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I'm the co-host of THIS IS ROCK 'N' ROLL RADIO with Dana & Carl (Sunday nights, 9 to Midnight Eastern, www.westcottradio.org).  As a freelance writer, I contributed to Goldmine magazine from 1986-2006, wrote liner notes for Rhino Records' compilation CD Poptopia!  Power Pop Classics Of The '90s, and for releases by The Flashcubes, The Finkers, Screen Test, 1.4.5., and Jack "Penetrator" Lipton.  I contributed to the books Bubblegum Music Is The Naked Truth, Shake Some Action, Lost In The Grooves, and MusicHound Rock, and to DISCoveries, Amazing Heroes, The Comics Buyer's Guide, Yeah Yeah Yeah, Comics Collector, The Buffalo News, and The Syracuse New Times.  I also wrote the liner notes for the four THIS IS ROCK 'N' ROLL RADIO compilation CDs, because, well, who could stop me?  My standing offer to write liner notes for a Bay City Rollers compilation has remained criminally ignored.  Still intend to write and sell a Batman story someday.

Friday, January 13, 2017

I've Got The Music In Me (And That's Where It's Gonna Stay), Part 3

I love music, but I've never really been able to sing or play music. Frustrating, right? In Part 1, we learned about my failed grade-school musical efforts, and the time in college when I auditioned to be a singer in a country-rock band; in Part 2, we began the story of my college jazz band, which consisted of my guitarist roommate, my trumpet-playing suitemate, and me pretending to participate with my bongos. Yeah, yeah, laugh all ya want, but we booked a gig! Stardom was imminent! 

Wasn't it...?

Yoko. I'm pretty sure her name was Yoko.

Okay, maybe not. And yes, I know that Yoko Ono didn't really break up The Beatles (and she probably saved John Lennon's life), but the reference is too rich to pass up. Any time a band breaks up because of a woman, we call that woman "Yoko." And we do it even when a maybe-not-so great band splits. Like many bands before us, and many bands after us, Bud Mackintaw & the Skeeters were no match for our own Yoko. In the words of the great Del Paxton, you can't keep a band together.

As Brockport's Spring Break '79 approached, Bud Mackintaw & the Skeeters were havin' a high ol' time, playing jazz for friends--sometimes more than a quarter-dozen of 'em--in my dorm room. It's possible that we may have even done a set or two in the larger venue of my dorm room's suite--the big time! You could call us a joke band, with our beatnik patter and finger-snappin' fans, with my shades 'n' scarf 'n' cap attire, and my absolute lack of any discernible musical prowess, but c'mon; if two-thirds of the band can play, it's a band. Tom could play guitar very well, Truck was really good on trumpet--so what if the percussionist was inept? Plus, I was, like, eye candy; if Bud Mackintaw & the Skeeters ever broke out, we'd have been the first jazz band in history with its drummer's face on the cover of 16 Magazine.

So, given our burgeoning (if imaginary) popularity and potential, why not take it to a larger stage? Bud Mackintaw & the Skeeters at Carnegie Hall! Skeeters at Budokan! Skeeters at...okay, Skeeters at the campus coffeehouse. On, um...open mic night. Yeah. That would be about our speed.

If I remember right, it wasn't exactly an open mic night; one couldn't just show up, take the stage, and sing about how dead puppies aren't much fun, no no no. No. I doubt there were any minimum qualifications required--we didn't have any qualifications--but a slot did need to be scheduled. Right after school resumed following Spring Break, Bud Mackintaw & the Skeeters would finally make our public debut. It wasn't exactly The Cavern Club, but we weren't exactly The Beatles, either.

I spent the break in New York, meeting my girlfriend Brenda's parents for the first time, seeing The Flashcubes play at a club on Bowery, and visiting my high school pal Jay out at Stony Brook. When we returned to Brockport after break, I was pumped and ready to bring my shades, scarf, and bongos to the coffeehouse stage.

But Tom--our guitarist, our leader--did not return from Spring Break.


While back home on Long Island for break, Tom had re-connected with an ex-girlfriend, and that was the end of Bud Mackintaw & the Skeeters. We certainly didn't blame him--love is a far more important endeavor than a silly exercise like the Skeeters--but I can't pretend I wasn't disappointed. Tom did eventually return to school a few weeks later, but we never attempted to reschedule at the coffeehouse. I think we did another dorm-room show or two--maybe--but the Skeeters' brief moment had passed.

Nonetheless, Bud Mackintaw & the Skeeters parted as friends. How many bands can say that? Tom left Brockport after that semester, but I caught up with him again when he visited campus the following year. I saw Truck and his roommate Ray a few times in '79-'80, too. By then, I'd moved from bongos to dorm-room suite chairs; with my handy-dandy drumsticks, I pounded out a rhythm to accompany Blondie's recording of "Accidents Never Happen," just to prove I could keep time as a drummer.

But my main instrument that year was guitar. In my senior year, Spring of 1980, my suitemate Brian and I both took Intro To Music to satisfy our Fine Arts core requirement; somewhere, Truck and Ray were probably laughing at me. As a senior, I was a marginally better guitar student than I'd been as a freshman. Brian and I drove the rest of our suite friggin' nuts with our practicing, which usually consisted of us fumbling through our lessons, but frequently interrupting those lessons to strum the opening chords of "Lola" by The Kinks.

(I was, at best, a borderline C student in Intro To Music. The music professor allowed students on the edge to improve their grades by reviewing campus music productions; if you turned in three reviews, your grade would be nudged up to the next level. I only got around to writing one review, but if there's one thing I could always do well--and yes, there was only ever one thing I could always do well--it was writing. I reveal my hubris here, but I don't care; my own review of a campus Gospel-as-rock-'n'-roll performance was probably the most literate, fully-realized, well-written paper that professor received over a span of years. The single paper was sufficient to bump my grade up to a solid B. Long, long before my freelance work for Goldmine, that paper could likely be considered my first professional writing about music. I didn't get paid with money, but I earned a higher grade than I would have deserved otherwise.)

I continued to mess around with my guitar for years. I added my first electric guitar--a used Norma six-string--but didn't own an amp until a long, long time later. In 1984, girlfriend Brenda became lovely wife Brenda. Around 1989 or so, for reasons that could be best described as "just 'cuz," we decided to take guitar lessons together. An elderly German man named Mr. Sauer was our teacher at Ye Old Music Seller, a basement shop in the village of North Syracuse. We experimented with getting a left-handed guitar for Brenda to play, but ultimately concluded she was better off trying to learn righty instead. She liked the guitar my Dad had bought me way back in 1978, so I gave her that one and bought myself a new acoustic.

We took this pretty seriously for a time. We never missed a lesson, and practiced frequently at home. Wait--"practiced?" No! Mr. Sauer said we should never practice; practicing is a chore, work. You don't work; you play. Get yourself a beer, prop up your sheet music, position your guitar properly, and play. Play as often as you can. Don't practice. Play.

Good advice.

For the first time in my limited experiences as a guitar student, I felt like I was making progress. I was learning the chords, and the notes. I was keeping up. I was playing. I still wasn't any good, mind you, but I was improving. And when Mr. Sauer moved us into classical music on guitar, I felt like I was making music. Sor. Carulli. For the first time in my life, I was playing something that could be called music.

(In this class, I also achieved the one universal goal of every boy who has ever picked up a guitar: I impressed a girl. There was one other girl in our class with Brenda and me. Before our lesson started one evening, as we were settling in, I played a quick, makeshift approximation of the riff from Led Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love." The other girl looked up and beamed with approval. Mr. Sauer said, Is dat rock und roll? Dere is no rock und roll in zis class! So, a smile from a girl and a reprimand from authority--I was a rock 'n' roller after all!)

The weight of time, work, and other responsibilities soon made it clear that we couldn't continue at Ye Old Music Seller. I lost my job in 1991. I got another job immediately, but money was still tight, and we couldn't justify the expense of guitar lessons. But we were there long enough to participate in Mr. Sauer's Christmas recital.

Neither Brenda nor I was anywhere near proficient enough to perform a solo spot at the recital. But we could keep up with a group of other students, so we played along in the group numbers.

And I remember the feeling, the incongruous excitement of performing, even in such humble circumstances. I was sitting in a folding chair, one of about a dozen, maybe two dozen students, picking out tinny notes that kind of resembled "Jingle Bells." There was an audience, a small one, crammed into this tiny, tiny music cellar--a cellar full of noise! The audience was, I think, outnumbered by the performers.

But I was one of the performers. I was playing music, in public, for an audience. It really doesn't take all that much to thrill me. I was thrilled. Thrilled.

That was my first, last, and only appearance on stage (as it were) as a musician. The only other time I came close was, I guess, freshman year in college, when my roommate and I worked up a truly stupid act for a campus Gong Show, involving him playing piano while I took the stage, dressed in KISS-inspired makeup, and bellowed a nonsensical Sex Pistols parody called "Anarchy In The BSG." BSG, for you outlanders, was Brockport Student Government. Clever? That's me! And there was, I suppose, the time singer Dian Zane of The Most grabbed me and several others to join her on stage during a show at The Firebarn; the stage collapsed as we were all singing "Got No Mind," but I was close enough to Dian that I was able to grab her and save her from certain death--certain descent, anyway. And then, on July 3rd, 2016, my This Is Rock 'n' Roll Radio co-host Dana Bonn and I joined Maura & the Bright Lights on stage for a spoken-word interlude during their performance of the Dress Code song "Something's Really Wrong."

If you're a music fanatic, you've daydreamed of playing music, of being a musician. If you deny it, you're lying. It doesn't matter whether or not you can play or sing; in your dreams, you can hold your own with Dave Davies, Paul McCartney, Keith Moon, even Otis Redding, as the crowd goes wild. An encore? Absolutely! Anything for my fans! It goes beyond the desire for adulation; it's a yearning to participate, to be an integral part of this intangible thing we love so much.

I still daydream. I'll never be a musician, never be in a rock 'n' roll band, and never sing or play a song on stage. I still want that so badly, and it will never happen.

But I can write. I can write about my daydreams, put my flights of fancy into words, and I can vicariously experience some of the sheer buzz that I can only imagine. "Only" imagine? Imagination is itself a gift; there's nothing "only" about that. Years ago, between sets at a Screen Test show, I made an offhand remark to Maura Kennedy about the Monkees song "Zor And Zam." She and I wound up singing a duet of the song (offstage); as the song concluded, I made one of my standard remarks about wishing I had talent.

Maura lit into me, with more ferocity than any girl from North Syracuse should be expected to possess. Are you crazy? You can write! What's wrong with you? I wish I could write like you do! Now, never mind that Maura actually can write--quite well, in fact--because her point was well-taken. I conceded the argument, and she allowed me to live.

Still wish I could sing or play, though. Maybe it's time to round up the Skeeters for a reunion gig. A one anna two....

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