My Earliest Songs

In my last post, I mentioned songwriting. My earliest songs were little things I made up in my head as a kid. These childhood ditties were never written down or recorded, and I never even thought of them as songs; they were just thoughts I had which happened to be tuneful. There was “The Old Tin Can,” “Come Back Here, Little Kitty,” “I Wanna Get Up (Now, Now, Now),” etc. Note: I’ve only added these titles long after the fact; as I said, I never consciously composed these things, so why would they need titles?

Once I did start making attempts at actual songwriting, my earliest efforts were little piano instrumentals, carefully written down in my very first book of staff paper. The first one was called “Prelude,” in emulation of Bach. (I doubt if I had any idea what a Prelude was, only that Bach seemed to like the word.) More or less concurrently with these piano pieces, I began writing lyrics down on the pads of outdated calendar sheets I used as writing paper. (My grandpa had an office supply store which sold calendar refills—this was a few decades before iCal, Google Calendar, etc.—and we grandkids, my cousins and I, always were gifted some outdated refills that were left over at the end of the year. I know at one point I had some of these things dating back to 1964!)

The first time I put lyrics and music together in coherent form down on paper was for a song called “Space Attack.” I’m guessing I was around 12 years old. I even had big plans to record it, and tried to do my own version of multi-tracking by bouncing back and forth between two cassette recorders. Needless to say, the resulting sound quality was not great. But I had been bitten by the songwriting bug, and that bug stayed with me for many years. Between the ages of 17 and 27, which was probably my most productive period, I cranked out hundreds of songs. Many of them are still floating about here and there, but many have also been lost, and even in my memory all that remains of many are titles and fragments, if that much.

I’m hoping that someday (hopefully still a good long way off) when I am faced with death, I get one final request. My request will be that instead of seeing my life flash before my eyes, I get to hear some of those long-forgotten songs played for me.

Off the Wall Cinema

Off the Wall
Off the Wall Cinema, Cambridge, MA

I just did a guided meditation online. Full disclosure: I am terrible at meditating. I fidget and squirm. Every sound around me demands my attention. My focus is anything but calm. Anyway, early on in this meditation, I was asked to picture a time when I felt totally at peace with myself and the world. After several minutes of frantically searching for such a time and place, I settled on Off the Wall Cinema, circa 1984.

Off the Wall was a very small theater in Central Square, Cambridge, MA. Instead of the usual theater seating, you sat at small tables. Coffee and pastries were available to snack on during the show. I went to a lot of movies during my first few years in Boston in the early-to-mid 1980s. That was when I discovered that popcorn and apple cider are a perfect combination. Most of the theaters I remember attending are now gone. Off the Wall is one of them.

As a kid I remember being a Laurel & Hardy fan, but at Off the Wall I also discovered and fell in love with silent stars Charlie Chaplin, Clara Bow, Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, and Harry Langdon. At Off the Wall I became a fan of animated shorts. (Favorites include “The Big Snit,” “Sky Whales,” and “Tony de Peltrie.” Look them up.) It was where I first saw classics like Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and It’s a Wonderful Life. (I no longer think of the latter as the feel-good movie it is supposed to be, but that’s a subject for another post.) If you are getting the impression that Off the Wall was off the wall, you are correct.

Before moving to Boston in August 1983, I already had one year of college under my belt, so it wasn’t like I was freshly out of the nest, but it was in Boston that my world truly blossomed. The next few years were a time of exploration and experimentation. If there has been any period of my life I could live over exactly the way it happened the first time, that would be it.

Off the Wall closed in 1986, near the end of what I consider my short Golden Age. In 1987 I went back to school and cut my hair. I tried desperately to be normal. That was a bad idea. I’ve since tried to recapture the wonderful sense of endless possibility I felt during the glory days when Off the Wall was flourishing and I was young. I didn’t get there during my meditation session, but I did have fun remembering those happy days.