Notes From the Bo(a)rder: The best years…(continued)

Late in the Spring of 1970, approaching my 17th birthday, I met another teenager (one grade behind me, and in a different high school) named Mark. Mark also came from a Puerto Rican background, although in his case it was both parents. That seemed enough common ground at first to begin to “hang out” together. I don’t recall how we met, I only remember that we seemed to hit it off in a big way.

I had just emerged from my first heart break. It had been an ill-advised relationship at best. She was a fellow Seton Hall High School student, 15 years old and engaged to marry a 19 year old college student. She felt trapped in that relationship, and when she had her friends slip me a note that said, “I’m not B__’s property until I have his ring on my finger,” I couldn’t resist the temptation. She was a stunningly beautiful young woman who didn’t seem aware of just how attractive she was, and her interests were compatible with mine.

I told her friends that I wanted to talk to her. At first she thought I was angry about the note, but I smiled, and honestly don’t remember how we suddenly found ourselves in each other’s arms, our lips tightly pressed. Bad idea, and my only excuse is that my teenage hormones were running wild, and my brain apparently shut down.
She told her fiancée that night and the poor girl soon found herself torn between two young men who were both telling her that she’d have to make a choice. But she seemed unwilling or maybe unable to decide. We would meet clandestinely in dark quiet places around the school – the back of the auditorium, the stair well at the farthest end of the main building, empty classrooms. In truth it was pretty light weight stuff, passionate kissing for the most part. B__ knew about us and every evening he would try to persuade, and eventually to force her to stop seeing me, and she would meet me in secret the next day to tell me that it was over, but would quickly melt into my arms. This went on for about 2 or 3 months. Then, one fine day in the early spring I sprouted a spine and broke it off with her. I was not happy as part of a ménage à trois and believed that she was confused and did not possess the inner resources to make a clean break with either of us. It would be in everyone’s best interest if I simply bowed out, so I did.

So now, after having my heart ripped in two I decided to avoid romantic involvements at least for a while. In later years I often wondered whether it had been my heart that was broken or just my ego bruised. Over the years I’ve experienced both and a bruised ego always involves shame and anger, but not the pain of love lost. No, my heart ached, and I didn’t want it to ache again any time soon, so I bonded with Mark and we both talked about how we would be adolescents only once and not waste that youthful opportunity on amorous entanglements.

Together Mark and I explored what would for that summer become our 2 principal interests – girls and music. We sought out rather easy girls who were probably, and sadly, discovering their sexuality not as a means of empowerment but rather as a way to feel wanted by somebody – or more accurately, by anybody. I can’t speak for Mark, but I was a bit too insecure to push my exploits into the more dangerous ground of intercourse, but I did enjoy myself. Years later I would look back with a sense of relief that I wasn’t confident enough to pressure these young women into “going all the way.” There is a small gap between pressure and force, and I can say with honesty that I never crossed that line with a woman, even if my motivation at that time wasn’t quite as idealistic as one would wish. And, to be honest, I am also relieved when I realize that many of the girls with whom I had encounters wound up pregnant within the next several months, and their lives as well as the lives of the young men who bore equal responsibility were altered. There but for the Grace of God go I.

Much of our summer was spent enjoying music. We would take turns buying the latest albums of our favorite bands: Steppenwolf, The Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Traffic, Cream, Blind Faith, Ten Years After, Mountain, the Allman Brothers Band, Santana, Jethro Tull, the Who, and, of course, the mighty Led Zeppelin. The list went on. We discovered that the State University of New York in Stoney Brook was hosting a summer music festival of weekly concerts featuring some of bands that had played at the Woodstock Festival the previous summer. Mark and I went to the first one together – Ten Years After, with MC5 as the opening act. A week later we were there seeing Santana (the original Woodstock line-up) with Miles Davis opening. The jazz legend’s music, which was essentially all from his Bitches Brew album, went over my head a bit, but I recognized that something special was going on, and I took mental notes because I believed that eventually I’d understand the music and be glad that I was there. Several years later I did and I was.
That summer I also saw Mountain, the Allman Brothers Band, Jethro Tull, the James Gang, and a few other shows. These bands formed the soundtrack of my coming of age. It wasn’t just the music or the tentative forays into physical intimacy, it was more that this was the summer of a newly acquired freedom. I had a driver’s license and pretty free use of my father’s car, as long as I agreed to drive him to work in the morning and pick him up again in the evening. And for the first time I didn’t feel like I didn’t fit in. I was “cool”. I met many others on the cusp of adulthood who shared my interests and tastes and I was allowed to grow into the person that I had always been in the process of becoming.

I was also exploring my own artistic voice, listening to classical music for the first time and discovering that I really liked it. I bought my first 2 classical recordings – a box set of the Beethoven 9 symphonies with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Joseph Kripps, and a recording of the Bach Brandenburg Concertos played by the Collegium Aureum. For some time before that summer I had played guitar in a folk trio and was now also playing organ in a rock band. Neither of my ensembles were very good. Since the Seton Hall High School’s dominating social circle revolved around sports I didn’t know any other good musicians. But my new found freedom put me into contact with students from other schools, particularly from Deer Park High School, and I began to meet much better players. It wouldn’t be long before I found myself playing organ in an 8 piece band that also included guitar, bass, drums, 2 trumpets, trombone, and a singer.

It was also during that summer that I met the girl who would eventually become my first wife. But it would be some time before I would become involved with her, preferring to adhere to my decision to not become romantically entangled with anyone. It was an evening when Mark and I had been making the rounds to different friends’ houses. We arrived at one house and were told that a group of them were downstairs in the basement. That basement, as were many others in Deer Park, was “finished” with carpeting, wall paneling, and furniture, converting into the perfect family den. We went down the steps, the sound of Ginger Baker’s drums pounding to Cream’s distinctive approach to the blues, blaring loudly through a pretty good sound system. There was incense burning, and the lights were turned low, a black light in the corner illuminating the bright day-glow colors of several posters in psychedelic ostentation. Everyone was sitting around on the floor, a few of them in the corner passing around a joint. Elena and her friend Danae were sitting on the opposite side of the room with some other people who were more interested in the music than in the drugs. Mark and I were introduced around, and we stayed for a very short time, deciding that this wasn’t where we wanted to be for the entire evening. We left, and I can’t recall where else we wound up, but the truth is neither Elena nor her friend made a huge impression – good or bad – on me at the time.

Summers eventually come to an end, although in some ways the summer of 1970 has remained my own personal endless summer. It was my coming of age, my renaissance, the first days of the rest of my life. The friends I made and the times that I shared with them would set the trajectory of my life in ways that I could never have imagined at the time. My involvement with music became more intense and more serious, and it was shortly after that summer that I decided that I wanted to major in music in college.

The recording below is a song that I wrote several years ago. It is a very rough demo quality recording on which I play all the instruments and sing all the parts. But I include it since the song was as much a product of that time long ago as it was of the life I was living when I wrote it.

Notes From the Bo(a)rder: The best years…

I wonder how many times growing up, especially in high school, I was told by an adult that I ought to  enjoy these years because they would be the best of my life. Does anybody really look back on childhood and adolescence and see it as the best years? I don’t believe I am unique in saying that I wouldn’t relive childhood for any amount of money, and adolescence even more so. Unless, of course, I could do it again knowing what I know now.

Childhood was not a terribly unhappy time, but it was a stressful one, during which I felt unable to meet the expectations that were imposed on me by the various adult figures in my life. There were no unqualified triumphs. I remember coming across an old 1st or 2nd grade report card of mine, and among the good grades was a bad one for penmanship. I don’t recall getting accolades for a job well done, but I clearly remember being chastised for my handwriting, which to this day is atrocious. On the other hand, I believe my parents and teachers would have done me a grave disservice had they heaped unearned praise, or if they had praised my successes but ignored my failures.

I don’t think I am overly disappointed in this particular aspect of my life. Perhaps childhood isn’t supposed to be the happy magical time that we like to imagine it to be. After all, what are the alternatives? All too often we see unearned praise given to children in order to boost their self-esteem, but doesn’t that create an unrealistic expectation of life?

No, it isn’t that I regarded my childhood as terribly unhappy. It’s only that to call them the best years would be untrue. Because, although our level of responsibility increases as we become adults, so too does our capacity for coping with the concomitant stresses, and we typically enjoy a much greater autonomy. My childhood was, however, complicated by a number of issues that in childhood can be serious liabilities.

I was fat. Overweight children suffer terribly at the hands of their peers. Children can be quite cruel, and look for easy victims. Add to this a lack of physical coordination that made me more than a little awkward in sports, an exceptionally high IQ and a vocabulary that would have been impressive on an adult and I didn’t have a chance.

My physique was the result of a well-intentioned over indulgent mother who came from a culture in which a little fat was considered a sign of healthy contentment. I’d come home from school every afternoon, and she would encourage me to have some chocolate milk and cookies. After dinner, she would offer me a large helping of chocolate layer cake, my favorite. Later on, just before bed there would be a nice glass of warm chocolate milk and cookies. I had no inclination to refuse, although I wish now that she had never offered. And on the rare occasion when I did refuse she would become concerned that I might be either ill or in love. And so, I gained weight.

I hated the way I looked. I hated that the other kids were cruel to me. I hated that I couldn’t wear “cool looking” clothing. The euphemism for the size and style of clothing that she had to buy me was “husky size.” I hated that I felt weak for not being able to control my eating. Ironically, people who know me as an adult find it hard to believe that I could have ever been fat, but that’s because at some point I made a conscious decision to change how I ate. That decision was more of a change in identity than a change in diet. I decided that I had to become someone who eats differently.

Had my weight been the only problem I would have probably been able to navigate the straits of my youth a bit more easily. But I had other “problems”. My vocabulary probably made people (even many adults) more than a bit uncomfortable. People probably thought I was talking down to them or trying to show off and show them up. But the truth is I didn’t know any better. It never occurred to me at the time that I was speaking in any way other than clearly. My parents were both very highly educated, and had spoken to me on a high level from the beginning, so I never knew that some people didn’t really “get” me.

On top of it, I understood the local Long Island accent better than my peers. I can recall a discussion over the word, “bastard.” I was in high school, and one of the kids had just called another a “bastid.” It became important to the group that the legitimacy of the word be established. For some reason some of the kids felt that if this were “in the dictionary” it would be an acceptable part of their vocabulary. One of them claimed to have already looked for it and was unable to find it. Some believed him others didn’t. I remained silent through all of this until I couldn’t any longer. I knew it was in the dictionary, and didn’t immediately figure out why this individual hadn’t been able to find it.

I finally put my two cents in, “I’m pretty sure bastard is in the dictionary.” There was a long silence. Then the entire group burst out laughing, as one of them shrieked, “Phillips put an ‘r’ in bastid!” I suddenly realized that they had been looking it up by spelling it the way they mispronounced it. I informed them that there actually is an “r” in the word, but they just laughed and all went their separate ways, having their opinion of my stupidity firmly reinforce in their little minds.

I was also, as I said, highly intelligent, with an IQ that apparently got the attention of my teachers and then my parents. They were right to expect a high level of academic achievement from me, but overachievers are never popular among their fellow students, so I was teased and bullied mercilessly. I suppose I felt like I was, as the saying goes, between a rock and a hard place. It was nearly impossible to completely satisfy my parents, and the very effort to do so made me fair game for the less charitable interactions of my peers. The plethora of good grades on my report cards was worthless as social currency among boys whose pubescence was just emerging.

And what about my teachers? I was rarely – almost never – in any kind of trouble in school. But the good Sisters of St. Joseph seemed to believe that children, especially those of the male sex, were invariably up to no good, and they used every terror tactic in their strategy book to ensure that we were kept in a constant state of fear. There were probably only 2 times in my years of elementary and middle school that I got into any kind of trouble. The first was in 4th grade. It was literally the day that the school opened for business. Sts. Cyril and Methodius Catholic Church had just turned the key on its new school that very morning. Prior to that there was no Catholic school in our town. The school was part of a newly built complex that included a new larger church, a rectory, and a convent.

My father, being the product of a Catholic education, was a firm believer in the superiority of parochial schools. In his mind the clergy knew how to educate the young better than lay instructors. I would be among the first group of students to enter the new school. I’d spent the first 4 years of my career as a student at the local public schools – kindergarten at May Moore School, and 1st through 3rd grade at Abraham Lincoln School.

So here I was, my first day in a new school, standing in the lunch line in the cafeteria. There was only one problem. I apparently never received the memo regarding putting ones hands in ones pockets. The nuns knew exactly why young boys put their hands in their pockets, even if those young boys didn’t yet know about THAT. So I stood in line, hands in pockets, completely unprepared for the explosion of pain when the sister who rang the large brass lunch bell (Sister Mary Quasimodo?) used that instrument for a purpose other than that for which it had actually been designed. The bell caught me at the base of the skull at exactly the same instant that the palm of her other hand impacted my forehead. And as her only words were, “That will teach you how to stand in line,” it took me quite a long time, years actually, to figure out why I’d been attacked.

The other time that I nearly ran into disciplinary problems occurred in 6th or 7th grade. I had had a bad head cold, and in its aftermath was suffering from a bout of bronchitis. After lunch every day we would be released to the playground, where as often as not we were required to stand in line silently. On this particular day the cool crisp air irritated my already raw bronchi, and as hard as I tried I couldn’t seem to suppress a cough. The nun in charge of us glared at me, squinting her eyes, and in a low growl said, “Stifle that. One more outburst from you and…” She knew she didn’t need to complete the sentence. I’d witnessed boys being slapped until their mouths and noses bled for lesser offenses. I recall seeing a friend of mine have a comb driven into his scalp because the sister didn’t like the way he had combed it that morning, a smallish pompadour with a wave in the front.

Theoretically I should have had nothing to fear. After all, I was almost never subjected to abuse, and the one time that I was it was over quickly and was not as bad as it could have been. I was a well behaved student. But witnessing these unpredictable outbursts of violence often caused me to wonder if behaving would really insulate me from it. And, being well behaved also made me a bit of a “goody-two-shoes” so, once again, I was faced with unrelenting peer disapprobation.

In high school things got better, but not enough. I had lost just enough weight to no longer be the butt of everyone’s cruel humor. My face blossomed into a mine field of acne, but so did everyone else’s, so I got something like a pass on that issue. The good grades were no longer the liability that they had been in middle school, everyone being focused on their eventual college applications. And the nuns in Seton Hall High School – the Sisters of Charity of Halifax – were more true to that name than I had hoped for. But to say that this lead to a bucolic secondary school experience would be untrue. The problem was that I was socially awkward, which shouldn’t have been surprising given the bullying that I’d dealt with in the previous few years. And, to make matters far far worse, I was terrible at sports. In a school in which the only social currency that mattered was athletic prowess, to be musically inclined and unable to throw accurately, catch, dribble or hit a ball was to be a pariah and a fool. So my social status improved not one bit when I entered the Shrine of Truth. (Our school song, sung to the tune of Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance began with the words, “Shrine of Truth we glory, to belong to thee…”)

It wasn’t that I had no friends. There was a small group of socially and physically awkward young people who bonded well and formed a loosely knit society based on the one thing we had in common – we were unpopular. It wasn’t until the summer of 1970, the summer when I turned 17 that things changed for me.

To be continued…

(And for your listening pleasure, but with no real connection to my childhood, Julia Florida by Agustín Barrios.

Notes From the Bo(a)rder: Why the Guitar?

From July 23, 1950 until August 7, 1956 America’s singing cowboy, Gene Autry righted the wrongs of the old west on national television on a weekly basis. At the end of each show he would sing, often accompanying himself on the guitar. I don’t know how I am able to recall things that happened that far back in my life, but I have vivid memories of being entranced by his choice of instrument, and by the time I was 4 years old I had declared my intention to play the guitar.

No, I didn’t really begin playing that early! But that IS me.

For a few years afterward I would regularly request an instrument and some sort of instruction, but was met with paternal stoicism and maternal skepticism. My mother steadfastly opposed my plans, arguing that the strings would hurt my fingers and I’d only wind up quitting. Mother seemed to believe that quitting was a sign of a deep rooted moral weakness, so her reluctance to allow me to embark on a venture that would, in her mind, doom me to certain damnation, or at least set a precedent that could result in nothing good was, I suppose, understandable.

When I was 8 years old a friend of mine brought his accordion to school. He played for the class, and although it wasn’t the guitar, it was music, and I realized that I wanted to make music. I could envision myself making wonderful sounds come out of my instrument, manipulating this source of aural pleasure like some magician controlling the ether. I could imagine taking great satisfaction from the act of making music. I could see the pleasure that my classmates shared when my friend played, and I too wanted to be someone who could bring that joy to others. The prospect of playing an instrument looked to me to be a “win-win” endeavor, with the performer reveling in the joy of music making and the audience being transported. Of course, at the age of 8 I could not have begun to express these imaginings, but looking back I can recognize these longings and emotions with crystal clarity, and can now describe them with an eloquence bred of years of self-reflection and self-expression.

No, it wasn’t the guitar, but it was music, and given the nature of my mother’s objections to the guitar I had no reason to believe that she would in any way deny my desires to so express myself on a different instrument. Armed with the confidence of certain success I approached my mother and asked if I could learn the accordion. She hesitated not one instant, giving me one of the most influential affirmative answers of my life. It was decided. I would play the accordion. More importantly, I would play music.

Marie. She was our next door neighbor. I’ve heard it said that there is something different about people who buy corner houses. They are not bound on three sides by neighbors, but have at least two open spaces bordering their properties. Their houses often occupy slightly larger plots of land. There is, supposedly, something different about their personalities that leads them to prefer this particular living arrangement. Of course, generalities are as often as not untrue. The exceptions to the rule outnumber its adherents. But there really was something different about Marie. For one thing, in this bedroom community filled with successful blue collar workers and a smattering of business men, all married to full time home makers (except for my mother, who was also different) she made a living giving music lessons from her home.

Marie was different from other people in our neighborhood in other ways as well. She lived with her elderly mother and her teenage daughter. The house was devoid of masculine influence, and I’m sure the neighbors had plenty of theories regarding Marie. Was she widowed? Divorced? Or worse (for 1961), a single mother who had never been married? Her property was surrounded by hedges, creating more than just a fence, but rather a boundary between her miniature nation and the rest of the world. Her daughter was forbidden to leave the confines of her little city-state unescorted except to go to school. She appeared to have few friends, although my cousin, who lived in the house on the opposite side of ours from Marie’s corner lot was the same age and would occasionally go and spend time with the young internee.

It was wonderfully convenient living next door to a music teacher. My mother made arrangements with Marie, and I was soon crossing that green barricade on a weekly basis. My first accordion was a small one, a kind of starter accordion with only 12 buttons on the left side (hence, referred to as a 12 bass accordion) and a 2 octave keyboard for the right. I was a pretty good student, and had a natural musicality, allowing me to graduate in short order to the more professional accordion with 120 buttons on the left and a three and a half octave keyboard on the right in. Being small for my age, I looked quite the sight holding this instrument that appeared to be bigger than I!

The accordion creates its sound by forcing air through a series of internal reeds by expanding and contracting the bellows. Marie was an excellent music teacher. She demanded constant growth from her students, and exposed them to the rigors of technical exercises, written assignments, etudes, and progressively complex songs to learn. So, it should be no surprise that she insisted that I never change the direction of the bellows in the middle of a musical phrase. I had to time the expansion and contraction of the bellows with the length of the phrase. I firmly believe that this training has continued to influence my guitar playing to this day, creating a habit of examining phrases, and breathing life into music that could all too easily become a moribund succession of notes performed by what for all intents and purposes is a “push button” instrument.

A number of years went by, and I continued to progress, playing more and more complicated pieces, and eventually reaching that benchmark of superior achievement, deemed the apotheosis of accomplishment by young accordionists my age in the early 1960s, Lady of Spain. But at that point my interest had already been beginning to wane.

It’s not that I had lost my ardor for music. But by this point I was approaching puberty, it was 1964, and the British Invasion launched by the Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show had reminded me of where my real passion lay. I wanted to play the guitar. My mother saw this loss of interest and fought to rekindle it. She tried changing teachers. But the problem wasn’t the teacher. It was me. Or, more accurately it was the instrument. To be precise, it was what the instrument wasn’t. It wasn’t the guitar. It wasn’t cool. I wasn’t a suitable arbiter of the modern esthetic that was so much more aptly expressed by the instrument that I had wanted to play since I was 4 years old. And when I thought it over, the accordion just wasn’t me. I expressed a desire to quit the accordion, and it doesn’t take too much to realize how that initially turned out. In my mother’s estimation, that made me a quitter. She told me point blank, “I am not raising you to be a quitter.”

My parents did, however, buy me a guitar. It was what is often referred to as a GSO – Guitar Shaped Object. It was a piece of junk, virtually guaranteed to discourage any budding virtuoso from pursuing that mode of expression. And I do not believe for an instant that my parents were being in any way devious, or that they were even aware of how bad the guitar was or how difficult it would be to play. They just didn’t know the difference. Nevertheless, I persisted, and as they saw me refuse to give up the guitar, and as they began to realize that I had lost all interest in the accordion, they let me put it aside for the last time.

I progressed slowly on that thing that I hesitate to call an instrument. I learned a handful of popular guitar riffs and a few chords, stumbling over the chord that every young guitarist sweats over, the F chord. The F chord has defeated more than one would be guitar player, letting them know in no uncertain terms that they don’t have the Right Stuff to be guitarists. The F chord was even more daunting on what might be thought of as an instrument of torture. But I soldiered on. I got to where I could play through a handful of songs without making the guitar sound worse than it already was, and perhaps better than could have been expected.

But it was in the summer of 1967, visiting my cousins in Miami that something happened. We were visiting my mother’s brother, Pepi, and his family. They had a few guitars that my cousins played, and these were real guitars. They played “like butter” and sounded full and clear. My first afternoon at their home I was able to learn several new songs of far greater complexity than any I had attempted before, and what’s more, I made them sound good. My parents, to their credit, recognized the difference, and asked my uncle what he thought. He told them that I needed a better guitar. That day he took them to a music store and helped them pick out an instrument for me. At the end of that wonderful vacation we returned to Deer Park NY with my new guitar.

My mother wasted no time in getting me enrolled in guitar lessons at a local music store. I began lessons with a young man, Greg, a 19 year old long haired college student who continued to feed the flames of my passion for the guitar and for music. Under his instruction I learned many new chords, learned to read music on the guitar – an easy transfer since I had already learned to read music on the accordion – and learned how to use my right hand fingers instead of a pick.

After a year of lessons Greg transferred to a different college, and the music store hired an older man, Ray. Of course, when I say “older” I mean relative to his predecessor. Ray was a pick player, and didn’t feel comfortable teaching finger picking. He felt that I was pretty advanced and would be better served by studying under a classical guitar instructor. There was only one classical guitar instructor in town, and Greg had supposedly studied under him. Greg had told me how strict this teacher was, and succeeded in intimidating me. The result was that when Ray recommended him I decided that I wasn’t ready. We all have regrets in life, and this particular sliding door moment remains my greatest regret to this day. I’ve often wondered what kind of career path may have been open to me if I’d had a few years head start on my classical playing.

My first exposure to classical guitar was in 1970 as a self-taught player, preparing for my college audition. Fortunately, my years of finger picking and of reading music put me in a position to be able to pass the audition at Hofstra University. It was there that I met Stanley Solow, the man who would guide me through four years of classical instruction, and who lit a spark whose resultant fire continues to burn brightly nearly half a century later. I was on my way to becoming a classical guitarist.

Below is a video of me from several years ago playing the first movement of the Sonata by Federico Moreno Torroba. It was recorded in the Danforth Chapel at Florida Southern College in Lakeland FL. The chapel was designed by Frank Lloyd Wright.

It was a real honor to receive some very positive comments coming from the estate of the composer when I sent his family a copy of this video. I think Stanley Solow would be pleased.