My Musical History, Part 1

by David Gans

Copyright 1995 by David Gans. All rights reserved.

There weren't any cool records in our house when I was a kid. Here's what I heard growing up:

Vast quantities of undifferentiated, unexplained, irresistible "classical" music. I went for the garish stuff first, of course: "The Sabre Dance" and "The Flight of the Bumblebee" were easy for me to appreciate. I loved "The Moldau," (Smetana), which taught me that music can be a picture of something (Springsteen's "Thunder Road" is a great example of a cinematic song) and also showed me how music builds on music: when I heard "Hatikvah," the Israeli national anthem, I recognized the melody of "The Moldau."

Harry Belafonte: "Day-O," "Jamaica Farewell," "Come Back Liza," etc. But somehow I never heard "Man Smart, Woman Smarter" til Robert Palmer covered it.

Bullfight records. Barnaby Conrad's dramatic narrative, "The Day Manolete Was Killed," and several albums of beautiful brass band music. Some of those melodies still knock around my head at odd moments. I didn't know it at the time, but I learned some about counterpoint from bullfight music.

Show tunes. My Fair Lady, Kiss Me Kate, etc. Lots of English accents. My mother is English, and although she assimilated herself into America speech as fast as she could, her sisters both still have strong accents. My grandmother was Russian-born and raised in France, and she had a wild hybrid accent. And many of our family and friends spoke with rich European accents. That is music, too, of a sort.

In 1961 my older brother went to New York to hang with our other grandparents, and he came back a Changed Boy, courtesy of our older cousin Jimmy: he came home listening to rock'n'roll radio! It was actually pop radio - KRLA and KFWB, and later KHJ "Boss radio." Before and after the Dodger game, it was music radio for me. Sam Riddle, Jim O'Neill, "Emperor" Bob Hudson. "What's Your Name?" by Don and Juan, which I now perform in my acoustic act. "It Will Stand," by The Showmen, whose lead singer sounds like a saxophone (and who turned up again in The Chairmen of the Board, singing "Give Me Just a Little More Time"). "Love Letters" by Ketty Lester. "Our Day Will Come." "Wives and Lovers," by Jack Jones. Who knew? "The Bristol Stomp." "Smoky Places." "The Twist" and its derivatives. I didn't know what categories any of that stuff fell into, and I had no reason to care. I loved the music I heard, and I listened to it a lot.

When I started to play the clarinet in grade school I loved the pieces we played, especially Handel's "Royal Fireworks Music" and most of all The "Little" Fugue in G minor by J.S. Bach. That one piece is, to me, ample demonstration of the sufficiency of music to describe the human soul. It is the highest union of reason and spirit.

No one ever taught me about ecstasy - I had to come to that understanding on my own, many years later. I loved this music in my own cramped heart-space, but for most of my young life the only discussion of music as transportation was an agreement between my father and me that certain music sends a chill up the spine.

When I read about how Bill Evans educated my pal Steve's heart, I mourn the absence of spirituality - to say nothing of hip and cool - from my upbringing. The positive side of that is freedom from dogma, but I sometimes have cause to regret the flatness of my early life. I experienced ecstasy, but I had no vocabulary with which to address it and no one to talk with about it.

The "Little" Fugue still rebirths me every time I hear it.

Back to Boss Radio: I knew nothing about the music that came through that little speaker. "Soldier Boy," "Will You Love Me Tomorrow," "Last Kiss" and other teen tragedy songs, "Little Latin Lupe Lu," "La Bamba," "The Twist" and its derivatives - these packets of joy came to me in my room at night, messages from a world I couldn't see from my corner of the San Fernando Valley. The romance and passion of it were exotic as hell. Except for the occasional big brother with a car, a classmate's older sister with a boyfriend, the world of that music was a wonderful mystery, as distant as Casablanca.

And then the Beatles. With the Beatles began the Divergence. I was in fifth grade, and I idolized my teacher, Mr. Cowen. He was a strange bird, in retrospect, but he was charismatic and I was seriously adult-identified (and desperately in search of some power in the world; getting tight with grown-ups was a means to power, I think, and of course as a practical matter it was also a guarantee of alienation from my peers. Too bad I didn't figure that out til way too late). I loved his style. He was funny and kind and he was a swift dispenser of justice on the playground. He cut open the side of a whistle and got rid of the ball, so instead of the usual sound he emitted this BEEP-BEEP-BEEP-BEEP just before he shouted "YOU!" as he cut some miscreant out of the herd for having the wrong kind of fun. He had a rubber duckie in his stash; if you were caught playing with something in class, he'd make you drag this toy around the playground for a few lunch hours; humiliation was an effective tool. I loved him and I stayed on his good side.

Cowen took the boys camping to Sespe Creek one weekend. We slid bare-assed - teacher included - down a big smooth rock into the water all afternoon, and at night I saw the infinite sky for the first and most magical time. Countless shooting stars; I have never seen anything like it since.

He read to the class every afternoon. A story from a Reader's Digest Condensed Book, "This is Goggle," about a kid with thick glasses. He read us "Auntie Mame," and "Cheaper By the Dozen" (too bad about Clifton Webb in the movie version; should have been someone more robust). And he read us sections of Robert Ruark's novel "Something of Value," about the Mau Mau Uprising. I have no idea now what he meant by that. He was a Goldwater supporter that year, and my mother, the PTA president, made him remove his AuH2O button at meetings. But recently my mother said she recalled that Cowen was an excellent teacher whose politics did not intrude into the classroom. I do recall one afterschool conversation in which he explained his politics to me in terms of my parents' politics, but I didn't really understand any of it.

When the Beatles hit our shores, dear Mr. Cowen was beside himself with disdain. From beneath his gleaming crewcut he derided the moptops; he pinned the newspaper picture on the bulletin board and he made fun of the name Ringo Starr. I have a vivid recollection of him repeating "Ringo STARR!" as though it were the silliest thing he had ever heard in his life.

But we were goners. Before long the girls were dividing up according to favorite Beatle, and boys with indulgent enough parents were sporting drum kits and electric guitars - and I was trying to play "Eight Days a Week" on the clarinet with some guys who never asked me to join their band.

And then it was the Beatles/Stones dichotomy, and Champ Butler lip-synching "House of the Rising Sun" at a school assembly, and making out to the Righteous Brothers at Junior High parties. Not me, mind you - I sat in the dark at those parties and felt sorry for myself as visibly as possible.

The first rock'n'roll record I ever bought was "Runaround Sue" by Dion. But before that I was into Al Jolson. The Million-Dollar Movie ran the same film several times a week on Channel 9; we studied "Godzilla," my siblings and me, but "The Jolson Story" was for me and me alone. My father took me to Neil Thomas Lock and Key over on Chatsworth Street, where 50,000,000 Elvis Fans Can't Be Wrong was on display, and we ordered the albums. One by one I collected those Jolson records with the songs I loved from the movie: "Rock-a-Bye Your Baby," "Swanee," "Mammy." And "Avalon," and "Anniversary Waltz." And the strange and wonderful duet with Bing Crosby, "The Spaniard that Blighted My Life." I sometimes amused certain older relatives and family friends by lip-synching those records.

Years later I interview David Lee Roth and discovered that Jolson was his first influence, too. He moved on to Louis Prima; I was waylaid by the Beatles.

There were no jazz albums in my parents' collection for me to listen to on the sly; my older brother wasn't that much older, and he was trapped in the same cultural matrix I was, in the textbook suburb of Northridge, California, fed by television and AM radio and innocent of nonwhite culture except for the regular appearance of our cleaning lady, Aileen. Once we went to her church for an evening celebration. I remember a song title "I've Been Buked," and there was a guy singing there who looked a lot like Chubby Checker and never stopped grinning. I don't think I felt safe enough to take it in on its own terms. I don't think I felt safe enough anywhere in the world, really. For as vivid as my memory is of these things, I don't have much of a sense of really having been there, as participant nor even as witness. Maybe I was too young to understand it and what I recall is all I can be expected to have gotten. But I keep getting this feeling that I missed out on a lot of important information because I didn't know to listen and look for it.

My older cousin Jimmy came to town in 1963 with some Union songs and Bob Dylan records, but I didn't catch on. With "I'm Happy Just to Dance With You" so dominating the foreground, politics and social unrest were not attractive subject matter - if I even got that far into comprehending.

Music was a given in my life, but it was a plain sort of music that offered no enlightenment. I learned some technique, and I had opportunities to play - I marched in the Reseda Junior Youth Band, but I did not become a raving Sousamaniac. I was offered no initiations, no glimpse of the mysteries. Neither parents nor peers nor teachers had any exotica to offer me. Aside from that one conversation with my father about the chills, and despite the fact that my grandmother was a concert violinist right there in LA, no one ever hipped me to the magic of it. And I did not discover that magic on my own.

I played in school orchetras and marching bands, and in rock'n'roll bands from the early '70s on - but I never experienced the collective glow, the locked-in selflessness, of ensemble playing until I was well into my 30s. At Alfred B. Nobel Junior High School, the band instructor was an irritable gent named Lish who sat on a high stool and picked his nose during rehearsals. In high school it was John Rando, who seemed to love music in some contexts but (for whatever reason) couldn't transmit that to me. I may have stolen a clarinet mouthpiece from him. I remember a controversy, but I don't recall the details. Our family was always out of cash, so it's possible I was thrust into a deliberate misunderstanding over reimbursement.

There was a general lack of empathy in my character, I fear; no generosity of spirit until much later. I was a thief and a fink and a peeping Tom, and I had few boundaries. I wouldn't know how to channel the music until my ego got out of the way, and that took a very long time. I was well into adulthood before I began to know what it meant, and it's only in the last few years that I've really been able to stand aside and let the music play me.

At no point in my young life did I have a musical mentor. No one showed me jazz or the classics. I was a white rock consumer all the way, until I finally began to trace some threads back from the synthesists to their inspirations.

In 1976 I hooked up with some players who loved Commander Cody and His Lost Planet Airmen (quite possibly the best band I have ever seen) as well as the Grateful Dead, and so I began to study country music an d Western Swing. Not a disciplined, structured appreciation, mind you, but at least I started putting the pieces together.