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I never learned to read music.

Hell, sometimes it’s all I can do to read English. So I learned to play by ear. I’m equipped with a strong sense of rhythm, so the guitar was a natural choice. Actually, drums would have been my first choice, but when your own father threatens to end his bloodline if so much as a drumstick enters the house, you lean toward the stringed instruments…

Of course, the basis of a solid musical education is the piano. But I never took lessons as a kid. Wasn’t really interested in music until I got an AM radio for my 12th birthday, and was turned on to a lot of 70’s soul, bubblegum pop, and other hits of the day via American Top 40. Casey Kasem introduced me to a whole new world that would eventually replace my interest in Vacu-form, Hot Wheels, minibikes, and Incredible Edibles.

Like everyone who ever picked up a guitar, I learned “Smoke on the Water” first. From there, it was Johnny Cash and Buck Owens, because that’s what my dad played. I give him full credit for turning me onto the guitar and teaching me my first few chords. He even gave me my first guitar, a dark brown acoustic he’d actually played while serving in Vietnam. Unfortunately, he gave it to me when I was still a snotty young college dipshit, and my frat brothers destroyed the guitar after I’d played “Smoke on the Water” one too many times.

I did eventually inherit his 1964 Epiphone Frontier, which I someday hope to pass along to my son, Rusty. When he’s 45.

"Sorry, Dad, I can't make it to my second bass lesson. I have three gigs that day." 

Rusty discovered a Casio keyboard a few years ago at his daycare facility, Kiddie Korral (“You Build ‘Em Up, We’ll Break ‘Em Down”), and started fooling around with some simple tunes. He started bugging me to sign him up for lessons, and I balked, based on his previous record.

“Remember the Cub Scouts?” I asked him, reminding him that he quit the Scouts the day after we’d spent $115 on his uniform, a Boy’s Life subscription, a Weblos manual, and a pair of waterproof jackboots.

“Well, all I really wanted to do was make a Christmas ornament. And we did that.”

He had me there. We still have it, too. It’s a little reindeer made out of popsicle sticks, googly eyes, cotton balls, and bits of burnt flesh, courtesy of the hot glue gun. We proudly hang it on the tree each year, even though it looks like something that was taken from the biohazard canister at the doctor’s office.

“And the aquarium?” I asked. “You remember the aquarium disaster?” Rusty had his sights set on a career as a marine biologist, so we’d outfitted him with his very own 15-gallon aquarium, stocked with tiger barbs, angel fish, guppies, and even a couple of crayfish. He’d promised to feed them, and I would help him change the water when needed. The aquarium phase came to an abrupt end one afternoon when I walked into his bedroom and saw a dead bird floating in the murky water. Rusty was poking it with a pencil.

“What happened to the fish?”

He looked at me and shrugged. “I gave ‘em to the dog.”

So I wasn’t sure if he was capable of the commitment required by piano lessons. “Tae Kwon Do? You remember that?” $180 and a dopey bathrobe.

“I decided to become a pacifist and wander the earth,” he said.

“Easy there, young Cain. No wandering the earth until you’ve cleaned your room. But I’ll tell you what—if you can snatch this pebble from my hand, I’ll let you take piano lessons, and…HEY! Gimme that pebble! Why you little…”

And so he took piano lessons several years ago, and it turns out he’s quite the prodigy. Being an old Elton John fan (I came out a while back), I love to hear the tinkling of the ivories as I’m walking around the house picking up Bazooka gum wrappers and empty juice pouches. But there is one song I could do without for the rest of my life: “Chopsticks.”

Rusty came home from a lesson sometime last year, and proceeded to pound out Chopsticks several hundred times over the course of a few days. My first thought was, twenty bucks a week, and he’s learning friggin’ CHOPSTICKS?!? Oh, but this was a VARIATION on Chopsticks. Right. Thanks for clarifying that, Liberace. You know what? Chopsticks isn’t a song. It’s a punchline from a Peanuts cartoon.

I expressed my dissatisfaction to his teacher, and the next week he came home with a different song, “Heart and Soul.” That’s the one Tom Hanks plays with his feet on the giant keyboard in the movie “Big.” You know, I’m hoping the kid comes home and plays Chopin, Mozart, maybe a little “Bennie and the Jets,” and instead I’m treated to piano party tricks.

Hey, I got one for ya…it’s the theme song from “Jaws!” Goes like this: Bah-dum. Bah-dum bah-dum. Bum-bum-bum-bum-BUM-BUM-BUM-BUM.