30 November 2007

Music In The Night

Can you guess which one is me? Of course you can; I'm the starry-eyed one. Well, the more starry-eyed one. This is my brother, myself, and another friend, taken on Sproul Plaza, probably in 1972.

And it has absolutely nothing to do with what I was going to write about tonight. When I resolved to go back to (or begin) writing in this blog every day if possible, I made a separate resolution to spend at least 20 minutes or half an hour every day playing music of some kind.

When I was marooned up on Spy Rock in the mid-80s, one of the ways I whiled away the hours was playing the piano. When I was growing up back in Detroit, we had a piano in the basement; it was ancient, cheap, and execrably out of tune, but from the time I started banging on as a 5 year old, it had an almost magical resonance for me. As has pretty much every piano I've encountered since.

But only occasionally in the years since I left home have I been lucky enough to live with one. Spy Rock was the exception: a piano came with the house, and pushed up against an inner wall, it seemed to use the entire house - itself a study in pine and redwood - as its sounding board. I hadn't played regularly since I was a teenager, but the rudimentary knowledge I'd gained of the notes and scales back then was enough to get me started picking my way through the several books of sheet music I'd accumulated.

Most of them were "fake" books, giving only the melody line and a diagram of the accompanying guitar chord. Hunched over the piano with the neck of my guitar lying across my lap, I would transpose the guitar notes onto the piano keyboard and try to turn them into an arpeggio-like accompaniment. Some days I'd be at it for 12 hours at a time, operating by candlelight when the solar-powered batteries ran low. It was maddeningly slow and painstaking work, the musical equivalent of double-entry bookkeeping, but gradually I began to be able to play some recognizable tunes. Erm, recognizable to someone apart from myself, that is.

After about a year of this, I was almost good enough to play an occasional gig at the Mad Creek Inn, a 1920s roadhouse turned hippie restaurant nestled in the redwoods just off Highway 101. The owner, widely known as Mad Mary, would bustle amid the candlelit tables in her floor-length dresses while I noodled away at the keys, half the time just plain making stuff up à la the New Age mood music that was coming into style at the time, then swinging into a bit of Neil Young or the Beatles, and, when I really wanted to get fancy, the four or five Cole Porter tunes I'd (sort of) mastered.

I don't know if the customers were all stoned to the point of non-discernment (I'm sure quite a few were), or if they were just too polite to complain, but some of them actually seemed to like my playing, and even started dropping bills in my tip basket to show their appreciation. One of them, literally the first dollar I ever earned playing music, hung on the wall above my piano up on Spy Rock for almost the next 20 years (I think I eventually spent it on a newspaper or something like that).

After leaving Spy Rock, I never again lived in a place where it was possible to have a full-fledged piano. That's not completely true; I could have squeezed one into my London apartment, but I was worried about the neighbors complaining. I had a digital (electric) piano stored back in the States, but decided it was too expensive to ship over, instead spending ten years dithering over whether to rent an acoustic or buy an electric piano and ultimately doing neither. Meanwhile, my painfully acquired piano playing skills, such as they were, slowly wasted away.

Now that I'm finally reunited with my digital piano and have worked out a time when the downstairs neighbors aren't home to be bothered by it, I'm slowly getting back into it. Sadly, I have to relearn most of what I taught myself in the 80s, the main differences being that my brain works more slowly now and that I have to wear glasses to read the notes (those years of playing by candlelight appear to have taken their toll.

Another difference is that I literally have to make myself sit down and play. In the old days, I would just naturally gravitate to the piano, often without even being aware of it. Once I start playing, it's fine, and sometimes I end up having to tear myself away for the sake of other responsibilities (blogging, for example). But it's sometimes hard getting started.

Tonight I practiced my rendition of "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas," which with a bit of work should be ready by Christmas Eve, then gave a quick go-round to "Silent Night," which is literally the first song I ever learned to play, at age 9, and then gave a doleful rendering to the Potatomen's "Iceland." The latter two I can play blindfolded and in my sleep (making about the same number of mistakes as when I'm wide-eyed and wide awake), but "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas" is in a different key and employs different chords from those I've used in the past, so learning it is rather like the old days, minus the candlelight.

But it's nice. Heals the soul, and all that, and gives me something to write about as well. Tomorrow I've got a date with my niece Gabrielle Bell and our mutual friend Flat Sally. Gabrielle's just back from Japan, where she's been for the past two months, filming an adaptation of a graphic short story (well, "comic" doesn't sound dignified enough) about a girl who turns into a chair. Her collaborator, Michel Gondry, co-wrote the screenplay with her and also directed. The film is part of a trilogy called Tokyo, also featuring contributions from Bong Joon-ho and Leos Carax.

Oh, and Flat Sally? Well, according to her press kit, Sally is flat because "a bulletin board fell on her." She belongs to my 6 year old niece Carmen, and has apparently made it her life's work to be photographed in as many exotic locations as possible before journeying back to California to live out the rest of her days on the wall of Carmen's first grade classroom.

She's already been snapped all over Tokyo, Zurich and the Swiss Alps, and a Mexican restaurant in Greenpoint. Tomorrow night we're taking here to see the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center and possibly the dinosaur at the Times Square Toys'R'Us. Who says I don't lead an exciting life?

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