If it weren’t for music, I wouldn’t exist. I think most people can say that. I bet there are only a handful of babies that weren’t made with something yeah baby playing in the background. But I…came from music.
Maggie Stiles married Billy Knight in Key West in 1938. She was a jazz singer and he was her lead guitarist. They played from Key West to Miami and I’m told she sounded like Ella Fitzgerald. By the time I came around, they were divorced and she had given up a life of Jazz to become an army officer’s wife. That’s my Grammy. She was this amazing dichotomy of the English major librarian, (she really was,) and sleek, precocious Lady of Jazz, when that was a way of life. They had three kids and all three learned to play guitar. Grandpa Billy taught them his special language with the guitar and it was smooth Caribbean Conch juice somewhere between calypso and American folk. At family gatherings, someone was always playing in the background and the stories flowed like waterfalls. Hemingway lived across the street from Sloppy Joe’s where they played gigs and hung out and I would trade one of my three kidney’s for the chance to travel back in time and sit at that table. Grammy was a brilliant woman and true to her art as a philosopher. I can only imagine with sheer delight the things she and Hemingway discussed.
My mother had a knack for the beautiful and unusual 4 string tenor guitar, still in the family. My earliest and most fond memories were my mother’s gentle strokes on the strings and her deep, soft voice lulling me to sleep. She played the whole time she was pregnant with me, so as my brain was forming, it was infused with the vibrations of the guitar. It is a literal part of my being and always a place I go for refuge. My father was in the Air force and we lived in Imsbach, Germany until I was six, then we moved to California, where I grew up. While we lived in Germany, Mom played with a Yugoslavian folk band called Vanja and the Americans. You can blame them both for my over-extravert-ed-ness. I must have been around 3 years old when Vanja invited me onstage to sing a traditional German song. As soon as the applause began, I was hopelessly addicted. Vanja was a beautiful, exotic Yugoslavian with dark hair and Hollywood eyes. She had that mysterious effervescence that electrifies crowds…that star quality that makes you want to hang on every gesture. Then, she would sing…ach du lieber.. Her voice boomed and radiated at the same time: All of these things still so vivid in my mind from so many years ago. I remembered her so well that my first child was named after her. It wasn’t until years after my daughter’s birth that my mother finally told me, she feared Vanja was lost to the chaos and horrors of the Revolution in Yugoslavia, as she had searched for her for many years. Vanja went away, my Daddy went to war and my world started over at the base of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. But I never saw either of them again. The man who came back from Vietnam was only a version of my father, and a bad one at that. He came home sick with war fatigue and Agent Orange poisoning and his suffering finally ended when I was 16. But that’s another story for another page on the Endangered Earthling; the one about why I spend every waking moment working for global peace and cooperation. This page is about music. So, where were we? Ah yes; California.
I’ll fast forward to the next music bit which is when my sister married Kurt Vassar, a bass player who did a short stint as Blackie Lawless’ back up bass. The lifestyle was a bit much for him but MAN did I get to go to some fun gigs before he quit. Then…I lived with Tony Smotherman for five years, who has been ranked one of the top ten guitarists in the world. I’ll never forget the first time I ever heard him play: It was like the music arose from the earth and moved right through him. He and his amp would be up playing right next to me as, once again, the guitar lead me into dream world…up and away. It was a magical place to visit, but two artists living together is like two Homer’s in a doughnut shop. The grown-up things kicked our asses and it was time to move on.
As for me, no I don’t play guitar…I strum, and no I don’t sing. My contribution is words. You’ll hear one of my songs soon.
So, here we are. Music invented me and still sustains me. Thanks for the love you makers of heaven. My life would be grey without you.
This was Grammy’s favorite spot in Laguna Beach, California. What you can’t see that she is looking at, is a spectacular ocean view. This was her favorite way to spend her afternoons and the place we sprinkled her ashes.