If only I could sing, I would be such a fun guy. I wouldn’t have to sing really well, just well enough to belt out a song at a party, with more bravado than bravura. A heart-voiced version of "Brother Can You Spare a Dime?" ("Say, don't you remember, they called me Al..."), then something silly, like (to the tune of “They Tried to Tell Us We’re Too Young”): “They tried to sell us egg foo young….” And everyone would stop talking and sing along with me, and someone would say, “Hey, you know, that was fun.” But—and this is crucial—I would know when to stop.
I’d sing lullabies to friends’ babies, and tasteful tunes, on request, after weddings and funerals. I wouldn’t deluge or delude myself with the notion: Maybe if I did some voice training I could be on stage! No, I’d be content to confine my modest talent to social singing, saving my fantasies for the shower, where I’d be Sinatra at Carnegie, Brel in a café.
As it is, I’m not even good enough for the shower. I offend my own sensibilities. I’d have to take a plane, train, and cab to arrive in the neighborhood of a melody, where I’d soon get lost.
I’ve been told that anyone can sing. Perhaps, but the odds against you are prohibitive when your natural equipment is woefully deficient and any potential for vocal cord refinement was stunted by years of not even trying. What happened was this:
My grade-school music teacher picked all but five in my class to be in the chorus. The remaining atonal quintet was given the class newspaper to keep us busy while the others prepared for the Fall Concert, Christmas Recital, and Spring Show. Which is why I stopped trying to sing, but can write this.
Still, I grew to love music in high school, especially folk and blues. I learned to play the guitar, though I couldn’t tune it very well. “Close enough for folk music,” I’d announce after spending a minute or so tightening and loosening strings. I’d accompany friends on the guitar at informal hoots, but the singers would have more fun. I was even in a group that played Hoot Night at Gerde's Folk City, and lip-synced just to see what it would feel like.
A guy in Washington Square Park led me through the folk guitarist’s initiatory rite by teaching me “Freight Train” in the key of C. And on the beach at Newport between sessions of the Folk Festival, a guitarist from Cambridge—who claimed to have dated Jim Kweskin’s sister—taught me how to keep a double bass line when fingerpicking. This resulted in an extra layer to my playing, leading to my first falsetto “whoo!” response two months later. My proudest moment was being referred to as a “blues guitarist.” When I listened to Bob Dylan and Pete Seeger records, I’d think: “I bet if it hadn’t been for that music teacher I could sing as well as they do.”
Before I leave for college, one of my teachers advises students to take advantage of the clean slate we’ll have in a new place, enabling us to break bad behavior patterns and start new, good ones. No one will know any better and respond, “Who are you trying to kid?” During orientation week I become the kind of guy who initiates conversations with “How ya doin’?” instead of waiting to be chosen. I get elected to the student council and am rushed by three fraternities. I make a splash on the student newspaper.
One afternoon in my dorm room, I am playing alone, doing my instrumental “House of the Rising Sun,” a combination of the Dylan and Van Ronk arrangements. I pick up steam, really cooking, and some guys gather around. I start humming, then singing under the guitar. It sounds all right. What I lack in tone I make up for with passionate growling and nasal twanging. I sing gradually louder, amazed at how good it sounds. The long rest has done my vocal cords good. That music teacher just couldn’t hear the potential.
I finish with a guitar run that isn’t Dylan or Van Ronk, and as the resolving chord resounds I wait for the chorus of “whoo”s. One of the freshmen says, “Man, you play a hell of a guitar, but you sure have one weird voice.” Another says something about a tortured cat. They all laugh.
This episode shuts me up once again, allowing my vocal cords to continue their withering journey to atrophy. But, for a few minutes there, I was a real fun guy, and it will remain the barometer by which I measure happiness.
Postscript: My wife, Erin Langston—a wonderful singer—patiently taught me to listen, and occasionally I can emit a passable "Love Me Tender" to her late at night with the lights out. And that is true happiness.