In The Beginning…
“Hello, my flowers…”
I’m pretty sure that Peter Green from the original Fleetwood Mac had a column at one time in a London paper that began with that greeting each time. I remember sitting on a bench in Saratoga Springs, NY on the first weekend of college, voraciously reading Mick Fleetwood’s autobiography. That’s where I learned about Peter Green.
That day the leaves were still green, the flower boxes still full of color in the windows of the old red brick buildings downtown. I can still feel that incredibly fresh Adirondack air in my lungs. I was aching with homesickness and shyness, madly in love with music and crushed out on a junior in one of my theater classes. Her dad was a well known Broadway, film and TV actor. He saw me act in a couple of Harold Pinter one act plays that fall. He said I had talent and that he’d love to direct me. I was beyond flattered. That didn’t get me far with his daughter. I got a little drunk at someone’s party and then called her from my dorm room. I got her answering machine (anybody remember those?) and left her a message. I said “You’re really beautiful”. That really beautiful young woman shared that answering machine with a bunch of her upperclassmen housemates. They all had a good laugh at my expense about that message. I tried to console myself with my cheap Yamaha guitar, writing my first few corny confessional compositions.
That semester I would take the bus into town to play some of those early heartfelt warblers at the open mic night of a storied folk venue on Phila Street called Caffe Lena. I remember struggling to control the violent trembling of my hands as I got on stage that first time. There was a local guy who played folk songs on the banjo regularly at those open mics. He told banjo player jokes in his act. I remember one of them:
Q: What’s the difference between a banjo player dead on the side of the road and a snake dead on the side of the road?
A: The snake was on his way to a gig.
There were a lot of gigs going down all around me in Saratoga, right from the day I arrived. I saw a Saratoga band called the Figgs play on the quad on the first day of school. I became a big fan. A few years later, when I started playing around Greenwich Village, the Figgs were a big act on the scene. They could fill the rooms I could only half fill with my band. I bought all of their records and probably saw them live 20 times. I was on the bill with them at least once a few years back in New Haven, CT and their bass player Pete Donnelly has produced the best among my friend Carsie Blanton’s wonderful albums.
Also on the first day of school, the college gave a barbecue for new students with a bluegrass band playing. Only two of us showed up. The other kid was named Garrett. We started talking about how good the bluegrass act was. It turned out that he was a blues guitar player and singer from Philadelphia. He lived in the same dorm building as I did, in a room with a keyboard player named Jeremy. I hung out there all the time, learning guitar chords, jamming and talking about music, trying to pick up girls. Garrett left school at the end of that year and soon became G Love. His trio Special Sauce fused blues with rap, got signed to Epic records and formed a huge following all over the world.
Somewhere on that first day of school, between that Figgs set and the under-attended bluegrass barbecue I ran into my friend Ruth Levy. I knew Ruth from home. She had dated one of my best friends. She was a smart kid and a classical music prodigy. I had seen her play a Brahms sonata that had gotten me all choked up. Ruth had a nobody’s fool vibe about her. I was a little intimidated by her. She told me she had been a little intimidated by me in High School. I couldn’t believe it. She was kind to me that day and a familiar face far from home. As I remember it, we wandered into the field house or one of the conservatory buildings into a big empty room where there was a piano. I was just learning to play guitar at the time. Maybe I knew 5 chords. I had played drums in a rock band in high school but I’d never studied any formal music at all. I asked Ruth to explain to me how the piano worked. She showed me the middle C and the major scale. She showed me the sharp and flat notes. She showed me the major chords and then how to make a major chord minor. She thought it was kind of funny how amazed I was by that stuff. I remember her smiling. It was one of the biggest watershed moments of music learning in my life. Thanks Ruth! It’s probably been 20 years since I’ve seen Ruth. For a while I used to catch her playing her own original music around upper Manhattan. I think she’s a rather successful vocal coach and music teacher now. Not a surprise, as she was such patient, non-judgmental teacher to me so many years ago.
By that summer I was playing guitar behind a soul singer, picking up lunch for the composer Jule Styne as his gofer on a broadway show in development, working nights as a bellboy in an old hotel and learning everything I could about Spanish language, world literature and music theory, taking library books back to my apartment in a 19th Century building with a glass elevator. I left Saratoga and the theater for good a few months later but not without seeing the New York City Ballet perform the Stravinsky / Balanchine ballets, following G Love to his early gigs, acting Mamet and Pirandello and getting my mind blown by a music and dance troupe from Ghana called Odata. I headed for the big city, ready to take over the world, thinking I had been wasting my time up there in that little town.
…Oh to be young and stupid…