Monday, August 30, 2010

SHINE

(Raymond Brian "Brick" Baker, my dad)

Music is part of my heritage. It's in my genes. I was conceived, marinated and raised in music, and from the time I was small, I wanted to be a singer. My father had begun as a classical violinist, but had then fallen in love with jazz. Still in his youth, he switched to alto sax and clarinet and joined a band, to the dismay of his parents. Ever after, they rued the day they bought him his first saxaphone, blaming the music scene for his subsequent alcoholism and the downhill turning of his life, which had begun so full of promise.

My dad was hugely talented, and he bitterly watched lesser musicians, with whom he had played as a young man, pass him by and rise to some measure of success and fame. He never made the connection between his drinking and his inability to hold a job for long, in the music field or out of it. He had a very hard time with the emergence of rock 'n roll, and used to sit snorting with disgust at the television. "That's not music!" When in his cups, he'd stick out his tongue at the set and make a blowing noise: "Phphphphphphphphphphphpht!" But he was too transfixed with rage to change the channel.

Because of him, and because all the other kids loved them and I wanted to be different, I didnt immediately swoon over Elvis and the Beatles. The music of the '40's serenaded my life: Pennies From Heaven, I'll Get By, Stardust, As Time Goes By. They still have the power to take me right back, to my parents' lives in Kelowna. It is the love songs of their era, not mine, that I remember best.

(My folks on the dock in Kelowna, late 40's)

My mother liked to tell how my dad taught me, at age fifteen months, to do the musician's backwards hand-clap, on the knee, to the beat: "choo-whish-te-choo, whish-te-choo", and how I had the tempo down pat. Nights when the party atmosphere had not yet degenerated into shouting and the crashing of fallen bodies in the living room, sometimes they would get me out of bed, in my ratty plaid dressing gown, to perform for the company. I'd wail winsomely "Happiness Is Just a Thing Called Joe", do a self-taught little dance routine with a big grin, then go back to bed, feeling like a star. It was only a matter of time until I'd be discovered.

I longed to play an instrument. I would stand beside friends as they played the piano, looking at the musical notes I could not decipher, with tears in my eyes. Music was a magical language and I uninitiated into its mystery. I ached with longing to sit at the keyboard and play, express all the music I felt so strongly inside me. I asked my mother for lessons. But we were poor; she said she didnt want to waste the money.

All I had was my battered little boxed record player. I would close my bedroom door, turn it on, leave the world of pain and confusion I lived in behind me, and enter a new one, filled with music, hope and the dream of a better life.

There was high excitement when my dad came home on the weekend with new albums; in those days they were 33 and a thirds. One time he bought five, a rare extravagance in our circumstances, then got drunk and sat on them, smashing them before he'd even played them all.

I was twelve when I bought my first record with my babysitting money. It was a 45: "Twilight Time". My dad hovered anxiously as I put it on the turntable. As its slow notes and pure tones sounded, he relaxed. "I guess I dont have to worry about your taste in music," he approved. High praise!


(My dad on the wharf on Okanagan Lake in Kelowna, likely in the late 40's)

Briefly, my mom did allow singing lessons when I was eleven. I was sent to an aged old nun, who sat at the keyboard resignedly plunking out the notes, bored and disinterested, as I stood in my school uniform and sang "There Was a Little Green Elf" without conviction. I even was entered into a singing competition and somehow managed to get through it without disgracing myself. Nor did I stun those assembled with an electrifying performance. I just couldnt get too worked up about a little green elf. (I can still remember that song today!) My mother and father sat in the audience, one of the only times I remember them attending an event of mine. The judges, bored, noted down my mark without enthusiasm. It was clear that this was not to be my fast track to fame. I stopped going to lessons and returned to my preferred music, about love and pain.

Also briefly, my mother enrolled me for ballroom dance lessons, to help me with the awkward passage from twelve to teen. There was one shining evening when I performed at the Stanley Park tea room, and stole the show from a roomful of adult performers. Somewhere there's a photograph of me groovin' to the beat, the instructor beaming down at me as I did the Swing, glowing and laughing into the camera.

But it was with my records, in the privacy of my room, where I unleashed my real voice, the voice of my longing, that no one but my long-suffering family ever heard.

I was in my Grandma's back room listening to the radio when I first heard Brenda Lee on the radio. I stood stock still with a shock of recognition. She was singing her big hit "I'm Sorry", and I recognized that her vocal range was exactly like mine. I could sing like her! I had to get her records! I was further excited when the announcer said she was only thirteen years old, like me: a little bitty girl with a great big voice, who was already a star.

Brenda Lee saw me through my teens. My mother called what I did up in my room "coon shouting", as I balefully sang with all the dramatic anguish of my teens. I thought a coon was an animal, and didnt get the connection. I vaguely pictured some men out in the bush, hollering for raccoons. It was only later that I realised, with a start, that it was a racial slur, intended to diminish that heartfelt singing that expressed all the pain I had no words for, all those bright dreams that one day I would lose the acute self-consciousness that prevented me from being the person I knew I was meant to be. One day I would spread my wings and fly beyond this life of pain and limitation. As long as I could sing like this in my room, the possibility existed that one day I would sing before an audience, and they would like it. They would like me. One day I would shine.

It didnt happen. My stronger need was to provide myself with the kind of home and family I hadnt yet experienced, the story book life promised by all the books and movies and the songs that fed my dreams. Marriage, babies and heartbreak claimed the next two decades of my life.

I didnt sing at all during my marriage. But after it, music once again claimed my soul and rode along with me. My children remember me singing. I sang along with Abba, with Joan Baez, with Stevie Knicks, with The Bells, the Beatles and Elton John. In my little house full of children, I sang for the joy of living, for the morning breaking, for the dream of a love that had not yet come. I sang for happiness and hope. I sang the song that was mine.

I have become a great appreciater and encourager of musicians, of anyone with talent. I want them to not be held back by what had held me back. "Go for it!" I tell them. "You're terrific! Shine on!" I encourage them to throw off all the self-consciousness I had not been able to conquer, to feel "good enough", to assume the confidence I was unable to muster. To believe in themselves as I had not been able to, and to go for their dreams. Part of my encouragement is vicarious; they can do what I did not, can live that part of the dream for me, that alternate reality, that road untaken, due to the circumstances that shaped my early world.

Years when I worked in a coffeehouse, I was the most rapt of listeners, the music inside me still aching for release, but this time flying along on the fingers and voices of others. The musicians always said they didnt need a big audience as long as they had me to listen to them :)

Music is still a passion, and I still cant play a single instrument, still am too inhibited to leap about at dances and release the beat pounding within me, to set it free. I stopped singing some years back; I lost my voice when I got ill. It is enough now to listen, to applaud others in their golden moments, to join my being with its music to the All That Is, the great song of life.

Acceptance finally comes that it is too late to be a young star rising; too late to be the youngest published author in Canada; too late to be the person I once dreamed that I would be.

But it isnt too late, it is never too late, to shine.

6 comments:

  1. Sherry, when I read your writing it really touches me, so many thoughts, feelings and memories pass through me as I read your posts that sometimes when I get to the end I can't think of how to express it.

    So I usually just end up saying that it was wonderful or beautiful. That sums it up but never captures the nuances, the things I identify with and the way your writing has made me 'feel'. So until I can find the right words. . . Sherry, this was beautiful! . . . and you certainly do shine and spread your light on those around you too. x

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  2. This is such high praise, coming from such a good writer as you, Susannah. Wow. Thank you so much. I am so happy to have you visiting my site and reading my work. I so enjoy yours as well.

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  3. so true - it is never too late to shine!
    i started to play the piano when i was 27 and my children were small - together with my 5 year old daughter. Useless to say, now that she's 19, she plays way better than i do - but for me it's not about playing good but having fun. When i was 40 i started to learn to play the Saxophone - that was a dream and i LOVE playing my Sax - and i LOVE Jazz!!!

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  4. You do shine, Sherry, and you do make music, with your words and the stories you weave with them! There is rhythm and flow, heart and soul to everything you write, as there is with the most magical of musical pieces.

    Keep that light of yours shining...we all love to bask in its glow!

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  5. Thank you, gals.......Claudia, it is great you learned those instruments! Wow! I would love to play the violin, trouble is I want to play it like I have been playing for twenty years and dont have the patience for Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. But it could happen! And thank you, Lynette, for your kindness, always.

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  6. Susannah's comment says it so well where words are hard to find, just beautiful.

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