Today’s forecast is to be sunny beginning late morning, clear, and with a high of 52 degrees. I’m prepping to get outside and don’t have a lot of availability for screen time and related reading and writing before the sun comes up at 6:43 a.m. in an hour or so. I’m leaving this here.
Have a better Saturday than expected in a time of the coronavirus pandemic.
I’m off organizing for a while. In the meanwhile, enjoy this video of Marty Stuart playing Clarence White’s Fender Telecaster. White is known for creating a distinct sound as a member of the Byrds. Stuart bought the Telecaster from White’s widow. If you want to learn more, here’s Stuart’s story about how the guitar came to be his.
It’s time for a brief hiatus to focus on 5:30 a.m. sunrises and clear days in the garden.
I’ve been listening to tracks from the Grateful Dead’s 1989 concert at Alpine Valley in East Troy, Wisc. Uncle John’s Band is a favorite performance.
My main experience with the Dead was during my undergraduate years when I ran a carbon arc spotlight at a 1971 Grateful Dead concert at the University of Iowa Field House, and attended another in 1973. I have many of their albums on vinyl, bought in real time as they were released, although sharing bootleg tapes of concerts became a thing before the internet enabled sharing. Hope you enjoy this video.
Going into a long weekend of spring catching up. I’ll return to regular posts soon.
Here’s one of my fave recordings of Rickey Betts playing Jessica. I heard The Allman Brothers Band play the song at the University of Iowa Field House on Nov. 9, 1973, shortly after it was released. They won a Grammy for Jessica. Enjoy!
In high school I worked part time at a discount department store called Turn-Style. Located on Brady Street near what was then the edge of town, the meager income enabled me to purchase a used Volkswagen Beetle and save money for college. I made my first contribution to Social Security while there and learned work habits that continue to serve.
Over the years, Jewel Food Stores sold Turn-Style to May Department Stores which converted it to a Venture Store. It was purchased by K-Mart. Today the building is a Theisens Home, Farm and Auto Supply store, owned by the same family that owns the store where I currently work two days a week.
In high school I worked in the drug department which sold consumable products that included over the counter medicine and hygienic products, candy, tobacco, nuts, greeting cards, gift ware, sugary drinks, and recorded music.
Most shifts I would spend part of my time stocking vinyl records, making sure any new arrivals made it to the sales floor, and the bins of albums were properly sorted and arranged. I picked records to play as background music before the days of Musak. There were no rules in the late 1960s and my supervisor seldom censored my choices. It gave me a chance to listen to music that wasn’t available on AM radio. I started buying vinyl and played it on my parents’ record player.
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.
One of my neighborhood friends’ older brother was the drummer for a popular band called The Night People. They played at the Draught House next to the Mississippi River and the cool kids in my class went to hear them. I did not. I guess that made me a listener rather than a player, and I was okay with it. They would make fun of my friends and I when we talked about news from bands they had performed with.
I got my musical start right after the Beatles came to America in 1964. I persisted in playing, despite derision in our neighborhood. My song list included mostly folk songs I played by myself. On occasion I played with a small group or with someone else who was learning to play the guitar. It seemed like there were a lot of us learning to play then. There was always a divide between what music I played and that to which I listened.
In the end, a musician had to make a song their own. Bands like The Night People sounded just like The Beatles or Rolling Stones or whoever they mimicked. What art is there in that? Live bands like this were co-opted by disk jockeys who played original, prerecorded versions. If I was a music listener more than a player, it was to understand and adapt songs that might be a good fit for me. By all accounts The Night People were successful, and who ever heard of me?
During those years in high school I made a decision in the Turn-Style parking lot. A friend wanted to go to Woodstock. We’d heard about it the week before and he offered to drive if I’d come along and pay part of the gasoline expense. We talked about it for a while and in the end I said, “I have to work Saturday.” That was a decision easily made. In it I chose to be less a music listener and more a player. It made all the difference.
My story includes music, especially as I left home in 1970 to begin university. College began a period of adventure and learning that extended through my return to Iowa City in 1980 and subsequent marriage in 1982.
In following years I pivoted to providing for our family, which eventually included a daughter who had a musical training as part of her curriculum through high school. Somewhere between then and moving back to Iowa in 1993, the chords got lost and dissonant.
I had a nascent hope I could make a living playing music with no idea how that would work. The closest I came to it was when I flew to London in autumn 1974.
What would follow getting my English degree at the University of Iowa? To postpone answering that question I made a grand tour like people did in the 18th Century. With two thousand dollars in American Express traveler’s checks, a backpack full of clothes, and a satchel Grandmother made for me, I booked a flight from Montreal to London with a open return date. The trip was poorly planned and I had no clue where or what I would do once I arrived. I picked London only because English was spoken.
When I arrived at a youth hostel I met two musicians who had just arrived from New York. They had plans to find an agent and book some shows. They suggested I get a guitar and join them. I had no resume to present, just an assertion I had been playing since grade school. In any case, I bought a cheap guitar and made the rounds with them one day without rehearsals or a song list. I quickly grew skeptical, took their names, and decided to leave. It was probably best and the closest I’ll get to being a professional musician. That is, not close.
I carried my newly acquired guitar wrapped in the jean jacket I wore on the plane and headed out of London for a loop around Southern England. It included Oxford, Stratford upon Avon, Bath, Stonehenge, Salisbury, Portsmouth, Brighton and Dover. I played when I stayed at youth hostels and in parks along the way. I had no trouble meeting other travelers my age and made connections that would serve me while touring the continent. I practiced a lot to conserve funds and divert from the immediate need to find a place to stay each night.
Traveling alone, having my backpack stolen in Calais, going through Paris, then to Spain, Italy, Austria, Germany and Holland in rapid succession over 13 weeks made music a central aspect of my life. I got better at playing and playing with others. I used no sheet music, but listened to songs and figured out the chords in a style that suited me. I watched other musicians and learned from them. Music was not the whole experience as I took in architecture, paintings and sculpture as well. Music was something.
Music still is something. What exactly that is will result from this series of posts… I hope.
After writing yesterday’s post I located the Yamaha guitar I bought for $300 in 1970. It was under the bed, covered in dust, with two broken strings sticking out of the case. I opened it, saw the guitar was virtually unchanged, then closed the lid and slid it back under the bed.
Last night a friend posted Instagram video of Greg Brown, Iris Dement, Dave Moore, Larry Mossman and Ben Schmidt playing music around a dinner table in someone’s home. Instagram is not the best medium for music. Nonetheless, it captured the moment well enough to believe it happened. Maybe that’s the point more than the tunes they played.
The last time I played with someone was during a trip to Montana in July 2010. We overnighted at a friend’s remote cabin. We had played together in a band while I was at university. He had an extra guitar and I struggled to keep up with the simplest chord progressions. By the end of the session I felt my skills could come back. That’s as far as it went.
A high school classmate’s family owned an old farmstead near Bellevue. When we first went there, there was no furnace and many rooms were empty. Over years the family fixed up the place, furnishing it with second hand beds and furniture. I remember the children made quilts for the beds. I attended a wedding reception there. It made a cozy family gathering place. My friend invited me to a meet up with a group of his college classmates. He took my guitar to a remote corner of the house to play by himself. We all want to get better at what we do, as did he. They sold the place years ago.
Being a musician, even a bad one, requires practice. More practice than seems reasonable. What I found was there were not enough venues in which to perform. I’ve played at coffee houses, on stage, for small gatherings, and at least one wedding, but most of the time I played alone, or when I was in one, with the band. There is a certain self analysis in music making. Did I hit the right notes? Did I miss anything? How could I phrase that better? Practicing music is like writing in that there is always a next draft, that is, until one performs. The performance stands alone in stark existential reality.
I’ve seen countless musicians perform in person. Among the most memorable was Andrés Segovia who played in Iowa City during the height of influenza season. The audience was coughing and hacking throughout his performance until Segovia stopped playing, took a handkerchief from his pocket, and coughed back. There was scattered laughter.
Perhaps the most famous person I’ve heard perform was Sir Elton John at the Cow Palace in San Francisco. Oracle hired him for the annual Open World conference attended by tens of thousands of people, including me. I was invited because our logistics company was installing a version of Oracle’s transportation management software.
During my time in politics music began to be associated with political events. When I managed a state house campaign we sometimes hired a musician to perform at fund raising events. Over time, I heard Carole King and Bruce Springsteen perform at big events for presidential candidates. I remember former U.S. Senator Tom Harkin singing “every day is a winding road” with Sheryl Crow at his annual steak fry. Can’t say I attended any of those events because of who was performing.
For now the guitar rests under our bed. It’s a question, I guess. Will I take it up to play again? It moves me toward practice and maybe performance, and that’s a form of progress even though I don’t yet know the answer. Before proceeding down the music trail I need to visualize it. With all the practice required, I don’t want to wander without a vision.
During the last couple of decades the role of music in my life diminished. There was no plan, it happened on its own, without a recognizable nudge.
My guitars and banjo are tucked in safe places around the house, protected from the elements, largely unused. I sold my Telecaster to long-time friend Dennis. It has been a long time since anyone used the piano in the living room. My shelves of vinyl, cassettes and compact disks gather dust. Since the budget cuts on public radio, I can’t find a station that plays music in a range of eras and styles. In the car, my presets are country and classic rock. For the 25-minute commute to the home, farm and auto supply store I can stand them, mostly. The last musical concert I attended was a Celtic guitarist at the local library. I follow him on YouTube and that’s where I do most of my home music listening today.
It wasn’t always so. In first grade I served as emcee for a variety show at Sacred Heart Catholic School. I wore a bow tie and rehearsed my lines carefully. There were words I never heard before in the script. I introduced performances by my classmates, then wanted to perform.
When we moved across town in 1959 I took piano lessons at the grade school. I practiced in the upstairs gymnasium which also served as an auditorium, my rendition of Brahms bounced off the walls of a large, empty room at the end of the school day. My neighbor, a couple grades ahead of me, was a guitarist and played a concert for us graders before he left for high school. I thought he was cool, and he’s now one of the few people I know who make a living as a singer songwriter.
By eighth grade I was playing guitar. On a snowy day the year the Beatles came to America Mother took me to the King Korn stamp store where she traded books of stamps for a Kay guitar. I played my first concert of folk songs in eighth grade along with some neighborhood friends.
In high school, I took guitar lessons from the late Joe Crossen who played in a rock and roll band. After that, I tried to learn classical guitar at university but my fingernails weren’t good enough to make it work. After leaving Davenport in 1970 I felt music would be part of me. For many years it was. I don’t know what happened. This is not a lament or dirge. I accept life as I find it while imagining the future as it should be.
The other day Jacque and I were listening to different versions of The Dutchman, a ballad by Michael Peter Smith. We listened to his, Steve Goodman’s and Liam Clancy’s versions and it became clear Smith’s phrasing and tempo made the better experience, evoking an emotional response. We talked about the song which has been a favorite since early in our relationship. It was surprising how good Smith’s version was, when we’d only paid attention to Goodman all these years.
I’m awake early this morning, tapping on the keyboard. My sister in law stayed over last night after a brunch with friends in the Quad Cities. I don’t want to wake the house and keep the music turned off. Neither do I use headphones because I live in the moment at my desk. If there are noises in the house — the water softener cycling, someone walking to the bathroom, the washing machine running — I want to hear it. No muffled reality for me.
I don’t know about music any more. Every so often I find a song I like and listen to it repeatedly for a while. Then I get over the infatuation. What I mostly want is a feeling I should play music again. It’s not there yet. It may never be. I have a hard time visualizing it.
I remember traveling the Mediterranean coast with a young student from Germany in the 1970s. We had Eurail passes and rode trains from Barcelona, Spain to Genoa, Italy, playing guitars in our youth hostels until the host reluctantly said it was getting part curfew. I played lead to his rhythm and vocals, it was life as good as it gets, fleeting, transitory, in the moment. That can’t be captured again in the same way. Despite years and neglect, music can live within us. At least that’s my hope in late autumn.