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Confessions of a Piano Player

Pt. 2 - Junior High School


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... I wanted an organ, and I felt I had every right to buy one with the money I earned carrying 80+ very thick newspapers six days a week through Buffalo blizzards.
. . . continued from Pt. 1

Well, now I was more-or-less in a band. One thing I realized right away was that the law of supply and demand was working in my favor: guitarists and drummers were a dime a dozen, but keyboardists were few and far between. Moreover, most of the keyboardists, no matter how good they, were playing on their mothers' pianos in their living room and didn't have the gear required for a garage/basement band. So, like every other teenage rock star-wannabe, I was embarked on the never-ending quest for equipment. The resulting demands on money and time often eclipsed budding musicianship: money that might've been spent on lessons and music books were instead spent on instruments, amplifiers, speaker cabinets and microphones, and time that might've been spent practicing was spent acquiring, jury-rigging and maintaining that gear.

And our parents weren't going to be much help—that was quite clear to most of us right from the gate. There's an apocryphal story about one of the most well-known and successful musicians to come out of my old stomping grounds, bassist Billy Sheehan (who went on to fame and fortune with David Lee Roth). Exactly one month younger than me, he also was in attendance when Jimi Hendrix played at Buffalo Memorial Auditorium [see "Confessions, Pt.1"]. On his Web site, Sheehan describes it as a seminal event in his young life, as it was in mine. Local urban mythology has it that as a boy he annoyed his older sister by incessantly borrowing her folk guitar. When he asked the grownups for an electric guitar, his grandmother purportedly said "Over my dead body! Well, as it turns out, she died shortly thereafter, and young Billy used some of the insurance money to purchase his first electric guitar. As cold as it sounds, Sheehan was envied by many of us, who wished some of our grownups would disappear too, and leave us some inheritance money to do with as we wished. We all had day-to-day fathers, most of whom were a royal pain in the ass. Of course, this was the late 60s, in a heavily Catholic community (Buffalo's dominant Caucasian ethnicities are Italian, Polish and Irish)—divorce was unheard of: I didn't even know of anyone whose parents were divorced! (How much of a dinosaur does THAT make me sound like?). And remember, we were listening to things like Jim's Morrison charming oedipal poetics in "The End, a song on the Doors' eponymous first album (Elektra, 1967):

"Yes, son?
"I want to kill you. Mother, I want to . . .

This passage is often considered an homage to Sophocles' Oedipus the King, a dramatic production on which Morrison worked while attending Florida State University. Jimbo himself said in 1969 that the song meant, among other things, "goodbye to a kind of childhood." Morrison also stated that "killing the father" means destroying everything hierarchical, controlling, and restrictive, while "fucking the mother" means embracing everything that is expansive, flowing, and alive. He was certainly influenced by Friedrich Nietzsche's concept of going beyond the limits of bourgeois society by embracing Dionysian vitality and life ("the mother") while rejecting Apollonian systems and traditions ("the father").

Nothing if not precociously literary, I, like Morrison, had been reading Sophocles, Nietzsche, Blake, Baudelaire, Rimbaud and Kerouac. Just as it was with my introduction to the piano, this too was the fault of my mother, whose idea of bedtime stories for me as an infant included Homer, Dickens and Twain, all of whom I was reading on my own by the time I was in 1st grade. And also like Morrison, whose father was an admiral, I had a father who had acquired many of his notions of parenthood in the Navy, including white-glove inspections and floggings. I can remember the first time we all watched The Sound of Music, when my father expressed admiration for the tight ship the widower Captain von Trapp (Christopher Plummer) ran with his children before Maria (Julie Andrews) came along to mess it all up.

Little wonder, then, that my father, who was growing increasingly appalled at my choice of reading material and whose own youthful experiences with musicians were something other than pleasant, wasn't crazy about subsidizing my rock'n'roll adventures with its "electric banjoes as he termed them—particularly after a memorable encounter with some sheet music I'd been foolish enough to leave on the piano [again, see "Confessions, Pt.1"].

We prowled our neighborhoods on garbage night, and if anyone had set out an old broken-down television or stereo, we swooped down on it like vultures, stripping speakers and other components and often using the cabinetry for our own purposes. We quickly acquired a practical education in electronics, and it doesn't surprise me to see Sheehan and other successful local musicians of that era like Bobby Militello (who went on to fame and fortune with Maynard Ferguson and Dave Brubeck) describe themselves as inveterate tinkers and gadget-nuts. We had to be.

Unfortunately, some of us also had to beg, borrow or steal in order to assemble the bare minimum requirements for playing a junior high school dance or even a private party in someone's back yard. The first two habits, while not particularly noble personality traits to acquire at a young age, were nothing compared to some of the felonious escapades we concocted. While learning electronics as boys was a benign, even useful education for later on in life, as some of the more enlightened parents begrudgingly conceded, we acquired expertise in darker arts, as well. Some of the more daring of us became skilled cat burglars, learning that our fathers' tools could be used for breaking and entering as well as building speaker cabinets. We plotted "inside jobs at our schools to acquire the high-end microphones and public address amplifiers we couldn't afford and our parents wouldn't buy. Someone would leave a back window to an auditorium or assembly hall ajar, to be visited late at night by a stealthy, agile crew knowing exactly what it wanted and where it was.

I've mentioned my afternoon newspaper route previously, and nobody knows residential neighborhoods like mailmen, meter readers ... and paperboys. Me and a couple other guys with paper routes were enlisted as "finger men since we routinely went into people's homes to collect our paper money, giving us unfettered opportunities to see, for instance, who happened to own a nice set of stereo speakers. And, since we had license to cut through back yards and alleys without raising undue alarm, we knew, for example, who left their basement windows unlocked. On one or two occasions, we overstepped ourselves a bit and were hauled into the police station. Unfortunately for them and fortunately for us, the police never had any real proof—we were too smart to leave hot gear laying around, often swapping it with guys in other parts of town—and we didn't crack under their blustering, suburban cop attempts to break us down into tearful confessions. They were pissed, and our parents were unsettled, but there wasn't much they could do about it. We were, without question, young, foolish ... and extremely lucky.

And in between all our other pubescent interests, activities and obligations, we actually did get around to playing some music. We started acquiring role-models: The Yardbirds, The Blues Project, Paul Butterfield, Spencer Davis ... in other words, White Boys Who Play the Blues. In the meantime, it was incumbent upon me to acquire something resembling a real organ. The various jury-rigs I'd attempted with that table-top organ just weren't going to cut it, especially after the guitarists started to get real amplifiers and the drummer got tired of holding his testosterone in check for my sake (he and I weren't exactly tight, you might say). Putting a microphone in front of the organ's three-inch speaker was hopeless: even discounting the gawdawful sound quality, the feedback was incessant. I lacked my own amplifier, and the bassist and guitarists were reluctant to let me plug into channel 2 on theirs (teenage egos and territories were at stake, of course).

At the time, I was attending the local Catholic elementary school (a mile away), while everyone else I knew was at the local public junior high school just down the street. Although most of the guys were from Italian Catholic families, none of their parents were quite as motivated (i.e. willing to pay tuition on top of local school taxes) to educate their sons under the tutelage of the good Sisters and Fathers as mine, opting instead to send them Sunday morning Catechism classes to assuage their sense of religious duty. Now, Catholic elementary schools run through 8th grade; in the public schools, at that point, kids were already in their second year of junior high. That made me look lame enough, but to make matters worse, I had to wear a uniform. I plotted my route to and from school so as to minimize the chances of the guys seeing me in my pea-green shirt and dark green tie embossed with the school logo.

Before I had graduated from grade school, it had been decided that I would attend a local prep school run by the Christian Brothers, known for their winemaking and (later on) pederasty. Fortunately for my young ass, this was not a boarding school, so the abuse was limited to the merely physical; the Good Brothers enthusiastically subscribed to the dictum "Spare the Rod, Spoil the Child, and Number Two's official title was "Vice-Principal/Disciplinarian. You did NOT want to get called into his office! I heard, a few years later, that he'd been relieved of his duties; evidently, he was perceived as enjoying them a little too much, even for the taste of discipline-minded, old-school Catholic parents, which is really saying something.

There was another problem: once again, tuition—$700 a year, quite a sum in those days for a ninth-grade education outside the rarified circles of the New England aristocracy. Moreover, not only did I get to continue wearing a tie, I now also had a wear a suit jacket with it. We were being groomed for our presumed future roles as community leaders, after all. But the kicker was that, in exchange for the privilege of going to an all-boys school, where I could get roughed up by the teachers in class, the other guys after school, and then my father when I got home, I was going to have to pay the tuition with the paper route I was required to have. That meant, of course, that I couldn't play football nor do much of anything else after school besides practice my piano lessons for a half-hour. Quite a deal, eh?

Well, I wanted an organ, and I felt I had every right to buy one with the money I earned carrying 80+ very thick newspapers six days a week through Buffalo blizzards. The increasingly vicious dinner-table arguments, slammed doors, and long stretches of toxic silence finally persuaded my mother to take me to the local music store to at least look at what was available in low-end organs. She stubbornly maintained to my father that it was healthier for my social and psychological development for me to get involved in a band rather than spending days on end in my room (I was once grounded by my father for an entire summer when he found a Playboy magazine under my bed displaying the charms of Brigitte Bardot, my first teenage fantasy).

But there was precious little enthusiasm for this shopping expedition on my mother's part. Not only was she distinctly unenamored with rock'n'roll generally, she was also placed in the position of siding with Victor, Jr. against Victor, Sr.—an altogether uncomfortable situation for a good Greek girl, who for all her feisty independence (she had gone off to college against my grandfather's strident objections), was nonetheless a product of her cultural inheritance, which mandates submission on the part of women and children to the patriarchal will.

As we looked at floor models, a salesman glommed on to us and quickly sized up the situation. My mother's sniffing disdain for the electric guitars and keyboards lining the floor and hanging from the walls (and their somewhat shocking price tags) was obvious. Playing a sophisticated double game—after all, he knew (or thought he knew) who was writing the check—he cursorily showed me the cheapest organ in the store, while currying favor with my mother by agreeing with her that organs were for "lazy piano players. There was little room for discussion; it went without saying that I was going to get the bottom-of-the-barrel: a fan-driven organ, in effect an accordion with four legs minus the buttons, price $125. The resemblance was more than just mechanical; I was mortified one day when our next-door neighbor, after hearing something coming from my bedroom window, asked my parents if one of the kids was learning the accordion.

It was a Chordovox, or Multivox, or some such abomination, and it was almost as pitiful as the tabletop organ it was intended to replace. While it did at least have four octaves of standard size keys, it no electronics other than an on-off switch and a red pilot light—hardly necessary, since the fan, located on the underside, made it perfectly obvious to anyone within 20 feet when the miserable thing was turned on. Depressing a key (in every sense of the word) simply opened an airhole. Period. There was no ability to alter tone in any way, and no volume control. I discovered that by moving my leg over the fan and partially choking the air supply, I could lower the volume for practice purposes. I was not keen on people hearing my cheesy-sounding attempts to cop Farfisa and Hammond parts on what I was certain had to be the worst-sounding organ on the planet.

Ultimately, its utter lack of electronics was the very shortcoming which enabled me to agitate for a better, true electric organ. I mean, it didn't even have a speaker that could be miked! But I was stuck with it for a while, until my band mates, rallying to my assistance, began to lobby my parents on my behalf, trying to explain to them why it was altogether useless as a combo instrument. Fortunately for me, my father seemed to like a couple of my buddies better than he liked me and was willing to grant some credence to their arguments while dismissing my own on the matter. After all, what did I know?—I was only the guy playing the friggin' thing.

Ironically, it wasn't until I stopped taking piano lessons that I was able to use the money thus freed up to ditch that detestable cacho mierda and get a Farfisa Mini-Compact and a real amplifier, enabling me to finally make some music for people. Thus began my first round of professional gigs—graduation parties, Bar Mitzvah parties, fraternity parties, and the occasional grade school or junior high school dance. But there were more tumultuous changes to come; it was the late 1960s, and revolution was in the air, especially where music was concerned.

to be continued . . .

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Jazz article: Pt. 2 - Junior High School
Confessions of a Piano Player
Pt. 2 - Junior High School
Jazz article: Pt. 1 - Grade School
Confessions of a Piano Player
Pt. 1 - Grade School


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