Throughout Nine Decades, I’ve Stayed Original
— While the world keeps playing cover tunes of war, neglect and deprivation!
It was 1963. At age 13, I was ready to become the world’s greatest guitar player. I believed the jumpstart I’d need as a newly-minted teenager had come my way.
T’was a beautiful day in my middle class neighborhood of little boxes, in Hampton (Hampton Beach), New Hampshire.
Me and the Brookfield neighborhood bully, Billy Burke, were hanging out in my living room, watchin’ black and white television. Who knows what was on. It could have been anything from Clyde Crashcup, F-Troop, Major Mudd or a Twilight Zone. But it was dinner-gettin’-ready-time and my mom was cookin’ up nice smells in the kitchen.
Billy was about to head back to his house up the street when suddenly my father, home from work, swirled his Ford Galaxy into the driveway under my garage door basketball hoop. In our neighborhood sports ruled. We had it all, The Baron’s Field was our baseball field, we had a full-sized hockey pond nearby, football was good in anybody’s back yard and our driveways all sported the basketball hoops.
In a surprise move my dad didn’t just exit the car and walk straight into the house. Instead, he got out, wandered about the yard, sauntered about the driveway while looking up and down the street. It seemed he was hoping to get a wave in for a neighbor.
That’s what our neighborhood was like back in those days. Friendly! We were all living The American Dream. A youngster growing up? It’s all I ever knew. Anyway, seeing nobody around to wave hello he went to the back door of his car. With all of the grace of the best dad in the world, from the back seat he pulled out a guitar case.
Immediately sparked with excitement, I jumped everywhere I could in the living room, knowing I was getting a guitar. I yelled out, “I got a guitar! I got a guitar! I got a guitar!” My mom came out of the kitchen to check on the commotion and I could sense Bully Billy seemed a bit jealous. But this didn’t matter. What mattered was: I now had a guitar!
Soon I’d be playing Apache by The Ventures! Already a sharp ballplayer, I was all set to become a guitar player. Who needed an ego-building extraordinaire kit. Mine was already natural, smooth and ready to go.
A humble man, my father tried to pull off the surprise by entering the back door of the house. It didn’t work. Billy and me pounced on him the moment his head peeped through the door. He broke into a smile, showed the guitar and laid it out onto the dining room table. He said he got it from a friend, which gave a nice feel to having it.
Inside the case was an old Kay guitar, much like this one:
With a never-ending smile, I strummed and strummed and strummed. I wandered around like I knew how to play. I had created my own man cave pad in the basement, which is where I lived in our house. So Billy and I brought the guitar downstairs, put some 45 records on and cluelessly began playing along. Billy, a year older than me, suddenly blossomed into becoming a drummer. For a brief bit, we pretended we were real good.
Yes, we knew we were stars!
But soon it was dinner time. Billy went home.
[As a sidenote, I may have had the edge over Billy by getting that wonderful guitar, but he got me back a couple years later. Big-time. While visiting his house, his old man pulled up in a ’65 Mustang and gave it to him as a birthday gift. But it was hard for me to get jealous since I was still a year away from becoming old enough to drive. I did, however, enjoy ridin’ shotgun on many a cruise up and down the Hampton Beach boulevard, local cops on one side and state cops on the other.]
Over dinner, we planned how I was going to learn to play. My parents said they’d check around and see if they could find someone to give me lessons. We also talked about music courses for high school where I had just become a freshman. Looking back on this special day, I must confess: It once felt great being a 13-year-old kid!
But my anticipated fate of becoming a future Jimi Hendrix-type unexpectedly waxed tricky in the coming months.
You see, during those years I lived in the world of baseball. My bicycle wheels didn’t have Mickey Mantle or Ted Williams cards flattering my spokes. Nope. My wheels saw Luis Aparicio and Nellie Fox cards. I was a ‘Go-Go White Sox’ shortstop speedster who had accolades written about my ballplaying abilities before I got into high school.
By the way, Billy’s old man not only bought him a Mustang, but for two years in a row he’d hit a 100 ground balls to us daily. That effort, plus The Baron’s lumpy field, turned me into a great shortstop — nothin’ got past me! Although I needed to learn how to play guitar, first and foremost I was a shortstop.
My parents set me up with guitar lessons with a guy who lived a couple of towns over in Seabrook. He clearly knew how to play. In fact, he was very good. But, for me, his environment was what I considered strange compared to the straight world to which I was raised and accustomed. Essentially, it didn’t help I felt odd being there. Indeed, his world was very different from our world. Retrospectively, I should have viewed this as a strength rather than a weakness. This was an error in judgment on my part.
But the worst part was not the feeling of being there, but rather what he taught me. My first lesson I learned Little Brown Jug.
I aced it in no time. My next lesson was Yankee Doodle. What? Yankee Doodle? No problem. I easily aced Yankee Doodle. Seemingly, I was on my way to becoming a guitarist.
From the day I got my guitar onward, we then had a neighborhood band in my basement. We’d play any kind of instrument we could invent. But our backbone was my guitar together with sticks and pots and pan and any 45 rpm record that would fit with our temperament. We didn’t have to be good at playing. We just had to be good imagining that we were. That’s how it worked back then.
It is with absolute certainty I know that we drove my mother nuts. But she was the very best kind of mom — Den Mother for Cub Scouts, help with Boy Scouts, clean uniforms for sports and now she had become Band Mother. We often let her bribe us what with with cookies, brownies, cupcakes and pie.
But one thing was perfectly clear. Although I showed my friends I knew how to play Little Brown Jug and Yankee Doodle on guitar, they were like: So what! Those tunes don’t fit! We needed songs like Apache, Wipe-Out, The Wanderer by Dion, Ahab The A-Rab, The Sheik of The Burning Sands, The Peppermint Twist or anything Bo Didley or Chuck Berry.
So at my third lesson I told my instructor I didn’t want anything to do with Little Brown Jug and Yankee Doodle. I wanted and needed to play Apache. I rattled off a few other tunes. This is where my teacher made his mistake. Although he played Apache for me, he didn’t show me how I could easily do it. Instead, he told me to stick with the two songs he already taught me.
I quit my lessons.
Eventually, the basement pots and pans band caused all but a couple of my strings to eventually break on my guitar. They never got replaced. But our band played on. Also, back then, too many other heavy things were on the rise. I found myself becoming a poet instead of a musician … but still I excelled at baseball.
So much began happening. JFK was assassinated. Russia was being The Bear. The Civil Rights Movement and The Voting Rights Movement were in full force and The Vietnam War was raging with slaughter. We began hearing about people we knew who were dying from the war.
Bob Dylan, Donovan, Buffy Saint-Marie, Phil Ochs and The Yardbirds were showing powerful lyrics and this helped to cement my own poetry. To me, college seemed privileged and authoritarian. So I repudiated higher education. Instead, I hitchhiked all over the country going to concerts, reciting poetry and playing chess everywhere I could. Eventually, my beliefs evolved politically to the point where I opposed competition.
I quit playing baseball!
Intellectually, I knew our world was organized into failure. One of the poems I wrote was entitled Page One, World Two. When I was born so also were nuclear weapons and we had grown together — neither wanted the other! The raping and pillaging of Third World Nations was prominent to anyone who sought knowledge. I came to discover and learn about the military industrial complex at a young age. My life has been dedicated to fighting against it ever since.
But a darkened shadow eventually enveloped everything I held precious. I became drafted into military service. This was where my personal fight for life began. My adulthood was realizing I was gonna be drafted. I already chose not to run to Canada or stink my way out of military service like Ted Nugent. Deep down I felt a commitment to my nation. So I met my obligation head-on and applied for noncombatant conscientious objection status. This meant they could draft me but they could not legally force me to carry a weapon.
I vowed never to kill!
I was a part of the peace movement before I entered the military and while in the military I remained a part of the peace movement. I applied for a discharge as a full conscientious objector and did my utmost to help end the Vietnam War by starting up a GI resistance newspaper and a coffeehouse at Fort Devens, Massachusetts. Eventually, I got an honorable discharge as a conscientious objector and I continued organizing within the peace movement until the war finally ended.
When the peace movement ended I got into union organizing and successfully was part of a campaign to create a union out of a small machine shop in Boston’s Roxbury section. But I got fired for my effort. While on unemployment, I organized a rock n’ roll band and ended up managing rock bands for several years. But I was plagued by the fact I was organizing other people’s talents when I knew I had my own.
Finally, at age 30, I bought a 1956 Gibson Les Paul, Jr., a 1960 Gibson B-25 12-string and a 1963 Gibson J-50. My theory was by having such great guitars I’d become forced into learning how to play. No Little Brown Jug, no Yankee Doodle for me. I immediately began writing and making up chords for my own songs.
This was one of the most frustrating things I’ve ever done in life. Why? Because I really looked like I knew how to play guitar, but I didn’t. I’d show up at a party with my great guitars only to let other musicians play them. Since I didn’t do cover songs I’d only play my original songs when the party died down, usually just before the sun would come up —and only a few would be around to hear them.
While teaching myself how to play guitar I held several jobs. I was a typesetter for the local weekly newspaper and a sports correspondent for the daily newspaper. I worked part time in the Portsmouth Athenaeum. I scrapped and scraped doing whatever I could. But mostly I drove a cab and I’d keep my guitar in the trunk and would play it during idle time.
In what became perhaps the most ironic moment of my lifetime, one night in my cab I got a call to pick up a fare at The Dragon Seed, a Chinese Restaurant in Kittery, Maine. It recently had begun featuring country and western music on weekends. When I got there I couldn’t find the cab fare outside. So I went inside the club.
Lo and behold, to my absolute and utter astonishment, on stage performing the song Cab Driver, by The Mills Brothers, was the same guy who taught me how to play Little Brown Jug and Yankee Doodle when I was 13 years old. He was on stage in a quartet doing a gig of cover tunes. I felt completely vindicated for quitting my lessons. There was nothing unique or extraordinary about his gig at The Dragon Seed. To me, it seemed mundane.
But faced with fact I had no choice but to stand in the doorway of the club and stare. It was as if I had become frozen in time. I began thinking that God had called in the fare … which still I couldn’t find. But I stood tall. I kept thinking how my guitar was in the trunk of my cab and already I had written over a dozen original songs. I was already way beyond doing cover tunes.
I felt like the hands of time, the wheel of karma had churned so mightily, to a point that understanding was informing me that my teenage basement pots and pan band made perfect sense, that it was the better alternative than the rigidity or discipline of those guitar lessons.
Why? Because the basement band was at least an all-original! So what if we weren’t to my mother’s liking! Meanwhile, as I looked on I realized my once-teacher had become like an apparition stuck in time, caught in a duty of only performing the same cover tunes over and over. I thankfully thought: No Little Brown Jug, no Yankee Doodle for me. Nope, no way!
I stayed for a few songs, resisting the temptation to approach him on stage. He was performing country and western tunes, so I just let him be. As I walked back to my cab I thought: “It really didn’t matter I never learned how to play Apache.” Interestingly, as I was getting in my cab somebody approached and asked if they could get a ride into Portsmouth. How nice! This magic moment saw me get paid for my warp in time.
The only downside? For the rest of the night, I couldn’t get that damn song Cab Driver out of my head. It became engrained in my brain and stuck like a broken record. Heck, it’s now back at me again. While driving back to Portsmouth, I figured out how the band might have ended up playing Cab Driver. Someone must have announced there was a cab outside waiting for someone, and the band picked up on the tune.
Lucky for me, being an authentic people person, I really did enjoy driving a cab. So I can live with this.
As time moved on, after five years of playing every day, I finally got pretty good as a musician. I had written dozens of original songs. But rather than nurturing and developing them, getting them recorded and possibly begin playing out on a folk-rock touring circuit, I got back into politics instead. When the housing crunch hit and folks were losing their ground, I was elected as a state representative.
Overall, I knew I didn’t wanna become the governor so I quit politics after serving two terms. I wanted to hang out with musicians; not politicians. My political career ended when I ran for Congress calling for drug legalization — this finally freed me to become a Harvard Square street musician … a step up in life!
It wasn’t until the year 2010 that I finally got to live out my teenage rock n’ roll dream. My elder years saw me pull together a couple of all-original rock bands. One was called The Rolling Beatles, which became defunct when a precious band member passed away. My other band is current. It’s called Climate Change and we’re now getting over the Covid-19 hump and, hopefully, will soon perform again. We mostly play throughout the Metro Boston area.
The Rolling Beatles (a Youtube playlist of several songs — make sure autoplay is on)
The Climate Change Band (a YouTube playlist of several songs — make sure autoplay is on)
It took a very long time to get past Little Brown Jug and Yankee Doodle … but I pulled it off. Now at age 72, I can attest we’ve moved well past the pots and pans. But on the downside, I think the groupies might have gotten just a tad too old — lol!