How I Bent My First Note

January 2004

I’ve read some other people’s accounts of this life-changing experience, and some pretty good ones, too. I thought I’d add my experience to the pile.

I started trying to play harp toward the end of senior year of high school in New York, 1969. I had played piano since I was 8 years old, mostly classical, and had always improvised and written my own music, too. I had expanded my interests out into many styles, and was in my first real band. We played rock, blues and jazz with some of my originals, too. The drummer, a classical violinist who taught himself drums by emulating Elvin Jones, also taught himself harmonica from listening to Chicago Blues recordings and just absorbing it. In a few weeks he was sounding really good- in a few months even better. I was impressed at how well he played, and how quickly it happened. I also fell in love with the Blues, period. I went to hear Paul Butterfield and James Cotton at a club in The Village, and that sealed it- the music blew my mind. Growing up in NYC, I had never heard any blues live. There weren’t many places to hear it, very few Blues players, and a general lack of awareness of the music.

After I got comfortable playing Blues on piano, I wanted to try harp- it was portable, unlike the piano, and you could bend notes on it, unlike the piano. I also met my first serious girlfriend around that time- she liked the way my friend played the harp- a little extra incentive for me to learn it. So I bought one at Manny’s on 48th St. in NY for about $2.50 and started honking on it. I sounded like any other kid who tries to play-terrible. I had no clue how to bend a note. I asked my friend Kieve, who couldn’t explain it – invisible things went on inside your mouth that he could do effortlessly but couldn’t impart to me. I tried for months with no success and almost gave up.

In Sept.1969, I went away to college at Northwestern University in Evanston, just north of Chicago. During orientation week, the Chicago Seven- Abbie Hoffman, Tom Hayden, Jerry Rubin, Rennie Davis, et al- made a fund-raising appearance at an NU lecture hall. They were on trial for planning the riots at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. I was against the Vietnam War, which was the central issue of the day and the main reason for the protests at the Convention that led to the trouble and the trial. So I went and squeezed into a spot with 4-500 others. It was really something to see all those guys in person, get a feeling for each of their personalities and beliefs, and listen to their speeches. My most vivid recollection is of Abby Hoffman as a wild court jester leaping all over the stage, saying outrageous things. Tom Hayden seemed like a grim anti-government politician with a serious message. I don’t remember Jerry Rubin very well. Another of them was into Bhuddism, one was a pacifist/conscientious objector. One might have been talking revolution- it’s a little hard to remember. A lot of people were talking about that back then because there was such anger against the government and “The Establishment” in general. It was heavy, I didn’t know a soul there, and it was my first time West of Pennsylvania.

I walked out of the hall that day, trying to absorb what I had seen, what it all meant, and trying to figure out where I stood in relation to all of it. Somehow, I felt like playing the harp. I fished it out of my pocket, a Marine band in G (from Manny’s), put it to my lips, and suddenly, I bent the 4 draw. I was shocked- that’s what it felt like- WOW! Indescribable, an oral balancing act between vacuum, pressure, and breath that transformed the harp from a mundane wood and metal object into a magical, organic vessel that vibrated, sang, and changed me in the process- forever, as it turned out. All thoughts of politics vanished as I bent 4 draw over and over while I kept walking, and then started to apply that one note to some simple Blues licks. I had heard them hundreds of times but could never play them before this moment-what a feeling, what a revelation! Within a few minutes I was bending 1,2,and 3 draw, later, 6, and finding more and more Blues licks. They had been there the whole time waiting for me to bend so I could play them. I was speaking with a voice I didn’t know I had, because I had never had it before- I wished that my girlfriend back in NY could hear it, and my bandmates, too. It changed me forever. I felt like people who’d known me before didn’t really know me anymore. And since nobody here knew me at all, I was starting my time in Evanston as a different person than I had been just days before in New York. It was exciting, strange and a little disconcerting. I had to tell someone I knew.

I went to a pay phone at the train station and called a guitarist named Dave who I’d played with in Brooklyn, who was attending Lake Forest College (about 15 miles north). I told him about it and took the train up there to play for him- I was practically jumping out of my skin. I’ll never know why I had my breakthrough at this particular moment, whether the political rally or just being in Chicago had anything to do with it. All I know is that it did happen exactly as I’ve recounted here.

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