How music changed my life.
I started playing music about thirty-nine years ago, the year was nineteen seventy-two. I still remember my parents asking me if I wanted to take guitar lessons I was about eight and my younger sister, father, uncle, and cousin had already started taking them. So my parents set me up with private lessons with a guy named Rich Harris, Rich and his wife Vivian had been teaching guitar in Oak Park for a few years but they had just opened their own music shop at Lake St. and Ridgeland Ave. “Guitar Fun” they called it. They had cobbled together several store fronts so they sell instruments and sheet music in front while having space in the back for lessons. At first I used a borrowed beginner’s guitar the neck was slightly warped and it didn’t have a great sound. Of course my having just started playing didn’t help make it sound any better. I have to give Rich credit he had a lot of patience, you need it if you’re going to teach young kids. The first year of learning can be the worse when you’re young. Your left hand cramps up from trying to hold down strings while reaching them around the neck of the guitar. The strings themselves can cut into your fingertips on your left hand and cause blisters on your right hand from strumming or plucking on the strings. But I was determined to learn. Rich started teaching me chords right away.
He believed that it was easier for kids to learn chords then notes and it’s the quickest way to get them playing songs. He was right and within a couple of months and lessons once a week I was able to play my first song. I don’t remember what song it was. Rich’s background was in country and folk music but he could play anything from blues to zydeco. It was most likely a folk song. I do however remember the early days of practicing. Afterward looking at the lines in my fingertips from tightly gripping the strings so they would make something close to the correct the correct sound to that burning and stinging of my right hand from strumming the strings. A lot of kids hate having to practice, not me. I enjoyed the challenge of trying to get the guitar to make the sounds it was supposed to make, and yet with all my enthusiasm there were still times when I found myself getting upset and frustrated from not being able to learn something fast enough or not being able to properly hold a chord or make it sound right.
As time progressed I got better, playing became significantly easier and a lot more fun. I also upgraded from a “student guitar” to an Epiphone acoustic guitar which my parents purchased for me. The new guitar was of higher quality and made playing it even easier. From basic chords I was able to progress into more advanced forms of playing. It was around that time that I spent some time assisting Rich with some group classes he taught. I was about twelve at the time and my job was to assist students that had missed a previous week with learning what was missed and also what was being covered in the current lesson. I was usually responsible for one to three people; they varied in age from about twelve to adult. I did that for about a year.
By the time I was about fourteen I had stopped the formal once a week lessons and began concentrating on learning the kinds of music that I liked. I’d still go back for instruction from time to time. But mostly I was on my own. I was a big Gordon Lightfoot fan at the time and spent most of my time playing through his various song books, going back to the albums to listen to how the song was played, and then back again to try to figure it out for myself. It was then that I really started performing; I would play in school talent shows, and other places as the opportunity arose.
Then came the high school years, through my freshman year I basically kept my music to myself while trying to adjust from public to private school. During this time though, I did start teaching myself tenor banjo and spent a brief time performing with a local song and dance troupe. Then by sophomore year I went back to playing in the schools talent show. I had been working backstage for school productions and thought I’d get back into the limelight. I’ve never been much of a singer so I played instrumental pieces. It was during this time I learned the ins and outs of playing in front of a large audience. Typically the shows had attendances of between five hundred to one thousand people a night. The audience was usually friends and family of the students as well as alumni, teachers, faculty, and students.
After graduation I hooked up with a band called Rick Starr and the Midnight Grocers we were one of many local bands playing around the western suburbs of Chicago at that time. I added and electric guitar, and bass to my growing collection of instruments. We played mostly 50’s and 60’s rock and roll with a few more modern rock and blues tunes added to the mix. We played in the various bars and nightclubs in the area as well as weddings, block parties, and other special events. We even donated concerts to several non for profit organizations and events. In between the paying gigs we also played open mic nights around the city and suburbs, either as a group or as individuals it was great way of not only meeting and exchanging ideas with other musicians, but also getting exposure in the clubs.
Through the open mics we met and started jamming with another local band Route 66 who at time was the house band for WCKG radio 105.9 FM. We would usually run into them at open mics in Forest Park, we sit in with them on songs or they would sit in with us. At this point, you might think that playing in a band is a lot of fun, and it really is. Though, it’s also a lot of work, getting to gigs a couple of hours before the concert for set up and sound checks, then you have to play the concert and finally, tear down the equipment and transport it all home. Many nights we closed the bar or club by three a.m. and I did not get home until six or seven in the morning after everyone and their gear had been dropped off at their home. I played with them for six years, before artistic differences over the bands direction caused a split up of the band.
After Rick Starr and the Midnight Grocers broke up I auditioned with a few other bands but none of them really had what I was looking for. Although I did almost become a Screaming Idiot, it was the band’s name they and I had actually agreement that I would play with them since their bassist had left them (he thought it would break up the band) but he decided to return and they took him back, so in the end I was rejected by a group of screaming idiots, I’m not sure that’s a loss. It was about that time that friends introduced me to an organization called The Society of Creative Anachronisms, or SCA for short. They’re a non for profit group that studies the medieval periods of history known as the early and late renaissances. They do this by re-creating and living in these periods. Through them I was able to concentrate on instrumental pieces from those time periods. Usually playing solo but also occasionally getting a chance to perform with other musicians. It was great fun no matter what I was doing musically with the SCA, I learned a lot. After my time with the SCA had run its course, I stopped performing in public. Life being as it is requiring more of my time and effort then I could afford to spend on less profitable pursuits.
To this day I still play the guitar; my current guitars are a Tama Dreadnaught. Its deep rich tones and playability are light-years from my first guitar and a Yamaha 12 string it’s one of the older styles with the slotted head stock and it has been modified so I can plug it in to an amplifier. I also still occasionally work on the tenor banjo, bass guitar, and other instruments. Whenever people ask me if there’s a song that has particular meaning in my life I’m never sure what to say. Having been a musician most of my life there have been so many. That I’d have to say that music itself has changed my life in so many different ways that I’m not entirely sure I’m completely aware of all the changes. It’s always with me. Every time a I hear a sound that is repetitive, or just a droning tone, siren or bell ringing I think about what could be played to the beat or built on the sound.