Music inched its way into my life during the rooming house period with Dave Knowles.   He became very good at picking out improvisations on the guitar, and we worked up a couple of duets, with me on voice and rhythm guitar and Dave embellishing the product beautifully with high-flying harmonies.  We did an open mike session at the campus coffee house, called Nexus, and were invited back for a real gig, but we never worked up any more songs, so never took up the offer.  I also did a little bit of solo work here and there, but again, never really worked up a repertoire to take anywhere.  The reason for this hesitation was the Viet Nam War and its faithful supplier of  fresh meat, the draft.  If there had been no military draft, no need for me to stay in school with a student deferment and thereby avoid becoming cannon fodder, things may have been different, even that early.  But self-preservation took precedence over all, so music remained peripheral.

But that was about to change.

Even though I was still deeply fond of Dave, I had no trouble accepting the loss of his daily presence in my life when he moved to the fraternity house.  I was grateful, in fact, to be released from the responsibility of looking out for him and even from the obsession that my feelings for him had become.  I saw a chance to branch out on my own, and followed my musical instincts to the Kentucky Choristers, the premier singing group on campus.  Membership was by audition, and if you got in, the twice-weekly rehearsals were considered classes for credit, an automatic “A” on your transcript.  The group was peopled almost exclusively music majors of every stripe, but my good voice got me in.

(An aside about my academic career is in order here, for my university years were really not about academics at all, and a mere parenthetical passage will will get them out of the way.   I switched from major to major literally every semester until my junior year, when–this being before the day of the undeclared major–I had to choose something and stick with it in order to graduate.  I never once tried music because I thought it was “impractical.”  This is hilarious considering the impracticality of my entire “academic” pursuit.  I ended up with a French major because French was the line of least resistance–I was so good at it virtually no work was required on my part–and besides, my French conversation teachers were cool.  They made a living sitting in front of small classes directing scintillating conversations.  What role models!  Who wouldn’t want to do that?  In the end, French did two things for me.  It was my ticket into the Peace Corps, and because of it I am intimately familiar with the entire repertoire of the great French singer, and eternal gift to humanity, Edith Piaf.  For those two never-ending benefactions alone I am grateful to the French language.  But it never earned me a penny.)

It’s fair to say that my present life began in the Kentucky Choristers.  For a while I stuck with my old pattern of shyness, always afraid of something, this time of the men in the choir who were eyeing me with undisguised delectation.  There is no question I was a gay boy in the making, but at that point I still had no social reference points in that arena and my natural inclination was to gravitate to boys who were physically attractive in some way, and smart, but quiet outlyers like me.  I was probably hoping deep down that some guy would make a move to consummate our “friendship,” but of course they were as shy and as cautious as I was–that, after all, was what made them so “safe”–so the chance of that happenening was zero.  I latched onto a guy in the Choristers, Will, another non-music major, to replace Dave Knowles as my “special friend.”  Will was from West Virginia, the son of a Baptist preacher who in retrospect I can see was probably a genuine closet case.  We were both much too afraid, however, of our own basic natures to act on what our bodies and minds wanted.  So we became close platonic friends and eventually roommates.

A highlight of my entire university life was a train trip the Choristers made to New York City in January, 1967, to perform the American premier of Wilfred Joseph’s Requiem at Carnegie Hall.  Will and I at this point were joined-at-the-hip “buddies,” so obviously exclusive to each other that we were, no doubt, the talk of the choir.  It was fear, of course, that kept us so exclusive, but by adopting attitudes of  haughty disdain for the silliness in which everyone else was indulging, we protected each other from the inevitable temptations on the train and in New York.  We also missed out on a lot of fun, but that was the price we had to pay.  We had each other, and that was safe.  But on the train ride back, something happened.

It turned out a girl named Lou Spencer had had her eye on me ever since I joined the Choristers.  I had noticed her–she was attractive and seemed funny–but otherwise had made no note.  She was spending the long hours on the train ride home singing folk songs with her friends and invited me to join them with my guitar.  We clicked immediately.  Lou didn’t have her eye on me as a potential boyfriend, but as a singing partner.  She was ready to quit school (this was the second semester of our junior year) and try her hand at a professional singing career, and needed someone to do it with.  When we got back to Kentucky, we were together every spare minute working up songs, developing a repertoire, and deciding on song placement for shows.  I found myself back at Nexus auditioning with Lou, and we were an instant, huge success.  We quickly developed a following for what became bi-weekly appearances.  This all happened in the blink of an eye, the matter of six weeks at most after returning from New York.  In this much time I had gone from being a shy nebbish to the object of admiration and sexual speculation on the part of all genders.  It was a thunderous revelation.  Long before Sally Field uttered the words, I lived it: “You like me.  You really LIKE me!!”  A ham was born.  And, thanks entirely to Lou’s gentle counsel, so was a gay man.

And Jim Knowles was a Peace Corps volunteer in Morocco.