How Gym and I Became Friends

I wrote this in 2002 for Jim Nicholson, guitarist in Undercover and my lifelong friend, thinking (incorrectly) that I was going to read it at a big birthday bash his family was throwing for him.   Here’s to great friends!

Fullerton, CA

January 2, 2002

I moved around quite a bit when I was growing up. I remember at least 6 states and sometimes multiple residences in each. It was especially hard the older I got. Kids make friends easily. Young men find it more difficult; at least I did. The hardest move I made was after 8th grade going into a new high school where I knew nobody. We moved again a year later, after 9th grade going again into a new high school where I knew nobody. That last move was to Fullerton, my last as a kid, and my father still lives in that same house.

We came to Fullerton in June, 1971 and one of the first things my parents did was to sign me up for summer league basketball at the high school I would attend in the Fall.  Fullerton High School is old by California standards. It was founded in the late 1800s and the gymnasium cannot be too much younger. The first thing I noticed walking into the gym for the first time was the cavernous ceiling with dark wooden rafters exposed, wooden walls and bleachers and the smell. It’s a good smell, a combination of wood, lacquer, athletics, age, rubber. When a ball hits the floor it reverberates for a long time.

The first person I remember seeing in the gym was Jim (and no, that’s not why we call him “Gym”). He struck me right away as a unique guy, handsome, with fine features, a sense of refinement and gentile. A new kid is always on the lookout for potential friends and Jim struck me as one I might be lucky to get to know. I did not meet him that day and it was some time later that we would actually become friends. It was inevitable really, because almost all kids who play sports eventually come to know each other.

I actually met Jim in a class, probably a math class. That’s how we became familiar with one another I think but still we moved in different circles because we played different sports. I only played basketball, Jim played football and baseball.  During the last week of our senior year in high school,  Jim approached me and told me he had a band and he had heard that I played piano. His group was looking for a keyboard player and Jim wanted to know if I was interested. I had played piano years before, but my training was all classical and because I moved around so much I never really got beyond a lower intermediate level.  Still, here was an invitation to be in a band with a guy I had come to like and admire and I agreed to try it out. I had no equipment and had no idea how to approach playing keyboards in a rock band where there is no music to read.

Our first rehearsal was at Jim’s house in his living room. Jim’s mother Ann has a music degree in piano performance and they had a nice grand piano in the living room. That’s what I “played.” Jim was the only one of the four of us in the band who had any equipment. He had two really nice Rickenbacker guitars (that Mike Stand of the Altar Boys ended up with I think), a Rosac amplifier and a microphone (but no PA system). We didn’t have a singer so instead we put the mic up to the bass player’s strings because he didn’t have an amplifier for his guitar, and we plugged the mic into Jim’s amp along with the guitar. We could never hear the bass of course. The drummer’s name was Pete and he had a drum kit that was put together piecemeal, but it worked at least. Pete didn’t have a stand for his snare so he put it on a cardboard box. Then there was me banging on the grand piano. The first song we learned was Highway Star by Deep Purple. I had never heard it but Jim played the record for me and the rest of the band had already sort of learned it. Jim wrote out the chords and I followed along the best I could. We stank.

That was the summer of 1974. We took a long time to learn, grow and mature and become a viable band.  I remember kidding with Jim about the idea that we would both be 87 years old, deaf as stones and in our rocking chairs cranking up our amps long after losing our hearing, to play our songs.  It was in jest then but we’re more than halfway there now!  We had different iterations, band names, different instrumentations, and different members along the way before we found the great chemistry we still enjoy with Gary Olson and Sim Wilson in Undercover, but there was always one constant – Jim and me. We’ve been through lots together and have had many, many adventures musical and otherwise.

What we have together goes beyond friendship and collaboration into some strange place beyond what I’m able to articulate, a place where musicians often meet. Nobody can do what Jim does to my songs and we communicate in some wordless way there, on stage and in the studio. It’s not just that he’s technically the greatest guitar player. It’s that I just don’t know how he comes up with some of the stuff he comes up with, but that’s another story.

The account of how Jim and I met is not that remarkable. What is remarkable to me though is our ongoing friendship. I have struggled with relationships in so many ways. I have worked hard to make the important ones work, especially with my kids (a lifelong work in progress) and have documented much of that in my songs. Jim has done the same. I have had my share of setbacks but I can always point to Jim and take some pride in the fact that we are still great friends after all.  I think it is probably due more to Jim than me. I don’t think I’ve ever met a more easy-going, loyal, conciliatory guy, completely devoted to his wife and his children.  In all those ways, he’s a lot like his late father, Ted.  My initial assessment of him was pretty accurate – I am lucky to know him, love him, and to call him my friend and I think certainly his family, our band-mates Gary & Sim, and all his friends would probably feel the same way.

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