Writers talk about finding their “voice” – their personal style – as if it’s a positive thing. But, sometimes, that means discovering that you are completely tone deaf.
I’ve always loved music, maybe as much as I love writing. And long before I became an author, I was a musician.
Drawn to the string bass in grade school – it was so big! The sound so rich and deep! – I was playing in community orchestras by my teens. Of course, by then, I was consumed by rock and roll, too. And since my friends all wanted to be guitarists or singers, up front and center, I was recruited. For the grand sum of $35, I purchased an electric bass, used, at the mall. Someone got a drum kit – a birthday? Christmas? – and we formed a band. It was heaven of the loudest sort, and I was sure I was besting John Entwhistle, playing and singing harmony too, nights and weekends in basements and garages all over town.
I still recall our first professional gig – playing a friend’s Sweet Sixteen. We ran out of tunes about 45 minutes in, and jammed on Neil Young’s “Like a Hurricane” for a good hour longer. Yeah, I learned how to solo early on – I did it all!
I didn’t intend to keep playing in college, but once again I was recruited. A bass player – one with actual musical training – will always be in demand, especially if she sings. Before long, we were gigging at campus parties and frat houses around New England, known for getting people dancing with our mix of originals and New Wave covers and a professional sound system that could fill a room. (We were less popular at our weekly Tuesday slot at the local pub. I can still hear the thwack of darts hitting the board, in the silence between numbers.)
With that sound system, we saw the opportunity to improve. We could tape ourselves, and we did, sitting down to listen track by track: Lead guitar, singer, rhythm guitar. Backing vocals… Good lord! How had I never known? I don’t recall if any of my bandmates said anything as we listened to my out-of-tune caterwauling. They didn’t have to. I stuck to bass from then on.
I continued to play in bands for a while after college, even as I began writing about music instead. Over the years, I turned from music journalism to the fiction that now occupies my time. I still sing in private, too. But I’ve found better uses for my voice.
(This essay originally ran in the Dear Reader email newsletter on Oct. 24.)