Saturday, June 4, 2011
Daily Dose #8 (06/05/11)
HOW I FELL DOWN THE RABBIT HOLE OF "HUNGARIA"
The very real denizens who actually actively participate in my invented and imaginary world (That would be the mythic land of "Hungaria", to the un-initiated) often ask me: "When did you know that you wanted to be a professional musician?"
Although I can accurately pin-point the exact moment that I decided, I haven't really shared that information, or the driving forces behind the choice, because of the rather mundane reasons associated with that "ah-ha" moment.
But I promised an un-jaundiced, internal look at what makes me, and what made me tick. So here goes nuthin'.
In the middle of my transition of age twelve to age thirteen, in the year 1973, as all barely pubescent humans are prone to discover: I was an unformed, barely gelatinized bag of meat in search of an identity.
During lunch period at Skaneateles Junior High, there was a group of eighth graders that would collect in the music room everyday. Specifically three guys, all a year older than me (Which at that time set me eons apart from them socially).
Mike Rolleri played bass, Jim Varno played guitar, and Bud Hansbury played drums. These guys were men to me. They had muscles. Rolleri, an early bloomer, had a FULL BEARD, fer chrissakes. They shaved. I was just a boy.
Were they any good? Probably not, but what did you expect from a bunch of eighth graders? The actual music was inconsequential. Here was a unified band of brothers, clearly on display, and like the sun, the generated enough gravitational power to draw many planets into their orbit. The planets manifested themselves in the form of teen-aged girls.
Tons of girls. Short ones, tall ones, pretty ones, skinny ones, fat ones, cheerleaders, artsy fartsy types, earthy girls straight off the farm, popular or socially out casted... it didn't matter. They smelled so good. They all were so...mysterious. They all whispered conspiratorially with one another whenever I walked by them. They had breasts and vaginas, even if for me those particular attributes were in full lock down mode, if not in totality, at least they were to me. They were all packed in that music room for one singular purpose, and that was to heap adulation on the center of attention. The Band of Brothers, and the music that they played.
I wanted in on that deal.
At that period, I still had some type of pragmatism. I was a husky pimple-faced, socially inept doofus who scored 95 or above on any test he took and played saxophone in the junior high band. My projected pathway and placement in the vicious social hierarchy that is known as the American High School Educational System was clear. I was headed straight for nerd world.
But gaining entry in the cool club wasn't going to be easy. I was never going to be a football hero. My father, requiring me to work whenever possible, was never going to buy me a brand new BMW to drive into the school parking lot on the 16th day of my birth. I wasn't tall, blonde and blue eyed...I was short,and swarthy, the brownest kid in W.A.S.P. land. I had no self esteem, and no game to speak of. I had no tools, except one.
Bobby Varno, the Jim Varno's older brother. My sister Becky's great high school romance was Bobby Varno, a very talented guitarist in his own right, and very erudite when it came to rock music that mattered. He stocked my sister's record collection with the musical creme de la creme of the era. In contact with me, the annoying kid brother, he was intent on teaching me not only how to absorb the music, and just what was important listening, but how to absorb the backstory that every record had. Who played what, who produced it, and what label it was on, along with the general geneaology associated with personel that appeared on any record, plus all the sub-branches that shot off from the tree (Yardbirds to Bluesbreakers to Cream to Blind Faith to Delaney and Bonnie to Derrick and the Dominoes is directly correlated to sub-groups like Led Zepplin, Mick Taylor era Stones, Fleetwood Mac, Traffic, Joe Cocker's Mad Dogs and Englishmen in Eric Clapton's career path, per example) In other words, Bobby taught me that music mattered, and you had to know your shit if you wanted to be as cool as he was.
As mentioned in Blog #5, the social environment around me was fertile soil to make that decision since I a little shaver, but the seed had yet to be actually planted.
All it needed was a little teen aged boy hormonally produced Miracle Gro plant food, in terms of a crowbar to sneak myself in, and make a good case for being allowed in the club.
So I took my saxophone home and picked over my sister's records until I found a song that featured it prominently. I picked "Brown Sugar", and repetitively for days tried to decipher the vagaries of Bobby Keyes slutty sax solo, while driving my parents bonkers. This was my first taste of driving my parents bonkers with music...also a key element!
I laid in wait every lunch hour, hoping "Brown Sugar" would be called. After each session, I pestered the guys in the band, telling them that I knew the solo in "Brown Sugar". Its the only thing I actually knew, but I was selling hard. They never played it again, even though I had heard them play it before. "Brown Sugar" never being on their set list was purposeful. They always swatted me away like some kind of gnat.
Letting me into that club would have been teen aged social suicide for them. They were Gods, they knew it, and they also knew how to maintain position. Time for a different approach. If I was anything then, and still am now, it that I am doggedly persistent, and not afraid of smelling slightly desperate.
One time, they played "Let It Rain". I knew that song, and every detail of that record from the knowledge received via my sister's boyfriend.
Time for a "Hail Mary" pass... desperation, sometimes is the mother of invention.
I chatted up the band as they were packing up. Dropped some info so they knew they weren't dealing with a pimple faced piker. I talked up a storm about Delaney and Bonnie, Leon Russell, Carl Radle, Tom Dowd, Jim Gordon...basically anything I could think of to let them know that I knew more about that song then they did.
I knew I was making headway, because for the first time they were actually paying attention to me. It was time to take the shot.
Me: "You know that little piano figure that Leon Russell plays in the intro?"
Band Leader: "Yeah..."
Me: "I can play that".
This was a bald faced lie. The only thing I knew how to play on the piano was "Turkey In The Straw" (Quite badly, I might add).
Jimmy Varno's eyes lit up and his eyebrow arched. "Really? Then sit down and play it!", he chuckled as he pointed to the upright piano. He knew I was bullshitting.
The bluff being called, I had to retreat. I told him I had to hustle back to class, but I also asked if I could play "Let It Rain" with them the next day.
And he said "Sure", as he snapped the clips closed on his guitar case.
And this was the moment that I actually discovered the "Fake It Before You Make It" strategy, a very crucial part of any game plan if one decides to make Pop Stardom a career choice. I had 24 hours to learn how to play the piano.
So I ditched school for the afternoon, ran home, grabbed my portable suitcase Zenith record player with the speakers on hinges, stole Clapton's first solo record out of my sister's record collection, set the speed control to 16, and got to work.
I went deep into the night, pretended to go to school that morning and doubled back home after my Mom left for work, and shedded some more. By 11 am, I had it, at at least I thought I did. I headed for school, to either succeed heroically or fail miserably.
As I walked into the music room, the guys were setting up by the piano, and all the girls were coagulating into their usual spots and groupings according to popularity. I sat at the piano. These guys were intent on a public humiliation and a trial by fire to be rid of my pesky ass, finally for good.
The band leader counted out the tune: As the opening riff rang out, I answered back. with two fingers, Leon Russel's signature twiddly bit. Note perfect.
The rest of the song didn't matter. I didn't even know how to play a chord. Amongst loud amps and drums, you couldn't hear that box of wood anyway. All I had to do was look like a rock star during those bits, and nail that little two fingered part whenever it came around again. I had to maintain my integrity. I boasted that I knew that part, and now I had to back up the boast.
To what seemed to be wild applause at the end of the tune, The band leader turned to me and asked if I wanted to join the band.
And that, my friends, was that. The worm turned. I was now a piannaplunker, rescued from high school social oblivion and it didn't matter that it was based on a lie. What was conceptualized, was actualized.
After school, I went home and announced that I was spending my entire savings of lawn mowing, car washing, and paper route activities on an electric piano. We hopped in the car, drove to Gerber Music, and I bought a Fender Rhodes Stage 88 and a big assed Acoustic piggy back amp. I was short a few hundred, and Dad lent me the balance, with the caveat that I pay it back in blood. That summer was the first I worked in the family macaroni factory, sweeping floors.
So to answer the original question of "Why did you make the decision to become a musician?".
There was no mystical muse, or God delivered directive to be a conduit of His creative force.
This was a critical juncture in my life. My personal crossroads on a metaphoric Highway 61 where a deal with the Devil was struck: One that I gave my more than willing assent and signature. I became a plunker to get access. Access to pussy, social standing, respect, and to finally land in a place where I felt I actually belonged. In that order. The authentic committment to music came much later in life, but my path to it started right here.
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COLONEL BEAUREGARD "IRON THIGHS" JEFFERSON, A.K.A. "THE MANAGEMENT".