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Writer, interupted

Romance and music waylay an author

Someone once described the avant-garde as a place of “pleasureless hedonism.” And its main goal, to make everyone, the performer especially, uncomfortable. - Image by Larry Ashton
Someone once described the avant-garde as a place of “pleasureless hedonism.” And its main goal, to make everyone, the performer especially, uncomfortable.

A new, sparkling gray limestone church in Middletown, Ohio, and its knotty-pine basement, where this nervous, determined eight-year-old auditioned for the pastor and the pastor’s choir. I had wanted the tryout, told my parents it was important, bugged my mother until she got it scheduled. The pastor said,“Oh, so you’re the one who wants to join us. You’re ready then,” and I nodded. His hands moved me by my shoulders: “Stand here and hold on to the piano top; I’ll play a scale to warm us up. Up once, down once, sing!” he exclaimed, and “Again!” Halfway through he stopped, I kept going — so, fa, mi, re — while he inclined a hairy ear my way. “Ah, a baritone,” he said, as though it were secret knowledge only we and the other singers would share.

He next vamped the intro to “My Country ’Tis of Thee” and nodded at me to join. It was a tune every 1950s kid knew by heart. And what an effortless tune, with its scale-wise melody, its marching rhythm, its held and syncopated notes in each phrase, its diminutive range, its lovely self conscious line, “of thee I sing.” Indeed, the music is the country; the making of the music makes My Country exist. The sung lines, “Land where my fathers died” and “Land of the pilgrims’ pride,” we re the reasons why we “let freedom ring.” Tune tied lyric to point. Music could bullet its way to the patriotic heart faster than any politician’s speech. Music, even the commonest, spoke to that part of me (it was there, even at eight) that wanted music to say more — history, geography, idea. I must have sung it well, for the pastor announced I was in.

I thought in meant that sinfully purple choir robe whose tight collar chafed, whose pleats draped to the floor. No way. In meant learning to sing and to listen, simultaneously, to your neighbor sing, a challenge that would continually fascinate me. The sound of a room resonating during rehearsal, our ears ringing like gongs, is a glorious thing. Tone and rhythm nearly transport us off the ground. Bodies are sanctified, minds freed. I remember, every December, for the three years I choired, that we’d rehearse with passion such Christmas stalwarts as “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” To which the pastor would exclaim,“Do that at the concert and you’ll bring the house down.” The pastor knew what we were capable of. But we knew he’d been kidnapped by our fire, because we seldom kindled that flame publicly. We were, after all, a Presbyterian choir, much piety required. Too often, the doxology and those stilted hymns dulled the audience, who sat there dumb, as though they were listening to church music. Audiences expected illusion, so we obliged and behaved like Titian’s pensive cherubs. But in rehearsal we pleased our leader and ourselves. I quickly learned the difference between show and soul.

What is the soul of music? Put the child on the train; get him all aboard while it’s idling; make sure he holds on when it goes; once he’s flying along, tell him it’s best not to look back. The train is song, chant, round, jig, lyric, rap, carol, hymn. Pull in, pull out, stop ’n’ go ’n’ keep on going. Chugga-chugga, chugga chugga, Chugga-chugga, chugga-chugga, Chugga chugga, chugga-chugga. Such a mechanized metaphor does not disparage the act. The ongoingness of the tune, melody and chords, is its end. The enactment. The soul buoys when the choir is rehearsing, the garage band rocking, the sidemen jamming at 3:00 a.m. To be in the song and moving it forward, pulsing with its pulsing heart — that’s the purpose. Or so it seems.


Jazzed by such communion, I joined junior high band in seventh grade and was given a flutophone. This mass-produced plastic instrument was bought cheap by schools in large quantities and was simple to play. The tooter had the girth and length of a chair leg; it made a shrill and a chirp, particularly when blown in an ensemble of preteens, whose musical ungainliness it amplified well. The flutophone featured a carmine line that outlined its bleach-white body, a bell big enough for a boy’s thumb, and a two scale maximum so no overblowing was required. I played it well enough (I believe our leader, Mr. Benton, used the flutophone to gauge our wind talent), for soon I was fitted with a clarinet.

At 13, I spent a year with the black bone. I loved that clarinet. Loved swiveling its five pieces together at the lightly greased cork joints. Loved exploring its sensual body with my hands. It had some hard danger, professional and serious, unlike the flutophone’s fop. The clarinet wasn’t easy to play; its complicated key mechanism required hands less jittery than mine. To play it well I’d have to settle down. But not before its busyness enchanted me — the bright nickel-silver key work; the cottony pads under the keys; the long bars that levered keys and pads to open distant holes together in unexpected release; the clicking sound of the action when I played a run of notes; the granadilla wood; the beak mouthpiece; the tapered cane reed.

At home I’d practice the basics — the simple repeated notes of the second clarinet part, the third or the fifth to harmonize with the slightly better clarinetists who honked the melody to “Ain’t We Got Fun.” But at band practice, I got frustrated because, besides playing, we had to listen for many different instruments at once — clarinets, trumpets, flutes, trombones, oboes, horns, tubas, plus a number of strange percussion sounds. We also had (what I thought was) a sophisticated score, and we were only as good as each person’s chops, musician’s lingo for individual skill. Forget about performing: we fell apart in rehearsal every time. It was hard practice — start, stop, start, stop. How often Benton arrested our movement with frustrated waves or music-stand tap-tap-tap’s of his baton. Eventually, though, he had to let us go: we’d overblow; we’d rattle the keys; we’d mistime our cues; we’d forget our place; we’d screech and bleat and hit B instead of B-flat and get loud or get soft all at once, and every so often our will to power the sounds of the locomotive might produce some thrust. But, overall, we clunked along like a Corvair. We felt sickened at hearing, day by day, just how lousy we were.

We wanted, like sea otters, to frolic in the melodic waves. But it wasn’t happening. So a new tack replaced it — a retreat into ourselves. Some (me included) began unlistening to those around us and discovered that music could be — more than communal sport — a thing we devoted ourselves to alone. Sequestered in my room (door shut, drapes closed), it wasn’t hard after school to discipline my time with the clarinet, as I worked through the instruction books. The method began with “Fre-re Jac-ques.” Fingers cover all the holes (remember, blow not hard but blow not soft or else it’ll squeal) and begin with that mud-trawling G below middle C, hold one beat, then lift a finger for A, then, sail hoisted, hold another beat, then lift a finger for B, the flag-flapping third above the root, and in just three notes, two whole steps, you’ve got the tune on its way.

The mechanics were tough. It took weeks to coordinate one’s tonguing and breathing to sustain the clarinet’s creamy dark sound. It took weeks to manage wetness — moistening the reed before blowing, articulating the note without smothering it with spit. But through the labor I could feel my confidence swell. What rarely sparked with others could be harnessed on my own. I played scales, took lessons, listened to Benny Goodman records. I heard music in my dreams, in the bus brakes, in the drugstore soda-water machine. And one night (in my womb room) I discovered another part of music’s solo, what practice could perfect. On the final page of my Learn to Play Clarinet, Book One, was the Sicilian chestnut “Santa Lucia.” After several months I had mastered the whole book, and “Santa Lucia” required technical refinement only another month of work would bring. I found that if I took very deep breaths for three minutes before beginning, I’d have enough air to sustain those beautiful appoggiaturas, the notes that linger before they resolve, giving the lilting melody its uplift and its sorrow. It was intimidating to play, but it got easier the more I trained my emotion to be in the tune. I must have played “Lucia” correctly one hundred times and thought nothing could be as seductive as a song without words.


That is, until a month later, when the Beatles premiered on Ed Sullivan. Nineteen sixty-four, my dad got transferred from Wisconsin to St. Louis (his higher-paying job furnished his three sons their own rooms), and again, I holed up alone with my 45s and my E.J. Korvette’s turntable. But now I was roused by the louder, more sociable guitar-and-vocal group harmony of the British Invasion. My mother had been worried that I was stuck in what she called my “shell,” hardened from “too much” closed-door practice. (What else was the door for? I wanted to say.) I’d quit baseball, so I wasn’t going out much anymore. My parents didn’t care for the moptop music, but when I asked for an acoustic guitar for my 15th birthday, they obliged, and I kissed the clarinet good-bye.

The Mel Bay Music Company store in Kirkwood, Missouri, and most Saturdays, Mel himself was there, behind the counter. He was a sullen-eyed atheistic sort of man whom I recognized from the photo of a sullen eyed atheistic sort of man on every page four of his line of string-instrument books: How to Play Banjo, How to Play Guitar, How to Play Mandolin, How to Play Bass Mandolin, How to Play Tenor Guitar, How to Play Tenor Banjo, How to Play Dobro, How to Play Hawaiian Slide Guitar, How to Play Ukulele. Amazing! Learn fretboard technique and one could play any string instrument in innumerable combinations with any other. Mel Bay the musician apparently had some chops. In close-up photos, his hands, with warty knuckle-backs, showed how to hold the plectrum (the pick) and how to make the chords. See, then do. And, as I did with Book One for clarinet, I plowed through the pages, working to get the instrument in my fingers.

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On those Saturdays I hung out at Mel Bay’s, I met Mark Henderson, who liked to show off on his pearl white electric the lead guitar part to “Walk, Don’t Run” by the Ventures. (Eventually I would order an electric similar to his for $114 and, after it came in a machine-gun shaped cardboard box, blubber with joy when I plugged it into my amp and slammed chhhhaaannnggg an A chord, fifth position.) Mark, would you show me? Sure, man. Wrap your hand around the neck like so, loosen your grip (it’s like a woman, he said, so be gentle), put this finger here, this finger here, this finger here, and that’s a C7 bar chord. How much easier to have my fingertips positioned on the fretboard than to stare at Mel Bay’s mitts in the method book.

After learning the chord playing style of rhythm guitar, one day I put the plectrum down and placed my right-hand fingertips on the strings. This style was called fingerpicking, and its exponents were part of the early 1960s folk music boom. My ear gravitated to recordings: Mississippi John Hurt’s “Spikedriver Blues,” Dave Van Ronk’s “St. Louis Tickle,” and Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” The latter song matched a young man’s remorseless leaving of an affair with a rolling fingerpicking accompaniment that epitomized the motif of rambling-on. Playing it felt like leaving and rambling-on. The thumb of the right hand alternated a pattern on the bass strings while the fingers of the right hand plucked the treble, either chords or melody, and coordinated chord changes with the left. Like the piano, the fingerpicked guitar could give any song a melodic, chordal, and bass accompaniment. But unlike the piano — which hammers instead of plucks — guitar strings must be sounded and resounded by the fingers. Without continued plucking, the vibration fades immediately, which is why the acoustic guitar sounds intimate and tentative, boyishly romantic. (The electric guitar, of course, reverses that.)

The acoustic guitar felt right: its literal embrace — held on lap, tucked against chest, enwrapped in arms, finger-tipped to life — anchored me. The guitar was territorial and expansive, and I devoted a chunk of my life to it: folk-rock band; talent shows; occasional concert soloist; restaurant and club player; arranger and composer of finger-picking solos; recordings (nothing commercial); guitar teacher; member of a three-man hokum street band, the Genial Stoopid Brothers, who ended their 45-minute set of Jazz Standards Wackily Rearranged with an off-to-the-races version of “Sweet Georgia Brown,” including my manic ukulele solo, backed up by violin and steel guitar. (He’s bragging, but he’ll soon refrain.)

A guitarist during my 20s (throughout the 1970s), I would play as much alone as I would with others. More alone, actually, for I rarely found others who worked to my standard, except my pals in the Stoops. Most young musicians are giddily undisciplined; their reach seldom exceeds mimicking hit records. In the first rock-and-roll band I formed in 1965, the guys wanted to cover tunes by Paul Revere and the Raiders, among others. So, after transcribing bass, rhythm, and lead guitar parts from the records, I taught them the songs. (Don’t trust him; he can’t stop bragging.) Once I had the band trained, I began augmenting our Top 40 repertoire with my own tunes. One, whose melodic germ and title remains in my mind 36 years later, was the irrepressibly obvious “I’m Alive.”


I can’t shake the feeling (maybe you can’t either) that this is sounding a bit Whitney Houston-ish, as though Orphic destiny had me arrowed a musician, and thus (you might assume) I’d end up one. End up feels deathly antithetical to a story as it happens. But it’s true. I wasn’t only a musician. Another Siren of the Sublime called. Age 15, I fell in love with reading — novels as well as nonfiction — often gladly shelving the guitar to read. My two favorites, which I feasted on in high school, were W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage and Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.

Maugham’s fiction tells the story of a club-footed medical student who, in his romantic life, falls in love with a waitress, who later becomes a prostitute and spurns his hopes for marriage; Capote’s “nonfiction novel” is about a robbery turned-multiple-murder by two psychopaths, their subsequent trial and execution by the state of Kansas. These books did have one element in common, in addition to the verve of the writing. An elegiac tone. And yet their authors did not separate the loss into a single-movement andante cantabile as Tchaikovsky did. Hopelessness permeated nearly every scene, sorrows multiple and multiplying and total. I remember at the time wondering if there were a musical equivalent to this sort of sustained elegy, which, in the act of reading, might go on for days, much longer than any music could. I looked beyond “I Want to Hold Your Hand” to the mighty Beethoven. His symphonies progress, in part, with “thought” — opposing ideas in the first movement are developed, then recapitulated. Eventually four movements articulate the quadrants of an emotional cosmos. But other than the dramatic terraces of soft and loud, minuet and march, what was the music thinking? Was the music thinking? Could it be like the prose I was enchanted by, a mode of thought and feeling.

In Maugham’s and Capote’s books, the tragedy of the characters was so compelling that their moral decay lit my thinking toward the opposite: to be the sort of per son in whom such demise must not occur. There was the phrase, to light my thinking. These books offered direction, ideas, history, argument, ethical ambiguity, and rectitude. Though fatalistically caged, the stories pulled me toward reason as well as the sensual: that feeling of living inside another’s yearning and pain. Taken to heart, I might measure my impending life by the shapes and strategies these books gave me.

Suddenly there was something that equaled music’s come-hither. I knew music was in my blood and body, but music didn’t exactly make sense of my life or reflect what I felt were the moral and emotional imperatives of my experience that needed (no, required) reflection. I saw that reading could give me something deeper than music could. Reading mirrored and reciprocated the analytical faculty that was developing in me. There was danger, though, in its depth. My critical reading over-thought-over every thing. Indeed, my desire to analyze what I read was as strong as my desire to play music. Music rose like oil, analysis settled like rock. Still, the importance of what was not-music, the mystery of my mind, took longer for me to recognize, as though that was its point. A decade of choir and flutophone and clarinet and guitar and their yummy aggregates of sound and touch finally lessened their grasp.

I didn’t abandon the guitar. I just laid it aside, went to college, and read my brains out. For several years I replaced fingerpicking with reading as well as writing, stories and poems, a journal, a (much-revised but never much better) novel at age 20. I think “I’m Alive” (permit the grandiosity) for reasons we all are alive: to activate our individual sensibilities. In me, the trunk of sensibility grew split trees, mixing crowns and shades. Driven to grow, I have wanted to create objects musical and literary as much as I have wanted to know what makes good music and good literature worthy of the ruling, though I believe we need no training in their enthrallment.

When I entered college, I worshipped music as much as I revered literature, and nothing either art did caused me to separate them as though one were seed, the other husk. I still feel that unity. The meditations of Kahlil Gibran and the nocturnes of Frédéric Chopin, to cite two ecstatic extremes, maintain an equipoise. The sublimes of writer and composer compete not. In seraphic realms they blend as one. As Dante writes,“The voices seemed all to form the same song, so perfect was their accord.”


During college, that laboriously drawn-out divorce between passion and reason, my seamless mental state was shaken by my first love. Her name was Terri. She was my age, 21, and attended Antioch College in Ohio. We met in Columbia, Missouri, where I was attending the university, and we fell in love one January night, holding each other for hours in an unheated room. Our mutual hunger for literature drew us together. She was learning Greek so she could read the New Testament in its original language. I was infatuated by anything modern. Though we lived several states apart, our three letters a week fertilized our love. I sent her James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the most lyrical work of documentary journalism ever written; she sent me his Collected Poems. Her dedication, “Thomas, To consider the distance as an extension of skin. This — touch. Love love Terri.”

Such promise permeated our infrequent meetings. Juliet and Romeo, we’d caress face, hair, arms, hands, lips (and no more) for hours. From her head came the only lock of hair I snipped and sealed (for later veneration) in a box. (I still have it.) Together, we fused; apart, we wasted. When I asked to consummate our love — we would sooner or later, wouldn’t we? — she was uncertain, frightened. My request seemed to change her, though today I realize she suffered her own crisis of calling, which was not about me. (How much every thing was, in those days.) An adolescent Terri had been saved by the Holy Ghost in a tent revival. Antioch in the 1960s, she found out, was keen to pervert her Christian values, not help her practice them. So she left the college and decided upon marriage with a committed virgin like herself, a dunking I failed. Wearying of my attempts to convince her otherwise, she declared it over, after which neither book nor symphony could console me. I dropped all my classes and hitchhiked south, ending up on a boat servicing floating oil derricks in the Gulf of Mexico. Moving on helped. In the clannish confines of male labor, little personal gets said.

One night, aboard a boat pitching in rough seas 100 miles from New Orleans, lying in the soiled sheets of my fantasy, I vowed life was not worth this relation-less seclusion. It was certainly not worth any further haunting of the existentialist’s domain. I had been exhausted by reading those literary antiheroes — Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov; Camus’s Meursault; Nor man Mailer’s Norman Mailer — whose intellectual destiny was to know how unravelable their separateness was.

The more I wrote autobiographical fiction or diary fact about losing Terri, the more I re-experienced it. So I headed for Nashville and a little shop called Gruhn Guitars, on Broadway, where my seaman’s wages bought me an ax. And that guitar — prestissimo — made my reading-and-writing woe disappear. While I re-learned John Fahey’s fingerpicking version of the old Negro spiritual “I Wish I Knew How It Felt to Be Free,” losing Terri got absorbed in the rolling rhythm, in the rocking tone, as it did for countless others before me who suffered for love.

Over the next several years, I poured myself into writing songs and instrumental pieces; I also arranged, played, sold, and taught hundreds of piano rags, jazz classics, and swing tunes for guitar. Hours engrossed in picking out the guitar accompaniment to a song — practice practice practice was pure joy. My passion drew others, who had me over for parties, took lessons, wanted to be around my songful outpouring. Such clubbiness emboldened other things. The most important — I met a beautiful dark-haired woman and decided I would woo her away from her inattentive, unmusical husband. And my way of woo would be to play for her, to her, use my luster as a lure. I knew the snake charmer’s song could entrance anyone: it had bewitched me.

On Saturdays I used to play at an antique shop she ran with her husband in the small mid-Missouri town where we lived. I would compose or improvise pieces while she stripped furniture and her hubby jawed with the occasional customer. One day she asked me to help her buy and move a loom on which she wanted to weave rugs. It so happened that her husband had hurried to St. Louis that morning to visit his ailing mother. She and I got a late start, and to close the deal, she shilly-shallied for two hours until the owner cut his price in half. We dismantled the oak-beam beast and loaded it ourselves. Driving back in the dark, I sang her a new song I’d written, a plaintive ballad about the French poet Arthur Rimbaud and a fight he had had with his parish priest (I imagined an Armageddon between poetry and faith). The surreal scene and rueful melody had come to me in a dream. She called it my “dream song,” saying it was the most beautiful tune she had ever heard. “It makes me feel,” she said,“like some part of you wanted only me to have it.”

She was right. Just then she pulled the van over, unsure, she said, whether her taillights were working. We both went to the rear. The red lights glowed, the engine puttered. I said to her,“Can I show you some thing on this side of the van?”

She walked with me. “What?”

I stood before her, slipped two fingers into the unbelted loops of her cut off jeans, and tugged her toward me, saying, “This.” I kissed her until she kissed me in return.

In one day we slept together; in one month she filed for divorce; in six weeks she moved in with me. It was what the writer-me wanted with Terri and the musician-me got, embarrassingly easy, with someone else.


The Haven, an adobe restaurant on Santa Fe’s Canyon Road, and in a corner of the dining room, this still-determined, still-nervous guitarist played instrumentals for patrons who talked, ate, and ignored me. Occasionally one of my guitar students came in for coffee and dessert and marveled at my supersonic version of Fats Waller’s “It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie.” At 28, having cohabited and moved from Missouri to New Mexico with my future wife, I’d become a showboat soloist. I could play complex jazz chords and a melody at the same time on my six-string Steinway. Most students I taught preferred the guitar as a hobby. But I pressed them to perfect each level: after fingerpicking Doc Watson’s “Deep River Blues” it was time for Blind Blake’s “Diddie Wa Diddie.” I’d done it; there was no reason they couldn’t master the instrument too.

The objective of being a showboat was twofold. For one, the money: my girlfriend wanted me to (at least) match her salary as a weaver, so I played five gigs and gave 20 lessons each week. (My wages, though, never equaled hers.) And two, the more you played, the better you got. Besides, you believed good players played as much for themselves (as anybody else): if an audience wasn’t listening, then performing — that self-sell you do as the “professional” — was no different from practicing. The guitarist, available for weddings — how many of those did I play! “Here’s your $40; did you get enough to eat?” Or après-ski, which pitted you and your talent on a corner riser against red faced, beer-sucking skiers, afternoons from 4:00 to 6:00. You knew because you weren’t plying them with John Denver hits that they’d tune you out. But not a problem. You attuned yourself.

Then, a guitar-teacher friend astounded me one day by saying that playing the same tunes in a club every other day was the worst thing any serious musician could do. Why? Because all you did was reinforce your mistakes. During Villa-Lobos’s “Étude No. 4,” you’d try to keep all those repeated chords crisply spaced and cleanly voiced, but ,eventually, you’d blow the shift from one chord to another. And then, the next time, you’d repeat the same mistake. Unless you fixed it. But how? The last thing you wanted to do was to practice that pop-classical schmaltz you played in public. Why? Even “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” drowned in the syrup after the one thousandth go-round. And this wasn’t only a guitarist’s complaint. The locution for pianists who knock out standards at the Hilton is piano bar. One celebrated player, Max Morath, quit the restaurant-bar scene forever, to play concerts, that is, for people who’d pay to hear him. Why? Because, as Morath allegedly quipped, “Piano bar is death.” It wasn’t long before you felt the same: “guitar bar” had subsumed your life; entertaining the masses had become your function.

My friend was right. After a year of such performance, I was disillusioned and hoped to follow Morath’s lead. I noticed the child’s love of tone and pulse draining from me, which meant my desire for books and literature, the guardian of my heart, returned. To a shelf of unread books I ran, studying Marshall McLuhan’s writings (especially The Gutenberg Galaxy) in order to know why the medium was the message, why the fountain of artistic creation welled up when new and old technologies merged. Television and the oral tradition, for example. I sensed my mind, which tagged (“You’re it!”) literature then music then literature then music, was engineering its own merger. Playing guitar instrumentals was what everyone was doing. What could I do that was truly, totally original?


Into this brew, early 1977, my girlfriend ladled the one thing that would make her happy. A family. By year’s end we had twin sons, Jeremy, first, Blake, 17 minutes later. Kids gave me the excuse to get out of the gigging biz and re-enter college; my goal, a graduate degree and a career teaching. First I went to a college in Santa Fe for two years and began acing courses in music theory, sight-reading, music history. I also began studying piano. Then for my final year I transferred to the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, commuting 60 miles each way. There I took courses in modern and contemporary music; symphony, opera, chamber music; performance and conducting; composition and counterpoint. Tom Tomson of Lars (my kids liked it whenever I acted goofy) remembers how hard it is to discern (though his overeducatedness has forgotten it) the counterpoint of J.S. Bach from that of his renowned two sons, C.P.E. and Johann Christian. On that test he got a C+. And through it all he practiced guitar and studied piano: sight reading, scales, Bartók’s Mikrokosmos, Mozart sonatinas. If Bach could endure this regimen as an adult while fathering 20 children, then certainly Tom-Tom the Piper’s Son could do it with his progeny.

But the daily drive was killing me. So in Albuquerque I rented a room for $50 a month (the roaches crawling nightly in the trash can were gratis ), then returned to Santa Fe for three days. The kids missed me. Usually we did a lot together, especially music games; songs; little fingers trying real ukulele chords; lessons in the Suzuki method on quarter-size violins, for which I played piano accompaniment when an ensemble of three-year-olds performed. The only fun I had was with my sons. So said my wife. Who also said that when I came home from my “ other” life, she would get her three-day break and I would clean the house.

At the University of New Mexico, I was drawn into the lair of New Music, the latest child of the avant garde. The avant-garde arose in the early 20th Century with Dadaists like Marcel Duchamp, whose found objects (displayed in galleries) challenged the notion of art’s meaning and the author’s purpose in making that meaning. The avant garde achieved its American perch most notably in the 1960s, after our culture had let freedom ring. Suddenly there were “concerts” in which people strung taut wires on a stage and eight dancers “played” them with their bodies. Suddenly there were “ happenings” in which an innocuous 16-bar tune by Erik Satie was repeated by rotating pianists in the lobby of a university music department for 24 hours. My avant-garde hero was Charles Ives, the New England composer. Ives believed a composer’s duty was to write what his mind heard and not worry whether its difficulty strained the capacity of musician or listener. Ives also wrote books and articles, and I cherished his analytic bent to understand why he composed as he did. I also went a little gaga over John Cage. The most eclectic of composers, Cage once advertised that he would be performing a concert in Berkeley. The audience entered the hall and saw an unusual sight — the instruments of an orchestra set on chairs as though the musicians had left them there during intermission. The audience sat. The audience waited. Twenty, 30 minutes passed. A few wandered onto the stage and began exploring the instruments, playing a note or two. Others joined, musician and non-musician alike. With no tune in common, they improvised. For more than an hour. That, it finally dawned on everyone, was the performance Cage had wanted and, in a way, had written. I learned later that while we were playing our John Cage composition, he was taking part in another concert in New York City.

This was the means to the avant-garde, that anti-rational element born in all modern arts, which seeks to cloud or subvert the individual art’s traditions and utility. I could do that.


Indicative of the new possibility was a work by a student-composer in the early 1980s. His guitar performance consisted of playing a famous Bach prelude, stopping midway through to switch on a vacuum cleaner (waiting by his side) and inflate a plastic medical glove (the glove he tied off and let float to the ceiling), and then, switching off the vacuum cleaner, finishing the prelude. It was pure Cage: take a recognizable tune, interrupt it with something absurd, and, with the absurd fresh in mind, return to the tune with wild-opened ears. With these creations we had as much fun as we had conceit, for few other than us (and our loved ones, forced into service) patronized our concerts.

After all, you didn’t really need an audience; your imagination required no listener who “liked” what you were doing. Again Ives was my example: his listeners didn’t gain their aural skills for his music until after his death. Buoyed by an eternity for my success, I wanted to forge something that replicated how several arts had got commingled in my head.

The time: June 1981. The place: a concert hall at St. John’s College in Santa Fe. The player: Marcia Mikulak. The work: “Kandinsky’s Several Circles. ”The title: the title of a work of art from another medium. The goal: to mix the media of text, music, and painting and, thereby, pay homage to Wassily Kandinsky, the Russian painter who discovered non-representational, or abstract, art. The point: to belabor my confusion. In my “Kandinsky” Mikulak was instructed to do an array of unorthodox tasks — musical, vocal, physical, and psychological — at the piano. The score first had her act as if she were controlled by an unseen puppeteer, who moved her arms and hands to play things she was powerless to stop; she gave herself audible directions: “you sit, you play”; unusual statements came from her mouth as did sentences in other languages. Next, the score had her battle for control of her body and emotions, audibly and physically until — and this was “open to the performer’s interpretation” — she actually felt in control. To this end, the score asked her to mutter/shout phrases, drum on the piano’s wood frame, play a long passage whose for ward movement in one hand was silenced by a new rhythmic figure in the other, which, in turn, illustrated the image of Kandinsky’s painting Several Circles (1926), projected on a screen above the audience. In addition, on tape, and in combat with her, were collages of sounds, the broken-apart syllables of Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, and Kandinsky’s statement about the bearing of the abstract artist (the kernel for the work): “One no longer needs nature as an intermediary if one is able to relate to the All.”

Someone once described the avant-garde as a place of “pleasureless hedonism.” And its main goal, to make everyone, the performer especially, uncomfortable. Mikulak’s rendition was stellar. She relished doing what I wanted her to do, played with daring and mystery, accuracy and abandon. I was astounded. So, too, were the reviewers. Wrote one, Mikulak presented the piece “as a kind of Krapp’ s Last Tape with a grand piano. As Several Circles’ only character, Mikulak, playing a pianist well past wit’s end and tormented by isolation, harangues herself bitterly for her only reason to live: ‘I sit. I play.’" The reviewer noted that when she did play something, it was “an incredibly saccharine parody of a gay, impressionistic piece.” “Raving in tongues,” she attempted to “play seriously, but the music got ugly and monotonous.” The reviewer saw (rightly, I think, though I’m biased) that the piece asked the pianist, for 25 difficult minutes, to explore her self-doubt as a performer. Another critic reveled in the tension between the real Mikulak and Mikulak’s puppet-self. Chief gloat for me came when the reviewer noted, “The composer had replicated in music Kandinsky’s circles of energy.”


Believe it or not, with this piece, the University of California, San Diego, accepted me into its Ph.D. program in composition. So family and I came west in 1982. You’d think I would have been ecstatic. And I was, for a time, until I started thinking what “Kandinsky” had wrought. The work troubled me on the way out — past the lemon groves and the chaparral, past westering station wagons and U Hauls stuffed with the lives of other avant-garde composers, all three of us. As a risk, I was fine with it. It (the self-dramatization of a performer’s psyche) needed airing. But the piece scared me, in part, because it was wild and unknown. I wondered if I wouldn’t be disappearing into the abstraction of the arts I had created for myself to appear in.

At UCSD I began studying with a Mexican composer, Julio Estrada, a swarthy man, European-educated and mestizo-mysterious. My first composition, I decided, would be a rhythmically and tonally ambitious work for solo viola. I showed him my sketches, and he liked discussing the notes and rhythms on the page while imagining their sounds. I told him how much I revered Charles Ives, and he steered me to Ives’s music for quarter-tone pianos, tones in between the chromatic ones. I fell in love with the eerie, dense sound-textures Ives created and, consequently, reconfigured my viola piece to use quarter tones, not as adjuncts to standard notes, but as individual entities themselves.

When I presented more sketches to Estrada, he searched for growth in my ideas. He didn’t find it and chided me for not getting sufficiently lost in my creation. To illustrate his point (I noted this in my journal), he played at the piano Richard Wagner’s famous wandering chords from the “Prelude” to Tristan und Isolde, singing out as he went, “Who knows where he’s going. It’s wonderful. Where am I? the music keeps asking. I am lost...I must be lost. Oh, to be lost in a composition is the most wonderful thing of all. This is what you must do, Mister Larson!”

He told me to let the music go, stop pigeonholing it into what it doesn’t want to be. (Was I really doing that?) What I needed, he said, was more continuity and growth in the rhythmic and melodic fragments I had created, transforming them into something inevitable — a melody, a section of turbulence, then one of calm, a structure — without losing the freedom of being lost. That’s the essence of New Music, he said. My composition must learn its constructive process from within, as it unfolds, and I should never shackle it to a pre-existing form. (But I wasn’t doing that! I was lost in the piece, honest, really I was!)

I was stunned, riding the bus along the coast to Encinitas, where my five year-old sons were starting kindergarten. I couldn’t stop thinking that the life of freedom I’d hoped the avant-garde would bring me was spiraling out of control. I took inventory. I no longer touched any musical instrument. I pretended that I could hear tones and harmonies, even quarter tone nuances. I would sit with a pencil and blank paper and sketch ideas, rhythmic/graphic/prose notations of my thoughts. (Today the sketches look like an alien’s diary.) I would hear people talk on the bus and then write a piece in which they all sang/spoke their thoughts simultaneously. At the aviary in the San Diego Zoo I transcribed several bird songs; then I roughed out plans for a small speaking ensemble to recite lines from Theodore Roethke’s poetry to the accompaniment of three instrumentalists who rendered the bird songs. I’d heard from a brass quintet who had given another piece of mine a quick reading that it was unplayable. I was a millennium probe, my own Leonardo drawing, tumbling toward a new galaxy.

John Adams, the American composer who left the avant-garde, famously described its milieu once as “so far divorced from communal experience that it didn’t appear on the national radar screen.” Barring the once-a-year academic recital, my compositions had no occasion. I was writing pieces that, after being played once, no one was ever likely to play again.

After I did the dishes at night and sang with the kids before bed, I sat at the kitchen table and scrawled the day’s quota of ideas in my notebook. Transcribing what was in my mind was the only way to ground me. If I could make the inchoate take form, I might stop spinning. I polished my viola work, christening it “Jeke,” the first two letters of Jeremy, the last two letters of Blake.

The night of its premiere, a blackout black stage with a lone overhead light on the violist. One minute in, I realized he hadn’t had enough time to learn the piece. Two minutes in, I started cowering in my seat. The piece was lost, just as Estrada had said. It was also tortured, delirious, in search of its tonal identity. As I listened, I could hear in it the contour of my confused self, a fractious boil of mind and sound. I’m sure no one else heard this, but I did, loud and clear. The one soul who had the nerve to speak to me afterward wondered whether I had given the player a piece of music with instructions to purposely play it out of tune. If so — I think he was complimenting me — it was a radical notion. I was left, then, wondering for myself what it meant. I had worked for weeks on this 12-minute piece only to find its player frustrated, its audience unresponsive, its composer bewildered. Did it need more work? Should I can it? I couldn’t tell. One faculty member later told me he was impressed with its rhythmic complexity but then asked why it needed so many quarter tones. Because it’s new! Isn’t that why we’re here? To be free of our pasts? To be creators?


Reader, maybe you’re not so different from me. You, too, have suffered some thing in your life that resembles my crack-up in the arts, something that kept turning your attention away from what you felt (but didn’t entirely know) your attention should be trained on, something that felt right or necessary to turn toward because turning was part of a larger scheme in which attention (for one thing) and desire (for something else) work together like gears, reminding us that our concentration is never as clearly engaged as the moment when it’s being dared by an ever-present lure to veg or quit or die or, in my case, simply let go. (The writer works at his table while respites beckon — food, a walk, TV, Internet, sex. He’s human so he gives in once in a while. But his task every hour is to exile these sirens and stay put long enough to finish his work.)

Those sirens will never stop. They pull and ply until we give in. One siren plied my wife. And kaput went the marriage. The story of her ending it coincided with our move to San Diego, which I believed would salvage our bond. Instead, she initiated her (secret) plan to split up once we found new, individual opportunities in the golden land. Paralleling her disappointment with our marriage, my musical feeling also dissolved. The sound touch evaporated from my body and with it love for my wife. I snuggled my guitar into its plush-lined case one day and watched half (or some portion of ) my sensibility lie down with it.

Music is a child’s game, played by adults, and thus the boy’s kingdom of train and touch is laid bare. It was (permit the despair) the final plane ride of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper, who would go all for-one into the sky-grave.

The day the music died came post-separation during the first weekend I shared with my sons. We spent part of the day in an orchestra room at UCSD. The room was stocked with student-made instruments, used in one of the school’s under graduate classes for non-musicians. We plunked on the xylophones and marimbas, made of cardboard tubes or different-sized coffee cans, with bamboo mallets. We buzzed our lips on the long corrugated hose used to clean swimming pools but now made to work like a didgeridoo.

After an hour, I was drawn to the piano, on which I wrote a simple song I called “Little March” with these lyrics:

  • Jeremy and Blake, I love
  • you,
  • Jeremy and Blake, yes I
  • do,
  • yes...I...do.

I had gone from the heights (depths) of multimedia Kandinsky to the depths (heights) of a sappy lullaby in two-four time.

The boys and I talked briefly about the hard stuff. I said, Your mother and I (a phrase I choked on) would live apart because we were unhappy together. Apart we might be happy, but apart during the week from you two I was unhappy, so I wasn’t much happy either way, and so on, until I turned the faucet off. It was too much too soon. Don’t worry — their bright, sad eyes looked plagued with worry — we’ll see each other every Saturday and Sunday I promise, and we’ll do lots together: the beach, camping, movies, playgrounds, reading, singing. Whatever you want, we’ll do.

“Little March” was the last music I ever wrote or played. I knew my musical life was over when I felt the compulsion in my fingers, always ready to pluck the guitar strings, had gone. My arms, my fingers, my tap ping toes had no will of their own anymore. Part of me felt this loss would be a punishment for the divorce, a pain I thought I deserved. But today I know better. At the core, the pulsing musical tone of my childhood — that herky-jerky sway with the tune during rehearsal, that big-breath appoggiatura at the close of “Santa Lucia” — had, like an unused limb, withered away.

And yet I was relieved to let my body leave what it no longer wanted to be and go where it craved going — into that ungovernable expanse that Natalie Goldberg calls the writer’s wild mind. I haven’t regretted the loss of music. But I do think about my boys, that we sang together before bed so often.

A Saturday evening, in 1983, Blake and Jeremy, aged six, are putting the sheets and the blankets and the pillows on the foldout mattress of the foldout couch. Baths finished, they want to stay up and play in their pajamas as long as possible. But it’s late, and we’ve already sung several numbers from Dr. Seuss’s

Cat in the Hat Songbook. It’s time for quieter fare. Our book Lullabies and Night Songs has new settings of traditional tunes by Alec Wilder, with drawings by Maurice Sendak. On the bed, I’m between them and they’re nestling close, their cheeks massaging my arms, their feet bobbing in rhythmic joy. I say, as we go, See how the words are the same as the notes we sing. “Now the day is over, night is drawing nigh; shadows of the evening steal across the sky.” They watch where I point, but they know the melody by heart, for we’ve sung it many times. They snuggle and hold my arms with a fastness that seems to keep us and the universe in place. And the universe does stop, as long as they remain this age, as long as they are pressing their bodies against mine and the tone and the pulse from their singing voices flows back inside us, and we keep on the train, rolling and riding and rocking along, the music the words, the words the music, their differences never apparent so long as we never look back.

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Someone once described the avant-garde as a place of “pleasureless hedonism.” And its main goal, to make everyone, the performer especially, uncomfortable. - Image by Larry Ashton
Someone once described the avant-garde as a place of “pleasureless hedonism.” And its main goal, to make everyone, the performer especially, uncomfortable.

A new, sparkling gray limestone church in Middletown, Ohio, and its knotty-pine basement, where this nervous, determined eight-year-old auditioned for the pastor and the pastor’s choir. I had wanted the tryout, told my parents it was important, bugged my mother until she got it scheduled. The pastor said,“Oh, so you’re the one who wants to join us. You’re ready then,” and I nodded. His hands moved me by my shoulders: “Stand here and hold on to the piano top; I’ll play a scale to warm us up. Up once, down once, sing!” he exclaimed, and “Again!” Halfway through he stopped, I kept going — so, fa, mi, re — while he inclined a hairy ear my way. “Ah, a baritone,” he said, as though it were secret knowledge only we and the other singers would share.

He next vamped the intro to “My Country ’Tis of Thee” and nodded at me to join. It was a tune every 1950s kid knew by heart. And what an effortless tune, with its scale-wise melody, its marching rhythm, its held and syncopated notes in each phrase, its diminutive range, its lovely self conscious line, “of thee I sing.” Indeed, the music is the country; the making of the music makes My Country exist. The sung lines, “Land where my fathers died” and “Land of the pilgrims’ pride,” we re the reasons why we “let freedom ring.” Tune tied lyric to point. Music could bullet its way to the patriotic heart faster than any politician’s speech. Music, even the commonest, spoke to that part of me (it was there, even at eight) that wanted music to say more — history, geography, idea. I must have sung it well, for the pastor announced I was in.

I thought in meant that sinfully purple choir robe whose tight collar chafed, whose pleats draped to the floor. No way. In meant learning to sing and to listen, simultaneously, to your neighbor sing, a challenge that would continually fascinate me. The sound of a room resonating during rehearsal, our ears ringing like gongs, is a glorious thing. Tone and rhythm nearly transport us off the ground. Bodies are sanctified, minds freed. I remember, every December, for the three years I choired, that we’d rehearse with passion such Christmas stalwarts as “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen.” To which the pastor would exclaim,“Do that at the concert and you’ll bring the house down.” The pastor knew what we were capable of. But we knew he’d been kidnapped by our fire, because we seldom kindled that flame publicly. We were, after all, a Presbyterian choir, much piety required. Too often, the doxology and those stilted hymns dulled the audience, who sat there dumb, as though they were listening to church music. Audiences expected illusion, so we obliged and behaved like Titian’s pensive cherubs. But in rehearsal we pleased our leader and ourselves. I quickly learned the difference between show and soul.

What is the soul of music? Put the child on the train; get him all aboard while it’s idling; make sure he holds on when it goes; once he’s flying along, tell him it’s best not to look back. The train is song, chant, round, jig, lyric, rap, carol, hymn. Pull in, pull out, stop ’n’ go ’n’ keep on going. Chugga-chugga, chugga chugga, Chugga-chugga, chugga-chugga, Chugga chugga, chugga-chugga. Such a mechanized metaphor does not disparage the act. The ongoingness of the tune, melody and chords, is its end. The enactment. The soul buoys when the choir is rehearsing, the garage band rocking, the sidemen jamming at 3:00 a.m. To be in the song and moving it forward, pulsing with its pulsing heart — that’s the purpose. Or so it seems.


Jazzed by such communion, I joined junior high band in seventh grade and was given a flutophone. This mass-produced plastic instrument was bought cheap by schools in large quantities and was simple to play. The tooter had the girth and length of a chair leg; it made a shrill and a chirp, particularly when blown in an ensemble of preteens, whose musical ungainliness it amplified well. The flutophone featured a carmine line that outlined its bleach-white body, a bell big enough for a boy’s thumb, and a two scale maximum so no overblowing was required. I played it well enough (I believe our leader, Mr. Benton, used the flutophone to gauge our wind talent), for soon I was fitted with a clarinet.

At 13, I spent a year with the black bone. I loved that clarinet. Loved swiveling its five pieces together at the lightly greased cork joints. Loved exploring its sensual body with my hands. It had some hard danger, professional and serious, unlike the flutophone’s fop. The clarinet wasn’t easy to play; its complicated key mechanism required hands less jittery than mine. To play it well I’d have to settle down. But not before its busyness enchanted me — the bright nickel-silver key work; the cottony pads under the keys; the long bars that levered keys and pads to open distant holes together in unexpected release; the clicking sound of the action when I played a run of notes; the granadilla wood; the beak mouthpiece; the tapered cane reed.

At home I’d practice the basics — the simple repeated notes of the second clarinet part, the third or the fifth to harmonize with the slightly better clarinetists who honked the melody to “Ain’t We Got Fun.” But at band practice, I got frustrated because, besides playing, we had to listen for many different instruments at once — clarinets, trumpets, flutes, trombones, oboes, horns, tubas, plus a number of strange percussion sounds. We also had (what I thought was) a sophisticated score, and we were only as good as each person’s chops, musician’s lingo for individual skill. Forget about performing: we fell apart in rehearsal every time. It was hard practice — start, stop, start, stop. How often Benton arrested our movement with frustrated waves or music-stand tap-tap-tap’s of his baton. Eventually, though, he had to let us go: we’d overblow; we’d rattle the keys; we’d mistime our cues; we’d forget our place; we’d screech and bleat and hit B instead of B-flat and get loud or get soft all at once, and every so often our will to power the sounds of the locomotive might produce some thrust. But, overall, we clunked along like a Corvair. We felt sickened at hearing, day by day, just how lousy we were.

We wanted, like sea otters, to frolic in the melodic waves. But it wasn’t happening. So a new tack replaced it — a retreat into ourselves. Some (me included) began unlistening to those around us and discovered that music could be — more than communal sport — a thing we devoted ourselves to alone. Sequestered in my room (door shut, drapes closed), it wasn’t hard after school to discipline my time with the clarinet, as I worked through the instruction books. The method began with “Fre-re Jac-ques.” Fingers cover all the holes (remember, blow not hard but blow not soft or else it’ll squeal) and begin with that mud-trawling G below middle C, hold one beat, then lift a finger for A, then, sail hoisted, hold another beat, then lift a finger for B, the flag-flapping third above the root, and in just three notes, two whole steps, you’ve got the tune on its way.

The mechanics were tough. It took weeks to coordinate one’s tonguing and breathing to sustain the clarinet’s creamy dark sound. It took weeks to manage wetness — moistening the reed before blowing, articulating the note without smothering it with spit. But through the labor I could feel my confidence swell. What rarely sparked with others could be harnessed on my own. I played scales, took lessons, listened to Benny Goodman records. I heard music in my dreams, in the bus brakes, in the drugstore soda-water machine. And one night (in my womb room) I discovered another part of music’s solo, what practice could perfect. On the final page of my Learn to Play Clarinet, Book One, was the Sicilian chestnut “Santa Lucia.” After several months I had mastered the whole book, and “Santa Lucia” required technical refinement only another month of work would bring. I found that if I took very deep breaths for three minutes before beginning, I’d have enough air to sustain those beautiful appoggiaturas, the notes that linger before they resolve, giving the lilting melody its uplift and its sorrow. It was intimidating to play, but it got easier the more I trained my emotion to be in the tune. I must have played “Lucia” correctly one hundred times and thought nothing could be as seductive as a song without words.


That is, until a month later, when the Beatles premiered on Ed Sullivan. Nineteen sixty-four, my dad got transferred from Wisconsin to St. Louis (his higher-paying job furnished his three sons their own rooms), and again, I holed up alone with my 45s and my E.J. Korvette’s turntable. But now I was roused by the louder, more sociable guitar-and-vocal group harmony of the British Invasion. My mother had been worried that I was stuck in what she called my “shell,” hardened from “too much” closed-door practice. (What else was the door for? I wanted to say.) I’d quit baseball, so I wasn’t going out much anymore. My parents didn’t care for the moptop music, but when I asked for an acoustic guitar for my 15th birthday, they obliged, and I kissed the clarinet good-bye.

The Mel Bay Music Company store in Kirkwood, Missouri, and most Saturdays, Mel himself was there, behind the counter. He was a sullen-eyed atheistic sort of man whom I recognized from the photo of a sullen eyed atheistic sort of man on every page four of his line of string-instrument books: How to Play Banjo, How to Play Guitar, How to Play Mandolin, How to Play Bass Mandolin, How to Play Tenor Guitar, How to Play Tenor Banjo, How to Play Dobro, How to Play Hawaiian Slide Guitar, How to Play Ukulele. Amazing! Learn fretboard technique and one could play any string instrument in innumerable combinations with any other. Mel Bay the musician apparently had some chops. In close-up photos, his hands, with warty knuckle-backs, showed how to hold the plectrum (the pick) and how to make the chords. See, then do. And, as I did with Book One for clarinet, I plowed through the pages, working to get the instrument in my fingers.

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On those Saturdays I hung out at Mel Bay’s, I met Mark Henderson, who liked to show off on his pearl white electric the lead guitar part to “Walk, Don’t Run” by the Ventures. (Eventually I would order an electric similar to his for $114 and, after it came in a machine-gun shaped cardboard box, blubber with joy when I plugged it into my amp and slammed chhhhaaannnggg an A chord, fifth position.) Mark, would you show me? Sure, man. Wrap your hand around the neck like so, loosen your grip (it’s like a woman, he said, so be gentle), put this finger here, this finger here, this finger here, and that’s a C7 bar chord. How much easier to have my fingertips positioned on the fretboard than to stare at Mel Bay’s mitts in the method book.

After learning the chord playing style of rhythm guitar, one day I put the plectrum down and placed my right-hand fingertips on the strings. This style was called fingerpicking, and its exponents were part of the early 1960s folk music boom. My ear gravitated to recordings: Mississippi John Hurt’s “Spikedriver Blues,” Dave Van Ronk’s “St. Louis Tickle,” and Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right.” The latter song matched a young man’s remorseless leaving of an affair with a rolling fingerpicking accompaniment that epitomized the motif of rambling-on. Playing it felt like leaving and rambling-on. The thumb of the right hand alternated a pattern on the bass strings while the fingers of the right hand plucked the treble, either chords or melody, and coordinated chord changes with the left. Like the piano, the fingerpicked guitar could give any song a melodic, chordal, and bass accompaniment. But unlike the piano — which hammers instead of plucks — guitar strings must be sounded and resounded by the fingers. Without continued plucking, the vibration fades immediately, which is why the acoustic guitar sounds intimate and tentative, boyishly romantic. (The electric guitar, of course, reverses that.)

The acoustic guitar felt right: its literal embrace — held on lap, tucked against chest, enwrapped in arms, finger-tipped to life — anchored me. The guitar was territorial and expansive, and I devoted a chunk of my life to it: folk-rock band; talent shows; occasional concert soloist; restaurant and club player; arranger and composer of finger-picking solos; recordings (nothing commercial); guitar teacher; member of a three-man hokum street band, the Genial Stoopid Brothers, who ended their 45-minute set of Jazz Standards Wackily Rearranged with an off-to-the-races version of “Sweet Georgia Brown,” including my manic ukulele solo, backed up by violin and steel guitar. (He’s bragging, but he’ll soon refrain.)

A guitarist during my 20s (throughout the 1970s), I would play as much alone as I would with others. More alone, actually, for I rarely found others who worked to my standard, except my pals in the Stoops. Most young musicians are giddily undisciplined; their reach seldom exceeds mimicking hit records. In the first rock-and-roll band I formed in 1965, the guys wanted to cover tunes by Paul Revere and the Raiders, among others. So, after transcribing bass, rhythm, and lead guitar parts from the records, I taught them the songs. (Don’t trust him; he can’t stop bragging.) Once I had the band trained, I began augmenting our Top 40 repertoire with my own tunes. One, whose melodic germ and title remains in my mind 36 years later, was the irrepressibly obvious “I’m Alive.”


I can’t shake the feeling (maybe you can’t either) that this is sounding a bit Whitney Houston-ish, as though Orphic destiny had me arrowed a musician, and thus (you might assume) I’d end up one. End up feels deathly antithetical to a story as it happens. But it’s true. I wasn’t only a musician. Another Siren of the Sublime called. Age 15, I fell in love with reading — novels as well as nonfiction — often gladly shelving the guitar to read. My two favorites, which I feasted on in high school, were W. Somerset Maugham’s Of Human Bondage and Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood.

Maugham’s fiction tells the story of a club-footed medical student who, in his romantic life, falls in love with a waitress, who later becomes a prostitute and spurns his hopes for marriage; Capote’s “nonfiction novel” is about a robbery turned-multiple-murder by two psychopaths, their subsequent trial and execution by the state of Kansas. These books did have one element in common, in addition to the verve of the writing. An elegiac tone. And yet their authors did not separate the loss into a single-movement andante cantabile as Tchaikovsky did. Hopelessness permeated nearly every scene, sorrows multiple and multiplying and total. I remember at the time wondering if there were a musical equivalent to this sort of sustained elegy, which, in the act of reading, might go on for days, much longer than any music could. I looked beyond “I Want to Hold Your Hand” to the mighty Beethoven. His symphonies progress, in part, with “thought” — opposing ideas in the first movement are developed, then recapitulated. Eventually four movements articulate the quadrants of an emotional cosmos. But other than the dramatic terraces of soft and loud, minuet and march, what was the music thinking? Was the music thinking? Could it be like the prose I was enchanted by, a mode of thought and feeling.

In Maugham’s and Capote’s books, the tragedy of the characters was so compelling that their moral decay lit my thinking toward the opposite: to be the sort of per son in whom such demise must not occur. There was the phrase, to light my thinking. These books offered direction, ideas, history, argument, ethical ambiguity, and rectitude. Though fatalistically caged, the stories pulled me toward reason as well as the sensual: that feeling of living inside another’s yearning and pain. Taken to heart, I might measure my impending life by the shapes and strategies these books gave me.

Suddenly there was something that equaled music’s come-hither. I knew music was in my blood and body, but music didn’t exactly make sense of my life or reflect what I felt were the moral and emotional imperatives of my experience that needed (no, required) reflection. I saw that reading could give me something deeper than music could. Reading mirrored and reciprocated the analytical faculty that was developing in me. There was danger, though, in its depth. My critical reading over-thought-over every thing. Indeed, my desire to analyze what I read was as strong as my desire to play music. Music rose like oil, analysis settled like rock. Still, the importance of what was not-music, the mystery of my mind, took longer for me to recognize, as though that was its point. A decade of choir and flutophone and clarinet and guitar and their yummy aggregates of sound and touch finally lessened their grasp.

I didn’t abandon the guitar. I just laid it aside, went to college, and read my brains out. For several years I replaced fingerpicking with reading as well as writing, stories and poems, a journal, a (much-revised but never much better) novel at age 20. I think “I’m Alive” (permit the grandiosity) for reasons we all are alive: to activate our individual sensibilities. In me, the trunk of sensibility grew split trees, mixing crowns and shades. Driven to grow, I have wanted to create objects musical and literary as much as I have wanted to know what makes good music and good literature worthy of the ruling, though I believe we need no training in their enthrallment.

When I entered college, I worshipped music as much as I revered literature, and nothing either art did caused me to separate them as though one were seed, the other husk. I still feel that unity. The meditations of Kahlil Gibran and the nocturnes of Frédéric Chopin, to cite two ecstatic extremes, maintain an equipoise. The sublimes of writer and composer compete not. In seraphic realms they blend as one. As Dante writes,“The voices seemed all to form the same song, so perfect was their accord.”


During college, that laboriously drawn-out divorce between passion and reason, my seamless mental state was shaken by my first love. Her name was Terri. She was my age, 21, and attended Antioch College in Ohio. We met in Columbia, Missouri, where I was attending the university, and we fell in love one January night, holding each other for hours in an unheated room. Our mutual hunger for literature drew us together. She was learning Greek so she could read the New Testament in its original language. I was infatuated by anything modern. Though we lived several states apart, our three letters a week fertilized our love. I sent her James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, the most lyrical work of documentary journalism ever written; she sent me his Collected Poems. Her dedication, “Thomas, To consider the distance as an extension of skin. This — touch. Love love Terri.”

Such promise permeated our infrequent meetings. Juliet and Romeo, we’d caress face, hair, arms, hands, lips (and no more) for hours. From her head came the only lock of hair I snipped and sealed (for later veneration) in a box. (I still have it.) Together, we fused; apart, we wasted. When I asked to consummate our love — we would sooner or later, wouldn’t we? — she was uncertain, frightened. My request seemed to change her, though today I realize she suffered her own crisis of calling, which was not about me. (How much every thing was, in those days.) An adolescent Terri had been saved by the Holy Ghost in a tent revival. Antioch in the 1960s, she found out, was keen to pervert her Christian values, not help her practice them. So she left the college and decided upon marriage with a committed virgin like herself, a dunking I failed. Wearying of my attempts to convince her otherwise, she declared it over, after which neither book nor symphony could console me. I dropped all my classes and hitchhiked south, ending up on a boat servicing floating oil derricks in the Gulf of Mexico. Moving on helped. In the clannish confines of male labor, little personal gets said.

One night, aboard a boat pitching in rough seas 100 miles from New Orleans, lying in the soiled sheets of my fantasy, I vowed life was not worth this relation-less seclusion. It was certainly not worth any further haunting of the existentialist’s domain. I had been exhausted by reading those literary antiheroes — Dostoyevsky’s Raskolnikov; Camus’s Meursault; Nor man Mailer’s Norman Mailer — whose intellectual destiny was to know how unravelable their separateness was.

The more I wrote autobiographical fiction or diary fact about losing Terri, the more I re-experienced it. So I headed for Nashville and a little shop called Gruhn Guitars, on Broadway, where my seaman’s wages bought me an ax. And that guitar — prestissimo — made my reading-and-writing woe disappear. While I re-learned John Fahey’s fingerpicking version of the old Negro spiritual “I Wish I Knew How It Felt to Be Free,” losing Terri got absorbed in the rolling rhythm, in the rocking tone, as it did for countless others before me who suffered for love.

Over the next several years, I poured myself into writing songs and instrumental pieces; I also arranged, played, sold, and taught hundreds of piano rags, jazz classics, and swing tunes for guitar. Hours engrossed in picking out the guitar accompaniment to a song — practice practice practice was pure joy. My passion drew others, who had me over for parties, took lessons, wanted to be around my songful outpouring. Such clubbiness emboldened other things. The most important — I met a beautiful dark-haired woman and decided I would woo her away from her inattentive, unmusical husband. And my way of woo would be to play for her, to her, use my luster as a lure. I knew the snake charmer’s song could entrance anyone: it had bewitched me.

On Saturdays I used to play at an antique shop she ran with her husband in the small mid-Missouri town where we lived. I would compose or improvise pieces while she stripped furniture and her hubby jawed with the occasional customer. One day she asked me to help her buy and move a loom on which she wanted to weave rugs. It so happened that her husband had hurried to St. Louis that morning to visit his ailing mother. She and I got a late start, and to close the deal, she shilly-shallied for two hours until the owner cut his price in half. We dismantled the oak-beam beast and loaded it ourselves. Driving back in the dark, I sang her a new song I’d written, a plaintive ballad about the French poet Arthur Rimbaud and a fight he had had with his parish priest (I imagined an Armageddon between poetry and faith). The surreal scene and rueful melody had come to me in a dream. She called it my “dream song,” saying it was the most beautiful tune she had ever heard. “It makes me feel,” she said,“like some part of you wanted only me to have it.”

She was right. Just then she pulled the van over, unsure, she said, whether her taillights were working. We both went to the rear. The red lights glowed, the engine puttered. I said to her,“Can I show you some thing on this side of the van?”

She walked with me. “What?”

I stood before her, slipped two fingers into the unbelted loops of her cut off jeans, and tugged her toward me, saying, “This.” I kissed her until she kissed me in return.

In one day we slept together; in one month she filed for divorce; in six weeks she moved in with me. It was what the writer-me wanted with Terri and the musician-me got, embarrassingly easy, with someone else.


The Haven, an adobe restaurant on Santa Fe’s Canyon Road, and in a corner of the dining room, this still-determined, still-nervous guitarist played instrumentals for patrons who talked, ate, and ignored me. Occasionally one of my guitar students came in for coffee and dessert and marveled at my supersonic version of Fats Waller’s “It’s a Sin to Tell a Lie.” At 28, having cohabited and moved from Missouri to New Mexico with my future wife, I’d become a showboat soloist. I could play complex jazz chords and a melody at the same time on my six-string Steinway. Most students I taught preferred the guitar as a hobby. But I pressed them to perfect each level: after fingerpicking Doc Watson’s “Deep River Blues” it was time for Blind Blake’s “Diddie Wa Diddie.” I’d done it; there was no reason they couldn’t master the instrument too.

The objective of being a showboat was twofold. For one, the money: my girlfriend wanted me to (at least) match her salary as a weaver, so I played five gigs and gave 20 lessons each week. (My wages, though, never equaled hers.) And two, the more you played, the better you got. Besides, you believed good players played as much for themselves (as anybody else): if an audience wasn’t listening, then performing — that self-sell you do as the “professional” — was no different from practicing. The guitarist, available for weddings — how many of those did I play! “Here’s your $40; did you get enough to eat?” Or après-ski, which pitted you and your talent on a corner riser against red faced, beer-sucking skiers, afternoons from 4:00 to 6:00. You knew because you weren’t plying them with John Denver hits that they’d tune you out. But not a problem. You attuned yourself.

Then, a guitar-teacher friend astounded me one day by saying that playing the same tunes in a club every other day was the worst thing any serious musician could do. Why? Because all you did was reinforce your mistakes. During Villa-Lobos’s “Étude No. 4,” you’d try to keep all those repeated chords crisply spaced and cleanly voiced, but ,eventually, you’d blow the shift from one chord to another. And then, the next time, you’d repeat the same mistake. Unless you fixed it. But how? The last thing you wanted to do was to practice that pop-classical schmaltz you played in public. Why? Even “Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring” drowned in the syrup after the one thousandth go-round. And this wasn’t only a guitarist’s complaint. The locution for pianists who knock out standards at the Hilton is piano bar. One celebrated player, Max Morath, quit the restaurant-bar scene forever, to play concerts, that is, for people who’d pay to hear him. Why? Because, as Morath allegedly quipped, “Piano bar is death.” It wasn’t long before you felt the same: “guitar bar” had subsumed your life; entertaining the masses had become your function.

My friend was right. After a year of such performance, I was disillusioned and hoped to follow Morath’s lead. I noticed the child’s love of tone and pulse draining from me, which meant my desire for books and literature, the guardian of my heart, returned. To a shelf of unread books I ran, studying Marshall McLuhan’s writings (especially The Gutenberg Galaxy) in order to know why the medium was the message, why the fountain of artistic creation welled up when new and old technologies merged. Television and the oral tradition, for example. I sensed my mind, which tagged (“You’re it!”) literature then music then literature then music, was engineering its own merger. Playing guitar instrumentals was what everyone was doing. What could I do that was truly, totally original?


Into this brew, early 1977, my girlfriend ladled the one thing that would make her happy. A family. By year’s end we had twin sons, Jeremy, first, Blake, 17 minutes later. Kids gave me the excuse to get out of the gigging biz and re-enter college; my goal, a graduate degree and a career teaching. First I went to a college in Santa Fe for two years and began acing courses in music theory, sight-reading, music history. I also began studying piano. Then for my final year I transferred to the University of New Mexico in Albuquerque, commuting 60 miles each way. There I took courses in modern and contemporary music; symphony, opera, chamber music; performance and conducting; composition and counterpoint. Tom Tomson of Lars (my kids liked it whenever I acted goofy) remembers how hard it is to discern (though his overeducatedness has forgotten it) the counterpoint of J.S. Bach from that of his renowned two sons, C.P.E. and Johann Christian. On that test he got a C+. And through it all he practiced guitar and studied piano: sight reading, scales, Bartók’s Mikrokosmos, Mozart sonatinas. If Bach could endure this regimen as an adult while fathering 20 children, then certainly Tom-Tom the Piper’s Son could do it with his progeny.

But the daily drive was killing me. So in Albuquerque I rented a room for $50 a month (the roaches crawling nightly in the trash can were gratis ), then returned to Santa Fe for three days. The kids missed me. Usually we did a lot together, especially music games; songs; little fingers trying real ukulele chords; lessons in the Suzuki method on quarter-size violins, for which I played piano accompaniment when an ensemble of three-year-olds performed. The only fun I had was with my sons. So said my wife. Who also said that when I came home from my “ other” life, she would get her three-day break and I would clean the house.

At the University of New Mexico, I was drawn into the lair of New Music, the latest child of the avant garde. The avant-garde arose in the early 20th Century with Dadaists like Marcel Duchamp, whose found objects (displayed in galleries) challenged the notion of art’s meaning and the author’s purpose in making that meaning. The avant garde achieved its American perch most notably in the 1960s, after our culture had let freedom ring. Suddenly there were “concerts” in which people strung taut wires on a stage and eight dancers “played” them with their bodies. Suddenly there were “ happenings” in which an innocuous 16-bar tune by Erik Satie was repeated by rotating pianists in the lobby of a university music department for 24 hours. My avant-garde hero was Charles Ives, the New England composer. Ives believed a composer’s duty was to write what his mind heard and not worry whether its difficulty strained the capacity of musician or listener. Ives also wrote books and articles, and I cherished his analytic bent to understand why he composed as he did. I also went a little gaga over John Cage. The most eclectic of composers, Cage once advertised that he would be performing a concert in Berkeley. The audience entered the hall and saw an unusual sight — the instruments of an orchestra set on chairs as though the musicians had left them there during intermission. The audience sat. The audience waited. Twenty, 30 minutes passed. A few wandered onto the stage and began exploring the instruments, playing a note or two. Others joined, musician and non-musician alike. With no tune in common, they improvised. For more than an hour. That, it finally dawned on everyone, was the performance Cage had wanted and, in a way, had written. I learned later that while we were playing our John Cage composition, he was taking part in another concert in New York City.

This was the means to the avant-garde, that anti-rational element born in all modern arts, which seeks to cloud or subvert the individual art’s traditions and utility. I could do that.


Indicative of the new possibility was a work by a student-composer in the early 1980s. His guitar performance consisted of playing a famous Bach prelude, stopping midway through to switch on a vacuum cleaner (waiting by his side) and inflate a plastic medical glove (the glove he tied off and let float to the ceiling), and then, switching off the vacuum cleaner, finishing the prelude. It was pure Cage: take a recognizable tune, interrupt it with something absurd, and, with the absurd fresh in mind, return to the tune with wild-opened ears. With these creations we had as much fun as we had conceit, for few other than us (and our loved ones, forced into service) patronized our concerts.

After all, you didn’t really need an audience; your imagination required no listener who “liked” what you were doing. Again Ives was my example: his listeners didn’t gain their aural skills for his music until after his death. Buoyed by an eternity for my success, I wanted to forge something that replicated how several arts had got commingled in my head.

The time: June 1981. The place: a concert hall at St. John’s College in Santa Fe. The player: Marcia Mikulak. The work: “Kandinsky’s Several Circles. ”The title: the title of a work of art from another medium. The goal: to mix the media of text, music, and painting and, thereby, pay homage to Wassily Kandinsky, the Russian painter who discovered non-representational, or abstract, art. The point: to belabor my confusion. In my “Kandinsky” Mikulak was instructed to do an array of unorthodox tasks — musical, vocal, physical, and psychological — at the piano. The score first had her act as if she were controlled by an unseen puppeteer, who moved her arms and hands to play things she was powerless to stop; she gave herself audible directions: “you sit, you play”; unusual statements came from her mouth as did sentences in other languages. Next, the score had her battle for control of her body and emotions, audibly and physically until — and this was “open to the performer’s interpretation” — she actually felt in control. To this end, the score asked her to mutter/shout phrases, drum on the piano’s wood frame, play a long passage whose for ward movement in one hand was silenced by a new rhythmic figure in the other, which, in turn, illustrated the image of Kandinsky’s painting Several Circles (1926), projected on a screen above the audience. In addition, on tape, and in combat with her, were collages of sounds, the broken-apart syllables of Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle, and Kandinsky’s statement about the bearing of the abstract artist (the kernel for the work): “One no longer needs nature as an intermediary if one is able to relate to the All.”

Someone once described the avant-garde as a place of “pleasureless hedonism.” And its main goal, to make everyone, the performer especially, uncomfortable. Mikulak’s rendition was stellar. She relished doing what I wanted her to do, played with daring and mystery, accuracy and abandon. I was astounded. So, too, were the reviewers. Wrote one, Mikulak presented the piece “as a kind of Krapp’ s Last Tape with a grand piano. As Several Circles’ only character, Mikulak, playing a pianist well past wit’s end and tormented by isolation, harangues herself bitterly for her only reason to live: ‘I sit. I play.’" The reviewer noted that when she did play something, it was “an incredibly saccharine parody of a gay, impressionistic piece.” “Raving in tongues,” she attempted to “play seriously, but the music got ugly and monotonous.” The reviewer saw (rightly, I think, though I’m biased) that the piece asked the pianist, for 25 difficult minutes, to explore her self-doubt as a performer. Another critic reveled in the tension between the real Mikulak and Mikulak’s puppet-self. Chief gloat for me came when the reviewer noted, “The composer had replicated in music Kandinsky’s circles of energy.”


Believe it or not, with this piece, the University of California, San Diego, accepted me into its Ph.D. program in composition. So family and I came west in 1982. You’d think I would have been ecstatic. And I was, for a time, until I started thinking what “Kandinsky” had wrought. The work troubled me on the way out — past the lemon groves and the chaparral, past westering station wagons and U Hauls stuffed with the lives of other avant-garde composers, all three of us. As a risk, I was fine with it. It (the self-dramatization of a performer’s psyche) needed airing. But the piece scared me, in part, because it was wild and unknown. I wondered if I wouldn’t be disappearing into the abstraction of the arts I had created for myself to appear in.

At UCSD I began studying with a Mexican composer, Julio Estrada, a swarthy man, European-educated and mestizo-mysterious. My first composition, I decided, would be a rhythmically and tonally ambitious work for solo viola. I showed him my sketches, and he liked discussing the notes and rhythms on the page while imagining their sounds. I told him how much I revered Charles Ives, and he steered me to Ives’s music for quarter-tone pianos, tones in between the chromatic ones. I fell in love with the eerie, dense sound-textures Ives created and, consequently, reconfigured my viola piece to use quarter tones, not as adjuncts to standard notes, but as individual entities themselves.

When I presented more sketches to Estrada, he searched for growth in my ideas. He didn’t find it and chided me for not getting sufficiently lost in my creation. To illustrate his point (I noted this in my journal), he played at the piano Richard Wagner’s famous wandering chords from the “Prelude” to Tristan und Isolde, singing out as he went, “Who knows where he’s going. It’s wonderful. Where am I? the music keeps asking. I am lost...I must be lost. Oh, to be lost in a composition is the most wonderful thing of all. This is what you must do, Mister Larson!”

He told me to let the music go, stop pigeonholing it into what it doesn’t want to be. (Was I really doing that?) What I needed, he said, was more continuity and growth in the rhythmic and melodic fragments I had created, transforming them into something inevitable — a melody, a section of turbulence, then one of calm, a structure — without losing the freedom of being lost. That’s the essence of New Music, he said. My composition must learn its constructive process from within, as it unfolds, and I should never shackle it to a pre-existing form. (But I wasn’t doing that! I was lost in the piece, honest, really I was!)

I was stunned, riding the bus along the coast to Encinitas, where my five year-old sons were starting kindergarten. I couldn’t stop thinking that the life of freedom I’d hoped the avant-garde would bring me was spiraling out of control. I took inventory. I no longer touched any musical instrument. I pretended that I could hear tones and harmonies, even quarter tone nuances. I would sit with a pencil and blank paper and sketch ideas, rhythmic/graphic/prose notations of my thoughts. (Today the sketches look like an alien’s diary.) I would hear people talk on the bus and then write a piece in which they all sang/spoke their thoughts simultaneously. At the aviary in the San Diego Zoo I transcribed several bird songs; then I roughed out plans for a small speaking ensemble to recite lines from Theodore Roethke’s poetry to the accompaniment of three instrumentalists who rendered the bird songs. I’d heard from a brass quintet who had given another piece of mine a quick reading that it was unplayable. I was a millennium probe, my own Leonardo drawing, tumbling toward a new galaxy.

John Adams, the American composer who left the avant-garde, famously described its milieu once as “so far divorced from communal experience that it didn’t appear on the national radar screen.” Barring the once-a-year academic recital, my compositions had no occasion. I was writing pieces that, after being played once, no one was ever likely to play again.

After I did the dishes at night and sang with the kids before bed, I sat at the kitchen table and scrawled the day’s quota of ideas in my notebook. Transcribing what was in my mind was the only way to ground me. If I could make the inchoate take form, I might stop spinning. I polished my viola work, christening it “Jeke,” the first two letters of Jeremy, the last two letters of Blake.

The night of its premiere, a blackout black stage with a lone overhead light on the violist. One minute in, I realized he hadn’t had enough time to learn the piece. Two minutes in, I started cowering in my seat. The piece was lost, just as Estrada had said. It was also tortured, delirious, in search of its tonal identity. As I listened, I could hear in it the contour of my confused self, a fractious boil of mind and sound. I’m sure no one else heard this, but I did, loud and clear. The one soul who had the nerve to speak to me afterward wondered whether I had given the player a piece of music with instructions to purposely play it out of tune. If so — I think he was complimenting me — it was a radical notion. I was left, then, wondering for myself what it meant. I had worked for weeks on this 12-minute piece only to find its player frustrated, its audience unresponsive, its composer bewildered. Did it need more work? Should I can it? I couldn’t tell. One faculty member later told me he was impressed with its rhythmic complexity but then asked why it needed so many quarter tones. Because it’s new! Isn’t that why we’re here? To be free of our pasts? To be creators?


Reader, maybe you’re not so different from me. You, too, have suffered some thing in your life that resembles my crack-up in the arts, something that kept turning your attention away from what you felt (but didn’t entirely know) your attention should be trained on, something that felt right or necessary to turn toward because turning was part of a larger scheme in which attention (for one thing) and desire (for something else) work together like gears, reminding us that our concentration is never as clearly engaged as the moment when it’s being dared by an ever-present lure to veg or quit or die or, in my case, simply let go. (The writer works at his table while respites beckon — food, a walk, TV, Internet, sex. He’s human so he gives in once in a while. But his task every hour is to exile these sirens and stay put long enough to finish his work.)

Those sirens will never stop. They pull and ply until we give in. One siren plied my wife. And kaput went the marriage. The story of her ending it coincided with our move to San Diego, which I believed would salvage our bond. Instead, she initiated her (secret) plan to split up once we found new, individual opportunities in the golden land. Paralleling her disappointment with our marriage, my musical feeling also dissolved. The sound touch evaporated from my body and with it love for my wife. I snuggled my guitar into its plush-lined case one day and watched half (or some portion of ) my sensibility lie down with it.

Music is a child’s game, played by adults, and thus the boy’s kingdom of train and touch is laid bare. It was (permit the despair) the final plane ride of Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens, and the Big Bopper, who would go all for-one into the sky-grave.

The day the music died came post-separation during the first weekend I shared with my sons. We spent part of the day in an orchestra room at UCSD. The room was stocked with student-made instruments, used in one of the school’s under graduate classes for non-musicians. We plunked on the xylophones and marimbas, made of cardboard tubes or different-sized coffee cans, with bamboo mallets. We buzzed our lips on the long corrugated hose used to clean swimming pools but now made to work like a didgeridoo.

After an hour, I was drawn to the piano, on which I wrote a simple song I called “Little March” with these lyrics:

  • Jeremy and Blake, I love
  • you,
  • Jeremy and Blake, yes I
  • do,
  • yes...I...do.

I had gone from the heights (depths) of multimedia Kandinsky to the depths (heights) of a sappy lullaby in two-four time.

The boys and I talked briefly about the hard stuff. I said, Your mother and I (a phrase I choked on) would live apart because we were unhappy together. Apart we might be happy, but apart during the week from you two I was unhappy, so I wasn’t much happy either way, and so on, until I turned the faucet off. It was too much too soon. Don’t worry — their bright, sad eyes looked plagued with worry — we’ll see each other every Saturday and Sunday I promise, and we’ll do lots together: the beach, camping, movies, playgrounds, reading, singing. Whatever you want, we’ll do.

“Little March” was the last music I ever wrote or played. I knew my musical life was over when I felt the compulsion in my fingers, always ready to pluck the guitar strings, had gone. My arms, my fingers, my tap ping toes had no will of their own anymore. Part of me felt this loss would be a punishment for the divorce, a pain I thought I deserved. But today I know better. At the core, the pulsing musical tone of my childhood — that herky-jerky sway with the tune during rehearsal, that big-breath appoggiatura at the close of “Santa Lucia” — had, like an unused limb, withered away.

And yet I was relieved to let my body leave what it no longer wanted to be and go where it craved going — into that ungovernable expanse that Natalie Goldberg calls the writer’s wild mind. I haven’t regretted the loss of music. But I do think about my boys, that we sang together before bed so often.

A Saturday evening, in 1983, Blake and Jeremy, aged six, are putting the sheets and the blankets and the pillows on the foldout mattress of the foldout couch. Baths finished, they want to stay up and play in their pajamas as long as possible. But it’s late, and we’ve already sung several numbers from Dr. Seuss’s

Cat in the Hat Songbook. It’s time for quieter fare. Our book Lullabies and Night Songs has new settings of traditional tunes by Alec Wilder, with drawings by Maurice Sendak. On the bed, I’m between them and they’re nestling close, their cheeks massaging my arms, their feet bobbing in rhythmic joy. I say, as we go, See how the words are the same as the notes we sing. “Now the day is over, night is drawing nigh; shadows of the evening steal across the sky.” They watch where I point, but they know the melody by heart, for we’ve sung it many times. They snuggle and hold my arms with a fastness that seems to keep us and the universe in place. And the universe does stop, as long as they remain this age, as long as they are pressing their bodies against mine and the tone and the pulse from their singing voices flows back inside us, and we keep on the train, rolling and riding and rocking along, the music the words, the words the music, their differences never apparent so long as we never look back.

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