Learn to play the saxophone

Back in Wisconsin – it’s not a bad start, is it?

Actually it’s not a brilliant start if you know Wisconsin. Nothing much happens there. It’s a land of lakes, America’s dairyland, full of pine trees, water and mosquitos, empty roads and rain clouds a lot more of the time than I expected that summer. A place of big old wooden barns on farms that looked like something out of a child’s picture book, or the American picture books I grew up on, anyway. Hexmarks cut into the lintels told an older story, one the Scandinavian settlers brought with them in the 1800s when they came to clear this land.

Like any country place, there wasn’t much there. The local people were either desperate to get away or sometimes just desperate, trapped and often as not contemplating a lifetime of temporary jobs and drunkenness, pretty much the two options available when some of the lakes had eight feet of snow of them four months of the year.

I saw an elk there, splashing through the shallows near an island I’d sailed too, so impossibly huge it was like a dinosaur up close. On land I wouldn’t have got so close. Writing this is bringing a lot of memories back, so much I nearly wrote  gotten.

I was on summer camp. I went there to teach children to shoot because I couldn’t find a job in England that summer. I didn’t want to join the Army or be an accountant or a solicitor and where I lived there didn’t seem to be much else to do as the factories shut and the ordered world my parents talked about seemed to be as credible and real as anything else parents ever say, which in my house wasn’t much. For eight weeks six days a week I drilled the basics of not shooting yourself or anyone else by accident or design into groups of five children, aged between eight and sixteen. I bought a twelve year-old Chevrolet and tooled around the backroads like a Springsteen refugee, sometimes with one of the counsellors from one of the other summer-camps nearby.  Where I grew up we sometimes had Max Boyce singing how the pit-head baths were a supermarket now; if I drove around Eagle River today I could reflect on how Nancy-Jean was a professor of performance art now and won awards for her story-telling children’s books. The difference seemed significant to me, then and now.

The time and place for Nancy-Jean’s story and how I drove down to Indiana and cleaned up a sawmill the wrong side of the railroad tracks isn’t now; now was when I started to learn to play the saxophone. I had a friend on camp called Mel Taylor. I still can’t find-out what happened to him. He came from Kentucky where every boy learns to shoot and fish the same way you learn to tie your shoelaces anywhere else. His uncle made speedboats and played the saxophone. He’d loaned Mel his old one to take to camp, see if he wanted to learn to play it. He did a little, I did more, so a few afternoons a week I’d borrow this old tenor sax and take it out to the shooting range after we’d closed, or out into the woods beyond if I was feeling more uncertain about the sound than usual. Mel was able to show me how to put my lips on the mouthpiece, just about and the rest was up to me. I had a load of Glenn Miller songs in my head, along with Dexy’s Midnight Runners and the Motel’s Total Control. It was a long time before I could even think about having that over anything I played.

I wanted to come back to London and join a band, maybe stay with a friend in Camden while I worked the pub-band circuit, drinking Scotch whisky all night long and playing just what I feel. A foggy wet winter on Eversholt Street was a lot different to anything Steely Dan had in mind though, as I knew already.

That’s how it started. It’s still going on. There isn’t anything much about saxophones in Not Your Heart Away, except I kept playing Kate Bush’s Saxophone Song while I was writing it. I kept hearing that sound in my head for pretty much always.  You’ll find me in a Berlin bar, in a corner brooding. You know that I go very quiet when I’m listening to you summed-up a lot of that book, listening to my memories, listening to ghosts of the past and the future. That’s just what I feel. I’m still learning to play it. These days it’s a 1924 Martin Low Tone.


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