Song Of The Day 2/12/2017: John Denver – “Calypso”

The Final 46

My First Time Was With a Sailor

I’d love to tell you that what made me fall hopelessly in love with music for the rest of my life was Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain, and its assured and emotional commingling of jazz composition and neoclassical construction with flawless Gil Evans arrangements.

Or that it was the deceptive minimalism of Philip Glass, or the raucous statesmanship of James Brown, or the sinister beauty of The Velvet Underground & Nico. Or the first New York Dolls album, or Karlheinz Stockhausen, or Raw Power. I’d be thrilled even to say it was Elvis’ Sun sides or Pet Sounds.

Seriously, all that would be great. It would also be a flaming crock of crap. It wasn’t any of that stuff.

It was John Denver’s song “Calypso.”

It contained yodeling.

To be fair, it might have just been the timing. Maybe I was always going to get into music at the age of eight and a half, and if the radio had been on a different station maybe something else could have swept me away.

Instead it was a rollicking, epic sea chanty about the exploits of the French aquatic explorer and conservationist Jacques Cousteau, who’d retrofitted the ship Calypso to be a full-service marine research laboratory. Denver, who looked like the best-case adult scenario for The Brady Bunch’s Cousin Oliver, sang “Calypso” with all the vigor of besotted Glaswegians singing a football anthem.

I don’t remember what grabbed me so about “Calypso,” but judging from the aspects of music I still have affection for today, I’m guessing it was the string section.

Mrs. Savage

Up to that point my sister Linda had been the only person in the family who played piano. She played well; she did some stints at church. We had a small collection of popular songbooks in the piano bench. I remember her playing a lot of Carpenters songs.

(One of the songbooks was called The World’s Greatest Hits of Popular Music. It had the complete music and lyrics to Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side.” That was one of the first songs I tried to play on the piano, because the melody line looked really simple. The words didn’t make any sense. I was eight. Please appreciate this.)

Again, I don’t remember exactly how it happened that I expressed an interest in playing piano. I may have just wanted to start playing music in general, and since we already had a piano, my parents figured that would be it. If I’d really done my homework I would have asked for guitar lessons. But I’m not sure that request would have been accepted. Playing guitar could expose me to rock music, and the guys in Brooklyn weren’t crazy about rock music. Piano was more respectable. You could control a pianist. You can’t control a guitarist. Believe me, honey.

But at age eight I was fine with the piano. It didn’t really matter to me at that point. I just wanted to learn to play songs about French seamen. So I started taking classical lessons from a woman named Frances Savage. Mrs. Savage was great, but I must have been a disappointing student.  I did start out for a few months doing all the required leg work—theory, scales, crossing fingers, notations. I can read sheet music.

The classical music I was learning was impressive, but everybody knew what kind of music I wanted to play: pop. After my Denver fixation I started seeking out other piano-playing stars of the time. Naturally Elton John was among the first, but not the first. That was Neil Sedaka, who at the time was experiencing a career rebirth with Elton’s help. Barry Manilow came around not too long after that. (You better respect the degree of honesty I’m displaying right now.)

I got a Manilow songbook and brought it to Mrs. Savage one day. She demurred, but didn’t reject it outright. Instead she did something that changed my life—she taught me chord theory.

Now that right there, that was the key to the kingdom. First, it taught me how songs were constructed, which eventually made it easier for me to learn songs by ear. More importantly, it made a crucial part of those songbooks legible to me: the guitar tabs that rested above the piano parts. Once I got fluent I didn’t have to even bother with the left-hand notes on the piano part at all. I could just ignore them and play the chords in my left hand.

I was almost nine and already I’d discovered my first hack.

So that was it for me, mission complete. I didn’t bother with the classic stuff anymore, which I’ve since come to regret. Mrs. Savage was an extraordinarily patient woman, but I had to do my own thing. She did help me out with a songbook which simplified the piano work of Dave Brubeck for kids. But I was off.

The Sound of $95 Worth of Music

Now that I had the necessary tools I wanted to get started immediately with songwriting. There was no time to waste. I’d already been around almost nine years, and the guys in Brooklyn wanted to make sure everyone exercise their senses of urgency as often as possible.

(By the way, the guys in Brooklyn had a problem with John Denver. He was giving a concert one night and was about to launch into a medley of patriotic songs. He playfully suggested that, if there were any members of the apolitical religion the guys in Brooklyn managed in the house, they might want to get up and use the bathroom or get some concessions for the next few minutes.

(It was a joke. But when it got filtered back to members of the religion the narrative had been changed to “John Denver ordered us to leave!!!” Reformatting bogus urban legends into fact was a big hallmark of the guys in Brooklyn, just like the current presidential administration.)

My first song had two chords in it, C and F. The melody was a nice descending phrase that made use of the dominant seventh. There was never a set lyric. For a nine-year-old kid it was at least as good as Primus.

I was also getting records as quickly as I could. I joined the RCA Music Club. These were the people who gave you ten albums for a penny as long as you joined their service and bought x-amount of albums at full price over the course of a certain time period (probably a year). However I gaily skipped the fine print, and ordered three or four records every time the mailer came.

I did not run these purchases past my parents. I was as stunned as anyone when RCA sent a stark-looking invoice listening 20 or so albums that hadn’t been paid for. They yanked me out of that club immediately. Seeing that I’d met the terms of the arrangement RCA was fine with losing my patronage.

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