READING, Pa. — The search to fill in a weirdly untold story about Taylor Swift has become a medium-speed car chase. I’m in my vehicle, following this guy Joe in a red Mazda through the hills surrounding Reading, Pa., looking for Ronnie Cremer at DC Computer Repairs.
Swift’s “Shake It Off” is blaring, and the song’s energy adds tension to the drive. It is fair to say we’re zipping, scooting through a few yellow lights. This is Joe’s style, apparently. He makes a sharp left into a McDonald’s; I pull beside him in the parking lot and roll down the window.
“I’ll be right back, I’m just going to pick up my friend,” Joe says in a Queens-bred, wiseguy patter.
The Swift tale has been told endlessly, but never fully. Anyone with basic knowledge of pop culture can recite the cast of friends, exes and characters in her official bio: John Mayer, Lena Dunham, Joe Jonas, Karlie Kloss, Harry Styles.
But there is also the guy we’re racing to find. Ronnie Cremer. The man behind the myth. Or the man the myth forgot. Haven’t heard of him? Neither had I, until a few hours ago, at least not by name. But now there is an identity. And an address. And a sense that the story behind an icon is minutes away.
Joe — more on him later — is leading me. He emerges from the McDonald’s with a guy who he was supposed to meet for coffee, before he got wrapped up in this pursuit. He gets back in his car, and takes me to the computer store.
Ronnie is not in his office. He is out on a service call. So Joe and his friend take me back to McDonald’s, and we have coffee for about an hour.
I eventually return to the place alone and ask the nice woman at the desk if Ronnie is back yet. A man — shaved head, black shirt, average height, roundish — is standing behind her; he smiles and says, “I’ve been dreading this moment.”
The previous evening: Gray, 46 degrees, and foggy at the former Swift home on Grandview Blvd. in Wyomissing, Pa. The street is dead. If you’re from a suburb situated this many hours from a major city, you have sat staring out a window like this one, thinking something like, “There’s a little girl in this little town/With a little too much heart to go around.”
That’s from the first song that Swift wrote, “Lucky You.” People aching to taste more of the world will turn inward in a place like this, and plot an exit.
Swift has many times told a story that goes like this (from a 2009 promotional DVD):
“When I was about 12 this magical twist of fate (happened). I was doing my homework [when the tech fixing my computer] looked over and saw the guitar in the corner. And he said, 'Do you play guitar?' I said, ‘Oh. No. I tried, but . . . .’ He said ‘Do you want me to teach you a few chords?' and I said, ‘Uh, yeah. YES!’”
Which brings us to Ronnie Cremer and the moment he’s been dreading.
“I don’t want to burn any bridges,” he says, as we settle into two stools at the front of his street-level computer store. “But at the same time, at some point it’s gonna be time.”
A reporter is here. So it’s time. Around us: computer monitors, cords, an acoustic guitar. Above us on the wall: A Taylor Swift platinum album — a gift from Scott Swift, the singer’s dad.
Ronnie fixes computers, yes, but is also a respected local musician. That official story about the computer tech? Ronnie has seen Taylor recount it on many TV shows, and has wished to hear what he says is the full version:
“The first time I heard of Taylor, my brother had a theater company. They would have parties after the show, and they would do karaoke. My mom would attend these.”
Ronnie continues: “I only met Taylor face-to-face in 2002. I had a shop up in Leesport. It was a computer shop, and that’s where I had my little studio. My brother brought Taylor and her mom and her brother over and introduced me, and said, ‘would you be interested in recording a demo?’
“It was a couple cover songs. I recorded the demo for her. It wasn’t a great demo, but it was a demo.
“After I did the demo, I was approached again by my brother, and by Andrea Swift. ‘Would I be interested in giving guitar lessons for Taylor? We’re trying to teach her how to play country music.’ I said, ‘I don’t know if I can teach country music. I don’t know the first thing about country music. I know rock music.’
It’s just that their publicity team, that doesn’t sell as good: A 36-year-old bald guy taught her.
“But eventually we did get together. They came out to my place once, but from there on in we met at her house in Wyomissing.”
And from there, Ronnie says, they continued working, two evenings a week, $32 per hour.
So, he never went over to fix her computer?
“Honestly, it was probably months before I even looked at a computer for them,” Ronnie says.
“I did do computer work for them, but the computer work eventually came after I started doing guitar work. It went from teaching her guitar, to teaching her how to structure songs.”
This is a perfectly fine story, but how does Ronnie feel about Swift’s shortened version?
“I never wanted to be the person who always begrudged someone’s success,” he says. “And for whatever reason, and I don’t know if I’m even mad at the Swifts. It’s just that their publicity team, that doesn’t sell as good: A 36-year-old bald guy taught her. That ain’t gonna work. If you say, he worked with her six hours a week, it was basically Tuesdays and Thursday from 5 to 8. That ain’t gonna sell.”
“Growth is betrayal. There is no other route. There is no arriving somewhere without leaving somewhere.”
That’s John Updike in “Rabbit Redux.” He was from Shillington, Pa., and in a confluence of American legends who couldn’t quite shake this place, Swift grew up in the heart of Rabbit Angstrom country, too: Reading, Pa., and its surrounding hills, where Ronnie sits in his shop, wrestling with complex memories.
“In all honesty, I thought she was a pretty good student,” Ronnie says, still sitting on that stool at the front of his computer store.
“We started with G, D, E, A,” he says. “Where she had problems were the more difficult chords, the F’s and the B’s. F is really hard on the fingers, so I would teach her things like, ‘OK, if you want to play a song in F, play it in D and put the capo on the third capo.’ So you notice when she plays, she still moves that capo around a lot.”
At first, progress was slow. “The first couple months, I thought it was a joke,” Ronnie says. “I thought, here’s a bunch of rich people ...’
But Taylor kept at it, and they began working with Ableton Live, a computer program useful for songwriting and recording.
“I said, ‘Here’s your chorus. Here’s your verse. Move these around, and look what you’ve got. You can write one verse, one chorus, and then you’ve got a song.’ That just clicked to her, and made sense.”
During this time, Ronnie was also trying to help build a website for Taylor, but says that Andrea Swift made that job difficult.
“That was eventually what led me to part ways with Andrea, because she was just like a bull in a china shop,” he says. “If you didn’t drop what you were doing to work on whatever Taylor wanted, she would lose her mind.”
There were other glimpses of the household that struck Ronnie as darker.
“They didn’t have a good relationship, the mother and father,” Ronnie says. “(Scott) used to tell me... ‘I got a wife that doesn’t love me. I’m trying to help my daughter out, and do all the right things, and my wife could care less.’ So it was a weird dynamic.”
“Her brother Austin, who was a little chubby at the time — he’s not that now — he wanted Taco Bell,” Ronnie recalls. “Taylor said, ‘I want Taco Bell, too.’ And her mother went out and got Taco Bell, but only gave it to Austin because she said, ‘nobody wants to see a fat pop star.’ She said that to Taylor. So Taylor had to eat a salad.”
The Swifts, through their publicist, declined multiple requests for comment.
Before finding Ronnie, there were false leads, which is how I met Joe. On the eve of my trip, a friend of the Swifts provided a tip: It wasn’t a computer tech at all who taught her guitar, but a pizza guy. And the pizza guy had never gotten any credit.
But it turns out this wasn’t quite right. Joe Piecora — the guy who drives that speedy red Mazda — is 63, a New Yorker who loves to talk and a onetime pizza man who also gave Swift guitar lessons for a year. But only after Ronnie had worked with her on chords. Joe’s task was to teach fingerstyle guitar. and in his telling, the student struggled.
Actually, it is not difficult to get Joe going on what he sees as the many myths of Taylor Swift. He doesn’t like her music, he doesn’t like the marketing, he doesn’t like the image-making.
“You ever hear the famous phrase Coal Miner’s Daughter?” Joe says. “I mean, basically, they're trying to put a West Virginia spin on the Taylor Swift legend. Nobody buys a Christmas tree there.”
He is alluding to the official story that Taylor grew up on a Christmas tree farm. Defining her childhood home turns out to be a whole other caper. There are two places. One is a farm in Shillington. The exact tale, per locals, is that the Swifts grew and sold Douglas firs on a property they owned about a mile away. They also grew, but did not sell, trees behind their home. Close enough.
There’s the other place on Grandview Blvd. in tonier Wyomissing, set deep in a suburban housing tract 7 miles from the farm. It is a 5,000 square foot classical revival that sold in 2013 for $700,000, according to records. Scott Swift, a wealth management adviser and senior VP at Merrill Lynch, rented it for a time, and the family lived there.
Confused? You’re not alone. Even neighbors have all kinds of trouble pinning down when the Swifts lived where, and for how long. Everyone knows that they hustled off to Nashville in 2004, and rarely looked back.
It was on Grandview Blvd., not the whatever farm, where Ronnie and Joe gave the guitar lessons.
“Taylor was the product of — it’s like the stage parent, beauty pageant documentaries that you see,” is Joe’s view.
But this is not a tale of mean spirit. Like her music or not, there is something about Taylor Swift that connects. Deeply.
“It is really intense,” says Rolling Stone’s Rob Sheffield, who gave Swift’s “1989” a four-star review and named it the No. 2 album of 2014. “She is an absolutely fantastic live performer. The songs are from the heart and that comes across in performance, and that’s something that her fans connect to.”
Sheffield goes on to offer two hefty compliments. “She is very Springsteen-like as a songwriter and a performer,” he says. “And also, she’s a bit like Carole King in terms of her craftiness as a songwriter ... There isn’t anybody, at any age, consistently making records like this.”
Rewind to the 2006 FallFest in nearby Lancaster. A 9-year-old local singer named Stephanie Grace won a “Kids Country Idol” contest run by a local radio station; the prize was to perform one song before the opening act at this annual festival.
The opening act was Taylor Swift, 16, returning home to promote her eponymous first album. The confessional style, the ability to connect with the crowd, as if she were reading from her diary, was already there. Swift was up on stage, just dishing.
“I wrote this about a boy named Drew,” she’d say, and Stephanie thought, she’s just so open, I want to write like that.
Backstage, Taylor threw an arm around Stephanie, a pipsqueak in a white cowboy hat, and invited her behind the Swift table in the autograph tent.
Then Taylor looked right at the little girl and presented a gift that would last for the rest of her striving childhood: She took her seriously.
“Do you write?” Taylor asked.
About six months later, Taylor was back in Reading to play at the local performing arts center. By then, she was blowing up, and the autograph line after the show was 300 deep. When Stephanie and her mom were sixth from the front, her mom did an embarrassing thing and said, “Do you remember Stephanie?”
Stephanie was like, ‘Mom!’ but Taylor smiled big, and connected again. “Of course, I remember! She was such a great singer.”
Stephanie is 18 now, working at getting out, shuffling between Nashville and Pennsylvania with the pic of herself and Taylor always in her iPhone.
There are people who have a natural charisma, and no doubt, she had it.
That is real.
Andrew Orth is standing in a barn next to the Swift farm in Shillington. He is talking because he misses Taylor, and wants to reconnect. He is hoping that she reads this, and sees that he holds no grudge.
The barn is Orth’s photography studio, and it is behind the house where his mother would baby-sit Taylor and her brother for many years. A table in the studio holds a selection of the thousands of photos he shot of Taylor. Slides from when she was four; promotional shots from her first days in Nashville.
Orth, now 56 with a stubble beard and black rectangle glasses, lived in Los Angeles for two decades, shot prominent actors and directors, has a frame of reference that extends well beyond these Shillington hills.
“It’s all about taking direction,” Orth says of being photographed. “Some people listen, and some people don’t. (Taylor) was in the zone. There are people who have a natural charisma, and no doubt, she had it.”
Orth is standing over the table of Swift, which takes her from childhood to the verge of stardom. He believes that he made a meaningful contribution to her image, which began during annual visits from L.A.
“I would come back, and Taylor would come running over here, wrap her arms around my legs and say, you’re my favorite photographer,’” Orth says. “I guess she got the Hollywood disease. I don’t know what it was, but she thought it was the be-all and end-all, where I came from.”
He is disappointed to have lost touch, and hopes to reconnect and shoot her again.
“She was this beautiful little girl,” Orth says. “If you can look beyond the shot, and understand that a little 4-year-old doesn’t do this sort of thing unless they’re listening so intently. When it came to shooting, we just totally connected, and it continued through the years.”
The relationship continued into the Swifts’ early years in the Nashville suburb of Hendersonville, Tenn., where Orth would stay at the family home during his periodic trips.
And then? Well . . .
“As she got bigger, I kind of vanished,” he says. “So yeah, there’s that element of ‘what’s going on here?’”
Reality struck Orth in a Denny’s outside of Tulsa in 2007, during a cross-country drive home from L.A. Swift had given a concert in the area, and all the waitresses and cooks were wearing the same T-shirt purchased at the show. On it: Surprise! A photograph he had taken.
“I remember having to take my hamburger to go,” Orth says. “I texted Andrea ‘great going, good luck.’ And that was it.”
In the winter of 1961, an unknown who until recently had been named Robert Zimmerman rode into New York, carrying all kinds of myths. He was an orphan. He’d traveled across the country in a freight train. Anything to escape Hibbing, Minn., and write his way out of the tangle of details that made reality.
He created a person called Bob Dylan, who went onto become a protest singer, rocker, country gentleman, evangelist, you name it.
Taylor Swift hit Nashville in 2004 with her own tidy stories in development. At only 25, she has spent time as a country star, a pop queen, and now New York City’s ambassador for tourism, of all things. Icons have creation myths, and forever play characters. The great ones make it work over and over and over.
People in Wyomissing, Shillington and Reading are savvy. They understand all this. But when asked about the Swifts — well, you can see what the answers contain. A complex blend of pride, yearning and resentment.
“I wouldn’t have cared if I ever got a dime,” Ronnie Cremer says, conceding that he has received the platinum album and a $5,000 guitar from the Swifts, and was paid for all the work he did for the family.
“It just would have been nice — it would have helped me out if I would have just gotten a little bit of, Ronnie Cremer taught her. That would have been nice. That would have been a nice gesture.”