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I put down the guitar and picked up my glove

In the dead depths of an especially nasty Ohio winter, sometime in the late '70s, I found myself onstage playing the cowbell as the band ripped into “Honky Tonk Women.” How I got there is a long story but one worth telling.
 
Faithful readers might recall that for my big Christmas present in 1964, Mom and Dad gave in and finally bought me the guitar I’d been begging for since the summer, when songs like “House of the Rising Sun” and “Under the Boardwalk” had instilled in me a love for music that’s remained part of who I am to this very day.
 
And then, well, the Beatles happened, and every guy around my age — I was 9 years old — decided there and then that the only thing in the world that mattered was being a musician, specifically a guitarist.
 
I was the new kid in fourth grade, having relocated with my family when Dad accepted a teaching position in a small town, which meant leaving the capital city — the only place I knew — behind for a new adventure.
 
The first thing I worried about was whether or not my transistor radio would continue to supply me with the music I needed, the great songs that kept coming and coming as 1965 dawned.
 
I needn’t have worried because WKYC and WIXY out of Cleveland soon filled the void left by WCOL. And at night, whether due to weather or geography, I could pull in a couple of stations out of Chicago, namely WLS and WCFL.
 
But it was Big 8 — CKLW — out of Windsor, Detroit that fast became my go-to station, and that love affair sustained me through grade school, into junior high and deep into high school.
 
Then, along about my senior year, I became conscious of FM radio, and then, well, like Jackie Paper in “Puff the Magic Dragon,” I put aside the toys of youth and plugged into the heart of WMMS, Cleveland’s landmark king of the underground airwaves.
 
But the Buzzard — the station’s ubiquitous mascot — was years away when I began taking guitar lessons the winter I turned 10. I had every intention of being a serious student. But something happened.
 
Instead of teaching me the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, my instructor, a nice enough guy with an earnest nature, a wispy beard and heavy black-rimmed glasses, steered the ship of knowledge into unfamiliar waters.
 
And by that I mean folk music. “She’ll Be Comin’ Round the Mountain,” “Red River Valley,” “Michael, Row the Boat Ashore” and “Long, Long Ago” were the songs I learned. Over and over I’d practice them, and over and over I’d think to myself, “I hate this.”
 
Every Saturday afternoon I’d show up for lessons in the basement of a downtown music store, and every Saturday night I'd listened to the radio, wishing there was some way for me to ditch the folk and get into rock. But it didn’t happen.
 
I tried once to get Mister Earnest Folkie to understand that I wanted — needed — something newer, more important and more fun.
 
“You’re getting more technically proficient,” he said, scratching his beard, “but that’s an acoustic guitar you have. Better to stick to the basics.”
 
In other words, “No.”
 
People have asked me over the ensuing years how it was possible for me to put down my guitar in the summer of 1965, arguably the best 100 days of music ever to hit the air. My answer is that I chose Little League. I know, I know. Ridiculous, but it’s the truth.
 
In my mind I couldn’t do both. And so, faced with the first big decision of my young life, I put down the guitar and picked up my glove.
 
The team I played for won city championships the next two summers, and I had a good time, and even though my contributions weren’t seismic, they were important enough. And to be brutally honest, I was better at baseball than the guitar. Which didn’t mean I gave up on music. Quite the opposite.
 
I mean you didn’t have to be Keith Richards in order to appreciate Keith Richards. As my record collection evolved from 45s to LPs and the stereo equipment I owned got more and more sophisticated, I began going to more and more concerts.
 
In fact part of one of my jobs as a professional writer involved a summer or two of free passes to attend any show I fancied, convenient parking and excellent seats. Still, I often paid my own way and traveled many miles to take in dozens of concerts a year.
 
But the shows that mattered most to me were the ones with their roots in the fourth grade. A classmate and I had begun guitar lessons at the same time, and even as I bailed, he kept at it, becoming very talented as a singer and a songwriter. He formed a band and at some point asked me to write some lyrics to a tune he had rolling around in his head.
 
It was called “Character Witness.” Never heard of it? Oh well.
 
But I was mostly a willing roadie, schlepping amps and instruments from one venue to another — a traditional high school dance on Friday, a dangerous biker club on Saturday — and got to be part of the scene, which made me happy. It went on for months.
 
One snowy night in the capital city, I was standing against the wall over near the pinball machines, enjoying the show, when my friend motioned me to join him onstage.
 
“What do you need?” I asked, always ready to lend a hand.
 
“Pick up the cowbell,” he said. “You and the Stones? Perfect.”
 
And so there I was, counting off the first few bars of “Honky Tonk Women,” keeping it tight and right, and I’ll never forget that thrill.
 
Humping the amps out into the snow that night, the load felt light.
 
Mike Dewey can be reached at CarolinamikeD@aol.com">CarolinamikeD@aol.com or 6211 Cardinal Drive, New Bern, NC 28560. Join him on Facebook.
 

Published: February 12, 2018
New Article ID: 2018180209939