“the great circus train wreck of 1918” – the residents (2017)

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Last week, I had the privilege of seeing The Residents perform at the Old Town School of Folk Music.  It was the loudest show I had ever seen at that venue and was a mesmerizing spectacle to watch.  This was my first time seeing the legendary multimedia avant-garde group live and it was not a show to miss.

For those unfamiliar with The Residents, their story and image outside of their music is also a point of fascination.  They are an American art collective that have been active since 1969.  They combine avant-garde music with multimedia presentations as part of their performances.  These pieces come together to create a sonic and visual aesthetic that puts the audience in a strange dreamscape.

Since the release of their first album Meet the Residents in 1974, they have developed a cult following over the last five decades.  In addition to the strange art music they compose, part of the band’s appeal concerns the mystery that surrounds the group.   The members of the group operate through a management team named the Cryptic Corporation which allows them to maintain a certain level of anonymity.  While the members of the band have changed over the years, very little is known about them.  Early in their career, rumors circulated that the band members were actually the Beatles since Meet the Residents parodied the album cover for Meet the Beatles!

In addition to hiding behind a management company designed to protect their identities, The Residents also wear elaborate costumes that simultaneously protect their identity as well as enhance the visual aspect of the show.  Most famously, the band wears a costume featuring a large eyeball helmet, top hats, and tuxedo; an image that has become iconic for the band.  Their costumes frequently vary, but they are all elaborate and the right amount of creepy.

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At the show at Old Town, they stayed true to their signature aesthetic.  The stage featured a large blue and white checkered backdrop with their iconic eyeball breaking up the pattern every so often.  There was also a large giant ball that was used as a screen to project animated videos of people reciting dreams.  On this ball, John Wayne talked about his nightmare of a disappearing ballerina, Mother Theresa shared her dream about a train wreck, a scary clown dreamt about being a cowboy, and Richard Nixon professes his dream of being a blues singer.  These unsettling animated videos appeared after three or four songs and evenly broke up the set.

I had never seen The Residents live before, but I am a little familiar with their music after being turned onto them by a college roommate.  What I expected was what I heard on records before.  I expected strange, high-pitched vocals with various rhythmic noises that sounded like they belonged in a circus (“Constantinople” for example).  However, what I got was much different but incredibly exciting.

Since I had never seen the band before, I didn’t know how faithful they were to the source material.  Based on this performance, I would say rarely.  The show I saw at Old Town was droning, industrial noise rock.  I find that music to be really cool, but this was so unexpected.  I watched each member of the band closely and was amazed by their level of skill and mastery of electronics.  The guitarist was stunning and perhaps one of the best guitarists I have ever seen live.  He style was a progressive rock vibe on par with performers like Frank Zappa or King Crimson.  The guy behind the synthesizer played these great droning pieces that really laid down a template for the show and where the others in the band could start from.

The drum, however, was my favorite.  He played on a small electric kit, but had various sequencers and programming tools that really made his sound bigger than it appeared.  He made sounds and rhythms that suggested he was supported by a larger group of musicians.  I watched him the most because I wanted to discern what sounds he contributed and how he did it.  When he hit a pad and a cymbal noise in reverse played, I was losing it.

The leader singer, an older gentleman and original member, had this great sinister vibe going on.  He would lurch around on stage and appear menacingly as he growled lyrics like Tom Waits.  And for a man his age, he sure had a set of pipes on him as demonstrated by various screams and yells that sounded like he was unleashing hell hounds.

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The costumes were excellent as well and added a surreal vibe to a darkly energetic show.  The intimidating lead singer wore a silly cow costume and fake cow nose, but it didn’t detract from his performance.  On the contrary, it elevated it.  The other members were dressed in suits with the same blue and white checkered backdrop.  However, they also wore plague doctor masks, dark lenses, and white bowler hats that added a level of black humor to the whole experience.

The show was absolutely wonderful even if I didn’t recognize most songs.  Turns out that some of the songs are preview tracks for an upcoming blues album.  The album also performed industrial covers of Elvis Presley’s ”(Let Me Be Your) Teddy Bear,” “Six More Miles (to the Graveyard)”, and James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s Man’s Man’s World.”

In 2017, The Residents released their 43rd studio album The Ghost of Hope.  While none of the songs from the album were performed at this show, one of the tracks has callbacks to the Mother Theresa train wreck dream.  “The Great Circus Train Wreck of 1918” is a seven-minute nightmare with drawling vocals, synthesized organ music, and a droning backdrop that sounds ghostly and sinister. In the song, the lead singer is a clown that is having an emotional breakdown following the circus train wreck and reminisces about the funeral the day after the show.  While Mother Theresa’s dream varied slightly in details and delivery, the vibe is similar.  “The Great Circus Train Wreck of 1918” is an uncomfortable, but entrancing listening experience that is not unlike Tom Waits’ spoken interludes like “What’s He Building?” from 1999’s Mule Variations.

The Residents are not for everyone.  It is a strange and polarizing band that is very confusing and sometimes frightening.  However, if you want an unforgettable concert experience, check them out as soon as you can.

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“love your neighbor” – ladysmith black mambazo (1990)

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I have been volunteering at the Old Town School of Folk Music for nearly three years.  Volunteering there was a great outlet for a few different reasons.  For one, it was a way to give back to my community.  Secondly, the added experience looks great on a resume.  Finally, and perhaps best of all, I get points that I can apply towards discounted music classes or free concert tickets.  Being an active volunteer has helped with my guitar playing hobby and seeing some great acts.

On Saturday, I took a friend to see Ladysmith Black Mambazo.  I had originally seen the famous South African a capella group back in 2012 also at the Old Town School of Folk Music.  I was really excited for that show.  I had recently watched a screening of a documentary at the Music Box Theatre called Under African Skies.  That documentary was about Paul Simon revisiting South Africa to celebrate the 25th anniversary of his album Graceland which prominently featured members of Ladysmith Black Mambazo and would subsequently launch them on the world stage.  That show in 2012 was remarkable and a real treat.

The funny thing is that when I posted about seeing the group in 2012, I got a lot of comments from people saying they didn’t know they were a real group.  The group is a memorable punchline in the 2004 film Mean Girls.  That seemed so strange to me.  Ladysmith Black Mambazo was founded in 1960 by Joseph Shabalala and has seen numerous iterations over the years. The current iteration features four of the founders’ sons. Granted they weren’t world-renowned figures until Paul Simon came along, but they always seemed ubiquitous to me.  One of those entities you had heard of even if you may not know a single thing about them or their work.  However, for millennials, that cultural reference point is a film comedy which led them to believe it was just a made-up name.  It is funny how things work out like that.

Anyway, back to 2018.  My friend was also one of those people who only knew the name through the association in Mean Girls and that they were involved with Paul Simon.  She didn’t know what the show and experience of watching the group would consist of.

Seeing Ladysmith Black Mambazo is a real treat.  First and foremost, they are an a capella group.  That is the heart of their talent and they excel at that.  Shabalala started the group after hearing certain isicathamiya (traditional music of the Zulu people) harmonies in his dreams.  This vocal presentation is highly rhythmic which each member devoted to a specific part often with a lead driving the group with their own chant.

The singing is amazing, but only scope of the group’s appeal with a live setting.  Their performance is also very visual and physically active.  Members of the group will make hand gestures or perform chorus line type kicks that add to the spectacle.  Towards the end of the performance, various members will perform highly rhythmic dances that incorporate their own traditional ethnic influences as well as some humor in the form of physical comedy.  It is completely unexpected and keeps you engaged.

Seeing Ladysmith Black Mambazo is great because of their vocal talents coupled with the lively dancing.  I knew that when I saw them in 2012 and I knew I would love it again in 2018.  However, there was one aspect of this particular performance that stood out.

Part of the audience was really vocal during the performance.  They chanted and sang along and communicated with the performers.  At first, I really couldn’t make out what exactly was going on.  Midway through the show, when one of the performers was talking about being homesick, the people in the audience who were making noises earlier yelled out “you’re making all of us homesick.”  Then it struck me and everything started to make sense. They were Afrikaners.

This past week, I have been reading David Byrne’s How Music Works.  In the book, he breaks down how music fits in our world, specifically the physical aspect, and affects our culture.  His book covers industry-specific issues such as how to market music that is made, but he primarily talks about the process of making music and how the music that is made is indicative of our surroundings.  There’s a lot he covers in the book, but one aspect he touches upon is relevant here.  He talks about the role of the audience in Western society.  In the early 1900s, in large concert halls where classical music was performed, audiences weren’t quiet and focused on the performances with rapt attention.  They mingled and chatted and the music served as part of the background.  Over the last century, that has completely changed.  Especially when it comes to specific types of music and venues.  We are now expected to be quiet and not be distracting.

That’s with regards to Western audiences.  Byrne also provides examples where the exact opposite happens now.  Byrne talks about his experiences seeing local music in places like Africa and Bali where music and the performance of music is a more communal thing.  In places like that, music is more of something one does as opposed to being someone one sees.  It is also interactive and inclusive and people participate as they see fit.

Given that context, I understood the need for these Afrikaners to interact with the performers.  Even without reading Byrne’s analysis, I wouldn’t have minded their excitement.  The music was moving them that much and it is ridiculous that the non-Afrikaners were expecting them to be quiet and not enjoy their native land’s music as they saw fit.  Seeing that during the week I’m reading a book on the topic is just serendipitous and reinforces that there is a vast array of ways to enjoy music.

One thing I love about Ladysmith Black Mambazo is their positivity and humanism.  Most of the songs introduced at the concert were prefaced with short stories or proclamations about loving everyone regardless of their race.  One song that stuck out for me from the concert was “Love Your Neighbor.”  The track was originally released and recorded on their 1990 studio album Two Worlds, One Heart.  It was later re-recorded for their 2017 compilation Songs of Peace & Love for Kids & Parents Around the World.

In the re-recorded version, there is an introduction.  The speaker says “We all have friends and neighbors. People who live close to us. We call this our community. It is important to love everyone in our community and to show love and respect to your neighbors. If you can do this, then they will show love and respect to you.  This is how we all can help to make the world a better place.”  This sentiment was also shared with audience at Saturday’s performance.

The news in recent weeks has been terrible.  The school shooting in Florida has been devastating and has driven the same dialogue and inaction we have seen time and time again over the years.  It is numbing and I feel certain that nothing will change, but then I see the children from that school speak to crowds and march in the streets and it gives me hope.

One of the performance form Ladysmith Black Mambazo, when introducing another song, said that there will always be tough times.  However, tough times don’t last but strong people do.  Keeping that in mind along with taking the time to understand, respect, and love our neighbors is what is going strengthen our world.  And it is amazing to have those feelings reaffirmed and made prescient through music.  Music that can inspire us whether we watch it with all the attention we can muster or whether we participate in whatever way that moves us.

“flaming pie” – paul mccartney (1997)

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Summer is a funny season when it comes to my schedule.  I always think I’m going to take it easy each summer, but I find myself much more active than any other time of the year.  This summer has been full of media league softball games, volunteering, festivals, and music classes.  All I want to do during the summer is to just enjoy the lovely weather at my leisure and not rush. However, that doesn’t happen.  Things are happening and I want to be involved.  I guess it is a subconscious need to not take opportunities for granted because it will all be over someday.

I started my week thinking it was going to business as usual.  I was thinking about my normal routine of commitments and extracurricular activities and trying to balance those with a healthy social life while trying not to neglect personal self-care time (try to at least).  A friend had invited me to a show at Millennium Park, but I declined because that conflicted with my class.

A few weeks ago, I enrolled in my first ensemble class at the Old Town School of Folk Music. My options were limited because I didn’t want to book a class on the weekend (I’ll usually do that during winter time).  Mondays were dedicated to softball, Tuesdays were volunteer nights, and the other nights of the week were where I try to fit errands, chores, and other mundane life stuff.  So, the only day I felt comfortable filling was Wednesday.

The only ensemble class available to me that was convenient was the Beatles ensemble.  According to the class description, we were going to work on Abbey Road.  I thought that was pretty cool.  I had been thinking of taking an ensemble class since it was recommended to me by my previous instructor.

When I went to my first class a few weeks ago, I was confused by what was going on.  Immediately, we just started playing through Let It Be in its entirety.  And not only that, but everyone knew the songs really well.  I had later learned that the ensemble class has been meeting for a long time and they had been working on Let It Be a lot so they could play some cuts at the Square Roots festival put on by the school.

While that is all well and good, I had to quickly adjust to this new class format.  Previously, in the core guitar classes, we would be given a song or two while the instructor goes over the strumming pattern, chords, and any applicable riffs.  We would work on small parts of the songs together focusing on repetition so we could get muscle memory down before playing through the song a few times.  That influenced my expectation about how this ensemble class would go.

While I am fairly decent at the guitar, I’m still at a lower skill level than many of my classmates.  So, this class for me was like being thrown into the deep end of a pool and learning to swim out of fear of drowning.  There was no breaking down the songs like my previous classes, so the method of learning was different.  While intimidating, there is still some value to this.  It teaches me to play with people and to keep up.  And all the while I’m thinking, thankfully no one can hear how bad I am playing right now because there are so many other skilled performers playing in unison.

That class has been going for a few weeks.  And, on Monday morning, I was fully expecting to go to class.  By the end of the day, things would change.

I was at the gym and got an email from a classmate.  I opened it up while on the Stairmaster and I almost fell off out of surprise.  This email was saying that the ensemble class was being invited to go to the Paul McCartney show at Tinley Park for free and that our visit would include access to the sound check.

How awesome is that?!  I immediately went to Google Maps to see how I could get to the Hollywood Casino Amphitheatre where Paul was playing.  To my dismay, it wasn’t accessible by the Metra.  I replied asking if anyone wanted to carpool.  I got an affirmative.  Great!  Next was to ask for the time off at work so I could make it to the sound check and rearranging my already packed schedule.  But, hey, moving scheduled errands around is a small price to pay to see Paul McCartney.

In my excitement, I went through some storage boxes to find my concert shirt from the last, and only, time I saw Paul McCartney.  That was July 26, 2010.  I had just recently graduated college and was about to temporarily relocate to Alaska to work on some projects.  Paul had scheduled a stop in Nashville on his cheekily named Up and Coming Tour.  This was significant because this would be Paul’s first time playing Nashville in any incarnation of his long and winding career.  I wasn’t going to miss this chance to see a Beatle.

The show was great.  I had nosebleed seats because I was a recent graduate who didn’t’ make that much money.  Still, it was a memorable experience.  I had a great time.  I was satisfied that I had seen a Beatle.  In the last seven years, Paul has toured a few times.  Even Ringo went out and played some shows.  However, as much as I love them and knew it would be a great show, I never had the urge to go back out to a show.  Big concerts can get expensive and I was satisfied with my one-time experience.  Though, that attitude changed for this show.  It was free and I had a ride.

Currently on his One on One tour, Paul was originally scheduled to play one show at Tinley Park.  Due to overwhelming demand, a second show was added and that was the show the ensemble class was invited to. I left work at noon and met a classmate at the Old Town School.  She had agreed to drive a couple of us to the show.  We had to get to the venue by 3:30. Along the way, we encountered a lot of heavy stop and go traffic on the interstate which extended our original 60-minute drive to a 90-minute drive.  We passed the time with stories, good conversation, and some Beatles music when the traffic let up.

We get to the venue and stand around for about an hour waiting for the sound check to start.  I mingled with classmates and met some people affiliated with the school who tagged along for this adventure.  Funny enough, I was the only one wearing a Beatles shirt in any form.  Mine was the tour shirt from the show I saw in 2010.  No one else was wearing any Paul or Beatles shirts which seemed funny to me.  That is the kind of thing you think about while you’re waiting around for a once in a lifetime experience such as seeing a Paul McCartney sound check.

After an hour, we get ushered in to take out seats.  A sound check coordinator was going over some details with us.  Standard stuff like don’t take videos (pictures were fine) and to dance around having a good time.  Paul doesn’t like people standing there looking at phones or with arms crossed which made sense.

Paul arrived via helicopter and took the stage a few minutes later.  After playfully addressing the hundred or so people in the sound check audience, the band started performing.  This was incredibly exciting.  It was like a personal concert.  Paul played for 45 minutes testing various guitars, pianos, and a ukulele.  He opened up jamming a rockabilly instrumental.  The rest of the set included various Wings, Beatles, and solo songs as well as covers like “Midnight Special.”  The variety was cool and I loved hearing “Only Mama Knows” from his underrated 2007 album Memory Almost Full.

After the sound check, we waited around for the show.  And, naturally, the show was stellar.  Paul played a 39-song set!  And what is great about a career like his is that almost every song is a classic.  He even pulled out deep cuts like the offbeat “Temporary Secretary” from his second solo album.  Paul would also connect with the audience by telling stories in between songs that showed off his humor and appreciation for being there.  Songs from the Beatles and Wings catalogue were featured quite extensively.  However, he also played cuts from his latest album New released in 2013 as well as the track “FourFiveSeconds” which he recorded with Rihanna and Kanye West.  He made a point to tell the audience that “FourFiveSeconds” was the most recent song he recorded (released in 2015) because, earlier in the set, he played “In Spite of All the Danger” which as the earliest tune he had ever recorded when he was a member of the pre-Beatles skiffle group the Quarrymen.

Paul has had such an amazing career.  So many great songs that will last generations.  To only pick one song from his discography was an absolute challenge.  There are songs from his solo career that I have loved since high school.  And since I have already covered the Beatles in this blog, I cannot go pick a song from their stellar catalogue.  Perhaps Wings?  Or maybe even a track from his side projects like the Firemen? Why not a solo song from the concert?

So many songs to consider, but I think I’ll stray off the path of mainstream (or as non-mainstream as I can get with a Beatle).  Flaming Pie was released in 1997 and recommended to me by a friend in college.  While it is not the most obscure entry in his career (did you know he has put out classical music compositions?), I appreciate the album for it’s sound and context.

Prior to its release, the Beatles Anthology project was being released.  This include the documentary plus three double-disc albums over two years.  Paul was working on tracks for Flaming Pie as early as 1992, but the studio executives asked him to not release any materials until the anthology project was concluded.  Paul, at first did not like that decision but came around to see that it made sense. Not only did it make sense from a marketing and sales perspective, it also gave Paul an opportunity to focus his complete attention on the anthology project and the history of his own band.  Paul described the experience “was a refresher course that set the framework for this album.”

“Calico Skies” was the first song written for the record.  And it is certainly my favorite song from the album.  However, the album-titled track is the one I listen to the most.  “Flaming Pie” is simply just a fun song and an overlooked entry in his vast catalogue.  It is utter nonsense with a jovial backing track.  It puts me in a good mood with its absurd imagery.  It is a track that perfectly represents Paul.

I’m not sure if I’ll ever get the chance to see Paul perform again.  I didn’t expect to after the 2010 concert.  However, life is full of surprises and opportunities.  The key is to know what to do when that happens.

“metamorphosis two” – philip glass (1989)

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Music is something I love very much, but there also times where I can become utterly bored by it.  In the Internet age, there is so much music available to us.  We have the ability to access anything at anytime and anywhere.  It is quite remarkable really.  With all of the world’s resources and information a few keystrokes away, you would think there could be no conception of boredom again.  In reality, not so much.

Our society suffers from the freedom of too much choice.  In Ben Ratliff’s book (which I’ve mentioned a few times in this blog), Every Song Ever: Twenty Ways to Listen in an Age of Musical Plenty, he addresses this dilemma.  You would think that unlimited choice would motivate a listen to explore more, but it actually does the opposite.  It only reinforces the listener’s habitual music listening trends.  They become less susceptible to discovering new music.  They know what they like and they can instantly access it whenever they want.

Summer 2014, I was getting bored by the music I was listening to.  I am pretty adventurous when it comes to the music I consume, but I do have my preferences.  I listen to a lot of soul, punk, post-punk, new wave, alternative rock, and other subgenres stemming from western pop/rock/soul music.  I love this music.  This bothered me.  Dismayed, confused, and seeking answers, I vocalized my increasing boredom on social media.  A close friend joked that I should listen to Gregorian chants and others felt I was being pretentious; a typical recyclable comment completely devoid of substance that contributes nothing. I didn’t get much support in terms of recommending music outside of my immediate comfort zone and I started to think about our culture’s music consumption.

Music lovers take pride in the music the consume.  We all do.  However, there seems to be this myopic viewpoint that the pinnacle of musical achievement is inherently Western (specifically American and English) and blues/country in origin (most derivatives of modern popular music stem from those).  Look at any music publication listing their picks of the best albums of all time.  You’ll find that the overwhelmingly majority fit within those categories.  And if you listened to anything other like jazz, you’re regarded as kind of a freak and an outcast whose fringe tastes are out of touch with society.  Even think about the term “world music.”  I cannot think of a more unrepresentative and unimaginative name than that.  We have dozes of names for every facet of popular music, but the rest gets denigrated to “world music” as if music fans view it as a clear-cut case of “us and them.”  It fascinates me to hear music fans talk about how much they love music and then recite a few subgenres that are not really that different from each other barring minor aesthetic differences.

I’ve come to terms with my music boredom.  It comes in waves.  When I find myself tired of my favorite artists, I make an effort to expand and cleanse the palate.  Artists like Sun Ra, Ray Lynch, Miles Davis, and Jocelyn Pook have all helped me to break away from the monotony and I’m thankful for them.  It is my goal to hear as much as I can and to learn about them as much as I can, but it takes time.  They have whole groups of fans who have been listening for years.  I am merely an outside looking in.  However, above all of them, the artist that I return to the most during these times is the inimitable Philip Glass.

My first exposure to Glass was through my university’s library.  They had a pretty small CD collection.  Even my regional library in Chicago surpassed theirs.  So, I got through albums fairly quickly.  In 2008, my junior year, I came across Music in Twelve Parts, a three-disc collection featuring twelve parts of a larger composition.  I loved this album.  It was dynamic and complex.  I would listen while walking, studying, or just to listen to.

Glass has composed and records hundreds of compositions.  His natural gift is astounding and he has played music all his life.  It was incredibly fascinating to think that he could pursue and succeed at his craft because he was essentially born to do it.  You would have better luck winning the lottery.

Last month, I had the privilege to see Glass perform some solo piano compositions at the Old Town School of Folk Music in Chicago.  He played four complete compositions for just a little over an hour.  One of the pieces he played was “Metamorphosis,” a composition released in 1989 on Solo Piano and inspired by Franz Kafka’s 1915 short story.  “Metamorphosis” is a hauntingly beautiful piece with five parts.  Glass is known for her calculated repetition and there is plenty of that in this composition as well as moments of complex dynamic changes that almost seem inhuman to play.

While “Metamorphosis” is meant to be enjoyed in it’s entirety, each of the five parts have their own distinctive qualities that are okay to enjoy as singular entities.  It is the second part I find the most fascinating.  The way Glass’ fingers flutter across the keys at such a concentrated and controlled speed is breathtaking.  You’re listening closely to hear his patterns until these moments of bliss break through and startle you with an excitement and fervor that makes you glad to be alive.

Admittedly, there is no way I am doing Glass justice at all.  I simply cannot.  I’ve only been listening for a few years and I am not knowledgeable in music composition where I can adequately break the piece down.  I do not know how it is made.  And there is beauty in that.  I don’t have to think.  I am a stranger in this land.  I have no knowledge of the customs or traditions.  All I know is the energy and life I am sensing around me.  We may not be able to speak the same language, but we can at least feel the same.

Glass is someone I need to listen to more.  To distinguish him as something as insulting as a “palate cleanser” is just wrong.  He is so much more than that.  But, I am a man of varied tastes.  I want to hear and experience as much as I can.  I also want to enjoy the things that I love.  I know what I like and I want to hear more of it.  Everyone is like that.  That is where we get our joy, but you can still respect and find joy in a form you cannot understand.  I want my musical world to be bigger and I want that for everyone else as well.  Let’s get people to understand that there is more out there than what we hear on the radio, in television commercials, or in movies.  Let’s quit thinking that the best our culture must offer comes from what is immediately around and instantly familiar.  The world is much bigger than that.

“daydream believer” – the monkees (1967)

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For the last six months or so, I’ve been taken guitar classes at the Old Town School of Folk Music in the Lincoln Square neighborhood of Chicago. Growing up, I loved listening to music, reading about music, and talking about music. However, I couldn’t play music. I never really took to a musical instrument growing up. It would make sense to assume I knew how to play at least one instrument, but that was not the case.

In early 2014, I changed jobs from one where I had absolutely no free time to a job that had normal hours and provided me with adequate leisure time. I realized something after that transition. I did not have any hobbies that I enjoyed doing. For nearly three years, I was working 60-70 hours a week and was so exhausted in my off time that I didn’t take time for myself. Ultimately, this was quite alarming for me.

After some time, I decided that I wanted to learn an instrument. Though, I didn’t know what I wanted to learn. Immediately, I blew off the notion of learning guitar simply because that is everyone’s first instrument. I wanted to be different and learn something more esoteric just because it would be different. I couldn’t afford classes yet, so I promised myself I would have my mind made up by the time I saved up enough to take a course. Classes at Old Town are nearly $200 for an 8-week course. My new job didn’t pay as well, so I was intimidated about spending so much money on something for fear I would just give up on it. I’m a practical and pragmatic person, but I wasn’t sure if I could be committed to something enough to want to spend that much money unless it was a sure bet. I personally felt that I wouldn’t learn how to play anything all that well, would become frustrated by my inability to get better, and just give up However, I set that goal to have the money saved up and at least try out one course.

Things changed a lot that summer and I had to postpone taking classes. Within one week, my job’s Chicago office laid the entire staff off and I moved out of my girlfriend’s place after we broke up. I’m a very responsible person and take measures to make sure I can take care of myself. Expenditures like guitar classes would have to wait while I focused on finding work and taking low-paying temp assignments for the foreseeable future.

When one of my temp jobs became a permanent position when the company hired me, the idea of taking classes resurfaced. However, I still couldn’t justify spending so much money for something I doubted I would be any good at. Due to the fact my recent temp assignments didn’t pay all that well, I had to focus on saving money. I was talking to a friend of mine about learning an instrument and they told me that volunteers at Old Town could take classes. I used to work so much with no time to focus on other things I was passionate about. My new job had normal hours. I like staying busy and with all this new free time, I could somehow make that time work for me. I looked into it and set an appointment to attend a volunteer orientation. The idea was that I could volunteer to not only build up my resume, but also help me reconcile with the money issue but working towards a class using volunteer discounts.

I’ve been volunteering at Old Town for nearly a year. Since I started, I’ve been working every week in their resource center; a vast collection of twenty-thousand records, CDs, and books. I was surrounded by music and could play anything I wanted. And after seven weeks, I could earn the maximum discount. This worked well because I could earn that discount by the time the course finished it’s eight week run. Volunteering meant I would be working towards something instead of just flippantly spending money. This made me appreciate things and wanted to learn an instrument even more because I had put more effort into things. It felt like something I earned rather than something I bought.

Despite my early bias, I ended up picking guitar as my first instrument. After all, there is a reason why it is nearly everyone’s first instrument, right? Last night, I participated in the student showcase on behalf of the Guitar II course; the third course in Old Town’s guitar program following Guitar I and Guitar 1 Repertoire. In these class, we strengthened our work on riffs carried over from lesson in Guitar 1 Repertoire as well as becoming introduced to the capo and alternate bass strumming (think Johnny Cash’s playing style). For the showcase, we chose to either play “Country Roads” by John Denver to show off our alternate bass skills, or “Daydream Believer” by the Monkees because of it’s riff and two different Bm chord styles. The class picked “Daydream Believer.”

When I was in high school, I loved listening to the Monkees. My mother burned me a copy of Pisces, Aquarius, Capricorn & Jones Ltd. that I listened to repeatedly. I knew they had a reputation of being a silly, TV band. I didn’t care. I was impressed with their cartoonish charm. When I went to college, they fell off my radar. These things happen. Though when we started to practice the song in class, I began to appreciate the music again. Before, I was the casual listener. The harmonies, psychedelic riffs, and rock rhythms were all I needed and it was fine because I was really listening. Now fifteen years later, things were different. I knew the songs. I couldn’t forget them because I could replay them in my head. But now, with the chord sheet in front of me, it was like I was experiencing the song for the first time again.

Davy Jones leads the vocals on “Daydream Believer,” but I wouldn’t dare sing it. I don’t fancy myself a good singer and either way, I was there to learn guitar. The horns that make up the riff between the verse and chorus on the track had been translated to individually picking G and B strings with specific fret placement. Even the lyrics changed for me. I think you tend to understand more of something when you play it yourself than when someone is doing it for you. What always sounded like a lilting, fluffy love song to me before carried more poetry when I was learning the song’s moving parts as if each word had a specific purpose or weight. Whenever I listened to a musician talk about learning a song and breaking down it’s parts, I finally understood now.

I often joke about how terrible I am at the guitar after a couple of classes. The truth is, I’m not that bad. I am where I should be. I’m still a beginner but I’ve made a lot of noticeable improvement since I first started. Playing the song was an incredibly fun experience. We performed on Old Town’s main stage that has hosted several decades of amazing talent including Patti Smith, Ladysmith Black Mambazo, Steve Martin, Pete Seeger, and so many more. I had walked on the stage before, but not like this. I wasn’t nervous (which is rare for me). I was completely relaxed and in sync with the song in the same way I listened to it as a kid with my eyes closed on the school bus or on my bed.

I’m eager to see what the rest of the program has in store for me. I wish I had learned to play earlier, but part of me is glad I didn’t. Perhaps I wasn’t ready for the challenge. Perhaps I needed to get comfortable with things. A lot had disruptions had entered my life and I had to set my priorities. Things are great and I’m happy with the direction I’m going. I’m busy a lot and don’t get a lot of alone time, so it does get exhausting. However, I have to get it where I can because something can always come up and put a halt to your plans. Life happens. Until then, I’ll just be monkeying around and too busy singing to put anybody down.