Those were the days of Hippie movement and flower children. While life and living seemed gloomy, music was the much needed panacea. Here’s a personal account how of music saved the life of the author.
The mattress was firm and so high off the floor, it could only have belonged to a hospital bed. Groggy, I barely hear an insistent voice ask, “Who should I call?”
Like steel filaments stretched impossibly high over the neck of a guitar, my life’s instrument was as impossible to play as that old Stella guitar that made my fingers bleed. The top of my head throbbed and I reached up to touch the bandage. “Ten stitches in your scalp,” the nurse said.
The past bounced around in my head, competing with the dismal present. I heard the strong Bronx accent of my music teacher saying, “You’d be better off picking out melodies, one note at a time, until you get something decent to play on.” At the age of ten, I had learned to read music, note by note, something I would never have achieved through strumming chords with careless abandon. My first hint that pain and hardship might hold a gem within.
But tonight’s jewel was more elusive. I’d hitched a ride on a motorcycle in the rain, heading to a rock concert in Golden Gate Park. Five seconds later, a traffic light turned red. The bike kept going, stopping time instead.
“Is he okay?” I ask, when the nurse returns with a food tray.
“The guy I was riding with.”
“I think so. You’re the only one they brought in.”
At thirteen, I’d come home from school to find that my older brother had hocked my instrument of musical torture.
When he was flush again, he bought me a used Mexican guitar, with soft nylon strings and a warm sound. I discovered I could play much better than I’d thought, set a poem by William Blake to music, sang Infant Sorrow in my high reedy voice.
“What time is it?”
“Its 2am – you were unconscious for a few hours. We’ll keep you overnight but then we’ll have to send you home.”
Home. There was that word everyone used so casually. Still, the going back part sounded good. I’d been given a second chance. Such is the luck of fools!
“How old are you?” she asked.
“Good. You can sign the release papers on your own.”
No one at that hospital asked me for a dime or where to send the bill. They took no x-rays either, simply told me to see a doctor if I still felt dizzy in a week’s time. My thinking was fuzzy and I couldn’t remember the name of the band I’d been so anxious to hear.
I bought a rundown vehicle for two hundred bucks – one that might get me across the country if I stopped every 300 miles to top up the oil. I offered free rides going east to some folks I barely knew, in return for chipping in for gas.
Back in New York, I slept on the floor of a friend’s tiny one-room apartment on St. Marks Place. She was glad to know I was okay and wisely kept her questions to a minimum.
Someone invited me to a party on the Upper East Side. They had an extra guitar and I sang something I’d written.
This guy came over. From the way he listened I could tell he was more interested in the music than in me. I liked that.
Benjamin took me home to an apartment on West End Avenue that he shared with several roommates. Billy, who sang opera professionally, had the air of a peacock. There was a psych major named Alex and a genius piano player nicknamed Pot – not as I thought after the weed he smoked but in honor-of all the pots and pans he’d washed during summer jobs at a hotel in the Catskills.
I felt I’d wandered onto the movie set of a musical comedy, the giant kitchen capable of feeding hundreds of extras, the living room providing an ever-changing sound track of songs written by Benjamin and Pot. The dialog was improvised – humor being the preferred genre – with the occasional dramatic turn when girlfriends departed or gigs became scarce.
One day, I sat on the piano bench next to Pot, his red hair flowing down his back as he played. My voice came out of hiding. My imagination took flight, composing melody and lyrics with no inhibition, and we soared together into creative space. I had found a home I never wanted to leave.
No one asked me for rent money but I wanted to contribute. I walked over to Central Park and found a spot in the Meadow where the sun shone bright on the velveteen interior of my guitar case, inviting quarters and the occasional dollar bill. I was on my way.
Photo Credit: Net