Saturday, February 8, 2014

The Beatles: My Musical Inspiration - 50 Years Later

This Sunday marks the 50th anniversary of the Beatles’ appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show. It’s widely accepted that this performance changed the world of TV and music forever. Anyone old enough to remember it can recall that great moment on a Sunday night in February when 73 million people in the U.S. were introduced to the musical force called the Beatles. For me, it was the beginning of what I consider to be me today.

When Paul McCartney counted out the beginning of All My Loving that historic night, I was 10 years old, sitting on my parents’ bed in their room watching the TV. It was black-and-white, and had one small speaker. I was transfixed; from that time onward, I listened to the radio every minute I could. I had it on while I did my homework, or was just lying on my bed staring into space. 

I was hooked. And why not? To a boy approaching his 11th birthday, they were heroes – cool, powerful, and they seemed to be having a great time together. Besides that, the music was brilliant. Music critics started opining about their use of unusual chords and transitions, but it was those polished three-part harmonies, generous samplings of R & B classics from American artists, and especially, that youthful energy that captivated me, and millions of others.

For my 11th birthday, I received my own copy of Meet the Beatles, the first American album. My sitter, a teenage girl who watched us (I have two younger brothers), taught me some basic dance moves to that album for my 7th grade dance. I remember them playing Beatles songs at the dance, including someone’s joke parody called “I Want to Hold Your Feet.”

I continued to listen to the radio enthusiastically through 1964, 1965, and 1966, hearing Beatles songs as they came out, along with their British Invasion buddies: the Rolling Stones, The Kinks, The Animals, the Hollies, the Dave Clark Five, Herman’s Hermits, Gerry and the Pacemakers, The Who, and on and on. But it was in 1967, after the Beatles retired from touring and released the mysterious Strawberry Fields Forever, that Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band appeared. 

That June, my mother, for some reason, brought home a copy of the album. I listened to it over and over and over, as I’m sure millions of other Beatle fans did. I remember sitting directly in front of the Curtis-Mathes wood stereo cabinet and looking at the texture of the speaker grilles and studying the centerfold photo of the four guys with their mustaches. I decided I had to get wire-rimmed glasses like my hero, John Lennon, and by 1968, I had them. Wearing glasses was finally cool!

Sgt. Pepper’s was an experience, from the cough and murmuring of the crowd at the beginning to the long, extended multi-piano chord that concludes A Day in the Life. It was unique, exciting, and monumental. Before long, other bands inserted odd sections and instruments into their music, too.

I used to listen to the album and strum a badminton racquet that was lying around the house. I was a bored clarinetist at the back of the section in the school band. If mom, as an amateur cellist, was the musical inspiration and album bringer, my father was the one who brought the gear. He and mom had separated the previous fall, but one day, when he came to visit us, dad brought me an electric guitar and small amplifier that some guy at work was selling. This was as important, in its own way, as hearing the Beatles on TV in 1964. Suddenly, I could start to play the songs myself! This was a big deal.

 The next spring, I got an acoustic guitar, so I could easily sit in my bedroom and play Beatle songs as much as I wanted. My friend Lisa, who lived next door, was three years younger, but would sunbathe on the other side of the fence and listen to me play. Eventually, we would sing together. Our special song was, I Will, from the The Beatles (White Album).

The energy and amazing changes of 1964’s music lasted, for me, through the White Album in November of 1968, but by 1969, Beatle songs didn’t have the same impact, as times and tastes changed. The whole radio scene was changing. The sense of the four musicians being a unit had long disappeared, as they grew up and became more individuated. I grew up too, although I still played my guitar. I even started to write my own songs, emulating my heroes.

In 1969, I moved to Arizona, and took my guitars with me. In my loneliness, I wrote more songs, and also spent time with a particular girl, listening to Abbey Road, much in the way I had sat alone in front of that stereo in 1967 with Sgt. Pepper.  I tried to form a band with a couple of friends, but, despite acquiring a fantastic Fender amplifier (worth a fortune today, if I still had it), it went nowhere. Then, in the spring, the Beatles broke up, right as I graduated from high school. The world changed again.

Back in California in 1970 and 1971, I bought and listened to John, Paul, and George’s initial solo albums. There was some great material on there (Imagine, Maybe I’m Amazed, My Sweet Lord), but it wasn’t the same. I tried being a solo “Dylan understudy” in San Francisco clubs for a little while, but it was intimidating for an 18-year-old suburbanite, and I quickly let it go, instead pursuing music at San Francisco State University. That lasted one semester. “Sorry, no guitar majors.” I eventually became an English major and graduated, years later.

In 1972, I got the urge to play the electric bass. I’m not sure, looking back, why exactly, but I remember liking the sounds Paul made with his violin-style Hofner. I took the only thing I had of value, my coin collection, and traded it for a green Fender-style bass in a pawn shop in the Tenderloin. Who needed those old coins anyway? 

I didn’t even have an amplifier yet, but I took my new treasure home and plunked away on it, finger style, hoping for something to happen. It wasn’t long before someone broke into my ground-floor apartment and stole my beloved bass. That was the end of that experiment—before it had a chance to develop.
After that, I played guitar occasionally for fun. I recorded some of my songs in 1971 at a friend’s house, and that recording exists today. I took my acoustic guitar to Israel in 1974 and impressed the natives with my rendition of “House of the Rising Sun” and various Beatles tunes, but I left it there when I came home. It needed repairs.

Shortly after I graduated from college, I bought a nice, modestly priced acoustic guitar to replace the one I’d given away five years earlier. I played bluegrass mandolin in a Sunday pickup band in 1980. My first wife and I sang a few times together (she performs wonderfully with a Jazz trio today). But after that, it wasn’t until 2003, as I approached my 50th birthday, that I decided that it was time to get my bass.

Where do these ideas come from? My younger son was taking guitar lessons, so I was visiting the music store every week. My old longing was rekindled. But now, my coin collection long gone, I mentioned it to my beloved and supportive wife, who said, “Why don’t you just go buy one?” So, there you have it. Mom supplied Sgt. Pepper’s, dad the first guitar, my son inspired me with his guitar lessons, and now, my darling spouse gave me the OK to go get the instrument of my dreams.

I shopped, and found a lovely Fender bass. It has a sunburst finish, with aluminum pick guard, and combines the classic “Precision” body with a “Jazz” neck. Although I was already a guitar player, I decided to take a few bass lessons, to get up to speed. I started weekly lessons with Dennis, a guy about my age with a ponytail who had a lifetime of musical experience. We worked on a variety of songs that I picked, new and old, and I found that playing the bass felt natural. Dennis encouraged me to find other musicians to play with. I now understand the importance of this. Music is much more than lessons. It’s a living thing that happens when people play together.

Thanks to Dennis’ suggestion, and references from the music store, I found three other musicians, and we started our own band! After all these years, I was the bass player in a band. Red Paint lasted for six years, and although we didn’t get rich or famous, we played gigs and even recorded a CD! It was a dream come true. We duplicated the Beatles in being a foursome on guitars, bass and drums. We even played a few Beatles songs – I got to do my version of You’ve Got to Hide Your Love Away, a Lennon-penned favorite.

Once again, I don’t know exactly where this urge came from, but it had something to do with a little foldable list of recommended albums that featured the bass. Sgt. Pepper’s was on the list, but I also started listening to some music I hadn’t heard before, including some great Jazz recordings. I became aware of the rich tones of the upright bass on Jazz and some folk and bluegrass albums. Paul Chambers! Ray Brown! I found one of those old-fashioned advertisements on the wall of a music store, with little pull-off tabs at the bottom with the teacher’s name and phone number. I called and set up my first acoustic bass lesson in July of 2004.

Maybe having the cello around the house growing up helped, but I moved over to the upright bass pretty easily. After an enjoyable first lesson using his bass, Damon, my new teacher, took me to a fine old music store in downtown Oakland, where I rented my own big brown bass. What was I thinking? I started on the basic orange book—the Simandl method -- but also fooled around with some Jazz tunes. Damon was the right guy for me – young and helpful and he didn’t treat me like a beginner.

After a year or so of this, I took the summer off to think about it. I decided to continue, and at that point, I traded my loaner for a real bass of my own. It’s a beauty, hand-carved in China and I still play it almost every day.

There’s more still to this story. In 2006, I got to play in a Beatles cover band, Fab Fever. What could be better than that? I was still finding my way on the bass, but we did have a great time while it lasted. Although I left that group to focus my energies on Red Paint, today, I still play with one member of that group, Frank. We’re Two of Us, and as a duo, we run through a range of Beatles songs, and some other fine material. Hey—the Beatles played covers, too. Frank has a rich baritone, so we inevitably sing the Beatles’ songs in a lower key. I still have many friendships from the Fab Fever group, and we’ve played summer outdoor concerts affiliated with the Odd Fellows.

In late 2006, just around the time that my Red Paint group got started, I got a flyer in the mail for the local Adult School. In it, I saw a listing for a community orchestra. I hadn’t thought about that, but why not? I signed up.

On January 2, 2007, I hauled my upright bass to a rehearsal at a private home. It was a week before rehearsals would begin at the school. Not knowing a soul, I stood in the back and tried to play what was on the music. I hit a few notes, and despite my frustration and embarrassment, I enjoyed being with the group. I especially liked the conductor, Josh. With a smile, he came over to talk with me. I apologized for hitting so few notes, and he said, “Well, come on back next week and you can play some more!” I did, and that was the beginning of what’s now a seven-year position in the Castro Valley Adult School Chamber Orchestra. I’m the principal bassist there now. I’ve played three or four concerts a year of the greats – Beethoven, Dvorak, Mozart, and many others. 

From that orchestra connection, I’ve picked up chamber music, playing in small groups, including quarterly weekends locally and two one-week-long summertime visits to the fantastic Humboldt Chamber Music Workshop. There is not much better on this earth than living in the dorms, eating in the cafeteria with your fellow musicians, and playing beautiful music all day and all night. I came home both times from my “grown up music camp” inspired and energized.

Today? I’m a member of Tablues, a blues and R&B band. We played 20 gigs in the second half of last year, and we’ve recorded some nice demos. I’m still with the orchestra. I am playing a Beethoven Septet with a private chamber music group that found me last year to help them with Schubert’s Trout Quintet, which needs a bass! I’ve played the Trout often over the last few years, pleasing musicians who enjoy the deep sound. Most chamber music doesn’t include bass.

Thank you, John, Paul, George and Ringo, for starting me off on my musical path. And also, thanks to Mom, Dad, Cathy, Cameron, Joy, Dennis, Damon, Frank, Josh, Red Paint, Fab Fever, The Castro Valley Chamber Orchestra, Sycamore 129 Blues Band, Tablues, Kenneth, and all my other musical friends and colleagues, who’ve made it possible.