journey through the past – earliest memories

I’ve been meaning to start this blog for a long, long time, but I have felt, until this year, that the music had to take priority – and there was a large amount of work to be done over the past few years, rebuilding the web site and all the related work, getting my back catalogue digitised and uploaded, and so on… well, I needed to finish those tasks before I could stop and take the time to work on the blog.

2012 is maybe going to be a little different, I am hoping to produce a lot of new music, on video and in the studio this year; that goes without saying, but at the same time, this blog presents an opportunity to look back at my earliest musical experiences and influences as well as the current work.

rather than try to create a sequential history, which would probably be impossible anyway, I think what will work best is if I present this historical information in certain special editions of the blog, and for lack of a better title, I’ve borrowed one of my favourite neil young song/album titles – journey through the past – to represent those historical episodes.  this is the first of many posts that will look back at my memories, experiences and influences in detail.

here we go then!

my earliest memory of music is not really a memory but something that I was told later, I had a great, great love of records and the record player as a very small child, and I could not get enough of the children’s records I had.  I was born into the vinyl era, so vinyl is what I grew up with, but even as a very, very young child (i am told) I would insist that certain records be played over and over again – once was not enough – and I still to this day do exactly the same thing: if I like a piece of music, I might well play it over and over and over, but now, as an adult, the reasons for that are more complex than pure enjoyment – sure, it is enjoyment, but now too, it’s also the undeniable fact that each time you listen to a piece of music, you hear things that you may or may not have heard the last time you listened to it.

your perception of the piece changes.  you hear nuances, you hear details maybe, by listening in headphones that you would miss if you listened on speakers (and that is an entire other conversation that we will have at some point – listening) but for me, even the most familiar music can suddenly reveal a hidden beauty or unnoticed detail on my 300th listen.  stranger things have happened…

so from a very early age, records held a particular fascination for me, and I came to regard them as a hugely important part of life, without records, without music – life would be dull indeed!

the next memory is an actual memory, and a very vivid one – I can see the room still in my mind’s eye, I can see the piano at the back…but this is where it gets a little hazy, because I don’t know how old I was, my memory says “four” but it could have been earlier or later.  one of two possibilities here: either my parents took us to see the movie “exodus”, or, they had the soundtrack.  one way or another, I had heard this music…then, I walked up to the piano, and picked out the melody of “the theme from exodus” with frightening accuracy.  the music had obviously imprinted itself on my young mind, and it obviously stuck there, because I could “hear” the melody in my head, so it was just a case of picking out the right notes, which were easy to find.  I remember struggling a little, not quite knowing how to find the notes, then, finding them and knowing I was doing it “right”…

my parents were quite shocked by that, they realised what had happened, and unfortunately, I don’t know if that happened when I was 2, 3 or 4 years of age, or possibly a little older – but strangely, I can remember that exact moment, of sitting there at the piano, hearing the piece in my head, and then finding the notes that represented the melody.  I can even remember that I had to try different notes in order to find the right sequence, but the internal memory of the piece was so strong, that it was not a problem to pick out the melody – I just worked on it until it sounded right, and that was that.

of course, it wasn’t until many, many years later, that I realised I have what they call “an ear for music”.  now that’s a strange turn of phrase if there ever was one, but I suppose it’s as good as any way to describe it…photographic memory isn’t quite right, because it’s nothing visual, so “ear” makes sense – I hear a melody, and without any lessons or training or any idea of the real mechanics of playing that melody – I can just “pick it out” of the air, using the memory of the melody as my guideline.

this was a most useful talent to have as a young teenager, because I could learn songs without having to go through the labourious process of learning the piece through convential means (like lessons, or using chord books – although I’ve used a bit of both of those over time as an adjunct to the “ear”) – I could just do it by how it sounded – I could put on a record, and play along on my guitar – and just figure out the right chords and melodies to play.

going back to the earliest times for one more moment though, I do remember playing the piano quite a bit as a very young child, I loved to play it, but my parents did not immediately give me lessons – they just let me play.  and as I grew older, I found I could pick out more complex melodies, although there is absolutely a limit to how complex a piece can be and me still be able to “pick it out” – obviously, it works with music that is simple, but for example, if you played me “toccatta & fugue in d minor” by johann sebastian back, ok, I could probably pick out a few of the melodies right enough, but I would not be able to pick out all the parts – so extreme complexity, or extreme speed, defeats the “ear” – it’s not a perfect tool by any means (i wish it was!).

later on, when I was a bit older, my parents decided to give me some piano lessons, which was a very curious experience for me.  I loved music, I loved playing the piano, but…i was not interested in the lessons.  I tried, I really did, but I just didn’t “get” the whole process. first of all, why would you want to play all those duff, boring songs that inhabit so many beginning piano books?  why would you want to play any song that you…did not know and did not love?  so that was the first hurdle, having to try to play a song I had not “heard” – was just a struggle, and even if I learned it – unrewarding, because I didn’t “know” if I was playing it right, because I had no mental “version” to compare it to.

it became clear that lessons held no interest for me, I would rather go outside and play than be forced to learn “aloha oe” or “love me tender” arranged for idiot piano.  so the lessons were abandoned, and I returned to the world of learning piano by ear. I taught myself, slowly, note by note, chord by chord, but as much as it pains me to say it, I learned far more working on my own than lessons ever taught me.

later on, as my interest shifted to the guitar, I learned all my guitar chords, including sevenths and ninths and thirteenths and flatted fifths and so on – and then went back and reverse engineered them so I could play them on the piano – so learning the guitar enabled me to vastly improve what I was teaching myself on piano – and from then on, the two reinforced each other – everything I learned on one, I would replicate on the other (as much as possible, obviously) so that had a great leapfrog effect.  I also began to work with and understand music theory, oddly enough, learned completely by understanding chords.  but I will touch on that later on in the story…

at this point, I am going to jump forward from age 2 – 4 and those early piano melodies, to age 9, when music arrived for me in a very definite form: the beatles.  as a nine year old boy, while teenage girls were screaming about how cute the beatles were, I was glued to my tv set, watching george harrison play lead guitar and sing – and trying to understand how on earth he could do that.  the beatles’ music just nailed me to the wall, it was undeniable – rock and roll, but also, beautiful melodies and amazing vocal harmony – all of it just blew me away.

so at nine, I had my first musical ambition – to be george harrison.  if I am honest, I have never really stopped wanting to be george – because he is one of the most sublime guitarists in the world – who also introduced me (and a few million other people) to indian music, and george’s influence, while not possibly audible in most of my music, is nonetheless utterly undeniable.  I thought he was the best guitarist in the world, and in some ways, I was right about that – sure, later, people like hendrix arrived, who broke down a lot of barriers and amazed people like the beatles and george – and interestingly, george learned from jimi and jimi learned from george – but, especially as a slide guitarist, in some ways, george was always the best slide player (even a cursory listen to “all things must pass” or “living in the material world” or even the “imagine” album by john lennon – because he just did what was necessary, without fuss – he got in and played his solos, and got back out again – but I can remember watching him on television and being absolutely confounded by how difficult the riffs he played were, and how on earth could he sing while playing them?  fantastic.

that was my first introduction to the division of attention exercise which was to torment me many years later in the hands of fripp! so an obsession with the music of the beatles began, at age nine, and continues to this day.  I owned four beatles albums at age 9, of course, I learned many years later that those were not the “real” beatles albums, but instead, the capitol u.s. versions – but that was ok, because that then gave me the chance as an adult, to obtain and understand the real, british catalogue – so at last, I heard those albums as intended, sequenced as intended, and so on.

the other event that occurred when I was nine was I was given my first guitar.  and I did try to play it, but without lessons and without any other guitarists to guide me or teach me, I struggled mightily with it.  I think I learned a few chords from a book, and tried to play a few songs, but I also believe that at that age, I was just not quite ready to play seriously.

another quick fast forward, and now, at age 11, I am living near mityana, uganda with my family (my parents were teaching on a special us aid program that brought modern education to east africa – and my time in uganda will need to be the subject of another blog series entirely!) – by now, I had learned the basics, a few chords – three, I think, with a few others that were just too hard to make (like b7 !) – and I could play simple songs on my acoustic.  at some point when I was either 11 or 12, I asked for and got my first electric guitar and amp – a no name semi acoustic hollow body electric, which I brought home to san diego when I was 13 and used in my first bands.

having an electric guitar, well, that made me work much harder, to try and learn the songs of the day, but my technique and ability remained fairly limited – until I finally met another guitarist, a guy called bob martin (another child of another expat american family living in uganda who lived at the same college that I stayed at during the week for school – makerere university in kampala) – and he taught me something that changed everything – he taught me my fourth chord – but not just any chord – it was e major.  which of course is maybe the single most used chord in rock music – and, it featured in many of the songs that were then popular.  bob also had all the latest records from america, which he kindly played for me – he had a brand new record called “led zeppelin ii” (so that places this at 1970, I would have been 12 years old then), as well as an album by “the guess who” – these records were mind blowing in their guitar complexity!  I was very taken with them, I remember listening with great excitement to jimmy page’s amazing riff in “living loving maid” and thinking “how is that even possible?”…

so for some reason, at age 12, learning that fourth chord, the “rock” chord, opened the real floodgates.  suddenly, I could start to learn, by ear, rock music.  no more chord books, no more learning songs that I didn’t really know but were just in a book – I could learn the music I loved!

and that was it.  if I wanted to learn it, I would just play the single over and over and over on my portable philips record player – play along on my electric or acoustic guitar, and I could learn these songs!  creedence clearwater revival was just getting big, and their songs were just right for someone of my age and experience, so along with the music of the beatles, which I had always tried to play, I could add, eventually, ccr, tenative attempts at led zeppelin songs, and a host of others, to my growing repertoire.

this is why, when I look back now, that I place two critical events at two certain times: age approximate 4 (which I suspect but cannot prove may have been as early as 2 or as late as 5) when I began playing the piano, and age 13, when I really started to play the guitar seriously (despite having a guitar since age 9, I really didn’t learn much until I was 12 or 13) – so those are definitely two musical landmarks in the musical life of dave stafford.

~ to be continued ! ~

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