What does it take to be happy? I ask that question each week in The Joy of Life. My goal for each column is to share experiences that make me smile. Usually, these are little moments, little revelations that arise out of everyday life. Over the next three weeks, three favorites will be re-run. Accompanying each one will be a note explaining why I picked it. The first one chosen was “Soaring from note to note in my head.” Music was one of the first joys that I found in life. There’s no doubt in my mind why everyone likes to sing in the car!
I’ve been thrilled by music since my earliest memories. I’ve always wanted to take part in the magic somehow. So I took a few guitar lessons in the second grade—enough to play “Old MacDonald” in a recital, and I played the keyboard in a band in high school—enough to play a few dives. But neither went anywhere.
I realized that was because I never really wanted to be a guitar player or keyboardist. I’ve always wanted to be a singer. The only problem with that was my other realization that the sound of my singing could best be compared to Bob Dylan’s voice when he is imitating Kermit the Frog. But still, the act of singing is something I’ve loved.
For years and years, I confined my love to the car and when no one else was home, the shower. I also fed my desire through my job as a journalist. Anytime a decent singer came around, I got them on the phone and pumped the professionals for information.
Blue-eyed soul singer Boz Scaggs (sang the hits “Lowdown” and “Lido Shuffle”) describes what the act of singing feels like for him.
“It’s like flying. It’s like being free to soar. It’s challenging-going from one note to the next and one phrase to the next. You have to negotiate it. You have to know how to get there. They [notes] are like stepping stones and you have to hop, like crossing over a stream. It’s a beautiful feeling,” said Scaggs. “It resonates inside of you and it satisfies your musical perceptions. It’s just like flying. That’s the closest thing I can think of.”
I was content to watch others soar for years. My record collection grew and grew. I sat riveted at concert after concert. I interviewed every musician that came around. I could never get enough. Even as gray hairs started popping up, my passion never faded. I checked that passion to see if it was the same for the stars.
“What is it about singing that you enjoy so much? ” I asked rock-star Kenny Loggins (“Your Momma Don’t Dance and Your Daddy Don’t Rock and Roll” and “Footloose”). Loggins checked his own passion against that of his daughter’s.
“I have always loved singing! I am lucky that I still can…I have a 9-year-old daughter that’s been singing since she was 6. She is all about music and singing and that is very much the same joy that comes to me when I sing… She’s got so much bliss coming off of her. I recognize that from my own childhood.”
I followed up: “What, specifically, does it remind you of when you see your daughter singing and figuring things out for the first time?”
“It reminds me of when I was a little guy in Seattle—maybe 5 years old-and we’d go to the lake. I would be sitting on the beach and hear somebody with a transistor radio on…I would try to sit as close as I could to that other blanket while remaining inconspicuous, so I could hear the music. Music was so important to me as a child, and I can see that in my daughter,” said Loggins.
But what about me? I wondered. What does someone who was born with a voice that’s not considered conventionally to be a good singing voice do? Was I doomed to watch the pros on the field from my armchair?
I read an interview in which folk rocker Steve Earle called Bob Dylan and Elvis Costello “great singers.” Neither one of them had voices that could be considered good conventionally. So I asked him to expand on his comment. Why did he think Elvis Costello and Bob Dylan—whose nasal, shrill voice I likened to the worst aspects of my own voice—were great singers?
“They sell songs. They are good singers for the same reason that Ray Charles is a good singer and Hank Williams was a great singer. People that said Bob Dylan couldn’t sing in the early 60s were comparing him to Perry Como or something. It is an archaic idea to say that Bob Dylan is not a good singer,” said Earle. “I think it’s laughable at this point.”
“I don’t think people realize how much work goes into singing,” I replied.
“You have to work with the equipment that you are given,” said Earle. “But a voice isn’t what being a great singer is.”
Bobby McFerrin (“Don’t Worry, Be Happy”)—who is considered a good singer in any circle—agrees.
“It has to be genuine. You have to have musical integrity, which means that there’s nothing showy about it,” McFerrin chimes in on what makes someone a good singer. “The hardest part, for me, of being on stage is performing. I don’t like to perform. By that, I mean I try not to think about performing at all. I’d like to see myself in a place where I am just simply sitting on the stage and just singing in the same kind of voice that I sing with when I am just walking down the street. That same simple, nonchalant, naive kind of singing is the same kind of singing that I try to do on stage.”
Now that sounded appealing. I could sing in a naive, nonchalant kind of way! I started to think that maybe singing is something that everyone who wants to, can do.
“What is the hardest thing to master when learning to sing?” I asked McFerrin.
“Being confident in yourself as a singer. That is the hardest thing,” he said. “The other hard thing to master is not imitating others. That can be very difficult for a lot of singers, especially in today’s world. The pop world just wants you the same as everyone else.”
Like Dylan, I didn’t think my voice gave me a choice to be anything other than myself! All the while, my wife (who actually can sing) encouraged me to get off the bench and stop living vicariously.
And so recently, about two months ago, I was emboldened to see if I could go and croak through some singing lessons. At 36 years old, this was something that I was doing for myself.
I have no illusions about being an Idol and no urge to grow my hair long and buy a pair of Bono shades. I just want to feel the notes vibrating as they resonate through my head. I want to soar from note to note as I hop across the stream of my musical perceptions.
I want to be part of what soul singer Al Green calls “The Extraordinary.” When I asked the legendary singer behind the hits “I’m So Tired of Being Alone” and “Let’s Stay Together” what singing felt like for him, he gave a mystical answer. His answer (describing himself in the third person) showed that if there is one thing this man has mastered, it’s a total lack of fear in being himself!
“The Extraordinary is what goes into it for me. That’s what makes it click because you don’t know where Extraordinary is going to wind up at, and you don’t know really when Extraordinary is gonna’ start. That’s why I use backstage before the show goes on, prancing and flowing like a wild tiger because he [referring to himself] don’t know really when it’s gonna’ start. That’s why people overseas [at his European shows] were saying that it seems like he goes into some type of a trance when he is up there singing these songs.”