Roots 

 

 

At some point, there was a guitar hanging around our house. My oldest brother, Tony, a huge influence on me musically and otherwise, may have purchased it around ’65-66. As a child, I’d lay it across my lap and pick out single notes. I picked up a guitar for real, when I was fourteen or fifteen. It was right-handed and I'm not, so I initially learned to play upside-down, as do pretty much all lefties.   

"Hey, ya wanna bang it out?"

It was 1972 or ‘73. We would gather in my friend, Guy Furness’s garage to 'bang it out.' There was a drum set, a guitar and one amp. No bass guitar. We all lived and breathed music. I was the only one with nerve enough to sing, but there was no P.A. Guy had good musical instincts and could play both drums and guitar. My best friend, Dave Fortin took drum lessons and was good. His older brother Jeff played guitar and I think he owned the amp.  

They would quickly run out of ideas because they only knew fragments of songs. Having no P.A. didn’t help with that either. Jeff knew Sweet Jane so that always got a lot of play. They would run through the descending line in the verse from Twenty-five or Six to Four by Chicago over and over. They loved the little triplet on the drums at the end of each measure and who could blame them? It sounded wickid cool, but it got wickid old in a wickid big hurry. So when they would eventually put the guitar down, I'd pick it up.  

I had a good ear. I'd been harmonizing since I was a child and could sing (reasonably) in tune while retaining melodies in my head quite easily. And if you can sing it, you can play it. That’s how I learned. Somewhere, I picked up how to make E major and E minor chords upside-down. Along the way, a real good player from the neighborhood who lived at our house for a spell, Wayne Mavel, showed me 1-5 power chords, how to play a pentatonic scale, and barre chords, which are actually easier upside-down. That's the closest I ever came to taking a lesson. 

I could play single-note rudimentary signature licks like Smoke on the Water and Space Truckin’ by Deep Purple, James Gang stuff like Woman and Funk 49Hocus Pocus by Focus, all the Aqualung signature licks, Black Dog, and some stuff from Tommy. But I couldn’t play entire songs either. First position chords were awkward upside-down.  

My friends encouraged me to get a left-handed guitar before progressing too far in this manner. I’m eternally grateful for their encouragement. Two other friends of ours, Dave Goncalves and Mike Alexander, cousins who lived nearby, had an aunt with a classical guitar that I bought for $35.  

 

 

 Me at 18 with that $35 classical and the piano I so thoroughly abused.

 

Nylon string guitars are the easiest guitars to flip righty to lefty with no modification to the instrument. They’re also more forgiving than a steel string, on both your fingering and your fingertips. I strongly recommend a classical for any beginner. Because of that, I probably played more and progressed faster on a classical than I would have otherwise. 

From the time I flipped the guitar over at 15, I started learning songs one album at a time. I learned hundreds of them. I started to see patterns and over time, a reference of archetypes emerged. I developed a keen ear for recognizing and anticipating those archetypes. That skill is the most important I have gained. Hands down. It’s the foundation. I love theory and chord structure and can still play chord progressions for hours. 

I am a slave to the circle.  

I learned to finger pick by listening to my brother, Tony, Stephen Stills, and Paul Simon. I learned to strum and flat-pick arpeggios from Pete Townshend. And I learned to play lead by listening to anybody who wasn't hopelessly unreachable.

There was  a piano in our house from the time I was born and I starting wholeheartedly abusing it at 16-17 years old. I learned to pound out chords with a lot of enthusiasm and very little technique. It was tuned down a half-step, so while playing along with records like Low Spark of High-Heeled Boys by TrafficGetting in Tune by The Who, and a bunch of Beatle stuff, I learned all my sharp and flat chord positions early on. I wrote my first song on that piano. (In D sharp, naturally)

 

 

 

 "Roach! Do Low Spark! Low Spark, Roach!"

 

 

That all started over 50 years ago. Ironically, those friends with whom I began this amazing journey, over time, became less and less a part of it. In early October 1977, the very next day after David Fortin's wedding, I moved 116 miles west to Northampton, MA to live and play music with my brother, Tony. I was 19. It wasn't that far, but it was a world away. I don’t know how much any of my old friends continued playing an instrument after our adolescence; probably not much, outside of my old mentor, Wayne. I would stay in western Mass for the better part of the next 35 years

For the first few years after moving away, I’d come home and religiously get together with my old friends to party and catch up, hang out. As years went by, those trips back home included calls to my old friends less frequently. Eventually, I stopped calling at all and fell out of touch with just about all of them. Then I started seeing them occasionally, like at funerals.  

My next older brother, Phillip, one of my biggest supporters, and a hellion if there ever was one, was one of the first to go, dying of cancer in March 1988. He lived hard and fast and died young. He left a good looking corpse. It's not all it's cracked up to be. He was 32. He's been gone longer than he was even here, and I have trouble imagining him in today's world at all.

Brothers Dave and Jeff Fortin didn’t make it out of their thirties. Jeff died of testicular cancer in ’94 followed by Dave a year later from aspiration.

Their kid brother, Bobby, another big part of our tightly-knit group, died in 2018 after persistent struggles with alcohol. 

Mike Alexander died of kidney failure from a bad tattoo in the early 2000s.

Guy Furness, who had a terribly abusive childhood, suffered a nervous breakdown at seventeen, recovered, but struggled with drug addiction off and on for many years before eventually succumbing to cancer in 2018 in the Las Vegas area.

Tragically, he outlived, by 40 years, his baby brother, Mark, who drowned in the late 70s while still in his teens. 

Alan Askew, an intermittent part of our circle, a big supporter of mine, and an outstanding non-musician musician, died around 2016 after a life of hard living.

My old mentor, Wayne Mavel, a sweet, gentle soul who, to me, seemed to channel Jimi Hendrix, himself, passed on in the early '90s at 42. It may have been cancer, as well.

The Seeds of my love for music were planted so long ago with those funny, bright, messed-up, wonderful kids in that musty garage on Bower St. in Somerset, MA, when the world still held so much hope for us all. When we believed that the answers to all our ills, or at the very least a respite from them, could be found in the music we passionately shared and deeply cherished so well. I miss all those kids very much. We thought we would live forever and we never gave tomorrow a second thought. But alas, tomorrow held destinies we could never have foreseen. 

Paul Rocha  

February 2021