feb. 9, 1964. In December that year, Mother took me to the King Korn Stamp store where she traded stamps for a Kay guitar. The guitar was my birthday present. I played it frequently on my own, and by the eight grade with classmates in a concert where we performed The Cruel War.

I don’t know when my interest in music slipped away, but at some point I sold my Fender Telecaster to my friend Dennis and slid the Yamaha in its case under the bed. The expensive classical guitar I bought in Iowa City, my long-necked banjo, and the guitar I bought in Mainz, Germany are around. I’d have to look to find them.

If I had the talent, I would have become a professional musician. While I played a lot during the first twenty years, when I engaged in a career in transportation the music slowly died especially after we moved to Big Grove Township.

I started out strong, though. In high school I studied with the late Joe Crossen and practiced constantly. I joined the high school chorus and followed my neighborhood friend Denny Gallagher who went on to make music a career. There were many encouragements and a few opportunities to play.

When Father died, Mother settled with the elevator company, producing a small cash windfall for me. I bought a used Volkswagen micro bus, an electric guitar, two amplifiers, and a public address system. Some high school classmates and I formed a band and did a few gigs. We mostly practiced in one of our parents’ homes. By college graduation, I was ready to move on from the band.

I found some of our band playlists. Among the songs I remember playing were covers of Bertha by the Grateful Dead, Six Days on the Road, Let it Rain, Can’t Buy Me Love, Kansas City, All Along the Watchtower, Blue Suede Shoes, Thrill is Gone, and Don’t be Cruel.

When I made a Grand Tour of Europe I met some musicians who had arrived to perform in London. They encouraged me to buy a guitar and play with them. I did buy a guitar but left London after a week or so. We made the rounds of some agents, but nothing came of the joint endeavor. To have stayed with them would have voided my plans to see the artwork of European cities as I had planned.

I played the guitar all around the continent. It was suitable entertainment in the common rooms of youth hostels where I stayed. I met someone from Germany on the Mediterranean coast and we hit it off both in the types of music we knew and in improvisational style. Moments like those couple of performances made it worth toting the guitar around, wrapped in my blue denim jacket.

I did not take a guitar with me when I enlisted in the U.S. Army. I did manage to play several concerts using someone else’s instrument and have a photo of me with shaved head, in dress greens performing a number now lost to history. When I was stationed in Mainz, I bought another inexpensive guitar. During military service and afterward, I developed a playlist of Dylan (John Wesley Harding and I Shall be Released), Fred Neil (The Dolphins and Everybody’s Talking), John Renbourn (I Know My Babe), Tim Hardin (If I were a Carpenter and Lady Came from Baltimore), Leonard Cohen (Suzanne), Richard Fariña ( Pack Up Your Sorrows), Peter, Paul and Mary (The Cruel War) and Judy Collins (Cook with Honey). It was a lot of practice, but few performances while I made my way through being a mechanized infantry officer.

In graduate school I met Joe Pratt from California. Somewhere I have an audio cassette of us playing in our duplex on Taylor Drive in Iowa City. He was a big fan of Stan Rogers and I learned to play Field Behind the Plow from him. Joe also liked Steve Goodman’s arrangement of The Dutchman, and Jim Croce (I’ve Got a Name). He also knew the work of non-dead musicians.

Reading through the old playlists is a treasure-trove of memories. What happened? It wasn’t one thing.

The main issue regarding musical performance was the lack of venues. Once I made the decision not to become a professional musician, there were fewer opportunities to play, other than practicing. The question became “practicing for what?” Society had moved on from live performance in small venues to pre-recorded music or live acts playing stadiums and halls that could seat thousands of people.

Beginning in graduate school, A Prairie Home Companion became part of my musical life. I came to depend on it for musical inspiration. As locals like Greg Brown, Iris DeMent and Dave Moore performed on the show, that made it a connection to something visceral and real. When Keillor folded the tent in 2016, it was a real loss, something I continue to feel as the sun sets on each Saturday’s Iowa prairie.

One more thing, although the list could go on. There is a lot of worthwhile activity to fill our time. In the end music got pushed aside as writing, politics and work occupied more time. I have no regrets about this. I wouldn’t have expected it either. I didn’t expect it when I bought my Yamaha guitar at Cook’s Music Shop in Davenport before leaving for university.

In my writing room I have a long shelf of 33-1/3 RPM vinyl records. I measured 43 inches, although there are a couple more boxes in storage. Included in the collection is my parents’ copy of Meet The Beatles, issued in the United States on Jan 20, 1964, just before the Ed Sullivan Show performance. They bought the record and a small monaural record player that year. In 2018 I wrote about my relationship to music.

As my collection of records grew an issue arose: the distinction between being a music player and a music listener. It caused me some teenage consternation.

Blog post, Dec. 5, 2018.

I don’t know what is my current relationship with music. I don’t play musical instruments any more. I don’t sing much either. In fact, I don’t turn the radio on unless I’m in the car securing provisions, or to hear the news while preparing dinner. I guess I have just moved on to other things. I’m okay with that, yet for a while, music was it.

2 replies on “Music Was It”

Interesting reflections on your relationship with music, Paul. I also miss A Prairie Home Companion on Sundays! Listening to prior performances on CD or through the website can be fun but certainly not the same as hearing new shows each week. I love Iris DeMent, and I believe this show is where I first knew of her.

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