Music, Audio, and Other Illnesses

Brothers In Arms

While I’ve been contemplating my next piece, I’ve been thinking about my last one, and about the man who introduced me to audio, my father. I would be very much remiss if I didn’t also give the nod to the people who brought the reality of music into our house: my brothers.

Originally I set out to simply tell a little of the tale of my encounters with Jack Casady and Phil Lesh. But there were others — the telling kind of snowballed. And the road that I’ve been on, while not directly attributable to my brothers, was, at least, indicated by them. And so I write this, again, to, hopefully, inspire some reflection on the part of those who read this as to how they came to encounter our shared passion.

I’m the youngest of three boys, and very much the beneficiary of that. It occurs to me now that I might have grown up in the most amazing era in America: not amazing for everybody of course — no time can be that (at least not until we get to the time of Star Trek). A few years ago, I heard a friend’s daughter complain about these times, and that he and I had it much better. And: well, maybe so. The modern lament is that we’ve had 40 years of gutting the financial hopes of people like me.

But even though we had very little money, the public schools where I lived were first-tier, and the freedom to explore was at its peak. There was a strong sense that life was what one made it. And I knew fairly early on that I was going to be an artist of some kind (after a brief flirtation with the romantic notion of becoming a scientist — all it would take would be a radioactive spider or exposure to a nuclear reactor). Although we rarely fought, in later years, my mother would try to take me to task for that decision. I said she should blame herself, along with all the other adults around. You can’t expect a kid who gets non-stop praise for having some artistic skill to be afraid to take it on full-time.

As I wrote a few months ago, I had intended the expression to be visual art. The handy thing there was that all those adults around could tell if I was any good or not. (The principal of my school took pity on me in third grade and pulled me out of our once-weekly art classes and appointed me as the school’s artist-in-residence — I do recall a bit of a fight she had with the art teacher over that in my presence). But anyway: something else was afoot, and that made its presence known to most of us on February 9th, 1964.

I’ve heard time and again the tale of kids in the 60s with older siblings: it was the same for me. I might have been 7 when the Fabs came to the US, but that would mean my brother Peter was 17. He got the message, even if I didn’t. I saw it, but it didn’t mean then what it would come to mean later. When he went off to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in Troy, NY to get a degree in aeronautical engineering, his record collection began growing, and it would follow him to south Jersey when he came home. And that’s when my awareness began.

As a little kid, I had thought of music as two things: classical and everything else. And everything else was just like TV — fun but disposable; even the Beatles. In fact, the Beatles proved it, by being available every Saturday as a silly-ass cartoon.

But Peter, on his visits, was always playing Dylan, and Baez, and then the Jefferson Airplane and the Doors, and then in 1967, when I was 10, he brought home Sgt. Pepper for my brother Bob (who was 11), and, well — that was that. As I’ve written before, I noticed a couple Beatles tunes before this,  “Eleanor Rigby” and “Tomorrow Never Knows”, which were unlike anything I’d ever heard. But when I heard “Within You Without You”, I knew that music was ART. Really knew. That it was as worth pursuing as anything else.

The next spring I asked for (and received) Magical Mystery Tour: my first record. And Peter brought home a record that I fell utterly in love with: The United States of America. I remember driving down Oxford Street in London in early ’69 and hearing singer Dorothy Moskowitz on the radio:

You will find them in her eyes

In her eyes

In her eyes

And I knew that when my feet were on terra firma again, when I was back in the States, I would nab it. And I did: that was my second record.

In the meantime, Bob had taken up the guitar before we left, and when we got back to the US, he started playing in earnest. I mean, for real. He was quite serious, and very soon became one of the best guitarists in the area, and was, stylistically, utterly his own man. It’s impossible to describe him back then, but I’ll try: he was utterly not-blues based — like a cross between John McLaughlin and Carlos Santana, in his melodicism. And then he started writing music, and it was gorgeous. This was my brother, writing like this. We both quit high school early to go to college, but he left Rutgers and went to Berklee (in Boston) at 16 with a letter of recommendation from Mike Mandel, Larry Coryell’s piano player — but only for a year. Later, Steve Swallow asked me where my brother had gone — he was in California by then — and said, “Anybody good leaves after a year.”

I didn’t get along with him very well: when I was 18 and planning to move to California to go to UC Berkeley, he called and invited me to come to San Diego instead to join his band with the something like the words “I don’t like you, but you’re the best bass player I know, and this band needs to be great.” I feel like a jackass for agreeing, but at the time, and for quite a while after, he was the best guitarist I knew — and his compositions were out of this world.

Peter and me in the Sierras, 1973.

Bob in the basement, circa 1970.

These days, Peter lives in Berkeley, Bob lives by the ocean, still plays and is a phenomenal guitar-tech, recently doing that on the road for the Eagles and Tom Petty’s band.  And we accept each other, sometimes grudgingly, sometimes not.

[Header pic is me and Bob, 1977.]