Sunday Morning / House of Hammond

sassafras on rickenbacker 2

Sunday morning dawns musical, always. Even in the coldest weather, the birds sing clearly in the early quiet hours of a Sunday morning. I can hear them in the trees: their quavering voices penetrate the ice-cold windowpanes, and birdsong fills the rooms of this tree-house of an apartment.

Sunday morning is my time for tuning up musical instruments.

I always begin with the acoustic guitar, the one with the domed maple top and cutaway that lets you get easily to those sweetest, highest notes. It is the most expensive thing I have ever purchased for myself, and that was back in the 1990s, when there were all manner of expensive things were more easy to acquire.

This guitar is never much out of tune, ever. Perhaps a string or two here or there. I think this is the result of my tuning and playing it often. The tolerances hold, if you tend to them. Also, it’s a very finely made instrument.

I remember something that some Esquimaux people said on a documentary show that I once saw: that wood stays alive long after it is cut and shaped into whatever thing that has been decided for it to be next. That’s why the wood will creak and groan and send out delicious smells one hundred years after it has been shaped into the baseboards and doors of your house, or your guitar, or whatever — because it is still alive and responding to changes in the environment, and still wants to talk to you.

Also, many musicians will tell you that you have to play your instruments often, because if you don’t, they will get resentful, lose their tone, and start to die, maybe even commit suicide. All those bits of wood and enamel and pearl inlay and keyboard keys — they are always wanting to move and feel alive.

Can you blame them?

I respect this idea and believe it out of experience. I know that my instruments sound good when I take the time to tend to them and play them.

The electric guitar is next. I haven’t changed the strings in over five years, and that is on purpose: they are stretched so tight that you could never pull them out of tune even if you tried. I like the sound of it: strong and brash and unwavering. I dust off all the parts and make sure everything is clean. Sometimes I plug this guitar into my Swollen Pickle pedal so I can get the Total Fuzz sound and pretend that I am Syd Barrett. I like to dream, you know.

The electric piano is next. There’s nothing you can do to tune it, but because it is an analog instrument with tubes and capacitators, dust and neglect are the worst enemies. You absolutely have to play and clean an electric piano or organ often to keep the keys in good operating shape. If dust gets in there and is allowed to build up, the contact of the keys is compromised. Once that happens, your sound gets spotty or cuts out altogether.

I can get lost for a long time playing this electric piano. It has two piano tones, and two harpsichord ones, and you can also blend them and add decay. Whenever I play the harpsichord tones, which sound like tight and bouncy springs or strings being plucked and chimed, my cats always jump up behind me on the bed and watch until I’m forced to look around to see two sets of animal eyes focused on me, listening and staring with big-eyed wonder. Apparently they really like this particular sound, which to me sounds like the soundtrack of a 1970s Addams Family show. But I love it too, so we’re all on the same page. (Or maybe the same blanket of the bed.)

Sometimes, on these mornings, I recall other Sunday mornings a long time ago, when I had a Hammond B3 organ with a Leslie speaker set up in my living room. I used to wake at dawn, drift downstairs, and put a pot of coffee on. You had to push two switches over at the same time and hold them so for several seconds to get the organ and Leslie speaker to fire up, but after that, you were good to go. Sometimes I would make a bowl of waffle batter, and invite friends over for brunch. I spent many of those mornings on the organ working out “Oh What A Fellowship,” “Moonlight In Vermont,” “Green Onions,” “Jesu Joy of Man’s Desiring,” and anything else I could remember off the KLBB radio playlist or from early days at Catholic school.

At some point late in the morning, my boyfriend would tumble downstairs in his bathrobe requesting his favorite hymn, “Oh What A Friend We Have In Jesus,” because, as he explained, “I really like the idea of Jesus being a friendly guy who wears sandals.” Which to me implied that you could probably also manage to play Frisbee and Hackysack and do bong-hits with Jesus, if you could only bring up the idea to Him in just the right way.

We jokingly called these mornings “Church,” and they were an amalgam of spirituals, jazz, and 1960s top 40 hits, all sounding very good when played on a Hammond organ with Leslie speaker (usually on the slow speed, but faster for certain moments). We made up insane stoner lyrics to every song, although we never actually smoked any weed.

(Which reminds me, remember when you could simply get high on life?)

My accordion requires no tuning either, but you have to play it to keep the bellows from drying up and cracking, and also to blast out any accumulating dust. Next I check the autoharp and zither, which hardly ever change their pitch, but like to be touched and played all the same.

The violin is last. Tuning a violin is like a solving quantum physics problem — everything is relative. You might even have to factor in that your fingers are a little bit more swollen or shrunken than they were last Sunday. A violin is so small, if your fingernails are even a bit longer, it will manage to sound different.

I can get lost on the violin for a long time, too. With Christmas carols, Bach partitas, the Vivaldi “Winter” thing that I am always trying to master but can never quite get…

Lately a friend and I have been playing old school English and Irish music that drones or reels or dances merrily along, and then sometimes we play a Velvet Underground tune and add a space jam at the end. I like being able to do that. Violin is the only instrument besides my voice that I’ve ever felt I’ve been able to make sing.

Yes, Sunday morning dawns musical. I hear the birds singing in this crazy tree-house of an apartment, and there is no place I would rather be, except maybe back in my old house with the Hammond B3 organ… just keep that sucker clean and play it, no tuning required.

The Dead Comics and Poets Society

Last week, my writer friend Jim Walsh wrote a tribute to Robin Williams for The Southwest Journal (you can find the link below). In it, he writes that it is thanks to the movie Dead Poets Society that most of us learned the meaning of the phrase carpe diem — “seize the day.”

Dead Poets Society came out during my early years of college — perfect timing. I had just discovered hallucinogenic drugs and Arthur Rimbaud — a French Symbolist poet who gave up poetry in 1876 at the age of 21 to become a gun-runner in Algeria.

He wrote the line: “Magic flowers droned.”

 

I loved poems, rhymes, and songs as a kid, and I still do. One of the very earliest poems I remember being read to me was The Owl and The Pussycat by Edward Lear:

The owl and the pussycat went to sea
In a beautiful pea-green boat,
They took some honey, and plenty of money,
Wrapped up in a five-pound note.
The owl looked up to the stars above,
And sang to a small guitar,
“O lovely Pussy! O Pussy, my love,
What are beautiful Pussy you are,
You are,
You are!
What a beautiful Pussy you are!”

There are two more verses to the poem — you can look it up if you want to find out how it ends.

I was also curious to know, hearing that poem, “What is a guitar? And can I have one?”

(Also, you can reflect on the fact that there is a certain age everyone reaches where it becomes uncomfortable to say words like “pussycat” or “what a beautiful pussy you are” in mixed company. And that is the age that marks the end of innocence.

But then again, have you ever heard a person from Holland or Belgium or Denmark, or certain parts of Germany and France, call to a kitty? They say a word that to English speakers sounds like “pouss” or “pwuss.” And the cats always seem to love the sound of that.)

remington lr

I learned to read early, and I knew automatically that writing — poems, songs, stories, and plays — was the thing for me. The compact was sealed forever on my sixth birthday when I received the gift of an old black manual typewriter and a ream of yellow canary paper.

I became obsessed with typing on my typewriter which sat on a little desk under the windows in my room. At some point I started writing plays, with the idea that my little sister and brother and I could perform them (which, surprise surprise, never happened).

I loved the way the scripts for plays were written — I mean, typed:

FAIRY PRINCESS: Now I wave my magic wand, and lo! You are under my spell!

EVIL LITTLE STEP-SISTER: No! I have stuck pins in your doll’s eyes, so now your spell cannot work!

SPIDERBOY: And I have found all of your Halloween candy hidden in the closet, and I did eat of it! I ate it all, ha-ha! Take that, bossy old Fairy Princess!

 

In high school I was introduced to the poetry of William Butler Yeats, Ireland’s Mystic Lion and my main man. From his writing I learned how a poem could be a song, a story, a feeling, and an ardent wish, all at once. You know how people sometimes ask “If you could sit down to dinner with any historical figure, who would you choose?” I would choose Yeats. Here’s a poem of his that is a favorite of mine:

When You Are Old

When you are old and grey and full of sleep,
And nodding by the fire, take down this book,
And slowly read, and dream of the soft look
Your eyes had once, and of their shadows deep.

How many loved your moments of glad grace,
And loved your beauty with love false or true,
But one man loved the pilgrim soul in you,
And loved the sorrows of your changing face;

And bending down beside the glowing bars,
Murmur, a little sadly, how Love fled
And paced upon a mountain overhead
And hid his face among a cloud of stars.

 

Robin Williams was a poet, as most stand-up comedians are, I’m convinced. If you go to http://www.tunein.com and explore Talk –> Comedy radio stations, you can find dozens of stations that are playing recordings of Robin Williams’ performances. Listen: he was a poet on the wing, hitting highs that most of us can’t even begin to imagine.

And what a laugh. I think we tend to forget to remember our comedians as the great artists and poets that they were: Chris Farley, John Belushi, Gilda Radner, Richard Pryor, Robin Williams. My own personal Dead Comics Society.

And on a parting note, one more poem from my man Yeats:

He Wishes For The Cloths Of Heaven

Had I heaven’s embroidered cloths,
Enwrought with golden and silver light,
The blue and the dim and the dark cloths
Of night and light and the half light,
I would spread the cloths under your feet:
But I, being poor, have only my dreams;
I have spread my dreams under your feet;
Tread softly because you tread on my dreams.

typewriter poetry

Read Jim’s article here: Carpe Diem Mr. Keating