Originally written in October 1995
This is a story about me, not about the Beatles. I have never met or been anywhere close to any of the Beatles. But this tale tells about how the influence of the Beatles resulted in a radical change in my outlook and aspirations.
Everyone who lived through the Beatles era has his own Beatles story to tell. Some people were touched more directly than others. I'm one whose whole life became rerouted directly because of what the Beatles did. To this day I retain more than a passing interest in the band, its music, and its members — which hardly makes me unique.
Call me one of the original Beatles skeptics. The year that Beatlemania hit the US, early 1964, was a year I temporarily had to drop out of college. Late in the summer before what would have been my junior year I landed in the hospital and underwent a parathyroidectomy followed by surgery to remove a handful of kidney stones. When it was time to return to school, I was still technically an invalid, and my father was laboring under the burden of the bills from my malady. So I stayed home and went to work, and did not return to school until September of 1964.
The Beatles came to the US in February 1964, just three months after the Kennedy assassination, when America was still reeling in grief. Like most people, I heard about the them through the media. At that time I had been learning the music engraving trade for a few months.
Life outside of work was absorbed in music of the avant garde, generally referred to as new music. I was working on a Piano Sonata of my own, which took me eighteen months to complete. It ultimately won a big deal award, the Columbia University Joseph H. Bearns Prize. Meanwhile, I studied the music of Stockhausen, Berio, Boulez, Webern, Schönberg, Cage, late Stravinsky, Beethoven, Bach, and music of the Renaissance and Medieval periods. In addition, I was putting in many hours practicing both the bass trombone and piano. I wasn't listening to much jazz at the time, but I knew and liked the music.
I had grown up in a culture where popular music, especially rock and roll, was taken less than seriously, and was often made fun of. Though I knew the superior popular music of the twenties to early fifties, I did not yet appreciate it. There were no popular or rock and roll musicians of the time that I had artistic admiration for, except for a brief period of fascination with Elvis when I was twelve. But that had long since waned as his music plummeted into mediocrity.
So when this quartet of cocky guys from England came over, with their funny haircuts, causing waves of girls to scream and keel over, I was as inclined to brush them off as most adults were — even though I was only twenty myself at the time. However, I did see the Ed Sullivan performances, and had to admit there was something intruiging about them. But outwardly I maintained a hardline stance against them. I would even start pompous debates about the intrinsic aesthetic inferiority of popular music, to irritate my "less enlightened" friends.
One day one of my best friends, a musicology student named Tom McFaul, told me he'd been listening to some recent Beatles music and suggested that I really ought to reconsider my opinion. His enthusiasm for what he had discovered was unbounded. On one occasion he dragged me into a room to play some cuts from Hard Day's Night, while providing a running analysis during its playing, as musicologists are wont to do.
I started to soften. Tom continued to work on me, and so did some other friends whose opinions I respected. Tom also went to hear the Beatles play at Comiskey Park in Chicago, and was enormously impressed. He was at least as moved by the spirit of the event as by the performance itself, which was barely audible above the bedlam.
By the time the movie Help! came out I was ripe for a religious conversion. Tom and his girl friend and I went to see it. Though I thought the movie was goofy, I loved the songs, and was transfixed watching the Beatles play on screen. Tom assured me the earlier movie, A Hard Day's Night, which is now recognized as a masterpiece, was better.
I no longer remember the exact sequence of events in those days. However, I do recall that when Rubber Soul came out, I was one of the first in town to buy it, my first Beatles album, and that I must have played it at least two hundred times. I still have my original copy. Eventually I knew the title of every song on every American album they ever produced, and in which order they appeared on the album.
There were many things about the music that affected me deeply as a musician. When my prejudices broke down I recognized that there was genuine freshness and quality in what the Beatles were doing. I was also greatly carried along by the spirit of the times, the wicked sixties. I've often described myself as "a victim of the sixties."
In the winter of 1967, two fellow student composer friends and I formed a new music coalition, calling ourselves The Black Bag, in tribute to a student in Oregon who attended classes anonymously with a black bag over his head. We were a three-person organization, not a performing group, although we all played together at various times.
We were disgruntled over what we perceived to be a move toward ossification as seen in the most recent iteration of a new music festival the university held every two years. Though some people thought the music presented was too radically avant garde, we thought the programming and presentations had become academic and stuffy. So we planned to put on a counterfestival to be devoted to works of our own. The anchor piece of the program was to be a composition of mine called The Aluminum Foil Fantasy, which had not yet been written.
The Fantasy (which I abbreviate as tAFF) can only be described as a piece of third stream music. That term came to be applied to certain musical works written in the fifties and sixties that attempted to fuse elements of jazz and classical music. Some good things came out of it, notably some works by composer Gunther Schuller.
My Fantasy is, I believe, unique in the world of music. I'd never heard anything remotely like it before myself, nor have I since. The piece was composed for "screaming rock and roll kid band and electronic tape."
A local high school rock band called the Finchley Boys performed tAFF on our Black Bag concert. What they lacked in technical polish they made up for in energy and presentation. They had a special rawness to the way they played, and though they weren't technically accomplished musicians, they put on a terrific show.
Their heroes were the British group the Yardbirds, which produced guitarists Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and Jimmy Page. They had an adult R&B/jazz musician for a drummer, a polished player who helped them along and held them together. He was a casual friend of mine who introduced me to them in the early winter of 1967 at a student-inhabited club where they were performing. They had just done a set where the lead singer had enacted a passionate death and resurrection scene on stage.
On that occasion I told the boys I was a composition student from the University, and into new music. They had no idea what that was. I told them I was interested in doing an unusual project with them. I explained that the music I was planning would be "farther out" than anything they ever dreamed of playing, and that the prestige of playing it would at least promote their reputation locally, even if they hated the music. They agreed to try. I couldn't afford to pay them, so it became a labor of love on their part.
So I went off to compose tAFF, which I had by then already constructed in my head but hadn't written down in any form yet. It grew into a twenty-minute work in three continuous movements that I had to teach the boys by rote, an atonal serialized rock and roll piece, with the accompaniment of electronic tape in the middle section. I would come to their regular rehearsals during the early spring, and when they were finished we would work a half hour to an hour on my piece.
At the time the Finchley Boys had an altogether untalented rhythm guitar player. There was an undercurrent among the other fellows of wanting to ditch him. Meanwhile, I had begun practicing guitar and bass hours every day. Being well backgrounded in music, I learned quickly and could play a whole lot better than the unskilled boy in a matter of a few weeks.
So I replaced the kid and played the rhythm guitar part in tAFF myself at the premiere on the Black Bag concert, but I never played with the band on any of their club gigs, and had never attempted to play any kind of rock and roll music ever before. It was a real kick. For the occasion I dressed up in ludicrous "mod" clothes typical of the mid-sixties. By then I had started to let my hair grow long, and wear beads and paisley clothing.
Eventually I achieved a modest competency as a guitarist, and played bass much better, though I didn't start learning them until I was about twenty-two. I no longer play either instrument very often.
On May 18, 1967, we presented our concert in the Illini Student Union. The concert had a name — The Black Bag Presents: Musical Massage. The expression "The medium is the massage" is a pun from a famous Marshall McLuhan line. We advertised the event all over campus with psychedelic posters, which were immediately stolen from wherever we posted them. It was well attended despite this, since the word got out that something unusual was going down.
The concert was different from others in that we had the audience sit in the center of the open ballroom, and each piece was presented from a different location in the room, so people had to shift and move their chairs around for each composition. It was an original concept, and made for a cozy environment in that large room.
On the program were two compositions by each of the three of us, all for different combinations of instruments. My first work was a piece called Nonet, for soprano sax, bass clarinet, bass trombone, Hammond organ, harp, two percussionists, violin, and cello. I would have conducted, but needed to play the bass trombone part myself, so one of the other two Black Bag members conducted, and the other played violin. It was performed terribly. No one noticed. Everyone applauded.
The anticipated highlight of the concert was the premiere of The Aluminum Foil Fantasy. There was a mixed crowd at the concert, including both regular new music aficionados and some who were obviously looking for a rock show.
The performance was so loud and so brashly atonal that the startled campus security guards came running in moments after we got rolling, thinking perhaps someone was tearing the building apart. Fortunately, they were cool enough not to do anything stupid such as trying to interrupt the concert. A couple of older faculty members who couldn't tolerate the volume had to leave in the middle.
I still remember the "applause" on the tape from that night as well as the music itself. The effect left most listeners, even the hard-core new music audience, open-mouthed or shouting "Whew!" as contrasted with the usual polite applause. The next day I got to enjoy my personal fifteen minutes of fame (or perhaps infamy) as I briefly became a campus celebrity. This all took place during my one full year in graduate school.
Later, when I had my own band, I rearranged the Fantasy for our combination of players. We did a couple of concert performances of tAFF. Our way of playing it was much better than the original Finchley Boys performance, but they hated it in Buffalo.
While I continued to work at such projects, I remained captivated by the Beatles' music, which by that time had worked its way into my soul. On June 1, 1967, exactly two weeks after the Black Bag concert, the album Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band was released. I was in line to receive one of the first ten copies that were sold in Urbana, Illinois, at about noon on release day. Starting that very afternoon, everywhere one could hear the music coming out of dormitory and fraternity house windows. The world became drunk on the music.
I observed the power and influence that these guys had gained. When they did things that stretched the limits, like Tomorrow Never Knows, or I Am the Walrus (which was later) or Revolution #9 (ditto), people accepted it because of the adulation and respect the Beatles had earned. It occurred to me that these men could do anything they wanted artistically for the rest of their lives, free from restraint. I came to envy that power to the point of obsession.
As a life-long lover of chamber music, I have had a nearly mystical conviction about the balanced perfection of the number four in a musical ensemble. The fewer players one has, the more complex and intimate the music can be, but with less than four, the texture is often too thin. Four players can usually cover everything, and five begins to get a little thick. My own best chamber composition is a quartet called Branches of Wistaria for flute, clarinet, harp, and tuba.
Also, the longer an ensemble plays together, the more capable it becomes of creating magic. Seeing how well these beliefs were reflected in the experience of the Beatles reinforced my convictions. And so it became my desire to form and become a part of a performing musical quartet of some sort, and to sustain that organization for a long time, perhaps for an entire career. I still nurture that dream, even though I have not played music for a living for many years.
The greatest chamber music ensembles are almost all string quartets, but I was not a string player. Nor could I see a long or satisfying future for myself in a brass quartet, and I wasn't a good enough keyboard player to play classical chamber music for a living. As a composer I was interested in an ensemble of players of multiple instruments, where everyone could shift around as the need arose. Given the spirit of the times, some variation of a rock and roll ensemble started to look like an attractive option.
But I didn't have the ability to play that music myself. I didn't have the aggressive stage personality, I hadn't played the right kind of instruments long enough, and had never learned the style or way of playing rock or pop, which I now know is completely different from playing classical music. Nonetheless, I'd acquired a cheap electric guitar and bass, and started practicing them diligently, as though I would some day make use of that skill.
Just a couple of days after the Black Bag concert, I was sitting in a student hangout (a bar) when a non-student local resident named Jim walked in. Someone pointed him out to me as a guitarist looking to start a band. I went over, introduced myself, and we talked. We agreed to get together, and I'd bring my instruments. We decided to see if we could put something together. Jim was not a good musician. He was strictly a blues player, and was interested mostly in musicians like Paul Butterfield, John Mayall, and Michael Bloomfield (whom I had known briefly in high school). At least he knew a bit about how to play that music, which is more than I could say.
I got an idealistic notion that a rock and roll band full of classical musicians doing really new stuff might get somewhere. So I first approached my musicologist friend Tom, who was married by this time. We had previously fantasized together in idle conversation over beers about how great it would be to play in a successful band. I asked him if he would be interested in playing keyboard in a band with me. He was more than a bit astonished, since he was at that time a really poor keyboard player. He had never tried singing other than when we would get together with a couple of others to sight-sing Renaissance and Medieval madrigals and motets for fun, and wasn't particularly good at that, either.
Then I asked my friend David Rosenboom, one of the other two Black Bag members, if he would like to play drums, and he was willing to give it a go. So the four of us got together and decided to try to become a band.
For the first several months, the four of us were just plain terrible, so bad it's indescribable. But being thoroughly consumed by the spirit of the sixties, we were addicted to the idea of somehow becoming a successful band, and we continued to learn. A long time later, after a string of personnel changes, we got to the point where we could actually play reasonably well on a good day. But our strength was always in our material, not in our performance.
In the middle of that summer in Urbana, the so-called "summer of love," the real impact of the Beatles on all of us made itself known. Each one of us in rapid succession was tested as to how sincere and committed we were to the plan. I for my part was dead serious.
The first test came when Dave, who was only nineteen, got a call from the State University of New York in Buffalo. They offered him a job as a "creative associate," playing viola in Lucas Foss' professional new music ensemble. This was not a student position, but a real job that paid a living wage. In addition to being a prominent composer and pianist himself, Foss had been a close associate of Leonard Bernstein, and was at that time also conductor of the Buffalo Philharmonic. This was an incredible offer, especially for someone who hadn't even finished college yet.
Dave presented the matter to us and explained that he really wanted to accept it if he could. So we decided collectively that we would struggle together in Buffalo for the 1967-1968 school year while he fulfilled his contract, and that in the spring we would all move again to New York City where we'd attempt to make the big time.
Almost in the same week, Tom, who is a year younger than me, received the offer of an elite graduate fellowship in ethnomusicology at University of Illinois, with an opportunity to do work that would be rewarding. Tom had the additional stress of having to consider his wife's feelings. I was always crazy about her, but having this excess baggage made me more than a little nervous, so one day I had a long and frank one-on-one with Tom about it, to see if he was really in for the long haul. He talked it over with his wife, and they were ready to go for broke.
The biggest kink came about two weeks later when I received mail saying that I had belatedly been awarded a Fulbright Fellowship to study at St. Cecilia Academy in Rome. I had applied during the winter, before any thoughts of playing in a band materialized, at which time I expected to get an award. But most of the grants were announced around May, and I hadn't heard a word, so I guessed that I had been turned down. Then in July, it dropped on my head like a piano out of the sky. A Fulbright is barely lower in prestige than a Rhodes scholarship. It was not an offer to turn down flippantly.
We all had a lot to risk. It was Tom and I who were called on to put our futures on the line. We both knew we would never have another opportunity.
Meanwhile, Jim was obligated to stay in Illinois because he had a problem with the law before I knew him, and the court said he couldn't leave town. We considered this a convenience, because he didn't really fit in with the band anyhow. We realized that we would have to start over with a new guitarist once we got to Buffalo, which we did.
Burning our bridges behind us, we headed for Buffalo, where we found Richard, who taught classical lute and guitar at the University. Richard is a supernice fellow who would give you the shirt off his back. But he was not a rock guitarist, as much as he wanted to be and as hard as he tried. We eventually asked him to take a job as the band's equipment manager. After we all moved to New York he made his living repairing guitars at one of the most prestigious instrument shops in town.
And so, because of the Beatles, I radically changed my life course, one that had been leading me in the direction of an advanced degree in music composition and an obscure career in academia. I even turned down a Fulbright, for which I was ridiculed by some acquaintances who thought I had lost my mind, and went off to try to be a big time rock and roller, with the hope of using stardom as a springboard to artistic freedom.
The band had nothing but problems during its entire existence. I could write another long story about our life then: what we played, the personnel problems, the personality problems, life in Buffalo and New York, and the degraded life style typical of that era that tempted us all. We never made it, and we broke up for good in early 1970, which at the time was devastating to me.
In early May of 1968 we all left Buffalo for New York, and took a couple of weeks off while we attempted to get settled and find some day jobs. Both Dave and then Tom almost got drafted and sent to Vietnam, but they managed to get out of it.
Dave left the band not long after we got to New York. It seems in retrospect he had his own career plans well in mind and was never really as committed to the band as the rest of us. Dave is a great talent who has always had many options. When our band didn't work out easily, he followed another path.
Though Dave never finished a formal degree, he went on to do many interesting things, including becoming a leading researcher in brain wave music. This led to an appearance on the Mike Douglas Show, when John Lennon and Yoko Ono brought him on as their guest. He has worked at the epicenter of new music his whole career. Dave is now dean of the music school at California Institute of the Arts. I've always loved the guy dearly and never held it against him that he left the band, although it didn't help our pursuit any at the time.
Tom and I continued with two different guitarists, both good players, and three different drummers, the first two horrible.
While Dave continued with new music, and Tom started to show an interest in jingle writing, the encouragement given to me was that my future might lie in Broadway musicals. Though we were not working much ourselves, we managed to find our way into the center of New York commercial music, and became acquainted with many musicians whose names are listed as sidemen on the albums of performers you probably have in your own record collection — rock, pop, and jazz superstars.
For a year we were under contract to a producer and jingle writer who hoped to produce some bands. He was never able to get us a record deal. Tom continued working in his studio, in time became his partner, and then bought the business. He ultimately became a highly successful jingle writer in New York who wrote many things we have all heard. When he wrote for our band, he wrote mostly novelty songs — unusual little pieces with little emotional depth, but grab-you-by-the-collar charm.
There were doors available to me, too, if I had chosen to walk through them, and if I'd had sufficient "wanna." Though we were well connected, and though it may have been just a matter of time before something would have developed if I had continued to work, things never took off. We did record altogether about two albums worth of demo tracks, but never released anything.
The last name for the band was Think Dog!, including the exclamation point — one of the most eccentric names ever thought up for a rock and roll band, for which I will take the blame myself. As the band's founder, primary composer, and last member to quit (I never really did — I just found myself alone), I always considered it "my" band, though publicly Tom was more the spokesman.
By that time my own interest had turned in another unexpected direction. It was exactly at that juncture, after living a year in New York, and not long before the band's breakup, that I got married and a couple of weeks later was first visited by Jehovah's Witnesses, which led ultimately to my becoming a Witness myself, and am to this day.
Subsequently, I left music composition and performance, and made my living for many years in music engraving, preparing music for publication, a job that I hated most of the time, but got quite good at.
I made the transition painlessly enough, and never regretted giving up music for what promises to be something far greater. After a while I stopped thinking much about the Beatles, who broke up just months after we did. The problems of being a faithful Witness and living life from day to day were enough to worry about.
The peace lasted for nine years. Then on December 8, 1980, I was watching the Monday Night Football game, when I heard Howard Cosell announce that John Lennon had been shot and killed outside the Dakota apartments. I had lived a block and a half from there while I still had my band, and lived there while I was first studying the Bible. By this time I was 37 years old, had a new wife (just over two years), was living in Arizona, had a stable life, and had been happily serving Jehovah for a dozen years. My former life was far behind me. But the impact of the news about Lennon simply numbed me, and for a while I was rendered speechless. I believe I even shed a tear or two. I recall being disturbed nearly to the point of depression for about two weeks as I reflected on memories of how deeply this man's artistic work had affected my personal life.
I'm at a loss to write a fitting conclusion to this piece, except to say almost every day of my life, even though my own life and ambitions are now profoundly different from what they were all those years ago, as I get ready to head out to work many mornings, I think about the fact that somewhere Paul McCartney, the Beatle I personally identify with most closely, took a shower and headed out to work, too, and I wonder what he is up to that day.
I still dream about sharpening my musical skills again and finding the perfect combination of kindred spirits to form a long-lasting quartet. And I still dream about doing "something wonderful" in my life, something artistic that many people will get enjoyment from.
It's all about a passion to create. It's about the dream of the Neologist, a person I hope to unearth in Jehovah's New World, a dream that has perpetuated itself and sustained me on a day-to-day basis for nearly thirty years.