When I was 12 years old I stopped playing the piano.
It's not that I wasn't good; it's just that I was twelve. Being 12 is never easy -- especially in the 60's. I suppose being any age in the 60's was sort of difficult.
Most disappointed in me was my mother. She had grown up in Antwerp around the time of World War I and lived a rather cultured life. She wasn't an "accomplished" pianist, but she was good. She played the classics and to me, that was impressive.
I never understood how she managed to play so well despite being, well…tone deaf. She couldn't sing London Bridge without going off key, and yet when it came to Brahms or Mozart -- no problem.
I didn't love the piano but I did love Mom, so I obliged.
When Mom discovered that I could actually hold a tune (I took after my dad) and liked to sing, she figured that she had the next Liberace in her midst. Naturally, she signed me up for piano lessons.
I didn't love the piano but I did love Mom, so I obliged. Despite my relative disinterest, I bordered on excelling, and for a few years, Mom was happy. But my passion lay elsewhere -- baseball (the Mets, of course), and TV situation comedies -- Ozzie and Harriet, My Little Margie, My Three Sons, Car 54 etc. When piano practice began to seriously interfere, I made the obvious choice. I said goodbye to the ivories.
Mom was clever. If she cried, it was behind closed doors. She backed off, hoping I'm sure that my interest might rekindle on its own. She was right…sort of.
Fast forward three years. At 15, the Mets were just beginning their implausible ascent to the flag and my comedic appetite chanced upon Johnny Carson, but musically I made two new friends – the Smothers Brothers. They were cute and funny and original, and when they came on the screen they spoke to me.
One day I watched and listened in awe as Tommy Smothers strummed his way into my heart. He was playing a banjo. I was riveted.
"Boy, that sounds happy," I thought. "So upbeat, so cheerful, so DIFFERENT!"
Meanwhile, Mom was in the kitchen.
"Quick!" I shouted. "Come quick!"
"Come quick where?" she asked.
I pulled at her apron. "Just come with me!"
She didn't have much choice. Seconds later we were both watching the magic of the banjo.
"Do you see that? It's a banjo. THAT is the instrument I want to learn."
Poor Mom. She probably contemplated a coronary crisis. But if she did, she did it behind closed doors.
"Really?" she countered. "THAT'S what you want to play??"
We didn't discuss it very much. Maybe she was just thrilled that I wanted to play anything. She probably thought that when the banjo fad disappears, I'll return to the beloved keyboard. A few days later she appeared in my room and handed me a piece of paper that said:
545 WEST END AVENUE
FRIDAY 1:00 P.M.
And so began my weekly walk down West End Avenue to learn the strains of tenor banjo from retired vaudeville celebrity Roy Smeck.
Roy was around 70 years old, I reckoned (banjo talk), and man, was he smooth. He loved music, he loved the banjo, and he loved teaching. He was a natural. We sat side by side in his make shift studio (living room) every Friday and strummed and picked and laughed. The banjo was a happy instrument after all.
He never babied me. Whether we played Ain't She Sweet, or Banjo Pickin' Polka, he always told me I could do it. He encouraged, goaded, inspired, and cheered me on with every bar.
"You can do it, Hobbs-ee-boy! C'mon -- try it again. C MAJOR!"
For the next two years, I Love Lucy and Car 54 took a back seat to the banjo.
I never found out what "Hobs-ee–boy" meant, but it definitely was a term of endearment. The sight of a Jewish Kid, with a yarmulke, playing Kentucky Blue Grass music with a banjo on my knee, was something he never thought he would see in his lifetime.
For the next two years, I Love Lucy and Car 54 took a back seat to the banjo. I practiced for hours on end and actually got good. Pleasing Roy was more than a small part of my progress. He was just so proud of me and I loved it.
But, like most teenage crushes, this one began to wane too. My friends were singing Shlomo Carlebach and other Jewish folk songs, and the banjo was a strange fit. It was still "different," but now it was also "odd." True to form, it was Roy to the rescue.
"No problem, Hobbs–ee–boy, I'll teach you guitar!"
I had no idea that Roy played guitar nearly as well as he played banjo. The shift was seamless. And within weeks, the 4-string morphed into the 6-string and the sounds of Shlomo and others soon emanated through the cool Manhattan nights.
As the dust began to settle on the fret board and cow skin, I realized that the banjo was probably about to become a cherished memory of my past. And so was Roy. I left Roy when I went to college but I never forgot him. I don't recall Mom being too upset about that, but the piano somehow never re-surfaced either. I never lost my affection for that happy sound, but I seemed to have lost my need to be so different.
To Banjo or Not to Banjo?
I recently came upon my old banjo while cleaning out an abandoned closet. It was dusty and out of tune, but it sure did look happy. I cradled it in my arms, tuned it up, and gave it a strum. You know what? It sounded pretty good! Teenage flashes appeared before me. I pictured old Roy (probably long ago departed), some amazing duets (long ago forgotten), and lots of happy times.
I made a feeble attempt at some riffs, but it was futile -- I had forgotten just about everything. But I didn't return it to its closet burial place. I brought it to my office and stood it proudly in the corner. And then I began thinking (usually a dangerous thing to do).
Why don't I re-learn the banjo? I could take lessons, or get a video, or find a website! I could recapture the past. I really could!
It was fun to consider. But then reality kicked in.
"Who are you kidding? You don't have time to breathe. Banjo lessons?? And for what purpose?
It was that last question that really disturbed me. For what purpose? I went back and forth.
Does playing the banjo really need to have a purpose? Can't I just play for fun? How much of a justification do I need to revive a childhood dream?
But think of the time squandered, time that could be put to productive use.
But am I not 'entitled' to some amusement? Think of the joy I could experience learning to pick Foggy Mountain Breakdown! I could actually re-capture my youth!
But what does God want me to do?
Yes, no, no, yes, maybe -- I was stuck.
I began to picture myself strumming away in some magical, whimsical, dream land -- laughing…slaphappy…freewheeling my way in hours of unremitting delight. What a delicious fantasy!
But alongside that yummy illusion appeared a bubble of a very different kind; hours, days, weeks -- probably months of arduous practice and dutiful re-learning. Assignments and responsibilities neglected and ignored. Priorities pushed aside. Children, spouse, and grandchildren waiting…maybe patiently, maybe not…for crazy Yaakov to surrender his pipe dream and return to the real world.
When the sentimental strains of reclaiming a childhood dream become the featured song in the score of Life, something is off tune.
Relaxation is wonderful…necessary, and deserves time, attention, and investment. And music certainly qualifies as a splendid and worthwhile hobby.
But when the sentimental strains of reclaiming a childhood dream become the featured song in the score of Life, something is off tune. I have a feeling that even Roy would have understood that.
So the banjo still stands in the corner of my office. Now and then I do pick it up, pretend it is 1969, and become wistful. The escape is nice.
But so is Life.
I think I chose well.