Last month we wrote about our gigs from hell (see Chapter 6), but of course those comprise a vanishingly small percentage of the total number of shows — we’re estimating between six and seven thousand — that we’ve played in the past fifty years. Far more common have been “typical” gigs, the ones where nothing extraordinarily memorable happens — that we’re aware of, anyway. (Although when I reflect that at our “typical” gigs we get to play music, people applaud our songs, and we even get paid, I am reminded how unusual our work is, and how fortunate we have been to be able to do this. There are not many other jobs I can think of where people clap when you walk out in front of them, and then applaud every few minutes for an hour or two, and maybe even stand up at the end and ask you to play one more.)
Way outnumbering the gigs from hell, have been the gigs that are memorable, joyful and uplifting for us, and perhaps for our audiences. There is no predicting what settings and conditions are conducive to these experiences. You’d think that playing with the Detroit Symphony for a full house at Orchestra Hall would be more memorable and enjoyable than playing for 200 elementary schoolkids in a small, rural town in northern Michigan, or for fifty people in an old log cabin at Hollerfest. You’d be wrong. Sure, the former sounds more prestigious, but the feeling in that school gym, or in that cabin, is often just as, or even more exhilarating and sweet. As I said, no predicting. While I certainly get a thrill out of playing for a full house, and while I revel in the beauty and wonderful acoustics of some of the halls we've been able to play, I find that the pleasure I take in the concerts comes from the interactions I have with Laz, Emily and the other musicians we play with, and with our audiences, our making the music together.
Sometimes the memorable moment is not on stage at all, but happens in the audience, and I don’t find out about it till afterwards. In 1994 we were playing a family concert at the Power Center, here in Ann Arbor. We had a full house, our longtime friend and colleague, Brian Brill was at the concert grand, and we were accompanied by a children’s choir, about a hundred strong, all kids from local elementary schools, rehearsed and conducted by Wendy Bloom, a brilliant soprano and music teacher. All that was special enough, and the show went well, but my mind was partly somewhere else. My wife, Brenda gave birth to our daughter a month before and Emily, who was born quite prematurely, was still in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit of Mott Children’s Hospital a few blocks away. I’d invited the doctor who delivered her to be our guest at the show. For Brenda and me he was — still is — equal parts miracle worker and saint. He, his wife and their two young children sat in the row directly behind Brenda and her parents, about halfway up the middle section of seats.
Partway through the show, I sang a brand new lullabye I’d written a week earlier. “Emily Rose, I know that it shows / the way I feel about you, Emily Rose.” Brenda told me after the show that she started crying partway through the song and her doc leaned over, tapped her on the shoulder and handed her a Kleenex. Turns out, there was a doctor in the house.
Early in our career, we were invited to play at a small folk festival in Green Bay. It was in a small auditorium, capacity about 500, and all the performers were from Wisconsin. We’d never toured there before and knew none of them, or they us. The audience greeted our first song with such a loud and sustained applause that it completely startled us. And then they kept it up throughout our set. We were used to a certain length of applause, knew how much time we had to get a sip of water, put on a capo, or switch from fingerpicks to flat picks, before starting to introduce our next song. But these ovations were so much longer than usual that they completely threw off our timing. It felt like we’d plugged into a new type of power source and didn’t yet know how to deal with the extra voltage. When we finally got off stage, we looked at each other and said, “What happened out there?”
It was perhaps the first time that we felt like we were onto something and might really be able to make a go of this music business.
It was 1976, very early in our career: we were totally unknown outside Michigan and far from a household name even in our hometown of Ann Arbor. (Not that we are now!) But we had made a home-recorded four-song demo and sent it out to some folk festivals, and one of them — the Fox Hollow Folk Festival in upstate, New York — responded with an invitation. Evelyn Beers-Bernstein, co-founder of the festival, had been moved by my song “The Waltz of the Old Lovers” and on the basis of that one song, sent to her on a scratchy cassette, accompanied by a hand-written letter, which included our meager “credentials,” took a chance on a couple of singers she’d never heard of.
There was a tradition at Fox Hollow that on Sunday night, to close the festival, one of the songs that Evelyn had found most moving that weekend would be led by its singer, with all the other performers on stage joining in. One of the songs we’d sung that weekend was an old Irish air I’d adapted and set words to. The chorus is:
But who will love if we don’t love
And who will light the way?
And who will love if we don’t love
And who will carry on?
Sunday afternoon, Evelyn asked us to close the festival with that song. Though I felt honored, I also became terrified at the thought of leading all the much-better-known musicians and the whole audience in that song. My body responded by developing an instant sore throat and sniffles! Came time for the finale, I had nearly full-blown cold symptoms and laryngitis. There was some coffee backstage for the performers and I filled a cup, thinking the warm liquid would help sooth my throat. I took a big gulp — it was scalding hot! But by some miracle of grace, it instantly and completely eradicated my symptoms. (By the way, I don’t recommend this as a cure for anything! Please don’t try this at home! I’ve never done it again, though I’ve had many colds. I chalk it up to grace and that I was destined to sing that song at that time.)
San and I started singing the song, everybody on stage and in the audience stood up and started holding hands and swaying, some people lit candles, and we sang that chorus for what was probably three minutes but felt like forever.
The MC at the Fox Hollow Festival was Robert J. Lurtsema, a beloved radio host of a classical music program (Morning Pro Musica) on Boston’s WGBH. Even though we didn’t play classical music, he took a liking to our songs and brought us onto his show a number of times. Usually, it was just him and us in the studio, but one time there was a very special live audience.
There was a religious sect in the area that forbade listening to or playing music. One of the teachers (not a member of the sect) at the school attended by children from these families, somehow managed to get permission for her class to listen to Robert J.’s show for an hour once a week. Then she convinced the leaders of the sect to allow her to bring her class to the radio station so they could see and hear music played live. The day they chose to come happened to be one of the days when we were on the show.
I don’t remember what songs we played, whether the children applauded or not (had they been prepped about how an audience responds if they liked something?) or whether or not we had a chance to interact with the children afterwards. What I do remember is the look on the faces of these elementary school age children seeing and hearing, for the first time in their lives, people playing instruments and singing. (I hope they didn’t think that music was always made by two or more people who looked as much alike as San and I did!)
Imagine what it was like when a locomotive first went through a rural area where people had not yet seen a train. Or when an airplane flew over an area that had not heard about metal birds flying through the air. Or when people, used to seeing silent movies, first heard Al Jolson say, “You ain’t heard nothin’ yet!” part way through the first “talkie,” The Jazz Singer. That’s what the faces of those children looked like when we started to sing and play.
Though we’ve had some other remarkable performance situations like this, I can honestly say, there is no such thing as an “ordinary” concert. Every performance is, at least, an opportunity for simple fun to happen, which often rises to the level of the delightful and joyful, even the magical. Sometimes a concert seems to be going along in an “ordinary” way but then comes a moment or a scene which I remember vividly and fondly years later.
We’re playing a family concert at a church in Grand Rapids on a Sunday afternoon. It’s been raining on and off all day and the forecast calls for cloudy into the night. Partway through the first set we start singing one of my songs, “The sun’s gonna shine, shine on me, I can feel it in my bones…” when the stained-glass windows on the west side of the church light up with bright sunshine. The audience lets out a collective cheer and starts applauding. As soon as we finish the song the clouds close again, and the windows remain dark for the rest of the concert. Of course, we all know that not we nor the song had parted the clouds, but still…
Recently, at an outdoor children’s concert in Bay City. I’m singing the traditional “This old man, he played one, he played knick-knack on my thumb…” and five pre-schoolers jump to their feet and start dancing near the stage. By the time I reach “he played three…” they’re holding hands and dancing in a circle. Other children join them, the circle keeps getting bigger. As I start “he played seven…” a Black child approaches the circle tentatively. There is no hesitation — the White ring opens and welcomes her in. I keep singing, “he played knick-knack up to heaven…” though I have to work a bit to keep from getting choked up, having just witnessed a moment of heaven on earth.
Today is the 11th anniversary of Helen’s passing. I find eleven to be symbolically a very significant number. Ten is a fully embodied number — we have ten fingers, ten toes, which is likely why our most commonly used mathematical system is base ten. Eleven enters into a new dimension and opens a portal on the infinite — we start going beyond what we can easily count on our body parts, and go into a realm (some call it a spirit world) beyond our very temporary, ephemeral bodies.
In these eleven years, I’ve learned many things, but death has become ever more mysterious the farther I get from hers and the closer I get to mine. I am now more able to accept that the form in which I loved her is gone forever, and at the same time I continue to have undeniable experiences of the presence of her essence. Some of these visitations are tiny and fleeting, but some are quite dramatic and even have tangible results. Let me share one of those with you.
On October 26th, 2020, which would have been Helen’s 70th birthday, I went for a walk and was talking to her in my heart — though softly out loud also — telling her I was listening to her, and if she had something to tell me, to please do so in any form she liked, whether in images, words, or melody. I walked quietly for a while, and then a song spontaneously started up. As soon as it did, I started crying; I knew it was a gift from Helen. The chant-like melody was totally in a style she loved and in which she wrote several of her songs, and the theme of the song was completely in line with her cherished beliefs and hopes.
I’ve worked on recording this song off and on for nearly three years, but I’ve not been able to complete it or to be satisfied with the versions I’ve tried. I’m guessing this is an expression of the difficulty in letting go of her. Recently, I’ve started to record it once again and I hope to complete it by Helen’s next birthday. In the meantime, here are her words.
We are here to learn.
We are here to love.
We are here to learn to love
ourselves and one another.
There is only One
who’s taken many forms.
We are here to learn to love
the One in everyone.
Almost every musician has had a few — gigs from hell. And when I say “gigs from hell” I don’t mean the ones where you forget words to songs, or play the wrong chords, or where you have trouble focusing and connecting to the audience, or where you have major technical difficulties and equipment malfunction. Those are gigs from purgatory. You suffer through them and perhaps, if there were sins of under-preparation or carelessness with equipment or instruments, you expiate them. Or, if there is no obvious lesson to be learned, then, as Iris DeMent sings, you “let the mystery be.” No, when I say gigs from hell, I mean the ones where there is a great mismatch between what is expected from the musicians hired for that event, and the impossibility for those musicians to provide what the promoter thought was a good idea.
At the time they feel like hell. Later, sometimes much later, they make for fun stories!
Here are some examples.
In this series of chapters from the Gemini Story we’ve been saying that we started performing 50 years ago when we moved to Ann Arbor. But actually, a few months before that, we had two gigs at the University of Rochester, from where we had graduated the year before. Hopefully, everyone in attendance has forgotten those concerts. In our first gig we were woefully unprepared — still looking at our hands while playing our guitars because we didn’t really know where our fingers should be going for each chord. So, there were noticeable gaps between chords, while our fingers figured out their temporary location, before awkwardly moving on to their next destination. That was just on the musically technical side. On the performance side we had no idea how one connects to an audience or reads one for pacing clues. So, that was a gig from purgatory. We resolved to practice harder, and when attending concerts by master musicians, to try to learn from them about the magic of performing.
The other was a performance (perhaps debacle is a better word) at a frat party that a friend of ours arranged purely based on our friendship, and not on any knowledge of our ability to play music, or what kind of music might be appropriate at such an event. When we got there, we realized what was expected and needed was loud rock ‘n roll. We had hardly any such songs in our repertoire. We were a folk duo who had no drummer or bass player (rock ‘n roll without bass and drums?) and our feeble PA system consisted of two small guitar amplifiers into which we plugged our guitars as well as a couple of cheap vocal mics. But we thought we could get away with it because by the time we started, all the attendees were drunk, and they only grumbled mildly when we couldn’t play any of the songs they staggered up to us to request. The end of every one of our songs was greeted with silence — well, no, there was non-stop loud talking — but by silence I mean that there was no clapping. Well, that’s not quite right either; following each of the first few songs was the sound of one pair of hands clapping. The hands belonged to Helen, my wife-to-be, and she tried to stir up crowd enthusiasm valiantly but gave up in vain well before the end of the first set.
In the early Seventies, we were once booked to play at Alma College, a small school in central Michigan. It was in early September and we had been hired to entertain at an event welcoming the new freshmen. The plan for the evening was an ice cream eating contest, followed by a short talent contest, and then ending with our concert. In reality, the evening was essentially over when one of the students, in full view of all his classmates, after attempting to win the ice cream eating contest by stuffing, cramming and inhaling a vast quantity of Borden’s, threw up all over the stage. We played our concert well in front of the stage for the handful of people who stayed.
Then there was the nightmare of our one and only appearance at the Palace of Auburn Hills in Pontiac, Michigan. The Palace, at the time the home of the Detroit Pistons basketball team, was also the site of many huge rock and pop concerts. In 1990 we were invited there to be the entertainment for the opening ceremonies of the Junior Maccabee Games. We were a logical choice — in some ways. We play music for kids and families, have usually included some Israeli and Jewish music in our concerts, and have a strong following in Detroit area Jewish communities. However, for this audience we definitely were the wrong choice. The Palace held more than 21,000 people and on this, by us never-to-be-forgotten-day, it was about half full of teenage athletes who had come from all over the country and abroad. Although we occasionally sing for teenagers, our music appeals mostly to younger kids and their parents. Our repertoire, appearance, manner on stage and acoustic sound is not exactly teens’ cup of Coke. But that’s not the only explanation for the disaster that ensued. The opening ceremonies consisted of the customary lengthy parade of athletes, followed by an hour of excruciatingly boring speeches. (We’d been assured that there would be just a few brief comments before our performance.) By the time it was our turn to sing, the kids were as restless as a herd of Holsteins under a threatening sky.
The storm hit as soon as we took the stage.
The Palace featured huge video screens suspended from the middle of the ceiling. All aspects of the opening ceremonies were televised and when we finally began playing, we too appeared on those screens. Some of the athletes began dancing to our music near the stage, and the cameras picked them up on wide shots. Part way through our second song a few of the dancers got the bright idea that if they were closer to us, they’d be more visible on the overhead screens. So, several of them jumped on the stage to dance. They began bumping into us, our microphone stands, and the table that held our instruments. While continuing to perform, I tried to get them off the stage. We had just started our “Deli” song, an ode to Zingerman’s Deli in Ann Arbor. I sang into my mic, “Let’s go get a sandwich at the deli,” and then, during the instrumental phrase that followed those words, I turned to the dancers and growled, “Get off the stage!” Then I turned back to my mic and sang the next line, “I’m sick and tired of peanut butter ‘n jelly.” Whirling around, I again hissed, “Don’t bump the table!” Nothing doing. Laz, playing the fiddle and, like me, still trying to go on with the show, could not move from his mic. Our instruments were in danger of being trampled. We were about to be shoved teeth first into our mics. I looked at the half-dozen security guards standing around the stage and motioned to them to take charge. Blank faced, they stood frozen. One shrugged helplessly. The dignitaries on the stage, the ones who had delivered the interminable speeches, also sat as though paralyzed. Things got worse. Other kids in the audience, seeing their teammates on the screens, felt inspired and emboldened to join them. They stampeded from the stands and rushed the stage. We finished the “Deli” tune, only our second song, picked up our instruments and, pushing our way through the crowd, walked off. The kids continued dancing for the cameras.
You know how teachers say that they remember the kids who gave them the most trouble? Of course, they also remember the kids who showed extraordinary talent or initiative. It’s like that with gigs. Among the thousands of concerts we’ve had the good fortune to be able to play in the past fifty years, I remember a handful of gigs from hell, and a much greater number of ones that were delightful and joyous. I’m grateful for all of them: the “ordinary” ones where everything goes smoothly and we leave satisfied and happy, (and hopefully so does the audience); the “special” ones, where something magical happens on or off stage; and yes, even the especially awful ones — they’ve all made for good stories, and a life for which I am thankful.
We felt very encouraged by the success of our first Pendleton Room concert (see Chapter Three). We also felt very lucky. The great winter storm of 1978, one of the worst in Michigan history, hit four days after our concert. It was the first time since its founding that the U of M closed. In the days that followed, as we dug ourselves out, I breathed a number of sighs of relief. Had our concert been scheduled for one of the days of the storm, the Michigan Union would not have even been open! Nevertheless, undeterred by our near miss, in the following year we produced several more Pendleton Room shows in addition to playing at the Ark.
A few days after our June 22, 1979 show at the Ark, I was walking downtown, near the corner of Main and Williams, and ran into our friend Rob Martens. We’d met Rob several years earlier when he sold us some microphones when he was working at Music Mart on State Street. Rob said he’d been planning to call us, that he and Willard Spencer, who played banjo in the RFD Boys bluegrass band, had recently finished building Solid Sound, their state of the art recording studio, and that they wanted to make a record with us. I told him we had no money to do that. He said he’d guessed as much but proposed that he would pay for all the recording and pressing costs up front, and we could pay him back out of record sales.
Laz and I were flabbergasted by this offer, and very touched by Rob and Willard’s generosity and their trust in our music.
We recorded Songs from the Heartland on September 14, 1979 in East Quad Auditorium, at the time my favorite small hall in town. We played the concert without a PA system and Rob and Will put just two microphones on one stand between us and recorded from the balcony. The place was jam packed, the crowd was loving, loud and very enthusiastic. We had to bring the applause volume way down when we mixed the recording later.
We pressed one thousand copies of the album (remember vinyl albums? big CDs? oversize black frisbees?) sold them at our concerts — don’t forget, those were pre-internet days — and paid Rob back in a year. When we gave him the last check he told us that when he’d originally proposed advancing the money to make the album his accountant had said, “You’re out of your mind.” We never signed a contract, just shook hands — by far my favorite way to do business. We are still friends with Rob and Willard; in the past 44 years we’ve recorded nearly twenty albums with them. (More about that later.)
By 1982 we’d begun playing children’s concerts in elementary schools and family concerts at the Ark and at other venues. We were developing a repertoire of songs for children and families. It was time to make another album. All of us were happy with how our financial agreement had worked out on Songs from the Heartland but, for a variety of reasons, we mutually agreed that Laz and I would finance this next recording ourselves.
As the unofficial CFO of our enterprise, I began to make the rounds of local banks to get a loan. I went to six banks and was denied at each.
“You have no credit history.”
We’d never even had a car loan.
“You have no collateral.”
“Well, you’d have the recordings.” I replied.
“And what would we do with them, open a record store?”
I was in the lobby of the sixth bank, TrustCorp on Main Street, about to walk out the door, having been rejected by yet another loan officer, when a man approached me, introduced himself as Ray Philp, and said he was a fan of our music. He added that he worked at the bank, and that if he could ever be of any help to us…
I interrupted to tell him that his loan department had just turned us down.
He replied, “Come on up to my office.” After a brief discussion which ended with him saying, “I know you’ll pay us back,” he said, in effect, that he just needed to figure out a way to structure the loan so the bank would be OK with it. The plan he came up with was to have our wives (both of whom worked at real jobs, with regular paychecks!) co-sign the loan.
Where there’s a will, there’s a way.
We recorded side one of Good Mischief, our first album for children and families, live at the Ark in September 1982. Peter Madcat Ruth, Paul Shapiro and Willard Spencer of the RFD Boys joined us on stage, while Rob ran the mixing board. We had a blast! These guys were — are — terrific musicians and even better human beings.
Speaking of people who supported our music back in the day, Shirley Smith, then one of the hosts at WUOM, was very enthusiastic about our songs and interviewed us a number of times. One of those times, she off-handedly said something like, “We’ll have you back when your new recording is out, and we’ll cook up some more good mischief.” When we left the radio station, Laz took out the little notebook and pen he always carries around and scribbled down the phrase — and later suggested it as the name for our recording. In fact, to this day, when we perform with back-up musicians, we call them, “The Good Mischief Band.”
My wife, Brenda, created the cover of Good Mischief, basing her design on some of the drawings children regularly sent us after seeing us in concerts. Still my favorite cover of all our recordings.
The last cut on side one, “Aiken Drum,” a traditional Scottish song, features one of my cherished moments from our recordings. In the song we, along with the kids in the audience, create an imaginary man in the moon, with the kids calling out a variety of foods to form his body. I called on a little boy for a food suggestion and he froze and couldn’t come up with an answer. So, I prompted him, “What did you have for breakfast?” He came back with, “Tofu.” The audience dissolved in laughter and I said, “Only in Ann Arbor!”
About thirty-five years later I was eating supper at a picnic table on top of the hill overlooking the main stage at Hollerfest, when a woman sat down across from me and asked if I remembered that moment. When I said, “Of course,” she replied, “That was my son.”
We’ve been hearing various versions of that story more and more over the years. Kindergarten teachers at some of our school shows introduce us to their students with, “I heard them when I was your age.” We regularly get CD orders from around the country, and even from overseas, from people who write that they grew up on our music in Ann Arbor, and now want to share it with their children. Perhaps sweetest of all are the smiling faces of grandparents, some younger than we are, who come to our concerts with their adult children holding babies or toddlers. Some clutch well-worn copies of Songs from the Heartland or Good Mischief.
But the most unusual (and humbling) story came recently from a man who wrote us that, way back in 1981, he was walking past his neighbor’s home and saw Songs from the Heartland in his garbage pail! (Shockingly, not everyone loves our music!) The happy ending to his story was that he picked it out of the garbage, brought it home, and he did love it. He was writing now to say that he’d found us online and was delighted to see that we were still making music. We are delighted too!
Some things we learn through repeated practice and trial and error — peppered with plenty of errors — over a long period of time. As the aphorism goes, “Good judgement comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgement.” We’ve mentioned in previous chapters how San and I learned a tremendous amount from our weekly performances, over a number of years, at Mr. Flood’s Party and at the Ark’s Hootenannies.
But some things we learn from a single experience that is so intense that a lesson is fully imbibed all at once, once and for all.
Early on in our career we were booked to play a concert in a hall that seated about 200 people. 35-40 people showed up. As I peeked out from the wings before the show, I felt a great and painful disappointment. I was young and inexperienced — I took it very personally, as a statement about our worth and about our prospects for the future. But when I walked out on stage to start the show, something shifted in me. I looked out over the audience and saw people who had simply come to hear us and to enjoy themselves. It struck me that it was not their fault that there weren’t more of them. I suddenly found myself on the verge of a stark choice; I could either continue to wallow in self-pity and disappointment, or I could focus on giving the people in the audience the very best music that I could. It ended up being a delightful, intimate concert, in which I completely forgot the empty seats and enjoyed the warm response from the full ones.
I’ve never forgotten: to play to the people who are there, and not to the ones who aren’t.
Another teaching that sank in early on was from a fan who came up after a show to thank me. She expressed her gratitude in a few words, and I responded by telling her in great detail everything that had gone wrong during the show. She walked away and I forgot about the exchange. A few weeks later I recognized her on the street and said hello and she stopped me.
She told me how hurt she had been when I had dismissed her gratitude and denied her experience. It was clear from the way she spoke that she still felt the pain of it. I felt truly humbled and thanked her for being so vulnerable and open even after the way I had spoken to her previously. She responded by saying that her father was on the board of directors at a coffeehouse in Cambridge, Massachusetts that brought in national touring performers. She’d talk to him about booking us to open for some of these musicians. Over the next few years, we ended up opening multiple shows for Odetta, Rosalie Sorrels, and Dave Mallett, continuing to learn from master musicians about the craft of performing — and the responsibility that a performer owes to their audience.
It was another lesson I’ve never forgotten; to honor the experience and comments of audience members — positive or negative (because there have been a few of those also!) and to respond with a sincere “thank you.”
One more incident that taught me an invaluable lesson. San and I were booked, along with a number of other performers, at a weekend conference for early childhood teachers. At each session — morning, afternoon, and evening — there were to be various speakers and presentations, followed by two performing acts, each playing for 20 minutes. We were scheduled to be the second such act one night. The musician performing ahead of us played his 20 minutes, and then kept going — for 5 minutes, 10 minutes, 15… I was getting quite angry, to put it mildly, but the organizer of the conference sat in the front row smiling and clearly had no intention of stopping the show. After 45 minutes the other musician finally ended, and San and I were introduced. I was furious. No, I was outraged. No, I was livid! But when I stepped up on stage and looked out over the audience, I remembered what I was there for — to give my best to the teachers. I found myself channeling the energy of the fury I felt into the music. It was one of the most dynamic performances I’d ever experienced! The music flowed out of me as if something / someone else was performing, and I could just listen and watch in amazement as my voice and fingers did these magical things. And from their response, I could tell that the audience was experiencing something similar.
That lesson transferred to many other concerts. I learned either to let go of whatever emotion I happened to be feeling before a show, or to channel its energy into the music. The music has never failed to transform it into something positive.
With 20/20 hindsight, I can now see that when we began playing music in public, I was suffering from the misapprehension that I was God’s gift to any audience fortunate enough to hear me. It took several years before I fully outgrew that delusion.
Exhibit A: One evening at the Depot House Restaurant in Ann Arbor, our steady Saturday night gig for a number of years in the Seventies, I became not bewitched, but instead bothered and bewildered when several plainly benighted diners didn't turn their chairs to face the stage but sat with their backs to us and, rather that gaze upon us with fittingly rapt attention, dared to continue talking with each other while we played. Mystified, offended and affronted, I retaliated by mangling the melodies of songs, distorting the pronunciation of words and generally singing in as obnoxious a manner as I could contrive. It worked. Shooting me several looks of disbelief during the course of a few songs, they soon left.
Meanwhile, I'd forgotten all about the rest of our audience. Also, about Laz, who was furious with me.
I gradually worked attitudes and actions like that out of my system. I learned my final lesson one night in the early 1980s when we opened for an internationally known folk singer (who shall remain nameless) in a large and beautiful concert hall. After we finished our set, we went out into the audience to listen to his show. We were aware that he’d arrived too late to do a sound check before the concert began, but instead of acknowledging his responsibility for being tardy, he repeatedly and disdainfully expressed to the audience his dissatisfaction with the audio crew. He also groused, between perfunctory renditions of his hits, about the smallish audience and complained that his records sold better in England than they did in the US — and how that was a reflection on, and an indictment of, Americans and our lack of culture and good taste. He was not joking.
That night I learned exactly how an audience feels when a performer does not respect them, or his art.
We were very fortunate in having some different models too. The one that stands out among many others is Odetta. In Cambridge, in 1982, Laz and I opened seven shows for Odetta at Passim's Coffeehouse. She was in her early fifties then, long a legendary singer and civil rights activist, dignity personified, her voice still powerful enough to make microphones irrelevant. If she was upset about the relatively small crowds that week, she didn't complain to her audience — or to anyone else that I heard. If she had any resentment about the folk boom of the Sixties that had, in large part, passed her by, while elevating a number of paler, and arguably less talented performers to much greater popularity, she didn't take it out on any of the people around her. Music seemed a powerful source of healing and joy for her, and she appeared intent on passing that along to her audiences.
Passim's only had one dressing room, perhaps more accurately described as a dressing closet. Yet every night Odetta graciously invited us to share that cramped space with her, rather than allow us to warm up in the only other available spot, the hallway next to the kitchen. Before we went on stage for each show, she sent us off with a heartfelt, "Give 'em heaven!"
She closed all her evenings with "Amazing Grace." Each night, in a characteristically generous gesture, she invited us up on stage to sing it with her. She sang the chorus differently than I'd ever heard before. Instead of, "Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me," she substituted, "a soul" for “a wretch” and said, during the musical rest that follows the phrase, "No wretches here." She obviously believed that and treated people accordingly — on and off stage.
The lesson sank in deep. I still think of her often.
Our father did not approve — to put it mildly — of my brother’s and my choice of career. Multiple reasons for that, and no need to get into the nitty gritty here. Let’s just say that I can count on the fingers of one hand, and still have enough digits left to play an e minor chord, the number of our concerts he attended in thirty years — nor was he all that complimentary when he did come. But, when in 1989, we told our parents that we’d been invited to sing the national anthem before a baseball game at Detroit’s Tiger Stadium, our father seemed genuinely excited. He wanted to know how many people would be in the stands, how much money we’d make, (and didn’t even seem too disappointed when we said it’s an honorary function, not a paying one) and asked whether we’d sing alone or with organ accompaniment.
He knew the Star Spangled Banner. It was the first song he learned in English after we moved to the US in late 1959. He needed to know it for his job as a cantor in synagogues, where most social events began with the singing of our national anthem and the Hatikvah, the Israeli anthem. It was very difficult for him to memorize the English words by rote, and even more problematic to pronounce them correctly. He relied on my brother and me to help him, but his accent still mangled the lyrics pretty thoroughly. However, the sheer beauty and power of his voice lent the anthem great dignity and majesty, and there was no denying the reverence with which he sang. Over the years it remained the only song in English that the three of us all had in our repertoires.
So, in 1993, when our parents came to visit us in Michigan for the first time, Laz and I arranged to sing the anthem before a ball game during their stay.
On the drive to Tiger Stadium our father asked nervously if it would be okay for him to wear his hat at the game. As an Orthodox Jew, he always wore a hat or a yarmulke, but still seemed uneasy, the way he must have often felt in our native Hungary, about identifying himself so conspicuously as being Jewish. I reassured him that other than during the anthem it would be fine to wear his hat. I also told him that I’ve even seen people wearing yarmulkes at the ballpark and added that nothing he could possibly wear would look out of place at Tiger Stadium.
We parked on a side street, a few blocks from the stadium. Downtown Detroit was filled with sights my parents didn’t often see in the sleepy little town where they lived in Florida and may have even brought up for them some bad memories of post WWII Budapest. I could feel their nervousness about the litter-filled streets, the boarded-up houses, the panhandlers and street people, the scalpers aggressively offering to sell us tickets, and the vendors loudly hawking everything from peanuts to T-shirts.
We picked up the tickets held for us at the will-call window and headed into the tunnel underneath the stands of the stadium. It was an hour and a half before game time, but the dingy tunnel was already crowded and noisy with people buying food, baseball hats, pennants and miniature bats at the concession stands. Occasionally a small group of children came running through the crowd — probably spurred on by a rumor, or a glimpse, of a player signing autographs in another part of the stadium.
We spotted our section and turned, heading up the ramp, into the ballpark. That first glimpse of the field never failed to delight and refresh me. I glanced at my parents and saw them also visibly relax at the sight of the lush green of the outfield, the beautifully raked red clay of the infield, the bright white uniforms of the players. The ballpark was a small, emerald isle of beauty in the sea of gray despair that surrounded Tiger Stadium.
The ushers remembered Laz and me from our previous visits and welcomed us warmly. They led us to our row and wiped the dust off the blue stadium seats. My wife, Brenda, her parents, Bill and Norma, Laz's wife, Helen holding their baby Daniel, were all with us. We watched batting practice and tried to explain baseball to our parents.
In all his years of living in the U.S., our father never developed a taste for the game. “Nothing happens. Not like football.“ (He was referring to soccer, calling it by the name it is known all over the world, except in the U.S.) “Now that’s a real game.”
I told my parents that the pitcher tries to throw the ball in such a way that the batter can’t hit it. And that the batter tries to hit the ball where the fielders can’t catch it. My father looked bewildered and I remembered a story he told me about the first, and only time, his father, Shaya, came to see him play soccer. After the game, Shaya said, “What a stupid game! You were trying to kick the ball in the net and that guy wasn’t letting you. And then there was that idiot blowing a whistle all the time — what was he doing?”
I explained about the home run. Everyone else chimed in with the intricacies of the double play, the sacrifice fly, the intentional walk. I could see that my parents were not following any of this. I marveled at how hard it was to describe a game you’ve learned simply by watching and playing. Like explaining the colloquialisms of your mother tongue to a foreigner.
Laz and I left the baseball tutorial to go warm up our voices. We found a deserted corner under the stands and began to sing. My voice was tight and my breathing uneven. Laz also sounded tense. We always got more nervous for this two- minute appearance than for almost any concert. Our parents being there added still more tension. But, after about fifteen minutes of singing and walking around in the stadium tunnels, we finally began to loosen up.
We headed back to our seats. My father-in-law was regaling my father about seeing Denny McLain start a triple play in a game in 1968. And how his wife missed the whole thing because she had leaned over to wipe mustard off their nephew’s chin.
A few minutes before game time, Jim Brylewski from the Tigers marketing department came to our seats and accompanied us down from the stands, through the little gate near home plate, and out onto the field. We stood on the cinder track surrounding the diamond and made small talk with Jim, with a member of the grounds crew who set up the microphone for us, and with the man who was scheduled to throw out the ceremonial first pitch that day.
Every few minutes Laz nervously blew into the small pitch pipe we use to get our starting note and we hummed it to ourselves, trying to memorize it. Because of the crowd noise we feared we might not be able to hear it when it was time to start. (The Star Spangled Banner is notoriously difficult to sing. It has a big range, an octave and a fifth, so it’s crucial to not start it too high or too low.)
The managers and umpires finished their meeting at home plate and Jim gave us the signal. Carefully stepping over the chalk line that connects home plate and first base, we walked to the microphone near the pitcher’s mound. We faced the flag in deep center field, about 450 feet away, with our backs to the crowded part of the stadium. Laz leaned away from the microphone and sounded the pitch pipe one last time as the PA announcer said, “Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, please stand for the singing of our national anthem by Sandor and Laszlo Slomovits.” I knew from hundreds of hours of listening to games on the radio that up in the WJR booth Ernie Harwell and Paul Cary just finished announcing the lineups and were now telling the radio audience, "Let's go down to the field now for the singing of our national anthem."
A video image of us, taken from the back, was projected on the screen above the bleachers in center field. It was not a view I often had of myself. I noticed how bald we were — just like our dad. The words to the anthem were also projected line by line onto the screen. I looked away from them and focused on the flag instead. I worried that if the lines were flashed too fast or too slow, I'd get confused.
As on every previous visit to the stadium, I was struck by the sound of our voices, enormously amplified, echoing, coming from everywhere. The crowd began to roar as we held the last note on the word “brave” and nearly drowned out our ending. But the little cantorial cry in the voice that we’ve inherited from our father was clearly audible as we sang the word “home” in the last phrase.
We waved to the crowd and ran off the field. Our path took us near the visiting team’s dugout. Phil Garner, the mustachioed manager of the Milwaukee Brewers, had a big smile on his face and reached out to shake our hands. “Great job. Much better than what we usually hear.”
We made our way up to our seats a few rows behind home plate. Our father was visibly moved. He said with genuine warmth, “Was beautiful. It’s wonderful, people cheer like that for you.”
Here is a recording, made by Rob Martens, our longtime friend and musical colleague, of a WJR radio broadcast of us singing the anthem before a Detroit Tigers game. The recording also features the immortal voices of Paul Carey and Ernie Harwell. Go Tigers!
Our most steady gig in the Seventies was at Mr. Flood's Party, a small neighborhood bar in downtown Ann Arbor. Ned Duke, the owner was an avid antiques collector, and furnished his bar with original Tiffany lamps, antique mirrors, a barber pole, and a juke box that played records and also housed the bar’s PA system amplifiers. Ned also had a few plaster statues in Flood’s, including a slightly smaller than life-sized St. Francis of Assisi. Some patrons insisted, especially late at night, after a few beers, that the Saint looked like our triplet. There was a resemblance. Laz and I had similar beards and were balding in the same monastic pattern as St. Francis.
I had no experience with bars when we first started playing at Flood’s. I still recall my shock the first night when, during our first break, after I'd carefully gathered all my empty peanut shells into a neat pile on the table before me, a waitress came by and casually brushed them to the floor. Also, other than sipping a little Sabbath wine on Friday nights when I was growing up in my parents' home, I had relatively little experience with alcohol before we began playing bar gigs. I didn’t know a martini from a Martian. In college, although I experimented with drinking a few times at the omnipresent beer blasts, my sensitive stomach and thin build prevented me from over-indulging. Simply put, I got sick before I got happy, and well before I got sloshed. So, when we began playing at Flood's, I always asked for just a glass of water. Ned would sing out, "Fish bourbon coming up." However, I soon discovered that a few shots of good rum did not upset my stomach and yet very effectively anesthetized my occasionally sore throat. It took me a little longer to acknowledge that it had the same effect on my ears and spatial judgment. The tiny stage at Flood's was very high. By the end of some early evenings there, so was I. Teetering precariously near the edge of the stage, I sometimes played guitar chords one fret higher or lower than their correct position, all the while giving Laz accusing looks — certain that the discordant sounds were coming from him. After a few months at Flood's, I found other ways of coping with my sporadic sore throat and went back to “fish bourbon".
Even though I often felt as out of place at Flood’s as a priest at a frat party, it was there, and places like it, where we learned our craft. Beginning in 1974, until it closed in 1980, we played music from nine to two on many Tuesday nights in front of rowdy Flood's Party crowds. It was a great education. We learned how to respond to the changing moods of an audience, learned about pacing, and, eventually, learned how to put together a coherent set. When we began playing there, we were perfectly capable of playing a mournful Mississippi Delta Blues and follow it with the "Irish Washerwoman".
At Flood's we also learned how not to get distracted by anything that might happen in the audience during a show, a very valuable skill when we later started playing concerts for children. On one of our first nights at Flood’s, a couple of burly guys started throwing wild haymakers at each other. Laz and I immediately stopped playing. The bouncer, as he ran to restore the peace, yelled back over his shoulder, "Keep playing!" We started up again. After he'd tossed the combatants out on the street, he came back and forcefully hissed, "Never! Never! Never! You never stop playing if a fight breaks out — or for anything else!" We never stopped again.
Of all the things we learned at Flood's, one of the most necessary was to never surrender the stage, or our instruments, to strangers. Eventually, when asked, I'd resort to Eric Clapton's flip line, "Sorry, I never kiss on a first date." (It goes without saying that that was the only guitar-related subject in which I could hope to emulate Clapton.) However, until we learned to say “no” we did occasionally lend our guitars. I vividly recall the last time.
A man with disheveled, shoulder length black hair, wearing a faded T shirt, distended by his bulging belly, swaggered up to the stage and asked to play a few songs between our sets. The bouncer said he was OK, so we said sure. We sensed trouble right off the bat when he said that since he was such a big guy, he preferred Laz’s guitar, because it was bigger than mine. First, he strummed a few fresh scratches into Laz's acoustic Goya. Then he proceeded to sing and play ten minutes of the worst shouting blues I hope I ever have the misfortune of hearing. People began hurrying to the door like a ball game crowd leaving early when it’s obvious the home team can’t possibly win. Laz and I were forced to cut our break short so we wouldn't lose our entire audience. When the guy handed back Laz's now completely out of tune guitar he said, “Thanks, man. I haven't played in weeks. I had this real case of musical constipation. It just had to come out.” Laz muttered under his breath, “Yeah. It did sound like shit.”
We gradually recognized that the songs we were beginning to write and the music we really wanted to play did not work at Flood’s or at the other bars where we were playing. We had started getting invitations to folk festivals and to other coffeehouses like the Ark, we were beginning to tour out of state and we’d also started playing in schools. We gradually tapered off the bar gigs and mostly stopped by 1979. Laz said he knew it was time when he realized that we were starting all our bar shows with "Sloop John B" and noticed how much heartfelt emotion we were injecting into the chorus; "Let me go home. I wanna go home. This is the worst trip I’ve ever been on."
Nevertheless, when I think of the one place where we learned the most about performing, it was at Mr. Flood’s Party during those several hundred Tuesday nights where we played from 9pm to 2am.
After we’d been playing at Flood’s and other bars for a number of years but had also had a taste (at the Ark, at other area coffeehouses, and at folk festivals) of what it was like to play for an audience that just came to hear us play music, we decided to produce our own concert. We rented the Pendleton Room in the U of M Student Union for Sunday, January 22, 1978, and set the ticket price at $2, which is what the Ark charged. I don’t know how much the hall rental cost, but it couldn’t have been too much for us to consider it reasonable to recoup in ticket sales. We didn’t own a PA system and didn’t even consider renting one (see financial considerations above) but since we didn’t expect a lot of people, we didn’t think we’d need one. The Union provided 200 plastic folding chairs, which we were to set up, (and we did, though we worried that only the front few rows would be occupied) and a small wooden stage that (we learned during the concert) rocked side to side in response to our vigorous foot-stomping.
In the weeks before the concert date we sent out notices to our tiny fan base (San and I disagree whether these were hand-written postcards, or whether we had graduated by then to printed cards) hand-stapled posters to every pole and bulletin board we could find around town, and when the day of the concert came, I asked my wife, Helen, to help by taking tickets at the door. And then we waited.
A half hour before the 2pm start time, a trickle of people came up the stairs. This quickly became a steady stream, that turned into a flood. Fifteen minutes before the show, the Pendleton Room was more than three-quarters full — and I went around the corner and hid in a back hallway.
I don’t know if I knew the term “introvert” at the time, and whether it applied to me or not, but I knew this was the largest crowd we’d ever played for. And they had come just to hear us sing! Imagine that! I was terrified. Five minutes before showtime San found me in my hiding place, and with a radiant look on his face and in an awe-struck voice, he informed me that we had a full house. I replied, “I know. I’m not going out there.” San said, “What?” I repeated myself. He took hold of my forearm and started dragging me out of the hallway. When we got to the double doors of the Pendleton Room he let go of my arm and walked into the room — and to my amazement, (and since I was in full sight of the audience) I followed. And to my shock, the room erupted in applause. We stepped up onto the makeshift stage and started singing “Every Once in a While,” an a capella song that I’d written — and my terror vanished. For the rest of the concert, I was in a state bordering on bliss. I’ve been nervous many times before concerts since then, but it has never again occurred to me to hide and not want to come out.
However, let me get back to that term “introvert” for a moment. To this day, if you come to one of our concerts and have trouble telling us apart, San’s the one standing by the door to the hall, greeting everyone enthusiastically, while I’m in a back room somewhere, focusing on my breathing…
When we moved from Rochester, NY to Ann Arbor in July of 1973, we knew only a handful of things about the city. We knew about the University, Laz’s wife-to-be, Helen was planning to go to grad school here. We’d also heard that it was the “Dope Capital of the Midwest,” we’d heard of the huge annual Art Fairs, and we’d heard of the Ark Coffeehouse. The Ark already had a national reputation in folk circles by then. In those days Wednesday nights were open mike nights, or hoot nights as they were still called in the Seventies, at the Ark. For years, Laz and I showed up religiously nearly every week.
We went to our first Ark hoot just a few days after we moved to Ann Arbor. We didn't own a car, so we walked across town from our West Side apartment, lugging our electric guitars and a small amplifier. The Ark, then on Hill Street, was on the ground floor of a massive gray mansion near the University of Michigan campus. The house was set far back from the street and when we arrived a little before the nine o’clock start time, a few people were strumming guitars and banjos on the huge lawn and on the front porch. At the door we introduced ourselves to Linda Siglin, who along with her husband David managed the Ark, and told her we'd come to play. Musicians got in free. Everyone else paid a dollar to hear twenty to thirty performers play three songs each. (Tickets in those days were $2.50 for most regular Ark concerts.)
There was no stage. Performers stood or sat in front of the unused fireplace, in what had once been the living room of the huge house. Most of the audience, the front row barely a yard from the musicians, sat on cushions on the wooden floor. Two adjacent rooms, with wide doorways opening onto the main room, held chairs for the rest of the crowd.
Linda waved us toward the “green room,” across the hall from the living room. It was already crowded with musicians plucking guitars and banjos, a few sawing away at fiddles, and all nervously waiting to perform. Some of them nodded in greeting but most were too intent on their instruments, or their nerves, to make eye contact. We put our cases down, went back to the living room, and watched and listened from a doorway.
There were about thirty people in the audience. It seemed that most of them had come to see their friends perform because almost every singer was greeted with raucous enthusiasm by a few people and polite applause from everyone else. Over the course of the next hour the audience gradually grew, and the music got better, the performances more polished.
The musicians ranged from novices like us, who'd been playing guitar for two years and had hardly ever performed before an audience, to veterans of the local bar scene eager to try out some of their quieter songs in front of an audience that listened. Ark crowds were attentive, almost reverential. Perhaps this was due in part because at the Ark coffee was the strongest, and only, drink available.
Finishing the first set that night was Peter Madcat Ruth. Linda introduced him with obvious respect, telling the audience that Madcat regularly toured with Dave Brubeck and Sons. He received a warm and affectionate welcome as he picked his way through the seated crowd, carrying a colorful metal lunch box filled with harmonicas. Setting the lunch box on a stool before the fireplace, he selected a harp and launched into his first tune without saying a word. I was riveted. I’d never seen or heard anyone like him. His long blond hair streamed as he swayed to the music. He blew intricate rhythm patterns, bent notes impossibly far, and interweaved whoops and hollers into his playing. Eyes closed much of the time he accompanied his blues playing with vigorous foot stomping. His lyrics ranged from the hilarious to the profound, his melodies from softly meditative to driving. He was completely natural and at ease on stage, a total pro, with no egotistical showboating. The audience roared its appreciation during, and after, each of his three songs. Laz and I were too shy and intimidated by his talent to approach him that night but in the next few years we became good friends and Madcat has since joined us for many shows and has played on nearly all of our recordings.
After a twenty minute coffee and popcorn break, the music continued. Over the course of the next hour the audience gradually dwindled and there were few people left when Linda informed us that we’d be on next. She introduced us to the crowd warmly enough, saying that we were new in town and this was our first hoot. After the smattering of applause, there was an awkward silence while we set up our amplifier and plugged in our guitars. Then, a screeching howl of feedback when one of us, I no longer recall who, played a test note. Linda came rushing back to the stage and, with obvious irritation, suggested that maybe we had the amp turned up too high. We turned down and, meager confidence badly shaken, somehow struggled through three songs. I have no memory what the songs were, or how the crowd reacted. I remember slinking out as soon as we were done.
We never again brought our electric guitars to the Ark, but it was many months before Linda's first impression of us faded. She always put us on stage near the end of the evening. Hers was not a democratic, or first-come-first-served, or blind luck lottery system. She orchestrated the evenings so that the best performers were on stage when the crowd was largest. Several times we left without playing when we saw how late it was getting, how many musicians were still left, and how studiously Linda seemed to be avoiding us. But we came back, week after week, because it was our only chance to play in front of an audience. We learned so much from playing our three songs every week and watching the other musicians on hoot nights. We knew we’d finally arrived when one Wednesday night, months after we first started coming to the hoots, Linda invited us to finish the first set, and soon thereafter she and Dave booked us to play our first show at the Ark on March 14, 1974. We split the bill that Thursday night with the duo of Todd Kabza and John Bian, both excellent guitar players. We invited Ned Duke, the owner of Mr. Flood’s Party, to come hear us at that show, hoping he’d book us into his very popular downtown bar. More on that later.
On October 10, 1974 we played our first solo show at the Ark. We’ve been very fortunate to have been able to play at least one show there every year since then. Many years we’ve headlined three or four shows and participated with other musicians in a number of others. For us, those shows have invariably been among the highlights of every year. When I think of the most influential people and venues that taught us, supported us and have helped us do what we’ve been able to do for the past fifty years, Dave and Linda Siglin, their daughter Anya, (who’s been doing the booking there for a number of years now) and the many folks who help run the Ark, they all are very near the top of the list.
Perhaps it was unsurprising and even inevitable that we would become musicians. After all, our dad made his living as a singer — as a Cantor in the synagogue — and from the time we were four years old until we left home to go off to college, we were his two-boy choir. Our mother, though profoundly tone deaf (for which our Dad teased her mercilessly), nevertheless contributed some impressive musical genes to us; her father was an excellent pianist, but more than mere facility in playing the instrument, he possessed the gift of being able to hear a melody once, at a concert or a theater, and being able to sit down at the piano and reproduce it from memory — and then improvise upon it.
Singing came to us as naturally as breathing. Our dad never gave us formal voice lessons, but we were immersed in singing the liturgy with him on a daily basis. His powerful, beautiful, well-trained voice was our atmosphere and constant model for how to sing.
Our parents started me on violin lessons and San on piano at age seven. This was not unusual in 1950s Budapest, Hungary, where we were born; learning to play an instrument was considered a natural part of a child’s education. However, if our parents expected child prodigies, they were quickly disappointed. Neither of us showed any particular promise, nor did we enjoy practicing. Nevertheless, the lessons continued well into our mid-teens when it became obvious that we did not have the heart to persist.
However, with singing it was a different story. Besides singing regularly with our dad, we were in Middle School choir (except for the year when our voices were changing, when we found it too embarrassing to let out the unpredictable squeaks and squawks that go with that age) and then in the New York State award-winning Kingston High School choir, occasionally soloing. Even more importantly, we had secretly begun to harbor dreams of being operatic tenors. We listened for countless hours to recordings of such early 20th century greats as Enrico Caruso and Beniamino Gigli, as well as contemporary (at the time) Metropolitan Opera stars Franco Corelli, Jan Peerce and Richard Tucker. We learned tenor arias from our favorite Puccini operas — and with the delusional confidence of youth, we were not discouraged by the fact that we couldn’t reach any of the high notes in those arias.
None of our friends were into opera (or liturgical music for that matter) but several were pretty good guitar players who sang the folk songs of Pete Seeger, Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul and Mary, Joan Baez, and others. While we were not quite as interested in this music as in opera, we did get caught up in the folk boom of the 1960s. One of our friends gave us Peter, Paul and Mary’s double album, “Live at Carnegie Hall” and we literally wore it out, while memorizing some of the songs and parts of Paul Stookey’s monologue. Our guitar-playing friends convinced us to try learning to play — it seemed like everyone was playing guitar and singing protest songs and love songs. They came with us to the one music store in Kingston to help us pick one out — but so did our dad because he was going to pay for it. He found the guitar our friends suggested to be much too expensive and bought us one that we found nearly unplayable — the strings were so far off the board that you needed gorilla hands to make a chord without buzzing the strings.
This was second semester of our senior year in high school, and we quickly gave up on learning guitar, and didn’t even bring it with us when we went off to college.
College. University of Rochester in upstate NY. Our parents had different dreams for us than becoming opera singers. San was to become an engineer and I a doctor. I lasted one semester in premed; San managed three in engineering. I graduated with a degree in English, San with one in History, neither of us with any plans on how to make a living — but with a new dream that had formed in the last couple years of college. We would become the next Beatles!
The fact that neither of us played guitar, had never written a song, and were already starting to lose our hair, were just a few of the reasons why this idea was as silly (I’m being generous) as it sounds now. But it was true that during those college years something had changed about our relationship to music. As one of San’s roommates pointed out, “The only time I see you happy is when you’re singing.” What had been a simple, natural part of our lives while growing up, had become a passion. We had realized we were not opera singers — our voice teacher at the Eastman School of Music, where we got to take weekly lessons, was very kind in pointing out that there are many kinds of music, and our voices were not suited to opera — but what was the music that was right for us?
Second semester senior year of college, I brought back from home the guitar untouched in the previous four years and found that the neck had warped just right to make the guitar playable — at least at the first few frets. I learned three chords and started playing them over and over, humming melodies all the while. By graduation time, I knew nearly a dozen chords and had started to figure out how to play melodies. San got his own guitar and started learning, and we thought we’d soon be ready for stardom.
In the meantime, there was the small matter of paying the rent and other necessities. A week after graduating we went looking for work. We showed up early that Monday morning at Manpower to see what we could find. We were put on a construction crew and assigned a stretch of concrete to break up with a jackhammer. I remember wondering who was going to win the wrestling match — me or the deafening tool!
Another day we were on a crew pouring cement for a sidewalk around the side of a house. This time I found myself wrestling with a wheelbarrow full of wet cement that was supposed to make its way around to the back of the house. Curving past the front door, the wheelbarrow decided it had had enough of its heavy, unbalanced load, and dumped its contents into the flower garden in the front yard.
Eventually, we each got steady work. San parked cars in a city surface lot. (He can still slam a car into a space hardly bigger than the car in one high speed maneuver.) His flooring-it-in-reverse, tire-squealing exploits became lunch-time entertainment for office workers in the surrounding buildings. Meanwhile, I worked a factory job assembling small transformers. When the boss wasn’t looking, I created mini sculptures from the solder dripping down the sides of the pot.
But all the while, every night and every weekend, and at other every spare moment, we were playing guitar, learning songs, and even starting to write our own. At first, we were still thinking Beatles / rock ‘n roll (I had even switched over to playing a Lake Placid Blue Stratocaster!) but little by little we started feeling our way to the music that felt right for us. As the months turned into that first year after college, we found ourselves starting to recognize this mysterious energy called “making music” that had entered our lives. We saw that it had actually started to shape how we identified ourselves, and how it was beginning to flower and grow.
It’s not just tonight. Every
night a new year begins
tomorrow. If we don’t have
the right to ask, right
now, for the highest
that we want, who does?
What if we were to set free
our deepest purpose, our cause
for being, our most heartfelt goal,
like a constant current coursing
through our lives? What if we
were to stand with a tray
in our hands ready to catch sight
of a gleam? What if with each
thought, word, and deed we allowed
the power of our intention, for all
tomorrows, to dip into all that once
was, and is now? What if, again
and again, we poured ourselves this
fresh moment in which to find gold?