My First Guitar

 

 

So my grammar school alumni Facebook group posted the following question: “What did you want to be when you were at school and what are you now?”

I didn’t even have to think about it. I wanted to be a musician. Specifically a guitar player. I don’t know what it was, but I was drawn to the guitar as soon as I can remember. My mom tells me that when I was very little, I would pick up any object that vaguely resembled a guitar (broom, snow shovel), and pretend to play it.

I have a picture of myself as a very young kid, maybe four, holding a plastic toy guitar and wearing one of my mom’s wigs. I have no memory of this, but here it is in full faded color. It’s hard to argue with that kind of evidence.

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I didn’t get my first guitar until I was in seventh grade. My oldest sister had been playing for years, and I was insanely jealous. I used to sneak into her room, when she wasn’t home, to noodle around on it. I didn’t know what I was doing, but just holding it was magical.

I was a terrible student and was constantly failing most of my subjects. My parents wanted me to focus on schoolwork and not be distracted by things like guitars, so they wouldn’t get me one.

But that turned out to be a blessing. That’s where drive comes in. If you have a passion for something, you find a way. Sometimes, if you’re lucky, that way just presents itself out of nowhere.

One day, I was walking with my buddy Steve, when we passed by a church rummage sale. There, on one of the tables, was a guitar. It was dusty and missing strings, but I didn’t care. To me, it was a glorious thing.

“How much for the guitar?” I tried to act casual.

“Five dollars”, the lady replied.

I guess my face must have fallen. I didn’t have anywhere near five dollars. She smiled at me and kind of looked around conspiratorially. “Come back after 3:00”, she told me.

At 3:05 I showed up. The guitar was gone.

I couldn’t believe it.

“Ah, you’re back!” the lady said. She reached under the table and pulled out the guitar. Apparently she’d hidden it after I left. “It’s yours, use it in good health.”

Back home, I looked over the guitar more closely. Not only was it missing strings, it was missing three of the six tuners. It had a big crack running down the side. It was made of plywood. Other than that, it was fantastic! And, best of all, it was MINE!

About a mile from home was a music store. It was a mom and pop operation that sold used instruments. I used to go there just to drool over the guitars. Now I had one of my own. I carried it up to the store and showed it to the owner to see if he had the parts I needed. He did! I bought three old tuners and he gave me used strings. I was in business.

That afternoon, I installed the tuners and put on the strings. I put duct tape over the crack on the side. Now all I had to do was figure out how to play it.

I’m lucky. Music comes very easily to me. My sisters all got piano lessons. After they’d practice, I’d come downstairs and figure out what they were playing. I couldn’t read music and I didn’t get lessons. It’s just something I’ve always been able to do, like being double-jointed.

I sat at the piano with my guitar and kind of figured out where the notes were and how to play some chords. I still remember the first song I taught myself; “The Wreck Of The Edmund Fitzgerald”.

I played that guitar nonstop. I didn’t even have picks. I used the caps of Bic pens, until my dad noticed. He came home the next day with a handful of pics he’d bought at a music store in the city. That meant a lot.

So that’s the story of my first guitar. I’ve since had, and continue to have, many others, but, of course, that old beat up guitar still stands out in my memory.

Earth Day; It took God seven days to make the world. Took man 20 centuries to tear it down.

Every Easter, for a few years, my kayak friends and I would go out for what we called “The Heathen Paddle”. For us , this marked the first paddle of Spring, in which we could see the first buds of rebirth and renewal. We would leave from Yonkers, NY, head down the Hudson  River to Spuyten Dyvil, down the Harlem River to the Bronx Kill which would shoot us out to the East River. We’d get out at Little Brother Island, across from Rikers Island. From there, we would head up the Bronx River and get out at Hunts Point, where we had cars waiting for us. While this was ostensibly to view nature, mostly we came across trash. This increased every year. After our last paddle, I wrote this song, “Twenty Centuries”. I hope it speaks to you.

20 Centuries

 

Yonkers Load In

Putting in at Yonkers

 

 

 

 

Gwen & Jim

Paddling in the Bronx Kill

Swim Like A Catfish

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Waaaay back  in the Digital Dark Ages, there was a short-lived medium called the MiniDisc. It looked just like a floppy disc except that it was, um, mini. It held 74 minutes of audio and that seemed pretty dang cool at the time. So for about a year or two, I carried my cute little MiniDisc recorder in my pocket. Along with discs. Batteries. Oh, yeah, and a big honkin’ stereo mic.

IMG_0142Still, you have to understand how cool this was at the time. Before, if I wanted to record a performance, I had to lug around some kind of cassette recorder and the resulting quality was less than pleasant. The MiniDisc produced much quieter, cleaner recordings.

cassette-recorder

I bring this up because today, as I was excavating the studio, I came across my old MiniDisc and a bunch of the discs that I had recorded on to. I popped one into the machine and was pleasantly surprised by the sound. More importantly, by what was on it. In the early 2000s, I spent quite some time as a teaching artist. I would go into schools and museums and write songs with kids. I loved it, especially the little kids. The process was simple; we’d pick a subject (usually what they were studying), talk about how it made them feel, and then come up with some rhyming pairs. With little kids, it was less about the rhymes and more about making sure that they got to use their own words. After the lyrics were complete, the melody would sort of reveal itself.

This song, “Swim Like A Catfish” was written by 1st graders at the Hudson River Museum in Yonkers, NY. about ten years ago. I totally forgot about this song and I’m thrilled to have found it again. I hope you enjoy it.

“Dickens’ Christmas Carol” at the Old Dutch Church in Sleepy Hollow

Once again, I find myself back at the the pipe organ in the Old Dutch Church in Sleepy Hollow. This time Jonathan Kruk and I will be performing “Dickens’ Christmas Carol”. For this event, not only will I be playing the pipe organ, I’ll also be playing the harp, fiddle, chimes and chains (for sound effects). Before each show, I lead the audience in Christmas Carols. It’s a lot of fun!

For tickets and times, visit www.HudsonValley.org

Santa’s Reindeer Ranch

I have a busy practice teaching guitar and piano during the week. When we get off topic, I  say “meanwhile, back at the ranch…” to bring us back. I used that phrase while teaching “Rudolf The Red Nosed Reindeer” to a kid. He looked at me and said, “I thought we were at the North Pole!”

That’s when I got the idea for this song. I hope you enjoy it. Merry Christmas![wpvideo 9TFIzVIm]

Picture of Ann

This is the cassette I found in a box of old tapes.

It’s amazing how finding one small thing can make you realize so much about your life, past and present. For me, the small thing was a cassette tape. Remember those? It was in a shoe box with twenty or thirty others. No, it wasn’t a mixed tape that someone made for me. It wasn’t an oral history of a long dead relative. It was me. Twenty years ago.

Back in the late eighties and early nineties, I made a go at being a singer/songwriter. My goal was to make some demos, get a record deal and then, well, I hadn’t really thought much farther ahead than that. Making a demo was much harder then than it is now. In those days, the idea of recording onto computers was as alien as, oh I don’t know, carrying a tiny telephone in your pocket that also takes pictures and plays music.

Back when I was young-I still have that guitar!

By 1992 or so, I had managed to attract a small following by playing places such as The Towne Crier Cafe and The Turning Point. I’d gotten some airplay and interviews on WFUV and WFDU, two local college stations.

My Dad was a staff engineer at Columbia records and decided to help me out by making a demo with “my band”. My band consisted of a trio of older guys who liked my songs and decided to pitch in as well. Here’s a tip for younger musicians: play with older musicians any chance you get. They’ve heard it all, they’ve played it all and you’re probably not showing them anything new. You’ll learn a lot and your songs will sound better because of their musicianship. I was really too immature to appreciate this.

Here's another press photo from 1989. There wasn't a lot of traffic.

Anyway, one Saturday my dad, the band and I gathered in a high school gymnasium in Connecticut to make a demo. We recorded the band and me live to two track DAT (remember those?!). There were no overdubs, no punch-ins, no nonsense. We just played and Dad pressed record.

Twenty years later, I’m scrambling to find a cassette player that works. OK. Got one. It was out in the garage. I patch it into my mixing board, press play and bring up the faders. Holy crap. The instruments sound great. The playing is tight. The mix is clean, nothing is hidden. They were all pros, my Dad and the guys.

But then there’s me. Not a pro. Not then. That’s clear. I’m the weakest thing on this recording. I mean, the guitar playing is pretty good (I’m the acoustic guitar on the right) but my voice seems to have a pretty tenuous relationship with pitch and isn’t particularly expressive. If I was a record exec and heard that voice, I would’ve passed also.

So why did they do it? Why did my Dad and these guys go out of their way to help me out? What I remember them saying is that they liked the songs, which brings me to, well, the song. I wrote “Picture Of Ann” about a girl named, not surprisingly, Ann.

Short story: I liked her. I asked her out. She stood me up. A few times. Why would I let someone do that? Well, if I had a picture of Ann, I’m sure you’d understand.

Ann is now a mom with two kids, one of whom has been my assistant at one of the historic sites where I perform. Ann has an entirely different memory of the events that inspired her song. Doesn’t matter now.

I think this old tape may have stretched a bit. It seems a little slower than I remember. I hope you enjoy the song. You can listen here:

Picture Of Ann (1991)

Hudson River Museum

In 2010, through the Hudson River Museum, I conducted a School Based Artist-in-Residence at for First Graders at P.S. 25 in Yonkers NY. The students visited an exhibit of works by Jacob Lawrence. Our theme was Jobs. The students searched the paintings for tools, clothing and other clues relating to the subject’s job. Afterwards, each class wrote a song about their experience. In this video, we are in the exhibit space. I’m performing music from the ’20s and 30s on instruments that were popular then. I wore an outfit that I thought looked like early 20th century work clothes. Enjoy!

“She Broke My Heart In Three Places”

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lJSc-D9dFU0]

“I’ll See You In My Dreams”