It was a brutally hot August afternoon… just one month before I would begin my undergraduate studies at the Washington Square campus of New York University. I no longer lived in The Village… although I found myself going back there time and time again to hang out with my old neighborhood friends. Three years earlier, my parents had moved me and my brothers out of Greenwich Village to Woodside, Queens. At the time Woodside was a quiet, middle class community comprised mainly of Irish Catholic families with a smattering of German, Polish and Italians… solid stock all. Nonetheless, I was spending most of my free time back in The Village. And my acceptance at NYU would only serve to guarantee that this would continue… at least for another four years.
Despite the unbearable heat, we were all looking forward to this weekday afternoon performance. I cannot recall how the band ended up securing this particular gig. But we all knew this would be our last show together. Our lead guitarist, Dick was about to leave the band in order to attend college at Holy Cross in Massachusetts. We could have found a new guitarist and continued on with the band. But if truth be told, I think we all had become a bit tired covering the same top 40 songs and playing the same old dances and private parties. After three years of good times, friendship and enough musical memories and stories to fill each of our respective lives, it was time for a change. And it was with that unspoken understanding that my “Village Merchants” bandmates and I gathered together for our last performance… an outdoor show at a local park in Woodside, Queens.
Unbeknownst to me at that time, in the audience that day was my cousin, Joe (aka “Butch”) and his friend, Phil. The story told to me years later by Butch was that during the show, Phil leaned over to him and said, “I gotta meet that guy”… meaning me. Butch gladly obliged. And thus started a musical journey that for me is only now paying personal and artistic dividends. For without Phil, I don’t believe I would have ever begun my journey of self-discovery as a singer-songwriter.
Phil and I immediately bonded around our love of music… especially acoustic folk music. A few years earlier I had witnessed first hand the emergence of the folk music scene along MacDougal Street in Greenwich Village. Woodside was only about a forty five minute subway ride away from those iconic Village venues such as Cafe Wha, The Bitter End and The Fat Black Pussycat. And although Phil was especially attracted to folk artists like Roger McGuinn and John Sebastian, he had yet to gather the courage to cross the East River into Manhattan and venture out on to the streets of Greenwich Village to take in the sights, sounds, music and “hippies” who dominated the Village landscape back then. For at this early stage of his life, Phil lacked the street smarts needed to pierce through the Village’s veneer and see first hand into the heart and soul of it’s inner creative workings. So I became Phil’s eyes and ears into this most revered time in musical history.
In return, Phil gave me a gift that would last a lifetime. For it was Phil’s unwavering encouragement and support that eventually led to me picking up the guitar and to my initial attempts at songwriting. We would play for hours on end each week night until 1 or 2 in the morning in the basement of Phil’s parents’ house in Woodside… often followed by a cup of coffee with Phil’s dad, Stanley and a lively discussion about politics and current events that would go on for about another hour or so. It was a wonder that I was able to get up each morning to attend classes, let alone maintain my grades during those days! But I did. Music now consumed 100% of my time outside of the classroom. And life could not be better. Thank you, Philip.
It was a few years later that I wrote, Old friend. I was only 23 at the time. But by now my songwriting acumen had matured to the point where local musicians were beginning to notice me and wanted to play along with me and Phil. By this time, Phil had evolved into the quintessential 1960’s “long-haired hippie freak”… complete with the keys to a Volkswagen van and a Martin D28 by his side. I on the other hand had completed my MBA studies, had married and was working full time in advertising/marketing during the week and playing my original music on weekends with Phil. It was a strange mixture… a “ying-and-yang” kind of thing that just seemed to work.
I never thought it odd that at twenty three I would write a song about old age. In fact, I never even gave it a second thought. I simply wanted to create a song about friendship and the true meaning of what it means to live a “successful life”. Witnessing first hand the life-long relationships established over the years by my extended Italian family members, I had developed a sense at a relatively early age that all I was yet to achieve in life… both personally and professionally… would someday have no value… no meaning whatsoever (“The worlds we knew don’t need us now”). And at the end of the journey, the only true treasure left for each of us would be the lasting friendships made during one’s life and the support and love given to one another along the way. And it was shortly after discussing this piece of personal philosophical trivia with both Phil and Stanley during one of our late night coffee clutches, that Old Friend was born.
When Phil passed away a few years ago from bladder cancer, I realized just how much Old Friend had truly hit the mark. During my lifetime, Phil and I had become more like brothers than friends. And over the course of my years on this planet, through his immense talent as an acoustic guitarist Phil had also become the primary interpreter of my original music. So when Phil passed away, I was lost… both as a friend and as a musician. But such is the nature of life and it’s lessons therein: As one door closes another door opens.
Today, as I move forward in my later years with my new career in music, I often think about Phil and his unwavering faith in me as a songwriter. I only wish he were still here with us to see the fruits of those seeds he so patiently planted some forty or so years ago in the basement of his parents’ house in Queens, New York.
To my old friend, Phil Bayle… thank you for the wonderful gift of music. For yours was truly a “successful life” indeed!