Music and Me: The Early Years

I am the least musical person I’ve ever met who is still alive.  Of course, most nonmusical people don’t go around talking about it, so I probably actually know more tone deaf, talentless people than that.  It is strange, though.  I should be musical.  My mother sang semiprofessionally, doing radio in the pre-WWII days before they had things on tape (commercials and stuff).  My oldest sister is known as Lightning Fingers Liz, owing to her prowess with the mandolin.  My brother had a rock band from something like 1968 through 1990-something and is quite talented with the lead guitar.  My other sister takes the cake, though.  She has a couple of PhD’s in music or related topics, is an accomplished composer, and has learned—to at least a reasonable level of competence—one instrument in each known and extant class of musical instrument.  (This required her to learn the bagpipes and the didgeridoo, because they are almost exclusive in their own classes.)


My father’s musical ability was nonexistent.  When he would get a little drunk, he’d listen to his My Fair Lady album over and over.  The other day we went to see My Fair Lady performed at the high school.  I was afraid I was going to have a problem with that, but it was okay.  No cold sweats, no feelings of doom, nothing.  But I digress.

I was born into a home that had no TV or stereo.  There was a period of time when there was a TV in my grandmother’s home, which luckily for me was the apartment upstairs.  Then we got one downstairs eventually.  But still, I’m digressing. That had nothing to do with music.  I know that I was born into a home without a stereo because I remember quite well when we got the stereo.  It was a big deal. There was a stereo cabinet, which was manufactured without any holes in it for wires to go.  So a hole had to be cut in it.

There were to be two input devices, one a turntable and the other a tape recorder.  Since this was the days before “aux,” there needed to be a pair of switches.  It had to be a pair of switches and not just one, because they were mono switches, so there needed to be two of them.  We’re talkin’ stereo here.  These switches were mounted inside the stereo cabinet.  The tape recorder was reel to reel.  We also had a wire recorder, but there was no music for that, so we didn’t hook it up.  (And when I say “we,” I mean my brother.)  The speakers were twenty-something inches high and maybe 15 wide and very thin for speakers, and they were positioned at either end of the Eero Saarinen-style couch.

The rug in the living room had squares as part of its pattern, 11 inches on a side.  So we used the squares to locate the center between the speakers.  We put a chair there, and we would take turns sitting in the chair and listening to the sound effects record.

A train coming from one side to another.  A pin dropping on one side then the other.  A voice coming right from the middle even though there was not a speaker right there.  The voice was saying “Hey, there’s no speaker right here, but you hear my voice like there is a speaker there. Isn’t stereo amazing!” Stuff like that.

We had a total of about fifteen albums.  One was a Vaughn Meter album.  One was the aforementioned sound effects album.  Then there was Tubby the Tuba and Mary Poppins.  Those were mine.  Then there was Bolero, which fascinated me because there was a semi-naked lady on the front, facing away, and I could tell but not prove she was not wearing underwear.  I had no idea at the time why I found that interesting.  Then there was Al Hirt and there was Daktari.  I loved the front of the Daktari album.  Does anyone remember that?  We had an album of JFK speeches.

I cannot place the arrival of the stereo in relation to the acquisition of the JFK speech album in relation to the assassination of JFK.  I have some pretty detailed early memories.  I have early memories that are earlier than humans are supposed to have according to some theories of neural development, and that I can prove are not reconstructed memories (of course, some people believe that can’t be proven, but they are wrong), but I do not remember everything and some of my early memories are untethered to an accurate timeline.  There was a Life magazine from the election season showing a picture of JFK sitting on a big giant drum.  There was the Vaughn Meter album. There was the JFK speech album.  And there is the memory of being sent home from school, everyone crying, and the specter of death and violence that accompanied that 48-hour period that stretched out to become part of our national consciousness for the next 20 years.

It was some time after the stereo, by a few years, that I acquired my very first album.  The Tubby the Tuba and Mary Poppins albums were wearing quite thin, and they were not really mine. They were just among the albums that seemed to come with the stereo.

Every September the church had a “bazaar,” in which rides were operated by men with “Prisoner” or “Convict” printed on their shirts, and various gaming booths were set up.  Every year I saved up seven or eight bucks to blow on the bazaar.  One year I put a dime on a number for a spinning carnival wheel and won.  I got to pick among three or four albums.  I picked the Sonny & Cher album with “I Got You Babe” (Look at Us).  When I brought it home, everyone in my family yelled at me because each of them thought I should have brought home a different album.  The thing is, they each had a different opinion as to which album I should have brought home.  But they were all absolutely certain that Sonny & Cher was not the one.

In retrospect, this was a traumatic event.  It caused me to shun the entire musical experience for years thereafter.  Now that I realize the effect this had on me, I think I’ll sue my family.

So sometime in there, probably because of this traumatic event, my personal interest in music went dormant.  This is probably why I can not really play an instrument.  There was a violin, briefly.  Later I learned to do a bunch of riffs on the base and could accompany others as long as they were not very good.  But that’s it.  The stereo moved with my parents when I was 13 (and I moved with them as well), but I was not one of the kids who had a stereo or an album collection.  In fact, in this way I found myself contrasted with many of my friends.

But that was okay, because I had Carl.

… continued …

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3 Responses to “Music and Me: The Early Years”

  1. February 11th, 2009 at 9:47 am

    Stephanie Zvan says:

    I feel terribly sorry for that kid, you know, which is part of why I try to stay out of most “You like that?!?” discussions.

  2. February 11th, 2009 at 11:36 am

    the real actual me says:

    Greg:Steph told me to come over here and harass you…er…actually she said to come and comment “comfortably”, so considering that this is the only post about music–and a nice one at that–here is me, commenting “comfortably” on topic for a change.

    We were all singing—sort of—some kind of goodbye back then.
    That lying bastard Nixon was on the way out, the Vietnam War was teetering—no, marching along the dull edge of America’s recently broken sword; its crippled conscience, and Buddy Holly was a fond memory of cliché’s that no longer held currency for post- baby-boomers born to the Brady Bunch and a hemorrhaging, less than blasé –faire OPEC induced capitalist economy in crisis. So Don McLean’s slightly quivering troubadour voice was like, the faint sound of a skeptic generation birthed under fire as he wavered out “Bye Bye, Miss American Pie, drove my Chevy to the levy but the levy was dry…”
    Dry, like gin, which was both a card game and something the big people drank when they played it; and good old boys were drinking whiskey and rye, because quite awhile ago, rock-a-billy Buddy Holly bit it in an airplane crash; or maybe it was the few other things that had come up since that made folks want to drown in a stupor of melancholic nostalgia; houses with many stars in the windows, ex-soldiers robbing liquor stores during bouts of PTSD, or those burned out projects in South Chicago where the poor people lived.
    I didn’t comprehend the Buddy angle from the song then because I was only six or seven-years-old, and seatbelt-less in the front seat of a Plymouth Ambassador station wagon, bound for the old fashioned soda and ice cream shop in Hebron, Illinois, just north of Chicago. I had no sense of old history like that, and ”the big hill” occupied my thoughts then, as my father had made a big point of emphasizing how big I had gotten, now that I could climb the big hill. The world was big; I was getting bigger, too. I knew that much.
    The big hill and ice cream were synonymous for time spent with my dad: my garbage hauling, mostly clean clothes on the weekends dad–my soul music loving, Otis Redding singing dad– had turned up the radio to a type of music I had never heard him play before: American pop. At least I thought I had never heard him play it, because at that age, memories of sitting in a black-people soul-music bar and watching dad dance with women who weren’t mom made the impression that music was all about “grooves”, slides and “ass shaking”, not this new sound of seventies rock.
    As McClean was singing from the chrome lined dash, I realized that I had heard that song once before, on a radio that dad had pulled out of the garbage on one of his routes. The radio, maybe a Delco or an RCA, had been painted red, white and blue after the fashion of the war protesting hippies. When my dad picked it out of the trash and asked if I wanted it, it could have been a pony or a brand new Red Rider bb-gun but it wouldn’t have had the same pull on me as it did as a radio, because having a radio of my own was like owning the news, and the songs and the words of the world, all in one box, just plug it in. Mostly, it was given to me by my dad who I seldom saw in the daytime, what with him being a late-night hard-drinking bar-brawling gangster and all.
    I remembered hearing that song, all by myself in my bedroom just the day before. From birth to six-years-old, the only sounds I heard during my afternoon naps, or my play time in my room was the faint sound of airplanes droning off into infinity, the neighbor kids playing outside, or a sibling coming and going to school; and Mom, banging pots in the kitchen. But the day I got that radio was the day I heard what became my first favorite song and the world made sense to me somehow, because I had a red, white and blue radio, and a song coming out of it that echoed an American national identity. My dad gave that to me.
    My formative years were sprinkled with the assassinations of every leader that my Irish father held up as examples of “good men who believe in something and will fight for it.” John, Bobby, Martin—all of them were my nascent heroes, and I had watched them die on TV like everyone else did, but it was Don McClean on that radio that brought it home to me—I was an American, and we were all grieving for something.
    I was thankful because I was with my dad, and we were driving, and I wasn’t at all afraid of the Holy Ghost when I was with him, and I felt like a grownup when I realized we liked the same song. I thought “ this must be man stuff,” and I was a little man, getting bigger like my Dad John, or the President John; Bobby, Martin, or Buddy. And that line “the father, the son, and the holy ghost caught the last train for the coast” reminded me that the church, or all the kings and all the horses and all the men couldn’t put them back together again “the day, the music died” or thereafter.

  3. February 11th, 2009 at 2:49 pm

    Lilian Nattel says:

    I’m waiting for the rest of the story. I love music. I’m glad it was one thing my family didn’t f up–they probably didn’t get it. Long story.

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