Your Song

I sat on the roof and kicked off the moss
As we were finishing dinner at Molly’s tonight Elton John’s Your Song came over the Musak. It’s one of the sappiest songs ever written. On the other hand, it’s one of the best love songs ever. I’ve thought about it both ways many times over the years.
But hearing it tonight got me thinking about junior high, when I played it on acoustic guitar supporting the chorus at the Opera House. I think John Nichols, my instructor, might have been playing piano. It was a big deal, no doubt about it, and I must have rehearsed that song dozens of times in the weeks leading up to the performance. I knew every note, every vocal inflection, every nuance – I probably could have played the song backwards.
The performance went well, as I recall. I was nervous, being a shy introvert. But I was also the best guitar player in the school system at the time. So I just did what I could do, which happened to be better than anyone expected, which turns out to be a winning formula.
I remember at one of the dress rehearsals I was standing there in the front with my guitar strapped on, and Mr. Nichols was talking to the chorus. Chris D. was horsing around, and knocked the piano, where Mr. Nichols’ vintage Martin guitar was leaning. The guitar started to slide to the floor, and you could hear the whole chorus take a breath, and I reached over and grabbed the neck, saving the guitar. Mr. Nichols calmly thanked me, put the guitar in its case, expressed his fury by telling Chris to cut the shit (a major word to use in front of 60 junior high schoolers) and reminded Chris that I had saved his life. I think people were pretty focused the rest of the rehearsal.
At some point later that year, or early the next, Mr. Nichols told me he had taught me everything he knew about the guitar, and now it was up to me to practice, learn songs, and go to the next level. That was pretty much the end of my playing guitar. Though I still own two, and hack on them now and again, I wish I had continued to play and hadn’t given it up for synthesizers, tape decks, and mixing consoles. I didn’t play as well as Jimi Hendrix was all I knew, so why bother trying. Had I only heard Joni Mitchell, Crosy, Stills, Nash & Young, American Beauty, Workingman’s Dead, or any of a hundred other folk rock tunes I would have realized that I could play in that style as well as any 13-year old kid alive, and I might have continued.
This would be an easy place to blame my parents for not encouraging or insisting that I continue, but what can you do with a teenager?
During my freshman year at college, I had come home to visit and heard Mr. Nichols was ill – some sort of cancer is what I remember, but I could be wrong. He was teaching sixth grade music, and I went over to visit in the middle of the school day. Just walked into the classroom, and said Hi. He had the class practice some exercises, and we talked for five or ten minutes. He was pleased to see me, and I thanked him for being such a big influence in my life – I still loved music, and I wished I played more, but his four years of lessons were an important part of my life. He didn’t mention that he was ill, but I think we both knew why I was there. He smiled when we were wrapping up, and I remember he gave me a hug when I was leaving. I left thinking that I should really pick up the guitar again, a thought that still runs through my mind every few years.
I’ve only thought about Mr. Nichols, his Back 40 String Band, and the accomplishment of playing Your Song perfectly in front of a few hundred parents and peers a few times since then. Funny that an “okay” dinner with lots of sappy early ’70s songs would be the trigger to bring it all back, but that’s the magic of music.