In June 1967, less than a month after I sleepwalked through the puzzling becoming-a-man ceremony, I combined all of the checks and cash I’d received for my Bar Mitzvah and bought a Hagstrom bass guitar and Univox amplifier.
I had a couple years of guitar lessons under my belt, but I liked the look and sound of the bass. It was not flashy, but cool in its own way. By thirteen I had also recognized that bass players were in demand by neighborhood bands.
After moving a couple cages of guinea pigs out into the yard at the behest of his mother who feared for their health once we flipped on our amplifiers, that summer was spent playing in my friend Frank Sonnenberg’s basement with two now forgotten compatriots. In September I entered the eighth grade and joined a combo that had already been together for a year or so. They were called The Northern Lites, but by November it was changed to The Nightymes. (A further name change took place a year later when I suggested we become Scotland Yard Fantasy, which sounded more psychedelic. I was beginning to see that my ideas could be put into action.) We all lived in the same subdivision or on its fringes. The other members, all being ninth graders, were a seasoned lot. By the end of that year we were playing for dances at the YMCA.
This move to the bandstand allowed me to sidestep my nascent confusion coinciding with the urges and fears associated with interacting with girls in any manner more complicated than as a pal. Shielded by a clearly delineated audience-performer dynamic, I maintained a measure of control. Standing nearly stock still (the standard posturing for non-singing bass players of the era, epitomized by Bill Wyman of The Rolling Stones) evinced its own brand of poise and style. While holding a spot at the rear of the stage was by no means overt exhibitionism, wanting to be on stage reflected my desire to be seen, to be a performer, on my own terms. Being on the dance floor was too full of uncertainties, where I didn’t have full confidence in my capacity to communicate with anything resembling ease and charm.
Concurrent with being in this and subsequent bands, I’d grown my hair into a thick frizz down to my shoulders, giving me a triangle-shaped head. After some resistance from my parents (“you can’t use the car”) they came to terms with it, explaining to mystified friends, “Well, he’s in a band.”
The summer before my senior year I took the driver’s ed course offered by the school. I was on the road alone with the instructor, stopped at a light. He turned to me and inquired, in a tone that revealed his thinly disguised distaste, “Do you think girls really like your hair like that?” I thought that girls did indeed approve, at least the girls I wanted approval from.
By seventeen, I was asserting my individuality and independence. I found ease in being funny, and I was honing it to attract the people I wanted to attract. I didn’t look like everyone at my school, but I did blend in with my peers. I customized my class-clown antics with budding surrealist inclinations and a dose of performance art (which I’d never heard of at the time).
Soon I will have completed four sixteen-year life segments. I don’t know when adulthood came in. Certainly not at age thirteen, nor at sixteen with the burgeoning sense of self, still a boy trying on, mimicking, and eventually adopting some of the elements of personality that I was experimenting with.
What has interested, intrigued, and mystified me over the decades has been the unexpected juxtaposing of words and ideas, and being simultaneously insider and observer. On the way to becoming an artist the bass guitar was one of the tools I was drawn to. I understand now it was an instrument that required collaboration with others. That one characteristic became central to my activities as an artist. And I still have that bass guitar I bought fifty years ago.
Artist David Greenberger lives in Greenwich, NY. www.davidgreenberger.com @davidbg