Mick Thomas

Guitar Lessons

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The Courthouse Theatre Geelong is running a series of shows called ‘Conversations in the key Of…’ which is based on a pretty simple principle of getting an established artist on stage with an emerging artist and having a mediator there to get a bit of dialogue happening. I played one of these on Sunday July 8 2012. The emerging artist went by the name of Famous Will and Tim Neal played piano and generally chaired the proceedings.

The first question Tim asked of Famous Will was simply why he was pursuing music as a career. Then he asked me what was the first song I learnt. I couldn’t really answer that in any definitive sense but I could recall the first song I worked out for myself – which was Act Naturally by the Beatles – and that puts it in the early 70’s and makes it synonymous with the period in my development when I would basically move away from structured music instruction. It’s strange being that song as I have never been the greatest Beatles fan. I suppose it was a nice easy one and by the mid seventies the song had been out long enough that it was burnt into my head. It was a fantastic feeling of independence being able to do it for myself. I have never had the greatest ear for transcribing existing works and still get a fantastic rush when I realise I have worked something out properly.

But it was the geographical situation of the Courthouse Theatre as much as anything that made the night significant for me. Being on the corner of Little Malop and Geringhap St it is very evocative of the time in my life when I was actually learning to play the guitar. All the music teachers seemed to be in town back then and so when it somehow transpired that I would go to have lessons the first thing my father did was to ring Brashes in Geelong and get me enrolled in their music school. I don’t recall a lot of these early lessons – I’m pretty sure the first teacher I had was called Harry Schuster and the book I learnt from was something like Nick Manilov’s Guitar Method Number One. It had some simple exercises, simplified versions of various well known classical and folk tunes – Song of the Volga Boatmen or perhaps Moonlight on the Volga. (I certainly recall the Volga featuring heavily in the early repertoire). For the first few years I practised for an hour a day without fail and went to the Brashes Christmas concert and saw all the more advanced kids up on stage playing with varying degrees of confidence. I don’t recall much of Harry. I imagine now that he looked like Hans Poulsen on the GTK programme on ABC. (He was a pretty well known archetypical psychedelic folk rocker at the time). But I think to my sheltered eyes anyone in a floral short with hair over their ears and a moustache looked like Hans Poulsen. He left after a while and I got passed around a few teachers until I ended with Mick Evans.

Mick Evans was fantastic. He was an American guy and I thought he looked like Charles Bronson. He drank coke all day and smoked as well. I can’t remember if he was at Brashes and then went out on his own taking me and a bunch of students with him or if we got the recommendation and made the decision to cross over ourselves. But he had Mick Evans’ Golden Guitar Studio up there in Geringhap St and that was where I found myself heading increasingly on the weekends rather than football or surfing or basketball – the things that had occupied my imagination up until then. The lessons were pretty simple. Half theory from Nick Manilov or some other instruction manual and then the other half popular songs which he wrote out as I requested various things from the radio. He had a big photo copier in the corner of the room which seemed to be his most important piece of equipment. Sometimes when I am going through old stuff that has been collected I still come across one of these song sheets and the smell of the photo copy paper places me right back there with Mick at his studio up there in Geringhap St. We did two songs per week and I still pretty much use his same style of notation to this day. Come to think of it I am still playing quite a few of those songs. He owned some nice guitars which he would bring in and let me play. For years later I seemed to always be running into people who had learnt from him, or has someone in their family who had. As much as the lessons themselves what I remember is Mick just talking about music about what he liked or what he had seen or gigs he had done or been part of.

It was the Canora 12 string guitar which caused all the trouble and still makes that part of inner Geelong such a vivid bitter sweet locale for me. I wrote about it extensively in a story for the website a few years back called ‘Case Study’ so I won’t go over old ground too much here except to say the plywood case my father made for that guitar looked enough like a coffin to cause me such embarrassment on the North Geelong bus that it still makes it difficult to contemplate traveling with an instrument on public transport.

Europe is about the only place I still find myself on a train with a guitar these days but even that is something I try to avoid. My last experience of this was about five years back traveling from in Germany by myself. I had to change train somewhere I’d never heard and after a wait of an hour found myself in a carriage with a bunch of German brats coming home from a school excursion. I smiled at their bedraggled worn out teacher and sat as far away as possible from them with the guitar fixed firmly between my knees. But this wasn’t a strong enough message I wished to be  left alone and as I started to intermittently doze and day dream the kids became increasingly daring coming up and touching the guitar, miming strumming actions mockingly to me and then running back to their seats. Finally one emboldened young chubster tried to grab the instrument before the teacher took action. When they left the train somewhere outside Cologne I just shook my head in silent relief. One old bloke who had been watching from down the carriage shuffled up to me slowly and I thought here we  go again. He shook his head ruefully and placed his hand on his heart before sweeping it out toward the children mustering on the platform deliberately saying the words he had obviously been constructing during the journey: “Zee before you, zee the future of Germany”. He shuffled back to his seat obviously satisfied with his damming judgment of the situation.

And then I worked out how to play Act Naturally and suddenly I found myself thinking I could do whatever I pleased and I wouldn’t be needing lessons anymore. And at least that meant I wouldn’t be riding the bus with a plywood coffin.

I remember my father telling Mick Evans that I wanted to give lessons a miss for a while and Mick saying that often students got to a stage when they thought they could do it all by themselves. It wasn’t convincing and I guess I can still feel  that there was a sadness there and a sense he felt I still had a lot to learn from someone like him (I did). Maybe I was making a mistake but I suppose the mistakes are part of it as well.

To bring it all back around to Sunday night’s show I think one of the most valuable things about those guitar lessons was the dialogue that took place between student and teacher – and even the sense of rejection involved in my discontinuation of the lessons was part of this dialogue. The thought that I was making a pretty grand statement that I could work things out for myself. It was something that I would then need to prove for myself, to rise or fall of my own accord. The longer I spend in music the more I am convinced of it’s subjective qualities as a  pursuit – which is what makes the modern obsession with talent quests so annoying as they attempt to reduce music to a set of hard and fast rules. So as I sat there and talked over the intricacies of performance and composition with Mick Evans back then I guess I was in an instrumental phase of working out how to do things for myself and I suppose when my ‘Act Naturally phase’ came along it was just a part of this process. At the Courthouse Theatre on Sunday evening I became aware that this process is one which is still in progress. One that is perhaps just beginning for Famous Will and one that is ongoing for the likes of Tim Neal and myself. And suddenly there I was walking out onto Geringhap Street again with my guitar. Thankfully this time the case was a little less obtrusive – and I wasn’t catching the bus.