Even with my writing work, college schooling, and aspirations to REALLY WRITE (not to “be a writer” – I‘m beyond that ‘cause I know I am), I also had an inexplicable itch to write and perform songs. At the tender age of 12, I appeared in a local Queens talent show for kids and sang “Both Sides, Now,” with my mom at the piano. From what I know of being 12, it’s such an awkward age. . . but I knew it was a good song and something about being on stage and singing was very appealing.
Mom was a piano teacher and church organist on Sundays. . . . we had a piano and an organ in our living room – a place otherwise filled with uncomfortable chairs and a sofa that had plywood under the cushions rather than springs. It was good that the couch in the TV room/den was nicer to sit on (somewhat!). But I digress.
As a baby, I started singing around the same time I started babbling, so I’ve always sung – especially in church on Sundays, as we had to religiously (no pun intended) attend Catholic Church as well as Catholic grammar school. We also heard music at home, almost non-stop, between mom’s music and our dad’s tuning in to WQXR FM (the local classical music station) every Sunday morning. We also listened to vinyl 33 1/3 rpm albums on the Fisher stereo set: Musicals like My Fair Lady or Fiddler on the Roof (Fiorello! Was one of my favorites) or the Dixieland jazz sounds of the Kenny Ball Orchestra’s Midnight in Moscow (fabulous song, BTW). At Christmastime, The Harry Simeone Choir’s Little Drummer Boy album dominated the stereo and we sang along to it nonstop.
In 1964, I was given The Beatles Second Album, and it was definitely exciting to dance around to and sing with them. Later on, Simon and Garfunkel, The Mamas and the Papas, The Zombies and the Cowsills filled my ears with wondrous harmonies. . . I never could get them out of my head. In church, when the key of the songs were excruciating for my voice, I’d find what I called “an alternate melody” (a 3rd or a 5th harmony, it turned out) and belt along as joyously as possible. Thankfully, nobody told me to shut up, or I’d probably have developed a complex and I’d never have kept making music.
Then I started copying down lyrics of my favorite songs that I’d listen to over and over. . . Joni Mitchell, Carly Simon, Linda Ronstadt especially. From studying them (and rock & roll stuff I dug, esp. the Rolling Stones) I started writing my own lyrics. But I needed an instrument.
“Mom, how about I learn the piano?” I asked innocently, around age 13.
My comely red-lipsticked mom looked up from the sink where she was dyeing her thick hair a rich chestnut brown – or more accurately, covering up her gray hairs. She sighed.
“But Laurie, you’re too headstrong to learn from me! How about the guitar – would you like to play the guitar?” My big brother, Tommy, had a few guitars that I would borrow from time to time, especially a nylon stringed classical – and then, when he came back from a trip to Mexico, he brought a lovely, light, steel stringed guitar that started warping as soon as the climate change hit its untrussed neck.
Mom took me to the local Sam Ash music store and we picked out a cute Guild F-30 guitar that had a good neck and fit to my body (the curve went just under my right breast). Except for 2 guitar lessons with a teacher mom bartered piano lessons for (the hunky hippie, Danny Crowley), and a Mel Bay beginner guitar book that I impatiently eschewed, I mostly learned to play by ear. I still have that Guild (+ two others) and play it. Good quality is always a good idea. . . thanks, mom!!
With this background – as well as a short-lived stint in a few high school bands and talent show appearances, accompanying myself on guitar playing “Long, Long Time” (a schmaltzy Linda Ronstadt number) – I came to look at the music ads in back on the Village Voice one day in late 1976. I’d been out on the music scene, writing about it and digging the music, and I knew I could add some of my own noise – if I could find some simpatico bandmates to play with.
Little did I know how drastically that would change my life – and that by making that choice how it would affect my writing career. . .