Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Gimme a Bouncy C!

Music can be such a unifying experience.  David and I have fun introducing the boys to all different kinds of grooves and genres, but they're still grossly underdeveloped as far as their musical identities go.  Desmond will insist he's a Frank Zappa fan because his father took him to a tribute show last year.  He actually got to see a girl barfing outside the venue!  I can hear Brother singing along with the Saturday Night Fever album when he's upstairs making rubber band bracelets.  They blast the Cars, Candy-O as if they've discovered life on other planets.  It's very cute.  Who knows what kind of styles they will embrace as they get older?  In good times and bad, music provides the soundtrack of our lives!

My parents both enjoyed listening to the radio, but that was the extent of their musical ability.  I'm not even sure why music was encouraged in our home.  It's not like my folks thought careers as musicians actually occurred in real life.  That sort of thing only happened on TV.  They just didn't have that kind of imagination.  I am certain, however, that my mother was determined to find me something to do that didn't involve boys.

When I was eight years old, my Christmas present was a ply-wood chord organ. This gift was secured by redeeming the S&H green stamps that Mom had saved for eighteen months.  I taught myself to play all the songs from the booklet that came with the keyboard.  Twinkle, Twinkle and Little Brown Jug were among the highlights of my melodious repertoire.  For almost a year, I drove Big Mare crazy with my incessant Farfisa beat.


Gene Dall knew a guy whose mother had died, leaving behind a broken down player piano.  He wanted the thing gone to make room for a mirrored wall unit and a fish tank.  Free sounded like a great price for an instrument upgrade. Without even seeing its condition, my father agreed to take the full-sized giant off his hands.  Dad knew another guy with a truck.  For $80.00, he made arrangements to have the pianola dropped off at the house, like a set of gently used encyclopedias.  Or somebody's colicky baby.

On the morning of the upright's arrival, three dudes larger than I'd ever imagined possible here on Earth, showed up on our street along with the sun. They laid out ramps and carried the grieving behemoth into the house.  They groaned and perspired under the weight of this monstrous piece of furniture.

"Can I get you fellas anything to drink? my mother asked the movers.
"That'd be real nice, ma'am," the biggest one replied, once his breath had returned to normal.  He untied a filthy bandana from around his neck and mopped his brow with it.  An oblong watermark remained on the kitchen paneling where his back rested momentarily.
"You'll have to forgive me," Mom offered politely.  "I have no beer.  Just whiskey."
It wasn't quite nine o'clock yet.  The foreman cleared their schedule, and the men stayed for lunch.  Thank God, ours was the first delivery of the day.


So just like that, we owned a real piano!  But the poor thing was in terrible condition. My father enlisted the help of a professional to bring the salvaged piece of equipment back to life.  Joe Monty was a curious cat that my Dad knew from the neighborhood. I'm not sure what line of work Joe was in, but he had a very impressive bag of burglary tools that he brought with him the day he came to address our musical problems.

Joe Monty was one of the most mysterious individuals I had ever met.   I'd only seen him at the Starling, playing piano or taking up real estate on a barstool. He'd nurse a beer and circle his horses in the Racing Form, holding the paper an inch away from his nose.  He was a nice enough man, although he never seemed able to look anyone in the face.  Perhaps this was due to the fact that he was practically blind.  His glasses were so thick, they made his eyes bulge like a creepy goldfish.  Or maybe he owed people money.  Now that I think of it, that might have been a more realistic explanation.

It was so weird to observe Joe Monty outside of his natural habitat.  One evening when the boys were little, we took them to a pizzeria near the mall for dinner. Rory's Pre-K teacher was there waiting tables, and it completely blew the boys' minds.  It felt just like that.

Mr. Monty looked as though he might not actually have a place to live, but I wouldn't know.  I was just a kid.  He did have a wife, however, and her name was Cookie.  Cookie weighed more than three hundred pounds, and she was painfully shy.  She occasionally came to listen to Joe play, down at the bar.  He was a spirited performer, and you could tell they really loved each other.  It was extremely gross.  Joe smelled like a dirty ashtray, perhaps because he flicked the remains of his cigarette directly into the pocket of his coat.  He could have been anywhere between 40 and 85 years old. Cookie's age was not apparent, either. She may not even have been a real lady.

Joe Monty tuned the old upright for us several times a year.  My mother always made spaghetti and meat sauce whenever he came over.  His visits made us terribly uneasy, but Mom always sent him home with an extra plate for his lovely bride. Ick and yuck.


After that initial check-up, I started taking lessons almost immediately.  My piano teacher was a middle-aged gentleman who serviced home appliances for a living. Tommy Carr had a dusty makeshift studio in the basement of his home on Crosby Avenue in the Bronx.  I remember his business cards:
                                                                   Tommy Carr
                                                   Piano Lessons and Stove Repair
                                                                  Free Estimates

He wrote my appointment on the back of the card every week, so I wouldn't forget.

Mr. Carr cut quite a figure of musicianly decrepitude. He wore bowling shirts, gold chains and wing-tipped dress shoes.  Cigarettes dangled from his lips, as if they were part of his face. His smoker's cough was the stuff of advanced clinical studies.

Every Wednesday evening, my Dad drove me to my piano lesson.  He'd promptly fall asleep on a rickety wooden folding chair in the hallway, amidst the broken air-conditioners and stereo components.  Sometimes, the snoring was so loud, we could hear it over the sound of my mistakes, even with the door shut.

You could tell that Mr. Carr felt the music right down to his black nylon socks.  He played every kind of instrument he could get his hands on and devoured them all. Like Prince, only with zero sex appeal.  When it came to music, he couldn't help himself.  It was clear that he loved playing so much, he'd do anything just to be able to keep it in his life.  Even if it meant that he had to stick his head inside ovens every day, just to make ends meet.


Joe Monty and Tommy Car weren't rock stars.  They were, however, the unlikely ambassadors of a whole new world of self-expression for me.  I don't think I'd have left either of these gentlemen alone with my children, but that's a different story entirely.

I've been teaching the boys to play piano for almost two years.  I've gotta admit, they've learned quite a bit under my rigorous tutelage.  Of course, reminding them to practice every day can be monotonous.  I didn't enjoy practicing all the time, either. But I'm so glad I know how to play.  It makes me feel connected to music in a very privileged way.

These boys have no idea how much chicks love musicians.  I hope someday they'll thank me.  And if not, maybe their girlfriends will.

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