I’m pretty sure that my parents never met John Lennon. Or to be more specific John Lennon’s Aunt Mimi. But whether they did or not they were of the same opinion as her. As she had famously told John playing the guitar was all well and good but no-one ever made a living out of it.
In John Lennon’s case that turned out to be patently untrue and in my case, well, let’s just say I still haven’t made a penny.
Either way my parents made it clear that me playing my guitar would get me nowhere.
When I was around eleven or twelve playing the guitar was actively encouraged. At that age it was seen as a harmless pastime that would in some way mirror the way my sisters were encouraged to learn the piano. Not for them the raucous liberation that a guitar promised, the piano was far more sedate and ladylike and their ability to master those black and white keys would hold them in good stead for the rest of their lives. Or so they were implicitly told.
My parents, I assume, were convinced that learning a musical instrument would, alongside elocution lessons, drag us from the dangers of an impoverished Yorkshire upbringing into a bright future their ancestors could never have dreamed of. Quite why they thought we were descending into a black hole of despair and poverty I can’t imagine. Despite having six children we never seemed to struggle financially, although goodness knows how.
They were also determined that we should attend the relevant grammar school rather than, heaven forbid, the secondary modern. By the time I was eleven I was reasonably convinced that failing to reach the grammar school would condemn me to a lifetime of horrors so unspeakable it was far better that they were left unspoken.
So I was packed off once a week for a series of bus journeys that took me to a guitar teacher in Yeadon, West Yorkshire where I would struggle with musical notation and it’s relevance to the guitar fretboard.
The well meaning soul had only one mission, to teach me classical guitar. I wanted to play rock ‘n roll. Or more specifically I wanted to be in the Beatles. I just needed to master a few basic chords and I was sure that John, Paul, George and Ringo would be begging me to become the fifth Beatle.
However, classical guitar doesn’t do chords, it does notes. Notes come in different sizes, shapes, lengths and timings. Notes involve your fingers, I was convinced, being positioned in ways that eleven year old fingers aren’t designed to be positioned. And that’s just your left hand. Your right hand had to be arched in what I remain convinced is a completely unnatural position ready to assist in the production of notes. Take a look at a classical guitarist and you’ll see what I mean.
Not for me the dream of strumming chords in celebration of the freedom of pop music, no, I had to bury all that in some weird homage to Segovia and his mates rather than Lennon and his mates.
It lasted a short time, in my dim and distant memory about three months, before finally I’d had enough and packed it in.
It left me with a lifetime aversion to musical notation and a belief that I was too thick to learn the secrets of how music is put together.
Music is a language. It can move us to tears or euphoria, we know it can mirror our feelings or change the way we feel. We don’t have to understand how that language is structured to feel these things but if you want to create music you have to know a bit more than ‘the cat sat on the mat’. What I failed to realise was that you don’t have to be the equivalent of a linguistics professor to create music. It took me years to realise that and to be honest I’m still hampered by the belief that my musical skills, or rather the lack of them, somehow hold me back. In short, I’d never be good enough to present my music for people to listen and potentially enjoy.
But music itself had already captured me. As much as it mystified me it beckoned me in. Those wild boys, and they were overwhelmingly boys, who strutted their stuff on Top Of The Pops had the keys to a promised land. I couldn’t image what that promised land contained but that just made it even more alluring. I didn’t realise that these lads were just a few years older than me, that in many cases their musical knowledge was only marginally greater than mine and they had no inherent skill or ability I couldn’t acquire. To my eyes and ears it was all just so much fun, so much excitement and crucially nothing of the world I inhabited.
In these days of the world wide web, social media, 24 hour news and mobile technology it’s impossible to visualise the impact a sub three minute song could have on a young mind. It was like the Martians had landed. We didn’t know anything about the Beatles really. Liverpool might just as well have been on the dark side of the moon instead of less than 100 miles from where I lived. London was a strange, far away place you visited perhaps once on a school trip and America was so out of this world in every sense to young English minds it was as if we were catching glimpses of how an alien species lived.
But I knew that outside my little corner of the world was a universe that spun to the sound of music and I wanted to find out more. The idea of being part of that universe was fanciful in the extreme but hey, we can all dream, can’t we?
Although I had long since stopped the sadly misguided guitar lessons it didn’t stop me playing my guitar. With no discipline behind me and no-one to learn from or play with I was predictably a very poor guitarist. I was a limited strummer at best.
By the time I was sixteen the guitar had begun to become something of a bete-noir in our house. My parents latched on to it as the reason I was failing at school, it was the reason my future was condemned to mediocrity or worse and it was the source of a lot of rows I had with my parents.
I was told that I could never make a living out of playing the guitar and I should give up spending time with it and concentrate on my school lessons. I’m convinced that if the guitar hadn’t cost the princely sum of £50 it would have joined the dozens of pictures of Leeds United in the dustbin following one argument too many with my mother.
After all I was hardly a virtuoso on the instrument. Truth be told I was rubbish. I played all the same chords over and over and I wasn’t progressing at all. But to me that didn’t matter. My guitar was an escape, it was my world and I could chose when to go to that world and how long to stay in it.
Well Aunt Mimi I have not made a living out of playing the guitar but I’ve got more out of it than I’ll ever be able to properly recount and in the end that’s all you need.
(Picture: John Lennon’s Aunt Mimi with a portrait of John in the 1960s)