Thursday, April 1, 2010

And You May Ask Yourself, Well, How Did I Get Here? (Part One: From Cradle to Cacti)

8-Track Tapes, The Fab Four and Match of the Day

In the words of another famous, yet more treacly old song, "Where do I begin?" I begin -- or began -- in Poughkeepsie, in 1965, if you really must know. If you hung with the notorious gangs of the day, the Bibs and the Cribs, your mom was at Vassar or your dad worked for IBM. For little old me it was the latter. But, Poughkeepsie, I never knew ye (sniff...). Scarcely eight months had Gerbered by and the parental units opted to follow the dusty wagon train to the far West. Yup, they packed up the Chevy and moved to Arizona. Swimming pools. Cacti.

My mom was petrified; my father, a survivor of invasions by the Nazis and the communists in his native Budapest took it all -- and us with him -- in stride. So began my youthful southwest sojourn. I grew up in various suburbs in and around Phoenix, southern California and I even spent 365 days in El Paso. El Paso, I never knew ye.

And all this while there was music. Dad dug the classics: Beethoven, Mozart, Liszt, Brahms, Bach, all those Strauss-ers and anything opera or even barely operatic. He pushed his stereo up to 11 when listening to the Dies Irae from Verdi's Requiem or Wagner's "The Ride of the Valkyries." And then there was the host of Broadway and other sundry musicals among the parental vinyl: Cabaret, Fiddler on the Roof, Man of La Mancha, Mary Poppins. It was living-room music: If you strayed into the living room chances were there was something spinning on the turntable, and it was loud.

* * *

I love music of various styles, periods, moods and meanings, though I trend towards a monotheistic zealotry when it comes to favorite acts. I can spend months listening to one band's work (hell, I can listen to a single album, a single song) to the neglect of all else. My first taste of rock-and-roll monotheism, beyond Sesame Street's greatest hits,* was The Beatles. No surprise: That religion still holds sway over me.

It began when friends of my folks bought my sister and me (I was six) the Beatles' Red and Blue albums. On 8-track cassette. Remember those? Never mind. I listened exclusively to those two double-albums for the next few years. Oh, and Carly Simon's greatest hits, also on 8-track. There may have been a Beach Boys album in there, too. And whatever resounded from the living room on any given weekend. Semi-mostly-exclusively, then. Anyway, if you want to know which musical root of mine is longest, strongest and nurtures me 'til this very day, 'tis The Beatles.

When I finally picked up a guitar, I played from the Fab Four's canon. Exclusively. From three holy song books of limited accuracy. For five, six, seven years. And even then all I did was strum the chords as written. Never bothered to figure out the intricacies of the actual guitar parts. At least not until college; but that part of the story's coming later. Did it matter then? Nope! Nirvana in familiar chord changes, singing along to increasingly frayed and folded musical charts in those songbooks.

This eclectic mix of Beatles, classical music and show tunes taught me that great songs have great hooks, compelling stories and intricate (or interesting) structures; and the best music moves you and sticks with you and acts as a shamanic guide to memories that, ordinarily, would have evaporated long ago, except for that soundtrack in your head. I can still walk into the living room and flip through my dad's record collection, hear those favorite tunes, cower at the volume. I can hear the click of the 8-track swapping tracks on Red and Blue albums (and interrupting Carly's crooning -- what dolt couldn't figure out how to get an entire single song on an entire single track?).

* * *

What cemented my complete longing to absorb everything Beatles had nothing to do with music at all. I turned on the TV one Saturday morning and, instead of a cartoon, there was a soccer (sorry, football) game on. It was PBS broadcasting Match of the Day (this was back when there was only a single match broadcast in its entirety, unlike the feast of footie available on the airwaves today). A team all in red was elegantly, powerfully running a blue and white team ragged on its way to winning the game. The reds' overwhelming ability -- a ballet of force and subtlety -- amazed young me. I was hooked. I learned the team were Liverpool FC -- Liverpool! -- where the Beatles were from! Such synthesis! Such convergence! Aye, I was hooked, reeled in, fileted, deep fried and served with a heaping side of chubby greasy chips on a newspaper wrapper with salt and vinegar condiments. Liverpool. Home of great football and great music. This I divined from the 'burbs in old Phoenix in the mid-1970s. Such a prodigy.

I suppose had I truly prodigidized (word, no?), I'd have sought out more Beatles and more Liverpool and found a way to get there, to be there. Well, in a way, that came next, almost.

Maybe I'll get around to writing the next leg of the journey (the next course of the feast?) sooner rather than later? Stay tuned.

*I can remember a particular fondness and affinity for a rocking little number at the end of the Sesame Street album, an actual pop song, produced and sung like one and featuring one of the humans, no muppets. I'd sing it under my breath in the front yard of our first Phoenix home as far from the house as I could get without being seen from the street, 'cos I was shy. "Some day, little children, on a day I'm thinking of...there's gonna be a world of people, yeah, and they'll live in peace of love...Yeah they'll live in peace and love some day, to last a hundred lifetimes through...And you know who's gonna make it happen? Little children I'm depending on you..." Hmmm, guess that song had more of an impact than I realized.