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I have had the music in me for as long as I can remember. I loved records, radio, singing, Broadway, rock 'n' roll, The Twist, TV themes, "The Night They Invented Champagne," The Beatles, Percy Faith, LPs, 45s, 78s, what have you. I'm talking, like, 1964 or '65, when I was four to five years old, spinning singles on my hand like I was a record player, warbling the tune like an RCA Victrola servin' up His Master's Voice. Music! I loved music!
But I have never had any ability whatsoever to make music.
I tried. Oh Lord, I tried. I sang all of the time, and I still do. I took coronet lessons in elementary school, but was unprepared for the notion that one must practice in order to improve. Practice?! I was horrified. But I want to be a Beatle now! In 1968, when my family visited Southern California, my great-grandmother's husband gave me a set of bongos, which I still own. I also made my own little drum during my brief stint as a cub scout. I kinda wish I'd taken drum lessons instead of struggling with coronet, but really, I probably would have achieved the same spectacular level of failure. I didn't have the patience, I didn't have the commitment, and consequently, I didn't have any hope of learning how to play.
In sixth grade, I joined the school chorus. I don't remember how long I stuck with that; I recall going to practices, and singing "Raindrops Keep Falling On My Head," but I was gone long before the event of any chorus recitals or concerts. Perceived peer pressure was the biggest factor influencing my withdrawal from chorus; some of my classmates made it clear to me that they thought any guy who would join chorus had to be...well, I won't use the specific derogatory anti-gay slur, but you know. I did not have the courage of conviction necessary to continue. Not that quitting chorus was any help to my social status anyway; I was still the weird kid who sang on the bus, the oddball who'd skipped fifth grade and should really be back in elementary school with the rest of the babies. Raindrops keep fallin' on my head.
I kept listening to the radio, listening to records, singing along, wishing I could participate in this mystifying, magic process of making music. My sister left her battered acoustic guitar behind when she went off to college, and I messed around with it occasionally, to no positive result. In high school, I remember telling a girl that I enjoyed playing with that guitar, even though I couldn't actually play; I compared myself to Sherlock Holmes, claiming that ol' Sherl played the violin very badly, but played it anyway because it helped him think. She sneered in reply that Sherlock Holmes could play (the "you idiot, Carl" tagline implied if not stated). She was really good at sneering; she had a lot of practice at that, whenever she spoke with...at me. (Years later, I ran into her at a bar, and she started undressing me on the disco dance floor. She didn't seem to be sneering at the time.)
|Definitely not her. Most definitely not me.|
Okay. I will.
The audition was a disaster. The band was a country rock group--definitely not my thing--but I'd tried to exercise due diligence beforehand, learning the Eagles and Outlaws material they suggested. But I had no affinity for it, I had no experience trying to sing into a microphone, and worst of all, I had no talent. I wish that weren't so. The members of the band tried to give me a fair shot, but they probably concluded that our mutual friend was playing a practical joke on all of us. I tried to sing The Doobie Brothers' "China Grove," and I sucked at it. They asked me what sort of material I liked to sing. When I said, "The Kinks!," the leader replied, "Ah, we don't like The Kinks." Ruh-roh. I had no place being there. I did not pass the audition.
I took my first-ever guitar lessons the following semester, Spring of 1978. I was a tiny bit more responsible in practicing guitar than I'd been with my coronet lessons the previous decade. I learned the G chord. Which I can still play! Yes! Even now! To this day! I sorta-kinda learned a couple of other chords, but had great difficulty pullin' 'em all together into, y'know...a song. I had difficulty bending my big, clumsy fingers around the relatively small frets of my sister's guitar, so my Dad took me to a music store in North Syracuse to buy me a guitar I could call my own. Still couldn't quite compete with Jeff Beck, nor even The Shaggs. I bought the sheet music for The Who's "Won't Get Fooled Again," and rescued a Beatles songbook my sister owned, but I was fooling no one. I somehow got through the course with a passing grade, fumbling my way through "Sloop John B" in my final exam. I still had the music in me. By now, it was apparent that's where the music would stay.
The closest I ever came to being in a band was my stint as percussionist with Bud Mackintaw & the Skeeters. Technically, I was a drummer in a jazz band. I was! Technically. When we return here, we'll examine the saga of Bud Mackintaw & the Skeeters, as well as the time I just about almost came close to being able to play guitar.
Sorry. No requests.
Rock star. I was a rock star!
Fine. My band played jazz, not rock 'n' roll. We performed, not at Madison Square Garden or CBGB's, but in my dorm room--not even in the suite of my dorm room, but the little dorm room itself. Our mass o' screaming fans was a collection of maybe--maybe--as many as four or five friends, including my girlfriend Brenda, my suitemate Ray's girl Anna, and occasionally Les Odom (whose son Leslie Odom, Jr. would eventually make a big impression on Broadway). But we didn't care about the meager scale of our success. We were Bud Mackintaw & the Skeeters! There had never been another group like us!
Well, except for the millions of other groups like us. Skeetermania, we hardly knew ye.
For my sophomore year at the State University College at Brockport, I lived in a dorm suite with three other guys. The fall semester set o' guys--Frank, Tony, and Murph--departed for apartment life when the semester ended, leaving me with a fresh set of recruits come the spring of '79. My new roommate was Tom, a witty, engaging guy from Ronkonkoma. The other room in the suite would be occupied by Truck, a large (hence "Truck") black guy from Wyandanch, and his friend Ray, a Latino from...Queens? I think. We all seemed to hit it off rather well, even though our musical tastes were a bit disparate: Tom, as I recall, liked acoustic music and Be Bop Deluxe; both Ray and Truck loved soul and disco: I, of course, remained me, with my worship of rock 'n' roll, punk, pop, and bubblegum. I remember once mentioning Bob Dylan to Truck, and he nodded and pointed to my individual posters of each of The Beatles, and asked, "Which one was he?"
But we got along great. Tom was a DJ at the campus station WBSU, and he played The Flamin' Groovies for me on his show. Truck and Ray often had friends over for parties, and I joined in while they listened to records; The O'Jays' live rendition of "Wildflower" sticks out in my memory as a particular favorite. I don't remember ever exchanging a cross word with any of them; that was a first for me in terms of roommate situations.
And the three of 'em all loved jazz. Maybe Ray didn't love it quite as much, but Tom and especially Truck more than made up for that. Truck was a trumpet player, and Tom had an acoustic guitar. Inevitably, when you have music-lovin' musicians hangin' out together, it's only a matter of time before they start to play together, as well. Music! Truck and Tom's mutual love of jazz resulted in informal...well, not jams, because they didn't really improvise, but they did lovely renditions of jazz standards. It was nice.
Then I decided to horn in the deal. Miraculously, it didn't detract much.
I wish I could recall the specific sequence of events, but I'm pretty sure it involved beer or something. In whatever order it transpired, Tom began to speak between songs in an exaggerated beatnik patois, I donned sunglasses, long scarf, and a cap, and I grabbed my bongos to tap along. It was all in fun, so why not? No one objected; in fact, it seemed to enhance the freewheelin' ambiance. Tom came up with the name Bud Mackintaw & the Skeeters, and the Skeeters we became.
God, it was so much fun! I knew I wasn't a musician, my delusions of adequacy notwithstanding, but damn, I felt like I was. In that moment, joke combo or not, Bud Mackintaw & the Skeeters were real. Our small audience of friends learned to snap their fingers, classic coffeehouse style, instead of applauding, because that's what the beat generation woulda done. Tom--the undisputed leader, first among equals, Skeeter # 1--would rap in a raspy, pseudo-cool patter about doing a number in the key of 1326 (our suite number), to laid-back responses of Yeah, man and Cool, brother. But the music itself was always played in earnest, straight, no kidding around. Tom could play; Truck could really play; I kept up as best I could on my little bongos.
Sitting here in 2017, thirty-eight years later, it still brings me a smile to think about those nights as a Skeeter. We were strictly an instrumental group; no vocals to sully the purity of our sound (or, really, Truck and Tom's sound, plus me). I can only remember two songs from our, um...set list. Sure. Let's call it a set list. One was the familiar "My Favorite Things" from The Sound Of Music, rendered cool by us cool jazz guys. But the other was an original Truck and Tom song called "Fine Arts."
I remember that one as if we'd just performed it last night.
The phrase "fine arts" was an in-joke catchphrase among Truck, Ray, and some of their other friends. When picking classes to complete college requirements, one of them--Truck? Ray? Les? Sam?--was trying to find a class that would satisfy his fine-arts core; but every class he selected to fill that core was rejected by someone in admissions saying, "Sorry, that's not fine arts." Sorry, that's not fine arts! became a go-to punchline among all of that group, and Tom and I also adopted it in short order. You wanna get some grub at the Union? Sorry, that's not fine arts! I'm gonna watch some TV in the lounge. Sorry, that's not fine arts! We're heading to The Barge for beers, ya wanna come with? Sorry, that's...no wait, we always accepted that invitation. Never mind.
So, for a combo that didn't seem to take anything seriously, of course our sole original tune would have to be called "Fine Arts." Tom came up with a distinctive intro on his guitar, which I accompanied with a (presumably) light brushing of my fingertips on my bongos. Truck then came in with the hook on trumpet, and the strolling melody followed from there. Dya-da-la-da-de-la, da-da-la-da-da, dom-dom-dom, dya-da-la-da-de-la, da-da-la-da-da, dom-dom-dom, baa-da-da-da-da, da-da-da-da-da. You can't hear it. But I can. I can still hear it, and I always will.
One of my favorite memories of Bud Mackintaw & the Skeeters took place when I wasn't really there. I was spending the evening with Brenda. Our dorm rooms shared a wall (a wall she pounded on to get me to turn down my loud music before we even met); in her room that night, I could hear Truck and Tom playing as a reduced-strength Skeeters in my room, another concert for the usual small crowd of Skeetermaniacs. Listening to them play next door, I got up right against our mutual wall and started to tap along. Within a few minutes, I could hear them speaking through the paper-thin wall, Wait, do you hear tapping? What's that tapping? And then Truck cried out, IT'S CC! I could hear the laughter, and I was told that Tom fell on the floor in hysterics. Good times? Yes. Emphatically yes.
Bud Mackintaw & the Skeeters made one single attempt to break out of our dorm-room residency: we booked a gig. Okay, yeah, it was an open-mic gig at the campus coffee house, but it was a gig, and it would be a hoot. Finally, I would be playing music--sort of playing, anyway--on stage!
Alas, the Skeeters broke up before our first and only gig.
The saga of Bud Mackintaw & the Skeeters is too large, too grandiose, to be contained within a single post. We'll conclude that story next time, and we'll also discuss the one and only time I finally played guitar in public.
Wait, did someone just yell out "Freebird?!" Security! Man, where them damned bouncers at...?
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.
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....