Call Me A Boy, Part 1: My journey into music and manhood
by FARIS SAAD.
It was a formidable thing, my father’s record player. It was in our living room, on the side reserved for guests and dinner parties because it had the fancy coffee table with no water ring marks. My brother and I were not allowed to touch it because Malaysian parenting logic dictated we would immediately break it. It was placed on a high shelf between two large speakers, just out of kid-reach. It seemed so grown-up, this shiny object from another world. I couldn’t wait to be a grown-up so I could have a record player.
This was the late 80s and my family was living in Yangon. During those long, white-hot, nap-inducing, summer afternoons I would wait eagerly for my dad to come home from work. I’d be shirtless with a towel tied like a cape, riding my bicycle, with cardboard strategically placed under the seat making it sound like what I thought motorcycles sounded like, and I’d hear my dad’s car come up the lane to our house. I’d ride as fast as I could to the front door (we had a huge yard) and before he had time to drink a glass of water I’d shove a record into his hands so he would play it for me.
It never occurred to me to ask my mum to turn on the record player for me, maybe because I’d always associated it with my dad. It was a dad thing.
SUNSHINE ON MY SHOULDERS
I had great taste. John Denver was a favourite. I liked him because I liked Sunshine On My Shoulders. He seemed so serene on the record cover. Like, this man has it made. There is a picture of him sitting in some American countryside, and he’s wearing a denim jacket with an orange pattern on it. I hated that pattern, but I loved John Denver and the quiet confidence he had about life and that jacket. While the song was playing I’d prop the record cover up and there was my live gig.
I also liked Deep Purple a lot. Ritchie Blackmore was brilliant. He made me want to be a guitar player. My guitar idols were Ritchie Blackmore, Richie Sambora, Joan Jett, and Ms Chang, my kindergarten teacher.
Ms Chang was the first woman I’d seen play guitar in real life. She’d play songs for the class and we’d clap and sing and sometimes while she was playing she’d get a faraway look in her eyes that made me feel like there was a whole other world out there that only she knew. I wanted to see that world.
I told myself that when I grew up and magically transformed into a man, I would casually play the guitar fantastically like it was nothing and I’d have a faraway look in my eyes.
For some reason, I’d always associated playing the guitar with being a guy. Joan Jett played, but sure, she was a rock star and rock stars weren’t real people. But then here was Ms Chang, strumming her huge classical guitar and she was so small, it looked like she was hiding behind it.
DO YOU HAVE TO LET IT LINGER?
At the same time that I knew I was destined to be a musician I also started telling people to call me a boy. I was maybe four or five at the time.
But it wasn’t until I was eight or nine and living in a whole other country that I’d had the chance to learn a musical instrument. I was selected by my school for their orchestra programme. The idea they had was great, according to the music teacher. They’d pick kids with musical ability and offer them violin or clarinet classes. They’d start with kids in the choir, and I was one of them.
I picked the violin because it was a stringed instrument and sort of resembled the guitar if you turned it sideways and imagined real hard. My reasoning was that if I wasn’t allowed guitar lessons, I’d learn something with strings that looked like guitar strings. Linger by The Cranberries was always on the TV, it was a great song, and I was sure there was some violin in there. (to kid-me, the chorus always sounded like she was singing “you know I’m searching food for you”. Although grammatically incorrect, it made sense to me. She’s sad because she spent all her time looking for food for him and all he does is hold another girl’s hand.)
There were no musical instruments at home, and my parents weren’t the type to encourage something as frivolous as musical talent. You can’t get a decent job with music. What are you going to be, a music teacher?
My dad wasn’t happy when I brought the letter home, and was even more unhappy when he read that he would be paying for the lessons, but then he mumbled something (I wasn’t paying attention) and signed the letter. Yessssss!! I was on my way.
ALL THE SMALL THINGS
Six lessons later, I quit. Strumming the violin like a guitar apparently didn’t count as practice and it wasn’t a cool-sounding instrument, anyway. Deep Purple didn’t have a violinist, and I’d never seen Joan Jett play one either. Did MC Hammer play the violin? Nope.
So, I had to come up with another plan reach my goal of rock musician. But everything I tried, I was blocked. My parents had taken my short and turbulent experience as a violin student and used it as ammo every time I brought music lessons up. The “what about that time you learned violin and quit” paired with “you can’t make money playing music” defence strategy lasted them seven years, until we reached a compromise.
We were in yet another country by then, Blink 182 were super famous, and I was an angry, hormonal teenager when my dad brought home a bright green “Rhythm” acoustic guitar from the neighbourhood stationery shop. He wouldn’t pay for lessons, but I also received a little RM2 book of chord diagrams and that was the beginning of my journey into music and manhood.
To be continued…
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Faris Saad is a business journalist and member of queer band Shh…Diam! He is in his early 30s and is still not a rich rock star.
Animated gif by Shika.