Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Velvet Papers, Pt. 6

"How about a few cocktails, babe?"

“Then, we find a new and deeper respect for the benevolence of the creative impulse: it succeeds despite these people, not because of them.” –Robert Fripp

“You're out of touch, my baby, my poor discarded baby.”

The late 80’s were a time when synth pop and drum machines ruled. Madonna, The Police and every anemic-looking English pop band were chart favorites. And let’s not forget the forgettable hair bands like Poison who showed that showmanship above musicianship was industry standard. The three minute video with pouting, guitar slinging she-males, complete with the ubiquitous anorexic zombie cokehead models, were the video “art” of MTV. Oh, what a glorious decade (save for The Police) it was for music.

Then, there were three dudes who fit the era like a drunken cockney at a royal wedding. We couldn’t have been more out of fashion if we had tried. The thing is, we didn’t try. We weren’t rebelling. “You are what you is,” saith the Frank Zappa and in our case, that was the truth. Now, Greg had already proven himself a wielder of a mighty blues-rock axe in Brian Diller and the Ride, whereas CR and me were sort of still in that “neither is, nor is not” musical neverland. I could play Bach, Torroba, Sor, but didn’t want to be limited to one style. CR played his jazzy Vince Gauraldi funk lounge. All was well, but a new synthesis was in the works.

We were out of fashion even in the conventional sense. Greg tended toward the rocker look more than CR and me who tended towards preppy or downright West Virginia: flannel shirts, jeans and boat shoes. Always the damn boat shoes.

At some point, this lounge-rock-latin mishmash stopped seeming absurd. All the while, boys and girls, our originals were growing in number. The originals existed comfortably along side any cover song. Craigo’s Groove sat right along side Demolition Man on a set list without any irony. One Night Flingo? Corcovado? Charlie Brown’s theme song? Sure, all part of the same thing. It was Velvet.

Wedding: A Twist of Tito

Armed with a PA and a drum machine, Greg got us another wedding to play. At weddings, we knew that you have to tame things down at bit and to always be aware of your volume. The band is there only if someone wants to dance, but most of the time it was smooth background dinner music- the old soft bossa nova or an easy swing tune. We were awfully good at being invisible.

The mighty Tito: master of Latin grooves.
After the gig, an older man came up to us and told us how much he liked our sound. He went on further to tell us that he was from Puerto Rico and played drums. When he told us that he cold play bossa, merenque, salsa and all these latin beats, I stood in utter disbelief. My jaw must have been open to the floor. Glenn impressed me so that I was casting a “yes” to hire him on the spot. He gave us a business card and we promised to call him.

Years later, I asked Glenn point blank why he approached us. He told me that he was impressed with how attentive we were to the crowd. I never thought of us that way, but this was to be another characteristic of the future Veebs.

Glenn, or Tito as we later dubbed him, was the next piece of the Velvet puzzle to propel us to becoming a real gigging band. Glenn was older and had a very calming and organizing effect on us. His sense of organization was impeccable and when he would shout at a rehearsal, “Come on guys! I’ve only got an hour more,” we listened because we respected him so much. He was like a father figure to the three guys who were frequently fraught with musicianistis: a total lack of direction or organization. Musicians can fall totally love with an idea (It’s called noodling) or they babble on and on about some new fangled piece of equipment that going to change their sound into total nirvana. It’s mostly an illusion and nonsense and all musicians suffer from it at one time or another.

I distinctly remember (and have on tape somewhere) asking Glenn to show us the merenque beat. I tried to understand this Dominican Republic dance rhythm, but can safely say that it took a lot of time to for us to even comprehend the pattern, let alone contribute anything meaningful to it.

You Can’t Fake It, Baby

There is a small, but distinct Latino community in the Charleston-Huntington area and Glenn got us booked for one of their get-togethers. This was the acid test to me. Could three gringos pull off this music for a gathering of Latinos? If Glenn didn’t believe it, we wouldn’t have even been there, but to me, I was waiting for the mangos to start flying in our direction.

And none came.

The gig went very well and we were very well received which came at a great relief. We had pulled off something no doubt unique not only to our area, but even in metropolitan areas. I have heard one Latino firmly say, that in NY for instance, the Latin musical communities and those of the hombres blancos never mix. There is a fierce pride in Latin communities, a pride I have seen and experienced, firsthand. It is not a closed society, quite the opposite, but in most cases, you probably had to be married to a Latino/Latina to be accepted. But the fact we had played this music well enough to win the respect of those attending was a boost.

 (While this is truly apocryphal, when I was with a friend in Central Park, innocently grooving to a drum circle, a Latina came along and said, as if to warn us, “No whites. No whites.” Really? This wasn't a "hood," but Central Park.)

So, maybe this gig is going to work after all.

With Tito in the band, the Latin groove was for real and personally, he brought so much positive energy. When we got an "Outstanding, guys!" from Tito, it lit up the room. Musically, he was the most restrained drummer I have ever worked with. He told me that when his father (many stories there) gave him his first drum lessons, that he was going to teach him something that some drummers never learn: how to play quietly. True to his father's teachings, Glenn would play the sweetest (and softest) bossa you've ever heard. He was always telling us to keep our volume in check. Because he was always truthful and straight to the point, I can say that none of us got miffed when he told us this. Musicians have massive egos sometimes, but there's always an alpha player to keep them in check.

Next: More Tito and Should We Add Another Latino?

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