BECOMING A GUITARIST AND DECIDING TO BE A TROUBADOUR
Mom poked her head through the door of our forest cottage and peered through the trees.
“Bud,” she called in her cultured, resonant stage voice.
Though only six, I knew what she wanted and remained silent, hidden behind a tree.
She called louder. “Bud! Garbage!”
I closed my eyes in a desperate attempt to hang onto the music I was at that moment inventing in my head, for I’d come to a very nice passage that needed to be remembered.
But she persisted at full volume, “BUD!”
That did it. My inspiration was gone. My beautiful private symphony was lost.
Sadly I rose to my feet, emerged from behind the tree and confronted her.
“Hmph,” she said. “Come here and take out the garbage. Are you deaf? Why don’t you answer when I call?”
Sun rays filtered artfully through the treetops. I allowed them to soothe the pain of this confrontation and would’ve told her, had my wit been developed, “because I need music. My soul requires these musical moments for sustenance. Subconsciously I know this to be so. Thrilling musical inspiration comforts me, and you’re always taking it away.”
But I was only six, and life was a dream. I could only stare at her helplessly.
She glared at me. “I’m going to instruct the school nurse to examine your hearing. You might be deaf, like Dina says.”
Dina was my older sister. She always insisted I was deaf, dumb and blind, for I didn’t respond to her very well either. I lived in a beautiful astral-like world of my own making. No one anywhere seemed to understand. I didn’t know how to explain and hadn’t really figured it out myself.
Without a word, I took out the garbage.
Then I sat in our sun-drenched garden patio, holding my velveteen panda, and once again immersed into my astral-like world.
Fortunately Mom had her moments when she relaxed and got into my world with me a little. She sat inside a half-opened door and listened as I improvised a song for my panda, borrowing the phrase, “A tiskit-a-tasket” from somewhere . . .
I’ll carry my own basket
And travel the whole world with my house on my back.
There was more to the song, but that’s all I can remember. Mom wrote down the whole song and showed it to me in later years. It was my first outwardly expressed song and probably the start of my being a troubadour. And it turned out to be a song of prophecy.
Around that time, my divorced mom’s boyfriend, Jack McCoy, a fine and giving man who’d been a world-class champion bike racer, took me with him to visit some friends who had a guitar on their hearth. It leaned there temptingly, inspiring a deep longing I can’t explain. I’d never played a guitar before, but I intuitively knew I could make music on it. The lady of the house had been friendly toward me, so I asked her for permission to play it. She was cautious.
“Do you know how to play?”
“I’ve never played, but I can. I just know it!”
She was impressed with my enthusiasm. “Yes, all right then. Go ahead.”
I carefully picked up the huge instrument. It was very bulky. But I was tall and long-limbed for my age and was able to tenderly put my arm around it and pluck my first notes. It sounded rich and fine. It resonated like a cat purring, and I could feel it vibrating. Utterly entranced, I began experimenting. Within seconds I made up a tune, my own song, and played it.
She appeared amazed, as were her husband and Jack. Their attention felt good. I elaborated on the tune and played it over and over. When it was time for us to leave, I put the guitar down reluctantly. The thrill of that experience kept me awake all night.
We lived in Carmel-by-the-Sea, California. Among the artsy little shops, sheltered by tall pine trees, we had the Browse Around Music Store with a few dozen guitars on display for sale. The next day, during my walk home from school, I went in and began playing my tune on one of them without permission because I felt at home there.
The blond saleslady listened. She knew me because I’d been there before and bought a Burl Ives album with all my savings.
“That’s a pretty tune. What is it?”
“My own song,” I said, still concentrating on the music.
“I see, but what’s its name?”
I thought about it, decided, and then declared its title. “My Own Song.”
“Well it’s just lovely. But I think Burl Ives might’ve played it a little differently. Do you mind if I show you how he’d have played it?”
“Yes, please.” I handed her the guitar, grateful for her friendship.
An expert guitarist, she played the same passage I’d just played. But she used all the fingers of her right hand, adding counterpoint with her thumb. It was fuller and richer.
I was very excited. “That’s beautiful! May I try it?”
She handed me the guitar, and I played it just as she’d done. We were both delighted, and I kept returning to her for a year during which she taught me a lot. I decided I liked the guitar and her very much, and that I liked making up tunes and playing them.
During those magical days, I often visited my secret quiet place beneath a sprawling, gnarled old cypress tree growing in the silky white sand of Carmel Beach, gazed at the ocean, sniffed the salty breeze, and listened to the powerful music of the surf rolling in. To me it was an infinite orchestra that stretched for miles in all directions. The awesome power of it filled me with a rapture so intense as to make me think of brand new musical works. They were often endless melodious journeys I could hum mentally.
I’d heard many symphonies of course. Mom had a phonograph with lots of Beethoven, Mozart, Brahms and Chopin. A busy actress, she was out of the house a lot. And Dina was generally over at her friend Sally’s place. So I had our little forest cottage and those fine recordings to myself most of the time. I wore out the records, playing them until I could hum my favorite symphonies note for note.
By learning these fine compositions, I unwittingly taught myself form and structure. Then, buoyed by a serenity inspired by surf sound, I began giving structure to my musical journeys. My own sonatas emerged, fresh new ones, though only in my head. For I didn’t know how to write. I imagined them being played by an orchestra so large as to fill the sky with billions of musicians. A pretty tune made me happier than anything. I liked Burl Ives’ public domain folk tunes, as well as those of Stephen Foster. Dina would sing these songs with me while we washed the dishes.
The kindly old widow Mrs. Kelly lived across the street. She had a grand piano on which she’d allow me to play and compose whenever I visited. She also had a couple of old unwanted tennis racquets in her attic, and she let me have them. The frames were made of steel, and they had steel strings. You could hit rocks with those racquets and not worry about breaking a string. Amid a fragrant old pine forest, a block away, there was a pair of city tennis courts where I spent countless hours.
The courts were dug into the side of a hill, and the Carmel stone-surfaced retaining wall was generally my only available tennis partner. Hitting the grouting produced a crooked bounce, making me run too much. But soon I found that if I really focused and watched the ball, I could substantially improve my percentage of good bounces by aiming my shots, causing the ball to hit a smooth area of stone. This learning to focus was vital in helping me to concentrate on my guitar and composing work at the Browse Around.
Mom hired some carpenters to build an extension onto our living room. They built a space for grandpa’s baby-grand piano that belonged to her by virtue of her divorce settlement. It was a big day for us when the piano arrived. Now our baby sitter, Margaret Clark, was able to give both Dina and me piano lessons.
Margaret began a special learning program with me. It was a kind of challenge game. I would turn my back to the piano, whereupon she’d play a note and dare me to name it. Then she’d play two simultaneous notes and have me name both. After that, she’d play a whole chord, have me tell her the notes in it, and identify the chord. It was easy for me after awhile. With this and other techniques, she helped solidify my comprehension. But she was elderly and passed away.
So Mom hired Bessie Frazer to teach me. Bessie made me play Bach compositions, insisting I cup each hand face down over the keys as though holding a plum. And she demanded I play the music exactly as Bach wrote it. I found it agonizing and insufferable—not only the hand posture but the reading of notes. It gave me headaches. I insisted on playing the music my way, from my heart, taking liberties with the notes and meter so the music would sound prettier to my ears.
One day we reached an impasse when I simply refused to obey her order to play what I saw on the page. She angrily got up and stalked out of the house. As she passed Mom, who was out watering the lawn in the front yard, she declared, “that boy will never be a musician!” She never returned, and Mom wisely allowed me to just drift on my own.
Inside the back page of a Scrooge McDuck comic book, a year later, I found an ad that said if I would sell 12 cans of their Cloverine Brand Salve at 25 cents per can and return the money to the company, they would send me a small guitar—a kind of jumbosize, cardboard ukulele. It sounded like it might be easy and fun. There was a coupon in the ad, and I needed only remove it, fill it out and send it in to get the salve. All excited, I approached Mom about it. Would she help me fill out the coupon, address an envelope, find a stamp and . . .
“No!” she said. Mom was very dramatic.
Every encounter was a scene in a play for her. To her all of life was a stage. She was so very talented, winsome and stunningly attractive, she starred or co-starred in a procession of standing-room-only hit plays at the local Golden Bough Theatre for almost ten years.
She proceeded to put on one of her characters. “You’ll never be able to sell all those cans of salve. And when you don’t send them the money, they’ll come get you and take you to jail.” She pointed to a place off in space with absolute authority. There was no contesting the point. “And that’s final!” she said.
Sad and crushed, I took the precious comic book to my cabin Jack had built for me in the backyard where I was allowed to live alone. I sulked there for a long time. I had no one else to consult, for Jack wasn’t around. I just had to find out from someone if they could really send me to jail, or if this was just another one of Mom’s theatricals.
The next day, I dropped by the two-room, board-and-bat cottage of my best friend Red Eagle, adopted son of Buffalo Bill Cody. I’d met him while selling the town’s weekly Carmel Pinecone newspaper at the post office entrance. He’d bought one, offering to pay double if I’d deliver a copy to his place every Thursday afternoon.
His cottage stood alone amid an otherwise undeveloped, forested city block behind the Texaco gas station, corner of 7th and San Carlos, and was so thickly surrounded by wild juniper bushes and pine trees you could barely see it from the street. He really enjoyed his privacy in there. The only clue to his presence was the broken down, chain link gate out front.
Inside, he kept his spartan, impeccably dusted quarters in perfect order. He’d always welcome me with such warmth I felt like I was in heaven with him. He’d serve me a glazed donut and some milk and tell me of his days as an Indian scout with the U.S. Army. Occasionally he spoke of his glorious days as a performer on his dad’s Wild West Show where he’d been an equestrian and snake dancer. He was very wise and knew the answers to all my questions about everything. I found I liked him so much that my Thursday business visits soon became almost daily social calls. He didn’t mind at all, and we would go out for walks sometimes.
This particular day, we went for a walk along the divided dirt road east of his house. Cars rarely went along that road, for there were no destinations along it. There was only thick forest on either side, and it didn’t lead anywhere you couldn’t go using nearby paved roads. As we walked, I showed him the ad that I’d torn from the comic book and carried in my back pocket.
“Could they put me in jail?” I asked him.
He was silent for a long time, as was his way. Finally he said, “You need to listen.”
“Listen, just listen.”
I listened really hard but could hear nothing. The ocean was too far away to be heard, as were the hustle and bustle of the nearest street. We had the entire divided road to ourselves. But then I heard what seemed to be the sound of a squirrel chewing on an acorn and pointed to it.
“No, not that,” he said.
At length I gave up. “I can’t hear anything.”
He beamed with satisfaction, for he’d heard them—riders on horseback approaching us from the south. Though he was 77 years old, his hearing was better than mine. He knelt to the ground, put his ear right into the dirt of the road and listened for what seemed to be a long time. Then he stood up and announced four riders on four horses were trotting (not walking or galloping) toward us. He added they were on our southbound lane, not the northbound lane as would be normal, and would appear over the hump ahead of us in just over a minute. He checked his watch, and we waited.
In about 70 seconds, the four horses, each bearing a rider, did indeed appear. They trotted toward us on our lane just like he’d predicted. He’d known from the hoof sound that all four horses were bearing riders. The sound had told him it couldn’t be Bettie Greene mounted on her horse with three riderless horses in tow. (She often hand-towed her horses back and forth along that road to and from her pasture and riding stable.)
His chest puffed out with pride. His handsomely chiseled old face glowed like John the Baptist beholding Jesus for the first time. For he’d known how many horses and riders, their speed, direction, and exact time and location of arrival.
Supposing he’d detected not four but forty armed hostiles. How precious such information could be to the leader of a small army patrol touring hostile territory. He’d have had 70 seconds to muster his men behind a huge rock or clump of bushes and save their lives. Red Eagle was still a scout at 77, and I felt very lucky to be his friend.
When we returned to his cabin he examined the comic book ad for me. “This is a good plan,” he said. “Go ahead and order the salve.”
Elated, I told mom of the day’s adventures and repeated his advice. She respected him, as did the other few townsfolk who’d met him. So she helped me with the coupon, envelope and stamp. The salve arrived. I sold it all in a single afternoon, going door to door around our neighborhood. She helped me send in the three dollars I’d gathered, and in a week or two my little cardboard guitar arrived complete with pegs, set of strings and instruction booklet. What a joy! I spent hours and hours with it. She was proud of me, and I often caught her playing it.
On a subsequent visit with Red Eagle, I thanked him for helping me with Mom over the guitar. I told him my only disappointment with it was that when I played a composition on my guitar it didn’t sound as nice as it did in my imaginings of my billions of musicians playing it. He thought about it for a long time and then regarded me soberly.
“If, when you practice on your guitar, you will pretend that it sounds like it does in your heart, then one day it will!”
At first I thought he was just mollifying me like all the other grownups. But he continued gazing at me with a sober face and looked me straight in the eye for a long time. So I realized he was saying something important and resolved to remember what he’d said.
One day in school, during the weeks that followed, I found myself dreaming about music, behaving distantly and being unaware that this was so. Accordingly I was harassed by a group of my schoolmates. “You don’t have any friends. None of us likes you,” they chided. I couldn’t understand why they were being this way. They said I was different—not like them or anyone else— which is why I would never have a friend. It was awful.
I told them they were wrong because I did indeed have a friend.
They laughed and laughed. “Who?” they chided. “Who would be your friend?”
I told them I had an Indian friend who lived in the bushes behind the Texaco gas station and learned things by listening to the ground.
At this they laughed even louder. Our teacher came over to see what the joke was, and they told her about my Indian.
She smiled patronizingly at me. “Indians live on special Indian reservations. They don’t live here in town with us.”
“Well, maybe so, but this one lives here in town,” I maintained. And I stuck to my story with such vehemence she was very concerned. She threatened to go to those very bushes I described and prove there were no Indians in there. Right in front of my fellow students, she said it was important to confront me with my overactive imagination so I’d understand my imaginings weren’t real. The kids snickered and chided some more at this, and I was very embarrassed and upset.
But I refused to back down. So that night, just after sundown, she went to Red Eagle’s bushes. Thank God he was home, and a light was on! She could see a faint glimmer through the bushes, decided to take a chance, made her way to the cottage and timidly knocked on the door. Red Eagle received her with a pot of tea and accepted her proposal that he come to school the next day and entertain the class.
He arrived wearing his moccasins, leather snake-dance outfit and flamboyant feathery headdress he’d worn for his performances in his dad’s Wild West Show of the 1880’s. He’d always kept this wardrobe, together with his long hair he’d cut off when he came to live among white men, in a coffin-size wooden box at the foot of his bed.
He walked right into our classroom and took over. I was completely absolved. The kids were quite surprised. He took us out to the playground and taught us some Indian dances, telling us their purposes. He even showed us how to listen to the ground. He was teaching us beautiful things, but the boys behaved insanely around him, whooping, hollering and gaping at him like he was a freak. I was so embarrassed for them, I went over to the far end of the playground and sat against the stone wall there. I didn’t want him to think I was like them, and was relieved when it was all over and he left.
Red Eagle and I grew very close in the precious couple of years that followed. Then one morning while I was in school, he went to work with his horse, a beautiful pinto stallion he kept at Bettie Greene stables, and the horse kicked him for the third time. Twice before, this spooky animal had warned by kicking him gently, but he’d thought his love for the horse would prevail.
He knew everything about horses, but about this horse he was wrong. That third kick was a mean one. He fell to the ground, unconscious and bleeding internally. Bettie, mom’s closest friend, found him and phoned for an ambulance which took him to Monterey County Hospital.
That same afternoon, I happened to go by the stables to see Bettie. For I often spent my days there, helping her with the stable chores and eating from the 200-pound pile of grotesque but delicious and fragrant organic carrots she kept for the horses. I loved listening to music on the radio in her office where she would sit with me reading her True Confessionsmagazines.
Like her horses, she was a radiantly healthy vegetarian. Her tack room was filled with horse medicines that cured human ailments also, and she was a walking encyclopedia of information on what to do in any sort of contingency. She had more common sense in her little finger than all the legislative bodies in the land.
Very sadly, Bettie told me what had become of my best friend. She’d tried to convince the ambulance drivers to take him to Carmel Memorial Hospital where wealthy folks were taken. But the drivers saw an old Indian in old clothes, figured he had no money, and insisted on taking him to County Hospital—not as well equipped or staffed and popularly known as the “pest ward.”
So Red Eagle lay unattended in the Emergency Room at County Hospital until he breathed his last. There were just not enough doctors there, Bettie said. She’d closed up the stable, followed the ambulance and done what she could there to get him some medical attention. But there was none to be had. He was 79.
“Why didn’t they take him to Memorial?” I asked in tears. “He was the richest man in Carmel. No one else knew how to listen to the ground. No one else knew about music the way he did,” I sobbed. Bettie hugged me, but even she had no answer. I cried all afternoon and evening and far into the night, unable to eat or sleep.
The town of Carmel is very proud of having been Red Eagle’s chosen place of final residence. And though, over the years, they’ve torn down his cottage and bushes, paved the entire lot with asphalt and built a shopping mall on it, they’ve erected a fine plaque there that says, “Red Eagle Alley.” And a splendid portrait photo of him hangs in the Carmel City Library.
There was no one to console me over Red Eagle’s loss but Bucky, the big loving black dog who lived next door to us. He was a cross between springer spaniel and German shepherd and had the most soulful eyes of anyone. His owner, Mrs. Beaudeau, an aloof old Frenchwoman, didn’t appreciate him much and made him live outside. Mom was so busy with her theatre rehearsals, I lived pretty much on my own too. So Bucky and I got together and were fellow outcasts.
He was closer to me than anyone. Though he had one other friend, a little brown mouse who lived in the tool shed in Mrs. Beaudeau’s front garden. Bucky would lie down on his stomach when he saw the mouse coming, and the mouse would climb up and sit on his extended huge downy paws. Bucky would rest his snout upon his legs, and the two of them would confer. The mouse would shake and move to and fro, as though telling a tale by charade, while Bucky would make sympathetic whiny sounds in response, his soulful eyes showing the deepest sympathy.
Mice and dogs don’t generally relate, but these two found each other bewitching. Several times I found them thus engaged in conversation as I would drop by. Many special souls like these two lived in Carmel. That’s just the way things were.
Bucky and I made countless trips to the nearby city dump finding treasures. And when I would come home at night and find Mom still out, our cottage dark and empty, it was all right. For Bucky would be there, lying down under his tree between our two little houses, and he would eagerly jump up to greet me.
But it was cold at night when I got home. Our cottage had no heat source but the fireplace, and I could never learn to get a fire started in it with the green firewood Mom got for free from a friend. And the lights didn’t work, for Mom was too poor and busy to replace burned-out bulbs. Only she knew how to get one or two of them lit.
So I’d generally leave and go down to the manure box at Bettie’s. The deep, 8-foot-square box had an outside entrance. She always locked the stable but left the manure box unlocked. If anyone wanted to steal the manure, it was all right. Though no one ever did. A filled manure box is warm, like a sauna bath, even on the coldest nights. So I would sit in there and get warm very quickly. I liked the smell of manure. Betty smelled of it, as did the horses and everyone else around the stable. I didn’t realize I smelled of it too.
Mom, when she had the time, would try to get me to take off my clothes—which I slept in because it was so cold—and take a bath. I always refused because it was so cold in our bathroom my teeth would chatter. When necessary I would bolt and escape if she became too insistent. I learned to hate being cold, and my nose ran almost constantly.
But being allowed to meander and discover the world by myself, in the sparsely populated pristine Carmel Woods of the 1940’s, was a great boon. A half-dozen or more neighborhood dogs walked me to school each day. If hungry, I’d eat what the neighborhood kids referred to as “sourgrass.” It grew in abundance along all the roadsides and on all the town’s empty lots. These tall, juicy stems of grass had bright, yellow-petal blossoms. One could gather a fistful of these stems and have a feast of tart, delicious, fruity-tasting food and juice. There were probably more vitamins, minerals and good things in a fistful of this grass than in a whole plateful of ordinary food.
Sougrass and Bettie’s horse carrots were the extent of my diet much of the time, other than for school lunches. We kids were allowed to eat as much as we wanted at no extra charge during those years at Sunset School. I took them seriously and spent my entire lunch hour filling and emptying my plate at least three times, while the other kids would quickly wolf down a single helping and then go play football. One day the worried school nurse came to chat with me as I sat alone in the cafeteria eating my third or fourth helping.
“Young man, you certainly have an appetite. You may have a tapeworm. Do you know what that is?”
She gazed at me with loving concern. She was most definitely worried and very serious. She never did find out from me that this was my one hot meal of the day, because I didn’t think to tell her. For it never occurred to me that there might be anything unusual about my life. But I did tell her I played the guitar and liked Burl Ives. She was a Burl Ives fan too. So we had much in common, and we talked about music until I’d finished my fourth helping of beans.
I’d never thought of being a public performer. But one evening Mom took me along to the cast reading of her new play. It was held at the magnificent Kuster stone castle on ten spooky acres of deep forest at the edge of the beach near Carmel Point. Ted Kuster, Mom’s producer-director and owner of Carmel’s Golden Bough Theater, was respected worldwide. He was known as “Mr. Theatre” in the loftiest circles, owing to a personality so powerful that when I close my eyes, even to this day, I can see the wrinkles in his smiling face.
He sat in his jumbo-size, very comfortable leather-upholstered chair. Beside him stood his old wrought iron standing lamp with a softly glowing, translucent leather shade. The cast all sat around him with copies of the new play, Arthur Miller’s All My Sons. Kuster had brought in the enormously gifted veteran actor, Forest Barnes, all the way from New York to co-star with Mom as Joe Keller. Mr. Barnes was a blend of James Whitmore and Edgar G. Robinson, and the equal of either. The reviewers used to remark that Mom looked a lot like Greer Garson, possessing similar poise and eclat.
The players read their lines with such power and clarity, such perfect timing and expertise, and the script was so well written, I was very taken by it all as I sat quietly in a corner. Mom read with awesome brilliance, making me feel very proud of her. The chemistry between her and Mr. Barnes was perfect. But suddenly the actors stopped.
Kuster looked up, momentarily lost and helpless. “We need a 9-year-old boy. Where’s a 9-year-old boy?” He seemed to be mentally groping, trying to remember where he’d put his pencil. He looked around the room, and his gaze fell upon me—a boy of nine years. His face brightened.
“Bud, how would you like to be in the play?”
He’d forgotten to cast a small role, that of a boy named Burt, and the reading had stopped because they’d come to the place where Burt makes his entrance. I was speechless. Kuster looked over at Mom who shrugged. He looked back at me. “Can you read, young man?”
“Here. Take this book. See where Burt speaks? Try reading it.”
I stammered through the first line. My scene was with Mr. Barnes. He read his line in response, and I continued. We got through the entire scene, and Kuster was pleased. He smiled at me—a most significant and loving smile. That felt good, for he’d never before treated me as much more than a piece of luggage Mom occasionally brought around to the rehearsals.
“That’ll do,” he said approvingly. “It might work. Would you like to be Burt in the play?”
“Well, we’ll see.”
Mom worked with me the next day. I learned my lines and was given the role. I had two scenes, both with Mr. Barnes. On opening night every seat in the theatre was filled. I found the large Golden Bough audience frightening, but Mr. Barnes was a solid professional. Sensing my problem, he stared hard at me as we did our scenes. He stared so hard that all my fear disappeared in the wake of my wonderment at his behavior. It was clever of him. How else does one get a non-actor kid to become an actor in one split second? Surprise him. It worked beautifully. The reviews were super, and the play was held over for several extended runs.
I would generally get sleepy, being up so late every night. So I formed the habit of dozing between my scenes atop a dusty, folded, quarter-ton pair of velvet stage curtains out of sight high up in the backstage loft. One night I fell so soundly asleep I missed my cue, and Mr. Barnes had to ad lib. Somehow his ad libbing woke me up, perhaps because something was different. What a blessing! I scrambled down the loft ladder and got onstage so fast the audience never knew.
But Kuster knew. After curtain call he stalked backstage and roared until everyone shook, “Where was Burt? Why was Burt late?” He found me and scolded so harshly I’ll never forget. He made me sit up in a folding chair between scenes after that.
I got so tired during this period, that one day I left my little guitar out in the patio unprotected. Then, of course, it rained. The least expensive replacement guitar at the Browse Around was 50 dollars, far too vast a sum for me. But there was a guitar offered in the Montgomery Ward Catalogue for only 10 dollars including shipping. So I found another comic book ad offering a money-making scheme that involved selling seeds. I ordered and sold the seeds, and got a real, full-size, wooden guitar from Montgomery Ward. I was lucky, for it had a clear resonant tone. I was so happy with it I increased my practice time, and my skill grew exponentially.
A few years later, Mom took a hiatus from her acting. We rented out our Carmel cottage and moved to Laguna Beach for a few months. Mom rented us a beach apartment right on the sand at the foot of Thalia Street. I was twelve. The weather was much warmer than in Carmel, and the ocean was warm enough for swimming. So I swam a lot out in front of our apartment, enjoyed gathering hordes of seagulls with stale bread, got suntanned, and washed away the sea salt in our landlady’s unique outdoor steam shower. Once a dirty stable boy, I was now a clean, tanned, frecklefaced kid.
There was an annual music festival there for young musicians. I took my guitar to the tryouts and was accepted. The show was held at the high school auditorium. Mom attended and was so pleased with me she wrote a letter to Grandma about it. For some reason the letter got returned, somehow saved, and then it fell into my possession. I recently found it in a pile of old papers. She wrote,
Wednesday, May 23 . . .
We just got home from the music festival—finale for the whole year—and I am frankly so flabbergasted that I feel like calling you long distance and asking you what to do now. I must have mentioned to you at various times Bud’s ability on the guitar and how he plays for groups whenever they ask him. But I had never heard him until tonight and I almost didn’t go tonight. As Dina says, it gets so monotonous hearing him work, work and work on his music at home that we often feel relieved when he’s off playing for somebody else. Sometimes we even make him go in the garage to practice.
Tonight was a huge program of very talented children on whom fortunes had undoubtedly been spent. They were so darling. Each piano student seemed excellent to me—much better than I could do—which isn’t saying much I know. But instead of being bored, I was fascinated and the enormous audience seemed fascinated too. There was even a nine-year-old accordion player that was out of this world—and all kinds of instruments and singing, etc. Then, without any warning, I saw Bud sitting casually on some box with a spotlight on him and everything else dark. My heart pounded with fear for him. It seemed cruel to me to put him on a program with finished children artists. He smiled a crooked little smile so that the audience laughed before he played his first note, which also scared me. But then he started playing, and filled that auditorium with the sweetest tones I’ve ever heard him make. I still can’t understand it and neither can Dina. We both think we must be crazy or something. Every note was distinct. The music came from inside him and he played with infectious joy. That audience went wild. They shouted, stomped and cheered. Bud said that he had been told before that there were so many children to perform that no encores were allowed. So he tried to get back through the curtains as best he could—bowing, walking a few steps, bowing again. I counted at least six bows. He was squeezing the rag dry, I was afraid. But they chuckled and clapped long after he had disappeared.
After the performance enthusiastic admirers surrounded us and I was wishing I had at least bothered to dress up. They told me Bud was a natural showman with rare ability, and they couldn’t believe he had never had any lessons. Maybe Jack is right. He’s been saying for two years now that Bud will never have to work for a living. Fortunately I know the dangers of what Bud overheard tonight and know how to combat it. Children are natural artists, if they are artists at all, and it is cruel to give them heady wine that they can’t stand up under. But people don’t think of that and ruin many a budding genius by thoughtlessness.
It’s a shame you couldn’t have been there. No audience ever cheered me that way. A few of them have rolled in the aisles so that I went crazy ad libbing, but they never clapped like that.
It was quite an experience for mama—and a shock.
A kindly couple, who’d been in the audience at the music festival, contacted me at school the following week and offered me my first professional concert. It was an evening performance, held in their large living room, for about 50 or so in rows of folding chairs. I wasn’t all that nervous and found it kind of fun. They sat quietly and listened to me play my guitar compositions for more than an hour. They also paid me nine dollars which I used as down payment for a Martin classical guitar, a true concert instrument.
I spent my afternoons, after school, playing tennis with members of the high school tennis team. On weekends, I figured out how to raise the money to pay the balance of what I owed on the guitar by selling laundry soap gotten from a chemical company. It was really good soap, better than what you could get at the supermarket. So I developed a return trade and soon earned enough for a sturdy case as well.
When we returned to Carmel, after some months in Laguna, we found the Golden Bough had burned down. There was no more theatre, so Mom and Jack decided to move to Los Gatos where he could find work. For while we’d been in Laguna, he’d gone to Arizona and lost everything in a failed flagstone quarry enterprise with his Uncle Roy.
So we sold our Carmel Woods cottage and bought an empty lot located on a tree-festooned hill above Los Gatos, a small, inland town about 60 miles north. The site commanded a view of distant Stanford University’s Hoover Tower, and Jack spent a year building us a fine house on it. During construction we rented a house on another hill that adjoined the picturesque unfenced Novitiate wine grape vineyard where I would often take my guitar to practice, the better to be alone with my music and not disturb Mom.
One warm golden afternoon in the vineyard, as I practiced a difficult passage on my fine new concert guitar, I looked up in surprise to see a tall smiling priest in dark clothing standing over me. I think he’d been standing there for some time. But I hadn’t noticed him, being so focused on the intricacies of the music. He saw, from the bare grape stems next to me, that I’d been sampling some of the Church of Rome produce.
I don’t remember our first words, but he seemed tolerant that I’d been trespassing and stealing. He seemed to understand that he’d come upon a dreamer who was truly unaware that this bit of earth and its contents were Church property, not quite the same as public property. After making these facts quite clear to me, he then said, to my amazement, that I may have as many grapes as I wished.
He invited me to walk with him to a nearby venerable garden where there was a statue of Jesus in the middle of a fountain pond. He pointed to the holy words carved into the stone base of the statue, “The truth shall make you free.”
“What does this mean to you?” he asked.
I wrestled mentally and observed, “Well, lies make us their prisoners, and truth frees us. But I think Jesus was telling us something more than that. I think He was saying that when we understand the truth of our oneness with God, we’re automatically free of our mortality.”
He appeared both surprised and impressed. “That’s quite good, my son. You have a fine understanding, don’t you.” Shrewdly he then asked, “and why are we mortal?”
That was tricky, and I wrestled with it several seconds. “I think we’re not really mortal. We’re only dreaming.”
He looked down into the pond, smiled and chuckled. Then, putting his hand on my shoulder, he invited me to follow him to a fine patio where we sat and chatted, and he asked me to play him some more of my music. The acoustics were very good in this patio, due to some high stone walls, and my guitar sounded rich and warm.
After perhaps a half-hour, I stopped playing. For I sensed he might have more to do in life than sit and hear me play. We introduced ourselves. His name was Father Charleton, and he was in charge of the Novitiate.
“Do you know what a troubadour is?” he asked. I didn’t know, and he began to instruct me. He had an impressive knowledge of music and music history. And he seemed imbued with his devotion to God and his faith that love is the answer to all things. His love and faith were so pure and strong that he seemed a kind of angel with much more to him than the black-clothed figure that sat before me. I felt so loved by him, so honored to be in his presence and have his attention, that it all began to overwhelm me. And I’m afraid I couldn’t concentrate on many of the words he spoke.
I told him how I’d often dreamed of visiting exotic places in far off lands.
“Do you believe the people in the places you dream of are motivated by love?” he inquired.
“Sure,” I said, “because they have good in them. And they’re probably sitting there as curious about me as I am about them.”
He liked that so much he musingly repeated it. Then he laughed and said I could be a troubadour. He referred me to the Britannica Encyclopedia article on the subject and told me troubadours traveled around playing their music without using money as a means of exchange. They played directly for everything they needed. A troubadour may possess money, even earn it, but may never spend it else he forego a chance at enjoying the pleasures of guest friendship wherever he eats, sleeps, or rides on a conveyance. The second principle that distinguishes a troubadour, he said, is that he’s not just a vagabond who plays his music for his keep. He is, in addition, a court performer who entertains kings and other royalty in their palaces.
That impressed me so much I’ve never forgotten. He gave me a huge bunch of grapes as we parted. “It’s only for a moment,” he said, for he saw that I was sad at parting company with him. He invited me to come again very soon and sent me on my way.
I could speak to my family of little but Father Charleton long after. Father Charleton this and Father Charleton that. I began thinking I might really like to be exchanging music directly for everything and playing for kings in palaces. What a truly special life it would be! I began contemplating a life lived purely by this “troubadour code,” unblemished by even a single payment of money for anything. I envisioned living this life until I could make it all the way around the entire earth at least one time, surrendering myself to whatever adventures this life might bring.
Father Charleton warned me I would find insanities and paradoxes, but I could always deal with them using my two most powerful weapons, love and faith.
“No matter what your predicament,” he said, “if you can give enough love, you will find it in others, and you’ll be all right. And you must use your faith to believe this to be so.”
This exquisite man further told me that if I could give enough love to stay free of predicaments, I would become an ambassador for love. And that, he said, is the highest post anyone can achieve. Then, most helpfully, he added that any adversary, no matter how repugnant, is made in God’s image. And therefore if, remembering this, I could feel sufficient faith in the wisdom and love that guided even my adversaries, they would cease to be adversaries at once and become allies.
I knew I’d been very privileged to meet such a wise man, and that there was little but fear and doubt standing between such a glorious adventure and me. I also knew fears and doubts have no power other than that which we give them.
We moved into our house on Live Oak Avenue that Jack built for us, and Mom married him there. We had a Mormon priest friend of Jack’s come and perform a simple marriage ceremony in the living room. Mom and Jack remained steadfastly in love—and together—for the remainder of their years.
I attended Los Gatos High School, never forgetting Father Charleton’s counsel. During those 4 years, I found the time, despite being in training for a procession of tennis tournaments, to play Monday nights at the Kerosene Club, a showcase nightclub for musicians in nearby San Jose. You had to be 21, and I was only 16. But I got to play for several months before the local inspector from Alcoholic Beverage Control happened by one night and put an end to it.
I was accepted at Principia College where I studied drama and journalism. During one Summer Break, the Summer of 1959, I took my guitar and rucksack to the Hawaiian Islands, hitchhiking to six of the islands by private airplane. I found I could walk into an airport coffee shop where the pilots ate, play a little and quickly gather an audience. After the applause, I would announce that I was looking for a ride to another island.
Sometimes two or more pilots would offer me a ride. When I got to an island, I’d sit in the park, play, gather an audience, and announce that I needed a place to stay. People would invite me to their homes where I would often give another concert for them and their friends. People took turns looking after me, and there was plenty to eat. It was all happening just like Father Charleton said.
I was on the floor shows at Waikiki’s Don The Beachcombers, Hilo’s Lava Pit and Kauai’s Club Jetty in Nawiliwili Harbor. Some archaeologists took me to Kauai’s Valley of the Lost Tribe in Nualolokai where we got stranded without water and faced certain death for a couple of days. A Bishop Museum expedition rescued us, and I wound up at Wailua Beach where beach boys took me in. They gave me delicious food and allowed my sleeping in their beach shack at night in trade for guitar lessons.
Honolulu Advertiser columnist, Bob Krauss, wove it all into an adventure tale that filled an entire day’s column, saying my Hawaiian travels were, “as romantic as anything you’ll find in Robert Louis Stevenson.”
I became so encouraged that in the Summer of 1960 I visited several European countries with similar results. In Paris I traded away my Martin guitar for a handmade masterpiece by Parisian luthier Jacques Camurat. It had better action, character and depth of tone. Later, in London, I found a 70-year-old, Madrid-made, Casa Gonzales guitar that sang even better than the Camurat and traded into that. It had the finest mother-of-pearl inlay of any guitar I’d ever seen. Discovering music on this guitar was such pure joy I would lose all track of time.
My love for music took over my life. I was so obsessed with it, both night and day, I was barely able to complete my studies at Principia in June of 1961. So I got a Kelty pack and visited Mom and Jack, who’d sold our Los Gatos home and moved to Bodega Bay, California, telling them of my resolve to make it all the way around the world as a troubadour. I planned to play for royalty and such potentates who could grant me transport across oceans. I would not use money as a means of exchange for food, lodging or transportation even once, until I had made it clear around the world back to California again. They liked the idea.
“It’s something you can only do while you’re young,” Jack said.
“Do it now while you can,” Mom added. “When you’re older, you’ll never do it. Always remember, it’s the man you perceive in the man you speak to who speaks back to you. You’re at home, wherever you are, because God is there.”
Jack made me a strong polyethylene sack big enough to hold all of me, my guitar and Kelty pack on rainy nights. Mom made me a chest pouch, with a neck strap, to hold my passport and other valuables. They drove me to nearby U.S. Highway 40 that would take me eastward for the first 3,000 miles. They parked in the shadow of a tree and watched tearfully as I stood and thumbed my first car. It was an emotionally trying moment for us all. But it proved to be an important one, for it marked the beginning of a world tour so enchanting it has haunted my life.
That first car was a VW Beetle driven by a 30-year-old American war vet. His shoulder-length hair was all white, and he told me a bizarre story en route to Reno. One night, somewhere in Southeast Asia, as he and his small patrol of war buddies were asleep under the stars in hostile jungle, they were attacked by an enemy patrol who’d quietly slit the throat of their man on watch. They then fell upon the rest of his party who were zipped up in their mummy bags asleep and helpless.
My white-haired host woke up in time to see what was happening and roll himself underneath a thick bush where he lay undetected, watching his buddies mercilessly bayoneted to death as they screamed in pain for mercy. The enemy patrol then looted the carcasses and left as my host watched, paralyzed with terror, safely hidden under the bush, but in such a state of shock his hair turned all white in the following weeks.
Since that time, he said, he’d never felt he could trust anyone. And with that, he quickly produced and brandished a chromed, Smith & Wesson. 44 six-shooter from the car door pocket. But I allowed myself to trust him and didn’t flinch. He was pleased.
“I’m always prepared,” he said darkly. Re-pocketing the gun, he told me stories about frailties in our government, human foibles and dark deeds he’d seen. I inwardly affirmed the love in him, and he grew friendlier as he talked.
Father Charleton had told me to trust in the love that guided others. “If you can give enough love, you’ll find it in others and be all right,” he’d said.
We had a harmonious journey as far as Reno. I was so grateful, both for his having defended America and for giving me this first ride of my world tour, I felt sad to leave him. But Reno was his destination, and he let me off in the middle of town.
My new Kelty pack felt light as I strapped it on. I carried it and my guitar along a Reno avenue and entered an intimate sidewalk casino that emanated a nice vibration. Folks were pensively engaged in both blackjack and roulette. I sat on a barstool among them, began playing background music, and got some approving glances. So I stepped up the energy level by playing some flamenco, and the entire casino broke out in applause. I climbed off the stool. As I put away the guitar, an older man approached me.
“You can play a little can’t you,” he said.
“Thank you, sir.”
He was the club owner. He invited me to have dinner with him, and I accepted his offer of a free hotel room, meals, and a job playing there for the upcoming weekend. I told him of my quest to see the world without using money as a means of exchange. His eyes glowing with enthusiasm, he asked how I planned to get across the Atlantic when I got to the East Coast. I didn’t know yet.
“Tell you what. I’ll give you a ticket on Icelandic Airlines.”
It was truly beginning to look as though the whole world was in a conspiracy to see that I got looked after, and I could hardly believe my good fortune.
It took only three or four rides to make New York. As I hitchhiked across North
America, absorbing the awesome beauty of the Rocky Mountains, I felt the expansive sense of freedom you feel having your “residence” on your back so that your address changes minute to minute as you go along.
My troubadour life combined this freedom with that of being independent of money. Whether I had little or lots of money, it didn’t matter because I was on a different standard. It was like visiting legendary Eldorado where the streets are paved with gold, and heartfelt love is the medium of exchange. Troubadours enjoy a very special niche where nothing costs money. A troubadour gives of himself instead. In response, things are done for him out of love and not for money. This exchange is arguably the greatest charm of the troubadour experience.
But certainly not the least of the charms is that the troubadour, always a stranger who’s just arrived in town, loves and trusts his audience just because they’re people. He knows or cares little about people’s character weaknesses or past sins. The audience responds with the same attitude, and the troubadour is enjoyed on the grounds that he’s a fellow human—one with a tune who is free.
And free I was, destined to make this exchange with ruling, palace-dwelling monarchs, hashish-smoking Bedouins, custodians of castles, terrorists, Casbah-dwelling Arabs, and a whole camel caravan of desert-dwelling champagne smugglers. I found them mostly good and with much in common.