Can You Play Me A Tune?

“Glenn, you are going to learn how to play the piano.” My father’s words fell upon my ears like a death sentence, and one that I had known was coming for the past year. “Mr. Kadir says that you are old enough to get started, and that’s what you will do next Saturday.  I expect for you to practice one half hour every day and pay attention to Mr. Kadir.”  “Why do I have to learn how to play the piano?  I don’t want to play it” I whined. “That’s fine,” Dad replied.  “I intend for you to learn about some of the more refined things in life than climbing trees and playing with your useless friends, and so if you would prefer to take dance lessons rather than piano I will agree to that.”

Dance lessons! Just the thought of it gave me the shivers.  That would mean holding hands with a girl, and sometimes even putting your arm around one of them!  I didn’t want to play the piano but I certainly did not want to dance.  Imagine the reception that I would get at the local playground when I told Wes and Ralph and Dutch and Jake and my other friends that I had to leave on a Saturday afternoon to go take DANCE lessons.  “Go put your tutu on,” or “Can we see you in your leotard?” were only two of the taunts that I could already hear.  It was clear as crystal that my nervous system would not be able to sustain that, and so I mumbled a half-hearted assent and turned to face the new spinet-style piano that rested in the corner of our living room.  The spinet is a small piano, and that is what was needed to properly fit in the tiny living room of our small stucco cubicle of a home in San Diego.

“Good,” Dad grunted, and walked away, leaving me to stare glumly at the blond-colored vehicle of my immanent loss of freedom.  Later I would have to face my neighborhood pals who would be suffering no similar loss of their freedom, and that thought hurt like fire.  I walked over to the piano and lifted the hinged wooden cover which slid back into the body of the instrument to reveal the eighty eight black and white keys, which looked to me like teeth which populated a smirking smile.  “Screw you Kid.  I own you now” they seemed to be saying to me.  I covered the keyboard back up and left the house to go play in the dirt and try to forget this new intrusion by grown-ups into my life.

My father was on a mission to civilize his two boys.  Brad, my brother, had begun to take violin lessons from Mr. Kadir a year before, and he was pretty good at it although he liked music lessons even less than I would.  Already we had attended a concert at Balboa Park where Brad had played his violin.  Many of the music teachers in San Diego would show off their best students at concerts like these, partly to gain experience at playing publicly for their students and partly to showcase the accomplishments of their own studios.  Many a young boy or girl found their weekends doomed as mine had been after a parent attended one of those concerts and said to him or herself “That’s just what my little Johnny or Judy needs.”

Dad had grown up dirt-poor on a farm in southern Georgia during the Depression.  There was very little refinement in his life, and it was not until he joined the Navy and visited the world outside of Tifton, Georgia, that he realized there could be a lot more to life than sweet potatoes and cornbread.  He was determined that Brad and I would be exposed to finer things from an early age, whether we liked it or not.  And what Dad decided for us was absolute, unquestioned law.

So the dreadful Saturday came and Brad and I were packed up by our mother and trundled off to Mr. Kadir’s studio.  Dad would dictate our removal from all things fun on a San Diego weekend but had no intention of sacrificing an hour himself.  Mom introduced me and then left to do some shopping or go back home or whatever it was that she did when we were not slowing her down, and I sat on a sofa and watched Mr. Kadir put Brad through some scales and other exercises, and then practice some piece or other from the thick, yellow music book with the black notes all over the cover.

I looked through the National Geographic magazines which covered Mr. Kadir’s coffee table, paying special attention to the bare-breasted women from Africa or New Guinea or someplace like that.  I was engrossed in those photos and didn’t notice that Brad had finished his lesson and was putting his violin and bow back into their case.  “OK Glenn, it’s your turn” said Mr. Kadir in the cheerful way that adults do when they’re trying to convince kids that they really want to do something which in fact they really do not.  I arose and trudged over to the piano bench while Brad took my place on the sofa and began to look at the magazines too.  And so began my eleven year ride as a piano student under the tutelage of Mr. Kadir.

Brad did not take violin lessons for very long after I began to learn the piano.  Brad was, and remains to this day, four years older than me, and was more able to assert his will against our father’s in some ways.  He was also a pretty good baseball player and was successful in little league play, and when Dad retired from the Navy and began to take college classes in a teaching program Brad’s disinterest in the violin and his considerable skill at playing third base, plus the idea of saving twelve dollars a month, looked pretty good to Dad.  I had no such skills in baseball however, and had shown an unexpected talent for playing the piano, so Dad mandated that I continue on that track.

And I suppose that I was pretty good.  At the concerts which students all over the city had to endure, the order of performance went from least to most accomplished.  I was steadily moving up later and later in those concerts, and Mr. Kadir was certain that I had a future at the keyboard.  That rise in my skill was interrupted one day when my parents announced that they were separating and getting a divorce.

Freedom at last!  No more would I have to disrupt my Saturdays and waste a half hour every single day after school banging on the piano’s keys.  “Oh yes you do” said my mother, but she enjoyed little of the persuasive ability of Dad in making me practice and go to my lessons.  Consequently I learned little, and frequently “forgot” to practice or to go to my lessons.  Mom was working at a drug store in the evenings and could do nothing about my rebellion.

That all ended six months later when Mom, at her wits end with two boys who were spinning out of control, dropped her divorce proceedings and invited Dad to return.  This he did, and with him came the LAW.  On the first Saturday that I “forgot” to go to a lesson Dad came up to the Park where I was playing wiffle ball with my friends and walked me home, where he began to point out in unmistakable detail the error in my logic and the behavior that was expected of me, with a level of persuasion similar to that which was exercised upon two unlucky cities in Japan on August 6 and 9 of 1945.  Sitting on the piano bench was uncomfortable for the next day or two, but there was never any doubt thereafter that for one half hour every day and a full hour now on Saturdays I would be sitting on a bench practicing at home or learning from Mr. Kadir.

With my return to an enforced diligence of my practice habits I began to advance once again in my studies.  A year after Dad’s return I was accepted by our junior high school Boy’s Chorus leader as an accompanist.  My job was to learn a certain piece of music in order to play it while the chorus would sing.  I never really got the hang of this however.  My model for learning new music was to practice over, and over, and over again, for weeks or months or more until my fingers seemed to remember where to go on their own.  This model was not at all suited for a setting where the boys would begin to practice their singing almost immediately, and the accompanist must be up and running from the beginning.  To say the least, I failed miserably at my mission, and only accompanied one song before I was installed in the baritone section as a singer rather than a player.  It all worked out in the end however.  As a result of my dilatory effort as a pianist I was standing on the risers with the rest of the Chorus when we sang as President John F. Kennedy rode past us in 1963, which was one of the most stirring moments of my life.

I played the piano for four more years after that, gradually improving in the complexity and length of the pieces which my fingers came to remember.  I had moved up to the point where I was always last or second to last at concerts, and usually I played a boogie version of “Flight of the Bumblebee” by Rimsky-Korsakov or “Malagueña” by Ernesto Lecuana.  I had become very good at playing both.

One day Mr. Kadir took me to a gathering of students where he took his own lessons from a Mr. Strahan.  That worthy teacher was a retired concert pianist who had studied under a student of a student of Franz Liszt, or something like that, and gave lessons to piano teachers from around the city.  I got carsick on the way there, which was no surprise since I got carsick all of the time, and Mr. Kadir and his teacher took great pains to patch me up with Alka Seltzer and Seven Up.  Later, I was introduced and asked to play “Bumble Boogie”, which I did, and rather well as I remember.  Later, on the way home, Mr. Kadir told me that his teacher virtually never allowed people who were not his pupils play at his gatherings, and that this was a great honor that had been shown to me.  Fortunately I had been too carsick to worry about anything, even if I had known about this, and performed at the top of my game.

The last piece of music that I was working on when I gave up the piano was “Rhapsody in Blue” by George Gershwin.  I loved that tune then and I love it today, and I set out to remember all thirty two pages of it.  I had memorized something into the twenties of pages when, in my junior year at high school, my interest in the piano collapsed completely.  My father had begun to recognize that his son might be a reasonably skilled technician at the keyboard but would by no means ever become a real musician, and so he was not entirely surprised when one day I told him that I just didn’t want to do it anymore.

To my considerable surprise Dad agreed.  The freedom that I felt was immense!  I do not remember exactly what I did that moment but a good guess would be that I went directly to the Park and hung out with my friends like all of the other teenagers in my neighborhood were doing, happy as a pig in mud.  To my mother fell the task of driving over to Mr. Kadir’s studio and telling him of my termination of lessons.  My mother told me many years later that Mr. Kadir cried upon hearing the news.

I have hardly touched a piano since that last day.  Two years later I was in Vietnam, a future that my father could perhaps see when he allowed me my freedom.  A few years after that, in college, friends at parties might ask me to play when they learned of my lessons, but they wanted improv, honky tonk and rock and roll, not “Bumble Boogie” and “Malagueña.”  I eventually stopped mentioning my piano history.

But there is a legacy.  Fifty years after my last lesson I still love the great music laid down by Bach, Beethoven, Lecuana, Chopin, DeFalla and Gershwin just as much as I love the work laid down by John, Paul, George and Ringo.  Mr. Kadir, don’t cry for me.  You made a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, and I will always remember you as one of the most appreciated guides of my life.

It’s Only Rock and Roll

     I love rock and roll, and while I understand that it is really only rock and roll, nevertheless I like it.  The truth is that I like most music and if possible never miss a chance to hear it live, or as close to live as I can get.  In my twenties, which occurred during the bulk of the seventies, I saw a great many concerts, most of which I remember.  Sort of.  Growing up in the fifties and sixties in San Diego however afforded me and other music lovers a lot fewer opportunities to hear live music but we did the best we could.  This is a tale of my love of music and pursuit of exposing myself to it as much as possible.

     In the 1950s I had two avenues for the above mentioned exposure to music; the AM radio and my father’s record collection.  Dad had big, thick 78s with a variety of classical pieces on them and 45s of mostly Country and Western, singles from movies, and big band stuff.  It’s all I knew then and I loved it.  I can still hear Gogi Grant’s “The Wayward Wind”, Debbie Reynolds’ “Tammy” and all of that Rachmaninoff stuff that came on the thick, black records that were kept in the heavy pressboard boxes.  I mostly listened to what Dad listened to until a guy named Buddy Holly came along.

     The second phase in my life of music appreciation arrived with Buddy and the big Bopper and Bill Haley, et. al., and lasted through the great rivalry between the West Coast Beach Sound and Motown.  Most of the white guys in my neighborhood were solid Beach Sound, but the Latinos and Filipinos and the few black guys preferred Motown.  I came down squarely in both camps.  I loved Smokey and David Ruffin and especially the Four Tops, but I loved the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean and others just as much.  Every night when I wasn’t hanging out with friends at the local recreation center which we just called ‘The Park’ I would be home listening to KCBQ, hearing my favorite two and three minute songs being spun by the legendary disc jockey Happy Hare.

     Then one day I got to see Jan and Dean live.  Concerts were rare in those days, in San Diego at least, and when my friend Ellen Marie and I heard that there was going to be the filming of a television show which would be emceed by Elizabeth Montgomery, the star of the TV show ‘Bewitched’, featuring the surf singing duo, and that they needed members for the audience, we signed up as quickly as we could.  Ellen was one of my best friends in the neighborhood and we could often be seen hanging out together.  We both had braces on our teeth and the other kids joked that if we should get together as a couple we would be the “clash of steel”.  We never did have that kind of relationship, but our friendship was more solid and of longer duration than most of the romantic liaisons in my life.

     On the big day Ellen and I walked up to University Avenue and boarded the Number Five bus that took us directly to downtown.  From the old Horton Plaza it was only a walk of a few blocks to the Spreckles Theater where the show would be filmed.  Ellen and I showed out tickets, bought some popcorn and candy for a buck or two, and found our seats in the auditorium.  We were not too far from the stage and could see everything very clearly.  Ellen and I yammered away with each other until Ms. Montgomery mounted the stage and gave us all instructions on when we were to cheer, when to clap, when to laugh, and so on.  Ellen and I sort of paid attention, but we were too excited about seeing Jan and Dean to care very much about the details.  Finally all of the instructions were delivered and the crew began to film.

     The whole thing seemed a little bit odd to us but we played ball as best we could, clapping and cheering and laughing on cue.  Of course, Ellen and I would frequently laugh at the wrong time because the whole thing seemed silly, and to a couple of kids in their mid teens it was truly silly indeed.  But at last we came to the payoff.  During a break for technical reasons Jan and Dean came out on the stage and the cheering then was genuine.  The stars of the show, as far as we were concerned anyway, waved to the crowd and said a few words to the people in the front row.  

    After a few minutes they disappeared again and it was back to business.  The crowd settled down, Ms. Montgomery began her introduction, and Jan and Dean reentered the stage as their cue was given.  The “cheer” sign went up, but we were already providing that prop, and this time in earnest.  Ms. Montgomery said a bunch of words that nobody paid attention to and then Jan and Dean stepped up to sing.  The “cheer” sign was not up, but as the duo broke into “Surf City” a few of the girls screamed and some of us began to sing along with them.  That was not in the script however and the “cut” sign was given.

     “Please don’t make any noise while the boys are singing” admonished Ms. Montgomery.  “The producers want to hear the singers, not the audience.

     We settled down again as best we could and the introduction was made again, complete with canned and less-than-spontaneous cheering this time.  Jan and Dean burst once more into “Surf City” and this time the audience maintained its cool until the end of the song, at which time we anticipated the “cheer” sign and burst into wild applause.  Jan and Dean’s time was precious, and so their closing act of “The Little Old Lady From Pasadena” came right after that.  Same format, same admonition when our youthful enthusiasm got the best of us, and same sense of awe as the singers produced, right there in front of us, the songs that we heard at least twice per day on the radio.

     After a few more laughs, cheers, and rounds of applause, all delivered on cue, we were excused and filed out of the Spreckles and onto the sidewalk running along Broadway under the brilliant San Diego sun.  As we walked back to Horton Plaza where we would wait with the sailors, the derelicts sleeping on the grass, and the pigeons which flocked around the domed fountain which was a fixture in downtown San Diego as long as I lived there, Ellen and I dissected every word, every movement, and every glance that had undoubtedly been aimed directly at us.  The Number Five finally arrived and we climbed on board, thumbed our dimes into the box by the driver, and rode that bus back to East San Diego and to the park where we could brag about our adventure to all of our friends, who were jealous as could be but insisted that they really preferred James Brown anyway.  And indeed, some of them did.

     All of the Motown and Beach stuff came to a screeching halt in January of 1964 when the American release of the Beatles’ “I Want To Hold Your Hand” exploded onto the charts and the English Invasion was under way.  My Navy father wouldn’t let me grow a “mop top” but a lot of my friends did, and we listened faithfully to the radio as sometimes two or three new groups with a totally new sound emerged each week to make a splash.  The Beatles were nearly everybody’s favorites at first, with the Rolling Stones a very close second.  My one and only girlfriend, Rhonda, was much taken with the Stones and I have to admit that I was more than a little jealous of that, so I had to claim some favorite other than them. I chose the Kinks, partly because I really liked their music and partly because they were even uglier than the stones, at least to judge by the bands’ pictures on their album covers.  I don’t know why that mattered, but it did.  

     My relationship with Rhonda ended amicably – no point in being a sore loser – and I was soon in the market for a new girl friend.  That mission was a lot like Ponce de Leon’s search for the fountain of youth.  I was terribly shy and after my first relationship ended I couldn’t muster the courage to try again.  This was a pitiable condition because Teresa Beal, the prettiest girl in the neighborhood by my standards, was unattached.  I was on good terms with Teresa and I dropped more than subtle hints of my interest, but never received any indication of interest in return.  The thought of just coming out and expressing my interest made me nauseous, so I dithered and plotted how i would eventually make my move.

     My opportunity came in May of 1965 when it was announced that the Beatles would perform in Balboa Stadium.  The Beatles were an irresistible draw and I was certain that an invitation to go see them would be irrefutable proof of my ardent and undying love, and Teresa would fall into my arms like Snow White into Prince Charming’s, or something like that.  Tickets were $3.50, $4.50 and $5.50, and all I could afford were the $3.50 variety.  Two tickets added up to $7.00, and that was a lot of scratch for a sixteen year old kid living in East San Diego in 1965.  The tickets were procured and rested in my dresser drawer for days and weeks as I struggled to find the right time and right words to ask Teresa to go with me to see the Beatles.

     The upshot of this tale is that I didn’t have the cojones to pull the trigger.  Beatles or no Beatles, you don’t get a date unless you ask.  I tried as best I could but Teresa and I lived in the same neighborhood; if she turned me down I would be faced with that fact every time I saw here and everybody would know.  That wasn’t going to happen and so I asked my brother if he wanted to go instead, which he did.

     Brad is also an interesting musical tale.  My brother spent two years at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas, and had recently returned from the Army.  In Texas Brad learned to like old school Country and Western.  Hank Williams, Carl Smith, and Marty Robbins were his sort of acts.  A few weeks after returning home Brad walked into our bedroom while I was watching either Shindig or Hullabaloo, which were television shows that featured rock and roll acts playing their music.  It was sort of like early videos, only live.  Anyway, that night the Rolling Stones were singing “Satisfaction” when my brother walked into the room and my old fifteen inch black and white television screen was filled with Mick Jaggers’ lips, teeth and tongue.  “What in the hell is that?” asked Brad in stunned amazement.  “Give it a few months” I replied.  “You’ll be borrowing my records.”  And indeed he was, so when I mentioned the concert Brad leapt to the occasion.

     We found our seats and almost had to pay for oxygen, they were so high up.  I had never been to a real concert before and had no idea what to expect.  The opening acts were all pretty good; Cannibal and the Headhunters was my favorite of that bunch, but soon we got to the main event.  Out they came; four tiny figures on a stage down on the fifty yard line who wasted no time in starting the show.  The audience wasted no time either in breaking out in pandemonium.  Girls were screaming and kicking the sheet metal which surrounded the stadium lights.  Guys raced out onto the field only to be tackled by burly security men.  It turned out that Ronald Angulo, a kid from my neighborhood, was one of the first idiots to pull that stunt.  The Beatles sang twelve songs and that was it.  It actually seemed like less than that, but I am assured that we got twelve.  And then it was over and I went home again to crow at the park, although it was hollow because I had wanted to be there with Teresa.

     My love of music grew over the next decade as music became the medium by which  disillusioned youth expressed their feelings to one another and the world.  Music had become a complicated business and revolution filled the air along with the sounds of Hendrix, Cream, The Starship and a million others.  But I’ll never forget the simple love that I had for the music, just the music, of my youth.  No great causes or movements, no subliminal messages, just innocent music.  Yeah, it was only rock and roll, but I liked it then.  I still do.