I was twenty-six years old when music died. It had been on life-support for a few years, slowly fading yet stubbornly hanging on like some brittle yellow leaf which refuses to let go of the twig and clings hopelessly as autumn turns to winter. When if finally succumbed, it was like losing a close friend. Indeed, it felt like losing my only friend.
When I was eleven, my sixth-grade music teacher, Mrs. Bailey, took it upon herself to teach our class to play the ukulele. Perhaps she was a glutton for punishment, a closet-masochist who secretly delighted in the thought of a discordant, atonal symphony of inattentive brats banging senselessly on cheap instruments. Perhaps she had noble intentions of inspiring greatness in us, nurturing a possible prodigy or two and instilling a life-long love of music in us, the unwashed masses. Or perhaps she was bored. Who knows? And what did it matter? A few weeks of playing “I’ve Been Working on the Railroad” and “Row, Row, Row Your Boat” and we’d be done with it and we’d move on to greater, less embarrassing things in life.
But a funny thing happened. I fell in love. I’d never really paid much attention to music up to that point in my life. I was too busy being a baseball fanatic or riding my bike or playing with my G.I. Joe or little green army men to pay much heed to the finer things in life. But there was something about this strange little instrument that spoke to me. And I listened.
My parents took me to the nearest music store, fifty-five miles from the family farm, and bought a $12 ukulele for me. Twelve bucks is a lot of simoleons when you’re eleven years old, and I felt as though I were being entrusted with a Stradivarius or a Stratocaster. It had that funky Hawaiian sound that reminded me of Don Ho and Tiny Tim, and those four black nylon strings seemed to hold some kind of power, some hidden knowledge that beckoned me.
Mrs. Bailey taught us a few rudimentary chords (and by “a few” I mean three or four), which was about all our little sixth-grade pea-brains could handle. We learned a couple of old standards and goofed around and honestly, I think Mrs. Bailey was either deaf or had cotton in her ears because no normal human could remain as cheerful and encouraging around a gaggle of sixth-graders armed with lethal ukuleles as she could.
I had a Mel Bay ukulele instruction book at home and I taught myself a few more chords and immediately set about writing my first song, an epic masterpiece titled “Pickles and Cheese.” Three chords can certainly go to a musician’s head—after all, many classic rock songs contain only three chords—and I was sure I had achieved my masterwork. My mistake was playing it for my mom one day. (Dear Reader, I beseech you, if you ever write a song for the ukulele, DO NOT PLAY IT FOR YOUR MOTHER OR YOU’LL LIVE TO REGRET IT.) For years afterward, every time we’d have visitors at the farm, my mom would excitedly proclaim, “Mike wrote a song on the ukulele called ‘Pickles and Cheese!’ Go get your ukulele and play it for EVERYONE!” And I’d shrink to about half-size and shake my head vigorously and slink off to hide somewhere. It never failed. My magnum opus had become an albatross around my neck and would surely spell my doom lest my mom eventually forget.
About this time I began taking a real interest in guitars. I wanted one desperately, but a guitar was much more expensive than a ukulele. My dad—always prone to making promises he would delightedly and gleefully break—told me he’d buy a guitar for me if I learned to play the ukulele. I’d already learned more than anyone else in my music class and I was eager to learn more because man, I really wanted a guitar. But there was no pleasing my dad, a guy whose soul held no light or warmth or mirth or hope or any sense of keeping his word. As the months rolled by, I continued to teach myself more on the ukulele and my dad refused to hold up his end of the bargain (a recurrent theme throughout my life). I was upset, frustrated that he seemed to take a sick sort of joy in breaking promises, and I eventually reached the point of giving up hope. Then Christmas arrived, and with it an amazing surprise from my mom.
She’d spent $100 of her own money on a used Kay hummingbird acoustic guitar. It wasn’t fancy and the action was too high but it was beautiful, cherry sunburst, and along with a case and a small bag of picks and an instruction book, it contained unlimited hope and potential. I really didn’t know what to think, I was so shocked. My dad was furious, of course, and yelled at my mom for doing something as outrageous as supporting her child’s dreams, and he made it clear to me many times that he’d break the guitar if I played too loudly. Yeah, he really knew how to ruin everything, and his threats and the way he treated my mom for doing something kind for me led to a sense of doom and guilt and embarrassment that would soon manifest itself in an unexpected way.
I played around with the guitar for a few days, then abruptly put it away. Looking at it made me feel worthless, undeserving, and my dad’s threats had destroyed any joy I’d felt when my mom had given it to me. I simply couldn’t bear to play it. So I put it away. For five years. And tried not to think about it, or music, anymore. My mom never said anything about this but I know it hurt her, and I don’t know if she ever understood why I gave up on it. I was too young to accurately articulate what was going on in my head. Fortunately, this hiatus would end just as abruptly as it had begun.
I was sixteen when I suddenly developed the urge to dig my guitar out of the closet. I’d become heavily interested in music by this time and I suppose this was a natural progression. I grabbed the song book that had come with the guitar and sat down in my bedroom and began teaching myself to play. It was as though a switch had been flipped, as if I had only been waiting for the right time to arrive, and that time had finally come. After two straight weeks of teaching myself chords, I began picking up songs off the radio and playing them. My hearing was normal back then and I had a good ear and could play songs after only a listen to two. I gravitated toward guitar-oriented music, of course, and for me this meant bands like Boston, Journey, Kansas, Styx, Rush, Eagles, Badfinger, Jefferson Starship, Aerosmith, Led Zeppelin and other rock bands whose songs were carried by the few radio stations I could pick up at the farm. I’d lie in bed at night with my little transistor radio under my pillow and listen to KOMA out of Norman, Oklahoma or X-Rock 80 out of Juarez, Mexico (both Top 40 AM stations) and dream of hearing my own songs play on those stations one day.
The summer of my seventeenth year, I had a job pumping gas at a Texaco station in town. Once again, my dad had made one of his sketchy promises: he would pay for an electric guitar if I’d pay for the amplifier. I’d already picked out the guitar I wanted and set about working to earn the money for the amp. Of course, my dad backed out again and I had to pay for both the amp and most of the guitar. He was angry because I was happy and had kept my end of the deal. When we went to the music store to pick up the guitar and amp, he said, “If you play that thing too loud, I’ll break it!” I mean, this guy had a natural talent for being an asshole. So, with Mr. Guilt Trip having said his piece, I set about exploring the world of the electric guitar.
I was writing music and lyrics by this point, and to say music—and guitar—had become an obsession for me would be quite an understatement. I was living and breathing music. When I wasn’t listening to music, I was playing my guitars. My mom told me many times that she’d lie awake in bed at night, waiting for me to return home from my job at the gas station, because she knew I’d play my guitar for awhile before I went to bed. I had no idea she had been doing this. It was incredibly touching, and I felt as though maybe there was someone who supported me after all.
Music was also my therapy. I grew up in a severely dysfunctional home where there was domestic violence. My dad was a monster who had no qualms about knocking his wife around now and then or making his kids hate themselves. I was my mom’s self-appointed protector. It was my job to make sure my dad couldn’t harm her, and it was an exhausting and never-ending job. And I mean that. Even today, at age fifty-seven, with both my parents gone, I’m still dealing with major depression and PTSD from my childhood and several events that took place involving my dad using physical violence against my mom. I had no close friends so I had no one to talk to about any of this. I was painfully shy and extremely introverted and suffering from more than my share of self-hatred. All I had were my guitars. I would pick them up and disappear into some alternate reality where things were peaceful and there was beauty and kindness and no violent, abusive fathers and no need for young boys to be hyper-vigilant to the point of developing major depression and PTSD. Music was my balm, my elixir, my panacea. I would oftentimes fall asleep with my guitar in my hands, having drifted off to the soothing tranquility of those six magical strings. Music was everything to me. It was life, it was hope, it was healing, it was safety. And it was all too fleeting.
By this point, my mind was made up. I was going to be a musician. I was going to start a band, write original songs, record albums and tour. It was going to be my songs I’d be hearing on KOMA and X-Rock 80, my albums I’d see in music stores, my band’s name on the marquees of venues across the land. Everything was set. All I had to do was continue playing, keep improving and never give up. Nothing could stop me.
Well, they don’t call me Captain Irony for nothing. In late winter of my senior year of high school, I developed meningitis during a basketball tournament at my school. It was my last hurrah as a high school athlete (one who had been relegated to the bench for the most part in football and basketball due to religious discrimination), and I ended up missing the state tournament. I was seriously ill, with a high fever that lasted for about a week. I’d never been that sick prior to that, and haven’t since. I missed two weeks of school. And thus began my journey into deafness.
It started slowly, with my family noticing I was saying, “Huh?” quite often. I began missing words on spelling tests at school—something that never happened before—due to not understanding what word the teacher was saying. As time went by, I began struggling to understand speech and ended up with my first pair of hearing aids (which didn’t help at all) at age twenty-one in 1985. I could still understand music for the most part, although I was beginning to have trouble with it, too. It took me longer to figure out songs, and there were many instances where I couldn’t decipher chord patterns or solos at all. But I kept playing because playing guitar was all I knew at that point. It was everything. The more I improved as a guitarist, the worse my hearing became. I continued writing music and absorbing whatever guitar-related literature I could get my hands on, but in the back of my mind I could feel things slipping away, and it frightened me.
Music died for me in 1990. I was twenty-six. I developed a serious bout of strep throat which infected my ears, and lost a huge chunk of my hearing. I was immediately tone-deaf. I recall trying to play my guitars after that and not being able to differentiate between notes and chords. Everything sounded the same. It felt like the wind had been knocked out of me. Just like that, my dream of being a musician was over.
I felt lost without my guitars. I’d always carried a guitar pick in my pocket everywhere I went. It was my lucky talisman. I reckon its luck had finally run dry. I could no longer improvise. I still knew how to play, but I wasn’t able to understand what I played anymore. I felt like that little sixth-grader noisily strumming the strings of that ukulele so many years ago before I had any idea what I was doing. All I had now were memories of music, memories of playing guitar.
What’s more, I had lost my therapist. I could no longer use my guitars to calm myself and keep myself sane in a crazy world. When I’d try playing, it just made things worse. The sense of loss was palpable and felt so unfair. I wanted to blame someone, something, for this mess, but there was no one to blame. I was sick as a teenager. I fell ill with meningitis during a basketball tournament. Years later, I came down with strep throat. That was it. I was angry at God for a long time (and I still have questions about it, let me tell you). Humans have a need to assign blame when things go wrong in order to maintain the facade of an orderly universe. When bad things occur, if we can pin the blame on someone or something, we set the world to order again and can go about our ways being angry at the person or thing that caused our pain as we grieve. But what to do when no one is at fault? There’s no closure. There are only questions that remain unanswered and which leave us with a sense of a universe that is totally random and merciless.
I have memories. Playing a classical piece in an ensemble at the regional music competition my junior year of high school. Late-night jamming with my drummer buddy Jeff at the school’s music room during freshman year of college. Recording myself jamming and being humbled and shocked and delighted at the reactions of people who listened to those jam tapes. And I still have my guitars, all three of them, in my closet as I type this. They will be with me always, even though I haven’t played them for years. I will remember falling asleep with my guitars in my hands, my arm-hairs vibrating to loud power chords, jamming alone with my eyes closed and my mind far, far away from all the pain and frustration of the real world.
I still have music, of sorts. My mind constantly has some background song or other playing at all times, something that’s been with me for decades—different songs for different occasions. During times of extreme stress, such as my mom’s death, my dad’s physically assaulting me and threatening to kill me, the ending of relationships, music was there in my head, working its soothing magic and holding me together. I can’t play my guitars anymore, nor can I understand any music that’s come out since 1990, but I have all those songs from my past that have never abandoned me. So, in a weird way, music is still the constant in my life, the linchpin, the cornerstone of everything I am. Put simply, despite being deaf, I can’t live without it. Yes, Captain Irony again.
7 thoughts on ““Coda: Farewell to a Dream””
You’ve been through so much, and I kept thinking while reading this, that I wanted to hear even more about your life. Have you ever thought about writing a complete autobiography?
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It’s strange, but I’ve had some other people tell me I should write a book about my experiences. I actually had sort of a fictional autobiography in mind a few years ago but never got anything written down. I suppose I see my own life as the apotheosis of banality (hmm…sounds like a good title for my life story!). I have a handful of other essays here that are sort of like “chapters” in my life, and while they’re focused on my deafness, they also explore other areas. I’m honestly humbled that anyone would want to learn more about my life. Your kind words are greatly appreciated. 🙂
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Oh you should then! And that’s a great title. Lol… Why not put all those chapters together. You’d have a book in no time! You know… November is National Novel Writing Month. Better known as NaNoWriMo. I participated once and wrote an entire book during that month. They generally recommend 50,000 – 60,000 words per novel. Perhaps you could write your autobiography? You’ve still got a few days to consider it at least for this year. I’m not participating this year. I think once was enough for me. But it was a fun challenge and I amazed myself that I could even do it. 😃
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I’ll bet that was an intense project! I’ll fiddle around and see if I can find more info on this. I wasn’t aware of it. I’m not sure if I could sustain a project that big over such a small window of time. It’s certainly intriguing, though. Thanks for this info, Michelle. 🙂
Here’s the link if you’re interested. 😉
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Thanks for the link! 🙂
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You’re welcome ☺️
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