Music Prompt: Paul Simon — “Still Crazy After All These Years”

I often write at home to the accompaniment of music. Songs can swell my soul, and fill my eyes with tears, at their first wavering notes. Songs help me reach memories that words are not yet ready to describe. Songs offer me the surest sense of place. Songs are my traveling home.

Today’s blog post is the second in a series I’ll be writing throughout the summer — prompts by songs which invoke memories, and which still move and heal me after so many years. Feel free to tell me about songs that have moved you as well.

This blog post isn’t really about Paul Simon, or about the guitar. It’s about a scrappy little girl in 1979 who wanted to play the drums, even if circumstances didn’t allow for such creative indulgences.

She drummed on everything she could find — tabletops and Tupperware containers, school desks and car dashboards, and her pale, Irish-white thighs which peeked out from her pleated Catholic school skirt. Sometimes, her father would grab her hands at the dinner table and beg her to stop. Kaaaaaaaath. Staaaaaaaaaahp.

That little girl was me. I couldn’t carry a tune. Not even if a sherpa strapped it on his back and hauled it for me. But I always loved music. I felt throbs of rhythms in my chest. As a toddler, I spun in heady circles while listening to my mother’s singer-songwriter LPs, long before I ever traveled to Dead shows. I’d liein front of my parents’ turntable speakers, ear to the woven fabric, until someone scolded me for getting too close and damaging my eardrums. I’d gaze upon midtown Manhattan from the back seat of my parents’ car, and match the gait of the city’s pedestrians to whatever song was playing on the car radio — Steely Dan or Linda Ronstadt, the Rolling Stones or Harold Melvin and the Blue Notes. Life itself had a continuous soundtrack. I wanted to somehow express what I heard in mine.

But drums? Out of the question, my father said. Or more accurately, and simply — no. We lived in Queens, in an attached row house with thin walls. We didn’t have money to spend on drum kits, nor did we have the space to store them. So — no, kid. Absolutely not.

Still, I tapped pencils on surfaces until I chipped away flints of painted, yellow wood. I unh-unhed to myself in bed at night while I listened to WNEW-FM’s hard-rock lullabies on my clock radio. Was there any other way for a seventies-era kid to fall asleep in the outerboroughs?

One morning, my fourth-grade teacher pinned a flyer to the bulletin board in our classroom. The mimeographed sheet read GUITAR LESSONS FOR BEGINNERS in hand-lettered caps, with fringed tear-off sections featuring a telephone number to call for more information. When school ended that day, I surreptitiously walked past the board and tore off one of the sections.

My parents strangely said yes to my alternative request, and I was given a child-sized guitar for Christmas that year. No one ever thought to inquire if I’d need a left-handed guitar to suit my southpaw. No one in our family was all that musical to begin with. A guitar’s a guitar, isn’t it? So I learned to play right-hand, because there was no other option.

The guitar teacher was my fourth-grade teacher’s younger brother — a tumble of long hair, mutton chops and wide-wale corduroy chinos. My ten year-old cheeks blushed whenever he appeared at the door. He was sweet and shy and patient with me, never flinching as the acoustic nylon strings buzzed and thumped at my unskilled fingering.

After several months, my teacher told my mother that he’d taken me as far as he could, and that I needed to study with someone more experienced. He recommended Howard Morgen, a guitarist and composer whom he had once studied with as well.

On Tuesday nights after work, my mother would pick me up at the babysitter’s house, and drive to Morgen’s house in Great Neck. She hadn’t even had a chance to return home after a long day at work in Brooklyn, to sit on the edge of her bed, or kick off her shoes. I didn’t appreciate that about her then. I see such naive assumptions in my own children now.

We’d drive along the Grand Central Parkway, and pass the exit for my grandparents’ house in Queens Village. Each week, the “Hillside Avenue/25″ traffic sign made me yearn for them and their love for me, for the comfort of their kitchen and the companionship of their dog, whenever we passed the exit. I still do now, at forty-four, even though they have both passed away, and the house has long since been sold.

I didn’t say much as my mother chattered about her job at the phone company, about my father’s failings, or about a phone conversation she’d just endured with her mother-in-law. Instead, I’d scan the dusk-hued horizon for the sight of Creedmoor, an unmistakable architectural fixture for native New Yorkers of a certain age. As children, so many of us had one-upped each other with the vicious taunt — “yuh mothuh’s from Creedmawh” — to suggest a parent’s court-ordered stint in the well-known psychiatric hospital.

Soon after, I’d catch sight of a grouping of dark brown apartment buildings near the Lakeville Road exit, which seemed to visually delineate the line between Queens and Nassau Counties. Ahead of us lay Great Neck, an elusive mecca for the upwardly mobile middle-class, and where Mr. Morgen resided. It seemed a world away from the tired, graffiti-ed row houses of the outerboroughs.

Mr. Morgen didn’t take children as students, but for some reason, he decided to give me a go. Each week, we’d enter the side door of Mr. Morgen’s house, and my mother would settle into the fern-filled, macrame-bedecked sunroom with a long-standing embroidery project, or a copy of Woman’s Day magazine. While we waited, I sneaked peeks at the other musicians waiting to study with Howard — mostly lanky men with beards, desert boots and jean jackets. They smelled like leather and Ivory soap. At fourteen, I would have fainted at their earthy, city-cowboy sexiness. But at nine or ten, I innocently marveled at the size of their hands and the length of their legs, and at the sounds they could make behind the door of Mr. Morgen’s practice room.

At some point, my turn would come, and I’d enter with my three-quarter guitar case in hand. I’d steady myself on a tall stool and will the glossy guitar body not to slide off my uniform skirt. Even then, I berated myself up for not knowing things, and for my imperfections. Mr. Morgen was not always patient as he schooled me on v-strokes and 3/4 time, and it bothered me when I disappointed him.

Still, we soldiered on through the Mel Bay book series together, until I was granted the Holy Grail of music lessons — instructions to purchase The Beatles songbook at a music store, and bring it to the following week’s lesson. Mr. Morgen taught me “Eleanor Rigby” and “Michelle,” “Blackbird” and “Hey Jude.” He taught me more than that, I now realize, but at ten — my young life was measured in chord progressions and turns of pages.

Howard Morgen was, by his own preference, a jazz guitarist, and insisted that I learn in the finger-picking style. That meant no guitar pick, trimmed nails on my left hand, and longer, shaped nails on my right. One day, he placed a classical guitar songbook in front of me, and told me that we were taking it up a notch. He arpeggioed the fuck out   of me for a r, all while schooling me in chord construction and variation. I lumbered through the notes, never appreciative enough of his teaching, and resentful of the throbbing pain on my fingertips afterwards. I wasn’t even suffering for the Beatles, I remember thinking. I was suffering for chamber music.

After several years of studying with Mr. Morgen, we moved to Connecticut, and our lessons came to end. I don’t remember exactly what he said to me at our last lesson. I only recall feeling encouraged, in the way that only the finest teachers can make you feel.

Two years ago, I picked up the guitar again when my daughter took lessons — still preferring the fingerpicking style over that of using a plastic pick as a middleman. Like me, she’s often too shy to play in front of other people — but I recently played a Beatles song for her, and she marveled at the style I used to strum. I told her about Mr. Morgen, about the age I was when I first picked up a guitar, and a little bit about the way things used to be.

I recently found a YouTube video of Howard Morgen playing guitar — one in a series that must have comprised a teaching video he had filmed a few years earlier, before he passed away in 2012. I hadn’t seen my teacher in nearly thirty years, but his playing was unmistakable. He had arranged Paul Simon’s “Still Crazy After All These Years” in his own gorgeous style, and I watched his face, still happily smirking as he hit certain notes. Paul Simon, I would later learn, hadonce been one of his students as well.

We fear that our lives come to abrupt and meaningless ends when we die, and that we are surely, unequivocally mortal. But our reach is so uncharted, so truly unknown. Our memory lives in others who have grazed us, in ways so vast and small.

I am nearly forty-five, and I still own an acoustic guitar. I still beat myself up about things, but sometimes, I allow myself the simple pleasure of playing — in the very same way that Mr. Morgen taught me. Sometimes, I even do that cool thing where I lightly touch the E string and pull my fingertip back just as I pluck it, and the open note sings. And it feels just as good as the first time I could finally pull that off for him in a music lesson. I called for drum lessons this week, too. Because I owe it to that left-handed kid who learned to play a right-handed guitar. Still crazy after all these years.

Thank you, Mr. Morgen. I’ll never forget you.

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