My first musical instrument was the triangle in my kindergarten rhythm band, clearly the best one. The tambourines and maracas were a little too much like baby rattles, which we had only recently outgrown, and drumsticks without drums were anticlimactic, like the sound of one hand clapping. Cymbals had no tone and bells were just stupid.
A few years later, it was decreed that I take piano lessons like my older brother. Our father had been a concert pianist in his youth, and the first piece of furniture my parents bought when they married was a Mason & Hamlin baby grand from A Showroom. Apparently, my father preferred its bass registers to the Steinway he also auditioned.
My brother had learned to bang out "Country Gardens," emphasizing every note equally like a military march. He was praised mightily and enjoined to perform every time my parents had company. This charming ritual kept all but their most devoted friends from returning to our house a second time.
My piano teacher was Miss Kelly. She had stiff, cadaverish yellow hair and applied two perfectly round patches of rouge to her pale powdered cheeks that resembled unpressed linen. She sat next to me on the piano bench and spat when she spoke. Dodging spittle took all my effort and besides, I had very small hands so after a few months, we called it quits. My parents were probably as relieved as I was.
My father especially loved to play Chopin etudes, but sometimes he played Broadway show tunes and we all stood around the piano and sang. I had perfect pitch and was proud of my clear soprano voice. On singing nights I got sent to bed late. My brother locked himself in his room and my parents settled at the kitchen table for their nightly pot of coffee with milk and sugar. While my father smoked his last cigarette of the day, my mother washed their cups and saucers and they went to bed, too.
One winter’s night while walking home from school, I heard the strains of a violin through a window and sat on the curb long past dinner, transfixed. After a lot of begging, I got to take violin lessons. In six months I had worked my way through the first several lesson books, which normally takes years.
My teacher, who was first violinist with the Radio City Music Hall orchestra, told my father there was nothing more he could teach me. He urged him to arrange for lessons with a master teacher in Manhattan, but my father had no interest in driving to the city for this and arranged for my teacher to give him violin lessons instead so we could play duets. At first I thought he wanted to be closer to me, but what he wanted was to play better than me. Since he was already a brilliant pianist, I wished he would just accompany me on his own instrument and leave me to mine, but nobody asked my opinion.
My father played violin like my classmates sounded out "Dick and Jane." He forced me to practice with him, but it was painful to witness a beautiful instrument being violated nightly as few things sound as ghastly as beginning violin. Before long, I gave it up and never played again.
My father seamlessly returned to his beloved Chopin and I sang loudly in my room every night with the door closed. My target was Martin, the blue-eyed blond boy across the street, not my type but a boy nonetheless, and I needed the practice.
About this time I tried to write Popular songs, as they were called before Rhythm & Blues which became Rock & Roll, eventually morphing into simply Rock. I loved the music but noticed that the lyrics were often ungrammatical, and though I realized that grammar was being sacrificed for rhythm, I couldn’t bring myself to write double negatives. I hated that I was so uptight, but on a deep level I was terrified of sounding illiterate so my brilliant songwriting career never happened. I bootlegged a small radio under my pillow and listened to a New York DJ called Moondog play R&B every night until he went off the air at 2:30.
Years later, living in Nashville, I noticed that every other business was a pawn shop, filled mostly with musical instruments. In the heart of the country music Mecca is a soft underbelly I call the Boulevard of Broken Dreams, the place people come to become stars but mostly fail, even though some are immensely talented. I am not a country music fan, but have always wanted to write a song about the pawn shops of Nashville. Because it makes me cry. In my pickup truck. My Blue Tick Hound cries, too. Lord have mercy, it's enough to drive a body to drinkin' moonshine from my daddy's still after murderin' my cheatin' honky tonk boyfriend while awaitin' prison and redemption. My daddy was no coal miner, bless his heart, but maybe I could become obscenely rich, too, writing songs about poverty.