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Music Maker

August 2, 2010

Music Maker

We are the music makers,

And we are the dreamers of dreams

– O’Shaughnessy, Elgar

When I was young I burned with desire to make things with my hands. I wanted my father to teach me to hammer and saw but he showed me his big hands and said, “All I can do with these is write.”

One summer on vacation in Vermont I found that our cabin was sitting on a treasure trove – a pile of rocks as full of garnets as cookies with chocolate chips, and easy to pry out with a chisel. I piled as many of them in the back of our station wagon as my folks would allow. Back home I took my dad’s rusted saw, hammer with the head falling off, his jar of bent nails, and some old boards and built a garnet factory in the backyard under the pines.

Build it and they will come…They didn’t come, and neither did I after a few weeks, because it was a little under built – so low that I could only work lying down in the September heat. I came up with a handful of garnets. No one was buying. Later I’d look wistfully on the ruins of factory, What might have been….

What I’d always really wanted to make, more than a garnet factory, was music.  But I didn’t properly value that desire, didn’t know that music was worth making, because if you did what did you have.  Nothing you could hold in your hands.

Still, my muse kept calling me, and I tried to answer, but the time wasn’t right. We kept missing each other. Playing a set of drums I heard her yelling, but all my mom got me for Christmas was a single snare drum. Beat on it as I might the muse remained silent. I dutifully went to drum class but got kicked out because I couldn’t read music.  I took piano but quit after my first recital for the same reason – I couldn’t read.

One day when I was twelve I was next door and someone showed me a banjo and how to play a few chords. It sounded good right away, and you didn’t need to read music to play it. I told my mom I wanted one but she said, “You haven’t done anything with that snare drum.”

I got those same sorry tools and made a banjo with a board and nails and strung it with rubber bands. I gave it a few strums, pleased that it made any sound at all. But I still wanted a real one. I went back to my mom, wheedled until she finally relented. “A banjo’s too weird. I’ll get you a guitar.” We got the cheapest thing in the music store downtown, with action that made my fingers bleed, but after someone taught me to tune it and a few chords I taught myself to play.

I’d learned to make music. Now the harder thing – to make it for a living. My father told me, “Most men live lives of quiet desperation. Find what you love to do and do it for a living.”  Desperation, quiet or otherwise, sounded bad. I decided I better take his advice.

I did a couple of folk gigs. The Beatles came and I got an electric guitar and played in a Beatles tribute band, wig and all. I was thirteen. Next came various garage bands, with no pay, then college bands, with a little pay, then out in the world with my band. It wasn’t possible to make a living playing bars but we didn’t know that so we did.

Got sick of playing other people’s songs, wrote my own.  But by then I’d given up performing, knew that without that I’d never get them heard. I dropped the lyrics, started composing instrumental music. Got a few well paid gigs writing for corporations, then hit a goldmine.

I’d never head of a Production Music Library, and neither probably have you. I wrote pieces, produced them with my boss. When clients used them for background music for commercials and corporate presentations, he split the money with me fifty-fifty.  I was naïve, didn’t know that composing Library Music was the province of hacks and has-beens, whose tired music showed it. I was just excited to have a chance to write and get paid for it. Having no idea what Library Music was supposed to sound like, I just wrote what I wanted. So my music sounded fresh.

This time when we built it they came, in droves. I made a good living, supported my wife and two children. But my muse was picky, and easily bored. Before she’d gotten sick of me playing other people’s music. Now she insisted that I keep doing new things. My boss didn’t agree. He heard my new stuff and thought it was weird.

“We’ve got something that works. Our clients just want more of that, only a little different.”  I tried that but the muse kicked up a storm. It was no fun to write like that, knocking off my own stuff. Clients didn’t like the results much either. Perhaps the creative process follows the dictates of that more essential process, the creation of new humans. Each one of those is unique, and so it is with real living, breathing creations. They must be unique, or they shamble around like Barbie dolls, like badly engineered clones.

I started my own company.  It was way more work than just writing music.  But ultimately it was worth it, because it allowed me to continue to take as accurate dictation as I could from my muse. I didn’t have as many clients as during the glory days of the 80’s, but they were enough, especially given that I now collected 100% of the profits.

And we lived happily ever after, I sent my sons away to college and retired on my ASCAP royalties…Except that’s not how it ended.

What I found as I passed the mark of 600 pieces of music was that love-making with my muse was no longer a gee whiz hop right into bed kind of thing. We were starting to go through the motions, hitting the point of diminishing returns as we ran out of ideas of how to make the love from which music is made.

I tried to spice things up, with toys – fancy synthesizers, samplers and sound processors. I exposed us to exotic influences, stuff I didn’t like but thought she might, like rap and grunge. Try as I might, I was doing that dreaded thing, starting to sound too much like myself. And part of it was that I’d gotten just too good at writing music, could do it like falling off a log.

Enough spark was still there to get the job done, though my output was down. I got other composers to start working for me, young people who liked rap and grunge.

One day another muse showed up, started flirting with me. Like many a middle-aged fool of a guy, I didn’t just tumble into bed with her for an illicit afternoon, but moved out of the house and got re-married.

The writing muse. We’ve had a steamy time. The middle-aged fools’ dream – youth returned in the arms of a young hottie.

It was like learning guitar all over again, like learning to write music back when. The drama of having something hopping around inside, trying to get it out onto the page, but not knowing how…then presto!  It was there, I don’t know how. I’ve always liked the image of a room filled with monkeys working at typewriters, drooling on the keys, joyfully working towards a masterpiece which can never happen. That was me when I started writing – a solitary simian with a throbbing music hangover pecking away at one of my dad’s rusty old Smith-Corona’s, missing a few keys. Starting from zero, everything I wrote had to be way better than the last thing.

I’ve been writing for six years now, and I worry a little, about that seventh year itch…Well, there’s always painting.


From → Memoir

  1. I enjoy your writing, John, if you feel like painting….. how about word pictures?

  2. Thanks, Dan. I try sometimes for word pictures, hope you can see them.

  3. Anybody who makes their own banjo from scratch is all right by me.

  4. Writing runs in the family, John Manchester. You are good at everything you do, old friend. Thank you for buying my freedom; even though I paid for it. Regarding painting with words… may I share Adrienne Rich?

    Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers
    by Adrienne Rich

    Aunt Jennifer’s tigers prance across a screen,
    Bright topaz denizens of a world of green.
    They do not fear the men beneath the tree;
    They pace in sleek chivalric certainty.

    Aunt Jennifer’s finger fluttering through her wool
    Find even the ivory needle hard to pull.
    The massive weight of Uncle’s wedding band
    Sits heavily upon Aunt Jennifer’s hand.

    When Aunt is dead, her terrified hands will lie
    Still ringed with ordeals she was mastered by.
    The tigers in the panel that she made
    Will go on prancing, proud and unafraid.

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