Sunday, March 18, 2018

The Muse and Me

On a personal note, one would think, as a writer, that my muse would be Hemingway or Steinbeck, and in a way, particularly with Steinbeck, these are the writers who sparked my interest in prose, but it has always been music that proves the muse. I play no instrument. I own a guitar and I've picked it up seven or eight times over the years, then I realize that we're out of milk and I have to go to the A&P. On my way there, and I take the long way, it's Lord Huron or Neil Young or Talking Heads on Spotify. 

I remember my stepfather picking up his old Gretsch, strumming a few chords and then playing a familiar riff. I have no idea what it was, and I don't suppose, particularly with his passing, that I ever will, but it's stuck with me, it pervades my senses. I hear it in my mind, but then instantly instead, a more familiar, though similar, riff overtakes my senses. My stepfather's arpeggio mimicked the picking in Led Zeppelin's beautiful "The Rain Song." And for the rest of the day, indeed right now, it will play in my mind, beautiful sticky music.

Unlike Keith Richards whose exposure to music was limited based on the two London radio stations and his mother's whims, music pervaded our home. Despite a contentious, on-again, off-again relationship between my parents, when the fighting ceased, there was music. My father had bought my mother a fine Magnavox console stereo, a beast in the guise of Mediterranean furniture, and leaning against it were Bobby Vinton's Greatest Hits and Johnny Mathis and Frank Sinatra's Come Fly With Me. Because I was such a great fan of Bobby Vinton when I was four, I got Saturday Night Is the Loneliest Night of the Week for Christmas in 1965 and an LP of rock nursery rhymes; the only one I remember is "Old King Cole." My older brother's music was in the form of 45s: "What's New, Pussycat?" and The Outsider's "Time Won't Let Me." Those of you who have read the snippets of my novel Jay and the Americans are aware of my love for The Beach Boys' "In My Room," the B side to "Be True to Your School." I was four years old, but the music was pervasive.

I'd spend one day per week at my father's apartment, a cool 60s bachelor pad in Van Nuys. He listened to lounge music, the soft sounds of KOST FM, Burt Bacharach and Anne Murray, and he'd sing "Snowbird" in a bassy monotone. On our week together one summer he took me to Arizona, to Sedona, the Grand Canyon and Monument Valley. In the car, they were always playing The Doors' "Riders on the Storm." It's my Arizona song.

My mother was a singer and would sing along, beautifully, to everything. Her favorite, though, was Barbra Streisand's "People." She would sing in in the car when it came on the radio, or sing it to herself in the Thriftimart. I know all the lyrics.

For me, though, the most influential of songs, a song that taught me rhyme and speculation and emotion, was Richard Harris's "McArthur Park," the Jimmy Webb classic about God-knows-what. My father liked that one, as well. I'll never forget, some ten years later, his hearing the Donna Summer version. "What the hell is that," he said.