The Ventures and Stills

When I was a lad I hungered to play music. Rock music.

My school years were in the mid to late 1960s, so the Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart Club Band, Abbey Road and The White Album, Creedence Clearwater Revival’s Willy and the Poor Boys, the Door’s Strange Days, the Band’s Music from Big Pink, the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s Déjà Vu, Simon and Garfunkle’s Bookends were all fresh to my ears, all heard for the first time in company with everyone else hearing them for the first time.

Imagine for one electrifying moment hearing the Beatles’ Lady Madonna and Revolution when they were brand new. The Vietnam War was going on. The promise of change was in the air, a change of mind and heart on whatever level you wanted to project – this was a part of what we took in with the music, and I wanted to participate.

Unfortunately for one with such a yearning, I have very limited musical talent. I can’t sing – my wife always says she needs to go to the next suburban community over from us whenever I try to join in on some old song – and my facility in playing musical instruments is, shall we say, constrained.

But I did try to learn to play guitar. This was in rural northern British Columbia. Our knowledge of music and the wider world came from one TV channel viewed occasionally at the neighbours, a local radio station that played the worst kind of country music, and radio signals beamed up from the States that came in strong and tuneful from Seattle and San Francisco on crisp cold winter nights. And of course the records that two brothers and I bought with the little spending money we had which played constantly on our battery powered Phillips phonograph player.

The first guitar I could afford was a really cheap acoustic model purchased from the Sears mail order catalogue. This would be comparable to the Sears & Roebuck catalogue that people in the States might be familiar with. But we also had the similar and competing mail-order offering from Eaton’s. These two wish books were welcome browsing in the outhouse on a cold winter night, read by bright moonlight off the snow.

(My musical ambitions were disrupted for a short while by an unwelcome initiative of my mother’s: she signed up two of her three boys to learn the accordion, the chest piano, the squeezebox, the weekly instrument of torture. We would get off the school bus a few stops early once a week after school at the home of a musical neighbour lady who did her best to instill enthusiasm for the instrument. However, our passive resistance eventually wore her out and our lessons ended, sincere relief all around. As jazz pianist George Shearing is reputed to have said, a gentleman is someone who knows how to play the accordion, but doesn’t.)

That first guitar was very difficult to play since the strings were so far off the frets. But I didn’t know any better, so I persevered trying to teach myself, sore fingertips building thick callous. With a good teacher and a better guitar, I might have gotten somewhere. But I did teach myself how to read music, slowly, and picked out from sheet music, among other tunes, a simplified version of Mason Williams’ Classical Gas which I found quite stirring, but my brothers found annoying and repetitious.

I finally moved on to an electric guitar, with a modest amplifier, and I was delighted to discover that I could move my fingers faster when I didn’t have to fight to press the strings so hard against the frets. You may gather some clue as to my ability since even by this time I was never quite sure if the guitar was really in tune, even with a pitch pipe. I was pretty sure it was, though.

In high school I was the dorky guy who could sit in home room all lunch hour listening to the school’s slightly lame rock band rehearsing for a school dance. I even clapped at their renditions of Secret Agent Man and Wipeout! This patter of sound from the only audience in the room must have lifted their hearts, although I noticed that the drummer would look at me oddly.

I tried to imagine myself as some kind of budding Eric Clapton, but it wasn’t going so well, practice long as I might. I remember even scrimping and buying a small electronic drummer box to play along with. That was fun for a little while. Thinking back, I realize that I never tried to play with other would-be young musicians. There just wasn’t anyone else nearby who might have been interested. I made this a solo pursuit as in many other things in my life.

180px-ventures-walk-dont-run.jpgI became a fan of The Ventures, that old guitar instrumental group who made hits out of Walk Don’t Run, Tequila, and Telstar. I still have some of their LPs I played over and over again as a boy.

Unfortunately, I didn’t seem able to learn anything by ear. But, wonderfully, The Ventures produced a couple of instructional long playing records with booklets where they showed you note by note and provided versions of the tracks so you could fill in the lead on, say, Walk Don’t Run and Pipeline. My brothers got pretty tired of hearing those, too.

ventures_freakf.jpgOne day, my rock music ambitions careened to a halt. A friend of one of my brothers three or four years younger than me brought his 12-string guitar over.  Man, he could play! We listened to a record or two. He immediately started picking out a tune we’d just listened to, and produced a full-bodied rendition of what he’d just heard, chording and hitting every note. And then he sang.

Not long after I put my guitar and amp and sheet music away and went on to other things.

But I still love rock music, that of my youth and what moves me more recently in the genre, although what can be called rock seems much more indefinite now. Oh, I went through a jazz period with Herbie Hancock, Chuck Mangione and Pat Metheny. I’ve attended classical concerts and even enjoyed parts of them. (The other parts I’m usually fighting the drift into a nap…)

But the best of rock music is integrative; it moves you heart, body and soul. At its most sublime, the gospel roots reach out and bind you and lift you up, without the God talk.

I don’t remember my dreams often, but of the few big dreams I remember, a number of them have to do with music. In one, non-singer in real life though I be, I sang in front of ambiguous others, my voice rising and lifting through its normal narrow range and then to the slightly higher notes I can never reach, and then up to the tenor range, and then up, up with ease to the soprano, like a counter-tenor, eerily feminine for just a moment and then leaving that behind to reach and linger at a transcendental tone of towering magnificence. In my dreams…

967582_170×170.jpgAnother dream, strangely enough, featured Stephen Stills. Now, I think that Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young’s Déjà Vu is on a par with the Beatles’ Abbey Road for what it says and how it says it. Who can approach the feeling of such a song as, say, Teach Your Children (although definitely not written by Stephen Stills). And I followed Stills career somewhat, buying Manassas when he formed that band, and some of his solo albums. But he’s not my favourite rock musician and especially not in his earlier years as an arrogant, belligerent young man. And his career has faded away largely since the glory days.

But one night two or three years ago I dreamed of him coming out of semi-retirement to play with a band, like a man on fire. I can still remember the rocking power of the music he performed. In the dream, the intensity and purity of it were tremendously moving.

So music still looms large in my life. I’ve been thinking that I’d like to get an electric guitar and small amp again, forty years later, revive in my fingers all the chords I used to know and play along with my wife on the piano. (She started learning the piano again in her late forties and has even started to compose music.) Nothing too ambitious. Even to just strum along with the right chords on a simple song would be an accomplishment to me and one that would sound good, I know.

729697_170×170.jpgAnd I’m glad to report that Stephen Stills a year or so ago released a new album, a return to form, called Man Alive!


Explore posts in the same categories: Guitar, Music, Remembering

8 Comments on “The Ventures and Stills”

  1. bloglily Says:

    Oh I do think you should do this! Music, like writing, is one of those things that can be produced by anyone who persists, and is open to learning. You’ve certainly got both those things in huge measure. And now, as an adult with a little more cash than you had as a child, you can actually get a decent guitar and a decent teacher — who knows how this will end up?? I’ll be in the front row, if I can get tickets, that is. xo, BL

  2. qazse Says:

    Agreed. You are probably close to retirement…you will have time to persue your writing, painting, AND guitar.

    Nicely written post, as usual.

    I saw the ventures at a joint in Jersey when I was twelve and hanging with my older cousin…they were not yet famous.

    Do you know the story of Still’s appearance on Al Kooper’s Supersession?


  3. fencer Says:

    Hi Bloglily,

    Yes, I’m drawn to picking up the gee-tar once more… But I have too many things to do already! Writing, painting, surfing the net, aikido, fencing, doing couple things, living life… I’m a busy guy! But I will probably succumb to the siren call eventually, but that ticket thing may take a while…


    Hi qazse,

    I am awestruck… you’ve seen The Ventures! Although I like the guitar instrumental sound they developed a lot, it became kind of formulaic after awhile, on at least some albums. They were surprisingly influential… even Stills said he was influenced by them, learning to play, I read somewhere. And they were always huge in Japan for some reason, doddering on there until quite recently.

    I had heard of Kooper’s Supersession album tangentially, I think, without really knowing anything, until I just read up on it on Wikipedia! It seems Kooper was a founder of Blood, Sweat and Tears, which I believe you mentioned to me before…


  4. qazse Says:

    Stills was brought on to replace Mike Bloomfield on guitar during the project, because Bloomfield (gifted guitarist) stopped showing up due to his drug addiction. He eventually died from it.

    Yes, even back then the corporate suits forced bands to produce that which was selling over and over until they ran it into the ground. The suits would go on to the next sensation while your group’s reputation and creative integrity lay smoldering on the ground.

    Speaking of exceptional guitar work. I just rec’d Chick Corea’s Return to Forever CD “Hymn of the seventh galaxy”. It is their most rock influenced album and the guitarists (Stanley Clarke and Bill Connors) will bring chills to your body and tears of joy.


  5. fencer Says:

    Hi qazse,

    I have the first Return to Forever album on vinyl and also on vinyl, my favorite, Romantic Warrior with Return to Forever as the band. I listened to that alot! Somehow it’s linked in my mind with Dream Machine by Paul Horn which is a similar style. I have other Paul Horn albums, including the old albums my mother absolutely loved, Inside the Taj Mahal and Inside the Great Pyramid, where he plays his flute in these wonderful spaces, but those are a little too spare for me.

    I will look for that CD you mention… now I have a hankering to listen to some of that again.


  6. wayne Says:

    i have been a “fan” of their music for over 40 years. i was so proud that they
    were finally recognized for their musical talent & inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame this year. i was very influenced by their drummer Mel Taylor & that helped me as a young drummer in a band to try & play like he did. i was saddened to learn back in 1996 that he passed away but so glad
    that his son Leon was able to step right in & fill his father’s shoes & help to keep the band rolling & not skip a beat…so to say. from the first time i heard “Walk Don’t Run” i knew that this group was going to be a “HIT”. next
    year (2009) will mark their “50th” year in the business. how many musical
    groups can make that claim? they will always be at the top of the charts with me. a fan forever!!!

  7. fencer Says:

    Hi Wayne,

    Nice to hear from another fan of the Ventures! They’ve had an amazing career. That is wonderful that Taylor’s son took over his dad’s role in what became an institution.


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