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Penkava: Four notes away from Simon and Garfunkel

Published: Monday, Dec. 30, 2013 11:35 p.m. CDT

It all started when I heard it for the first time. It was mingled with an acoustic guitar and blended with syncopated harmonies; a vision softly creeping that left its seeds while I was sleeping. The Sound of Silence.

It was the winter of 1966 and I had just purchased Simon and Garfunkel’s debut album, “Wednesday Morning, 3 A.M.” As a fledgling left-handed folk guitarist, I remember sitting next to my Silvertone portable record player and listening to that song over and over and over again, my amazement with the depth of its beauty and meaning intensifying with every spin of the record.

When I mustered up enough courage to actually think about trying to play it on my guitar, I just sat there bewildered, feeling a bit unworthy to replicate its melody. But when I finally got up the nerve, I knew exactly where to start: the magical opening measures of the guitar lead-in.

It consisted of four simple notes: Da-da-da-da ... repeated three times before the vocals started. I knew those notes were somewhere on my guitar’s fretboard, just waiting for me to find them. It would be up to track six of side one of the record to point me the way.

So I listened. And I listened. And I searched for the notes. Found one. Found another. Then the last two suddenly fell into place. Da-da-da-da. I played that sequence a million times that night until it sounded just like the record. Da-da-da-da. Da-da-da-da. I didn’t know what chord I was forming or the names of the notes. All I knew was that my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light, that split the night, and I was touching the sound of silence.

Sure, it seems a bit melodramatic. Four notes. But somehow finding those four notes opened up the floodgates to the discovery of infinitely more notes and chords and fingerpicking patterns. Yep, from that small start I was homeward bound and feelin’ groovy, and not even Mrs. Robinson could stop me.

Later my high school friend, Paul, and I began to sing together. He could astonishingly duplicate Art Garfunkel’s harmonies, and before we knew it we were performing at local coffee houses.

Not long after that we added Jack, our upright string bass player, and Jan, our second harmony female vocalist, as we bopped around the Chicago area doing gigs and actually getting paid. And all the while, I would be playing those four notes at every performance, somehow reminding me of where it had all started.

But, as it can happen, life got in the way of our path to fame and fortune. Our group split up as we moved on to college and careers and marriage and babies. But the music we had made together laid a foundation for lives that would be ever enhanced by lyric and song.

Jan went on to become a singer with Harry Belafonte. Jack continued as a talented musician performing for many years. Paul eventually built his own home studio and to this day writes and produces his music.

As for me, through the years I have continued to write, record and perform. I still have my trusty old 1968 Martin guitar, the one that so many years ago traveled with me in the back of my VW Bug into the city to do some sets on the North Side.

And now, whenever I pick up that old instrument, somehow my fingers always seem to gravitate to those four notes. Like old friends reminiscing as they sit like bookends on a park bench. So, hello darkness my old friend, I’ve come to talk with you again. Da-da-da-da.

• Michael Penkava is a retired teacher who taught for 35 years at West Elementary School in Crystal Lake. He will be performing Sunday evenings during January at the Village Squire in Crystal Lake. Stop in and you’ll probably hear those four notes. He can be reached at mikepenkava@comcast.net.  

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