G: A standard opener for me: what were you reading, listening to, and watching growing up? What is your first memory of music?
JS: Wow. That’s a pretty comprehensive question. I’ll try my best to be thorough, without becoming tedious, but there’s a lot of stuff that comes to mind.
Aside from the books that were given us to read in school – Dick And Jane and others of that ilk – there were always loads of books and magazines, as well as newspapers, at home. Mom, God bless her, pretty much taught me to read before I went to kindergarten. As a result, I was always the best reader in my class throughout the time I was in school.
(As an aside, I was a painfully shy kid. I was actually ashamed of how well I could read when compared to the other kids in school. When I was asked to get up and read in front of the class – as everyone was, on a semi-regular basis – I didn’t want to appear to be showing off. I didn’t want the other kids to be mad at me, or be embarrassed by comparison. So, I would sometimes purposely read worse than I was capable of doing. I’d stumble on an occasional word just to appear normal. That sounds amazingly stupid, but it’s the truth.
As you know, I do voice-overs and commercial production for my main buck. So, thanks for the head start, mom! I’m still the best reader I know. Maybe the second-best. There’s this talent I work with named Ray Childs who amazes me. But, some of the voice talents I work with… I’m amazed that they ever got it into their heads to become professional readers in the first place. I’d be ashamed to take the money if I read as badly as they do. But, having said that, some of them are making the big bucks and I’m pretty much a lifetime minor leaguer, so technical ability isn’t everything. As in music, sometimes timbre and emotion are more important than hitting every note as written on the first take.)
Sorry. That was a long digression. I’ll try to give you a somewhat concise answer now.
As a child, my favorite thing to read was an encyclopedia that my grandfather gave me. It was called The Golden Book Encyclopedia and I still have all 16 volumes of it. As a matter of fact, I’ll occasionally pull one of the volumes out and read it a bit before bed. It’s an exercise in trying to recapture some of the feeling from my childhood now, but back then it was a fantastic learning tool. I’d recommend about 97% of it to anyone with kids, even today. I don’t say 100% because it has a few things in it that might be considered racist in the current light, but the intended audience was little white kids like me, back in the 50’s and 60’s, and the authors truly didn’t expect anyone who might be offended to have reason to pick it up and become so.
Aside from that set of books, my favorite author was (and is) Mark Twain. I was a voracious Twain reader as a pre-teen and as a teenager. I currently own 30 or so different volumes of his work, and I’ve read at least another 10 from the library, probably more. I’ve read most of them more than once. The first Twain I ever read was Tom Sawyer and I still think it’s his best book, better than Huckleberry Finn. Huck has great moral dilemmas, and that’s why it gets the praise it does – deservedly so – but Tom is more realistic. Tom is also funnier.
Funny is where it’s at for me. Part of the question was what I watched growing up. Sitcoms. Loads of sitcoms. Car 54, Where Are You? Leave It To Beaver. Sgt. Bilko. Dick Van Dyke. I Love Lucy. The Honeymooners. The Beverly Hillbillies. Gilligan’s Island. The Addams Family. And a hundred more. F Troop. The Life Of Riley. Burns And Allen. Jack Benny. All of those shows are dear old friends of mine.
Above any of those, though? The Three Stooges. I’ve seen each of the Three Stooges short subjects a minimum of twenty times each. It’s probably closer to fifty, but I want to appear at least slightly sane, so I said twenty. Adored them growing up, still do.
I love just about any comedy team. The Marx Brothers are fantastic, even Zeppo. Laurel & Hardy are beautiful souls. I have a fondness for Wheeler & Woolsey that not too many folks share these days. The Ritz Brothers deserved more fame than they got. But The Stooges are the guys I go to when I absolutely, positively have to have a laugh. They have never failed me.
(I think a love of The Stooges goes psychologically hand-in-hand with a love for hard rock and metal. They’re both primarily guy things. But, maybe more about that later.)
Now, as for what I was listening to growing up, it wasn’t rock. My Mom loved Wayne Newton, Mike Douglas, Vic Damone, and other singers of that sort. My Dad loved jazz, but he also loved musicals. He also liked some classical now and again. So, that’s what was played around the house. I’d get a mélange of “Red Roses For A Blue Lady” “Fugue For Tinhorns” “Officer Krupke”, and then some Stan Getz or Maynard Ferguson, possibly with a little Tchaikovsky thrown in, maybe “Pathetique”, and then back to some J.J. Johnson. It was a fairly well-rounded listening experience, excluding the lack of rock.
I had little use for rock when I was a kid. I liked comedy, even in my music. My Dad was a big Tom Lehrer fan, and so was I. I memorized his songs. I was the weird kid going around singing Poisoning Pigeons In The Park while everyone else was singing stuff by The Byrds.
Geez. That’s just the first question. If this turns out to be a book, I’ll give you 5% of the royalties.
My first memory of music would be television related, but I’m afraid nothing specific comes to mind. It would have likely come from cartoons – Huckleberry Hound, Yogi Bear, or maybe “The Merry-Go-Round Broke Down” from the Warner Brothers stuff. Popeye The Sailor, maybe. I recall singing the theme song to “Car 54, Where Are You?” while I was in my bedroom, maybe three or four years old. Must have driven my parents nuts.
I had a jack-in-the-box and a musical spinning top. I think they both played “Pop Goes The Weasel!” Of course, from watching The Three Stooges, I knew there was power in that song.
Oh, wow! I just remembered that I had this toy that was supposed to resemble a radio. You turned the “dial” and it played Ten Little Indians. Huh. Does any kid learn that song anymore? Probably not. I think it’s been consigned to the historical junkpile along with Little Black Sambo.
G: What made you like rock and metal over other music? Why did it resonate with you?
JS: This is an easy question. It was the power and the speed, both of which are intoxicating substances to most teenage boys.
The first song that I really cared about, that I heard on the radio and wanted to buy the record, was “Highway Star” by Deep Purple. I was 14. Until that time, I liked music as much as the next guy, but I could take it or leave it. As I mentioned earlier, I had grown up with Broadway show tunes and American standards as background sounds. I wasn’t entirely ignorant of rock and roll, but if I liked a song from the genre, it was because of a catchy melody or humorous lyric. When I heard Highway Star my brain did a backflip. If you’ll excuse the vulgar allusion, it was like a person who understood in the abstract about sex, but had only had kisses on the cheek from his aunts so far. All of a sudden, there I was in the middle of fucking a beautiful girl and saying, “Damn! Where have they been keeping THIS stuff?”
Now, I have to sidetrack into a political rant here. Sorry! The biggest reason why that song kicked my ass was marijuana.
Until I smoked pot, there was a synapse or two either misfiring or entirely disconnected inside of my head. THC bridged the gap or flicked the switch or whatever other useful visual you prefer. It was, on a much smaller scale, like a deaf man being able to hear for the first time. Music was pleasant before grass. After getting high, it was something that I could reach out and touch (and that also reached out and touched me.)
Some people are able to experience various sensual things without aid of chemical enhancements. Some people aren’t. That’s just the way we’re built, as human beings. We’re not all the same. Someone with a mental disorder such as depression has a chemical imbalance that won’t allow him or her to function on the same level as other happier people. So, he or she is given a prescription (or three or four) for drugs that we hope will raise that person’s level of happiness to what is considered normal. I was lucky enough to have an opportunity to use an illegal drug that made my appreciation of music at least comparable to someone who naturally enjoyed the hell out of music.
I hope that makes sense, and doesn’t come off as some sort of stoned bullshit. It truly was that dramatic for me. It turned my life around not only musically, but also politically. I now understood that not everything the government was telling me was the truth. If they lied about marijuana – which was, and is, a relatively harmless drug – then what else were they trying to bullshit me on?
OK, enough of that. I heard Highway Star and it spoke to something deep inside of my soul, something I didn’t realize I even had there before. And, whatever that something was, Highway Star dragged it to the surface. I became a Deep Purple fanatic, and remain one to this day. I was smart enough to figure out that if Deep Purple made music like this, maybe there were others, too. So, in quick succession, I “discovered” Black Sabbath, Alice Cooper, Led Zeppelin, Grand Funk, and a host of other equally unattractive and anti-social noisemakers. I’ve since discovered (actually, I found out fairly early on) that I had been lucky enough to discover the most talented of the bunch first. Deep Purple could play, whereas many of the others whose records I bought really weren’t what you’d call great musicians.
Just an aside, to finish up this question: Playing well is not a prerequisite to making a great record. Sometimes it’s a hindrance, as a matter of fact. Four classically trained musicians with perfect pitch wouldn’t have made “War Pigs”, that’s for damn sure. But, Black Sabbath did, and what an amazingly powerful song with perfect moments it is!
G: Tell me a little about the first instrument: what and why?
JS: The first instrument I ever took lessons on was a thing called a Flutiphone. It’s so little known, that Word just asked me if that was a mistake! The Flutiphone was basically a recorder, a wooden flute with a bell on the end like a clarinet. It wasn’t a reed instrument, but just straight blowing into the mouthpiece. The fingering was simple do-re-mi stuff.
The reason I learned a few songs on the Flutiphone was because I went to the Boston Public Schools. Every single third grade student in the city of Boston, during the 1960’s, had to take Flutiphone lessons. I’m not kidding. They really, truly did. All the parents were shook down for the price of buying one – maybe it was two bucks – and once every week, the entire third grade class of every school in the city was taught such enduring classics as “Mary Had A Little Lamb” and “Goodnight, Ladies!”
(Funny thing – I’m trying to recall whether they taught us to finger left hand near the mouthpiece or vice-versa, but I have no idea. My natural inclination these days is to pick up a woodwind and use my left near the mouthpiece, so I suspect that’s what they taught on the Flutiphone. I don’t know if that’s considered “correct” or not.)
Well, the Flutiphone didn’t make much of an impression on me. I suppose it was somewhat useful as a social experiment. I’d like to see if more working musicians came out of the Boston Public School System than others of comparable size, or if the music lessons somehow made us more likely to avoid reform school. I doubt it. I think it probably gave more kids a fear of music than a love of it. It made music a competitive undertaking, subject to peer pressure, grading, parental stress, financial stress (if you had really poor parents, which a few of us did) and performance anxiety. I think it’s almost always better to let a kid pick up an instrument and enjoy it (or not) on his own, than to tell him he has to play one.
G: I remember reading you’d bought a bass guitar for $10 that you had a tough time learning with. What do you remember being both positive and negative learning experiences because of that bass?
JS: Yes, $10. Worth every penny of it, too.
Negative: That instrument was strung with something resembling cable. I think the strings were rusty when I bought it – honest. And they were probably tuned to something like F# or even G. The tension was brutal.
Positive: All the same stuff as the negative. Since I didn’t know any better, I just plugged away at that beast, day and night, until my fingers literally bled. Over the course of six months battle with that nasty axe, I became one hell of a lot more accomplished than I would have on a more gentle guitar. When I finally got my hands on a REAL bass, I was amazed at how easy it was. I had tortured myself up to the level of a third or fourth year musician over the course of six brutal months. I built up calluses you could drive nails with.
An instrument like that will separate the poseurs from the kids who really love music and are willing to suffer to become good at it. Of course, if the kid isn’t ignorant, like I was, then he’ll know better and not get such a good education.
To Be Continued…