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Pt. 1 - Grade School

Victor Verney By

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...it was known that I was taking piano lessons, a fact that up until then had not earned me any points on the street.
"Perhaps it is a peculiarity of mine that... I have always preferred playing without an audience." —Bill Evans (1929-1980)

I used to play the piano. Quite a bit, in fact—and I even got paid for it, sometimes. I started taking lessons when I was 11 years old, and ended up playing in rock 'n' roll garage bands during the 1960s, "fusion" groups during the 70s, top-40 bands during the 80s, and jazz combos during the 90s. I've played solo, in duos, trios, quartets, quintets and octets. I've played on Farfisas and Hammonds, Wurtlitzers and Fender-Rhodeses, and I've done it in gymnasiums, nightclubs, auditoriums, church basements, bowling alleys, coffee shops and bookstores.



These days, once every proverbial blue moon, if no one else is around, I may sit down at the sad, broken-down, out-of-tune spinet in the basement and dither out something by Horace Silver or Dave Brubeck or Chick Corea. But the several non-functioning notes (some of them critical) are frustrating, particularly to a harmonic-minded player. And the broken surfaces of the keys themselves—which, in many cases are exposed down to their wooden cores—can be rough on the fingernails, even drawing blood if I permit myself to become intoxicated by my own exuberance. As for the foot pedals ... well, the less said the better...

As with most things, the stage was set in my youth. Parents can never really determine the direction their children take once they have set them in motion. My musical development is a wonderful example. Although my mother envisioned me playing "Pomp and Circumstance" and other decorous pieces on the spinet in the dining room ("Must you play that awful Bartok?"), leave it to an adolescent to follow the influence of his peers instead.



While several of my buddies were taking up the guitar, bass or drums, in response to the then-ascendant British Invasion, I was reduced to nerdhood, as usual, by my mother's insistence that I take up the piano. Like the protagonist of a Greek tragedy, my fate had been written in the stars long before my birth.

My mother, a genuinely musical woman blessed with a beautiful singing voice, was a frustrated pianist who felt cheated out of her chance to play the instrument. Although her sisters had been given lessons when they were girls (for a year or two, before they started waitressing in my grandfather's restaurant), my mother's turn came along at a very bad time: the death of her oldest brother.

Now when a Greek household goes into mourning—especially over the death of an eldest son—it REALLY goes into mourning. For a year, there was no radio, no card-playing... and the piano was draped in black. By the time the mourning was over, my mother's window of opportunity to take piano lessons had passed, and it was time for her to start waitressing after school in Papou's greasy spoon (where, incidentally, she met my father).

So it was my mother's idea to have me take piano lessons. But it was my father who gave me the hands for it. Pater Familias was vain about his hands, with their long, sculpted fingers, as he was about his appearance generally. In his younger days, by all accounts, he was something of a dashing young zoot-suited blade in the jitterbugging dancehalls of Youngstown, Ohio, where he evidently cut quite a dashing figure. He always remained something of a clotheshorse and ever-fancied himself a devastating charmer of the ladies. Over the course of his lifetime, a great many pairs of feminine eyes were rolled behind his back—but he did receive a great many compliments from women about his hands.

As did I, beginning at an early age, when my aunts (the ones who took the piano lessons my mother didn't get to take) would remark upon them, exclaiming that "with hands like that, this boy should be a pianist, etc., etc." My mother usually nodded in quiet agreement; they were preaching to the choir. She had long since decided that if she couldn't play the piano, then one of her children (most likely me) would fulfill that desire vicariously. But she never imagined that I'd end up playing jazz, which she looked down upon as "music that n***** hopheads play in whorehouses." (While politically incorrect, she was, of course, historically correct, as any knowledgeable resident of New Orleans can attest).

But before she met my father, making me a possibility, he was still tripping the Light Fantastic in his zoot-suit with the drape-shape. At this point in his life, he had an argument one night with some of the guys in the Dorsey Brothers Big Band. Years later, when he saw I was beginning to appreciate jazz, he demonstrated his contempt for it by telling me the story.

His basic conception of musicians (as is the case with many people) was that of well-dressed timekeepers, which is to say the innocuous background against which dancers twirl in the spotlight. Well, Dorsey Bros. & Co. had begun to chafe at the strictures of Glenn Miller-style pseudo-jazz, and were trying (often in the face of flying beer bottles) to move beyond the rote recitation of foxtrots and waltzes.

There were many, like my father, who gave the band shit about playing stuff no one could dance to; however, my father, as was his wont, took it a bit further and indulged in some hyperbolic rhetoric, accusing them of being egotists who simply wanted everyone's attention all the time, and disparaging their complex improvisations as "an undisciplined cacophony of random notes." (Like his idol William Buckley, my father was also vain about his vocabulary). From what I gather, one of the saxophone players told him to go f*** himself.

It is my father whom I have to thank for my first public musical performance ... sort of. We were visiting my Aunt Mary, my mother's sister. In a little-used back sunporch was a decrepit old piano, which provoked my father, who was fond of trotting out his children for company like trained monkeys, to get it into his head that I should "play something."

Now, I had only been playing a couple of years at that point; I was without sheet music and had very little committed to memory ... and the piano just looked like hell. I tried to demur; my father became insistent, stating that it would be "rude" not to play for my relatives (now that he'd gotten them all curious).

It was the usual story: the thing hadn't been tuned since FDR was president; several critical notes were non-functioning. And numerous other keys had broken surfaces upon which I snagged my fingernails several times. As for the foot pedals, well ... the less said the better...

I stumbled pitifully through a couple of abortive numbers and finally gave up, with apologies. From around the corner, I heard my father snort, almost as if he were enjoying the opportunity to humiliate his son publicly over his musical pretensions: "Not very good, was it?"

My father's own musicality did not extend much beyond napping on the couch on Sunday afternoons with some lugubrious opera (Lucia di Lammermoor was his favorite) playing on the radio at an annoyingly mid-range volume: not really loud enough to actually listen to, were one to care to do so, but loud enough so as to be distractingly difficult to ignore.

Therein was the set-up for a recurring, O. Henry-style domestic drama. My mother would wait until he fell asleep and attempt to exploit the opportunity to turn the radio off, at which point he would invariably wake up growling about how " ... a man works all week and he can't even be left alone in peace to listen to some music in his own living room, etc., etc...." My mother, most of the time, would then retreat in exasperation to another sector of the house. However, on one notable occasion, she had the temerity to suggest that the lachrymose murmurings emanating from the radio were aggravating her headache, at which point he took the radio out to the garage and methodically smashed it to pieces with a hammer.

Ordinarily, however, he did use hammers constructively, and he was good with his hands generally, possessing great skill as an amateur cabinetmaker, among other things. He was also a fire-breathing, Bible-thumping conservative—politically, socially and religiously.

This is why he learned to hate rock music even more than he hated jazz. Whereas jazz offended his vanity by being too performer-oriented, rock'n'roll was a full-fledged assault upon his professed moral values. A Goldwater Republican, his theological horizons were defined by Thomas Aquinas and Bishop Fulton Sheehan (whose television show he never missed). His intellectual horizons were circumscribed by William F. Buckley; the only publication to which he ever subscribed was National Review, which he read, well ... religiously. His favorite movie star? Who else but John Wayne?



He found himself presented with a teenaged first-born son and namesake growing his hair long, reading Kafka (who certainly would have appreciated the Oedipal dynamic unfolding between Senior and Junior), and festooning his bedroom wall with posters of Jimi Hendrix — whom I had recently seen perfom live, the most intense experience of my 13-year-long life ... even though he didn't burn his guitar. However, there was a platoon of bemused city firefighters on either stage wing with fireaxes and CO2 canisters earning a whole lot of overtime pay, thanks to the city fire marshall. He had employed the pretext of Hendrix's incendiary moment at Monterey in order to blackmail the show's promoters: if they didn't agree to pay the firemen, they weren't going to get a permit to perform.

I had unwittingly set the stage for my first personal kulturkampf, which I brought to a climax when I prevailed upon my piano teacher, at the behest of my new-found bandmates, to purchase something a little cooler, i.e. some rock. I had been showing signs of boredom with the genteel musical agenda through which she had been leading me (Schirmer, et al), as well as other signs of male adolescent rebelliousness. It was at that point at which Mrs. D___ , a sweet little old widow who loved little children but who was somehow a bit less fond of teenagers, usually decided it was time for the young lion to move on.

That point had just about been reached when, in an attempt to restore my flagging interest, she had a well-intentioned but ill-fated impulse. She often went downtown to purchase sheet music for herself and her students, and she asked me if there was any music I'd like her to try and find. I was enamored with a song then climbing the charts, "Dirty Water," by a group named the Standells which I thought might be good material for the garage band that was starting to grow in my friend's basement.

Perhaps it should be explained that "garage band" was a figure of speech in my old neighborhood, where garages were usually small, detached affairs set at the very back of the property. Nor were they "finished" as is the custom in Rancho Suburbia these days, usually serving as large toolsheds (complete with semi-functioning doors and windows). In most cases, they lacked adequate electricity, and they were never heated: a tough environment for even the hardiest aspiring rocker. Moreover, these old outbuildings almost always lacked physical security (thus attracting unwanted attention from felonious-minded fellow musicians in the middle of the night) and sound insulating properties (thereby attracting unwanted attention from the local police at all other hours of the day and night).



But I digress.

Mrs. D___, somewhat to my surprise, was actually able to procure a copy of "Dirty Water" for me. This is how my father, upon coming home from work one evening and passing the piano enroute to his easy chair, came to see a piece of sheet music graced by four rather worldy-looking young street punks eyeing him without the least bit of deference. Opening it up, he read the following lyrics:

(spoken)
I'm gonna tell you a story
I'm gonna tell you about my town
I'm gonna tell you a big bad story, baby
Aww, it's all about my town

(sung)
Yeah, down by the river
Down by the banks of the river Charles
That's where you'll find me
Along with lovers, fuggers, and thieves
Well I love that dirty water
Oh, Boston, you're my home
Frustrated women
Have to be in by twelve o'clock
But I'm wishin' and a-hopin, oh
That just once those doors weren't locked
Well I love that dirty water
Oh, Boston, you're my home

Because I love that dirty water
Oh, oh, Boston, you're my home

Well, I love that dirty water

Well ... I don't know if it was the "fuggers" or the "frustrated women" that did it, but he went ballistic! He tore up the sheet music in a rage and ordered me to take down the Hendrix poster immediately, loudly declaring that he would "not allow his home to be polluted with this sort of Godless filth, etc. etc."

This uproar inevitably got back to poor Mrs. D___, and shortly thereafter it was decided by mutual accord that perhaps it would be best if I discontinued taking piano lessons from her.

This sealed my fate, consigning my soul to the Dark Minions of rock'n'roll. At roughly this same time in my life, I had an after-school paper route, which brought me in contact with all the guys my age within a four-block radius of my home. A couple of them were friendly; most thought me an overweight, undersocialized bookworm who wasn't very good in sports and whose house, burdened as it was by two decidedly vigilant parents, wasn't such a congenial place to hang out.

But all that changed one day. A few of the guys in my neighborhood, as I have mentioned, were putting together a garage band, doubtless motivated in no small measure by the increasing attention with which their musical efforts were being rewarded by several of the prettiest girls in school.

Anyone familiar with the music of the late 1960s knows that it was about more than guitars and drums: it was rife with high-profile (albeit cheesey) organ, as well. Remember the Dave Clark Five; remember Paul Revere & the Raiders; remember Vanilla Fudge, for God's sake!!

(ahem) Anyway ... it was known that I was taking piano lessons, a fact that up until then had not earned me any points on the street. However, the boys started to realize that an organist would expand their repertoire considerably. Someone's mother owned a tabletop chord organ she'd purchased on a whim at Woolworth's (or Kresge's, or some other Paleolithic-era precursor to today's Big Box). It was one of those fan-driven deals with two octaves of half-sized keys and a dozen or so chord buttons (white for major, black for minor) on the left.



It was with some trepidation, upon completing my paper route one day, that I saw a contigent of the local boulevardiers approaching. Usually, this boded ill for me, signaling that they'd become bored with basketball or hockey and were in the mood for some crueler sport. Often, my paper wagon would get highjacked by a couple of bicyclists while a couple other foot soldiers distracted me, ending up down the street, upside-down, with my papers in the snow and my eighty-plus customers all howling on their front steps for their evening paper, goddammit!

But not this time. This was to be a friendly approach. They asked me if I would care to try playing a couple of tunes with them. Internally delirious, I did my best to mask it (these were the super-cool guys, don't forget) as we strolled down to the practice room. Mrs. D___ had not neglected to teach me my major and minor triads, and of course the guitarist (M____, our local Matinee Idol) already knew the chords. So, within moments, I found myself pounding out the three chords of "Louie, Louie" to general approval, after which I wowed 'em by quickly picking up on the three chords of "Gloria." Subsequent sessions yielded further triumphs: I could handle the organ part in Wilson Pickett's "Midnight Hour"; ditto for The Animals' "House of the Rising Sun" (speaking of cathouses in the Big Easy) and Sam and Dave's "Hold On, I'm Comin'." And those hits just kept on comin'.

After that, friendly greetings were directed at me from the guys as I delivered my papers; suddenly, the girls in the neighborhood and at school seemed a whole lot friendlier, too.

to be continued...

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