Music had always created a yearning in me. When I went to grade school, music and art were taught right along side of reading, writing and ‘rithmatic. Like some kind of throwback to the Victorian age in which a person had to be well rounded, no one doubted that music and art were valuable pursuits.
I found out in the fourth grade that I had the option of learning an instrument. I don’t remember if it was through a handout that was sent home with me, or if it was announced in class.
“Do you want to play an instrument?” asked my mom. When I said I did, my parents took me to a small music store where I had my choice: flute, clarinet, saxophone.
“I want to play saxophone.” I don’t even remember why. Whether it was the color or the shape. Seriously, I doubt I knew what it sounded like.
My mom said, “The saxophone is a boy’s instrument. You should play clarinet.” Of course I believed her. So the clarinet it was.
And with a small group of kids in the basement of Seiberling Elementary School, I learned to read music and play clarinet. I carried that thing to school once or twice a week, and for a little 7-year-old, it felt pretty heavy, in its hard plastic case. It felt like my arm was going to fall off by the time I got to school.
At night, I practiced a lot in my room, the music on a stand my janitor grandpa had nicked from the high school he worked at. I didn’t clean the clarinet’s innards as often as I should, and I didn’t change the reed until it was bitten and ragged at the top. Musical instruments didn’t come with instructions, and there was no one to guide me. My parents weren’t musicians. Disgusting yellow sludge grew on the inside, and became crusty until even I became disgusted and bothered to wash it. It’s a wonder I didn’t contract some awful bacterial disease – but in fact, it probably helped me build up my resistance.
At ages 8 through 10, I doubt if I was very good. But I did enjoy playing it. And I learned how not to make it squeak. And I was able to play with thicker reeds as I got better at it, and my mouth and lungs grew stronger and I developed more control.
The songs were easy concert pieces like “Clair de Lune” and “Londonderry Air.”
But what I really wanted to play was rock and roll.
I wish I had the first song I ever wrote. It was called “Bum, bum, My Baby” which was the first two lines in the chorus. It also had a few verses, and I had worked out the melody on the clarinet. I can still vaguely hear that repeated line in my head. “Bum, bum, my baby. Bum, bum, my baby.”
The tragedy, of course, is that I couldn’t play it on the clarinet and sing it at the same time. So I attempted to enlist my neighbor Debbie to do the vocals.
Debbie was a year older than me, and the coolest girl on the block, for a sixth grader. She was the new girl at school who became popular very fast, because she wore great clothes, was a band majorette, and had a bedroom that was entirely done up in black and white, with a shaggy black bedspread that felt good to lay on. Besides that, she smoked cigarettes, and you couldn’t get cooler than that.
Debbie was game to try singing my song with me accompanying her on the clarinet, but the effort didn’t last very long. It just sounded goofy. Clarinets weren’t really made for rock and roll – although punk priestess Patti Smith proved that assumption wrong in 1979.
If only I had been allowed to play sax.