Throughout my life, from as early as I can remember, music has grabbed me at every opportunity. My parents saw this; when I was six years old they bought a lap steel guitar for me and I began my journey.
At first it was simple. The sound of the guitar was enough to keep me occupied for hours. Later, a teacher introduced me to the logic of music notation and other mental doorways opened revealing many puzzles to be solved. This wasn’t an intellectual or aural game for me, however, but a pathway that I felt compelled to follow. Guitar, string bass, tuba, piano, jazz band, orchestra, wind ensemble, music theory, composition, arranging and improvisation all became my passion and my world.
The music was so much bigger than I originally thought and was so full of order that it forced me to look closely at the world around me. If I had the ability to create music from nothing, was it also possible that there was something or someone responsible for creating everything from nothing?
I am a child of the 60’s and each of us from that decade retains the stark images of political unrest and intense contradictions. In 1963 for example:
August 28 — Dr. Martin Luther King delivered his famous ‘I Have a Dream’ speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial.
September 15– a bomb planted by the Klan in the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama, kills four little girls.
November 22 — a sniper’s bullet cuts short the life of President John F. Kennedy.
November 24 — the nation watches as the suspected assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald, is gunned down on national television by Jack Ruby.
The antithesis of the violence of the decade was found in a rapidly growing peace and love movement. We were looking for answers outside of traditional politics, economics and religion. I didn’t want anything to do with a culture that produced racial inequality, prejudice, wars and hatred.
Where was real love? Why couldn’t we give peace a chance?
The philosophers of psychedelic rock music seemed to have the best ideas. I hadn’t cared for most rock music prior to this, but suddenly the Beatles, Jimi Hendrix, Led Zeppelin, the Who, the Grateful Dead and Jefferson Airplane burst into my consciousness. George Harrison really floored me with the sitar and tabla used in some of the Beatles tunes and to me Hendrix was a blues man from another planet. I heard the Dead in Denver in ’68 in City Park at a ‘Be-in’ in what could only be described as a tribal atmosphere certainly similar to what happened the following year on a larger scale at Woodstock.
The same year I also heard Ravi Shankar and Alla Rakha and tenor saxophonist Charles Lloyd with a young Keith Jarrett, Ron McLure and Jack DeJohnette. I could hardly contain my joy in finding such amazing sounds that I never knew existed. In addition, the philosophical and spiritual dimension to the music was very apparent and gave me refuge from the grim realities of the time. Messages in the cover art and the lyric content of a lot of the songs made me extremely curious about drugs and Eastern philosophy. I was looking for the answers to life and the Something behind music and was really searching.
My first experimentation with marijuana and hash opened me up to another way of looking at life and making music. However, it wasn’t long before I realized that the new thing wore off and it was impossible to maintain the original high. There was something else, something I needed to find. I was honestly searching for meaning and wanted answers.
A musician that I knew turned me on to the teachings of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi through the discipline of Transcendental Meditation. The Beatles were into it, so it had to be cool. I went through the initiation in a hotel in Boulder, Colorado where I brought an offering of fruit, flowers and a white handkerchief and was given my personal mantra. The initiator had me repeat the mantra over and over. It was like the first time I smoked pot. After what seemed like a very long time, I came out of a long, deep trance and that was the start of my period of regular meditation.
I meditated by chanting my personal mantra for twenty minutes in the morning and the evening and for a while it really helped me focus my life. However, after a few months one particular session totally freaked me out. I met a very dark spiritual being. I had unwittingly been calling his name with the mantra and he finally began to answer. It felt like I was in a nightmare and couldn’t wake up. Something or someone was coming very close to me and I definitely did not want to make his acquaintance. When I finally came out of my meditation, I was panting, sweating and very afraid. I don’t know if anyone else ever experienced something like this, but at that point I parted company with Transcendental Meditation, never to return.
I decided to drive to L.A. I don’t even know why, I just felt compelled to run. When I got there, almost immediately I fell in with some people who were into Buddhism. I knew nothing about it. But these people believed it was truth and I thought it was worth investigating. I went to a meeting and various people stood up and told how amazing things had happened for them after chanting the phrase nam yo aren que kyo over and over. To me, the chanting of any kind of mantra felt like TM all over again, and I was not about to return to that place. I had driven a thousand miles only to realize that I had brought my problems and my childish naivetÃ© with me, and this was not going to work. I drove home as fast as I could, went back to school and dove deeper into drugs.
I remember that I was reluctant to try LSD for the first time, so I just went along with my friend Duane and a buddy to a local park. Warm weather, splashing around in the water, laughing and having a great time, I didn’t see either of my friends doing anything weird or unusual, and they encouraged me to join them. So, I did. It was like the first time you do anything. I had nothing to compare it to. It was a shattering experience.
This is what I was looking for, or so I thought. I began to trip a lot. It took me away from the mundane day-to-day reality. I was still playing music, but it was definitely not the main focus of my life. There were gigs, rehearsals, and I was still practicing, but I spent way too much time tuned in, turned on and dropped out.
I am forever grateful for being introduced to Lareen, the woman who would soon become my wife and very thankful that she didn’t allow my lifestyle to turn her off. She was an oboist and I saw her a lot at school. We were both in the University Symphony Orchestra, the local community philharmonic and the opera orchestra. I was a little reluctant to ask her out, she was a couple years older than me, beautiful and I had kind of a poor self- image when it came to girls. We wound up together at a local bar and began talking and talked just about all night. I knew on that first night that we were supposed to be together. We married on May 31, 1970. My life was so wrapped up in drugs that I smoked hash in the church bathroom immediately before the wedding ceremony. I was in a cloud the whole time. But I thought I was cool.
Jimi Hendrix died on September 18, 1970. I was devastated. Janis Joplin died a month later and Jim Morisson the following spring. The psychedelic bubble had burst with the deaths of these major figures. I was still very involved with the drug lifestyle, but it was not like it used to be. The freshness was definitely gone and I felt like a slave to its demands.
I had a band then that was made up of two guitars, vibes, percussion, bass and drums and we played mostly original music. We were chosen as the outstanding combo at the Intercollegiate Jazz Festival regional competition held at the University of Utah in 1970. The band performed at the national festival held at the University of Illinois and so did our big band from the University of Northern Colorado. I had written a piece for electric violin and big band entitled Euphoric Desires and our combo played one of mine entitled Sweet Peace. I was chosen outstanding composer.
Part of the honor for receiving outstanding composer at the Intercollegiate Jazz Festival was a commission by the Kennedy Center to write a piece for big band to be performed at the 1971 festival.
I worked hard on it and came up with a piece that I liked a lot. Of course, I featured myself, so that I could play guitar on the concert at the national festival held again at the University of Illinois. In retrospect, it was an attempt to write something that would be like Jimi Hendrix playing with Don Ellis. The Don Ellis Band played mainly in odd time signatures and I loved his music. I was so happy when they chose the Towson State College big band led by Hank Levy to perform my work. He had written odd time signature charts for Stan Kenton and his band would play my music well. The concert was a success, and the music was well received. I was encouraged by guitarist Mundell Lowe and Chuck Suber, who was publisher of Down Beat magazine, to really go after it. But when I got back home, I just never got around to sending the score to Down Beat or making plans to do anything more than stay high and play music, in that order.
I took other risks. I purchased a new motorcycle, which was great fun until a car pulled in front of me and I hit it full force. Oddly enough, my wife had become friends with a woman she was teaching with who later told us that when she heard the sirens that day that she knew she needed to pray and ask God to save and heal the accident victim. Later she found out it was me. After they dug the glass out of my eyelid from my glasses and patched up my cuts and bruises I went back to the band house and we had to cancel the upcoming gigs. God was merciful and allowed me to live through it, however another blues and rock hero of mine, Duane Allman had a similar accident a few months later and was not spared. In the summer of 1971, we moved to L.A. to give it a go there, but the band broke up and I spent the fall and early winter of 1972 trying to pursue music and feeling totally uncomfortable in L.A. We headed back to Denver.
The summer and fall of 1972 were hard financially for us. Gigs were not paying the bills and I was not happy with the waitress jobs Lareen had to take. In the midst of this turmoil I had a bizarre nightmare that pushed me to question everything and even threaten my sanity. It was very similar to the TM encounter, but much more threatening. In my sleep, I could feel what I now know to be a demonic presence. Without waking up I leapt out of bed and began physically fighting with what was after me. I punched holes in the walls and bloodied my fingers and toes beating and kicking on the floor. Lareen jumped on me, trying to wake me up and finally I came out of it. I could not shake the feeling of being watched and almost tracked.
Musical employment being as haphazard as it was, I decided to check out another way to make consistent money and still be a full time musician. I made the decision to enlist in the Air Force to play guitar in the NORAD Command Band. Goodbye peace and love. This was a very strange and out of the blue decision given my view of the military and the happenings in Vietnam. After boot camp, we continued to live in Denver because I had been offered a great gig at a Vegas-style showroom called the Warehouse. This was weird.
I joined the Air Force and now was beginning to get good work in town. I had a tendency to make my move too soon. God is still at work with me developing patience. I had a guitarist friend who would sub for me when NORAD toured, which was usually one week or so a month. The band opened for headlining acts such as Dizzy Gillespie, Quincy Jones, Ike and Tina Turner, Carmen McRae, the Modern Jazz Quartet, Jimmy Smith, Mongo Santamaria, etc. I worked there from February to July, rehearsing with the NORAD Band in the mornings in Colorado Springs and rehearsing afternoons at the club in Denver and playing two shows a night, five nights a week. Combine that with my drug habits and my individual and married life were on very shaky ground.
June 1973 was the turning point in my life. It was my crossroads. Unlike the blues legend, however, I made a different kind of bargain for my soul. One afternoon Duane and I were driving in south Denver and we noticed a big tent being set up with a bunch of hippie folks wandering around it. Curious, we stopped to find out what was happening. Jesus Freaks. A group of hippie evangelists were preaching about God’s love and had set up a tent to have revival services. We were interested in their message, bringing a rock band and almost a Woodstock vibe, they were certainly different than the congregation of any church I had ever been to.
That night for the first time I heard the simplicity of the gospel message. Or, maybe I had heard it before but had been deaf or asleep to it. The good news was that God the Father wanted me to become part of His family and Jesus, the Son, walked this earth fully man and completely God, without the self-centeredness the Bible calls ‘sin.’ His death, or separation from the Father, paid the debt that you and I owe for our selfish attitudes.
To step into God’s kingdom and have Him take up residence in you, I learned, is a choice of the heart. All you have to do is confess with your mouth the Lord Jesus and believe in your heart that God has raised Him from the dead and you will be saved (Romans 10:9). This is the new birth that Jesus told Nicodemus about in John chapter 3. ‘For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.’ (John 3:16)
I knew immediately that this was the truth, and that drugs and Eastern philosophy were only a charade. I got baptized in the tent and shortly thereafter, Lareen who could not believe the immediate change in me also prayed and asked Jesus to forgive her and make her a new creation.
Our lives were totally different. For the first time, I felt complete. I also knew that I had nothing to do with it. I had done nothing for God to save me. No amount of cleaning up or chanting or meditating or whatever could make me pure enough for a relationship with God. It is only through the sacrifice of Jesus that my sins could be washed and forgiven. God sees me through Jesus. I am an adopted child of God and brother to my Lord Jesus.
Have I lived a perfect life since then? Of course not, I have failed many, many times and gotten off the path and made mistakes and wrong decisions, but at the end of my rope each time the Lord has been there to forgive me when I ask Him and give me a new start. I am determined to stay on the path and not follow detours put in front of me by my own choices or be ripped apart by strategically placed landmines planted by the enemy of my soul. I want this for you too.
Lareen and I have been married for 34 years, have four children and have lived in L.A., Denver, Ohio, Nova Scotia, Montreal and Denton, Texas. I teach jazz guitar at the University of North Texas, but I often travel across the country. I hope to meet you at a gig, concert or workshop sometime. You can check the calendar on my personal website: www.fredhamilton.com and discover where I’ll be playing.