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November 23, 2018

Updated: Apr 16, 2021

Piano playing. Guitar strumming. Songwriting. I’ve been doing these things my whole life, but after every extended absence, it always feels as if I’m starting from ground zero. Why is this? You’d think at this point in my - ahem - advanced stage I’d have become a bit of an expert in each area. But after hashing out a version of “I’ll Cry Instead” by the Beatles and then going on a solitary jam session for the next hour or so on my Yamaha electric piano, there is no denying the obvious: months away at Martha’s Vineyard never magically transforms me into an elite piano player. If anything, I sometimes wonder if too much sun somehow reduces my thumb as the only digit left with any kind of musical muscle-memory at all…

I was inspired to play the song after seeing the album cover for “Something New”, which was the first Beatles record I’d ever owned, posted online. I don’t think I’ve ever attempted this one before, which is strange to consider, as I was only six years old when I received such a fun Christmas present and have been constantly delving into their treasure trove for my own enjoyment ever since. And yes, I pulled it off almost instantly, but with more wrong notes cluttering up the path than such a simple song should have induced. Shouldn’t I, after all this time, be able to play something like “I’ll Cry Instead” perfectly on the very first try? There is part of me CERTAIN that this should be the case.

But it isn’t. And I’m trying to come to terms with why.

As a youngster, I studied the saxophone and took lessons right up until high school. But I never took a lesson for the piano, and maybe only three or four for guitar. I couldn’t - and still can’t - read music for what are now my primary instruments. I was always slightly proud of this fact, I’ll admit, but the seeds to a limited growth-potential were sown early. And the main problem, especially from my mother’s perspective, was I never attempted to play the melody line. She’d never hear from her vantage point in the upstairs kitchen the singing I’d be accompanying my piano-banging with, and therefore had to make peace with endless repetitions of the same three or four chords most of the songs required. (And I now realize how Rock and Roll must have been such an irritation to the classical players in those early days for the same reason.)

But I always considered myself more of a writer than an instrumentalist anyway, so if rehearsals consisted of countless renditions of “Mr. Blue Sky” in lieu of chromatic scales, what did I care? Females my own age, I found out early on, were more impressed with ELO anyway.

But even that song would see its fair share of wrong notes with every attempt.

Looking back, I’d say my musical journey with bandmates in college was tempered a bit due to the fact we were able to record our performances. Those thin cassettes probably made us sound even worse than we truly were, but some truths became clear: harmonies would only occasionally be right, the guitars only sometimes in tune, and lead vocals, well - I could put on a specific cassette right now and cringe all over again. But I never stopped thinking I could improve, and there was no question I had to find a way to continue singing, if only to make demos of the songs I’d occasionally compose. And I became better and better - tho never great. Certainly never competent enough to consider myself a “Professional Musician”, an instrumentalist capable of avoiding mistakes.

As luck would have it, I met a couple of musicians in the years to come whose main job was to NEVER hit wrong notes. One of them, by the name of Mike Rathke, had been playing alongside Lou Reed since the “New York” album. He once modestly told me his main musical obligation for such a famous writer/musician was to constantly reinvent the way to play the D chord. I confessed to him that I was a bit of a writer/musician myself, but could never be a “professional” because I would always, at some point or another, hit a wrong note on whichever instrument I was playing. He then boldly declared that he hit wrong notes on every performance he ever gave. Which was so nice of him to say. But I saw one of their performances one night in a small NYC club - he also VERY KINDLY was the one who gave me the tickets! - and I have to say, I didn’t hear a single wrong note. Although Lou Reed remained a rather unremarkable vocalist, in my view. GREAT artist, though…

The other musician’s name was Mark Stewart. He used to come in the early afternoons at a bar I was tending called “Marshall Stack”. He’d always have a guitar strapped to his back and would mostly keep to himself. But one day there happened to be some kind of documentary on Steely Dan on our small TV and he was absolutely transfixed; he kept remarking how rare it is to hear either Donald Fagen or Walter Becker talk so freely and openly. I finally noted how he appeared to be a bit of a musician himself and inquired whether he’d found a way to somehow make a living that way. He nodded his head and replied, with little fanfare, “Well - for the past twelve years I’ve been the main guitarist for Paul Simon.” I nodded in return and tried not to over-emote my complete amazement. “That sounds like a good job…” is how I likely replied.

We became friends as well, and he was every bit as modest as Lou Reed’s guitarist had been. Mistakes come along with the territory, he’d tell me, but sure - you’d better not blow that crucial chord when the time comes. He once walked into the bar and said, “You know, Michael, I just came back from a sound check at Madison Square Garden for tomorrow’s Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Show… We were playing “Here Comes the Sun”, and I was singing this incredible four-part harmony with Paul Simon, David Crosby and Graham Nash…” He gazed off while happily revisioning this new milestone he’d just been blessed with. “That happened right now, right before taking a cab here to the Lower East Side?” I asked, to which he nodded his head yes. I sighed. “You really have a great life,” I pointed out. Needlessly, I’m sure.

But you know what? His was probably the weak link in that four-piece harmony. And I’m unaware if he’s ever written songs that are lyrically as strong as some of mine… Of course, I could easily be shown how much of a misconception I might now be making, seeing as I never checked out his side projects too intently. And I didn’t hear a single wrong note when I heard him in concert either, when Paul Simon’s band shared the stage with Sting’s band for another Madison Square Garden extravaganza. (That ticket I had to purchase myself…) It’s a shame I was already working somewhere else when I finally learned how to use GarageBand and made those 73 demos, which consisted of all the songs I’d written while living in NYC. I have a feeling both Mike and Mark would have found something to enjoy. “My Yoga Teacher”, perhaps?

So, for me, unattainable musical perfection is not the worst predicament I can think of. A few of those wrong notes probably helped musically inspire some of my better songs. And a main lesson learned during last year’s journey in reading “Infinite Jest” - twice! - centered around the concept of “plateaus”; gifted people often will balk when something suddenly doesn’t come easy to them, unable to confront the hard effort required to rise to the next plateau. So I’ve been recently trying to heed my mother’s advice and insert a bit of the melody into my piano-playing. Which takes, for me, a still-untrained musician, a good deal of trial-and-error. And mistakes, yet again. But maybe she was right all along, though for unintended reasons; I find I’m becoming a better singer when I play the melody at the same time. Which hearkens me back to even earlier days, sitting on a bench with my organ-playing father in our living room. He’d have sheet music, like a true musician, his left hand producing the chords and his right hand always playing the melody, and I’d sing along. I was too small and young to even think about one day picking up and learning to play his second instrument - the saxophone! But with his encouragement, I one day would. He even gifted me with something I’m not even sure he ever received himself: lessons!

Oh, and come to think of it, there is a chord change in “I’ll Cry Instead” that I would NEVER have figured out years ago; my ears simply wouldn’t have understood what was going on. But I got it on almost the first try today.

So maybe, with a bit of melody now in my repertoire, I’m finally getting better.

Just not perfect.


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