The other day, I was sitting and dreaming and cogitatin’ on how the different places I’ve lived each opened up new musical vistas for me. I’ve spent significant chunks of my life in Florida, New York, Los Angeles and, now, Tucson. And each area, from such different and spread apart corners of the country, has colored and influenced the music I tend to create. Every artist is a patchwork of countless moments, phrases and melodies that crossed their paths. So I feel like exploring my own web of influences a bit, starting with the town I spent my formative years, Jacksonville, FL.
I wasn’t born here. Actually I came into the world in Miami, Florida in the summer of 1968. But six months later, my father got a job and we moved from the bottom of the state to the top, northeast corner – south of Georgia and west of the Atlantic Ocean – where I lived until after I graduated college. And you might not know much about Jacksonville, but it’s an interesting place. It’s actually the largest city in the country by land size – that is to say, it doesn’t have the most people, but it’s freakin’ huge! Driving half an hour to get somewhere was like going just around the corner, compared to nowadays when I balk at having to drive more than 2 miles at a time. It sits at the intersection of I-10 and I-95, making it the crossroads to the north and west. Culturally, it’s much more Southern than, say South Florida, which is much more ethnically diverse. But Jacksonville still has many different cultural communities (Cuban, Arabic, Asian) that live alongside some very proud ‘rednecks’ who rub elbows with the golfers and business men. My immediate family straddled some lines with Mami, from Havana, and Daddy, a self-proclaimed ‘crimson nape’ (a redneck with a library card). We lived in a quiet, modest suburb called Arlington – stuck in between the beaches and the rest of town.
When it came to music, I was heavily influenced by Daddy, who married my mother when I was 5 and my brother was 3 and took us under his wing immediately. And Daddy is a folk singer. Oh, he was also a high school history teacher by day, but was, is and always will be a folk singer first. He taught himself to play guitar as a boy and continued honing his craft at hootenannies, college and jam sessions – absorbing the folk and folk rock sounds that permeated American culture back in the fifties and sixties.
He always claims he had no talent, just a lot of motivation. I would certainly argue his point about talent – he’s a natural born performer! But I won’t argue about his being motivated. In truth, he was (is) more like obsessed. The man eats, drinks, sleeps and breathes guitar still to this very day. Which is why he started trying to teach me to play guitar when I was around six.
Aww, there we are – with my first musical instrument in 1975. Such a trip seeing this pic I dug up! That’s my grandfather, grandmother, Mami, Daddy and brother, Dino. Um, and I’m the one holding the ukelele. Squinting into the sun and trying to smile real big!
But my fingers were little and it hurt and I had no idea what was going on, so we didn’t get very far. By the time I was 10, he tried again with a baritone ukelele. This time it took. And of course he taught me folks songs. Sure, my first tunes were common fare like Skip To My Lou – but he also taught me older, less widely known tunes like Fenario and Silver Dagger. They were traditional songs telling tragic tales of love and betrayal – where at least one person ends up dead by the end of the song.
But that didn’t worry me none. The chords were basic, the songs were simple enough to learn and before long I was performing at the little school talent shows. I kinda stood out while the other kids plunked out The Pretender on piano or did a little ballet routine. But it wouldn’t be the first time the other kids thought I was a bit strange. Daddy would collect 45s for my Fisher Price turntable and I’d listen to Joan Baez, Judy Collins, Bob Dylan, Peter Paul and Mary, my unrequited love, Eric Anderson, and all manner of be-jeaned college grads with long hair and no makeup. Old folk songs are so dramatic. It was the only entertainment most folks had before the days of electricity and radio and television. And if you think violence and sex dominate media now – folks songs remind you that humans have always seemed to have a taste for the bloody, the tragic and the racy. Still, when I listened to Joan or Judy sing sweetly about Katie Dear killing herself because her parents wouldn’t give their blessing to her marriage, I couldn’t help but sigh, dewy-eyed, at the crystal-clear beauty of their voices as they narrated those swoon-worthy tales.
I was also a child of the seventies, in Jacksonville, FL, who listened to the radio whenever we were in the car and during my formative years there was a healthy, heapin’ dose of Lynyrd Skynyrd. Oh man, you couldn’t go *anywhere* without hearing at least one Skynard tune on a jukebox or radio. It got so I was sick of hearing Free Bird, Sweet Home Alabama and even Simple Man by the time I hit high school (though, like many things, I can totally appreciate it now – gimme some good southern rock anytime). And it seems that every bit of AM rock that was ever broadcast from 1973 to 1979 while I rode in the back seat of the family Hyundai is tattooed into the gray matter of my brain – I would love to find an antidote to this because all of those lyrics are taking up some much needed space in there.
There were also the backyard jams. Used to be, when friends would gather for a BBQ or some other get-together, at least one person would whip out a guitar and people would sing along. And sometimes lots of us would just bring our guitars or other musical what-nots and then just play. Nothing professional or polished. Lots of missed chords and beats. But also lots and lots of fun. Do people do this anymore? Well I know it still happens at my parents’ house and Jamie and I encourage it at ours – but most people seem so afraid of just letting it fly – just having some simple favorite songs that their friends know and communing over potlucks and beer. Somewhere along the way, everyone got self-conscious and shy and figured that if you couldn’t sound exactly like the recording, you didn’t have any business trying. Or maybe karaoke took its place. Well, for you young-uns, just think of what I’m talking about as karaoke or Guitar Hero where people actually played real instruments in the same room at the same time without acting like they’re on American Idol. Ok, I’m sounding old – enough of the preachin’.
Anyhoo, my mother is from Cuba so I also heard healthy doses of son and other classic Cuban music – especially when my grandparents busted out the old records and started dancing the merengue in their living room. Wow, they would suddenly transform from my “old” fuddy-duddy grandparents into a swiveling, glamorous, elegant couple – where everything from the waist up was held high, still and majestic while below the waist, I didn’t even understand what was going on (at the time). Mami Joan would get this devilish glint in her eyes and my grandfather was suddenly courting his lady love again. It was my own little piece of Buena Vista Social Club – but in a small apartment in North Florida. And the romance and lyricism of the music haunts me still to this day.
But that’s only a small piece of my musical puzzle. Once I broke out of the boundaries of my childhood home, my sonic eyes seemed like they were just beginning to open…and in fact, they are opening wider and wider still.
Dear reader, whoever you are, I wonder what were your musical experiences growing up? How did your family’s heritage or an influential figure’s obsession affect your iTunes playlist? Are you firmly entrenched in a particular era that fits you like a sonic glove?