Ever since I was a little kid, lying on the living-room floor listening to the soundtrack to “Lil’ Abner” or “Carousel,” I’ve loved music. (We alcoholics use the phrase “moment of clarity,” and I just had one: a childhood listening to Broadway musicals of the ’50s and ’60s explains a lot about the trajectory of my future life. Of course, in a stereotypical universe, I would have grown to use words like “divine,” been an habitué of fern bars and understood moisturizing. We never had a stereo, though, so my childhood was monotypical. Instead of exploring musical theater, I set off for other unusual places.
In that living room, we had a piano, from which my mom gave piano lessons to girls from the neighborhood. Apparently, neither my mom nor her students were aficionados of John Cage, or at least they didn’t appreciate my piano preparations—typically a Hot Wheels car or GI Joe casually thrown into the soundboard and onto the strings. Eventually, the piano was off limits to me, no great loss, since I’d never been allowed to play it.
When my mom would sit down at the piano in the living room, my dad, my sister, Jennifer, and I would gather around. The three of them would sing, my mother asking me to listen—“you’re the best critic in the family,” were temporary magic words for me. Mentally jotting notes, I’d prepare critiques of each of their performances. Inevitably, though, I’d join in on one of my favorites like, “Who Put the Overalls in Mistress Murphy’s Chowder?” or “I Don’t Want to Play in Your Yard.” My addition would cause Jennifer to cry—not because this was her special time, but because my singing was loud and out of tune.
No prisoner of melody, I’d let emotion overtake me and croon/warble/croak/yell the words until my mom would sadly close the piano, hug Jennifer, and walk away. Since I’d been singing in opposition to the piano, I’d now feel unchained and continue murdering song after song out of the book. All alone.
At these times, even though I might only have been eight or nine, Jennifer, younger by two years, would say, “I can’t wait until you go away to college so we can sing like a family.” I had an ace up my sleeve—even in fourth grade, given my study habits and behavior, I was never getting into college.
When I got to junior high, despite my demonstrated lack of musical ability, I needed to learn an instrument. Why? Because all my friends were. Within a couple years, I would no longer be a part of the herd, having raced ahead to lead journeys into the world of drugs with just a few close companions, but in sixth grade I still wanted to be one of the gang. Of course, the rest of the gang had at least a basic understanding of, or ear for, or lack of destructive tendency toward music, but I hadn’t recognized this yet.
My friends chose trumpets or trombones or the stand-up bass or the saxophone. Being physically small, I’d been a catcher in baseball for years, trying to overcome my size with gumption and a refusal to recognize I was ill-suited for the position. Using this same logic in choosing an instrument, I went for the tuba. “Went for.” Went for as we say a man went for his gun or another went in for the kill.
I’ve mentioned not being slave to a tune–I also lacked any sense of rhythm. I suppose not being able to clap in time with others during music class might have suggested that to me, but I was never a good student, even of the simplest lessons. I simply watched the kid next to me during clapping time, and thus was only a half-beat behind everyone else. As one of 20 or so little kids keeping time to third-grade folk songs, I could blend in.
An arrhythmic tuba player does not blend in. Just as gluttony leads to weight gain leads to mockery, so a bad tuba player’s sins are readily apparent to all with ears to hear. Or plug.
A tuba player with only an intellectual understanding of tune and no sense of rhythm, I quickly became an ex-tuba player. I suppose I could have tried another instrument, but lacking musical sense limited my choices. Perhaps I could have played the triangle in a marching band, or acted out a woodwind instrument without a reed, a Chaplinesque figure in a land of sound. Instead, I listened to my mother’s prophetic words.
I’m still the best critic in any room.\
Keith Howard used to be a homeless drunk veteran. Then he got sober and, eventually, became director of Liberty House in Manchester, a housing program for formerly homeless veterans. There, he had a number of well-publicized experiences – walking away from federal funds in order to keep Liberty House clean and sober, a contretemps with a presidential candidate and a $100,000 donation, a year spent living in a converted cargo trailer in Raymond. Today, he lives in a six-by 12-foot trailer in Pittsburg, NH, a few miles from the Canadian border with his dog, Sam. There, Howard maintains tinywhitebox.com, his website, works on a memoir, and a couple of novels while plotting the next phase of his improbable life.