artist educator, singer songwriter, multi-instrumentalist
When I was nine years old, I was offered music lessons at school. I chose the violin. My parents borrowed one from a friend. It was a nice instrument but was a full-sized violin and a little too big for me. I didn’t care. I knew I loved music more than anything and was anxious to learn to play it. Unfortunately, the violin is a difficult instrument to play well at first, and it squeaked and squealed all the time. I tried playing it softer, but that only made it worse. My parents had no patience for it, so they sent me into the dark, dank, dirty, dingy basement to practice. In spite of that, I still practiced every day. Then the teasing started. My dad bordered on cruel with his teasing. He had learned the art from his family and practiced it regularly on me and my brother. My brother learned it from my dad and joined in. Finally, it became too much for me, so I quit the lessons and returned the violin.
A few months later, I overheard my parents talking about a piano they had been offered. It would cost them fifty dollars if they moved it themselves. I ran in the room and literally got down on my knees, begging them to buy it. Of course, they reminded me that I had tried one instrument already and quit. I tried to explain that the teasing had caused me to quit, but that only made Dad angry. I reminded them tearfully that I had practiced every day in that horrible basement until the day I quit and promised that I would also practice the piano every day. Dad agreed to go get the piano if I agreed to practice at least an hour a day, which I did. Those practices were sometimes torturous, but I stuck with it. Dad brought out his photography timer that made a loud ticking sound and clanged obnoxiously when the hour was up. It rarely ticked in the right tempo and competed with the metronome, but I learned to tune it out and keep my own rhythm. Most days, I practiced the required hour then kept at it, sometimes continuing my practice and sometimes playing my own music. I quickly noticed that when I was at the piano everyone left me alone, so it became my second sanctuary. I rarely play the piano for fun anymore because it has too much baggage, but I often use it as a tool. I managed to keep that original piano, in spite of my parents trying to get rid of it multiple times, though I recently gave it to my son.
Dad wanted to be involved in my lessons, so he often sat with me during the practice hour criticizing and correcting me. Then, I would go to my lesson where the teacher explained that I had been doing it wrong. Dad didn’t believe me, so I insisted that he go with me to a couple of the lessons. Once again, this made him angry and made my life harder, so I practiced for an hour on my own, while he was at work, playing the way the teacher had instructed me then practiced another hour with Dad. As frustrating and confusing as it all was, I think it made me a better musician in the long run. I have a great sense of rhythm that I attribute to practicing with competing clicking sounds. I also can hear multiple parts in my head at the same time. For example, when I’m creating harmonies for a song, I hear all of the parts together. I can even sing rounds in my head hearing all of the parts simultaneously. I used to think that everyone could do that, but I’ve since learned that’s not necessarily true.
I spent my early life trying as hard as I could to follow the rules and not make waves. Mistakes were dangerous in our home. Dad was a firm believer in corporal punishment. He took his leather belt to me at least three or four times a week. He also tormented me and my brother, constantly teasing, criticizing and belittling us. Neither of us ever did anything right. He was fond of that game of hitting you and saying with a satisfied smirk, “That was for nothing, now go do something.” He also loved to pull me into his lap then, when I got comfortable and let my guard down, he would rub his thumb on the inside of his Planter’s Peanut can and smear the grease all over the front of my glasses. He never questioned Mom who I suspect was bi-polar or had some other mental health issue. She would often change moods like flipping a light switch, and she lived in a different reality than the rest of us. Most times, I was punished for something I didn’t even know I had done. Or maybe the rules had suddenly changed without any notice. When she decided I had done something wrong, I was sent to my room to wait for Dad. Sometimes I waited for hours, knowing that I would get the belt and having no idea what it was for. I grew up believing that I was crazy because my mom certainly couldn’t be. She was my mom. She had to be right. It wasn’t until I was an adult and had witnesses to her changing reality that I realized it hadn’t been me. Until then, I lived as though I was walking on eggshells, trying not to be noticed, while knowing that violence could erupt at any time.
My high school days were filled with bullying and abuse. I had been diagnosed with scoliosis the summer before my freshman year and entered a brand-new school wearing a steel and leather brace that stretched from my chin to just below my hips. It was large, uncomfortable and obtrusive. After having spent my first eight years of school in public school, this new Catholic school with all of its restrictions filled with snobby kids that I didn’t know was a nightmare for me. The bullying was cruel and relentless. One boy a year ahead of me climbed on the school roof with a gun and shot randomly before finally killing himself. Another boy committed suicide at home because of the bullying. I became anorexic and was carving designs into my forearms with straight pins. The only thing that got me through that time was music. I stuck with those lessons through high school and also took classical voice. Unfortunately, the high school that had no music or art classes until my senior year, but that didn’t stop me. Those two subjects, as well as writing, were the things I excelled at and truly loved. They were saving my life. When it was time to look at colleges, my guidance counselor told me that I had to choose only one of those subjects, so I chose my first love music and was accepted, in spite of my failing grades, into two music schools. One was Hart School of Music in Hartford, Connecticut, and the other was Seton Hill College in Western Pennsylvania. Hart had offered me a scholarship and wanted me in their music education department, but I had no interest in being a teacher. I wanted to be a performer. I had finished the music entrance exam before everyone else and had continued on to the education section just to pass the time and got a perfect score. My parents pushed for that school assuring me that I could come home every weekend. That was the last thing I wanted to do.
My family was dysfunctional and violent. My mother tried to control my every thought. Believe it or not, she chose the clothes I wore every day until I moved out. Dad’s teasing got worse, and during the years that I wore the back brace, he focused on that and my physical appearance. I wanted to get as far away from home as I could and decided, against everyone’s advice, to go to Seton Hill where I was also given a scholarship. I won’t go into all of the details of why, but I failed miserably the first semester, had a mental breakdown and was sent home. It had been the first time in my life that I made my own decisions, but it felt like I had been thrown to the lions. I hadn’t experienced any of the things that normal kids go through in high school. I’d had no relationships of any kind with the opposite sex. I’d never held hands with a boy or even really talked to them much, and I was afraid of my own shadow. Now I was in a whole new world and didn’t handle it well at all. When I came home, my parents were angry. They found me a job at a bank and set me up with a therapist who I couldn’t stand.
The good news was that once I had a job, I had my own money and was able to start living my own life. I started meeting people and started learning how to socialize. I became friends with a woman my age who helped me invent things to tell my therapist. We came up with dreams and fantasies, changing these over time to make it look like I was recovering. What really helped me recover was having a friend and being able to make my own decisions. I went clothes shopping with a friend for the first time, took the train into New York City to go to concerts and just cruise around the big city. I reconnected with a couple of old friends from Junior High School and eventually got my own apartment that I shared with a roommate. I still struggled and made some very bad decisions, but they were my decisions. I was not being ruled with an iron fist. Looking back on it, I think it’s a miracle that I survived. Between my family’s abuse and the abuse that I suffered in high school, it was no wonder that I turned to sex, drugs and alcohol. But I did survive, and everything from my past has led me to the present and a full and fulfilled life.
It feels odd having finished the short memoir pieces, at least for now. I feel almost an emptiness, not entirely unpleasant. It just feels as though I’ve lost my direction somewhat. There’s plenty more to write about, and things I omitted from my story. I’ve only hinted at my childhood or occasionally included some flashbacks, but I didn’t start from the beginning. My early years were harder than the later ones and harder to write about. I have very few memories from the years I lived with my birth family, and the ones I do have are mostly unpleasant. Anyway, I’ve previously written short memoir pieces about some of those memories. The CD I released in 2014 had spoken word memoirs recorded, one for each song. Although, I won’t record them this time, maybe it’s time to tell you a little bit about the songs in the new CD.
Deep Ellum Blues:
I first heard this song played live by The Dead at an acoustic show in Connecticut. It must have been sometime in the late 70s. Paul was a more dedicated Deadhead than I was and insisted on going to every show he could. We didn’t have much money and could usually only afford one or two shows a year. I liked seeing a variety of bands, but I usually deferred to Paul because he was so enthralled with The Dead. That year, he had heard a rumor that they were coming to the East Coast, so he went to a ticket agent to find out. There were no dates announced yet, but the agent promised to let Paul know as soon as any information was released. We waited and waited until finally one day, we got the call. There four tickets available for a show in a small theater in New York City. The agent didn’t know exactly where the seats were, but he insisted they were good ones. He also had two tickets for show in New Haven, Connecticut and didn’t know anything about that show either. He apologized and explained that he wasn’t used to getting rock and roll concert tickets. The New York tickets were pretty expensive for that era, but we took them as well as the two for New Haven. We thought we could easily get rid of the two extras. Boy, were we wrong! No one wanted to buy pricey tickets for mystery seats. We thought we were going to be stuck with them until finally a friend of a friend scooped them up. He was so excited to get these sold-out tickets, he even offered to do all the driving and get us high all night in exchange.
Finally, came the day of the show. I had arranged for a sitter to watch our daughter, and Paul had miraculously managed to get the night off from work. Then, late in the afternoon, I got a call from Paul saying that he had to stay late at work and wasn’t going to make the show after all. He was devastated. Our sitter was also a Deadhead, so Paul suggested that I find someone else to watch Jessie and ask Debra if she wanted to come to the show with me. Of course, she jumped at the chance, so I got my mom to keep our daughter overnight. This was a rare occurrence. Mom was not usually interested in babysitting since she still had her own young child at home, but this time she agreed. Just as Debra and I were walking out the door to meet the other couple, Paul raced in. He had pleaded with his boss who finally relented. Poor Debra. We promised her a ticket to the show in New Haven instead. Paul had already agreed to work that night. She was disappointed but happy that she had any ticket, so all was good.
We were running late by the time Paul showered and changed. The other couple were getting anxious. We all were. Our driver raced into the city, miraculously avoiding any speeding tickets or other delays. There was no parking anywhere, so he finally flagged down a parking garage attendant, handed him a fifty-dollar bill and asked him to take charge of the car. Then we ran to the theater. We still didn’t know where we would be seated but figured the theater was so small it wouldn’t really matter. We handed our tickets to the usher as the band was just getting on stage tuning up and starting to warm up to the start. As the first notes floated in the air, the usher kept walking us further down the aisle until she stopped at the front row and waved us in. We were almost in the center. What a thrill! I could lean back and put my feet up on the stage. It was a great show that night.
A few days later I went to New Haven with Debra. These seats were up in the balcony in a larger venue, but they started out the show with an acoustic set. It’s the only time I’ve heard them do an acoustic set and was also the first time I heard their slow version of Friend of the Devil. I wasn’t a fan of the new version, but the rest of that set and the rest of the show were both great. It was too bad that Paul had missed out on that. He was disappointed that he never did get to see them play acoustically, but he was also thrilled that we’d had those front row, almost center, seats and stayed high on that until the next show. He always said it was worth twice the price.
It’s Gonna Be Cold Outside:
I’m turning sixty-eight in a few days. I feel young in spirit but, like so many of us who are aging, my body is starting to betray me. I’ve never been very good at exercising enough. The things I love to do are play music, write, create art and read. Those involve a lot of sitting. I also have a serious back condition that I’ve had for most of my life, ever since I was twelve. It’s almost invisible but causes me quite a bit of discomfort if I’m not careful. I’ve also inherited a few chronic ailments, and stress has taken its toll on me even though most of the stress is gone now. When the pandemic hit in March of 2020, and I lost much of my work, I anticipated that stress would return because of my loss of income. But I was pleasantly surprised. Friends, family and fans were generous and helped out in many ways. I also accepted food from a church group and a food box from the government twice. But mostly, like so many others I was staying at home and wasn’t spending money on gas or on rent for the space I had been using for my classes. I also wasn’t eating out as much, especially those lunches in cafes when I had been between classes and needed to stay in town for hours at a time with nothing to do. I was amazed at how easy it was to be at home. It gave me the chance to reevaluate a lot of things.
I thought a lot about my music career and the direction I wanted to go in. I was no longer practicing with a band and was back to playing music by myself the way I wanted it to sound. I started writing more songs. I rearranged old songs and sorted through my piles and piles of song bits that were never completed. I organized my files and organized my life. I also consistently wrote my memoirs. I found that the more I wrote, the more I wanted to write. I realized that I had a lot to say and wanted to say it while I still could. My mother died when she was eighty, my dad at eighty-four. Eighty is only twelve years away for me. Mom was active and healthy until her massive stroke. She only started looking and feeling her age at around sixty. This song is my reflections on aging. It’s not meant to be morose and was not written with regrets in mind. It’s just an acknowledgement that I’m getting older and slowing down a bit, and that’s okay.
In 2014, I moved in with my current partner in his off-the-grid solar house, that is heated mostly with wood, in the foothills of the Taconic Mountains on the Rensselaer Plateau. I’ve had to learn a new way of daily living. Our refrigerator is a small RV/Marine refrigerator, so I shop more often, we only use lights when necessary and only in the room that’s occupied, and we only vacuum or use kitchen appliances on sunny days. We have no fans or air conditioning in the summer, and it is sometimes chilly in the house in the late fall, winter and early spring. I’ve learned to let my body acclimate to the weather. I’ve become quite fond of hooded sweaters that keep my head warm. All of these things contributed to my writing of this song in the fall of 2020.
The winter was coming with continued isolation and more reflection on my part. I was pulling out my warmer clothes and started wearing my hat indoors before we cranked up the wood stove. I was enjoying telling my stories and, in telling them, remembering more and more each day. I tuned my guitar to an alternate tuning of E-B-E-A-B-E, as I often do for inspiration, and played random chords until the pattern came. Then I put all of those thoughts and experiences into words. I love hearing what other people take away from my songs. As I was writing it, the cold was a metaphor for the uncertainty I was feeling about the future and about my aging. But it can also be a song about facing a harsh winter or maybe something else entirely. I wonder what it all means to you.
I have said before that my friends refer to me as a serial monogamist. That is because I am committed and loyal to my partners. However, eventually, when faced with daily emotional and verbal abuse, I come to a breaking point and decide to move on. I left home and moved in with Paul Cavanaugh when I was twenty. I left him and moved in with Dick Kavanaugh when I was forty. Now I was sixty and was leaving again. I managed twenty years in each abusive relationship and was now determined to live alone. I decided to move into a friend’s house. I would be renting a long narrow room, large enough for a single bed, some bookshelves, desk and dresser in a long line against one wall. One friend said it reminded her of a dorm room. I saw it as a landing place where I could regroup and figure out what to do next and where to go from there.
Two days after I went to court, and the day after I announced my moving date, Dick came home in a terrible mood. He started right in yelling at me and throwing things around. I decided that I needed to go out that night and started exploring my options. I have always tried to support other songwriters as much as possible and had a list of people to see. One of them was playing as hour away so I started reaching out to friends to find out if anyone would join me. No one that I spoke to was interested in going out that night, so I went alone. I walked in, took a seat at the bar, and ordered my usual bourbon neat with a slice of lemon. I turned my back to the bar to pay attention to the singer in front of me and noticed a clean-cut looking man also sitting at the bar wearing a jacket and tie with a video camera and recorder between us. I soon struck up a conversation, curious about the recording he was doing. Before too long, I had moved to the seat on the other side of him so as not to disturb the recording, and we spent the entire night talking and enjoying each other’s company. I have to admit, it was an unexpected and pleasurable turn of events.
At the end of the night, I introduced myself to the singer-songwriter and complimented him on his beautiful guitar. He handed it to me to try out. I played “Highway In Your Eyes” and tried to hand it back, but he insisted that I show him the runs I play on that song. Then he complimented me, and we chatted a bit longer. As I was leaving, I hugged him then turned to the videographer and stuck out my hand. He looked at it, laughed and said, “What? No hug?” so, I hugged him, too. Then he handed me his business card and asked if he could see me again. It read Joel Patterson, Mountaintop Studios. I hesitated, remembering that I wanted to be single. But I gave him my card as well and agreed to exchange emails. I explained that I was going through an ugly breakup and needed to focus on that and my other family obligations before I could see him. He agreed to wait for two and a half months if we could stay in touch via email. The next day, I told Dick that I had met someone that night and would probably see him again after I had moved. Things were messy enough already, and I didn’t want extra drama. I believed that honesty was the best policy.
The next weeks were traumatic and emotional. As I said before, my friends pitched in to help, but there was always the cloud of my former partner always nearby reading in his recliner while we sorted and packed. I reminded him that I had found the house, and he had not wanted to be a part of deciding to move there. He always insisted that it was my house and my decision alone. But he refused to leave the house, stating that it was now his home regardless of how he came to be there. Somehow, he managed to be home whenever I worked at the massive job of cleaning and clearing everything out. The more time went by, the angrier I felt. I knew that I would have a difficult time forgiving him for his treatment of me when my mom was dying and forgiving him this monumental task that was left to me to deal with by myself. I had always remained friends with Paul after our split but wasn’t sure I could that this time around. Although Paul was angry much of the time and was abusive in many ways, he was kind to me in times of turmoil. He cared for me when I was ill, supported me when I faltered and always showed his love for me. This time around, I felt as though I had been a burden. I was sure that Dick was relieved to be rid of me despite the years we’d spent together.
Meanwhile, Joel and I emailed each other almost daily. One day, he wrote to tell me that he was recording a show in Schenectady, not far from my house, and wondered if I would meet him for coffee. I was hosting a family birthday party that day and knew I wouldn’t be able to get away. Besides, I had already told him that I was committed to waiting until I moved out to see him. I explained all of this then didn’t hear back from him. I figured he was busy, but when day after day went by with no word, I started to wonder. I finally wrote to him asking what was up. He said that he thought I was writing him off. He was sure that was my subtle way of telling him that I wasn’t interested because he was so close by that day. He didn’t have any idea what my family gatherings were like with over a dozen people of all ages for a day-long celebration with me doing most of the work. As I smoothed things over, I found myself wondering why I felt such a loss when I was determined not to get serious about anyone. But I ignored the warning signs and went back to daily correspondence.
May first came fast. I moved into my little room and settled in a bit then let Joel know that I was ready to see him. We arranged to meet at a show by the same singer that had been instrumental in our meeting. Once again, Joel showed up in a jacket and tie. We enjoyed the first set then went out to my car to smoke a joint. One thing led to another, and I finally told him that I thought he should invite me to his house to spend the night. We had been out in the parking lot long past the show’s end. It was now around 3 am. He explained that he loved a distance away, but I didn’t care. I was enthralled with this quirky and wonderful man. I followed him home, making him wait for me as I waited at all of the red lights that he ran. As we drove, I started to wonder what I was doing. I barely knew him and was now following him to his isolated home. As we drove on and on, I felt slightly nervous until we drove past a sign for The Peace Pagoda. During my time teaching at The Free School, I had helped out while it was being built. I knew exactly where I was and how to get home. Very shortly, we went up a long steep dirt road then turned into a dark driveway. When the outside motion detector light came on, I saw what looked like a huge three-story barn. This was his home.
I spent a lovely night there and woke up the next morning feeling tired but happy. Joel made me breakfast. He told me that he had been going to see that same singer-songwriter for a few years, doing free videos for him, which he never did. He said it was like a compulsion that he didn’t understand. Now he realized that it was all done so that he would meet me there. That fit right in with my belief that things happen for a reason if we only follow the signs. Then I remembered that it was Mother’s Day, and I had plans to meet my daughter for brunch. I reluctantly left agreeing to see him again soon. We did see each other again the next weekend, and every weekend after that. I kept trying to explain my resolve to be single for the rest of my life and insisted that we had to keep things casual. He just laughed each time, and it did end up being a losing battle. We quickly went from seeing each other every weekend to almost every day. I still insisted on renting the room in Albany, and we alternated back and forth from Petersburg on weekends to Albany during the week when I had to work in town. Then Joel did something for me that changed the tide.
I had always wanted a porch swing. When we moved into the farmhouse in Princetown, I finally had a front porch. My kids all pitched in and bought, assembled and installed a porch swing on that porch. I was thrilled and often sat out there enjoying it. Then one day, Dick decided we needed a ceiling fan on the porch and took down not only my swing but also the rafters that supported it, so it never got put back up. When I moved out, I put it in my storage unit. I had to go there to get my sound equipment for a gig when Joel noticed it and asked about it. I tearfully told him the story. It was just one of many things that still stung. He offered to store it in his garage so that it wouldn’t take up so much room in the unit. I declined at first, but he soon talked me into it. The next time I visited his home, I saw my swing installed on a free-standing frame made out of saplings he had cut down in the woods. I stood there and cried. At that moment, I fell deeply in love with this amazing man and knew I was no longer able to keep things casual. After a few more months, I agreed to move in with him and have been happier than I’ve ever been in my life.
It is the first time that I have a life free of trauma, though it did take a while to settle down. My son recovered from his breakdown, after many more months of turmoil, and we have gradually and carefully repaired our relationship. Dick Kavanaugh and I did manage to have a tentative friendship, and his cancer eventually ended his life. I am still close to some of his children and grandchildren. There have continued to be many ups and downs within my family, but I navigate them with the backing of a loving and supportive partner. I soon planted flower gardens and brought over my yard decor, a picnic table, chiminea, chairs and benches and children's items for outdoor play. Together, we have planted gardens, marked trails in the woods, and hosted events on our outdoor stage. We've created a peaceful and musical environment for people of all ages.
We have had a few struggles in our relationship like any other, but we are able to sail through them without fighting with each other. We make compromises and accept each other for who we are. It’s the first time I have lived without being cautious, without being yelled at or blamed for things. I’m no longer afraid of what each day will bring. And most important of all, I have my life and he has his life. If I want to travel, I do it without him because he likes to stay at home. We have no expectations of each other beyond being kind and loving. In the eight years that we’ve been together, I have traveled to music festivals where I camped for three to four days, Oregon for ten days, South Caroline twice for a week at a time, Maine a few times and gone to China for two weeks without him. I’m always glad to come home, and he’s always glad to have me back.
In addition to all of this, he has enabled me to move forward with my music, recording me, making music videos and sometimes running sound for gigs. He is my harshest critic but in a kind and loving way, keeping me on my toes and encouraging me to be the best I can be. When the Highway In Your Eyes CD was nearing completion, he mixed it and recorded a few more songs in his studio. I hired an artist friend to do the cover, but he put it all together. When we were first together, he had me read my memoir pieces aloud to him in the evenings. It was a nice way to get to know each other. I would read a piece, then he would share something from his life. He encouraged me to put some of them together on a second companion CD, so I did, one for each song. In 2014, just after its release, WRPI did a show using both CDs and playing a story then the song that went with it. It was very cool to listen to them in that order, but it seemed to make the most sense to put the music and stories on separate CDs so that you could listen to just one or the other.
I spent the first year living with Joel recovering from all of my past trauma. I felt exhausted and unmotivated much of time. He and others encouraged me to just take the time to rest. I spent the second year trying to figure out what was next. By the third year. I was feeling alive again and starting to move forward. Now, I feel as though I am living the life I never even imagined was possible with the “Finest Man.”
The night that my mom died, I had a dream that I was in my music room, playing my dulcimer when Mom walked in. She stood and listened then said, “That’s a beautiful tune. I love you, Deb.” I woke up crying then went downstairs and played the tune from my dream. I originally titled it “Margaret’s Waltz” after my mother, but there is already a well-known tune by that name, so I shortened it to “Maggie’s Waltz.” It was a healing dream. My parents had never shown me support for my music, never asking about it and never coming to any shows. After they both passed, I found out that they bragged about me all the time to others. I wish I had known that while they were alive.
The next day, I was scheduled to do a Cavanaugh & Kavanaugh gig at a local library. I’ve always believed that the show must go on, and I was still numb from the long ordeal and in shock from her eventual passing. I insisted that we do the show but was reluctant to go to the party we’d been invited to that evening. The show went well, and playing music felt healing. Afterwards I agreed to go to the party where we would do more jamming. However, I hadn’t counted on going with a moody partner who seemed to be going out of his way to try to fight with me. I wasn’t interested in fighting with anyone and tried to go along with his whims until the end of the night when he aggressively insisted on leaving in the middle of my playing a song. At the end of the song, disappointed at leaving because the music felt so good but determined not to engage in drama, I went to say goodbye to our hosts. When I looked around, I saw that Dick was in the middle of the jam. At the end of that tune, I told him I was ready to leave. He loudly and rudely said that he had gotten tired of waiting for me and was now staying. I was furious and embarrassed, so I walked to my daughter’s house and spent the night there. I refused to answer his calls and finally returned a few days later in time to prepare for Mom’s funeral.
That was a turning point in our relationship. I wasn’t sure if I could forgive his insensitivities during the past year while I was dealing with such a traumatic event. I’m a very loyal person and don’t give up on relationships easily, but once again I’d had enough. Although I felt as though I no longer loved him, I also recognized that he was dealing with a probably fatal cancer and didn’t want to abandon him. I’d already lost Paul to cancer, though his diagnosis was well after we had split up, and I knew Dick would need support, but things were never the same. We became roommates that shared the same bedroom and continued to play music together. I tried to help him with his health issues, but he soon stopped all of the recommended protocols, including regular testing. Nothing I said could change his mind. It seemed as though he’d given up. Still, I was determined to be there for him.
Things did improve slightly over time. My dad passed a year later, and Dick was supportive and kind. I started feeling hopeful that we would get back on track, but the time when my mom was dying still haunted me. Then one day, I came home from a demonstration in Albany, hot and tired. He was in my office using my computer, and I asked him when he thought he would be done since I had work to do. He snapped at me, saying that he would get off when he felt like it. Then he accused me of being selfish and possessive of my computer. I also got angry and, when I did, he jumped up and shoved me into the doorframe, yelling and calling me names. He had often been angry and violent, but it had never before been directed at me. I felt like I was reliving the scene with Paul so many years earlier and snapped. I screamed back and ran out of the house. When I returned, I calmly asked him if he wanted to continue to be with me. He replied, “no.”
We started talking about how the break-up would work. He insisted that Tabitha give up her bedroom to him. He already had a room and most often slept in the recliner in the living room, so I suggested that he take that as his room, as well as the smaller room adjacent to it. My office was on the other side of the house, and his section could be closed off to everyone else, but he refused. I was devastated. I had painted Tabitha’s room for her when we moved in with clouds on the ceiling and trees and flowers on the walls. She loved that room and slept and played in there. But there was no changing his mind. I moved as much of her things into my room as I could and shared my double bed with her. I was finished fighting. I’d been fighting my whole life and didn’t have any more energy for it. I knew I had to make a complete break, but he refused to move out of the house.
When I first found the farmhouse, I went to him and asked if he wanted to move there. One of my Music Together moms had offered the house for a reasonable rent. We had always talked about moving to the country, so it seemed ideal. Dick refused to make a decision. He told me that if I wanted to move there, I should decide to do it, and he would then decide if he was going to move with me. I replied that I would need someone to share the rent, but he stood his ground. It was going to be my house. I decided to do it, and he decided to move in with me. I was confused but happy that it worked out. Now, suddenly he was saying that it was his home, and he wasn’t going to leave. Once again, I was confused. I thought it was my house, and he was renting rooms. Finally, I gave in again. I knew that in order to have any peace, I was going to have to find another place to live. Meanwhile, we lived there as roommates. Then in November of that year, his son committed suicide. He was devastated, and I took him back into my bed, moving Tabitha back into her old room.
That same year, I had been approached by one of the dads in my music classes and offered a trade. I often do trades with families who couldn’t otherwise afford classes. I believe strongly in making the program available to everyone who wants to do it regardless of their financial ability. He offered to record a CD for me with his remote equipment. This was incredible. I was still writing songs that Cavanaugh & Kavanaugh didn’t perform and was eager for this opportunity to get my original music out in the world. I was feeling done with Cavanaugh & Kavanaugh. I had little input anymore as to what songs we played, and my original songs were usually rejected. I wanted to do more solo gigs again, and this would help. It became my second full-length CD. I called it “Highway In Your Eyes.” Dick and I were getting along again, so I asked him to play guitar on a few songs. I recorded most of my and Dick’s tracks on a day in January the following year at the Cary Institute in Rensselaerville, NY.
Meanwhile, my younger son was struggling. I knew he was drinking more than I liked and had been experimenting with some of the newer designer drugs which I knew to be dangerous. He had moved back into our house to go to school for music at the local community college and had finished his first year. He was quite talented but also a bit lazy and had never focused on schooling. He started out his first semester strongly and ended up doing well. Then, his grades faltered. He couldn’t seem to concentrate and didn’t understand some of the courses. He passed, but just barely and got discouraged. He asked for my help which I gave, but he soon became surly and angry with me most of the time. I was worried and suggested that he seek help which only made him even more angry. He had gone on a cross-country trip with his best friend the summer following his first semester, and it was a disaster. He came back worse than ever. He barely got through school that fall and had to repeat a class. I was worried and didn’t know how to help him. He was already an adult, so there wasn’t much I could do.
Life was incredibly stressful again. I was having trouble sleeping and couldn’t concentrate on anything. I knew I had to find a place to live but had no energy to even think about it. Neither Dick nor Austin was helping out around the house regardless of the agreements that had been made, and I was burning out fast. We heated the house partially with wood. We’d all agreed that Dick would cut the wood, Austin would split it, and I would stack it, bring it in and keep the stove going. That winter, we were constantly running out of wood. Sometimes Dick would go buy a bag of wood from the convenience store, and I was hauling dead branches out of the woods. We had an electric splitter, so that wasn’t as hard a job as it could have been, but I was left on my own to heat the house.
One day, I went up to Austin’s room to ask him to please go out and do wood. He refused, and I got angry. Before long, we were yelling at each other and suddenly I found myself on the floor with his hands around my throat, screaming that was going to kill me. I managed to scream at which point he stopped, looking shocked and stricken. I ran out of the house with my phone and called the State Police. They took my son away as I cried and shook. Then one of them stayed with me while I called Dick to see if he would come home. They said they didn’t want to leave me alone in the house after such a devastating experience. I told Dick what had happened, and he assured me that he would come right home. He was twenty minutes away, so I told the trooper that he could leave. I would be alright for the short time it took for Dick to come home.
After three hours, Dick walked in the door. I asked what had taken so long, and once again, I got yelled at for being controlling, as he reminded me that I wasn’t his keeper. I left and walked in the woods for hours, shaking, crying and berating myself for staying with someone who continued to be so insensitive to me in my times of need. The next day, I went to court with a friend and tried to get the judge to mandate counseling. I was told that they only intervene after a second incident, which made no sense at all to me. They wouldn’t even recommend drug counseling. I was urged to get an order of protection for six months, which I did. I went home, shaken and sad. Dick wanted to know why I hadn’t included him in the order and didn’t understand or accept that it had nothing to do with him. I was the one that had been targeted. Our neighbor was there at the time and was able to calm him down. I had to leave the house while Austin came with the same family friend to get his things and move out. He left me a note, and I cried some more. I couldn’t believe that my life was falling apart so traumatically and all at once. I immediately regretted having called the police but also knew it was the right thing to do. Like so many other times, there were friends who were understanding and supportive and others who were judgmental and didn’t seem to understand the strong bond between a mother and her children.
The next day, I told Dick that I would be moving out May 1st. That would give me two and a half months to find a place to go. He sneered and asked where I was going. I told him that I didn’t know yet, but I would figure it out. He laughed, sarcastically wished me luck and walked away. I started walking around the house looking at the twenty years of accumulated things from our life together, books, CDs, sheet music and lyric sheets, household items, furniture and more. When I had left Paul, I packed a suitcase and left, coming back over time to take a few things. This time, I knew I had to sort through things and wasn’t looking forward to having to do that together. As it turned out, we didn’t do it together. He refused to do any of the work. He told me to take everything. He wanted nothing. Luckily, my friends came and helped me, taking loads to donate, helping me pack and bag things up for the trash. There is much more to tell about that difficult time, but I will leave you with the image of Dick sitting in his recliner reading or napping while my friends and I sorted through our communal belongings for weeks and weeks, setting aside things that I knew were his or would mean something to him and splitting up our household goods in an effort to be fair and equitable. I have always been thankful for my friends, but never more than during that time while I was forced to deal with a nasty breakup at the same time as what felt like the loss of my son. I never underestimate my friends. They have been my saving grace time and time again.
Paul’s loss was a huge blow to all of us, but as with everything else, we had to move on. My children were devastated, especially my youngest who was sixteen years old. He was closer to his dad than to anyone else. I wasn’t able to fill those shoes and didn’t know how to help him through it, though I tried. I offered grief counseling, which he refused, and tried to get other male friends and family to step in for support. In spite of my efforts, he sank deeper and deeper into drugs and depression. He rarely came out of his room, and when he did, he was surly and curt. We no longer hung out the way we once did. Although I knew that some of that was his age, I worried, nonetheless. Then, he found his first love, and I started to be relieved. Maybe this was just what he needed to help him through this hard time.
I continued on with my music, getting gigs where I could and stretching out into new instruments and new opportunities. I’m not sure I would ever have played other instruments if not for Dick Kavanaugh. He was the one who first handed me a mandolin and asked me to play it and was always bringing new instruments into the house. We had fiddles, mandolins, banjos, ukuleles, recorders, tin whistles and flutes of all kinds, lots of guitars and more. He told me it was his retirement plan. He would fix them up and resell them when he didn’t want to work any longer. Then one day, he brought home an instrument I’d never seen before. It was a mountain dulcimer. I was amazed to discover that it was a traditional American instrument. How could I not know about this instrument? That’s when I realized that we were not taught American culture in school. I already knew that we were kept ignorant of Native American culture and of much historical truth, being given a very sanitized version of history, but this was Southern Appalachian. Why wasn’t this taught in school?
I resolved to learn to play it and equally resolved to teach children about our traditional American musical culture. I started bringing a limberjack to all of my children’s shows and to schools and libraries. I already knew about the limberjack from my childhood. They are also popular among French Canadians, which was my dad’s heritage, and he carved his own which he called a “Dancing Dan.” They’re a wooden puppet with hinged limbs, often at the shoulders, elbows, hips and knees. They’re attached to a stick coming horizontally out of their back. There is a thin pine board that you sit on and rest the limberjack’s feet on the end. As you sing your song, you hit the board with your hand or fist in time to the music, and the limberjack keeps the beat with his feet as his arms and legs flail about in rhythm to the music. It’s always a big hit with folks of all ages.
Once I learned to play the dulcimer well enough, I brought that as well, always explaining that it is a traditional instrument. It makes me feel sad that we live in this country, growing up not knowing about our rich traditions. I worked hard at learning the dulcimer. I went to Old Time jams, determined to know more about that music. It’s very hypnotic and just carries you away. I found I could play the same tune for hours and not get bored because it took me to another time and place. However, I’ve never been consistent about practicing and as with everything else, I got lazy and mostly stuck to playing chords. I’ve always looked at my string instruments as backup for my voice. Voice has always been my main instrument and takes precedence over everything else. Unfortunately, that attitude caused me to neglect the other instruments.
However, I soon fell in love with the dulcimer. I took a couple of group lessons through the Old Songs organization and a couple of private lessons as well. I bought dulcimer books and went to a dulcimer festival where I heard Sam Edelston play rock and roll on the dulcimer. I was hooked. I never stopped loving rock music. I had just put it on a back burner for a while as I dove into this other world of folk and traditional music. That music is what drove me to learn how to play better and introduced me to a variety of instruments and genres. It was by backing up Old Time and Irish fiddle tunes when I first picked up the guitar that made me learn to play it so quickly. The chord changes were fast, and I learned to recognize the patterns more easily. But now, I was looking at my latest instrument in a different light.
The dulcimer is a diatonic instrument, which means that it is tuned to a scale without all the extra notes in between. It’s just do-re-me-fa-sol-la-ti-do. It also only has three strings with two of them usually tuned the same. That makes it a great instrument for beginners. It’s hard to play a wrong note. Many dulcimers have one extra fret, giving its players one note on each of the strings that is not in the scale. I soon learned that I could have other extra frets put in, so I had a 1 ½ fret installed That one more extra fret opened up a whole new world of songs for me. My dulcimer is tuned to D-A-D. Now I had easy access to C natural and F natural both of which are not in the D scale. It seems like a trivial thing to most people, but those two extra notes made a huge difference in what I could play. Soon I was learning how to play chords without the missing notes. If I was playing with someone else, as long as I played some of the notes in the chord, they could provide the notes I didn’t have.
As I said earlier, I am a lazy musician, often taking the easy way. One day, after a gig, someone told me that something I had played reminded them of “Norwegian Wood” by the Beatles. I went home and tried to play it by ear. With that one extra fret I’d had added, I found it. I also realized that I wasn’t just playing chords. I was playing the melody. It made me see that there was a lot more to my playing than I had previously allowed myself, and I was newly inspired. I soon learned “Can’t Find My Way Home” then “Wish You Were Here.” For the first time, I understood this instrument in a way I hadn’t with my others. I could play it instinctively. It soon became my favorite, but I still felt limited in what I could play.
A few years ago, I went to the used instrument sale at the Old Songs Festival in Altamont, New York. I’ve been going to that festival for many years, have been a volunteer and crew chief, and have bought a few instruments, including a 1935 Martin mandolin at that sale. That year, I saw a dulcimer whose sound holes were in the shape of mountains. It had a larger body than the ones I already had and a beautiful deep tone. As I sat there trying it out, a woman came up and told me that she was the builder of this beautiful instrument. I explained that I loved everything about it and, as usual at this sale, the price was right, but I was used to having the extra 1 ½ fret. She offered to put in the extra fret for me, set up the instrument, restring it and send it to me for the price of shipping. How could I refuse? She told me to show her exactly where I wanted the fret so there would be no confusion. Well, I am often confused and ended up showing her the wrong place. I showed her the 0 ½ placement. Imagine my surprise when I got it back and realized my mistake.
I started experimenting with that extra fret, determined to figure it out but missing the 1 ½. I took the instrument to a luthier friend who put the right one in. Then I brought it to another dulcimer festival and asked my friend Sam to show me how to use it effectively. He showed me how to play “Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds” using that 0 ½ fret but cautioning me that it was quite difficult with some big stretches that he thought might be too far for me. I assured him that, luckily, I have very large hands and was determined to learn it. Then, the pandemic hit and shut everything down, including all of my work. I began doing virtual classes but had lost all of my other work and had lots of time on my hands. Within a month I had learned the song and had honed my skills on the dulcimer. My current partner suggested doing a video with all of the cellophane flowers, newspaper taxis, etc.
After the video was done, I continued to work hard on the dulcimer. It was the first time since I was a child that I had so much time to practice anything. I relished the opportunity. It is still my favorite instrument and, instead of looking for the next new instrument to take up, I’m content to focus on the ones I have, especially the dulcimer. Interestingly, as much as I love the mountain dulcimer, I still do most of my songwriting on the guitar and piano. I’m not sure why, but I’m not sure it matters.
I have always known that every chapter in my life, even every little incident, whether good or bad, just leads to the next chapter which may be completely different and unexpected. That was how I felt about the gig in Europe. Because of the choices I made when I was younger and just starting out in my adult life, I lived below the poverty level for most of that time and never imagined that I would travel overseas. I was resigned to my lot and even embraced it. I’ve never been religious. Even as a child, being raised kind of Catholic lite, I was thrown out of Catechism class in twice. My parents were able to enroll me again for the two big sacraments, First Communion and Confirmation. I guess I “asked too many questions.” It was disruptive to the rest of the class. But although I’m not religious, I am spiritual. It’s probably more along the lines of Native Americans and Druids. I pay attention to any signs that come my way. Sometimes they’re dreams, other times premonitions. I also tend to go whichever way the wind blows. My partner teases me about being spontaneous. It’s true. I can be running a short errand and end up on some adventure or exploration for much of the day, and I usually say yes immediately to most things.
That’s how I ended up in Europe. As draining as the actual gigs were, the rest of the trip was amazing. After the other musicians left to go home or on to their own travels, we rented a car. We toured around Berlin for a day, finding Dick’s old haunts and listening to his outrageous stories about his adventures there as a young man. He even spoke a little German, just enough to get us by. I found that I understood more of what was being said than I thought I would. I didn’t know if it was because German is a similar language to English or if it came from my musical background. Musicians often have an easier time with language. In addition, when I studied classical voice, I often sang in other languages such as German, Italian and French. Either way, we were relieved to have had no trouble navigating the country. We soon headed south to Bavaria where we saw a few old castles and stayed in a motel at Schwangau. Schwan is the German word for swan. This is where the Hohenschwangau Castle and Neuschwanstein Castles are located. It is also the location of Swan Lake or Schwansee. Both castles have an interesting history.
Hohenschwangau Castle was built sometime around 1397 and sits on top of a hill overlooking Schwangau and went through many owners until finally being bought in 1832 by King Maximillion II. It was Maximillion who built the park which has Schwansee in it. His son, King Ludwig II, grew up there and later built Neuschwanstein Castle on the top of the neighboring hill which also overlooks the lake and village. Neuschwanstein Castle became the model for Disneyland’s Sleeping Beauty Castle. King Ludwig has an interesting and tragic story. He was called “The Mad King.” In reality, he was shy and quite eccentric. He spent his money wantonly. He insisted on only eating outdoors and wore a heavy coat on the hottest days in the summer. He often behaved in a childish way and avoided politics and state business. He was expected to produce an heir but never married and was known to be attracted to men. In the 19th-century, Bavaria was intensely Catholic and socially conservative. Homosexuality was illegal and punishable by death. The scandal of a homosexual monarch would have been intolerable, so he was deposed and later murdered.
He was a patron of the arts and was drawn to classical composer Richard Wagner. He decided to build the castle as a private residence but also as a retreat Wagner. He used his own private money rather than using public funds and borrowed an extravagant amount only to leave the castle unfinished. It is extravagant and quirky. It almost reminded me of the creepy Winchester House in San Jose, California with its staircases that lead nowhere, doors that open up into walls and useless rooms, except that no expense was spared for the construction of the castle. He was so involved with the design; he often gets credit for being the architect. On the tour, which consisted mostly of climbing up and down stairs to look at many unfinished rooms, my favorite room by far was the Singer’s Hall. The walls and ceiling were built of hollow cedar boxes to mimic an acoustic instrument, like a guitar body. It was one of the last stops on the tour and I stayed behind the group long enough to sing inside the room. It was awesome. The richness of the sound was unlike anything I’d heard before. That one room made the whole tour worthwhile. After the one night in Schwangau, we started traveling east on our way to Switzerland to stay with friends at their home.
As we traveled through Bavaria, we noticed that the area was still very conservative and Catholic. There were many crucifixes along the road, in people’s yards and churches everywhere. In one small town, we noticed an outdoor art fair, so we stopped. Some of the vendors spoke English. One of them had lived in upstate New York for a few years. He did watercolors. We had our instruments with us and thought maybe we could play here. There were no other musicians around, so we asked this new friend. He explained that we would have to get permission from the local priest who would only permit it if we did sacred music. We were stunned. We asked if he thought the priest would accept instrumental tunes. He advised us to forget about it, so we did.
The autobahn was incredible. It was a solid road with no potholes or cracks in the concrete. We saw some workers building a new road and were amazed at the outstanding construction. Everything in Germany seemed to be well-built. No floorboards creaked and no doors or windows were warped, no matter how old the buildings were. When we had first arrived at the Berlin airport, we had seen windmills everywhere. Now there were hundreds of them and yellow fields of rapeseed everywhere that would be harvested to make Biodiesel fuel. We saw these sights all along our journey through Germany. It was also clean everywhere. There was no litter, and every restroom was immaculate and staffed with attendants. I was also impressed by the hospitality in every region, and food was wonderful.
We got stuck in a traffic jam on the autobahn for a couple of hours. When there’s an accident, traffic is at a standstill until everything is cleared away. It usually involves many cars and takes a while, so people get out of their cars and socialize. We pulled out our instruments and practiced, having a great time for a while, then finally got to an exit and, looking on a map, found a way around the mess. When we were about an hour from our destination, we got lost in Eastern France for a while, driving along narrow, hilly winding roads in tiny villages. Every time we hit a dead-end, we crossed our fingers that we could manage to turn around. The borders were all open, so I had to get a photo with one foot in each country. We finally made it to Fahy, Switzerland around dinnertime. We were starved and exhausted, but we were so excited to see our friends for the first time in many years, we ignored it.
I had asked if I could do a short program at the local school. I had brought along a limberjack in addition to the mandolin. I wanted to demonstrate traditional American culture to the young students. Ursula suggested that we walk over to their neighbor’s home and talk to the kindergarten teacher there. As we approached the house, I realized that I hadn’t grabbed anything to eat and was starting to feel a little light-headed. I figured we wouldn’t stay long. The guys were back at the house preparing dinner. We knocked on the door and were told, in French, that Mama and Papa were in the cellar. I was confused but Ursula led the way to a separate underground wine cellar. Inside were benches and tables and about 8 or ten people drinking wine. When they heard that I was one of the musicians who would be playing at the house concert the next evening, they greeted me enthusiastically and handed me a glass of wine. I started to refuse when Ursula instructed me to take it so I wouldn’t appear rude. I started sipping it cautiously, but they kept toasting and cheering me on. Before I knew what was happening, I had another one in my hand. They wanted me to try their special vintages. I tried to insist on small tastes, but they weren’t having it. They were hosting the American musician and wanted to make a good impression. Then they took me into the smaller room and showed me a wooden cask of cognac from the 19th century and gave me a glass of that.
I don’t remember walking back to Ursula and Ed’s but somehow, we made it. Back at the house, Ed and Dick had wondered where we were. They had cheese and crackers and, of course, wine waiting for us. Then we had another glass of wine with dinner and fruit soaked in alcohol for dessert. I can’t believe I never got sick, but I survived without even a hangover the next day.
Ed was going to play some fiddle with us at the concert, so we spent that day jamming. After dinner, we did our concert for a very appreciative crowd who all brought snacks, and we had a nice visit with everyone after the show. Between my little bit of French, Dick’s little bit of German, a couple of interpreters who spoke English well and some of the residents who had varying degrees of English, we got to know people and thoroughly enjoyed the night. The next couple of days were spent sightseeing and catching up with our friends. Finally, on our way back to Berlin, we visited an old Roman ruin. I have always been fascinated by history and loved the entire trip. I treasured it as a once in a lifetime opportunity.
Dick and I continued to play many gigs as Cavanaugh & Kavanaugh, and everywhere we played, people asked if we had any music to sell. I’d never been able to do any major recording project and never imagined I would, but we decided to explore our options. Dick and I had been members of the local food co-op and were connected with a man who had his own studio. He offered us a reasonable price. I was getting more and more work, and with both of us splitting the cost and my extra work, I figured it was doable. So, we started planning. We were both composers and had plenty of material. Dick mostly wrote tunes while I wrote songs, but he had taken my songwriting workshop and wrote a wonderful lullaby that was included on the CD. Between us, we played guitars, mandolins, fiddle and mountain dulcimer, and we both sang. We got a couple of friends to collaborate on some of the pieces, playing guitar, fiddle and stand-up bass, and got started. It was all recorded live rather than tracked, making it easier for us and less studio time.
Once the recording was done, it was time to think about the art. I said I wanted to find an artist to do the cover and thought about contacting the art schools when we got invited to a friend’s party in Cherry Plain, NY. When we walked in, I looked around and saw that everyone seemed to be in a different class than we were. The men wore leisure suits, and the women were dressed to the nines. We wore our usual casual hippie garb and felt out of place. Then, I glanced across the living room and saw a large man in another room wearing a kilt and an outrageous necklace. I thought to myself, “I need to meet that guy.” I walked up and asked if he was an artist. He was. He showed me some of his work, and I was impressed. We made a date to meet and talk about the CD cover. A few nights before we got together, I had a dream about a large oak tree that had all the different seasons represented in the colors of the leaves. The title song was “Returning” and was about the seasons. When I relayed the dream to Donhall, he gasped and ran off to grab a photo he had taken of a large oak. It was the same tree as in my dream and became an integral part of the cover. Some of the other images referred to other songs. I've always loved hearing people's interpretations of the cover. Everyone sees it differently. But I find that's true with my songs as well. I may have an idea when I write it, but everyone has their own interpretation, and who am I to say whether they're right or wrong. It's all subjective after all.
Writing and recording the music was the easy part for me. Coming up with the order of the songs was much more difficult than I expected. It was a learning curve for both of us. We also had to decide what to include for the text. Then there was the layout and design. I didn't have a clue how to do that, so I hired another friend to help out with it. I hadn't realized, until working on that project, how much went into putting out an album. Because it was the first one, I also had no idea what to do with it once it was released or how to promote and launch a successful release. Now, each time I do it, I do a little better than the last and certainly better than this first one.
The whole process was a wonderful experience from beginning to end. The CD turned out great. It was mostly original material and was well received. I still sell copies today. I love the artwork and have the original drawing framed with the CD cover and CD. It was a dream come true, something I never thought would happen. I also thought it would be the only CD I would ever make, so I cherished everything about it. It just goes to show that you never know what’s up ahead. Life has had a lot of surprises for me and continues to surprise me every day.
As time went on, I became better on guitar and began taking my songwriting more seriously. I took a few songwriting classes and workshops, deciding to treat it as a job rather than a hobby. I can’t say that it’s brought me much financial stability, but I’m definitely more fulfilled. The more I wrote, the more I wanted to share those songs, so I started going to the Eighth Step Open Mic regularly and eventually shared the hosting job with a few other musicians. We each had our own style. It was an interesting mix. Some of us, me included, set up the PA to give folks the experience of performing with amplification and learning how to sing into a mic effectively. Others preferred to set up chairs in a circle and facilitate a round robin session, similar to the way I ran my house jams. When I hosted, I made sure to talk to everyone before they went on, finding out a little about them so I could give them a proper introduction. I also set up and ran the sound. All of this went even further toward getting me out of my shell. I met a lot of talented musicians and songwriters including many who took their music even further.
I also started meeting other songwriters in the classes and workshops I took and learned about the craft of songwriting. Until this point, I always waited for inspiration to strike, writing randomly and erratically. Then, I took a workshop taught by Janis Ian. She kept repeating the importance of writing consistently. She recommended that we give ourselves assignments rather than waiting for that inspirational bolt of lightning. She explained that most of those songs would get tossed out, but we would get better and better. In addition to assigning topics to write about, she suggested that we also purposefully write in different styles. I have really taken that to heart as a songwriter and as a performer. I was doing that anyway with the covers I chose, so it was an easy jump to start doing it as a writer. I have to admit that I get bored listening to the same types of songs. I love variety. But I do also realize that because I don’t stick to one style, it’s held me back in some ways. It’s a whole lot easier to get gigs if you fit into one or even two categories.
The other thing I learned from the songwriting classes was how to edit my work. I learned about the preciseness of rhyming, unless it’s purposely more freeform, prosity which is the lyrics matching the vibe of the music, and I learned to count my syllables. It may sound rigid, and it is, but it hones my songs and makes them more accessible. I also began to value input from other songwriters that I trusted. We all look at our works of art from our own skewed perspective, often not at all the way others see them. Having an outside perspective is so valuable. You do have to set aside your ego, though which is not always easy to do. And, there are always some songwriters with whom I don’t connect. I don’t particularly like their style and they don’t like mine, but they still often have things of value to offer me from their unique view. Then, there are others who I have come to depend on. I learned the art of critiquing from a summer camp I attended for a few years. There were strict rules about how to go about giving your opinion about someone’s work. For example, always start with what you loved about it. Even if you really don’t like a song, there is at least one thing you can love about it. Maybe it’s the tone, or the use of certain chords. The other important thing I learned was to not say, “I don’t like …” Instead, I learned to say, “If it were my song, I would …” All of this made perfect sense to me and resonated with my independence and my alternative school teaching methods. I began giving myself regular assignments and found like-minded people to share songs with.
But once again, I found myself in a musical partnership where I had to fight for my songs. They were “too complex,” or “too poetic.” I soon realized that I needed to pursue my songwriting and my musical journey on my own. I was happy to continue to do gigs as Cavanaugh & Kavanaugh, but it wasn’t going to be my only thing. I even stopped asking for input on my songs from my musical partner because they never made the grade. He hadn’t taken any of the classes, never loved anything and was brutal with his criticism. Meanwhile, I was determined to continue on this path. I had put my own music on a back burner for too long. I took a course in Schenectady about working as an artist/educator and created a songwriting workshop for children. I taught that in a few schools and libraries, starting to work the library circuit during the summers. I also kept reaching out to more and more venues. One of my favorite Cavanaugh & Kavanaugh gigs was in an old railway station in Connecticut. It had been turned into an art gallery and performance space. The space was beautiful, the turnout was amazing, the crowd attentive and appreciative, and we made more money at that one gig than ever before or since.
But, while my music career was going well, my personal life was in turmoil again. That same partner was starting to have a wandering eye. Every other woman seemed to be more attractive, smarter about everything and more capable than me in his eyes. He also started worrying more and more about money. He didn’t like to work and was miserable when he did. He often told me that all he really wanted to do was lay around on a beach all day. I wished him luck with that. Then one day, he got offered a job in the Bahamas. It was his dream come true. The job was only a few hours a day with room and board paid for in addition to his salary. I was shocked when he turned it down. He only wanted to go if I went along. I wasn’t willing to give up what I had worked so hard for to live in the Bahamas for six months. I would have to start over again. Also, I had a child in school. I encouraged him to go without me. I didn’t know if he would come back or if he would even want to be with me when he did return, but I hated seeing him so miserable. He didn’t end up taking that job and spent that winter so depressed, he struggled to get out of bed.
Now my eldest son was getting himself in trouble again. I worried about the company he was keeping. He was stealing from us and started stealing from our roommate. Finally, he got arrested for stealing money out of a car. My heart broke when I went to visit him in jail. We had to talk on telephones through plexiglass the first few visits. Each time I visited him, he told me that jail wasn’t so bad. He was even making friends. I quickly started calling up my friends connected in the legal system to help me figure out what to do. The last thing I wanted was for him to be learning new skills and making new friends in jail. We arranged a restorative justice meeting in which the victims and the criminal face each other and work out an arrangement. Unfortunately, not all of the victims were willing to participate but it was powerful anyway. In the end, he did time in a drug rehab facility, even though he wasn’t an addict. He was supposed to spend a year there with no visitation from family or friends for the first six months. This was also heartbreaking but at least he wasn’t learning from the criminal element. He realized later that he could have spent six months in the county jail instead of more than a year in this other place. He felt duped, but I was relieved to have him out of trouble during that time. Though he did get into plenty of trouble there while they tried unsuccessfully to break his spirit.
Then one day, he got a message to me that he was going to be volunteering, with a group of other residents, at the Holiday Lights in the Park. He was going to be dressed up as Elmo at the boathouse, greeting the younger kids. I packed my youngest in the car and off we went. He enjoyed the lights and was looking forward to getting cocoa at the boathouse. When got out of the car, I told him to go over and say hello to Elmo. He refused. I hadn’t told him that it was his brother, because I didn’t want to disappoint him if plans had changed. It had been months since we’d last seen his brother. He did finally reluctantly go over. He was shocked when Elmo gave him a big hug. When he realized who it was, he was elated. I had to caution him not to give it away because we were being watched by the house managers. We wandered off then came back again for another brief visit. It was a bizarre experience running this covert operation to connect with my son, but it warmed my heart. We were then allowed a brief visit just before Christmas to bring him gifts. Gradually, he was allowed more visits and time out, but we had to fight to get him released. After the year was over, they kept finding reasons to keep him longer. He just wasn’t compliant enough. I knew that no one was going to tame this son of mine who was as rebellious as his parents. Eventually, with the help of our lawyer and other connected friends, he was released. I breathed a sigh of relief and hoped for a respite, but there was more turmoil to come. Thankfully, throughout my entire life, it’s always been music that has seen me through the toughest times. My music was thriving.
Just when I thought that my life was beginning to settle down a bit after my tumultuous years with Paul, things started getting even crazier. Paul was now living with one of our old friends whom he’d had a crush on for years. Unfortunately, she and Justin didn’t get along, and he soon moved in with us. So much for my hopes that he and his dad would finally figure out a sustainable relationship. Understandably, our fourteen-year-old was angry about many things, my new relationship, his dad’s relationship and leftovers from all of the fighting he’d heard over the years. Dick and I were living in The Free School neighborhood. I was still working there at first, and Austin was still a student there. This new apartment was very convenient and, although it was small, it was comfortable and affordable. It was in the South End of Albany, and Justin started running around with the neighborhood kids who were also troubled. He had gotten caught smoking pot with some friends when he should have been in school and was suspended for a while. He hated school and kept getting into trouble, so I agreed to let him homeschool. My kids were smart and my own experience in school had been such a disaster, I hoped he would thrive by being on his own. Unfortunately, all he wanted to do was read about gangsters. I did manage to get him to do more than that, but I was worried about the direction he was going in.
He decided to apprentice at The Free School and loved it. The students liked him, and he was thriving on being in that leadership role. But in the evenings, he was out cruising around in the ghetto. Then, one night, he and a friend decided to break into the school. They stole a bunch of AV equipment, VCRs and the like. They brought them up to the roof of one of the buildings and wrote a note apologizing for the theft, but it was too late. They got arrested and hauled off to jail. It turned out that all of the equipment was broken, and the school decided not to press charges. However, the DA decided to prosecute anyway, probably because Justin’s partner in crime was a black teen. He ended up spending a little time in jail before we could post bail. He was convicted of the crime, put on probation, had to pay a fine and do community service. But he continued to flounder. Soon, Dick noticed that his box of change seemed to be reduced, and the loose change in his locked car was disappearing. He set a few James Bond type traps, like a hair across the crack, on his drawer to prove there was thieving going on. The hair was never disturbed, and the car was always locked, but the money kept disappearing. It was making us crazy. Many years later, I found out that Justin was wise to the hair and just replaced it every time he went into the drawer. He didn’t tell me how he got into the car, and I didn’t ask.
Understandably, after the theft, my relationship with the other teachers and Free School community changed. Although other kids in the community had stolen things from time to time, Justin was made the scapegoat. I suppose it was because I always kept myself a little removed from the cultish nature that I perceived in the community, always being a bit of an outsider. Justin lost his full-time babysitting job because the woman he worked for lived in a Free School apartment. Then, I was told that Justin was not allowed to live in the apartment we were renting from The Free School. I responded with a reminder of the illegality of that decree and started looking for another place. We soon moved to The Mariner’s House on South Pearl Street. Although I understood their feelings, after working at the school for a total of 12 years and all of my children going to school there, I felt betrayed and hurt. That betrayal colored my relationships with these friends for many years.
The Mariner’s House was a mansion built in the early 1800s located two doors south of Second Avenue. I had been visiting there and going to parties for years while various friends rented it. There were five bedrooms upstairs, four bathrooms, one with a shower and tub, one with a shower and two half baths. Downstairs, there was a double living room, an office space, an eat-in kitchen, dining room which became our music room, an unheated sunroom and an extra wing with three rooms and the bathroom with the shower. There was also a large fenced in yard that extended on all four sides of the house and off-street parking for up to three vehicles. The rent was $700 a month. This was more than we could afford and bigger than we needed for the three of us, so we decided to live communally. We moved in with a friend and her young daughter. We had all lived communally before, so we set up rules for the household. There was no arguing in the common areas, everyone had their own set of dishes in their assigned cabinet with a dish pan to put dirty dishes into while waiting to be washed and we had our own shelves in the refrigerator. Chores were scheduled and communal meals were optional and occasional.
Once we settled into our new place, I started hosting weekly music jams. Every Friday, we had a room full of people playing a variety of instruments. Some of them were long time players, others were beginners, and they were all ages. I insisted that we go around the circle with each person responsible for choosing a song. They could either lead a song or just play one for us. I had been in many situations before where the musicians were either shy or hogged the show. As one of the shy musicians, I was determined that, at my jams, everyone would have an equal opportunity. The newcomers were allowed one pass, but the next time it came around, they were required to pick a song. That was really the only rule. They could even choose something for someone else to lead, but they had to choose something. I also frequently counseled folks about playing at a reasonable volume so that everyone could be heard. That was probably the hardest part. Everyone was welcome and encouraged. The beginners often placed themselves outside of the circle so that they could stumble without distracting the other players, eventually making their way into the center as they improved. Eventually, word got around, and I was meeting new people who heard about it via word-of-mouth. It was wildly popular.
One Friday night, there was a knock on the door. It was someone new with a guitar in hand. We invited him in, and he stood in the kitchen looking around before finally saying, “I think I know this house. I think it’s the house my mother ran.” He was Mike Milks, who has since passed on. His mother, Eunice Milks ran The Mariners House for many years. It was a place for foreign sailors to stay while their ship was docked at the port. She would help them with any paperwork they had such as visas or help them make phone calls home to their families. This project came about because she had found out that the sailors staying on their ship would take their pay and go to the local tavern for a night on the town. The longshoremen had a deal with the taxis to drop the sailors off at the entrance to the port at the end of the night rather than taking them all the way to the ships. When the sailors stumbled their way back, they would be rolled, losing all of their money, and sometimes even their passports and visas. Eunice decided to take this project on as a missionary work and began bringing them to her home in Guilderland until her husband put his foot down. She finally found the house on South Pearl Street and housed them there. Mike brought her to one of our summer parties and, when she died, he brought me photos from her time there. We all loved hearing the history of our home.
Many people came and went during our time there. We even had my former son-in-law and grandson living with us for a while. I found hidden overgrown gardens and put in my own gardens as I do everywhere I live. We had a big tire swing in the climbing tree just outside the back door and a rope swing in the side yard. Dick even built a tree house in one corner with electricity running to it. We had multiple parties, including an annual New Year’s Eve party, which also grew through word-of-mouth. When we finally decided we’d had enough strangers coming to that party, we shut it down and had people come knock on the door on New Year’s Eve for two years afterwards. Sitting here thinking about it now, I count at least nine people who rented from us. We lived there for nine years until the deterioration of the neighborhood and the refusal of the landlord to fix the deterioration of the house finally drove us out. I loved that house and have a lot of great memories from that time. But like with all good things, there always seem to be other factors that get in the way. Little did we know when moving in that Dick would run into health issues and some old legal trouble with his child support payments. And now, we were living right in the gut of the ghetto with all of its bad influences on my already criminal-leaning son.
Now, the band was starting to gel. Andy, Paul and I all wrote songs. Paul and I generally wrote together, but sometimes one or the other of us would bring a completed song, then came the editing. The arrangements always happened collaboratively. When we first started writing, we made the decision to copyright everything as P & D Cavanaugh. The writing was so intertwined, even on those songs we wrote individually, that it made sense. Over time, we even tended to forget who originated it. But some stood out as either Paul’s or mine. “Visions of an Airplane” was definitely Paul’s. It was written over the course of many years. In 1974, he had read that a suite consisted of five distinct parts and quickly decided to take on the challenge. In 1975, he wrote the first part in Santa Cruz, California. The second part soon followed. In 1977, while back in Connecticut, we lay on our backs in the middle of a football field tripping during a meteor shower while Paul composed the third part on my nylon string guitar as bats came swooping down a little too close for comfort. The fourth and fifth parts were written in Oregon in the early 80s. Another song that Paul wrote was “Long, Long Night.” I so vividly remember that song. I had been on the other side of the country visiting family for a couple of weeks, needing a serious break from the fighting, considering whether or not I could keep living with such an angry man, and then coming home to that love song. Paul always knew how to mend our rifts.
All of the members of the current lineup of General Eclectic had experience with psychedelics, so we were all on the same wavelength musically and psychically. We even tripped together to solidify that connection. I loved playing music on psychedelics because it dissolved all of my inhibitions around music. I reached for new heights without the fear of falling. I rarely played the piano because it brought up too many frightening memories, but I played it when tripping because nothing could hurt me in that psychedelic haze. I knew that these drugs had saved my life. You’ll notice that I don’t write a lot about my early life, just little glimpses now and then. There are good reasons why I’m not yet ready to share those dark times. LSD, mushrooms, mescaline, peyote … all healed my wounds. I still had scars, but I didn’t notice them as much. And I was convinced that it could heal others, too. Paul was in the same boat. Although he still had big anger issues, he seemed to be more grounded after tripping. He was more connected with the outer world and less ruled by his inner world. We also admired the West Coast scene especially The Grateful Dead and Ken Kesey and the Acid Tests. Because of all of these factors, we decided to put on our own Acid Test.
The original idea was to do three of them because three was the magic number for us after finding a bamboo bong with a Chinese inscription about the power of the number three. We started organizing the first one with a musically diverse group of friends, and the idea took off. When trying to figure out how to best distribute the doses, it was decided that it shouldn’t be in actual Kool-Aid. That seemed too risky. That meant someone had to be in charge of it, and I was nominated. Everyone thought that I was probably the most responsible party. Ha! I have to laugh at that now. We made the flyer with hints about the event activities and mostly depended on word-of-mouth. Word went out that if we were booked as The Eclectic Koo-aid Band, it would be one of these unique events, and word got around fast!
That evening, I was handed a piece of foil with plenty of hits of blotter. Paul and I immediately took one each, and I folded the foil back up. The room was set up with a liquid light show. I had borrowed an overhead projector from the school, not telling them why I wanted it. We put two Pyrex pie plates on the surface with cooking oil and food coloring that swirled around and was projected on one wall. Our friends from the band Con Demek showed black and white porn films on another wall after being asked to stop showing them on the band while we were performing. The people downstairs in the “smoking section” were blowing smoke up through the holes in front of the stage, and the place was packed! Within the first couple of hours, the neatly folded tin foil was now a ball of foil in my hand with little bits of blotter sticking out. I found a friend who was not imbibing, handed it off to him babbling something, probably gibberish, and left him shaking his head.
We had many different musicians and bands including some impromptu jamming. There were partiers on all three floors of the building and even outside lining the sidewalk. It was an amazing event. So, we decided to do the second. This time I was smart enough to put someone else in charge of the psychedelics so that I was able to just concentrate on running the show. Mostly though, the show ran itself and I was able to enjoy the fruits of my labor. We were starting to plan the third and final test when the real owner of the Half Moon Café returned to Albany. There was a loose collective of young people running it up to then. Now things changed. When I went in for the first time to meet him, he started complaining about all of the crazy things that he’d heard went on there. “Did you know there was an actual Acid Test here,” he asked. To which I replied, “Wow! Crazy, man.” I always tried not to lie outright and didn’t then. He and I became friends, but I never did admit that we had been the ones responsible. And, although Paul and I tried to build up the energy and excitement for another one, we knew it couldn’t be there and never found another suitable and safe site.
We continued to play at The Half Moon and possible every local bar in town. People either loved us or hated us. There was a review in The Backroom Buzz about a show we did at QE2 that described the band as “a bunch of aging hippies with a lead singer who looked like a milking cow and sang like a cat in heat.” You can imagine what that did to my self-esteem. I was devastated. I didn’t want to go out of the house let alone go on a stage again. All of our friends were horrified and encouraging but it wasn’t until Paul came up with a new poster idea that I agreed to do another show in Albany.
We printed quotes from the article with an illustration of each taken from underground comics, The Fabulous Furry Freak Brothers, Mr. Natural and more. Then we added everything we could find that our fans and other press had said about us. Paul convinced me that we should use these terrible things the reviewer had said to our advantage. Our next show was standing room only, and I developed a thick skin. I didn’t care any more about getting publicity or reviews or any accolades. I was doing my music for myself, and if people liked it that was a bonus, but I no longer needed that reassurance. This was huge after being put down as not being good enough by my dad throughout my life. And it was a relief. Oddly, I sometimes feel thankful for that horrible review. It's reminded me that my music is ultimately for me. I'm happy when others enjoy it, but I do it for myself first.
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