When I was like 3 or 4, my grandmother used to sing an old classic to me, "The Tennessee Waltz." I still love that song. But back then, she would sing it to me and it would always make me cry. I don't know, maybe it was something in my Grandmother's voice, conveying the emotion of the song to me. Or maybe I pick up on the sadness of the scenario depicted in the song. Maybe you know the story. The first person takes his/her lover to the dance. There, they run into and old friend. The first person introduces his/her lover to the old friend and the friend has a dance with the lover. While they are dancing, they fall in love with each other, leaving the first person to sing this sad song.

My grandmother would sing it to me; I would start to cry, so she would stop. But I would insist that she continue. "But it makes you cry," she would say. Still I would insist on more, only to cry again.

I guess that was my first lesson in the awesome power of music. I'll never forget it. But I'm also occasionally reminded, by encounters with less fortunate souls, that there are plenty of people walking the planet who seem to be missing that ... "connection". I mean that ability, not just to hear music or to keep the beat, but to feel its emotion and power. I can't imagine life without that. And I count myself among the very fortunate to be able to have that experience.

When I was about 10 years old, I started playing the trumpet. My Dad had played the trumpet when he was a kid, and so of course, I thought that's what I wanted to do too. I wasn't too bad at it. But I never made it passed 2nd chair in the school band. My music teacher told my folks and me that I had a "natural lip." Maybe I did and maybe I didn't. But what I didn't have was the self-discipline required to sit for an hour at a time, practicing scales. I would start out doing that, and usually managed to keep it up for about half an hour or so. Then I would lose my will power and start playing, by ear, something I had heard on the radio. I would play each note, figure out what note it was by the fingering, and then write it on a score sheet. I'd keep that up until I had the whole song scored. Man, my music teacher was not too happy about that. But at least he didn't thump me on the head with that big ruby ring of his - something I had seen him do more than once during band practice sessions at school.

Then one night, while on my way home from a Boy Scout meeting, I changed my life. My fellow Scout and best friend, Terry and I were walking along a freshly graded dirt road. We were pushing our bicycles along, lighting and throwing those little "lady finger" firecrackers out into the dark of the moonless night - watching the magnificent light show they provided and getting off on the sound of the explosions, as boys will do. It was in Thornton Colorado, a suburb of Denver, where exploding fireworks were illegal. The road grader had left mounds of dirt and rock lining the shoulders of the road. As we walked along, thoroughly engrossed in our illegal activity, we suddenly noticed car lights approaching from a distance. We simultaneously jumped to the only logical conclusion. It had to be the cops and they had to be coming for us! We both took off running, pushing our bicycles. Terry headed toward one side of the road and I toward the other. Not seeing the dirt ridge in the dark and in a panic to get away, I ran as fast as I could along side my bicycle, holding on to the handlebars. When the front wheel connected with the dirt ridge, the whole front end of the bicycle flew straight up in the air. The handle bar caught me just between my chin and bottom lip. The force drove one of my upper teeth clean through my bottom lip. I still have a small scare there. The Doc stitched it up and I was ok after a few days. But, needless to say, my trumpet playing came to a proverbial screeching halt. Oh, I would have been able to play again as soon as the lip healed completely. Who knows, it might have been an improvement! But that's not the way life works, is it?

A couple of days later, my Dad brought home a little plastic strung Ukulele and taught me the five chords to an old flapper song from the Roaring Twenties, "Five Foot Two." Well, of course, I fell in love with the Ukulele. Then Dad brought home a baritone Ukulele, which is essentially a small four-string guitar. This was the point of no return.

It didn't take long to get hopelessly hooked on the baritone Ukulele. Dad taught me a couple more songs (I never did know for sure where he was learning that stuff). And then I began to experiment and learn a few chords by myself. And, unfortunately, my interest in the trumpet kind of faded away. I wish I had continued to play the trumpet as well. It would now be just one more instrument in my arsenal.

After a couple years of playing the Ukulele, I figured it was time for a guitar. My first guitar was some department store piece of *#%! It came in a cardboard box and cost all of $15. Please understand, I was not ungrateful then and I'm still not. Like so many of us, it was all my folks could afford at the time. But man did I pay the price for learning my first 6 string guitar chords on that thing! It was of course, an acoustic instrument with real steal strings. Wow! But it would fret-out so badly that I unwittingly developed a unique fingering technique. It involved pulling and pushing the strings in various directions, depending on the chord being played, so as to compensate for the de-tuning effect that the "instrument" produced. I suppose I was lucky that all the out-of-tune strings for any given chord (I only knew chords played up at the nut end of the neck) were always flat. I could stretch the individual strings as required to pull them into tune. I say I had to pay for learning this technique because I had to unlearn all of those bad habits once I got a decent playing instrument in my hands.

I did get a decent instrument before too long. Oh it was no Less Paul or Stratocaster. But it was electric and it played in tune. Too cool! I worked hard at unlearning my bad fretting habits and soon my cousin, Dave who played snare drum in the school band, got himself a drum kit and we started our first "garage band." Shortly after that, my younger brother, Mark joined us as the bass player. We rocked. At least we thought we did. It was great! We were even told that if we practiced really hard for 6 weeks, we would be taken to a recording studio to record some of the songs we had learned. Naturally, we believed it, and we worked our butts off practicing all the songs we knew and learning new ones. On the appointed day, we packed up our equipment and headed for the studio located in the big city. Looking back, it's surprising that there actually was a recording studio right where we were told to find it. But, of course, the person who had made the promise was nowhere to be found. And the folks at the studio had no idea who we were or what we were talking about. Yeah, it was kind of a harsh lesson. But it didn't really hurt us. And we were a better band for it. We knew those songs forward, backward and inside out. I guess that was the plan. Who knows?

Over the years, I've been in so many of those "garage bands," I've lost track. Like a million others, I've played in bars, barns, from the back of truck beds in shopping center parking lots, after hours clubs, strip joints, proms, parties, battles of the bands, campaigns, on the radio, on TV, in churches, in studios, stoned, sober, happy, sad, inside, outside, in tune and out of tune. Oh and of course, on the Internet. I've had the pleasure of jamming and partying with some of the biggest names in the industry. I've seen parts of the business from the inside. Some of it's cool and some of it not so cool.

These days, I mostly like to make demo recordings of the songs I write. Songwriting is about the most enjoyable and rewarding thing I know. I also believe that the ability to make music is a gift. While it starts as raw talent and most of us have to work our tails off to even reach a point where we feel like we can share it with others, (which must surely be one of it's primary purposes) I think we owe it to ourselves and the Universe to do just that. Buy hey, it's also important to HAVE FUN!

 

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