A Baseball Bat for a Guitar
One of the shortcomings of my childhood was the fact that neither my father Blackie nor my mother Beth took an active interest in the education my siblings and I were receiving at school. There were reasons why this was the case. My father’s blacklisting on the east coast was why he drove the family across the country in the hope of working on the San Francisco waterfront through the longshore union, the ILWU. We arrived in Mill Valley in late 1952 and the priority of both my parents was seeing that their four children had food on the table.
Good friends had rallied around the Myers family on our arrival in town. Babbie Dreyfus found us our first house up on Madera Way which is the reason my sisters Nell and Kate went to Old Mill School. Babbie, in an act of generous friendship, then bought us our house down on Seymour Avenue. This was why my brother Jim and I went to Homestead School.
Nell and Kate seemed to take to school work without any parental oversight and my brother Jim muddled along but I was a daydreamer who found school boring, hard work and sometimes scary. I did receive the basics of an education in that I learned to read, write and do simple arithmetic but Homestead School was never a place I wanted to be and I certainly received no idea of how exciting and interesting the educational process can be. When the darkness of Sunday evenings closed in a feeling of dread would descend on my soul knowing it was school again in the morning.
All my female teachers, for the first four years, were ardent practitioners of corporal punishment and would regularly give angry spankings with rulers to those poor souls whose parents had ticked the box allowing them to to be punished in this way. The fact that most of the parents, including my own, gave no such permission, did nothing to minimise the atmosphere of terror which filled the classroom whenever the teacher lost her temper and took it out on some poor kid. So any excuse to stay off school I would seize with great enthusiasm.
The things which did grab my attention were comic books, movies and pop music. The comic books came from the Bus Depot, the movies were witnessed at the Sequoia Theatre and the pop records were to be found at Village Music. It was during my time in Mrs Lewis’s third grade class that Glen Pritzker and I began regularly haunting the record shop where Sara Wilcox would play us any single we wanted to hear. Discs like Sixteen Tons, The Man With the Golden Arm and Mister Sandman were big hits with me.
The very first time I became enamoured of rock ’n roll was when my family went to see Blackboard Jungle at the Sequoia and I heard Bill Haley singing Rock Around The Clock. It wasn’t too much longer before Elvis Presley came to my attention. The first Elvis disc I heard at the record shop was Heartbreak Hotel which didn’t impress me very much but when I heard his first LP with Blue Suede Shoes on it, his singing and musical accompaniment appealed greatly to my nine year old sensibility. Somewhere along the way my parents made me a present of that first LP which was simply titled Elvis Presley.
I would listen to it over and over dancing around the room to the infectious rhythms and singing full throated imitations of the words. Of course I was a young boy and relatively innocent about the lyrics I was mouthing though I could see that songs like I Got A Woman and One-Sided Love Affair were clearly about adult sexual relations, something I had seen a lot of at the Sequoia but really knew nothing about.
The album cover had a black and white picture of Elvis with his name printed in what I later learned were his favourite colours: pink and green. He was playing his guitar, which had his name on it, and singing with wild abandon. On the back cover there were four photos of him, all taken at the same session. He had his guitar strapped on and seemed to be talking to someone in the top two pictures and performing with the guitar in the bottom two. These four photos were the only visual clues I had about Elvis as a performer. Listening to the songs was so up close and personal that I came to think the music belonged to me. I presumed that Presley always played the guitar on stage.
The lead guitar on this album was provided by Scotty Moore and maybe I thought that was Elvis playing all those fabulous licks. The reality was that he strummed rhythm guitar while Scotty filled the air with his fabulous finger pickin’. Another rhythmic element which made these recordings so terrific was the slap bass of Bill Black and most of these tracks were recorded at Sam Phillips’ studio at Sun Records in Memphis.
When Colonel Tom Parker bought Elvis’s contract from Phillips and took the singer to RCA the rhythm section Presley had been touring the south with came with him to New York where a few additional songs were cut. Needless to say I knew none of this as I jigged around my parents’ bedroom imitating the extremely athletic vocals on One Sided Love Affair which also had a great boogie piano.
As my totally committed imitations persisted I began to wonder what I could use as a guitar. Blackie had got Jim and I two fielder’s mitts, a hard ball and a baseball bat and my brother and I regularly played catch up on the road above our house. So I picked up the baseball bat and began using it as a guitar.
All of this performance art occurred without witnesses when nobody else was around. Our house at 10 Seymour was always full of music mostly from the record player. Both my parents were musical in the sense that they could carry a tune but neither of them was a musician. As a family, we were people who listened to rather than made music. My older sisters sang at school and even did harmony parts but my brother Jim and I never received such training at Homestead. We did have a woman who came to instruct us in group singing but it was all unison with no harmonic division.
A song which I remember my mother Beth singing a lot was Alive, Alive-O all about Molly Malone selling her cockles and mussels in streets wide and narrow. She also used to sing a song from the 1920s about Barney Google with the Goo-Goo-Googley Eyes. Blackie also had a very good singing voice and though he had known Woody Guthrie and Pete Seeger he didn’t think much of folk music. Broadway musicals were more his style. Our record player was always in use and shows like The King and I and Oklahoma were often played.
So when my fascination with the records of Elvis Presley motivated me to pick up that baseball bat, pretending it was a guitar and to do energetic imitations of him singing such songs as Money Honey and Tryin’ To Get To You, it didn’t go unnoticed. In fact I even did my Elvis routine in the playground at Homestead School and my baseball bat guitar along with my vocals were engaging enough for my friend Glen Pritzker to pronounce that, when we were grown up, he was going to be my manager.
But the political world my parents came from was nothing to do with the playground at Homestead. Beth and Blackie never joined the PTA or engaged in anything social at our our school, though they would put in an appearance on parents night. My mother was a highly intelligent woman, a published author and a total bookworm. One time she joined other mothers to prepare the hot dogs which were our special school treat on Thursdays, but that was an isolated incident not to be repeated. Like my mother, Black was a very intelligent guy but again he took no interest in what we were doing at school.
So because of my passion for Elvis it was decided I should have a guitar for Christmas. Blackie even had a plan for me to learn to play it. The son of our good friend, Mike Gold, played guitar and he would give me lessons. The fact that this very plausible scheme had serious flaws in it was invisible to all.
Mike Gold and his family had recently moved out to San Francisco from New York. Mike was a well known writer on the political left and had published a best seller in the 1930s entitled Jews Without Money and was also a founding editor of The New Masses. Both Mike’s sons, Carl and Nick played guitar and as their father was good friends with Pete Seeger they had performed at many a hoe-down with the famous folk singer.
Mike’s son Nick was in his early twenties and was working as a longshoreman on the San Francisco waterfront. I visited him at his apartment in North Beach with my guitar. He was very nice and patient with me and started me off with the fingering for a few chords like C, A and F. His musical passion, besides the folk music he’d grown up with, was a form of jazz called be-bop. Rock and roll was not even on his radar. Nick did not ask me about my musical interests. He simply told me what I should do and lent me some records to practice to. The records were of no interest to me at all and, like many a homework assignment, I would begin with the best of intentions, get bored and do something else. I never learned to play any of the Elvis songs I loved so much.
Music appreciation can be highly tribal. People tend to treat the type of music they like with an almost religious reverence and often dismiss other genres out of hand. There are sub-divisions in every type of music: classical, jazz, folk and of course rock. Blackie’s idea of getting Nick to teach me was, on the surface, a good idea but it hadn’t been thought through from an educational standpoint. Nick Gold was simply not the right fit for me musically.
Many months later while clearing out a room with my brother Jim and I, Blackie came across the guitar, covered with dust. “Well that was a good investment,” he snarled sarcastically. His words stabbed me and I immediately felt tremendous shame.
Had my parents been educationally oriented I might have made better use of the opportunities that were all around me while I was at school. I would have loved to study music with Mr Greenwood like my friend Mark Symmes and learned to play an instrument but that was not the path I was on. I was a seeker of experience and that road would take me many places. I knew as a teenager that I wasn’t qualified to sing the blues because I hadn’t lived enough. I had to know what I was singing about for real.
Three books have been helpful in writing this piece: Elvis: The Biography by Jerry Hopkins, Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley by Peter Guralnick, Michael Gold: The People’s Writer by Patrick Chura
For anyone doing research on Mill Valley history Natalie Snoyman can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org