Picking old wounds: Playing a Yamaha Guitar

Photo by Justin Clark on Unsplash

Photo by Justin Clark on Unsplash

When I was around 10 years old, my mother gave in and bought me a guitar with Green Saving Stamps she had accumulated our first winter in Grand Rapids, Michigan. The guitar was a Kay Standard, the bottom of the line and had a 16th note silk-screened in white paint over the place where ordinarily there would be a pickguard. I learned a few folk tunes on it, Bob Dooley and The House of the Rising Sun were the first tunes I was able to apprehend on my own with the limited resources of a 10-year-old in Michigan in the mid-1960s.

All this time I was holding onto a savings account my grandmother had started for me when I was little. When she counted the bank for the little tavern she owned with her husband, Bob Connor, and if I was with her when she went to the bank, she would give me a dollar or $5 if I helped with some of the chores. I would help her sift out the cigarette butts from the shuffleboard table and also to count the red quarters from the jukebox.

I learned to count and I helped her with the little things and it was Grandma who helped me understand the value of salting money away and it was Grandma who taught me there was no job too humble, because to work was to stay alive. She was the youngest of a family of nine children whose parents died from the Spanish flu epidemic in Arkansas and Oklahoma. She knew how to save, and she knew how to laugh.

I slowly added to this account over time and by the time I was 13 we had moved to Ohio and I bought my first real guitar. It was a 1967 Yamaha FG180. I loved it and it was certainly easier to play than the Kay, but by this time, as a self-taught folkie, all my bad habits were pretty well set.

This guitar helped me get out of my teens alive. My mother, a jazz singer, hated the folky music I played with it, so my playing was relegated to my bedroom, although once, while she was having a drunken party she woke me up to come downstairs and play for her friends. They stood around me in jolly swaying groups. It was the only time I felt my mother was proud of the fact I played the guitar and sang at the same time. But she was drunk, so I’ll never really know what she thought. I played Sisters of Mercy, by Leonard Cohen, and it never happened again.

When I was in my early 20s, I had a car accident which took away my singing voice for almost seven years. Between that accident and a rude comment by a group of male pickers in college, I ended up selling the guitar to pay rent.

I didn’t pick up a guitar again until I moved to Taos in 1986. I discovered the silence up in the canyon caused me to want to play again. I bought a little nylon-stringed guitar (that I still have) from Casa de Musica when they were located in the Cantu Plaza. Since then I have had several and have had two stolen from me. One was a Fender Squire electric I inherited from my real father (whom I found after decades of being separated). The other stolen guitar was a Guild and I don’t want to talk about it because I truly loved that guitar and I still tear up.

I have been loaned a Yamaha and as I get accustomed to the neck, the action and where the sweet spots are, I am thrown back to my teens and how that Yamaha guitar kept me sane (more or less) and alive. [After writing this I am returning the Yamaha and not only am I returning the instrument, it represents another return to heartbreak. I can’t write about it. I can only suffer with it.]

I need to find an FG180, buy it, settle in and face a lot of those old memories from the past. Will it make me sane? Or will it just open old wounds? I’ll find out.

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Lenny’s Best Joke

It was in Tiny Lenny’s Nosh Bar galley kitchen in Eugene, Oregon, that I heard Lenny Nathan’s best joke. He had a million of them. His storytelling skills were sharply honed. I still remember his pattern of speech, and I can hear his voice if I really listen to my memories of those many nights in the Nosh Bar.

But it was especially this joke that somehow epitomized the Nosh Man and his humor. After a while, all we had to do was put on a particular expression, make a little pause in the patter, and he’d echo the punchline. Here it is:

There was this guy. He was standing there and he had a box and he had a whistle. Another guy comes up and said, “what’s that box for?”

And the first man said, “If I blow this whistle, all the bees in the area are going to come and get in this box.”

The second man said, “I don’t believe it.”

So the first man blew the whistle and all the bees in the area swarmed him and then went into the box. The first man snapped the box shut.

The second guy started to get concerned and said, “That’s amazing! But what about the bees? How will they breathe?”

[There was a long pause, and when Lenny told this joke, it was all he could do to keep the sparkle in his eyes and not leaking out of the corner of his mouth.]

The first guys sez, “Fuck ‘em.”

And we would howl for hours.

Photo by Thomas Stephan on Unsplash

A wet run

I’d call it a dry run, but I will be making a mess anyway. Putting together my plein air kit so all I have to do is toss it in the car and take off. Living where I live is lucky because I really don’t have to go far to have a spectacular view to paint. This tie around, I’ll just be making sure I have everything I need in the kit before I strike out farter than the edge of the driveway.

Top Ten Album Influences

There is a thread making the rounds with my musical friends, stating the top 10 albums that had an impact on their music. Instead of spreading the posts out over time, I’d like to just summarize the top 10 here in a blog post.

Ahead of my list, I’d like to say there are several artists that had a profound influence on me and my music, like David Bowie, but it would be impossible for me to pick just one to list. Other artists are a little easier to zero in on which of their albums had the most profound influence.

And, as a common disclaimer in these sorts of lists, I am hesitant to narrow it down to just 10, because as I scribble the title, my mind and memory begin to take a walk down memory lane and there were so many side-paths and side-shows. What about Shriekback and Cabaret Voltaire, Blue Gene Tierney, Nino Rota, and on and on.

Here is the low-hanging fruit of my list. (Drum roll) In Chronological order of influence:

  1. “Sketches of Spain,” Miles Davis and Gil Evans
  2. “Rubber Soul,” the Beatles
  3. “The Big 3, Featuring Mama Cass,” The Big 3
  4. “The Zodiac,” Cosmic Sounds
  5. “Blue,” Joni Mitchell
  6. “Fantasia on a Theme by Thomas Tallis,” Vaughn Williams, Academy of Saint Martin in the Fields
  7. “Go,” Stomu Yamasta
  8. “Lark’s Tongues in Aspic,” King Crimson
  9. “Before and After Science,” Brian Eno
  10. “Big Science,” Laurie Anderson

I have been greatly influenced by other albums since the early 1980s, and I know this list .is concentrated on those Golden Eras but now, my reason for listening to music has more to do with songs rather than recordings. I imagine there is something to be said for CDs and albums and individual tracks and how it has shaped our feelings of being influenced.

I concentrate here on the days of deep listening, of an album as a whole, Side A, then Side B.

STILL: THE PROMISE

Not finding the road, we are pulled down.
— Robert Bly, “The Fire of Despair Has Been Our Savior”

Nothing to do now
but wait. It’s raining so
hard — I have been pulled
over for hours. Windows
fogged; the car is flooded. Rolling
down the window
I look out on November
and sigh. I only want
to go home.

Still, it will always
do this —the sun setting
farther away; daylight,
the consistency of rain
and the rotting leaves, is finally
sloughed off like
everything else. What is left
collapses in the garden.

Exhaling into the dense
air, I wonder — what
replaces the sense of
fruit softening
on the ground? What is
the promise that all
endings hinge on? The remaining
days already seem cancelled
out and over.
What can possibly
emerge from the cave in Spring?

The moon behind
the rain puts
a hand on my shoulder — says, “This
is how it has always
been. Uncurl my
map and see
where it all leads.”

– Eugene, Oregon l984

You Laugh

I forgive people body language most of the time. Even when I get mixed signals, I am willing to do the math and factor it all in. I figure it’s up to me to decide whether to take them at their word or take them at their gesture, and sometimes I have to compute the two together to get closer to the real story.

An example would be a typical situation like seeing someone you know and consider a friend at the grocery story. They are in a hurry. They greet you welcomingly, yet their body language suggests they are busy and really don’t have time to chat. They have either broadcast intention gestures of sprinting off to complete their errands or they have greeted you with palm out wave which tells you they see you. It says “hello,” and “I must be going.”

But what about when people betray their feelings about you with a brief or suppressed laugh?

There have been times I think I understand that kind of laugh to mean nice things, and there have been other times when the laugh signals deeper issues. Absorbing the meaning of someone’s unconscious snort or ridiculing bark of laughter might hurt, but in the long run, if you have the heart to parse it all out, you should be grateful that person showed you how they really feel – as hard as it may be to swallow.

Let me describe the last time I was aware of being laughed at in this way. It’s not a funny or nice story, and I’m trying to tell it as if it really doesn’t matter to me in the least. Those who really know me will know I am lying. These laughs torment me, and I really wish I would stop. That is why I’m writing it here. Instead of telling this story over and over to anyone I think might be sympathetic, I am laying it out here and I hope I am able to deflate it, murder it, or at least, move on.

I was at a party. It was at a friend’s house. A birthday party, and there were a lot of people I knew by reputation and Facebook, and some I knew from my long history of being here. There was a couple I was just getting to know because I had applied for a simple, part-time executive assistant job.

This job was like several jobs I had applied for during that time. I felt I didn’t get them because of my age and over qualification. In fact, two executive assistant jobs came and went and my interviewers even revealed they were going to hold out for a younger person. That sucked, but there it was.

I won’t go into how soul-killing all that is. I will also decline to outline all the other slights and bumps I experienced trying to make up the deficit in our family income and outgo.

So, at this party, this couple is reeling off a list of reasons why I was not suitable for the job. One of them was they decided to go with someone with more digital and visual experience who was much younger. But, in my mind, how can you have more digital experience than someone who has been doing it since the beginning? I mean, I’d been doing it for a decade before the person they ended up hiring was even freaking born.

So I wondered how hard to press my case as a visual and digital creator. This was a party, after all, but for two people who had been leaving me dozens of texts and messages about the job (and some of them even texted for my husband to deliver, which seemed inappropriate to me) had suddenly gone dark and this was my first time to see them.

But, I soon realized they weren’t interested at all. I detach myself from the conversation because I feel my defensiveness rising and I need to keep it in check. Then someone handed me their camera and demanded I take a picture of a group of people.

As I look at the back of the camera and am surprised by how grimy and greasy it is, the man who had handed me the camera says, “It’s easy. Just press that big button. Want me to show you?”

Before I realize it, I blurt, “I know which button. I’ve been a professional photographer before.” And that was when I heard the laugh.

It was short, derisive and perhaps only meant to be heard by the ones doing the laughing – the couple I had tried to work for – but I heard it. And now, I could not unhear it.

I handed the camera back to the man because now, I didn’t want to touch the camera, let alone hold it near my face and look through the viewfinder. I wanted to take it all back. All of it.

I went out onto the patio, hoping to get my breath and cool off, but I ended up leaving right then without saying goodbye.

Why have I tortured myself with this memory? Maybe it’s because nearly every time I leave the house other than to go to the grocery story, I have an experience like this. Why? I have no fucking idea.

Face book shared a stupid-assed memory with me the other day and it was all I could do not to start up shit about that too. I tried to help another friend by giving them a headshot photograph on a rainy day because she needed it right away. I scored a breakfast burrito and $20! But then I heard, out of her mouth and to me a week later, “Well I got this guy down in Santa Fe who is going to do it. At least he knows what the fuck he’s doing.”

I have to say, it can be crushing. And if I have ever said things like that to people and they torture themselves with it like I have, I am so sorry. You have no idea. Or maybe you do.

I have been a visual artist and photographer long before I fell to using my words for a living because pen and paper are not expensive, compared to darkrooms, Nikons and rolls of film. Because I have my words and no one can claim I haven’t earned a living with them, although there are some who think I should just stick to being an editor’s wife and not try to reclaim my own place in the world of … what’s the word all the magazine writers like to use now? … “Makers.”

So. Now my story is all told. Now I need to STFU about it, not only verbally but in my head, because, you laugh, but you have no idea.

I entered the “Seven Day, Seven Black and White Images with No People and No Explanation” challenge on Facebook, but I was not challenged by anyone, and I did not challenge anyone. I challenge myself to be quiet, now, and just make.

The neighbor’s creepy grandfather

A young couple moved in across the street when I was 14. It was a small town in Ohio and the street was just like so many fly-over streets in the fly-over states American mid-west of the late 1960s. There were sidewalks. There were jobs. Kid’s played “Red Light, Green Light” and “Mother May I” in the streets at dusk and the counterculture was something off in California, still.

A house was moved onto an empty lot, and a new family moved in. The circus-like atmosphere of a house being moved onto the property was pretty big for our neighborhood street. If I remember correctly, the house was either two or three floors. It was large and kind of old. Lots of woodwork inside but the outside was asphalt shingles. A typical small-town Ohio house.

The woman in the new family was the daughter of the couple that lived next door. I imagine that is how they made their entry into the neighborhood. There was a toddler boy and an infant boy in the family, and since both parents worked, I ended up nearly a full-time babysitter for them. That summer of 1969 I will remember for many reasons. Not the least of them is my introduction to hard-core pornography and other events of the summer.

We sit in the wake of the Pussy-grabber Presidential election, the revelation of Bill Cosby’s true nature, Fox News firings and now, Harvey Weinstein’s scandal which will only deepen more and more every day. I find I am thinking about the events of that summer and wonder how I managed to get through my teens, young adulthood and even later years without something worse happening to me.

creepy grandpa.jpg

What happened was pretty simple and not tremendously confrontational. It comes to mind because of the depth of the activity I now realize was part of these people’s lives, but also, I wonder about those two boys of theirs. They are adults now. Perhaps with children of their own.

The grandfather was working on the house and in the yard nearly all the time I was in the house babysitting. As time progressed, over the days, I thought I would help the couple by doing some tidying and cleaning for them while the boys slept. As I cleaned up the living room I kept coming across a lot of hard-core pornography. Much of it was photographic, from the 1940s and 1950s and mostly black-and-white. Other items were printed material. This material, I now understand was pretty hard-core, and in most cases fetishistic. Some of the activities described are taboo and illegal.

After a couple of weeks of cleaning, suddenly grandpa was everywhere I looked. I didn’t realize at first, that the muscular and bald old man with the wife-beater T-shirt and hole in his pants would give me a full view of his penis, but when I did, it was a shocker.

I didn’t say anything to the daughter and her husband. Because of things happening in my family dynamic I certainly wasn’t going to bring it up at home. I stayed quiet, and I am lucky, I guess, after his first attempts at approaches, he decided to leave me alone. I already felt a little soiled by my own curiosities in the reading materials and photographs I now realize they were left for me to see. I can only imagine how I might have slammed into adulthood had this old man persuaded me into something or maybe even assaulted me.

And I hope those two boys made it ok. Whatever their parents or grandparents were into, maybe they were spared. Maybe, if they were not spared, the boys decided it all stops with them and they chose not to have children.

Most of all I deal with the guilt of having not said anything. I was only 14 and on shaky ground with my family context at the time. But still, I feel guilt and I wonder what would have happened if I had spoken up?

original photo by David Siglin on Unsplash – alterations by yours truely.

 

I’m with the band

Lonesome Town Large

It took a few years, but Robert Parsons finally persuaded me to join the Western Swing band Lonesome Town. The photo was taken a couple of weeks ago, but a couple of the members have dropped out and we’ve added new ones.

When I first got turned on to the two-step dancing scene in Taos, I wanted to be in a swing band, and I always felt a Tenor banjo was something essential and now, all this time later, I am playing Tenor banjo (inherited from my daddy, rest his soul) in a band that is shaping up to be really really tight. The core members have been together for five years and it really shows.

The core members have been together for five years and it really shows. We’ve recently welcomed Rick DeStefano on keys and Russell Latino on percussion.

Here’s a photo of a recent gig at The Sagebrush.

Lonesome Town 20170722_1

M. Elwell Romancito at Black Mesa Friday, Mar. 10

maam“Howl” is the theme for M. Elwell Romancito’s Friday (March 10) 6-9 p.m. performance at Black Mesa Winery’s Tasting Room, 241 Ledoux Street.

Because the moon will be full just two days after her performance and with the current political atmosphere, Romancito said she will open with a brief excerpt from the famous Allen Ginsberg poem “Howl” and keep up a running musical conversation about politics and the personal landscape.

Romancito is a singer-songwriter who performs original and what she terms “classic Americana,” which covers a lot of ground – from Bill Monroe to Tom Waits, or, Mavis Staples to Ani DiFranco. Usually only accompanied by a nylon-stringed guitar, Romancito’s arrangements of covers and originals strip them down to their most fundamental form. Her smoky, jazz-inflected vocals and stylized renderings make each song new, even if it’s been a part of the pop music fabric for a long time.

Romancito has performed as part of musical groups and combos for decades in Taos and has begun performing solo. She also participates in the Creative Commons which helps creators legally share knowledge and original materials, plus uses the internet to drive collaboration, development, growth and productivity. Creative Commons provides free, easy-to-use copyright licenses to make a simple and standardized way to give the public permission to share and use work.