Music has always been with me and I have always been with music, I remember my first ‘personal stereo’ cassette player back when Walkmans were really Walkmans and the Grundigs and Thorns did the same for less money. I don’t really remember my dad being interested in music at all, maybe sometimes humming a big band tune now or then. My mum had a few records, Roy Orbison, the Carpenters and the like. She would always sing along to the radio in the car which was always tuned to BBC Radio 1 back then when we were lucky if the radio had an 8 Track player let alone a cassette tape player. My oldest brother recorded his Bowie records for me and I spent many hours digesting Space Oddity, the Laughing Gnome, the Little Bombardier, Life on Mars and all the others, not really understanding, aged just 9, what was unfolding through my headphones. New music came my way – Beatles tapes from my Mum’s friend Maggie, Queen and Dire Straits, 6th Form influences of Goth with the Sisters of Mercy, the Mission and Fields of the Nephilim and the explosion of the Los Angeles sleaze metal scene headed by the unknown but soon to be very well known Guns n’ Roses, Faster Pussycat and the German metal bands Helloween and Accept and many others in between.
In all of this though, one thing I knew was that no matter how much music I listened to or how many concerts or gigs I saw there was never the slightest possibility that I would ever be able to make music. Of this one thing I was sure, I couldn’t play an instrument, I couldn’t sing and like the other talents in life I didn’t have like being sporty or artistic or out-going I just accepted my place in life because at least I was kind of smart and if I got good grades and a good job everything would be ok.
In my later teenage years I picked up a guitar and learned some rudimentary chords, I learned that although I could remember the chord shapes I could never remember the order to play them in to play a song, let alone remember the words. I saw other friends grow in talent in leaps and bounds and I was left strumming quietly in my bedroom with a couple of song books and a borrowed guitar.
Suddenly it was the mid-nineties and the internet had been invented, I had no hope of tabbing songs for myself of hearing a chord or key being played and knowing what it was. The internet opened a new world of others tabbing songs and uploading them to ftp servers back when the internet was more than just world wide web, it was ftp, it was gopher, it was irc and a whole lot more in between.
I began to download song sheets with chords and found that I could now passably play and sing along to the Dog’s D’Amour and Counting Crows although I knew how bad it must sound and that’s how I remained, occasionally playing on borrowed guitars for the next twenty or so years.
Unlearning the programming, the Shadows of the past is a journey. It started with the gnawing sensation that there must be something more to this, with a two day corporate ‘Effective Communications’ workshop that taught me that I was not my thoughts and opened the door to this journey of discovery.
I wrote a lot of poetry at this time, performed a lot of it until the well ran dry. I’m happy I had it for a time and look forward to its return. Another chance remark from someone asking if I wrote songs as well percolated in my brain for a year or two until last spring half a dozen songs fell out. But what was I to do with them – they don’t read like poems and I can’t sing or play them, other than the in the safety of my own living room. So I picked up the guitar with earnest, learnt to finger pick over the summer and actually, finally, bought my own guitar.
How many hurdles had I crossed to have the stuttering confidence to walk into a guitar shop – a guitar shop! With real musicians playing real music! What the hell did I think I was doing? One corner of the store was a sea of acoustic guitars and we must have played every single one of them. Of course the guitar I fell in love with didn’t tick any of my pre-conceived boxes – it’s fully acoustic, doesn’t have a cut-away so I can’t reach anything below the twelfth fret and it was £150 or so below budget.
So fast forward to now, three weeks ago to be precise when I saw my friend Joey had a banjo. “I just play for myself”, he said, “I don’t care how I sound”. A few days later I heard him play and he could play. He showed me ‘clawhammer’ style – “strike, strum, thumb!” and a blue-grass finger picking roll. As I was leaving he lent me his banjo and urged me to search YouTube for Patrick Costello to learn how to play. I didn’t really understand why as I thought it was just a matter of learning some new chord shapes and getting some speedy finger picking practice in. How wrong could I be, the banjo is a craft all of it’s own, with percussion, chords and melody all in one. Patrick urges us to play, and better than to play is to share and show someone else how to play, to go out in the world and make music. He tells us that anyone can sing, anyone can play.
I made a couple of short videos of me playing the banjo after one week and after three weeks, just something to remember how it was when I started and hopefully see the improvement in the coming weeks and to spread the word and work and boundless enthusiasm of Patrick Costello. I didn’t make a video after week two – I was too self-conscious to record it with anyone else in the house. But then I made this, I’m not sure why. I can see all the flaws in it but in the words of Johnny Cash in his version of the Streets of Laredo I’ll “not mention his name and his name will pass on”.