My first musical memory is a Christmas carol. It was near the holidays, perhaps even Christmas Day, a snowstorm had blanketed our small town, yet my father wanted to go to church. He set me on a sled and pulled me to the Hendrix United Methodist Church. As we left the service and came outside we were greeted by the clearest blue sky and expanses of pristine white snow. On the way home it seemed as if the town had become deserted and we were the only two that remained. Halfway home, my father began to sing in his clear hillbilly tenor, O Little Town of Bethlehem. As he sang, “… how silently, how silently the wondrous gift is given,” I looked up at my father’s face. It was the moment of my conversion.
There was a child’s record player on our back porch. It was there I fell in love with Tubby the Tuba by Danny Kaye. It a 78 rpm album that my parents had picked up in a thrift store with a group of other records for children. Tubby the Tuba, however, was my favorite. It told the story of an awkward instrument that tried to fit in with the orchestra. I was delighted recently when I Googled the song and found an image of that very album, Tubby and a dancing frog.
If Oh Little Town of Bethlehem was my spiritual conversion, South Pacific was the album that made me gay. It was in collection of albums that resided in our mahogany music cabinet. I am sure my parents were unclear as to why I would play that album over and over. But it was more specifically, Mary Martin singing, I’m Gonna Wash that Man Right Out of My Hair, that was my favorite. It would be much later in life that I would find myself crying in the shower singing that song.
In grade school I owned a small transistor radio. Late at night I would lay in bed under the covers and listen to KLBM’s request hour. One night was brave enough to call in This Diamond Ring by Gary Lewis and the Playboys. I requested it for Christy Huntsman, not knowing it was a break up song. Another favorite was Downtown by Petula Clark. Even in fifth grade I was into, “… forget all my troubles, forget all my cares.”
My first musical purchase was a 45 rpm of The Theme to Exodus. It seems an odd choice now, but I chalk it up to trying to bridge the pop songs of the day with my love for classical music.
Following in my sister’s footsteps, I began playing the French horn in the seventh grade, something I would do until my college graduation. The French horn solidified my love of classical music. My seventh grade Music Appreciation teacher, Mr. Chitwood, was a slight, effeminate man. The whispers in class indicated that he was “light in the loafers.” Despite his shoe preference, he was a very good teacher. One lesson was on modern electronic music. I was captivated with it. After class, I asked him if I could purchase the record. To his credit, he ordered it and I took it home. Unfortunately, I cannot remember the name of the album or any of the composers. In high school my friends would come over and we put the album on full blast and play hide and seek in the dark. Instead of tagging your opponent you smothered them with a blanket. We called the game, Crazy Quilt.
In junior high my piano teacher, David Newton, became a huge influence on me and my exposure to classical music. When I told him I had begun to write a woodwind quintet he gave me a book on orchestration. I was not a precocious Mozart. I am very poor at sight reading music and cannot hear a musical score in my head. I sat down at the piano and wrote a three note melody. (two eighth notes, f and g; one dotted half-note e). I repeated the motif in a descending fashion with awkward open harmonies and ended it with the opening motif. Once I orchestrated it and wrote the two page score, I gave it Mr. Chitwood. I was later horrified to discover he was coming over to my house to talk to my parents. A teacher had never set foot in our house. The closest thing to that had been seeing my first grade teacher, Mrs. Hyde, in the grocery store. It somehow cheapened them and made them seem like people. Yet, there was Mr. Chithood on our back porch talking to my parents. I had an unspoken agreement with my parents that they were never to be seen with me at school. Not everyone would understand my father, the man who hung a fake shrunken head from the rearview mirror of car that had, “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life,” painted in Gothic script on the side. Yet there he was with my parents, explaining to them that I was a musical genius. It was weird having a teacher in my home. My father did not seem impressed. His favorite songs were, Look at Them Beans by Johnny Cash, Froggy went a Courtin’, and If I Had the Wings of an Angel (also know as The Prisoner Song) by Burl Ives. The quintet was set aside and never performed.
David Newton also exposed me to the works of Gilbert and Sullivan, my favorite became The Mikado. My love for that operetta resulted in attempting to write an operetta based on Washington Irving’s, Rip Van Winkle. I got as far as writing part of one song, “We’re the Men of the Inn.” I carried that song in the back of my head for decades and most recently have completed the first draft of a children’s play called, “Rip!”. David also introduced be to Tchaikovsky’s Sixth Symphony (The Pathetique). The music contained such deep, rich emotion that I found myself crying as I listened to it.
Myself love of classical music grew. I remember being in downtown Portland at Meir and Frank in the music department. There were bins and bins of albums, even classical albums. I could browse through them endlessly. The album that I purchased was Dvorak’s New World Symphony, conducted by Leonard Bernstein.
I am not sure what possessed my father to purchase a four-track player for our Rambler. Later, I would assume that it was because we could not afford eight tracks. When we went to Muntz Stereo in Portland I was allowed to pick out one four-track cassette. I chose Ravel’s Daphens et Chole, not because I was familiar with the piece, but because it had such a pretty cover. But once I played it, it mesmerized me. It was like nothing I had ever heard. It was only recently that I rediscovered the piece and realized what a work of genius it was and how influential it was on those who wrote movie scores.
(Just out of college, I would own an eight-track player in my Plymouth Fury. I had two cartridges that I would play over and over, The Best of the Carpenters and Tapestry by Carole King. To this day I consider Tapestry the perfect album and one of my favorites.)
Tony played trumpet in band. We weren’t exactly friends, but one day, out of the blue, he loaned me the album Bookends by Simon and Garfunkle. It was the first and only time a high school peer had shared music with me. The album impressed me, and still does, because the lyrics transcended the pop music of the day. I soon discovered other albums by the pair. I loved their earlier album, Pasley, Sage, Rosemary and Thyme, particularly the 7:00 O’clock New/Silent Night. The use of spoken voice was groundbreaking … and heart-breaking.
I am not sure where the idea originated, but as a junior in high school I set out to become hired by the music department of the Multnomah County Library. This was odd on several counts. I lived in eastern Oregon not Portland and I had no library or real work experience to speak of. Amazingly, I was hired. My parents were shocked and not completely ready to let me go to live in Portland with my sister. I convinced them that as a musical prodigy I needed this experience. I lived with my sister the summer of my junior year. The music room of the Multnomah Public Library in 1968 was an amazing place. It had shelves and shelves of classical music. It had a small room with a French door, inside were miniature scores of classical music from every era. The best feature of the music library was its dedicated listening room with the latest high fidelity equipment. You notified the front desk of your listening choice and then entered the room sat in a leather Eames chair and entered another world. That year I discovered Dvorak’s Piano Concerto, Aaron Copland’s opera, Tender Land, and Britten’s War Requiem. Halfway through the summer I made a terrible mistake at the check out desk. A woman approached and asked if I could recommend appropriate music for her daughter’s birthday party. “Try Saint-Saëns’ Carnival of Animals.” The head librarian, a German woman, found out and was furious. I was relegated to the workroom for the remainder of the summer, sorting dusty sheet music. I was not hired the next summer.
Ironically, my love of music waned in college. I did not keep current with popular music and because I was a music major, classical music became homework instead of passion. Only two composers stood out. Our vocal ensemble did a Bach motet and fluid and luxurious work by Palestrina.
During seminary I had little time for music. I worked the graveyard shift in a bank with three or four other young people. Our only solace was the radio and trying to call in and win albums. I eventually won a Beatles’ album, but I had never developed a love for the Beatles. While in seminary I also entered a Laughing Contest at Tower Records. I won a Sony cassette deck and purchased the cassette Children of Sanchez by Chuck Mangione.
My adult life was consumed with trying to reach my goal of becoming a pastor and then pastoring. Hymns have always, until now, been an integral part of my musical life. For a certain generation of people dementia and senility will eat away at them, but the melody and words of hymns will rise to their minds and lips when all else is forgotten. While pastoring in Tigard, Oregon I began ministering to a woman in hospice care. After only a few visits I could tell that she was waning and did not recognize me or understand what I was saying. On my last visit I took a hymnal and sang at her bedside every familiar hymn that I could think of. There was no telling look or squeeze of the hand. It was more for me than for her. Later, while still at that church, I began my process of coming out. One vacation I remained in town to visit Metropolitan Community Church, a church that ministers primarily to gays and lesbians. I entered the church not knowing what to expect. The church at that time was filled with primarily men. I didn’t know a soul. The service began and then we sang the first hymn, It Is Well with My Soul. I knew the hymn by heart and began singing the first stanza, but by the time we got to the chorus my throat choked and closed. I could not sing, I could only cry and wonder if things ever would be well with my soul again.
A good friend, several years ago shared his entire music collection with me. One of the highlights off that collection was Miles Davis’ Sketches of Spain. It is a brilliant collaboration between jazz and classical musicians. He also introduced me to a singer named Eva Cassidy. One night after a good dinner out we were drinking a very fine dessert wine and he said, “You have to listen to this.” He put on Somewhere Over the Rainbow by Eva Cassidy. She transforms what could have easily been a cliche into something special.
It is only recently that my passion for classical music has reignited. I purchased a monthly subscription to Spotify, a musical streaming service that allows you to listen to entire albums of all types of music. Spotify has an amazing depth of classical music from which to choose. Every night I go to bed with a different composer. Let me rephrase that, every night I choose a composer and listen to their music until I fall asleep. Eventually, I discovered the symphonies of Shostakovich. Here is how I encourage you to listen to them. Find a quiet place to sit. Empty your mind and let it become a movie screen. Turn the stereo up a few notches higher than you are normally comfortable with. Symphony No. 5 is a good one to begin with. Allow the music to create a movie on the screen within your mind. Sometimes his music is percussive and militaristic and at other times it is “Keystone Kops in a bathtub” funny, but if you allow it, the music will transport you and change you.
Recently, Sam and I went to the musical, The Book of Mormon, in celebration of our ninth anniversary. We had waited two years to get tickets. The musical is crude, vulgar, sacrilegious, profane, and very, very clever. I laughed out loud through the entire two hours. But hidden in the book of the musical is an interesting idea, “Sometimes it is okay to believe wild and fantastical ideas, because some of those ideas can produce hope and community … the two things necessary to create change in the world.”
Music is one of the reasons I cannot quit believing in God. It is not my Nazarene God or even my Methodist God. It is my God who sings and laughs. It is my God who can sit with me on a piano bench and help me choose three notes that become a melody.
Perhaps someday I will sit in a church again. Perhaps someday I will sing without tears …
When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
It is well, it is well with my soul.
It is well … with my soul,
It is well, it is well … with my soul.