"My Guitar Life"
December 23, 2000
When Dad uttered the words, "come over here and sit down," I thought I'd had it, the way a twelve year-old who's been mouthing off to his mother used to in those years. Actually, I was amazed that he had not taken me immediately in hand, but that didn't mean I couldn't see that coming, too.
Sitting around the breakfast table that sunny morning on the windward side of Oahu that day in 1969, I'd been bitching at Mom because she wasn't dropping everything to drive me and my surfboard to the beach. I was trying to go at it as lightly as possible, within arm's reach of Dad, but also as urgently as I thought I could get away with, because I'd been imagining the break at Kahana Bay all morning. It was just one of those days, and when a kid that age gets a picture like that in his head, he'll take all kinds of reckless chances.
Looking back, I think Dad must have had his mind made up for some time. In fact, he recently related to me facts that make that even more clear. I still don't know his mind as the events of that morning played. I can't say that he sat there listening to me giving Mom hell and thinking, "He's gonna get it," in the way I finally got it. However, the mystery of why he didn't just bounce me like a basketball has grown a bit less foggy.
You see, he knew I'd been going up the road a bit to play rock songs with my friend, Glen Companion. The father of my friend Bobby Miller - who played drums - had told my Dad. Of course, I didn't know that... not that it would have mattered to me.
Now, I've never forgotten any of this. I think Dad thinks I have, but it's one of the clearest pictures in my memories, and always has been from the moment it happened. I remember exactly where the chair was positioned in front of the window; I remember exactly how the burning island sunlight was streaming through the window over my shoulder as I sat in the straight armless chair, and I recall the odd note of authority in his voice as he said it: "Come over here and sit down."
I had a big question mark in my mind. "Am I in serious trouble, or what?"
I should have been, which is why, of course, I was asking myself the question, but there was also something missing in his tone: I wasn't hearing any of the menace that I figured I should have.
And it only started to dawn on me when he cracked the case of the 1952 Gibson L-47 acoustic guitar that he'd owned since he bought it with the money he'd saved as a teen-ager delivering newspapers and setting bowling pins, and set it on my lap.
I wasn't in trouble. I was into something else altogether.
It wouldn't be honest of me to sit here and say that I knew, that day, that my little life had reached a turning point. It wasn't like that at the time, because there was too much going on. The first hour or so of my guitar life was filled with lecture on axe-anatomy, maintenance, how to tune it, history of this particular instrument, and all kinds of stuff that I can only see now as the initial approach of adulthood. I didn't really see it then. I knew it was important, because Dad never went at anything less than very seriously the way he was going at this. I knew this from the way he managed his Little League baseball teams, on which I played for several years. It was serious... which accounted for the tone of his voice that had mystified me when I expected to end up in my bedroom for hassling my poor Mother the way I had.
The thing is, looking back at it ever-after, it's no trick at all to understand how and exactly when my Father took my life in his hands and directly changed it forever. The moment stands like a physical object: a hinge around which I turned in one definite direction, on a line reaching from then to the end of my days.
The seriousness of it was beginning to set in several hours later, when my left hand hurt like hell from holding an open-C chord almost the whole time. He also showed me an open-G, as well as (and this is the really important part) explaining to me how they related to each other theoretically. That - the theory - was all the difference between actually learning what I was doing and simply aping sounds the way I had been with Glen and Bobby. Yeah: we could hack our way through Wilson Pickett's "In The Midnight Hour", but we didn't have a clue to why those sounds came together in the way they did. Before that first day with Dad was over, I could faintly discern that I was going to be a real guitar player, because I would know why. My Old Man would see to it.
For a couple of years already, my younger brother Michael had been playing the mandolin. I recall sitting on the floor outside the closed door of our bedroom and listening to Dad give Mike his very first instructions, and here's the damned truth: I couldn't understand why, as the oldest, I shouldn't have been first. It was another mystery to me: Michael and Dad were doing something exclusively together, without me, and I simply couldn't fathom that.
Dad's wisdom might have been mysterious to me, and maybe even to him, too, but all was borne out in events: my brother became a fabulous mandolin player where, by the time it had come to my turn, I just didn't have it. I don't know why, but I just never understood that thing. These days, I don't even consider the fact that he tried to teach me, beginning a couple of months after Michael. It might as well have never happened.
I've often joked that Dad taught me to play the guitar only because he was sick & tired of playing by himself and needed a rhythm sideman. I still don't know whether he knew that I was going to excel in that particular discipline. By the late autumn of 1969, though, he had me going on some of his best swing arrangements for two guitars.
That summer, and the afternoons after school that fall, were filled with guitar practice. The law was down: an hour every day. At least: one hour's practice, every day. There was a sort of symbiotic discipline to it that I suspect is largely missing in matters of this sort involving most children, today. Dad said, "one hour, every day," and there was simply no question in the world that I would defy that. I think he might deny that the matter was that autocratic or tyrannous about it. If he would deny that, then I believe he also doesn't understand the tremendous moral authority he wielded in his family. You see, he could dictate terms like that because he was right. And by the time I was twelve years old, and to the extent that I understood serious matters, I could also understand a thing like one's Dad being right. It's true that I wanted badly to play the guitar, but here's the thing: I was already doing that with Glen and the boys. What did I need Dad for? Here's the other thing: they didn't know what they were doing, but my Dad did.
And that's how he got to dictate terms to me.
So, every day, while all the other kids were outside playing in the island paradise (which is what it was to kids that age), I was sitting in that chair wearing out my fingers with chord changes.
He'd said an hour every day. Of course, it didn't go exactly like that. Very often, it was two, three, or four hours. Sometimes, it was just me, alone. Very often, though, Dad would get home from work and immediately pick up his 1962 Gibson ES-355 electric, plug it up, and sit down with me to see where I'd been or to push back the frontiers a little more. The lines between work and play began to blur to the point where the former completely suffused the latter and vice-versa, and I cannot say exactly when rehearsals were born, but it was already some time in that first year.
What a sweet moment it was for me when he could sit there and play his arrangement of Glen Miller's "In The Mood" and rely so confidently on me for competent rhythms that his lead guitar work began to grow on its own. My Dad was pushing his own frontiers and I was helping him do it. And, even better, if you could believe it: Mike would sit in with his mandolin on something like "Waitin' On The Robert E. Lee"... and Mom would sing something like "Motorboat" in her angelic tones wringing perfect magic with Dad's voice in the duet, and I could look around and see a band. Right there in our house.
I was still running up the road to jam with Glen, and it was a funny thing: I was getting bigger than they were. Fatter and deeper. There can be no denying it, and I wouldn't want to: when we heard Led Zeppelin's "Black Dog" it was like a bomb going off, and I looked years down the road to a day when I might cop George Harrison's parts in "Back In The USSR". But I also had something they didn't. I could go home and rock a rhythm to Dad's cover of Chet Atkins' "Levee Walkin'" and get the same feeling, which can really only be best described with one word:
It's really true. If it can't swing, then it can't rock or jump or wail or anything else, and my Dad had it in spades. He brought it to the whole family, and we made the most of it.
We have my grandfather on tape. Grandma and Grandpop came to Hawaii to visit us in 1971. Dad was proud as he could be to show off his little band to a man who was playing professionally by the early twenties. Fifty years later, Grandpop could look down two generations at something happening with the same devotion to craft and hard work, and he was just delighted. He would sit there with us playing "The Swallow" on the mandolin, in its precisely dainty three-quarter waltz time, and ride the band synergy as fully as he ever had. I could tell: he was working at it, too. He'd never forgotten how.
Michael and I could look back two generations and understand that "swing" was a universal concept. It was clearly discernable in the eyes of a seventy-one year-old man burning with a strain of youth available to anyone who knew how to get there, which was through hard attention to the second-to-second real-time work of landing on the right note at the right time as everyone else, in order that something of etherial perfection might appear in the air between several minds for just a moment before it went past into history, but everyone had known its existence. We knew, most of all, because of how we knew what it took to make that happen. And it was something that elevated kids to peerage with a man of seven decades' experience, and brought him back to the searing brilliance of childhood: there was nothing in the world like it when he would just wink at us at the end of one of those performances. It was more than anything, or everything.
Over more than thirty years now, nobody knows how many people who might have played, but never did, have sat around gathering the perfection Dad has inspired... and demanded. Everywhere we have ever lived has been filled with friends and family who were graced to sort of take it for granted while Dad's band has filled the air with fleeting moments disappearing into the past. It's always been somewhat poignant to me how they could hear this thing he's wrought through untold and unsung hours when nobody was present to know the intense effort at catching one fleeting chord change over and over again until it went by with just the right flow... as well as linking a whole train of them into a song ready for performance... and then a whole train of songs to make up an evening. It's a close secret: the thing that happens between us, while people in the room applaud and cheer after something like my Mother, my sister Agnes, and Dad singing the three-part round of Red Nichols' "Five Pennies". They don't know how good it is. They get to hear it, but that's nothing in life like actually doing that, and it's kind of sad to me that they have no idea what it's really about. Bless their hearts, it's always good to me that they enjoy it the way they do, but I've always wished that they could know the infinite depth of satisfaction of being able to look around our band with that wink, from the inside.
It was in the mid-80's that Dad had cooked up his arrangement of "The Christmas Song" (Mel Tormé & Robert Wells). Grousing, as usual, over the fact that we somehow never got around to rehearsing Christmas music until December, he nonetheless introduced it to Michael, Mom, and me. By then, Mom was playing bass, and the band was more serious than ever. My best friend Alan Macomber was playing drums with us, and Alan was a serious player. He had a demanding touch for arrangements that surpassed even Dad's. (Drummers are like that.) And the band was playing weekly around central New York, centering on the town of Cortland. We had gigs in various local bars where the whole country/swing root of things had a market, and it was great fun.
Some of the rock crowd I was hanging out and working with couldn't figure it out, but the better of them understood that there was something serious going on here. My pal Danny Stillwell was a regular bitch guitar player. He was making a living playing, and there wasn't anything loud and screaming happening anywhere in the world that he couldn't handle with amazing style. But he'd seen Dad and me do a local cable-TV session and realized that here was something going on that he couldn't fathom. There was just no denying that when we had "The Bells Of Saint Mary's" up on its particular half-time roll, it was as powerful a groove as something like the Eagles' "Life In The Fast Lane," it its own mysterious way.
"What the hell are you doing with those rhythms?" he'd asked me after he'd seen it.
"What my Dad taught me," I told him, and I realized even more that I'd been given something really rare. Nobody I knew had ever learned how to play those old swing-based soc rhythms.
About a week before one of our Christmas shows that year, Dad popped the "Christmas Song" arrangement on us and said he'd like to perform it for an audience. What happened next was an intensity bordering on panic.
I remember a session in which Michael, Dad, and I sat around for hours tossing chords at that thing in order to flavor it just exactly right. None of us ever went looking for sheet music: we would just hack at it until it sounded the way we wanted it to, and the result has always been that the original sounds of Dad's world-view - rooted at least as far back as the 1940's - survive down to the turn of the century.
What a effort that was, that night: sitting by the fire in Dad's living-room and figuring out what we wanted to hear.
Set the key: "Okay, it's in 'C' ". Right: Dad knows his part - he's been beating on it for weeks already - and Michael is going to lace the melody with his own hamornic bits on the mandolin (blessed as he is with amazing, not to mention sickening to someone like me, improvisational skills: he can just make up stuff out of thin-air where I have to fight tooth & nail for every note), but I'm the one who has to chord the damned thing.
"Yeah, yeah, yeah..." I'm sounding out loud: "C, E-minor, A-minor, C7...and we're into the C7 subordinate bits to the F-major...which isn't really a modulation because it keeps going through E-minor to end up at the F-minor tonic to the C... okay... that C7 is going to be a 9th, actually... Right. Let's take it that far."
Off it goes. "From the edge" (the beginning).
"Jack Frost nipping at your nose..." (halt)
"That's ascending. C-major. Up through D, somehow, but the major ain't right."
Dad and Mike are throwing blind stabs at it, but The Theory Kid is on a roll. "No, listen: it's minors all the way up. D-minor. E-minor. B-minor. And then... that's a B-flat 7th. That's right. Listen to me..."
"Folks dressed up like eskimoes..."
"Hear it? Yes. That's right. Around again for the second time from the C. Okay, let's go."
It sounds a lot more simple here than it was that night, and we beat on it endlessly that week. In fact, we were still beating on it, just to make sure, minutes before we loaded the gear on Friday night to take it out in public. Dad wasn't completely sure of it, and Michael was still picking at it. (Hey, Mike: I want to say right here and now that I shouldn't have told you that night that you were "full of shit". You're not, obviously. However, I'm also going to say that your suggested B-flat-7th glissando has never worked where you suggested it, because it can't be done the same way as the preceding C9. I'm telling you.)
It was just a little VFW hall in a small town, full of people who'd driven from their surrounding farms through the snow to have a good time on a Friday night. It was a Christmas party, though. The place was decorated in the old homespun way of such places out where the lights shine against surrounding darkness, and most people can hold in one hand the number of moments - throughout a lifetime - that feel the way that night did to me.
The time came to lay something new on them, which they'd never heard us play before, and we all took a deep breath as we stepped up to the edge. The place went quiet from the opening chords, and the world closed to the confines of that room, perfectly floating on one passing moment so long and luxurious that nothing else mattered. Our singer Walt's voice drew everyone away to a place so easy to be, and nobody out there knew how long it had been in the making.
Of course, it was nothing like a "miracle". But it seemed like one, when it happened.
Thirty-one years into the miracle, now, I'm so happy to tag my father with responsibility for all of it... rather the way he tagged his L-47 with my name for Christmas in 1970.
Thanks, Dad. I love you dearly.
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