My family was not musical. When she was a small child, whenever my mother would burst into song, as children are wont to do, people would gently ask, "Maxine, can you whistle?" As she couldn't, that was kind of that. My father, who could actually whistle, couldn't actually whistle anything composed by someone else. His own compositions, though numerous, never reached beyond four notes. One of my brothers had learned to play "The Daring Young Man On The Flying Trapeze" on the piano, but didn't often. My family was not musical.
But I was. On my first Christmas morning, in 1948, I was discovered to have sprouted my two front teeth, which was, presumably, all I'd wanted for Christmas. This event connected me with the world of music generally, but was, unfortunately, the closest I've ever come to being involved with a hit song.
It was Christmas morning again, perhaps seven years later, when my family's non-musicality was formally defined. I'd been mailed an LP of satirical songs from my older brother (the pianist), who was a missionary in a distant land (Texas). In the liner notes was a joking reference to something that I guessed should be pronounced "Batch Foogyoos." Puzzled, I showed the reference to everyone in the house, and nobody had any enlightenment to offer as to what a "Bach Fugue" might be.
Still, there was a piano in our home (it had been a player piano, good for developing the hamstring muscles). When I was nine years old, I found in the piano bench a little booklet entitled "How To Play The Ukulele In Five Minutes." I was nine. I had five minutes. A half-hour of mild whining led to the purchase of a plastic uke at the local music store. After that emotional investment, and after the breathless mastery of a few chords, I wasn't even particularly offended when the "five minute" guarantee turned out to have been pure hype, it having really taken nearly an hour to get good at it. But then, I was nine, after all. It was the beginning of fretted instruments for me.
Next milestone: I'm now a freshman in high school. I'd signed up for Men's Glee Club to be with my friends. One day, inexplicably (and I mean Way inexplicably), the teacher held a casual poll on the question "Who is the best baritone in the section?" I was elected. This poll was not repeated in any other section, and the point of it was never discussed, nor the result ever remembered. Except by me. Over the next couple of years I memorized all the bass arias in the Messiah. I still know them. It was the beginning of imagining I could sing.
I had in the meantime become passionate about folk music. It was either that or songs that went "I met you at the dance and our love will last for weeks." I went to Peter, Paul, and Mary concerts and watched through binoculars to learn the chords. But before anybody knew about Peter, Paul, and Mary, I heard the Chad Mitchell Trio sing a song called "Blowin' In The Wind" and they said a guy named Bob Dylan had written it. I told all my little chums, "Bob Dylan will become Somebody." At length, there were Bob Dylan albums, and I got them. Down the back were these long strings of words, little short lines, almost never rhyming. I thought, "I can do that! I can not rhyme! I can refuse to capitalize!" And so I wrote that way. For all my English assignments. My teachers were appalled. I fancied myself a poet. It was the beginning of something, even if it was the end of good grades.
(Side story, which is an update on my unmusical family: My dad, who ignored my pleas for a surfboard or a shirt with a Pendleton label, could see where my passion really was, and when I wanted a banjo he took me right down to the wino-and-burlesque-and-pawn-shops district in L.A. and we combed the place for a good deal. This is my father who would come to my choral concerts at the high school and blissfully sleep through them all, waking up for my solos. One time he walked in from work carrying a Mexican 12-string guitar he'd bought on the way home, just because he'd seen it in a store window and thought it looked like something I could use.)
Biggest milestone: There I was later, a young adult, playing my fingernails to shreds and writing those Bob Dylan wannabe songs, appearing less and less suited to the notion of higher education or conventional employment. My dad said, "Hey, if you're going to pour all this energy into writing and sharing songs, why not write about what's most important to you?" Lighted match to gasoline. I became an absolute fanatic, writing about my particular vision of our relationship to our Maker and (Dare I say it?) the purpose of life. It was sometimes brilliant, usually pretty insufferable, but it was probably the single-minded focus I needed to get myself irretrievably committed. I made about a dozen albums, mostly released as LPs, and wore out two Ford vans, from brand-new to barely standing, criss-crossing the country playing gigs. I was a songwriter, pure and simple. And only. I wrote a book, but insisted that on the dust jacket I be identified as a songwriter. I got involved in writing a couple of plays, but only because I was a songwriter, and songwriters sometimes do that. I recorded and performed, but only because I had written the songs. Then I took on a songwriter job that busted me out of that tunnel-vision. I was, in fact, tricked into becoming an actor.
In about 1980, I was asked to help with the lyrics for the stage adaptation of a popular novel, "Charlie's Monument." We wrote it in an obscene hurry, and the first western states tour came limping home after three months, having lost seventy thousand dollars and the good nature of the cast. But the leading lady, the sound guy, and the road manager felt that there was a good show at the core of it all, and talked the investors into allowing another half-dozen performances around Utah. They'd hastily re-written and re-cast it, were scheduled to re-open in two weeks, and asked me to direct it. I told them I'd never directed anything. They said that didn't matter. I told them I'd never acted in anything except a couple of musicals in high school (because the a cappella choir was in charge of the musicals) and a couple of operas in college. They said that didn't matter. I told them that I'd attended probably six or eight plays in my life. They said that didn't matter. They said I was a good talker and knew what the show was supposed to accomplish. I said "Okay, pay me a lot of money and I'll do it." They paid me a little tiny bit of money and I did it.
I had asked if they had a Charlie, the leading man (very demanding role, a one-armed, hunch-backed, crookedy-legged penniless orphan who somehow gets the town beauty to fall in love with him). They said no, but some good actors were coming in to read for it. Well, it turned out that all the guys they had in mind were of the wrong gender or planetary origin, whereas I was about the right height and knew the songs and was in charge of getting the show up. So halfway through the first week of the two weeks I walked up to the leading lady, Rosanna Ungerman, and said, "Surprise, I'm your leading man." I told them I'd do the first couple of performances, until we could get an actual actor. I stumbled out onto the big stage at Utah State University, and after twenty minutes you couldn't have pried me out of that role with a crow-bar. I was thirty-three years old, suddenly thinking "Wow! This is what I want to be when I grow up!" (Thirty-three is when hobbits come of age, you know.) Well, I've been standing in audition lines ever since.
When I can't seem to get cast otherwise, I usually write something myself and star in it. But I do lots of things. I'm no longer merely a songwriter. I like it. The only time it's awkward is when I come to that "occupation" blank on loan applications. The last idea I had (while trying to design a business card) was "artistic facilitator." We'll see. I just want to be useful, and answer well for the gifts the Lord has lent me for awhile.
Did I call this a "short" history? I'll stop now.