Dream the Good Dream
Half a Brain I can say with complete certainty I only had half a brain throughout my childhood. The other half belonged to my good friend and culprit-in-crime, Jon Miner. Some kind of mystical chord struck between us when we met in the first grade. We laughed at the same things, had similar bizarre thoughts, and both of us loved to draw. We spent days at a time filling up blank notebook paper with cartoons, comic book superheroes and weak imitations of Frank Frazetta's Conan characters. It was bliss; we didn't have a care in the world. It never occurred to me, when Johnny and I were singing along with Tommy James and the Shondells, or the Bee Gees, or The Beatles, that we could invent music and lyrics, whole songs even, by ourselves. It wasn't an option because it wasn't in my reality at that time. I had no idea that Jon was already thinking about it. We must have been all of 11 or 12 years old then. I had taken a few years' worth of piano lessons, but I didn't care much for them. I didn't feel I was learning anything, and the music was boring, quite unlike the vibrant music (like the Beach Boys' 'Good Vibrations') we were hearing on our transistor radios. We were growing up in a dusty, far-away wide spot on the road called Wewoka, in Oklahoma. Nothing ever happened there (or so we thought at the time), and we yearned to GET OUT! The music filtering in to us from other, more exotic places on the planet only intensified our desire to leave. We wanted to grow up fast and shake the dust of that town off our heels. Don't we all feel that way when we're young? Cheap Organs and a Bass One day Jon and I walked into the Ben Franklin 5-and-10, and there it was: a cheap (either $29.95 or $39.95) electronic organ. It was made of plastic, with 20 or 30 keys and maybe 10 buttons that played actual chords. I'll bet we stopped at that store 3 or 4 times a week just to fool around with the organ and annoy the employees. We had to have it, but of course we couldn't muster $5 between us. Somehow, Johnny came up with the money first. I think he might have used his birthday as a bargaining tool, I don't really remember now, but if he did, that was cheating, as far as I was concerned. Jon had that organ maybe a week when I slipped into his house and heard him playing along with a song on the radio. I couldn't believe it: he never had a lesson in his life, but he figured things out on his own. I was impressed; but not nearly as impressed as I was about two weeks later, when he played me his first composition, 'Words Never Spoken', from start to finish. I thought it was incredible. He had written his own song, words and music, including matching vocal harmonies for me, with no help from anybody! I was stunned, but also incredibly excited. At that magic moment, nothing in the universe seemed impossible or out of reach for us. We had to have a band, and right away. We decided to be rock and roll stars--- just like that--- in the same manner other people chose to be doctors or lawyers. Absolutely nothing could deter us from that decision for years. After all, isn't that how Cream was formed, or Santana, or any of those other bands? They just decided to be a band one day, and look what happened! Work hard, have faith, and never waver. Both of my older brothers had played in local bands, so somehow we inherited a set of Ludwig drums. I had fooled around with them a little, but now I began in earnest, listening to every record with a different drum beat and sweating over that trap set for hours at a time. Eventually, I became pretty good. Meanwhile, Jon and I had talked a mutual friend of ours, Don Christian, into buying my brother Larry's bass guitar and amp. Together, the three of us wrote songs at a furious pace, jamming together whenever we could (which was not very often; always, we wanted to play at maximum volume, and not many parents went along with that). We set up once or twice in Mike Hardgrove's garage, next to my house, but the noise level doomed us every time. We wrote hundreds of songs, named ourselves Tomorrow's Freedom and then Embryonic Motivation A. D. and then whatever cool, dumb names we could invent. Guitars, Katchu-tal and Truth Eventually, it occurred to us that a cheap plastic organist, a bassist and a drummer did not a band make. We needed the real thing: guitars! Jon introduced me to a friend of his, Jamie Saunders, who played guitar and sang. The only hitch: Jamie played country, mostly. We would have to work on that, and we did. In the long run, I don't know who was influenced the most: now Jamie can play blues and rock and pretty much anything else. In a pinch I can play country. Some people don't believe it, but it's true. By this time we were all in high school. Somewhere along the line, Jon started playing guitar, and I found a cheap guitar to learn on, but also I started working harder at playing the old upright piano my parents had at home. It was a long, slow process, interrupted by life and circumstance. My sophomore year in high school I was married. My wonderful son Chris came out of this brief union, and I thank God every day for him. It was also a painful maturing period. The song 'Frozen Rain' was written around then, when I was 17 or 18. It's the only song from this time period that hangs around. I wouldn't have recorded it, for various reasons, except my wife Kathy convinced me it was a good song (considering my youth when I wrote it), so here it is. In the spring of our senior year, Jon and Don and I played as a group in our high school's annual talent show, called Katchu-tal. Jamie had already graduated, so he wasn't involved. I never knew if they called the show Katchu-tal because it was a 'catch-all' for all the high-school talent, or what. Anyway, Jon was on guitar, Don was on bass, and I pounded a grand piano that didn't deserve the abuse. We played an original song of mine named 'Really Silly Billy', and it was just that. It was great fun, with two of the best friends I've ever had. The three of us never played together again. It seems I had been introduced to the truth, or, as we called ourselves, 'Truth'. Truth and Consequences Some time earlier, during my junior year in high school, I was tracked down by a lead guitar player from Holdenville, OK, named David Messenger. He was wearing a black Mad Hatter's top hat and sported a scruffy beard with a strange shock of white hair through it. He was in a car with two Holdenville girls when they flagged me down. 'I hear you play the drums,' he said after rolling down the window. 'My band needs a drummer. Let's get together.' Jon and Don and Jamie and I had not been progressing as rapidly as I hoped. We played infrequently, at best. Also, I had been playing with two other guitarists from Sasakwa. We had jammed there--- in Sasakwa--- on a couple of occasions, but we had no steady gigs. 'Okay,' I said, 'let's try it.' I didn't know much about this David Messenger fellow, but he was with two attractive young ladies I didn't know, and I wanted to become acquainted with them right away. The way to a man's heart may be through his stomach, but the way to a young woman's heart is through her ears. Specifically, rock 'n' roll. It was true then and it's still true today. Our bass player was a guy from Wetumka named Steve 'Skunk' Hughes. Also, we had a second drummer, a fellow from Holdenville named Rodney Simpson. He was one of the nicest, kindest people I've ever known. Although I played the drums in the band, somehow I wound up splitting time between the drums and pounding an old Farfisa organ that my good friend David Bennett let me borrow. Sometime during this whole process I had hernia surgery, which put me out of commission on the drums for a while. David Messenger had the bright idea to let me be the lead vocalist during this period, which I had never done. I still remember the first time I sang in front of a crowd, during practice at the Atwood gym. I was scared to death and had a music stand pulled high in front of me so I couldn't see all the faces. I would duck down behind the music stand, place a firm hand on my recent hernia incision, and belt out each tune the only way I knew how: loud and off-key. Even today I still have a tendency to sing loud and off-key. Some things never change. David came up with the name 'Truth' for our band and had business cards printed up. We played a circuit which included Ada, Holdenville, Wewoka, Weleetka and Wetumka. I don't know why Oklahoma has so many city names beginning with a 'W', but it does, and for a while it felt like we toured them all. Needless to say this was a crazy period of wreckless hedonism and wanton debauchery. I wish I could remember it all. I was lucky enough to be thrown in jail only twice throughout this period. My good friend Kirt Foster, who was our sound and lights man, lived in Wewoka at the time, so we drove to all the gigs together. I'm sure he saved my life on more than one occasion. Truth stayed together for a year or so after I graduated high school, as I recall. I don't know why we broke up, exactly. Maybe it was because I was leaving for Norman, and the University of Oklahoma, or maybe people had seen enough of us and were tired of our antics. Anyway, we played one last concert way out in the country on Steve's grandfather's land, as I recall. The police tried to shut us down (as they often did, apparently we were bad influences) but we were on private property and there was really nothing they could do. I've seen David Messenger a couple of times since, but I don't think I've seen him at all in the last 15 years. It's been longer since I've seen Steve Hughes. Hey, I love you guys and I miss you. Give me a holler. Rodney Simpson was shot in the neck and killed, allegedly over some stupid insurance scam. He's one of the nicest people I've ever met in my life. He wrote good songs, and he always had a smile for everybody. I still have lyric sheets he gave me years ago, shortly before he died. He was hoping I could put music to them. Forgive me, Rodney, but every time I look at them it's just too sad, but maybe some day. I am very proud that you were my friend. An Average Day at the Lake The year after I graduated from high school, a friend of mine, Joe Stevenson, drowned at Wewoka Lake. There was a group of us hanging out at the north side of the lake, and, like impulsive teenagers everywhere, we had a stupid idea: there was a slide in the water, just a short distance away across a small cove. Let's go over there and slide down! Curtis Johnson, Jamie Saunders, Kirt Foster, Joe and I all hit the water, with me in the lead. Robert Horton stayed on the bank. It soon became apparent to me that the 'small' cove was much wider than I thought. I struggled mightily to get across it. When I reached the other side I stood up, looked back, and Robert was screaming from the other bank, I could barely hear him from so far away, '...WHERE'S JOE?....' Joe had drowned, of course. Only Jamie, Curtis, Kirt and I had made it across the cove. Joe was somewhere between us and our starting point, sinking in the muck. I was stunned. How do you react to something like that? He was nineteen years old. Morning Thunder It all seemed to come together in Norman. My former next-door-neighbor, Alan Morris, a flute player, became a part of our band. Jamie Saunders, the lead guitarist I had known in high school, showed up from nowhere. My brother Larry, on the bass, saved the day. He lived 70 or so miles away, but he drove to Norman at least twice a week (sometimes more, especially if we had a gig) in order to keep our band together. The band was: me on drums, Larry on bass (and he did a fine job at that!), Jamie Saunders on lead guitar, Mike Burris on rhythm guitar, and Alan Morris (a former next-door neighbor) on flute. My good friend David Bennett sat in occasionally on keyboards. We called ourselves 'Morning Thunder'---(after a tea I believe)---and began playing around the Norman area. I thought we would jell, and improve, and transcend everything I had been involved in before. We would become the best band our talents would allow, or so I thought. It was an exciting time. The amount of talent in this band was impressive. Unfortunately, we never realized our full potential. By this time several of us had families, and the responsibility to provide for them was a heavy burden. The band was pulled in too many directions at once. Some members wanted to play original music, some thought we had to perform a lot of covers to survive. Too many egos (including mine) were involved. But hey, we practiced a great deal, improved quite a bit musically, and we had a blast. What more could you ask for? Playing for Ourselves Shortly after the Morning Thunder period, I began jamming around with Mike Burris (Morning Thunder's rhythm guitarist) and Doug Swindell, another fine lead guitarist who had known Mike for years. We tried to get a lot of original material down on tape. For a long time we met every Friday night to play. Another guitarist friend of mine, Don Allison, was instrumental in helping get us together, especially in the early phases. Also, Don played a mean mandolin. Our good friend Ronnie played the bass. Although we jammed off and on for a few years, we never could get much accomplished. I think we enjoyed laughing and joking around as much as we enjoyed playing. Mainly it was an excuse to get out of the house. We were all serious, though, and had a lot of serious material between us. Things progressed so slowly at times that Mike and Doug used to joke, 'One day we're going to have the best CD a bunch of old middle-age guys can produce.' We laughed at that, but now it seems a little eerie. By the way, while I'm on this subject, I would like to thank my wife Kathy, Mike's wife Bobbie, and especially Doug's wife Barb for putting up with our antics during this time period. I say 'especially' Barb because we usually practiced at Doug and Barb's shop or at the studio in their house, where Barb had to put up with us in person. She used to say, 'You guys always say you're practicing. When are you going to play?' That was a good question. To tell the truth, we played in public just once, at a huge party out in the country on Doug and Barb's land. At the time, Doug and Barb lived in a small trailer while they were building a large A-frame house. The house had just been framed, so it made a perfect stage where we could perform (along with a couple of other bands). Besides the few school auditoriums I played in, that A-frame remains my favorite performance place. To top it off it was summer, underneath the stars, way out in the middle of nowhere, and you can't beat that. Although we didn't really have a formal name, Mike and Doug and Ronnie came up with the moniker 'Elephants Gerald' (say it fast three times, you'll get the drift). I created special muscle shirts with 'Gerald' painted on them for us to wear, and at the front of the stage we placed a large sign which said simply 'Elephants'. No one really knew if we were called Elephants or Gerald, but it didn't make any difference. We were with good people and we had a blast. On My Own Eventually, it was too much trouble for us to stay together. We were scattered half-way across the state of Oklahoma. All of us have full-time jobs. All of us have extended families--- which demand a great deal of our time--- which of course is wonderful. I've already mentioned my son Chris and my wife Kathy. I have two more sons, Ian and Eli, who are a ton of fun to be around. I can't express how fortunate I am to have them. Add to that Chris' wife Kat and Eli's wife Jenny, and you would be hard-pressed to find a luckier guy than me. I love them all. But I still have to play music. It's not so much something I choose to do as something I have to do. It's so ingrained in my body that I can't separate myself from it, or the urge to produce it. I may sound conceited, but I love to hear the sound of my own music. That's why I create it. If it never appealed to anybody else, that's okay with me, because it's enough for me that I like it. I hope others enjoy it, and according to my friends and family they do (at least I've sold a few cds, so that should count for something). Back when Jon Miner played 'Words Never Spoken' for me I knew I wanted to be able to do that. To me, music is something incredible, something mysterious, something that has the power to effect people in ways nothing else can. I don't know why that's true, but if I did, part of the enigma would be gone and this wouldn't be so much fun. And make no mistake: that's what making music is, FUN with a capital 'F'. Not everyone in the world can do it; even fewer approach it with serious determination. Not only is music fun for me, but I try to infuse it with meaningful insights from my own life and the world around me. I don't shy away from the ugly or profane, but in the end I want my message to be one of hope and redemption. I have known so many people who veer off the road of life, so many who become lost and hopeless, but let me tell you this: you are never so far away that you can't come back. There is a good path waiting for you, always. Sometimes you just have to look real hard for it, but trust me, it's there. Always. I promised myself I would not leave this life without producing my own CD. 'Fight the good fight, dream the good dream' has been my motto from day one. You might have a bad day today, but tomorrow is another story. Fight it out. You will be rewarded in the end. And don't ever, ever give up. Trust yourself. There is a reason you are here. When I finished the CD 'Dream The Good Dream' I had a friend ask me, 'How long did this project take?' I thought about that. 'Thirty years,' I said. And I meant it.