Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Donning another hat

Me in 1973,  just out university and dreaming of stardom!
As I’m sure longtime readers of Type M are no doubt acutely aware, my original vocation was as a musician.

I had my first piano lesson at age 7 (I will not tell you in what year!) and I was immediately hooked. Later on, wanting to play “popular music”, I branched out to organ, started a band, and, well, that was it for me. Music absolutely consumed my life. By the time I was 16, I was playing in a bar two nights a week with a very good soul band, Gene Sayles and the Soul Salesmen. More time passed with a lot of nights spent in bars. During this time, I also learned to appreciate jazz and took lessons from a gentleman named Weldon Irvine. Along with Jimmy Smith, he was my musical hero.

Late in high school, I wanted to join the school band, and since they needed trombones, I took that up. With university beckoning and my heart set on a music career, I practised my butt off and got into the Music Department at the NYU School of Education. Playing in band sort of took a back seat after that. There was just too much to learn and not enough hours in the day to do it!

I transferred to McGill University in my third year for various reasons (love being the major one), and that required a sea change in my life. I was out on my own and living in Montreal (with my girlfriend, also a musician). I did do some semi-professional playing during this period, but it was mostly on French horn, the instrument I took up in university — mainly because there were so many great trombonists in the school and not as many hornists.

But once university ended, I immediately formed a new band, and with dreams of fame and fortune in my eyes (much like budding authors), we set out on the road to stardom. This time, though, I was playing progressive rock. You know, those ponderous songs of half an hour each, played on many instruments and with poetic lyrics that made absolutely no sense. That band, Devotion, was really exceptional. We felt we could play anything — and did. A volatile mix of talent and ego, sadly, the band broke up after two great years. After trying one more time with another band, I saw the handwriting on the wall: time to find alternative means of employment. Having gotten a Music Ed degree, I began teaching and did little performing far too little performing for the next 24 years.

But buried deep in the background, I still remembered my early roots in soul music. I’d hear a tune by Otis Redding or James Brown and get excited all over again by the music’s raw power.

Coming full circle – but on a different instrument!
As often happens as we get older, when I was back visiting in suburban New York where I’d grown up, I’d get together with old friends, many former performers in my old soul band or in others in the area. “Hey! Let’s put something together and play!” Since I’d always enjoyed and been adept at arranging, even back in the day, it fell on me to produce the horn charts and rudimentary rhythm section parts. We played. It sounded great and was huge fun. We did it a few more times, the band swelling to a dozen people. I was re-hooked on soul music.

That re-routing of my musical career comes full-circle on Thursday this week when a new band I’ve put together makes its debut performance in a Toronto club. Am I excited? You bet. This is no time to be a jaded, long-suffering musical “veteran”. We’re playing what I consider some of the best music created in the past century. Best of all, my fellow band members are playing it very well. The sound we have is authentic, a bit raw (purposely) and still very vital.

What does all of this have to do with writing? Not a heck of a lot, actually, but I am looking forward to Thursday with excitement I haven’t felt since printed copies of my first novel arrived at my house in 1992.

There! That’s a writing connection, isn’t it? If you’re in the Toronto area, please come to hear SOULidified at The Orbit Room, and watch Blechta with his musical hat on for a change.

Consider this your invitation!


Mario Acevedo said...

Great post. Loved the reflection about your musical career.

Rick Blechta said...

Thanks, Mario. In retrospect, I think it's pretty funny that I went from music, where one can make hundreds of dollars while having to spend huge amounts of time learning your craft and then practising it to writing, where you can make hundreds of dollars, etc., etc. The only difference is writing is cheaper. Writers don't have to invest thousands to buy an instrument(s) and pay for expensive instruction.

If I'd been really smart from the beginning, I would have gone into a well-paid career and done all of this on the side.

Rick Blechta said...

And by they way everyone, SOULidified's gig on Thursday went very well. The crowd was enthusiastic, as was the club's manager. We'll be playing there again very soon -- I hope within a month. It was a lot of work to play three long sets, but great to perform this music live again.

Maybe I should do readings during the break and sell books at a table. Hmmm...

(Just kidding)