In 4th or 5th grade, my grandmother gave me a small drum kit, and I started lessons at the Slippery Disc in Pacific Palisades, CA. Soon, I expanded my scope to include guitar. I remember being incredibly excited about guitar lessons, and making my parents stop by a few days early to pick up a wide-necked, nylon-stringed loaner that would have been difficult to play even if someone had tuned it.
Located on the town’s main drag – next to Mort’s Deli, where everyone breakfasted/lunched, and across from Baskin-Robbins, the classic post-Little League destination – the Slippery Disc was owned and operated by a mother/daughter team and offered LPs and some musical instruments and accessories in addition to lessons. There was a small arcade in the front, which was a huge draw in the early 80s and deserves partial credit for my Missile Command and Donkey Kong skills.
My music teachers seemed like adults, but were in fact in their early 20s and playing in bands on the LA club scene. I haven’t been able to confirm the names of my drum teachers, but one of them was a jazzbo whose lips formed the words “Steely Dan.” When he left, I may have had Hunter Crowley, who went on to work with a bunch of notable bands including the Brian Jonestown Massacre, which must have been interesting.
My first guitar teacher was definitely Terry Keller, who played in an acoustic duo with his good friend Peter Burg and led his own band, Terry Keller & the Actionaires. For reasons that are too scandalous to mention in a public document, I eventually switched over from Terry to Peter, who played lead guitar in the Actionaires, then formed a power pop group called 454 and taught “across town” at the Music Bag/Palisades Music. I wish I still had my copy of 454’s 45 (that’s Peter on the left).
I was a precocious concert-goer, and would enlist Terry and Peter as chaperones. It seemed like a win-win arrangement: I’d procure tickets to a show they wanted to see almost as much as I did, and they’d provide transportation and “adult” supervision. Along these lines, Terry and I saw David Bowie at the Forum on the Serious Moonlight tour, and Peter took me and a couple of friends to the first The Who farewell tour at the L.A. Memorial Coliseum. I don’t know what they thought about hanging out with preteens at rock concerts, but I relished opportunities to spend time with and learn from them.
It was Terry, I think, who most influenced my musical taste and direction. For example, he advised my parents on Christmas gifts, which is how they knew to buy Hard Promises and Ghost in the Machine in 1981. He also introduced me to the music of David Bowie, which became an obsession, and helped me buy my first serious electric guitar and amplifier. One of the posters in his teaching studio is imprinted on my memory.
At some point, Terry – who practiced martial arts – injured both wrists and couldn’t teach for awhile. His sub was a guy named David, who played in a band called Sensible Shoes. I frustrated David because he’d knock off a cool lick that I then wouldn’t want to learn because I only cared about playing my favorite songs. Yes, I know I should have been all over those licks, but I was a dumb kid and sometimes lazy. Anyway, Terry’s wrists healed and I didn’t think about David until I encountered him again about fifteen years later on stage at the re-constituted Ash Grove on the Santa Monica pier. When I say I encountered him on stage, I mean we were on stage together, as guests on a monthly songwriters-in-the-round review organized by Peter Case. About halfway through the show, I started to think: “do I now that guy?” It wasn’t until a few weeks later that it dawned on me, and by then it was too late to review our history much less ask him about his successful band David & David or his role in Sheryl Crow’s Tuesday Night Music Club crew.
Like many music stores of the pre-internet era, The Slippery Disc provided safe haven for a self-selecting subset of local youth. I went there to learn instruments, buy records, and play arcade games, but also to escape the outside world. Don’t get me wrong, there was nothing about my home life I needed to escape. I mean escape in the literal sense! Once, I was busted stealing a pack of gum from the AM/PM on the corner of Sunset and Swarthmore. Upon capture, I threw down some change and skedaddled up the street to avoid further repercussions. A little later, I poked my head out the door and saw a cop car pull into the gas station parking lot. That cop car might have been there to fill up the tank, but I wasn’t taking any chances; I fell back into Terry’s studio in the bowels of the store where I was beyond the reach of the law.
Recently, I wrote a song called “Life of Crime” about that episode:
I appreciate Terry’s and Peter’s efforts, but I had neither the talent nor the drive to progress beyond moderate proficiency. I mean, I learned the Black Dog and Living Loving Maid riffs like everyone else, but I never wanted to be Jimmy Page. Indeed, from an early age, I wanted to be Bob Dylan or some other singer/songwriter type e.g. Cat Stevens or Neil Young. Of course I wish I’d been more or differently ambitious, because then I’d be a more sophisticated musician and probably a better songwriter. At the same time, I’m glad I was motivated to play as much as I did, because I got good enough to have a brief career as a singer/songwriter.
Upon reflection, it occurs to me that kids have no idea about their their music teachers. Cool guys: check. Into good music: check. But who are they really? I wondered about Terry, Peter, et al for years until social media paved the way for a reunion. I found Terry on Facebook, and he answered all my questions and hooked me up with Peter. Now, Terry and I are friends and see each other in Los Angeles from time to time. In fact, we went to a concert together: Neal Halstead at McCabe’s Guitar Shop. Just like the old days!