My career in music: The Early Years

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[I] am the least musical person I’ve ever met who is still alive. Of course, most nonmusical people don’t go around talking about it, so I probably actually know more tone deaf, talentless people than that. It is strange, though. I should be musical. My mother sang semiprofessionally, doing radio in the pre-WWII days before they had things on tape, like commercials which were sent by telegraph to various radio stations then read and/or sung live in the studio. My oldest sister is known as Lightning Fingers Liz, owing to her prowess with the mandolin. My brother had a rock band from something like 1968 through 1990-something and is quite talented with the lead guitar. My other sister takes the cake, though. She has a couple of PhD’s in music or related topics, is an accomplished composer, and has learned—to at least a reasonable level of competence—one instrument in each known and extant class of musical instrument. (This required her to learn the bagpipes and the didgeridoo, because they are almost exclusive in their own classes.)

This post originally appeared on or greg laden's blog and is part of a series of essays that I've rewritten or updated. These essays are posted here, usually with new titles, under the category heading "weblogue.

My father’s musical ability was nonexistent. When he would get a little drunk, he’d listen to his My Fair Lady album over and over. The other day we went to see My Fair Lady performed at the high school. I was afraid I was going to have a problem with that, but it was okay. No cold sweats, no feelings of doom, nothing. But I digress.

I was born into a home that had no TV or stereo. There was a period of time when there was a TV in my grandmother’s home, which luckily for me was the apartment upstairs. Then we got one downstairs eventually. But still, I’m digressing. That had nothing to do with music. I know that I was born into a home without a stereo because I remember quite well when we got the stereo. It was a big deal.

There was a stereo cabinet, which was manufactured without any holes in it for wires to go. So a hole had to be cut in it. There were to be two input devices, one a turntable and the other a tape recorder. Since this was the days before “aux,” there needed to be a pair of switches. It had to be a pair of switches and not just one, because they were mono switches, so there needed to be two of them. We’re talkin’ stereo here. These switches were mounted inside the stereo cabinet. The tape recorder was reel to reel. We also had a wire recorder, but there was no music for that, so we didn’t hook it up. (And when I say “we,” I mean my brother.) The speakers were twenty-something inches high and maybe 15 wide and very thin for speakers, no more than five or six inches, and they were positioned at either end of the Eero Saarinen-style couch.

Sound Effects

The rug in the living room had squares as part of its pattern, 11 inches on a side. So we used the squares to locate the center between the speakers. We put a chair there, and we would take turns sitting in the chair and listening to the sound effects record.

A train coming from one side to another. A pin dropping on one side then the other. A voice coming right from the middle even though there was not a speaker right there. The voice was saying “Hey, there’s no speaker right here, but you hear my voice like there is a speaker there. Isn’t stereo amazing!” Stuff like that.

Hatari! This album cover made me want to go to Africa. Which, eventually, I did.

We had a total of about fifteen albums. One was a Vaughn Meader album. One was the aforementioned sound effects album. Then there was Tubby the Tuba and Mary Poppins. Those were mine. Then there was Bolero, which fascinated me because there was a semi-naked lady on the front, facing away, and I could tell but not prove she was not wearing underwear. I had no idea at the time why I found that interesting. Then there was Al Hirt and there was Hatari. I loved the front of the Hatari album. Does anyone remember that? We had an album of JFK speeches.

I cannot place the arrival of the stereo in relation to the acquisition of the JFK speech album in relation to the assassination of JFK. I have some pretty detailed early memories. I have early memories that are earlier than humans are supposed to have according to some theories of neural development, and that I can prove are not reconstructed memories (of course, some people believe that can’t be proven, but they are wrong), but I do not remember everything and some of my early memories are untethered to an accurate timeline. There was a Life magazine from the election season showing a picture of JFK sitting on a big giant drum. There was the Vaughn Meter album. There was the JFK speech album. And there is the memory of being sent home from school, everyone crying, and the specter of death and violence that accompanied that 48-hour period that stretched out to become part of our national consciousness for the next 20 years.

It was some time after the stereo, by a few years, that I acquired my very first album. The Tubby the Tuba and Mary Poppins albums were wearing quite thin, and they were not really mine. They were just among the albums that seemed to come with the stereo.

The album that caused the trauma.

Every September the church had a “bazaar,” in which rides were operated by men with “Prisoner” or “Convict” printed on their shirts, and various gaming booths were set up. Every year I saved up seven or eight bucks to blow on the bazaar. One year I put a dime on a number for a spinning carnival wheel and won. I got to pick among three or four albums. I picked the Sonny & Cher album with “I Got You Babe” (Look at Us). When I brought it home, everyone in my family yelled at me because each of them thought I should have brought home a different album. The thing is, they each had a different opinion as to which album I should have brought home. But they were all absolutely certain that Sonny & Cher was not the one.

In retrospect, this was a traumatic event. It caused me to shun the entire musical experience for years thereafter. Now that I realize the effect this had on me, I think I’ll sue my family.

So sometime in there, probably because of this traumatic event, my personal interest in music went dormant. This is probably why I can not really play an instrument. There was a violin, briefly. Later I learned to do a bunch of riffs on the base and could accompany others as long as they were not very good. But that’s it. The stereo moved with my parents when I was 13 (and I moved with them as well), but I was not one of the kids who had a stereo or an album collection. In fact, in this way I found myself contrasted with many of my friends.

But that was okay, because I had Carl…

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3 thoughts on “My career in music: The Early Years

  1. Yes, and as a kid I was confused because I conflated “Baby Elephant Walk” with “Elephant Walk” which was a great movie about an Elephant Walk in colonial India.

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