Monday, May 24, 2010

Musician blah blah #10

I get by with a little help from my friends.

{This pic is not my actual 1977 Kramer, but it's the same model.}

One thing's for sure: your teachers can teach you a lot, but your friends and colleagues are probably more responsible for your education, especially if your major is music. The ocean of musical knowledge is infinite, but if you can't relate or compete with your peers, you feel left out. You figure out pretty quickly how ignorant you are.

When the formal lesson's over, music majors (flaming homosexuals that we were-just kidding) would hang out. There were two things it seemed to me that we did: practiced and partied to relief the stress. You can go stark raving mad in a practice room. I saw it firsthand while helping a friend study for an exam. You can go suicidal as well. More on that later.

West Lib was an almost empty campus on the weekends. You could feel the whole atmosphere change as Friday rolled around. The place emptied out, leaving only a few souls and mostly empty buildings. It sometimes felt to me that we were being abandoned, to fend for ourselves. The commuters had it easy-drive back to home-cooked meals and other comforts. We had to slug it out in the dorms, bumming cans of tuna for the late nite munchies. The only thing that kept us going was good friends and dynamite extracurricular activities.

I know I walk to a different beat. I don't wear the clothes of the musician or artist, but inside, my perspective runs counter to mainstream, so when I say odd or oddball about any one of these guys, I say it with deep affection.

The oddball circle of friends that I found were just as eccentric as me and some maybe more so. Perhaps the most eccentric was Wolfie. An extremely bright man whose encyclopedic knowledge of jazz was tempered by his often bizarre observations and behavior. The first time I met him, we were all talking in a group about the qualities we liked in women, "I like a girl who looks like she has a couple of scars from a knife fight." We all laughed out so hard, but I do believe he was being sincere.

[My apologies to "Wolfie." We remain in contact to this day. A great guy to know.]

He could go from normal mode of operation to hammered in few quick drinks of beer. Once at a party, we were all making pleasant conversation and Wolfie was certainly making those golden provocative statements. Without notice, he started making strange animal noises and punching my laundry bag. This sent shock waves throughout the room. I knew him and knew that he wouldn't harm a fly, so I just smiled and tripped out on the scene.

Bobo was the best musician in my class. I always imagined he would go and be a session player in Nashville or back up some superstar. He can play electric guitar like nobody's business as well as sax and clarinet. Hell, he's probably picked up a few more instruments by now.

He was also the most straight-laced of all of us, adopting the Zappa dogma that drugs were for idiots. Despite never had anything stronger than beer, he could go as mentally out there as anybody I knew. Surreal humor was par for the course for us. Big surprise there.

Joe taught me a lot about music by just hanging around him. He was in a couple of different bands, playing with older musicians in the Ohio Valley. One called "Shop" played the usual rounds of weddings-special events, etc. He also played in a group with Robert and that's where I got my first taste of being on stage in a band. Of course, I instantly loved it.

Joe had a kind of garage sale, stick a band-aid on it attitude towards material possessions. I am avoiding the term "junk," but let's face it, the man had shit spread everywhere. His truck was filled with this and that. We are all guilty of this. Musicians must be some of the worst hoarders and collectors. They always seem to be searching for the "white whale" of new equipment-that one new gizmo that's going to transform their playing. Bobo has his share. There was one pedal called Doctor Q that we used to laugh about. It made the guitar sound like it was under water.

Robert and I instantly hit it off. Most folks assumed that we were already friends. Kindred spirits I suppose. He looked like T Rex with his long black curls and his rocker boots. I could tell that Roberto was into music from the get-go. Long, long conversations were held about every imaginable guitar player. He used to go on about Buck Dharma from Blue Oyster Cult until I couldn't stand it. Every guitar convo ended up with Buck Dharma this and that. I got to a point where I'd pick an argument with him just to get him to stop talking endlessly about BOC. Shut up, why don't ya?

Roberto and I spent many a long hour jamming. On the weekends, you had to do something to fill the long, lonely hours. Sharing musical ideas creates a bond and bonding with this eccentric rocker type from Beckley was easy. One of the things about Robert was that he was incredibly easy to be around. I always felt like I could be myself around him, that we weren't in competition. He is a guy who leads with his heart, perhaps because his mind is not always a reliable thing. Sometimes you could see the wheels turning for a moment, eyes glazed over like he was lost. This was a source of ridicule from our inner circle. Whatever we served up, the guy could sure take it. He came from a large Italian family and with older brothers, he probably had to have taken some serious shit in his life.

BZ was also a kindred spirit. We shared a damaged oddness, an ability to go way, way out there in one glance. Often, I didn't even need to finish my sentences, BZ was already there. He possesses without a doubt, one of the most creative and quickest minds I have ever had the serious fuckedupedness to know. He was a brass major, but handled guitar and bass pretty well. BZ stayed wound up and his sense of humor was a life raft many times. He could go weird like nobody else.

Dan was my roommate. He was a tall guy who, around most people, kept a low profile and was mostly taciturn on most subjects. But when you are roomies, you get to see all sides of a person. There was the public Dan and the one I knew. His sense of humor was like a switchblade: he could cut someone in half with just a few words. The musical education from him was one of a jazz bent. The Yellow Jackets, Steely Dan, and whatever public radio jazz he had recorded. In fact, he used to play the same tapes repeatedly. I don't think he ever owned more than a few.

BC I met at a party. When I found out he was a drummer, we hit it off instantly. Bob seemed like a calm, reasonable guy who spoke of a belief that a drummer was nothing more than a timekeeper in a band. Little did I know the fury that he kept hidden in that initial meeting. This was no timekeeper, but a time bomb. Again, whatever unnamed damage had created his penchant for loud, furious and fast drumming (and hell-raising), we shared a very similar psychological makeup. Perhaps it was our inflated egos.

Andy could be appear the most academic of us all. He would sometimes remind me of a writer for a guitar journal. He would push his glasses back up on his nose and spout some obscure factoid about an 18th century guitar practice. Contrast this with the fact that he was from Mullens. Could there be a more depressing place? How a guy who dug esoteric European jazz survived growing up in a Southern hell hole? Also, he was the first person I knew to own a complete copy of the Bach Lute Suites. I wasn't ready to tackle such monumental repertoire.

Contrast all that when the buzzage would take hold. When buzzed Andy would arrive, he was silly and would laugh his ass off.

Quick story: we put together a spontaneous band because Bob (BC) got us a gig at Bethany college. Learn the songs? What, are you kidding? We got a gig! We were so full of bullshit bravado that we figured a few runs through a tune was all that was needed. Plus, most of us were music majors and thought rock was a child's toy to play.

Hard Times was name chosen for the band and off we went. One gig at the student lounge was total chaos and a total blast. When you are so full of yourself and youthful vim and vigor that actual musical performance was secondary to the burning energy of playing loud and fast. Energy we had to spare. Oh yeah.

We burned through Bowie, Marshall Tucker, Ted Nugent with total punk abandon. Learn the chords? Lyrics? The music? Nope. We were rock'n'rollers now, no ordinary music majors. I think we had all that energy because of the prevailing hateful attitude against us at West Lib. Here, in this Bethany student union, we could pretend to be something.

Where was I? Hiding in the back? Nay-front and center with a black hat that I picked off the head of another band member. God, would I pay to see pictures of that night. Maybe Robert has them. He is the archivist of this period.

At first, Wolfie joined us. Now, like I said, there was sober Wolfie and totally blitzed Wolfie. Wolfie before the huge cup of beer, joint (and he swears someone spiked his beer with a Quaylude) was acting normal, then "Captain Quaylude," as he was dubbed by a an audience member, came to life. He said. "Hey guys, do you know I'm a Man?" He promptly launched into singing it, leaving the more skilled among us, Bobo, to try to get the band going on the tune.

It didn't happen.

At one point, Wolfie started hitting BC's cymbals: a huge no-no. You couldn't run a wire through the legs of the drum stands without a "get that that wire out of there" from Mr. Timekeeper. BC smacked Wolfie with one of his sticks. That had to hurt.

We all had a chance to play and sing for the beer drinking Bethany College crowd. At the end of the night, I have one very sharp memory. I tried to get the band to play some Neil Young. Well, as per usual, BC (drummer) liked to play so loud that he more than likely obliterated all the other instruments on stage. Again, we were young and playing with intensity. I was trying to sing, playing the piano (big joke there) when I noticed that I couldn't really hear the piano very well. Pianos, by and large, usually have no problem making their way into the mix, but this poor upright was being swallowed whole by the mighty fists of BC and everyone else.

I looked up and noticed this cute girl watching me, but this was also the moment when I realized the futility of it all, so I did what any sensible, logical, disciplined music major would do: I started pounding my fingers randomly and as loud as I could while screaming into the mic. This brought a big smile to the girl. Now, there's a moment.

They Form Band. Argh.

Robert and I got hooked up with Dan, my roommate, and Bob to form a band. This was my first experience and the education was unforgettable. We joined with this scruffy, hair-always-in-his-face bass player from Ohio named John whom we used dubbed, "Bon" because he mumbled. We would practice at Bon's house and inevitably, when the volume was cranked, neighbors would complain and the police would be there in minutes. It was like the Keystone Cops were waiting right around the corner. I have never seen such quick law enforcement response before or since.
I loved the whole idea of being in a band, but had no idea what a royal pain in the ass it could be. I have to also point out that my playing and especially my singing skills were pretty dire at this point, but I thought I was so cool. The whole idea of singing and playing guitar felt so right. Problem was, the band got so divisive.

Poor Robert (guitar) had Bob(drummer) on his ass. Robert had a lot of trouble with rhythm and sometimes he would drive Bob insane. It frustrated him to the point of anger. I vividly recall Bob trying to get Robert to play even triplets for a Blue Oyster Cult tune. The split got worse as Dan and Bob joined forces wanting to us to play a club date long before John, Robert and myself felt we were ready.

To add even more fuckedupedness to the already fucked up situation, I invited a very nice guy named Greg to be our lead singer as I kept expressing my doubts as a vocalist. Greg came to one rehearsal, going with the classic country rock "Amy" which was then really popular. I don't recall how we got onto the subject, but situation raised it's nasty head. I asked him flat-out what his opinion was and his was no revelation: Dan and Bob were about getting out into clubs and playing, while John, Robert and me wanted to rehearse more. Sounds simple to resolve, right?

You're naive.

Being an old dude now, I cannot understand why this turned out to be such an issue. Reluctantly, I followed Dan into a little hole-in-the-wall and the club owner listened to our demo. She liked it, Dan booked the gig. I do not know what we charged, but I felt embarrassed and didn't think we were ready.

The Hard Times Band made its dubious debut at the Route 40 shithole. I think we played two nights. (Robert has all the archived tapes of these nightmares. He clearly has blackmail material. I cannot imagine the embarrassment.) We had a hodgepodge of tunes ranging from Bowie to Marshall Tucker, Merle Haggard to originals, but fighting within the group would never allow us to gain any kind of sound. In hindsight, it was way too early to be playing out.

Bon was an excellent bass player, but once on stage, he became so introverted and I believe (my recollection is stretched here) that it affected his memory. To be honest, he became even more eccentric than he already was-hard to imagine.

Bob, once agitated, would start speeding up like crazy (You know the old joke about drummers.) and thus what was a jog became a balls-out sprint. Robert, always looking a little lost, struggled with Bob's aggression, but held his place. Dan sat stone faced behind his keys. Then there was the idiot at the mic.

Let's leave it there until next time, shall we?

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