If music be the food of love…

‘If music be the food of love, play on’, wrote Shakespeare in his comedy play Twelfth Night. Like a lot of the Bard’s quotes, I tend not to take it too literally but rather revel in the words themselves and allow the poetry to work its magic on my imagination. This is also true of the lyrics of Bob Dylan, who shares a nickname with Shakespeare and in 2016 was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature. This story is not about Shakespeare or indeed Dylan, though he will receive a mention as I write about my musical origins and the role that music has played in my life.

Like many things, it’s difficult to know exactly when a long relationship started so I try as best I can to chronologically trace the evolution of my musical interest and participation. As a child, I don’t remember playing a lot of music though my first hero, my Grandad Geoffrey Deayton, used to play a harmonica, which he called a mouth organ. I had forgotten this until a discovery made 40 years later, which will be mentioned later in this tale. Anyway, he would sometimes lovingly (and unhygienically) let me have a blast.

I didn’t really know what I was doing, and in fact it was my sister Helen who was able to pick out the notes of ‘God Save The Queen’ almost immediately, but I imagine I enjoyed letting off steam and probably making a racket. My sisters studied piano and I have vague recollections of bashing the keys myself, but I certainly would not have had the discipline to learn notes and diligently practise classical pieces. It has long been a bugbear of mine in fact that the creative part of music is often disregarded with children in favour of the more scientific side of simply learning what has already been composed.

In terms of absorbing music, I remember listening to kids’ songs and learning Christmas carols when that time of the year came. One notable record – all vinyl of course then – which stands out was ‘Cocktails And Piano’, which was versions of popular songs played by a cocktail jazz band. My Grandad would apparently put this record on and dance to it with me when I was still a toddler. I have always been moved by particular pieces of music, and even at a young age I could pick up the profundity and melancholy of one of the songs on the record, a melody originally composed by the Russian Alexander Borodin and later turned into a song called ‘Stranger In Paradise’. The record was, as far as I knew, lost, but in fact it would make a comeback in my life decades later.

It was between the ages of 13 and 16 that my musical journey started to take shape. I’ve tried to piece together the precise chronology but it’s difficult so I’ll have to use approximations in some cases. I have always enjoyed hymns, and later having more musical appreciation (including music theory) came to value the skill of the compositions. I’ve also long had a fondness for echo, dating back to fun times playing in tunnels with childhood friends and hearing our shouts reverberated back to us. Put these two things together and you have me enjoying hearing the songs on our weekly visits to church. What I didn’t enjoy so much were the repetitive sermons and the rather dirge-like delivery of the hymns on the traditional church organ. This was about to change.

We almost always went to church on Sunday mornings, but if for whatever reason we couldn’t go then we would go to the early evening service in the same church. On one particular evening, I noticed at the beginning of the service that there was a young lady poised with what I recognised as an acoustic guitar. For those not in the know, classical guitars have nylon strings and are better suited to playing individual notes, while acoustic guitars have steel strings and sound particularly wonderful when strummed. Once again, precise memories are very vague, but the image I have in my mind is of a rather attractive lady wearing a checked shirt in the style of a country performer.

Either way, when she started singing and playing the hymns of the service they were suddenly transformed and given new life. I’ll spare you the details of what may have been going on with me hormonally at that moment, but I can tell you  that musically that was an evening I’ve never forgotten. Over the years I’ve often felt a desire to go back to the church on the off chance that she would be there and thank her, but the reality is that this was long in the past and I left the area about 20 years ago.

Around the age of 14, two things happened which really did change my life and have remained constants ever since. I can’t remember whether my desire to learn the guitar happened before or after my full immersion in The Beatles (it’s impossible to grow up in England without having some knowledge of their music), and where the check-shirted lady at church exactly fitted in to it all, but I do know from doing a little digging that the Beatles journey started in Xmas 1988 with a Top of the Pops anniversary special, and through finding an old photo that helpfully had ‘Autumn 1989’ written on the back (my mother has always been very good like that) I know that it was around that time that my schoolfriend Selom Bulla lent me his sister’s classical guitar and I started another new relationship. As a youngster, I always had an obsessive nature, something that’s been somewhat tempered with age, and in this case it worked in my favour. Thanks to those lovely soft nylon strings, I didn’t literally play until my fingers bled but metaphorically I certainly did.

I quickly got a songbook from the local library that contained traditional tunes and set about my task. One immediate stumbling block I found was that when I tried to learn chord shapes and then play them, they sounded strange and horribly wrong. Of course I soon realised that the borrowed guitar was for a right-hander, and I was playing left-handed. It’s hard to dispute that we live in a world made for right-handers, and try as she did my mother couldn’t locate a left-handed guitar. Since I am somewhat ambidextrous (for example, when I played cricket at school I batted right-handed and bowled left-handed) and since I was desperate to get going on this new and exciting endeavour, I decided to temporarily learn right-handed and then switch when an appropriate guitar had been found. Of course once I’d put my heart and soul into making the progress I did in the first few weeks, I simply couldn’t face going back to the beginning so have played right-handed ever since.

For the record, the first two chords I learned were D and A7, and the first song in the book was ‘He’s Got The Whole World In His Hands’. The family still laugh at the memory of me playing this song to them and bringing the song to a pause as I contorted my poor fingers into the shapes necessary to change between the two chords. ‘Camptown Races’ and ‘Little Brown Jug’ were other songs from the book that I remember learning, and the hours of work paid off as I made quite swift progress. I soon progressed to ‘The Complete Rock and Pop Guitar Player’, which I recently rebought from Ebay, and the first song learned from there was ‘Mull of Kintyre’ by Wings, a favourite of my Dad’s. I’ve always enjoyed greatly the 3-in-the-bar ‘waltz’ time signature, and learning this song may be the reason why.

After about 9 months with the classical guitar, I can confidently date Summer 1990 as the time when I acquired the first guitar of my own. It sounds like something from a film, but I’d been staring at and dreaming about a certain guitar in the window of the local music shop ever since I’d started playing, and had even managed to pluck up the courage to go in and ask the rather intimidating owner if I could play it. The crisp, smooth and life-affirming sound produced by the guitar was the stuff of dreams, and I also started using a plectrum (known as a ‘pick’ in America) instead of my fingers, which made the sound even better.

Just prior to my 15th birthday, in July 1990, I went on holiday to a place called Lerici, in the Italian Riviera, with my parents. We would go to the beach every day and one morning I encountered a busker (street musician) playing some popular songs with an acoustic guitar. The one that stuck in my memory was ‘Mrs Robinson’ by Simon & Garfunkel, and I remember feeling that a skilled player like him had brought incredible life into the song, just as the lady at church had.

Incidentally, that holiday was memorable for 2 more reasons. I had the cassette of ‘The John Lennon Collection’ on complete rotation through the whole holiday, sealing my fascination with Lennon quite apart from his role in The Beatles. 30 years later, I would start a podcast about him that as of now (September 2022) is approaching 100 episodes. In addition, the Lerici holiday was the first time my Dad cooked, something he’s maintained ever since. Quite a time!

A month later came the magic day, August 14th 1990, and I got not only the Yahama guitar I’d been dreaming about but also a Beatles songbook and, from my sisters, the documentary ‘The Compleat Beatles’, which I would go on to watch about 50 times and which sealed that particular love affair. Soon after, my friend Emlyn, a gifted pianist, would join me in our first ‘band’. He wasn’t particularly a Beatles fan but spending any amount of time with me in those days would tend to convert you, and we played their songs as well as many others. We also started composing instrumentals and occasionally songs with lyrics, the recordings of which unfortunately got lost in a house move, and we then started playing in the church hall after the service and then finally in the service itself, only a year or two after seeing the check-shirted lady who’d provided such inspiration to me.

Emlyn taught me the rudiments of piano, and though I still didn’t have the discipline to learn properly, the discovery that John Lennon and Paul McCartney had written all those incredible Beatles songs without knowing how to read a note of music seemed to validate my style of transposing guitar chords onto the piano and taking it from there. I was later to discover that a great-grandma of mine, who I never met, had used a similar style 60 years earlier, a marvellous piece of synchronicity.

After The Beatles came my discovery of other 60s icons such as The Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, The Kinks and many others, and I came to appreciate and learn about the idea of the creative ‘right brain’ and the sheer power of music to lift the heart and nourish the soul. To detail my entire musical history would take many more pages but in summary I was a songwriter for a number of years before moving to Asia in 2005 and getting paid to do versions of other people’s songs. I established myself with a Sunday night, 2-hour residency, picked up a few fans and regular song requests, learned how to interact with audiences, and would sneak a few of my old original songs into my set once the audience had been warmed up with something familiar.

In 2014 I moved to Spain to continue my English teaching and at one point stumbled into an open mic session in an Irish pub. I met a lot of musicians in a short space of time, and since I had a lot of original songs that had never been properly recorded I decided to finally make an album. I also formed a band called ‘The Backfield Plan’, named after a song written by childhood friend Ian Hargest. My main collaborators were David Ernsberger and Kester Jones, and Kester also produced that first album and the ones that followed. Having put out my debut album at the age of 40, I suddenly felt like a songwriter again and 2 more studio albums and 2 live albums would follow in the next 3 years. It was strange playing a song called ‘Wanna Go’ that I’d written at the age of 16, the first one I’d ever properly finished, and I felt that things had somehow gone full circle. The final three events I’d like to tell you about also gave that same feeling of a long journey that somehow found its way back to the beginning.

I moved back to England in July 2019 and since then have switched from music to podcasting as my main creative outlet. In 2020 I was going through my parents’ collection of vinyl LPs when I suddenly came upon ‘Cocktails And Piano’, which I’d assumed had been thrown out when my grandparents died and their house was cleared out but had in fact been kept all these years. Playing it on a turntable that had also been kept for decades, I rediscovered Mr Borodin’s beautiful melody, which literally brought a tear to my eye, and also a version of the Beatles’ ‘Yesterday’, which I’d forgotten was on the record. As I said earlier, I’d become a bona fide Beatles fan in my early teens but it suddenly struck me as significant and rather poignant that in fact I’d heard and enjoyed them way back as a very young boy when my Grandad was dancing with me to the album.

In 2021, my mother discovered a mysterious cassette in her house called ‘Xmas 1981’. When we played it, it turned out be an audio recording of about an hour made on Boxing Day 1981 of three generations of our family singing carols and then having a game of cards, something we always did during the festive season and indeed at other times. Using some software and the editing skills I’d acquired from podcasting, I managed to ‘restore’ the tape so it could be heard clearly, and also edited out the inaudible bits of conversation. My Grandad is vocally silent on the tape but near the end some harmonica can be heard, along with my dear departed Uncle Ted saying to one of us kids ‘your Grandad’s getting musical again’. We’d all totally forgotten that Grandad used to play the ‘mouth organ’ but suddenly I remembered, and my mind was filled with memories of hearing him play it and, as previously mentioned, tunelessly having a go myself.

The final callback to my musical past came earlier this year when I was visiting my parents’ home and found myself in their basement, where my original Yamaha acoustic guitar had been stored while I was working abroad for nearly 15 years. I used to occasionally play it in its rather battered condition purely for old time’s sake but, remembering that an old bass guitar of my nephew’s had been beautifully restored for a good price by a guy in Kent last year, I had the brainwave of calling him and asking him to work the same magic with the acoustic guitar. Lo and behold he did another fine job and a mere 2 weeks later it was in my hands looking and sounding almost good as new. I’d lost interest in playing since leaving Spain but rediscovering my first guitar has reignited my passion and I’ve been playing it nearly every day since. I’ve always been rather nostalgic anyway, and there’s something about playing it which makes me feel like I’m back again with all the curiosity and enthusiasm that I had back in 1990 when I first got it.

If music be the food of love, eat!