by Len Lear
Charlie Cooper, 69, who grew up in Norristown but for the past 20 years has lived in West Germantown, one block from the border with West Mt. Airy, has a pretty impressive day job. He has been a self-taught IT pro for 35 years, the last 20 of them at the University of Pennsylvania. However, Charlie’s real passion is music. The lifetime musician founded the Humbleman Band 20 years ago, which has played often at Mermaid Inn, Dawson Street Pub in Manayunk and Rittenhouse Soundworks in Germantown, among others. His musical journey has been well worth telling:
• How did you teach yourself to play the guitar?
“I taught myself to play because I was so obsessed with music in the ‘60s, my teen years. How I learned was by getting over a false start with a guitar teacher who wanted me to learn ‘Row, Row, Row Your Boat’ when I wanted to learn ‘The Times They Are A Changin.’ Sometime later I acquired a piano and started finding my way around it. I moved on to acoustic guitar.
“Every step of the way, piano, guitar, I ran into musicians who would graciously show me chords, patterns and songs and encourage me to play. I still find that to be the case to this day. I have found musicians to generally be quite generous in sharing their knowledge. I also studied music theory on my own, which helped tremendously in finding my musical way.
“I recall one time in college, attempting to play with a few real musicians, when I knew only a few guitar chords and hardly knew how to hold the darn thing; afterwards a cute girl walked over to me and told me how much she liked my playing. That was precisely the encouragement I needed!
“A year or so later I had graduated and was riding to the Jersey shore with a few musician friends. I was in the back seat strumming a few songs, when one friend asked me if I had written anything. It had simply never occurred to me that I could do that. I soon tried and to my astonishment I wrote my first song! Not a bad one, all in all. (I still remember that one.) Once I wrote one, I was hooked and have been writing them ever since.”
• What did you do after dropping out of West Chester University?
“I was utterly, completely unprepared for college. I did not know how to study. I spend most of my high school years hanging out on corners in Norristown, smoking weed and drinking cheap wine. My only plans for the future were to get a factory job and buy a motorcycle. When I was unexpectedly shipped off to college as a math major, I simply continued hanging out, smoking weed and drinking cheap wine, just a different location. I finished my first term with a 1.65 cumulative. I was told I had to get it up to a 1.8 by the end of the year. I soon knew it was impossible for me at that time, so I left with three other lost souls, drove their ’56 Buick to Niagara Falls, around Lake Ontario, and home to break the news to my folks. I wound up back to work loading trucks in the factory I had worked in through high school, landing back on the corner but now realizing there was a bigger world out there. It was the summer of ’68 (‘Summer of Love’) and a very exciting time. I had just turned 19. As I look back, it was a big wake-up call as well as one of the funnest times of my life.”
• After you went back to Penn State and graduated in 1972 as a literature major, what kind of work did you do?
“I went back to loading trucks (you can do that with a degree in literature) and got a basement apartment in Center City. The following spring, I bought my first pickup truck and got a job with a general contractor. The contractor’s business collapsed, perhaps because he hired people on the basis of their having a pickup truck. I was unemployed all of the summer of ’73. That fall I hitchhiked to San Francisco with my dog, where I lived the next few years.”
• Did you play music in San Francisco?
“I tried some open mics in San Francisco, but I was completely outclassed and simply blown away by the talented musicians I saw all over the city. It was very humbling. I do remember seeing two bands that absolutely knocked me out and gave me a vision I followed ever since. One was Gil Scott-Heron (former Germantown resident) with Brian Jackson and the Midnight Band in ’76 when they were, to me, at their height.
“Musically I could not hang at all the whole time I was there, though I was always practicing. It was years later, through a whole other peculiar sequence of events that I wound up acquiring an electric guitar and forming my first band, The Proles. The intention with that band was to be funky, groovy, danceable, politically astute and socially conscious. I don’t know that we got very far along that path, but I am still on that journey to this day.”
• Who are your favorite musicians, past and present, and why?
“First was Bob Dylan. ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ came out ’65 when I was about 16. I was obsessed with Dylan for several years. I think of music and all the arts as gifts from the divine and of musicians and artists as conduits for that gift. I think Dylan was simply remarkable as someone that music passed through and someone who could conjure up truly incredible music. I remained so enamored of him up until ’74 when he released ‘Planet Waves.’ I’m sure he’s done terrific things since then, but his music hasn’t spoken to me since.
“Gil Scott-Heron was my next big influence. He remains such to this day. ‘The Bottle’ was one of a very few tunes I remember the first time I heard, where I was, what I was doing, how it made me feel. He had a tragic life, becoming a crack addict and squandering so much talent. But his music (funky, groovy, very danceable and very politically astute and socially conscious) was so cool, so spot-on, so inspiring. I still listen and draw inspiration from him.”
TO BE CONTINUED