What is the line between a hobby and an obsession? Marti and Bobby Pyles found out the hard way.
Robert “Bobby” and Martina “Marti” (née Jeż) Pyles met in 1977 while junior undergraduates at Boston College. Bobby, a lifelong Massachusettsan, was studying business; Marti, a Polish national who had defected three years earlier in the middle of a rhythmic gymnastics exhibition, changed majors several times but ultimately settled on women’s studies, with a minor in American literature. On paper, they seemed very different. However, shortly after their graduation in 1979, the pair married.
Fast forward 15 years. Bobby ran his own insurance agency in Framingham and Marti taught English and literature at a local all-boys preparatory school. Childless by choice, the couple enjoyed gathering with friends and traveling internationally (Marti especially liked the diving in Vanuatu and Bobby became an instant fan of Sri Lankan cuisine). Bobby had tried golf and tennis, but those and other athletic pursuits were problematic due to flare-ups of his lateral epicondylitis acquired after three intense years on the college club darts team. He also had attempted watercolors, but his inability to draw—and moderate color blindness—contributed to particularly amateurish output. At one point, Bobby thought he might learn Polish to surprise Marti, but despite Boston being a college town, he couldn’t find a course to audit. (Unknown to Bobby, Marti actually had forgotten Polish—but, strangely, had been experimenting with Esperanto.) He had refurbished an unused garden shed into a heated woodworking shop, but after eight months he discovered he had a serious aversion to sawdust and sold off his equipment (except for the lathe, to which he held a strange attachment).
There always had been an acoustic guitar in the house, usually in a case in the back of a closet. Bobby had noodled around in college, and he occasionally pulled out the instrument and his small collection of tattered fake books to strum songs ranging from The Beatles to Bread. But he never took it seriously. That is, until 1994.
No one really knows what led Bobby to walk into the local Guitar Center that Sunday afternoon. Maybe it was the inspiring songs by the likes of the Gin Blossoms and Sheryl Crow that were in rotation on his favorite radio station. Maybe it was the large poster screaming “YEAR END CLEARANCE” (Bobby was a sucker for a deal). In any event, Bobby opened the door and effectively changed his life—and ultimately Marti’s.
On that first visit, he bought a modest Ibanez electric guitar and a dinky solid state amplifier. Within six months, he was out of control, repurposing the garden shed into a soundproofed practice and recording studio and amassing an arsenal of musical gear with which he developed reasonable proficiency. Marti generally was accepting of Bobby’s new hobby, as it kept him out of her hair (and the house), allowing her to enjoy uninterrupted her favorite TV shows like Murder, She Wrote and Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman. (Maybe it was the English teacher in her, but she had a particular fondness for TV shows with commas in their names.)
Bobby would spend hours in the shed in the evenings and on weekends. Rhythm guitar wasn’t a problem for him; one-fingered bass was relatively easy. He figured out simple chords on his synthesizer (which, fortunately, also had a drum machine—his nagging LE convinced him that attempting actual drums might be problematic). And he soon mastered the small four track recorder, permitting him to play all the instruments through complex overdubs (including many, many takes). He eschewed cover songs, intending to explore his new creative side by writing originals (although, in hindsight, they weren’t all that original, unknowingly mimicking the sounds of the modern rock and pop on the radio). He also had two problems. First, he literally could not sing; the best he could muster was a kind of low-volume yell, which didn’t really work with the kind of jangly pop material he was writing. (A brief attempt at pop-punk and grunge was a bust.) Second, he had zero imagination when it came to lyrics (his third original, “Hey, Hey, Babe, What’s Up?” even made him cringe), and thus his output was effectively just instrumental. Of course, the lack of lyrics didn’t matter much given that he couldn’t sing, but the combination did put limitations on where he could take his music.
One night at dinner before hitting the shed, Bobby revealed his frustrations to Marti, who up to that point had avoided having to feign any actual interest in “Bobby’s newest hobby.” Mostly in order to shut him up so that she wouldn’t miss the start of Sister, Sister, Marti disclosed something from her past—she had been the lead contralto in a Poznan youth choir in the early ‘70s. She didn’t miss singing, but if it would stop Bobby’s whining, she was willing to give it a try. Bobby found the prospect exciting—they had never shared a hobby, other than a brief joint macramé exploration in 1982—but Bobby still had a problem: songs with no words. Marti thought about it and said she had an idea. She asked him to make a tape of five or six songs that she could listen to during her commute, and she would see if she could figure something out. The tape was on the kitchen table the next morning.
While proctoring a pop quiz, Marti checked her small classroom bookshelf and found what she was looking for: a dog-eared copy of The Complete Unabridged Works of Emily Dickinson. Although Marti taught poetry, she had no aptitude for writing it. Dickinson had been one of her favorites in college; perhaps the 19th century hermit spinster could give voice to Bobby’s musical output.
Long short story short, Marti began spending a lot of time in Bobby’s shed, shoehorning Dickinson’s poetry into Bobby’s recorded songs. Marti thought that the drum machine tracks seemed a little artificial, but otherwise she was satisfied with—even excited by—the results. Bobby was blown away by Marti’s vocals (which objectively were average, but Bobby was partial). Within two weeks, they had completed eleven songs of which they were quite proud. Bobby started working on new material, and Marti returned to her normal routine.
After meeting friends for brunch one Saturday, Bobby asked Marti if they could stop in Guitar Center so that he could pick up some new strings. Serendipitously, she said yes. While Bobby—now an obsessed gearhead—was engrossed in a conversation with the clerk about gauges and materials, Marti wandered around the store. Some kid had just finished banging (literally) on a drum kit and had left the sticks behind. On a lark (and bored), Marti sat behind the kit and picked up the sticks. Thinking of one of the songs she and Bobby had recently completed (“Belshazzar Had A Letter”), Marti simply started playing. Maybe it was an innate sense of time honed during her teenage years on the rhythmic gymnastics floor; maybe it was the jazz fusion she almost exclusively listened to on her commute (a passion she had never shared with Bobby; Bobby hated anything jazz). Whatever it was, it worked. Soon, several customers (including Bobby) had circled Marti, first watching with mouths agape and then cheering her on to even more frenetic heights of percussion. When she finally stopped, everyone was silent for a moment, then broke into applause. Marti was not sure what happened, but, smiling, she knew one thing: she really, really wanted that damn drum kit. And Bobby, seeing his wife’s elation (and, selfishly, seeing new musical possibilities), really, really wanted her to have that damn drum kit. (Plus, he had “platinum” status at Guitar Center, which actually was an internal designation by which the sales staff knew they could sell him virtually anything at any time simply with the promise of a 10% discount.) The drum kit was set up in the far corner of the shed that afternoon.
Sensing that it might make a difference, Marti convinced Bobby to let her take a crack at replacing the drum machine parts on their recorded songs with live playing. He enthusiastically agreed, and in a marathon session lasting all night, they re-recorded tracks for what became their debut self-produced album, Emily Calling. (The album cover featured the only one of Bobby’s watercolors the couple could find in the house.)
Within weeks, they had an additional ten songs completed. The logical progression, in their minds, was to take their music to the people directly. After hitting up what seemed like dozens of local establishments, Marti and Bobby finally found one willing to give them stage time on a Sunday afternoon. And so, in the late spring of 1995, the Pyleses (now called, simply, “Pyleses”) made their stage debut at the Twisted Turkey in Woburn. They were certainly an unconventional act (Bobby in back on Gibson double-neck, standing in front of his Marshall stack; Marti in front on her now greatly-expanded chrome drum kit, wailing on vocals). The audience did not know what to make of them, but it generally was supportive. Encouraged, Bobby and Marti booked several bar gigs over the next four months, most of which were successful. (There were some unhappy patrons one Friday night when they mistook the band name in the ad in the local alternative weekly for the renowned Greek bouzouki player in Yanni’s current touring ensemble.)
Unfortunately, Pyleses was short-lived. Bobby developed a rare skin condition—callus noformus—that made it impossible to play any stringed instrument without bleeding profusely from his fingertips. (The duo toyed briefly with renaming the act “The Stigmatics” but thought better of that.) But more importantly, Marti had a serious mid-life crisis (some would say epiphany, some would say meltdown). Terminated from her teaching position for refusing to bathe, Marti ultimately auditioned for Vermont speed metal outfit Mother’s Murk. This turned into a three-year worldwide tour, after which Marti was never the same physically or mentally (coincidentally, she also developed LE, and her semisweet contralto had been rasped into a low-volume, almost inaudible snarl).
The Pyleses took up RVing, and can be found in various state campgrounds throughout the country. You might find them near the campfire, gently swaying with their eyes closed.