Short excerpt from The Big Idea

posted November 30, 2015

 (from the work-in-progress The Big Idea. The book is told from multiple points of view. Here is a piece from Peter Becket, oldest brother, guitarist, songwriter, visionary, pain in the ass.)

Peter Becket: In the Beginning

In the beginning, the Big Idea had just been that: an idea in Peter Becket’s head. Having a band like the Beatles was the Biggest Idea he could think of when he was nine; and honestly, it was still the biggest idea he could think of. The dream of dreams. Music had filled every orifice of 72 Columbus. Harry played a nylon string guitar and had sung Odetta songs when Peter’s sisters were in the cradle; he could only assume he’d been sung to like this also. Harry also played Beethoven string quartets with his regular crew of “old guys”—lumpy middle-aged grown-ups who showed up once in a while in the Beckets’ living room and filled the house with Beethoven’s late-era music; music composed by a deaf man, they’d told the amazed Peter. Peter would sit on the top steps after bedtime, transfixed by his father’s saw-like motions on his viola, his arm movements so passionate Peter figured the instrument should be cleaved in two. Observing this strange music, partly fascinated, partly depressed by it, he wanted his father to pick up the nylon string again and sing with his voice, not that mournful viola. When he finally heard the Beatles on their Aunt Alizia’s old victrola, it was like the parting of the sea. In the treble sounds of “Hello Goodbye,” a rich green and yellow garden, swirling colors filled Peter’s young imagination: a window into a different time. He had been able to see the music as well as hear it. Where his father’s folk music, and even the string quartets, had been a straight line, the Beatles were multidimensional.

Peter and Rhodie had acquired their first Beatles LP with the money they earned from doing the chores. Rhodie’s jobs included walking the dogs and updating the monumental volumes of scrapbooks, although she did a terrible job and was eventually fired in favor of the more artistically inclined Zhsanna. Peter’s job was to weed Rita’s garden. After two weeks of savings, they counted up their quarters and pennies: $7.99—the cost of a double LP.

They bought the greatest hits compilation that had a photo of the late ‘60’s Beatles on the front cover and the early ‘60’s Beatles on the back. Peter showed Rhodie which Beatle was which, even when he wasn’t always sure himself. Peter was John, Rhodie Paul, which Peter thought made sense. He was the visionary, she the talent. They learned all the parts to all the Beatle harmonies, teaching Zhsanna, barely five years old to sing melody, because that was the easiest part. Zhsanna banged along on an overturned pot with a wooden spoon.

Peter had no stomach for his parents’ folk music. It was endlessly earnest, sung by aging hippies in embarrassingly colorful third world garb, their brows furrowed as they sang their obvious lyrics about peace, love, injustice and global warming. It was the equivalent of painting only in primary colors. In their music, there were only two emotions: hope, and self-righteous anger. The lyrics were full of finger-pointing and the kind of humor that old people found funny. The music was limited to the same three-chord tunes, with the occasional annoying visit to the minor third—as if by going there they were showing off their musical diversity. The tunes were all predictable, and if you called them on this lack of sophistication (as Peter often did—to Harry, no less), they defended themselves by invoking Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie, as if they were the two pillars of all things good and righteous; as if they were Peter’s grandfathers.

“Woody could create a whole song playing just one chord!” Harry had bellowed at Peter, once when they’d played “So Long It’s Been Good to Know You” and Peter had thrown in some jazzy sevenths. Harry had acted as though Peter had desecrated some shrine. Well, this was the shrine for Harry and Rita. Atheists though they were, they worshipped at the local Unitarian church on Saturday night, when they volunteered at the folk concert series.

This was not the music Peter wanted to make, and it was the one source of friction in his relationship with his parents, who otherwise seemed to think he walked on water. He wanted to make a music that was supple, emotive. Where the music told the story as much as the words did. Folk music relied heavily on words, whereas the music that grabbed Peter by the collar and took him out of his body, out of time, was nuanced—it was music, goddamn it, not a speech! Not some creed set to music! That wasn’t music, people! That was journalism! In the music he loved—electric Dylan, the Band, the Beatles, the Stones––the lyrics, if they mattered, were a kind of music, too. They told a story through sound, innuendo, feel. What do the words make you feel? He would say to Rita.

“Well, in the case of Dylan, angry and sick to my stomach!” she would shout. “But Tom Paxton—now there’s an artist.” And she sang, in her sandpapery voice, “What did you learn at school today, sweet little son of mine,” all about how horrible and corrupt the academic system was.

I learned the policemen are my friends,
I learned that justice never ends,
I learned that murderers pay for their crimes,
Even if we make a mistake sometimes,
And that’s what I learned in school today, that’s what I learned at school. [By Tom Paxton, © Chrysalis One Music, Bmg Rights Management Us, Llc.]

Peter’s eyes hurt from all the rolling they did that day.

There was no one in the Becket house who supported his vision, his music, so he educated himself, studying Greil Marcus and Jann Wenner, locking himself in the bathroom with the latest edition of Creem Magazine, taking in each turn in the music road—from disco to punk to New wave to reggae and back to the classics– as though he were a gigantic funnel. His sister Rhodie had taken the narrow end and gotten the best of it, he sometimes thought. He’d done all the leg work and presented her with the goods at the end of the day. But where Peter had the drive, the focus and the ideas, Rhodie had the talent. She had the ability to take three chords and write the kinds of songs that Peter felt must have always existed. When he tried to write like that, he sounded like a rip-off artist. When Rhodie wrote a song, it sounded like a classic. Peter had been envious of this, and at first he tried to pretend she didn’t exist; that her talent didn’t exist. Sister? What sister? But one day––he could still remember the day because it had been the same day the Berlin wall had fallen, Nov. 9 1989––she played him “When I’m Here,” and he knew the song would get beyond the walls of the Beckets’ house on Columbus Street. It had the inevitability of a sunrise, he thought. (No, cliché. Not a sunrise. Rats. What metaphor would Rhodie have used?) In any event, he could see her onstage singing that song, and he knew she would instantly have a following. So was it generous when he finally caved to all her whining and pleading and formed a band with her? Probably not. If she was going to be a songwriter, he wanted her to be his songwriter. So he started making suggestions about what she might write, giving her lines to start her off. He kept writing, too, but mostly the songs were hers. Still, all songs were credited to “P. Becket & R. Becket,” ©Beckettunes. ASCAP, All Rights Reserved. Like Lennon & McCartney, Jagger & Richards, Rodgers & Hammerstein, Gilbert & Sullivan.

During their squash racquet/pots and pans Beatles phase, Harry brought all three children to the music school, conveniently located on South Street, right around the corner from 72 Columbus. Miss Hazel, a bug-eyed wonder with bad breath masked by spearmint gum, taught Suzuki violin, and Peter was her prized student, speeding through the first five books in the repertoire by age eleven. Rhodie slogged through, taking three years to master her Twinkles (though she had started younger than her brother). Zhsanna picked it up through the water and was soon making up her own tunes, even before Hazel could give her a box violin and a chopstick bow. But Peter quit after the the second part of the Bach Double, which coincided with his first rock concert (Bruce Springsteen and the E Street band on their Born in the USA tour), and from that day on systematically taught himself how to play the guitar, mostly by listening to Beatles, Stones, the Police and (his guilty pleasure) Queen. In those days, he was Rhodie’s teacher, always remembering his protégé, even as he marched swiftly forward, so eager to master the next lick. Because in ditching the violin, Peter finally found his milieu. No one liked him when he was a violin player. He talked too much in group class. He always had the right answer. He got in other kids’ faces with his Bohm “Perpetual Motion” and his Vivaldi concertos. In orchestra he moved his first violinist chair a little out front. He didn’t know how to play with others. But seeing Bruce, and later studying the perfect symmetry of the Police had changed all that. From Bruce he got the possibilities–the full range—of what a rock and roll singer songwriter could be and do. And from the Police he got the importance of the three-legged stool. (Musically that is. And let the record show, as he would tell you, that Sting’s solo career was pure drivel and dreck.)

This was the era in which his life changed. He went from being the violin prodigy to local humble hero. It was at this time that he moved from his tiny bedroom across from his sisters’ to the attic on the third floor. Here, he stayed, rarely coming down except for “school”—Rita’s increasingly vague lessons focused mostly on the four Beckets sitting around the living room reading fat Russian novels––and meals, which he wolfed down, returning to his attic den to get back to his portable record player with its stereo speakers. He played along, ear against the speaker, to all the new records he would get at Real Tunes: Rolling Stones, Steely Dan, the Band, Bob Dylan, Elvis Costello…each week there would be a new discovery in the used LP bin. In the fall when he’d turned seventeen, he auditioned for his first band and got in: Notorious Ingrid, led by none other than Jack Slade, legendary bass player who went on to co-found Sassafrass the Younger. Peter played with them for the first time at New Year’s. As he stood on the big stage, his Fender almost as long as he was, he saw Rhodie in the audience, with Zhsanna and their parents. His body felt like it was made of extremely thin electric wire, and he imagined his guitar as a sail that he could hold up, and it would carry him all the way across the stage, and perhaps over the heads of all in the audience. The drummer behind him clicked his sticks, four sharp quick clicks, and Peter’s arm took over, smashing down on the first power chord of “Pump it Up,” leaping across the stage in black and white checkered pin-legged jeans, his guitar held triumphantly high. After, he saw Rhodie again, but she could not get to him for the wall of girls her age and older, five deep, surrounding him.

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