Sometimes you search until you find, and sometimes you are found by stuff you didn’t even search for.
At age 12 or 13, I was found by a piece of music that would change who I am forever. Or did it find me, because I was who I am and didn’t know – who knows, right?
Anyways, the song I’m talking about had been sitting on my mother’s record shelf since before I was even conceived. It was the first track on the B side of an album named Cheap Thrills by a 1960s band from San Francisco called Big Brother & the Holding Company. The singer was a woman named Janis Joplin and the title of the song was Turtle Blues.
I don’t recall why exactly I asked my mother about that particular album one day. I do remember the kind of weird, colourful artwork by comic artist Robert Crump had drawn my attention many times, but I had never actually put the record on.
My taste of music at the time was contemporary Pop, which I had discovered only a few years earlier, having been brought up with Bach, Haydn, Händel, Mozart, Beethoven, Brahms, Smetana, and traditional German church hymns.
My mother is an actress. When I asked what that record was about, she said she had bought it many years back when she was preparing for a part. She needed to play some kind of crazy woman and somebody had recommended she should check out the music of Janis Joplin. She had no love of contemporary Pop or Rock music whatsoever, but she gave it a try for sake of her own acting.
The grand piano
Years before I pulled out Cheap Thrills from my mother’s record shelf, I had started dabbling with the piano. I very much liked the instrument – my grandmother had a 200 years old grand piano in her living room, which regularly became the centre of attention at family gatherings when my other grandmother, or my second uncle would sit down to play traditional German folk or Christmas tunes, and all of us would sing along.
At age seven, I had asked for piano lessons. My request was met with the appearance of an honourable, silver-haired gentleman in my grandmother’s living room. Firm, but kind. He would shake my hand like a man’s, looking me right in the eye. I felt severely impressed and no less intimidated.
Mr. Zingemann henceforth would come to my grandmother’s on Wednesday nights to teach me the basics of classical piano. Notes, scales, finger exercises, the whole drill. As for the music itself, strictly classical.
I was an awful student. Quick in picking up and being able to repeat simple melodies by ear, I sucked at reading. Worse, once my teacher had left, I would let myself get distracted all too easily and not practice until hours before the next lesson.
My desire was being able to play – practice felt like failing. I hated it, and for some mysterious reason that I’m still trying to figure out to this day, I felt no drive whatsoever to put in the nitty-gritty everyone said would help me achieve my goal.
Mr. Zingemann tried his best to convince and tutor me, and I did pick up enough to be able to play at family gatherings. But with time moving on and each year at that age bringing life-changing new discoveries, I eventually got tired of our lessons and quit.
Tearing down Jericho
Meanwhile, I had started to sing in the children’s choir at church, and our director/organist was one force of nature of a woman.
Like with Mr. Zingemann before, I was deeply impressed by Mrs. Stamp’s musical expertise and skill, but unlike the silver-haired gentleman, her approach to music found its explosive expression in an enthusiasm (en theos – in god) so abundant and joyful, you just couldn’t not love her as a child. The whole bunch of us choir kids did, sincerely and passionately.
About half a year into weekly choir practice, Mrs. Stamp in turn grew quite fond of that blond nine year-old who didn’t really seem to fit in with the rest of the kids, but would hurl his heart and soul out against the church walls with a grim devotion as if it was on him to tear down Jericho a second time – in a rather presentable soprano, actually.
So I ended up continuing my piano studies with Mrs. Stamp. And as far as I remember, she would become the first teacher in my life whom I consciously chose out of my own free will. Back at age seven, I had chosen to learn how to play the piano, but my teacher was chosen for me. (Obviously, I was seven.) At age nine or ten or whatever it was, I got to choose my own teacher in Mrs. Stamp.
I didn’t realise it at the time, but this would become a thing for me: choosing a teacher I felt empowered and seen by – a person I felt I could look up to, but who didn’t seem to look down on me in return – and achieving notable results under their guidance, while I would utterly fail with others whom, for whatever plausible or implausible reason, I didn’t trust the same way.
This was less about liking one teacher and disliking another; if I mistrusted, or even disrespected the person, it felt like it rendered my physical ability to sit down and accumulate random knowledge for their lessons neurobiologically impossible. High school was going to be great.
Four to the bar
Fast forward back to age 12, I had quit even my piano lessons with Mrs. Stamp. During a vacation at a horse ranch, I had witnessed another kid play a sort of ragtime theme on an out-of-tune upright piano in the attic.
It had been an electrifying experience. I had tried to replicate what I had heard by ear and accidentally discovered improvisation as a way to compensate my incomplete technique and knowledge of the song by way of musical self-expression.
This was new and incredibly exiting. Back at home, I would play the thing over and over, coming up with ever new variations of the melody while my left hand would stoically repeat the rhythmical one-two chord pattern of C, A minor, F, G. On top of creating my own interpretation, I also had unknowingly made my first encounter with swing. I was hooked.
My mother noticed the change in my relationship with the piano and suggested to bring in a friend of hers, a Jazz pianist, who would be able to show me more of this new stuff I was so excited about and help me grow my musical vocabulary.
Günther, as he introduced himself, was a taller, chain smoking version of Ray Manzarek of The Doors. A sensitive, kind, and humble soul, he became my 30+ years older friend who would generously share his immense professional skills in both Jazz theory and playing to my benefit. We started out with simple blues and boogie themes, and later moved on to theory – two-five-one patterns, alternated and diminished chords, lead sheet notation, stuff that really helps if one is looking to improvise.
I don’t recall if my discovery of Janis Joplin’s Turtle Blues happened before or after I first met Günther and the world he would open up for me, but it must have been around the same time.
In any case, the song found me like the animals found Noah and his arch. I was an open vessel, a vast space waiting to be filled up and pour over with sound from raw, unapologetic life.
So much has been said and written about the Blues that it would be ridiculous for a random dude from Germany to try and add anything. I won’t make a fool out of myself trying to explain what the Blues is, what it means, where it originates from, or who made it what it is. You can look that up if you want.
What I am going to tell you is what it made out of me.
First off, it gave me a confined space to grow within. In one of its most basic forms, the Blues is a pentatonic scale – One, minor Third, Fourth, Fifth, and minor Seventh – played over a four-to-the-bar twelve bar pattern of three chords: One, Fourth, and Fifth.
This is an incredibly limited amount of material to work with – even more so because the chord pattern (again, in one of its most basic forms) rigidly repeats itself over and over again. I can show you how to play it in less than ten minutes, even if you’ve never touched a piano before.
When you listen to the piano in Turtle Blues, you’ll notice a tonne of ornamental tinkling going on in the right hand while the left hand (at times in sync with the guitar) produces a stoically repetitive rhythmic base out of only those three chords. Over and over again, nothing else to worry about.
Translated into life values, that combination of rhythm, repetition, and simplicity is reliance. Support even. As the pubescent first-born in a single-parent household, I desperately needed those.
Similarly, the alphabet of the pentatonic scale used for the melody is limited to only five notes. But as you can hear during the guitar solo, combined with rhythm, intonation, and expression, it provides a virtually limitless musical vocabulary – something teenage me felt utterly intrigued by, being challenged with an overwhelming rush of hormones and entirely new galaxies of feelings pretty much daily.
Speaking of vocabulary, have you noticed there are only two lines of text per verse?
The first line is repeated over the second chord, as if to say: Have you heard me? I’m saying it again, listen up now, you need to get this!
It builds up extra emphasis to which the third line then provides a sort of resolution: See, this is because you needed to really get what I just said.
Pretty often, there’s a sort of tongue-in-cheek ambiguity in that third line. Given it is said Mrs. Joplin had quite an active dating life, I wouldn’t be surprised if the silly subtext added to the following verse of Turtle Blues actually wasn’t too far off:
|“I’m just like a turtle hiding underneath its horny shell.”||I’m a sensitive person, don’t hurt me|
|“Like a turtle hiding underneath its horny shell.”||also lol, get it? ‘horny’|
|“But I’m very well protected…”||yes, in every sense of the term, you moron|
|“…I know this goddamn life too well!”||all you irresponsible mofos, that is|
What definitely fascinated me about the singing, however, was the autonomy. Here was a woman practically screaming her guts out into the faces of men, in a way that suggested she completely ruled the place. I guess it was essentially what a broken teenager wanted his single mother to be like – give them hell, mom! And at the same time it was what I wanted myself to be: strong, yet vulnerable; tragic, yet funny; talented, yet incompliant; succinct, yet rich in substance.
Two, three, four
To me, the Blues is freedom in its sheer, raw beauty: use what you’ve got, as little as it may be, to express yourself to the fullest. There is no waiting for better times, circumstances, or conditions. Your time is now – twelve bars, repeat.
Two lines per verse, three chords, four to the bar, five notes on the scale… may be all you’ll ever need to get out from underneath that horny shell.