Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Cookie-tin Banjo

Really lovely little song this. A James-Taylor-like ode to childhood and the lasting impact our parents have on who we are. It's perhaps a little over sentimental, but I'm a secret sucker for that sort of thing. I won't lie; it made me cry.

It's not hard to guess why this song would have such an effect on me, after all, my father has an old guitar and he plays me folk songs. I grew up in a house full of musical instruments and music, with both parents playing the guitar and singing. Growing up I thought it was completely normal to be lulled to sleep by your mother singing Irish folk songs ('she is handsome, she is pretty, she's the belle of Belfast city') and woken by your dad playing raucous dixieland jazz on his guitar, making silly trumpet noises with his mouth for accompaniment.

Unlike the singer, however, this musical home never inspired awed reverence for music as a child. I would sit at my dad's knee and listen as he played his songs for maybe 40 seconds before ricocheting off on some hyperactive tangent. When he played me silly songs to wake me up in the morning I'd snarl and thrash as if it was just another alarm clock. I wonder if perhaps the ubiquity of music made it fade into the background somehow. Just something that was always there.

I liked music, don't get me wrong -- there were numerous albums that I listened to over and over again until I wore them out and songs that I'd bug my parents to sing for me -- but generally it had to be both loud and fast to get me interested. As I child I would fidget, bounce, and squirm my way through every school day and run through every weekend. I rarely stopped moving, and even more rarely stopped talking. My parents attempted to get me interested in a seemingly endless series of hobbies and pastimes over the years in an attempt to get me to focus on anything for more than five minutes. Amongst them was a 3/4-sized guitar that a relative unearthed from an attic somewhere. I think I played it for perhaps an afternoon before bouncing off in some other direction and never giving it a second thought. The only time I ever picked it up was to bang on it like a drum. Perhaps encouraged by this, they let me go to drumming classes. Presented with an actual drum-kit, however, I quickly lost interest.

I don't think it was until my early teens, when my brain slowed down enough to notice that the statues around me were actually adults going about their business, that I really took a serious interest in music. I can clearly remember the day when my mum, having finished restringing her old guitar, quickly rattled off an impromptu performance of "Blackbird" by Paul McCartney. Somehow I'd never heard that song before, I just stood there agape.

When I was sixteen I unearthed my dad's old bass -- a baroque slab of mahogany made by Gibson in the early 1970s. Dad showed me the basics, and then I taught myself to play a few punk songs. Over the next few weeks I progressed from "Dammit" by Blink-182 to "Longview" by Green Day to "Travelling Without Moving" by Jamiroquai. I don't know whether it was simply the passage of time, or if years of playing videogames had finally given me the ability to focus, but either way, I was practicing something and actually getting better at it.

The fact is though, I started too late. I'm a competent bass player, but I'm never going to be great, no matter how hard I focus. That hyperactive fidgetyness never really went away either. Perhaps the real reason why I'm not a very good bass player is that I'm also a bad guitarist, an awful mandolin player and a distinctly shaky performer on the upright bass. Like my father, I can't sit in a room with a musical instrument in it without getting an uncontrollable urge to pick it up and try and get a noise out of it (unless it's a piano, obviously. I'd be content to just sit in front of one of those).

I'm not generally bothered by this (this blog's title is an allusion to this, after all), but somehow that song reawakened in me the vague feeling that I should have tried harder to be something in particular.