Greg McGarvey is a singer, songwriter, and guitarist from the Delaware Valley.
"The Way Things Look From Here"
May 11, 2020 - My dad would’ve only been about fifteen or so, but somehow he had the foresight to record the family jam sessions that would take place every Sunday at Great-Grandma Iva's house in Rahway. Gospel songs, country songs, jokes, somebody flushing a toilet, a long-gone dog catching a ball.
The atmosphere was loose, but the playing and singing was high-caliber. Family legend has it that my grandpa J.J. was asked to go pro, but didn’t want to leave his brothers behind.
Now it’s the ‘80s and I'm a little kid and I'm not allowed to touch J.J.’s guitar, so I sneak behind a piece of furniture in an attempt to pluck a string or two without being seen. I especially like plucking the strings behind the bridge, plinky like windchimes. They caught me.
One night, Cousin Brucie played “Wake Up Little Susie” on the Saturday Night Dance Party on WCBS-FM because Dad told him I wouldn’t go to sleep without hearing it.
Before long, J.J. got me my own little guitar so I didn’t have to try to bother his old Gibson archtop as much. When I was six, I got my heroes The Everly Brothers to autograph it by the stage doors at Valley Forge Music Fair.
I’d sometimes spend my whole weekend with dad’s big, clunky, brown headphones on my head, listening to his records and making mix tapes I could listen to back home in Bucks County.
One summer day, I played that same Everly Brothers song on a jukebox at the beach town of Keansburg, New Jersey. I noticed that it made a little blonde girl dance.
Mom somehow procured an ancient piano and squeezed it into a hallway. It didn’t have all the keys and it hadn’t been tuned for a few decades, but you could create thunderstorm sounds by pounding on the lower octaves or drag pens across the piano wire to make a little psychedelic nightmare music.
Dad took me to see The Everly Brothers when I was five. As a little kid, I got to see some of the best musicians in the world, like Albert Lee and Buddy Emmons. We went almost every year of my childhood. One year, the opening act was Chet Atkins. An incredible musical education. Thanks, Dad.
At some point, I played an electric guitar in a shop at the U.S. 1 Flea Market in Central Jersey (as featured in Mallrats). It was a moment of elation beyond anything I’d ever experienced. A joyful electrocution.
Soon, Dad set me up with the Tempo electric guitar he’d bought in the ‘60s. Since he'd just bought a Gibson J-45, he let me take the Sigma he’d bought at the Martin factory in the ‘80s.
I was determined to play my favorite songs - Nirvana's “Heart-Shaped Box” and R.E.M.'s “What’s The Frequency, Kenneth?” - and I did. I was too impatient to learn to read music, so I learned by ear.
The fourteen-minute version of Neil Young’s “Like A Hurricane” from Weld rewired my brain. I didn't know that you could just keep going, and do so this artfully and intensely. You can even leave the song entirely, come back, and then collapse again into thunderstorm-like sonic chaos. I became interested in the way that the true masters can play an old song in such a way that it feels like they're making it up on the spot.
During the high school years, I spent many nights on the porch in Bucks County, hiding behind long my hair and improvising a soundtrack for the rotating cast of wild characters. Withdrawn and awkward, I was happy to speak through my instrument, meditating on the night sky, playing in the glow of the citronella candles and the bug zapper.
My friend Nick Harris would egg me on to write songs. He thought the songs that came out of my brain would be weird and great. I knew he might be right, but I felt that I had nothing to say.
Still, I found myself in the habit of trying to play something I’d never heard before each time I picked up my instrument. Sometimes, I’d hit record on a Radio Shack cassette deck and just play the first thing that came to mind.
Other times, I'd explore the sounds of the objects around me. Recordings of drums and bass guitar feedback played in reverse and then combined with the faint ding of my Liberty Bell pencil sharpener combined with the shaking of plastic decorative plants. Making collages out of things that don't normally go together was exciting, just as it would later be in my visual art.
In my mid-twenties, I went on Craigslist with the seemingly daunting task of finding a local drummer who’s passionate about music ranging from country to noise. Much to my surprise, I quickly found Nick D’Amore.
His encouragement, coupled with the fact that I knew he could play whatever kind of music I threw at him, finally brought out the songwriter in me.
One night, I stayed up ‘til 6 AM and wrote my first songs. In these songs, I wander the campus, hoping to run into the bookish girl with the short hair. I ride out a torrential downpour in a minivan with my family after our campsite is flooded out. I fantasize about the red-headed photography student with the intense eyes.
I spent the rest of my twenties playing with D'Amore and our friends in New York City, Philadelphia, and elsewhere. I’d always wanted to play that music venue in New Hope with the colorful facade and the music notes on its sign, so we did.
I’d been to Nashville twice before. First time was with Dad. We visited the studio in which The Everly Brothers recorded their hits and the classic album Songs Our Daddy Taught Us. We photographed each other at Floyd Cramer’s piano. Neil Young walked past us at Jack's Bar-B-Que hours before we saw him play a staggering concert at the Ryman Auditorium. We walked across that stage ourselves the next day. It was our best time.
The second time was with my girlfriend Marcella. She’d arranged an incredible post-Christmas vacation for us, knowing that there might be bad health news coming for her in the new year.
Two years later, I’m back in Nashville with Dad. After a multi-year dry spell, I start writing a song at breakfast and I just keep going, all day. I’m six pages in as we take our second walk across the stage of the Ryman. I jog a few blocks to Jack White’s Third Man Records so I can record it in the 1947 Voice-o-Graph Recording Booth booth where Marcella had once joined me.
Marcella had always asked me to write a song for her. Now that she'd passed on, I was determined to write an entire album for her.
I finish my new song in the hotel stairwell and quickly write another while taking a nighttime walk. Over the following months, I write the rest of the Count The Colors songs and feel that I've succeeded in capturing a little bit of her spirit in them.
One song has a lyric based entirely on messages that Marcella left behind. In these songs, I drift back and forth between dreams - my own and other people's - and real memories. Once the song's been around for a while, the line starts to get pretty fuzzy.
She'd heard “Knit Hat Girl” on our first date in and loved it, even with its original nonsense lyric. I saw an opportunity to rewrite it and give it to her.
It was becoming difficult to actually finish Count The Colors. Mom had astonishingly become Dad's caregiver after a thirty-year estrangement. Before long, she was caring for him while simultaneously fighting cancer. The more intense my life got, the more I wrote.
The summer after Dad died, Mom came to listen to me play the songs from Count The Colors at a concert in a former church called 1867 Sanctuary as well as our beloved Silver Lake Nature Center. She got to hear these songs in beautiful places, free of distraction.
Having since lost her, I think back to moments like this with gratitude. I also think back to Dad coming to all those long, loud gigs at John & Peter's. I was lucky to have their support. Those eccentric, difficult, hilarious, musical spirits. I'm hearing reports from heaven that they're making up for lost time.
After finishing writing Count The Colors, I was free to move onto all sorts of other topics.
The Jersey Shore of the 1920s. Stories inspired by a local history book I found in a nineteenth-century tavern in Shelburne, Vermont. Vignettes from the lives of my grandparents. The weed dealer in New Orleans with her dog Disable. Meghan Six from Akron, Ohio, and her friend Potatoes. Sketchy Geoff. The ninety-two-year-old woman who told my girlfriend and I her life story - without any prompting - one spring day in Newtown.
Tunes I've made up after dark on my grandpa's dock on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, surrounded by the sounds of crickets and cicadas, my feet dangling over the Jean Guite Creek. Songs inspired by my family's new generation, the first member of which arrived just three days after Marcella's services. Songs inspired by my girlfriend, a gifted painter.
I also went back to my earliest songs and found a batch of songs about coming of age in Bucks County with all its American history, natural splendor, beautiful girls, and strange boys.
No matter how much time passes, it still feels very special to have J.J.’s and my dad’s guitars. I think they’d be proud of the music I make with them.
Dad’s Gibson J-45, with its koa wood, brings to mind his love of Hawaii, his final resting place. J.J.’s Gibson archtop makes me daydream of back porch picking sessions with his brothers back in Pennsylvania coal country. A little bit of early 20th century Appalachia waiting inside a guitar case under my bed.
I'm so happy that my dad made those recordings fifty years ago. It's a way for the new generations to get to know the people who came before. I think we'll start adding to that tape soon. My sister and her husband sing great, and their little girl already holds a tune better than I do.
I feel excited about making a few of my own contributions, too, not knowing who exactly will come across them, when or where, and what they'll get out of them. It just feels good to tell you a little bit about the way things look from here.