Monday, May 4, 2015

My Rock And Roll Life

    I guess my rock and roll life truly started when I was about 6 years old.  Somehow my family had acquired a cheap acoustic guitar, and along the way and it ended up becoming mine.  I never paid it much attention, to tell the truth.  Then one summer the family took a trip to my Aunt and Uncle’s ranch in Arizona and my cousin Denise played and sang a song for us. “Stewball” by Peter, Paul and Mary.  I was amazed.  I had never seen a real live person, let alone someone I knew, play guitar and sing. Plus, I loved the story about Stewball, a racehorse that never drank water, he only drank wine.  It was only fitting that the song was about a horse because Denise ended up becoming a competitive rider and rodeo queen.  Meanwhile, I would go around singing the song after that, it was stuck in my head for a long time.  
    I also started to play around with the acoustic guitar after that.  I would sit on my bed and figure out simple melody lines to songs on the radio, but I knew nothing about actually playing a guitar.  I didn’t even know how to tune it and it was frustrating when I would learn a song and the strings would detune further and I would have to relearn it again.  The first song I kind of figured out how to play was “Love Is Blue”, not exactly a rocker, but you have to start someplace.  Pathetically, if a string broke, that was it.  Apparently my parents didn’t know where to get strings or even care, for that matter.
            A year or so later, with only four out of tune strings left on my guitar, I strode into the living room to play my first original composition.  It was a autobiographical blues song about my family, which included our dog, a black lab named Max.  It went something like this:

“My mother’s a honky
My father’s a honky
My brother’s a honky
But my dog is a negro”

            Only I didn’t say “negro”.
            Now, I am not going to try to defend my use of racial slurs past the fact that I was only 6 or 7 and I had heard those words but really didn’t understand their full meaning.  I thought I was going to receive applause and compliments, but my parents burst out laughing, then quickly composed themselves and lectured me about using bad and hurtful words.  It was official:  I was a bad boy rock and roller.
            Well, not exactly.  In fact, like most kids that young I listened mainly to what my parents listened to.  I grew up on early 70’s schlock AM radio hits like the rest of my generation.   There was only one other thing I ever loved musically from the early seventies, and boy did I love it.
            My brother was 6 years older than me, and we weren’t that close.  We didn’t hang around together, or share a whole lot of interests when I was young.  That still didn’t deter me from trying to be like him, or copy his tastes in music, tv or movies.  That’s what little brothers do.  My brother liked Jesus Christ Superstar, so of course I liked it.  Well, that’s an understatement.
            I was obsessed with it.  I would listen to it day and night, sing along with the entire record, while acting it out.  It must have been disturbing for my mother if she ever saw me acting out the 39 lashes part while jumping around my bed.  To this day I can sing the entire album and if you’re unlucky enough to be near me when I have a few drinks in me and the party is lagging you might just hear me sing it.
            Jesus Christ Superstar also made me acutely aware of electric guitars.  Now my pathetic acoustic would never do.
            My father used to have an accordion when I was young.  He never had lessons or anything, but he liked to pick out songs by ear.  We used to joke that the only song he could really play on it was “Lady Of Spain.”  For some reason, fathers used to get picked on a lot back in the day, and they probably still do.  He enjoyed playing it though, and that’s all that mattered.
            One day he presented me with an electric guitar!  It was a cheap, no-name Japanese copy of a Fender Stratocaster, but I knew nothing of that.  I just knew it was an electric guitar!  It was awhile until I got a small Gibson amp that my cousin John no longer used and I got to play it like an electric guitar was supposed to be played.  Well, by that I mean amplified.  It was the same playing I did on the acoustic, out of tune, single note melody lines.  Apparently the same problem of getting strings for the acoustic existed for electric guitar strings, that being that I never got a new set.  The e and the b string broke, so I had a four string guitar after that.
            The reason I brought up my fathers accordion in the first place was that unbeknownst to me he had traded it to some guy from work for the guitar!  Looking back, it was such a wonderful and selfless act to give up his accordion that brought him pleasure to get his son an electric guitar.  My father is a very good man and a great father, he was always sacrificing and doing whatever he had to if it meant giving his family a better life.
            Unfortunately I soon lost interest in the guitar.  It was frustrating, having no idea what I was doing, not even having enough strings.  I ended up having more fun taking the guitar apart to see how it worked, repairing it and reassembling it again.  By the age of eleven or twelve I wasn’t even doing that.
     I really progressed backwards from rock and roll too.  I played clarinet in the grade school band for a couple of years, but that really didn’t do it for me.
     I didn’t really have an interest in it again until high school.  I started really getting into rock and roll in high school.  I got more interested in music and learning about how to play it.  I got a better acoustic guitar at that point, and started actually learning how to play.  I had some friends that played other instruments, and soon I got an electric guitar, a real one.  It was a ’72 Gibson SG, and I still have it to this day.  Some friends and I started playing, and while we didn’t have a drummer yet, we were enjoying ourselves. I still have a tape of the first time we played and it’s funny to hear us playing songs from The Monkees and Black Sabbath in the same session!  It’s also funny because one of my friends was playing the drum parts on his knees!  The next time we practiced he upgraded to an upside down wash basket and some cardboard boxes. 
     Probably the best thing about it for me was that my girlfriend from high school was singing for us and she was good.  She also helped me figure out a lot of the guitar stuff.  There is nothing better than making music with your friends.  It was a lot of fun and even if we sounded ridiculous, it didn’t matter.
     Then I met an older guy, Dan.  He was a kind of crazy Vietnam vet, and he lived in a big house in the middle of the woods that he had inherited.  He was also a drummer!  He was actually a really good drummer, and my friends Wade and Bryan and I would go up there a couple times a week and practice.  We were officially a band.  Wade played keyboards and bass, and he was classically trained and very talented.  He helped me immensely and we all got better. Bryan sang.  Plus, being out in the middle of nowhere we could be as loud as we wanted.  We played in the living room, which was empty except for our gear and a couch.  It had a big cathedral ceiling and it sounded great in there.
     Sadly things started to drift apart for me and the band thing.  Wade went off to college, Dan started getting a little too crazy and Bryan and I discovered going out and trying to pick up girls.  I only got served in a bar once in my life before I turned 21, but it had a profound effect.  It was a bar called Chubby’s, and it was a real shit hole.  We went up to the bar and ordered two six packs and they put them on the bar and we paid them.  I couldn’t believe it actually worked!  We were so nervous we hadn’t even been paying attention to our surroundings and we turned and made our way towards the door to get out of there as fast as we could. 
     Halfway to the door though, we stopped and suddenly noticed the band that had been playing the whole time.  It was a band called TT Quick, and they were playing the ACDC song “Whole Lotta Rosie”.  It was like a religious experience.  We just stood dumbfounded, the whole spectacle washing over us, the energy they were putting out and the crowd was giving back.  At that exact moment I knew that I wanted.  I wanted to be out in a bar, listening to a live band play rock and roll.
      It was odd, thinking about it now, that I didn’t aspire to being the band on stage, but to be someone in the crowd.  I have always had a problem thinking of myself as a real musician.  I never had confidence in myself. I saw myself as a barely talented guy hanging out with real musicians that tolerated me because they were my friends.  I guess there was some of that, but looking back I couldn’t have been that bad.  I was kind of the band leader and they were more than willing to treat me like an equal, so I think it was all in my head.
      Part of my problem, and it still is, is that I am lazy.  I do not want to practice all day, I don’t want to work for hours on technique and learning every solo note for note.  I want to just do what I feel and fake my way through what I don’t know. 
      Once I turned 21 though, that wasn’t a problem.  I quickly found that it was much easier to hang out with bands and dress like I was a rock and roller.  I could pull the same girls, have the same notoriety, but none of the actual work.  Heavy Metal, and hair bands ruled the scene at that point, and I would always go out with my long hair teased up to crazy heights, dressed in spandex, scarves, bandanas, boots, every ridiculous thing you could imagine.
            I got a slot on a local college radio station for a time.  I called my show “Them Damn Longhairs” and I played mostly classic rock and newer heavy metal.  I was constantly berated by the station manager and some of the college kids because I wasn’t “alternative” enough, so I would just go out of my way to piss them off.  My station manager would call in during the show and complain that I wasn’t being alternative enough again, so I would then do something like announce the alternative time which was elventy-four- o’six, or something as stupid.  I only lasted the summer.  I didn’t go to college, so students coming back to class in the fall took over my slot.  I was kind of burned out on it by then anyway.
      I was also working midnight shift during the week, and in a record store on the weekends.  I would work until 8:00 on a Friday, then go home, get ready and be on the air at the radio station from 10:00 to 1:00 or 2:00, then be at the record store by 4:00 til 10:00.  I would then go out until whenever, get up and open the shop at 10:00 and work all day Saturday, then repeat for Sunday.  I’m not sure how I did all that in my youth.
     I then lost my regular job, they wanted to get rid of me because they thought I was making too much and they could replace me with a minimum wage worker.  So I just collected unemployment for a few weeks.  Then they called me and asked me to come by and talk about coming back to work for them.  Well, it so happened that the day they wanted me to come in was the same day that I worked at the record store and my boss dared me to come to work in full spandex hair metal regalia.  I got dressed and stopped at my old work place.   There was no better feeling than the looks on their faces when they had to kiss my ass and offer me more money and benefits to come back to work for them while dressed like a Poison album cover exploded on me.  The last thing they asked after I accepted their offer was “Um, you’re not going to come to work dressed like this, are you?”  I laughed and assured them I wouldn’t.
       Once in the late 80’s Bryan and I were eating dinner at Chi-Chi’s Mexican restaurant.  I had my long hair, my bandana as a headband, my wannabe rock star look.  The waitress had been awfully attentive, and I caught other waitresses checking me out.  With all this attention, I thought to myself that I must be looking really good tonight, and my ego grew.  In other words, I was eating it up!
            Towards the end of the meal, my friend pointed to the kitchen door and the group of waitresses in the doorway looking over and pointing at me.  They were talking to a busboy and then pushed him towards us.
            He came over to our table, and sheepishly managed to ask me “Excuse me, but you’re that guy from Cinderella, aren’t you?”
            “No,” I admitted, taken aback, “I’m not him.”
            The busboy turned to the girls and yelled across the room, somewhat disillusioned “It’s not him!”
            The waitresses groaned in disgust and went back to their jobs and no one gave me a second glance.  Now instead of feeling cool and desirable I felt like I stuck out like a sore thumb, dressed like a moron in a restaurant full of families and other normal people.  Our waitress seemed annoyed with me for the rest of the meal, and I couldn’t get out of there fast enough and get to the club where everyone else dressed like an idiot too.
     I loved the clubs.  I was really in my element there.  I was fun to finally be popular and part of the scene.  I had been a misfit my whole life before that, in school and society in general.  Music, like a lot of art, has always provided companionship and a place to fit in for people that don’t have it in their everyday life.  I think that’s why it is so powerful and means so much to us.  I would not be here today if it weren’t for music and books and movies that let me know that I wasn’t the only one in the world that felt like I did. 
     I still played my guitar, and I would on rare occasions get up on stage with a band or two and play or sing a song.  I never took it too seriously or tried too hard, maybe because I was afraid to fail, or maybe just because I was having too much fun with all the other stuff going on. 
     I was actually starting to get an ego, something I was never in danger of developing before.  I thought I was looking good and could have anything I wanted, but of course that was not reality.  I got reminded of it one night while out with my friend Eric.
      We were heading to club in Philly called The Cellblock to see a band.  On the way down we stopped at some strip club because he knew the waitress.  It was depressing, as most strip clubs are, the few customers where some old men and a few rednecks and white trash.  The dancers made their way to us, cooing over us and asking what band we were in and how cool we looked.  Of course Eric and I swelled with pride, there girls knew we were cool and wanted us, just like any girl would.  We must have looked so much better than any of these losers.  What hot girl wouldn’t want to be with two good looking, cool rock and rollers?
     We left after a bit and got to the club.  We were standing at the bar later when we saw the two strippers come in.  Well, we thought to ourselves, this is it.  They obviously knew we were coming here and wanted to get with us.  They walked over to the bar, so I casually asked them if they would like a drink.  They both turned and looked at us with disgust and contempt in their eyes.  They didn’t even respond. I’m not sure they even recognized us. 
     A moment later two muscle bound jocks came in and met up with them and they were together the rest of the night.  It goes without saying that Eric and I were pretty deflated.
      I don’t regret my long hair, spandex wearing phase.  I had a lot of fun with it.  My long hair got me some grief from normal people over the years, but people were generally tolerable about it.  I do have to laugh when I look back at things like wedding pictures when I’m wearing a tux with my long crazy hair.
     After a lot of years doing that I slowly tired of it.  I wasn’t going out as much as I used to.  I hadn’t really grown up or anything, I had just gotten bored with it.  Times were changing, music and fashion were morphing into something I didn’t find appealing anymore, and I just started finding other things to do.  The scene also involved a lot of dangerous things like drugs, booze, violence, and other things that you get more wary of as you get older.  I still loved music, but I didn’t feel the need to go out all night and be part of a scene.  The scene was over anyway.
     I still played guitar, and I was still pretty rock and roll.  I was still hanging out with musician friends and we would play together.  I started getting serious about playing and trying to relearn the right way.  I was making some decent progress too.  My friend Paul is an amazing musician, and he was giving me some pointers and actually pleased with my progress.  I was even learning to play some Beethoven!  Then the pinky on my left hand was eaten by a bear(there’s that again. If you don’t know the story, you can find it Here )  and that set me back.  I had to relearn a lot of stuff, and I started playing with some open tunings to work around some things I couldn’t do anymore.
       About two years ago I started going to my friends studio every Friday and singing with their band.  They just get together once a week and jam, never actually playing any real “songs”.  When things work, they do, when they don’t they don’t, but it is what it is.  They never really had a singer, so I just stepped in.  Now I’m a band member and I couldn’t be happier about that.  It has helped a lot, not just with my music but with my life in general.  I had started seeing a girl at that same time and she was very supportive and encouraging and that helped a lot too.  We have had our rough spots, but she has really improved my life in many ways and I’m thankful for that.  I’ve started writing my own songs, and the way she looks at me when I play or sing makes me finally feel like I have something special, and that I have something to offer. 
      My friends in the band too.  They accept me and encourage me, and once again I am reminded that making music with my friends is one of the greatest feelings on this planet.  Friday night is the highlight of my week, and while I may not be a crazy rock and roll maniac anymore, I am at a point where I finally think of myself as a real musician and am happy with myself.  I owe a lot of that to the people that love me and support me, and I owe a lot of it to my rock and roll life.

© David Ferraris 2015

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