Penkava: Music never fades from a voice of the past

As I write this column, I am listening to my old friend Paul’s music on the stereo. I hear his familiar voice, its folky baritone resonance tugging me back to the days of our youth, when the future was just a gleam in our eyes and music was the air we breathed.

I close my eyes and there I am, standing next to him on the stage in the corner of a 1960s Chicago coffeehouse, canned lights reflecting on our faces as we sang Simon and Garfunkel’s “Sound of Silence” to the candlelit darkness before us.

The song ends, and we hear the applause. They want more. Perhaps a Dylan song. Or a Prine or Paxton or Kristofferson. Maybe we’ll try one of Paul’s originals. It doesn’t really matter. What matters is that we are together singing, and people are listening to us.

It’s quite a contrast from the two high schoolers hanging out in a rumpled bedroom, working out chords and harmonies as we listened to records over and over and over.

Paul was the talented one who played guitar and learned to harmonize in chorus class. Musically, I was always a few beats and measures behind him, but he always patiently let me catch up.

Eventually, we blended together well enough to play at parties. Then there was our first performance at McHenry County College. We opened with “Mr. Tambourine Man” and didn’t look back.

Soon after that, Paul and I played together at the Woodstock Opera House. Our confidence growing, we started writing more and more of our music.

After some more jobs, we added Jack, our upright string bass player, and Jan, our female vocalist. Now we were a band, “The Trout Valley Main Gate.” We played gigs in the Chicago area, perfecting guitar arrangements and vocal harmonies and getting more and more callbacks.

I’d like to say that soon we had a hit song, made it big and the rest was history. But real life got in the way.

College. Careers. Marriage. Kids. We eventually drove out of the Trout Valley Main Gate and took different roads, but we all continued our music.

Jack played in a local wedding party band. Jan went on to sing with Harry Belafonte. Paul moved to Michigan, continued writing and recorded three CDs. His music has been featured on The Weather Channel. I have kept on performing locally, and wrote and recorded a number of CDs of children’s music.

All of us have kept in touch from time to time over the almost 50 years since our music’s good ole days. Paul and I have exchanged our CDs over the years, with me getting the better part of that deal.

But Paul passed last week … my shaggy-haired, guitar-strumming, song-writing harmonizer who always made me sound better than I really was.

So here I am, still typing this column and listening to Paul’s songs, my mind drifting into scenes of our time together …

We’re back onstage. Paul just hit Art Garfunkel’s high notes on the final chorus of “America,” and it even gives me the chills. I play the descending coda on my guitar. The audience applauds even before the last note.

We look at each other. Paul smiles at me and whispers, “Not bad, Penkava.”

Not bad yourself, Paul, not bad at all.

Goodbye, my friend.

• Michael Penkava taught a bunch of kids and wrote a bunch of stuff. You can find Paul Tegel’s music on YouTube and at CD Baby Music Store, and you can read his story online at Penkava can be reached at

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