Chapter IV. How I became a guitar player, part 1
Chapter IV. How I became a guitar player, part 1
I should have known this would be a long chapter, so I’m splitting it into two parts. 

I have been playing guitar for about 50 years, ever since I borrowed my brother Howard’s guitar and never gave it back, so it reads better when I say “…and then, I stole my brother’s guitar.” (See my epitaph in Chapter III.) I tell people I stole my brother’s guitar, but I don’t think he really cared, frankly - while we shared a house growing up he still continued to play it anyway, and then later he got another one. He was an excellent player and attended Dick Grove School of Music in LA; he had the chops and knew his way around the fretboard. Unfortunately, the last 12 years of his life he couldn’t play, as the result of a stroke, and he died in 2020. I miss him a lot. 

I have been in bands and/or writing songs for about 45 years. My songs started off as bad poetry, then good poetry, then songs that were really poems, and then finally songs with parts that actually repeated (i.e., choruses with hooks). The first records I owned were given to me, in 1966: Herman’s Hermits Greatest Hits and the Beatles’ Revolver. They were Bar Mitzvah presents; I was 13 years old in 1966. I was a huge Beatles fan. All things Beatles. Even the (non-Beatles) Mothers of Invention caught my eye because their “We’re Only in it for Money” was a parody of the Sgt. Pepper album (well, that and because the song “Let’s Make the Water Turn Black” featured Ronnie - the name of my best friend in High School - and Kenny). It’s hard to imagine today, when you can assemble an entire playlist of Beatles outtakes and rarities, how cool it was that I had a bootleg Get Back LP (from Aron's Records across the street from Fairfax High School) in a plain white jacket, like porn, with tunes that eventually became parts of Let it Be and McCartney’s first solo album. It was so…secret. I was devastated by the Beatles’ breakup and collected countless newspaper articles waxing hopeful about the possibility of them getting back together. My family was not particularly musical, although we did have a record collection. There was “Sing Along with Mitch” (Miller), classical records, an album of “Gypsy Manya” (a singer of Gypsy Russian songs favored by my Socialist step-grandmother), and Broadway shows that my parents had seen as teenagers in Chicago in the 1940s like Annie Get Your Gun (Ethel Merman), Oklahoma!, Kiss Me Kate, Meet Me in St. Louis, etc. – some 78, some 33 1/3 rpm – as well as big band, Benny Goodman and Glenn Miller. There was a complete and utter absence of hip in the strict sense of the word, which ironically almost made it hip. No Elvis records, or even Nat King Cole or 1950s Frank Sinatra. My parents came by their straightness honestly. There was an insularity in relation to what lay Out There, outside of their own cultural experience. There were vague references to the “silliness” of late 1940s Frank Sinatra fans waiting in long lines, and zero engagement with 1950s rock or jazz. I can at least understand the 1950s, as my parents were spending their time raising children. After all, I remember how hard it was to stay current in the late 1980s to mid 1990s for the same reason. But for my parents everything – I mean everything – was filtered through Jewishness and unrepentant, relentless, innocent wholesomeness. Nothing wrong with that, mind you, unless, you begin to panic as I did from claustrophobia. You hear voices in your head, soft at first and gradually getting louder, which try to drown out the distraction in order to just hear yourself think and follow your own path. While hardly unique for the times (the 1960s) or my time (teenage years), the hard work of becoming myself was facilitated through popular music and romance. The romance could take the form of making out with my pillow or pining for a girl in the 4th grade (4th grade!) as I struggled to master The Freddie (a jumping jacks kind of thing) while dancing to Freddie and the Dreamers’ I’m Telling You Now. Or there was the time I lost a girl (who, I should note, didn’t even know I existed) in the 9th grade, watching her dance with another guy to Don’t Let the Sun Catch You Crying by Gerry and Pacemakers. I digress. Kinda. We had a lot of Alan Sherman records (My Son The Folksinger, My Son The Nut), and Elaine May/Mike Nichols, a record of dramatic readings of Greek Mythology stories, but no Lenny Bruce, of course. No Patsy Cline, no Fats Domino, no Ray Charles, no Gene Vincent, no Everly Brothers, no Chuck Berry. Chubby Checker was doing the Twist on TV. A few years later, it was Herb Alpert.  Then, a cousin, who worked at a radio station, took my older brother David to lunch with none other than Barry McGuire, who gave each of them a signed copy of the LP Eve of Destruction, which also contained various cover songs, including Sloop John B. We literally played that one to death, usually as background for a game of Life or Monopoly until one day my Mother ripped it off the Victrola and broke it in two when we didn’t hear her calling us for dinner.  It was my brother's most prized possession. But, of course, the politics of a song like Eve of Destruction never, ever came up in family discussion. Nothing intentionally sinister, just that relentless wholesomeness I mentioned previously. It was challenging to say the least to be able hear myself through all this noise and obstruction, or put differently, all the well-meaning guidance. Fortunately, there was this flicker of romantic rebelliousness in me that began in grade school and grew to reach cruising altitude/escape velocity after the Ed Sullivan Beatles’ performance in February 1964. To quote Iggy Pop, it was a “gimme danger little stranger” moment.  It certainly helped that I came of age during the envelope-pushing 1960s, but if it had been the 1920s/30s, Cab Calloway’s Minnie the Moocher undoubtedly would have gotten me questioning stuff and I probably would have sucked at dancing the Charleston too. 

In the mid-1960’s, I started out with piano lessons, then saxophone lessons, and then the famous stolen guitar, with no lessons. I was self-taught, learning blues licks off records. It was not until about 1981 that I had my first guitar lesson. I first envisioned this whole blog/memoir thing - what will eventually be 20 plus chapters worth of scattershot musical memories - as an essay about the first time I heard Freddie King’s Hideaway, that clear honky tonk Chicago electric blues fusion. Freddie is the first of the three-legged stool (triumvirate or holy trinity) that was the foundation for my passion for the blues. The album that featured Hideaway also included Tore Down, Have You Ever Loved a Woman, and The Stumble, all of which would lead inevitably, like water running downhill, to the second leg, John Mayall and his coterie of phenomenal Brit rocker guitarists. Besides the Eric Clapton (on the “Beano” Bluesbreakers album) and Peter Green (A Hard Road) versions of Freddie’s Hideaway and The Stumble, I remember especially Clapton’s simple take on Ramblin’ on My Mind by Robert Johnson. I still play that blues pattern today. The third leg of the stool was Johnny Winter’s Be Careful With a Fool, which I ain’t never ever ever going to be able to play, except the sustained vibrato notes. Ah, the blazing speed.  I remember the liner notes, written by his manager Steve Paul: “Johnny plays basic blues. Color them black. Real black and nothing else. Color them black black. Johnny looks white. Real white and nothing else. Color him white white.” Through all the hype, those words spoke to me of integrity and street cred. Johnny was visceral and urgent. One quote of his that I always loved was “I’m really gassed to find people digging blues.” Like every hip white kid at the time, I got into Robert Johnson and other folk blues, but who was I kidding? I was an urban boy drawn to loud, fast electric guitars and drums and bass. I never really sweat the lyrics. While others were freaking out with, for example, “Do you realize Stray Cat Blues is about Mick Jagger fucking an underage girl???,” I was more about the “Rock and Rollllll!” or “Ah, Yeah!” screaming by Johnny Winter (I have read alternately that his voice a) at its best was nothing to build a reputation on or b) was described as negligible). I have a friend who still shakes his head when I tell him Highway Star by Deep Purple is one of my favorites. It’s not that I disagree that it is a stupid, testosterone-soaked song. It’s just that….um….what were we talking about again? All this is to say that I like to rock and maybe didn’t pass much attention to until I listened to Bob Dylan’s Blood on the Tracks while on mushrooms. I regularly have “Kiss This Guy” (old person’s reference to Hendrix’s Purple Haze) moments with old song lyrics I had misunderstood. Well, except for Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds. I call bullshit that the song only came from Julian Lennon’s kindergarten drawings.

5 thoughts on “Chapter IV. How I became a guitar player, part 1

  1. Love HIGHWAY STAR !! great read Ken !! Do you know This Time Around ? Talk about great guitar, not to mention his vocals !!

  2. There’s something about the phrase “Jewishness and unrepentant, relentless, innocent wholesomeness’ that suggests what might be called branding today. (You know, like a mark on a steer.) Anyway, it sounds like a business opportunity but maybe the Temple already has the copyright.
    This of course puts your development in a relatively clear light. The three-legged stool of the blues is persuasive. One thing I can say about my own upbringing, probably conforming about 75-80%, is that as New Yorkers, my folks had the Latin bug, and they loved to cha-cha-cha. It was a fairly similar record collection, although they had Perez Prado and later the Getz-Gilberto, bossa nova & sax classic. My folks also listened to Hugh Masakela. I think my father fell in love with Diana Ross. And for some reason I won’t explore here, he delighted in dancing around to “When You Go Your Way and I’ll Go Mine,” from Blonde on Blonde (right?)
    Besides Dylan, I think I was lucky to pick up early on the Paul Butterfield Blues Band. And my friend Mitch would incessantly serenade me with the Fugs: “Monday, nothing. Tuesday, nothing. Wednesday, once again nothing.’ Unfortunately, that sat well with me.
    Believe me, I just happened to catch Jim Jarmusch’s “Gimme Danger’ and Iggy and the Stooges last night. Quite a tale. This deprived me of one of my own myths: that the Sex Pistols were totally original. Oh, well.
    So there’s my coin in the fountain baby. Of course I’ve enjoyed your playing many times; one that stands out is Dance, Dance, Dance….
    Miss you around here.

    1. Thanks for the insight and glad it resonates. Miss you too. Why, my Mom name dropped Xavier Cugat’s name just the other day. cha-cha-cha. Of course, we Jews didn’t corner any market on wholesomeness or innocence, just my take, and of course not meant to be sweeping generalization. Every immigrant group holds assimilation as the holy grail, and my personal experience is that it takes a generation (children of immigrants) to begin to integrate. I remember eating bacon every Sunday and then mysteriously we didn’t any more. My grandparents and then parents had successive levels of freedom, and then our generation reaped the “benefits” of full secularism, and now our kids are even more untethered. Have to check out Jarmusch movie. Of COURSE the Sex Pistols weren’t totally original, they were Malcom McLaren and Vivienne Westwood wet dream. Everything ultimately is traced back to black and brown people in America. 😉

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