Pt. 2 - Junior High School

Victor Verney By

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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).


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