Friday, February 29, 2008
It looks so strange.
Like a person you know that has unusually big ears. Not just a little big. Really big. Like two halves of a bagel.
You maybe see them once every few years.
And this person, this big eared person, is always very much welcome. In fact, each time you see them, they help you do something you thought you didn't have time for. They give you a hand. And they never ask you to repay the favor. They just help you.
A lot of times you don't even realize that they've helped you until they leave; until they are on their way with their big ears sticking out from under their winter hat. And you say to yourself, "Next time ol' big ears come around I'm going to have to remember to thank him for giving me a hand."
And you always forget.
And they always come back.
I love leap years.
I love leap years for a lot of reasons. My rent is a little cheaper. My gym membership is a little longer. And March is put off for one more day. Don't get me wrong, I love the Spring, but March always makes me antsy. It sounds so commanding. So Alpha.
I also love leap years because they make me do math, which I do not like at all. And I'm trying to get better at doing things I don't like. Or at least not complain about them so much.
My Mom taught me long ago that if a year cannot be divided evenly by four, you cannot have a leap year. What you have is a "common" year as it's called in the textbooks. A boring old, run of the mill, three hundred and sixty five day common year. I learned that was when I was probably about 7 years old. Thirty years ago. Actually make that thirty years and one week; for good measure.
Prisoners must hate it.
"I sentence you to twenty eight years in jail...and that includes an extra week because of leap years."
What a mean judge that would be. It would be sure to make headlines.
"MEANEST JUDGE EVER POINTS OUT LUNAR LOOPHOLE: MIFFED FELON TO SERVE EXTRA WEEK."
But that would never happen.
I'm enjoying my leap day. I've been more in touch with taking each day on its own merits recently; trying not to confuse today with what happened yesterday, and what might happen tomorrow. I think you know what I'm trying to say.
This process isn't easy. I'm attempting a stunt that has never been done; not in my world anyway. This is definitely the longest jump in the history of my career as a stuntman and I have more to lose now than ever before.
But I have a good team behind me. All the measurements have been taken. All the possible outcomes have been explained to me. And every attempt has been made to ensure the most favorable conditions. I certainly cannot predict the future, but barring the unavoidable or the supernatural, I have great faith that my mission will be a success. But as you know, I won't know if it is a success unless I make a mistake. And mistakes are easy.
I have a great and loyal fan base. An unprecedented amount of tickets have been sold. I should have a capacity crowd assembled to watch this daredevil try to attempt the unknown. And surprisingly, my fans are not following my progress wondering what the odds are that they will witness a fiery, spectacular disaster. Because that's what sometimes happens in the world of extremes. We like to see the crash. We like to see fire. We court danger with a bucket of popcorn. The anticipation and excitement sometimes masks the fact that the consequences are real. The danger is real. And it's just a minuscule miscalculation away.
I've been enjoying a bit of a break from my focus. I've been having fun pulling out old newspaper articles and pictures and digging deep within my gray matter to recount my formative years of making music. It has been quite an unexpected pleasure. I still have a bit more to tell as we approach the time in my life when substances became not unlike a new pack of strings. I could get through a bunch of gigs in a row back then without changing them. But when I put on a fresh set I enjoyed how much better everything felt and sounded. After a while I had to have a new set on every day or I just couldn't pick up the guitar.
I know that I have said before that I started this whole writing thing for me and me alone and if you wanted to come along you were welcome but that's as far as it went.
But it has come to my attention over these last forty five posts in sixty days, that what I've been revealing about my past, present, and future has touched upon certain people's emotions. It has helped a few folks who were having a hard time. And it's given some, who were not aware, a better idea of what can happen to someone who has all the right moves but forgot to put laces in their shoes. I know this may seem like I am honking my own horn here, but I feel it is not. This is what I have gleaned from comments people have left online, letters I have received, as well as hearing it in person. I couldn't even honk my horn if I tried because Steve and Michelle have my car. And that's a very good thing indeed. Because that means that not only did I not destroy it, but I'm able to help some friends whom I love.
No, I guess at this point, saying I'm doing this for me alone would be like saying that I just learned a new way to play guitar and I don't want anyone to hear it; to sit in my room and develop a new technique that is helping me play better and faster each day and not want anyone to find out how I'm doing it; to steal the secrets of my breakthroughs. That would be selfish. I'm done being selfish.
And, of course, I wouldn't be able to share this precarious success if there weren't people who were asking me how everything's going; keeping tabs on my adventures. Be them friends, family, or those who only know me from what I reveal. Be them people who simply read my words and realize they are not alone, or those who patiently listen when I have a rant that I can't express in Times New Roman, and tell me what they really think. People who care about me who have their own time and life consuming struggles but make the time to read of listen. People who help me do something I thought I didn't have time for.
People with big ears.
Thanks for reading, thanks for writing, thanks for listening, and thanks for helping.
And thanks for having such enormous freaking ears.
Ah, I remembered to thank ol' Big Ears.
Ain't that something.
See you tomorrow.
Thursday, February 28, 2008
This is what I said to the receptionist at the administrative office at Bishop Connolly High in December of 1985.
I was told that I had to schedule a meeting with the Student Government's planning committee.
"When is the next time I can do that?"
"They meet once a month", the receptionist said, "But there's one scheduled for this coming week. Mr. Angelo should be there as well."
"Mr. Angelo? Why does he have to be there?"
"Because he has to approve any spending on recreational activities."
"Umm...OK, I guess...umm...well...can I make the appointment?"
"Three thirty on the twelfth...that's a week from tomorrow."
"I'll take it."
Man. Wouldn't you know it. The one guy out of all the teachers who I didn't get along with, the guy who made me remove any and all signs of musical recreation from my garments all year last year is going to be the final word on whether or not my awesome band gets to play the dance.
Sometimes the world just doesn't make sense.
The dances were always a big deal both for the students and for the teachers. Sometimes, half of the fun was getting through the door. There was only one entrance which was the main set of doors near the auditorium. As you approached the school from the parking lot, you would be greeted with the sounds of the bass first; an inscrutable template for a popular song. Then, as you got closer you'd be able to make out the mid range and start to decipher exactly which popular hit of the times was blasting at full volume from the freshly rubber mat covered gymnasium. As you entered the door to the foyer, you were immediately presented with a front line of teachers who were there to say hello and ask you a simple question like, "Have you been drinking?" As you confidently claimed total sobriety, they would casually smell your breath for the trademark scent of vodka which they knew you thought was odorless. A lot of kids never made it past that front door.
It was, of course, the eighties. Songs I remember from those innocent times included "Things Can Only Get Better" by Howard Jones, "I Want a New Drug", by the too cool Huey Lewis and the News, and "Crazy for You" by the increasingly popular new pop phenom, Madonna. I have to admit, even I sported many a thin black rubber bracelet on my adolescent arms. There was nothing in the dress code to stop me from that. Not that year at least.
The recreation committee mostly booked DJ's for the music, but a couple of times a year they would feature a rock band.
I remember a band from Newport, Rhode Island,"The Philters", played one of them. They were amazing, and faithfully recreated all the top forty hits while adding a touch of flair with extended solos and sing alongs. I recall a super long guitar solo during Honeymoon Suite's "I Got a New Girl Now" that made my the hair on my arms stand at attention and my jaw drop to the floor to do fifty.
I remember how the girls at my school would just be in awe of the musicians. The guys in the cover bands must have been at least 25, or thirty, or even older. I realize now, after doing several High School gigs throughout my 30's, that in those situations, at least for me, it makes you feel less like a rock star, and more like a rock fossil. A well paid rock fossil.
The DJ nights were fun too. Because there was less watching and a lot more dancing. But with the DJ's sporting their over sized Radio Shack headphones, and flipping through their thousands of LP's, it seemed that the girls were more interested in hearing "Some Like it Hot" by the Power Station, than having a hot time with a band member in his station wagon.
And so, armed with this observation, I threw my hat in the ring and signed up for the Student Government Committee's meeting and told the receptionist I would bring the demo which we had just painstakingly recorded.
"Better bring something to play it on too." She said.
I showed up at three thirty on the twelfth with a tape of my band, a boom box, and a pen in my pocket to sign any papers which might have to be prepared after all agreed that this would be a great idea.
I came in to the room and the meeting had already begun. 5 students, three from my grade and two upper class men, were there along with one big jerk of a Biology teacher, Mr. Angelo.
They stopped what they were doing and cordially said hello.
I nervously made my way to the nearest wall outlet and put my boom box face down to get the removable cord out from the battery compartment.
The removable cord. The...removable...cord...the...oh...my...god.
It wasn't there. It was at the rehearsal space. I could see it in my head as if I were looking at a full color glossy photo. I had been carefully wrapping the cord up and got distracted somehow and forgot it on the ground. We had just used the boom box to listen a playback of REM's "Can't Get There From Here" which we had added to the demo at the last minute. Now that all important cord was in a rehearsal room in Swansea, and I was stuck in a meeting room in Spindle City. Looking back on that moment I understand exactly how ironic that detail was.
"I...um...I'll be right back." I said as I stumbled out of the meeting and up to the art classroom.
I spent a lot of time in the art room and remember playing record upon record after school while making scenery for the school plays. Mr. Domaine was in charge of things up there and he loved his work. A true bohemian. He, along with Mr. Cheeny, who taught chemistry, were the directors of the school band. The Grateful Dead's Bobby and Jerry if you will. The jam band. The hippies.
The legend in the school was that Mr. Cheeny (who looked exactly like the bassist Leeland Sklar from Phil Collins' amazing Susudio video complete with gigantic brown beard and round Lennon specs.) smoked so much weed that he once returned a chemistry test with resin stains all over it presumably from cleaning his pipe. We all believed it to be true, and we all held him in high regard because of it. He was, in fact, a super guy and a great musician.
Back to the situation at hand.
On a normal day, I would climb the stairs from the first to second floor, two at a time. Like I said earlier, I never was a very patient child.
On this day I jumped three at a time and almost fell face forward, narrowly avoiding smashing my cavity free teeth on the polished slate stair top. I stopped myself short with shaky hands and continued on to room 202.
The room was dark and empty. I went straight for the paint splattered boom box that was sitting near the easels and paint cans; the one I had just yesterday played our new demo on for Mr. Cheeney, and Mr. Domaine. I grabbed the cord from the back of the box and yanked the other end from the wall outlet. I ran back down the stairs jumping them 4 at a time. For a finale, I attempted a six stair jump to the first floor. I rebounded off the right side of the safety glass side windows. I flung the door open and ran down to the Student Government meeting room and entered; huffing, puffing, and sweating profusely.
"Just taking care of some last minute adjustments." I said.
"Can we hear the tape?" Mr. Angelo said. "I've got a meeting with the ski team in twenty minutes."
I grabbed the boom box, inserted the cord in the back, checked to make sure the Certron 90 High Bias 2 tape was properly inserted, and pressed play.
They listened to all five songs. They were quiet for the most part but seemed entertained by the recording of top 10 hits that this fifteen year old had recorded with his band.
The last song was REM's "Can't Get There From Here", from Fables of the Reconstruction.
The song ended and I told them that was it.
"Can we have a few moments alone?" Mr. Angelo said.
I left the room slowly with shaky legs. I paced up and down the hallways nervously spinning the combination lock wheels on several lockers. The door opened and Mr. Angelo asked me to step back inside.
"Alex. Your band sounds good." Mr. Angelo said. "But can you play a whole night's worth of music?"
It was a valid question. But more than that, it wasn't an immediate "no".
"Sure we can. And we even have a light show."
I added this perk because we had just finished assembling a set of lights and control board from several painted coffee tins, colored gels, lamp fixtures, and wall switches. It probably wouldn't pass an inspection by the IBEW, but for us, it was perfect. It lit up, and that's all that counted.
"Well," Mr. Angelo said, we can't offer you a lot of money, but if you can take care of all the details and provide a PA, we'll let you do it."
I signed some paperwork with the pen I brought. This ensured us of making a heretofore unheard of amount of two hundred American dollars; Fifty bucks a man. Unbelievable. I thanked everybody including the head of the ski team, and practically ran home to call the rest of the guys and tell them the great news.
I wish I remembered more about that night. I don't. I remember that we used a Shure Vocal Master PA system which we owned. The two, tall, thin speaker collums filled with 8 and 10 inch speakers, along with the 100 watt head was hardly a match for the gigantic boomy gymnasium. And we couldn't afford monitors because our drummer wouldn't put money up for them seeing as he didn't sing. What did he need monitors for? He could hear himself fine. So the sound left a lot to be desired. All I know is that we played our asses off that night. People danced. We got paid. And we went home feeling like heroes.
Which, as far as I'm concerned, we very much were.
Are you ready for the fun part? Because here comes the fun part.
If you feel so inclined, you may click on the link below to hear the recording of that fated REM song "Can't Get There from Here." The song is sung by Dean. However, the "eek" at the beginning of the tune and the subsequent falsetto "ahhhhh" that precedes each chorus was supplied by yours truly who, once again, came to the rescue with an idea that was sure to enhance an otherwise run of the mill music listening experience.
Thanks for reading,
Tuesday, February 26, 2008
I mean really go ahead and soak him in. Look at those eyes. You could just dive right in couldn't you.
Get up nice and close. He's very beta; he's not going to bite.
Here he is in all his splendor, the consummate eighties, ladies man; first day of school, 1985. He's a sophomore now, and he's earned some street cred.
Our man is wearing a casual, yet "Semi-formal ready", white linen Marithe Francois Girbaud, two-button, double breasted jacket. He is also enjoying the pure, carefree benefits of a soft, light cotton Alexander Julian, Nehru style shirt which is both breathable and deeply discounted. The uncluttered look of the Nehru takes an unexpected turn here featuring a most unusual button down collar. This welcome addition to a classic look is included to meet the critical, yet malleable standards and practices of a Jesuit High School dress code. Furthermore, it offers the added benefit of being "guitar-pin ready."
Are you wondering what he's thinking? It's normal, don't feel weird. I can tell you exactly what he's thinking.
He's thinking: "I'm finally a sophomore, and now I have the only rock band in school. We're called Atria. We've got the biggest gig of our careers coming up in a couple of months and I need to get out from in front of this 10 x 7 fake blue retractable screen. I've got to read over the lyrics to "Heaven" from Bryan Adams' most righteous 1984 release on A &M records, Reckless, so I'll be prepared for practice tonight."
But, most importantly, he's thinking:"God dammit, my hair looks a-mazing."
"...thank you Mr....Mr...Johnson. Mr. Johnson?...umm... we've got the shot. You can go back to class now...but please leave the mirror, we've got a lot of kids still to go. Yes, you can keep the comb...Next!"
Yes, I loved my hair. Fonzie instilled that tenet in my formative years of style-conscious behavior.
Love thy hair as you would love thy self. Something along those lines.
Because a person's hair speaks volumes. It exclaims, without prompting, how one approaches the art of living.
A person's hair is one of the only parts of their body which can be colored, cut, curled, shaped, straightened, and fluffed. And if you don't take care of the part of your body that's most easily maintained, what does that say about the rest of you.
I loved the monthly ritual of going to the barber's. My Grandfather joyfully took me; we'd make a day of it. We'd each get a cut, and then spend a couple of frivolous hours kite flying on the S.M.U. campus in North Dartmouth.
What a racket.
I loved the whole process of the haircut-the washing, the combing, the snip-snip-snipping with scissors much too sharp and much too pointy for me to legally possess, the fragrant "Fru-Fru juice" as Mr. Tache called it. At the end of every cut he would mist over my hair with it to make me smell as special as I looked. I loved the mysterious blue liquid in which all the instruments in his orchestra were stored. I never asked why he did what he did. It would have been rude.
On Friday, November 10th, with their lead guitarist freshly crowned six-string champion of Bishop Connolly High, the four members of Atria entered the most important, and intense competition they would ever see.
The Fall River Police Athletic League Talent Show in Fall River, Mass.
This one show would prove to be Atria's defining moment. Yet, this one event would be the beginning of the end of the "Fall River Four." Increasing personal insecurities and parental concern would lead one member to leave his position in this legendary band. In his wake, not one, but two of Fall River's finest sons would enter the fray; into the whirlwind tornado of sex, drugs, spandex, and Portuguese rolls.
It was a rainy Friday night.
The band was ready. The house was packed. Councilman Bob Cote stood tall at the mic as he announced the group.
"You people here are in for a real treat...there's free cookies in the lobby. But seriously, I have a band ready to play for you people who I think are just a super bunch of kids. I heard they recently played at the Bank Street Armory and they really put on a super show. I expect to see big things in their future. And I'd like to ask anyone who hasn't bought a raffle ticket to please see Mrs. Mello before the end of their set because it's almost time to pick a lucky number. And without further ado...I'm happy to introduce...all the way from across town...Atria!
And we played.
We played two songs. We opened with Dire Straits biggest hit, "Money for Nothin'" from their 1985 Warner Bros. juggernaut, Brothers in Arms. Dean sang it and he did a super job as usual. The inescapable number was recreated on the P.A.L. stage via a band of brothers that were full of life and excitement and hope. We finished with the requisite "I want my MTV" chorus and stopped dead on a dime. The crowd went berserk.
Heaven, from Bryan Adams' most righteous 1984 release Reckless, on A&M records, was next up. This was my money shot. This was my show stopper. This was my bro.
The scratchy voiced Canadian had been on my list of top performers since I saw him with my Mom at an amusement park in Toronto in '83. A woman's voice came over the P.A. system and announced: "The tickets for the eight o'clock Bryan Adams show in the amphitheater are now half price." I grabbed her hand and dragged her to the ticket window. I knew she couldn't resist a bargain.
We finished and the crowd was in the palm of our hands shouting and cheering for us. We were a shoe-in. It was a lock. Iron clad.
Until the "T-N-T Sisters" took the stage.
It is said in Hollywood that you can be the best performer in the world, but if you go on before an animal act, or a bunch of kids you're done.
Tina and Toni Allard. They were cute. They were bubbly. They wore American flag outfits. They were actually pretty good. And their special brand of Pro-American jazz dancing was enough to take first place. They won the $100 prize we were counting on for our pizza party. They were awarded one of two trophies...
And we won the other. Second place, but still in the winner's circle.
This picture, which was taken moments after receiving the news of our upset, ran in the Fall River Herald News the next day, Saturday, November 16, 1985. Once again, someone looks like they just don't want to be there, and it's certainly not me. I had gotten my hair cut that day and was wearing it in a semi-nu wave fashion. I didn't get my hair cut because I was expecting to be in the newspaper. I just wanted to attend to the part of me that was easiest to maintain. Because a person's hair speaks volumes. It exclaims, without prompting, how one approaches the art of living. As for Dean, he handed me that trophy after the picture was taken and expressed his disappointment in coming in second. I took it from him and told him how much fun it was regardless of who won first place. He should have known better than to give that trophy away...
Thanks again for reading.
And a special thanks to my Aunt, Lynda without whom this award would not have been possible. You truly are an inspiration. Thank you for always believing. You are loved.
And now, you people are in for a real treat...there's free cookies in the lobby! Seriously though, I have added a new song to Atria's tribute page. The song is "Heaven", from my main man Bryan Adams' most righteous 1984 release Reckless, on A&M recordss. It's a live version and I wish I could say it is from this historic night but it is not. It is from another legendary gig that Atria played in 1985 at St. Anthony of the Desert Church on Eastern Ave. in Fall River. I hope you enjoy it as much as it sounds like I did.
I'll be back with more stories from the heart tomorrow.
Monday, February 25, 2008
Look at that one guy with the brand new book bag wandering around in circles. He's keeps nervously walking into the wrong classroom and rushing back out and squinting at his class schedule as if it were a menu at an Armenian restaurant. He's about to meet his new classmates for the first time. It's his first daunting day in hell. He looks like he's about to cry.
He doesn't know any-body.
What a loser.
Hey...where are all of my friends?
Where are all of my friends from last year?
Oh...right...they were all seniors. They're all gone. I'm here on the first day of school in September 1985, a sophomore, and I don't have any real friends.
What a loser.
It seemed that the amazing year I had as a freshman fraternizing with the older kids had come with a steep price. I hadn't gotten to know any of my classmates and vice versa. I mean sure, I was in the same classes they were in, and I hung out at a lot of the same places they did, and went to the same dances. But I never really made a connection with anybody. I was always on my way to meet the gang, and now the gang's split town.
I was so wrapped up in being a rock star that I had been totally oblivious to the time sensitive social structure I had created. I had forgotten that the people who carted me around in their Dad's Skylark and had taken me along to see cool concerts were going off to places I'd have to wait 3 years see if I was lucky. Which, at the present time, on picture day, with a brand new unbreakable comb in my back pocket, and nobody to do the "dead parrot" routine with, didn't look like I was.
Lucky, that is.
Just as I was getting ready to get to know everybody, I ran into someone who had been keeping a keen eye on me all of last year. A guy with a fluffy black mullet so impressive and so enviable that at the end of the year, he had a three girl cat-fight over him at second period lunch right there in front of Brother Roger and Mr. Angelo. And none of them were even his real girlfriend.
No, his girlfriend wasn't in High School. She was twenty-four. And she was smokin' hot. And she loved her Roy.
If I may...
You know how there's always that one guy in High School who, for whatever reason, is a bit older than the rest of the kids in your class? I'm not saying he stayed back. He just started late.
And, because of that little fact, he's the fist one with a car.
Roy had a car.
Not just any car. Roy had the car. Roy had a 1984 Pontiac Fiero. Candy apple red, of course.
And Roy had his name spelled out in giant white decal letters on his rear window. So, if anyone was wondering who the owner of that candy apple red Pontiac Fiero was; the one that just blew by blasting 'Take on Me', you'd have a few extra seconds to focus your eyes on the back window and read those three, giant, white, cursive letters.
And Roy had an ax to grind with me.
Yes, Roy played guitar. And if prompted, he'd tell you that he knew 'Eruption' by Eddie Van Halen. In fact, you didn't even have to ask Roy anything related to music and he'd invariably guide the conversation so that he could throw in "I know Eruption, by Eddie Van Halen". And you'd just stand there, mind reeling, trying to remember how the conversation had taken this unexpected turn. And all you could say was... "Cool!"
October is a special time in the life of any student. A time to settle in to the newly learned patterns that will define their school experience for that year. But October is also an important month for a very different reason. A time when he or she can earn money for their school, learn important community social skills, and even burn a few calories.
A time for...the walkathon.
Yes, the walkathon. Who's going to win the big prize by bringing in the most money from the most people? Who's going to scoff and not even try? And who's going to get challenged to a guitar duel to be held in the cafeteria at the end of the walkathon with hundreds of people watching?
You guessed it.
One fine robust October school day, Roy had come up to me completely out of the blue and said, "Hey, Alex. You know that part in Eruption where Eddie bends the whammy bar all the way down? Can you do that?"
I said, "Roy I don't know Eruption, and I don't even have a whammy bar on my guitar. I've told you that before."
"Oh yeah, I forgot." he said, "I don't think you couldn't even do it even if you tried." (that's the way he talked)
"Roy", I said, "Why don't you leave me alone and play with your whammy bar by yourself."
"Well...uuuhhhh...why don't we have a duel" (he actually called it a duel) "in the caf at the end of the walkathon? Or aren't you too chicken, Johnson."
I said, "Is your girlfriend gonna be there."
"Why?" he asked.
I said, "Because I'm gonna beat you so bad you're gonna need somebody to wipe the tears out of your eyes!"
And so it was set.
We worked it out with the higher ups and they agreed it would be good for morale to have entertainment to look forward to at the end of a long day of for-profit walking.
The rules were simple. Walk for the school. Rock for the title. And the chosen song was 'Eruption', by Eddie Van Halen. What a shocker.
Believe it or not, I didn't care too much about winning the duel. I really just wanted Roy to leave me alone. He was super annoying and his friends were even worse.
I had a Guitar Player magazine from '84 with Eddie on the cover. I had put some of his pictures up in my locker. I don't know if kids today still put pictures up on the insides of their lockers, but in my day, it was expected. It was your colors. It was you.
And following that logic, I was Eddie Van Halen, and I was red and white striped. The colors of the Polish flag.
That Guitar Player magazine had a 6 page spread with the whole solo written out in easy to read tabulature. But easy to read doesn't necessarily mean easy to execute. Unafraid, I dove in head first. I learned the easier parts at the beginning. I learned some of the crucial walk downs in the middle, and I learned the all important two handed tapping that more or less closed the song. What happened between those strategic points was irrelevant as far as I was concerned.
While working on the end part with the two handed tapping, I did something crazy; something that could ruin an otherwise mediocre performance if not done with aplomb. I learned the two handed tapping portion with my left hand over the fretboard rather than under it. And I practiced this one part, over, and over, and over again.
The day came.
I brought my trusty Aria Pro 2 TS-600 in with my Yamaha amp and left it in the teacher's lounge. I put it right next to Roy's Ibanez. His guitar may have been a flashy fluorescent green (a popular color in 85), but I was pretty sure he'd be playing it safe and not taking chances. He knew a lot of people in school and he didn't want to let them down. Plus, he'd have to report to his girlfriend when he picked her up at the Newport Creamery after work.
I, on the other hand, had nothing to lose. I had made a few friends over the previous month but I wasn't building the event up like Roy had been.
All during the 3 or 4 hour walkathon I was heckled by Roy's right, and left hand man.
"Roy's gonna kick your ass!"
"You're goin' down, Johnson!"
I just smiled and kept on walking slowly. If they really wanted to heckle me at length, they'd have to slow down too. But they were with Roy, flanking him like he was some sort of professional boxer mocking his opponent for him; bouncing and clapping their hands and pointing and shouting at me. It was pathetic. I made a few friends that day from their feeble attempt at humiliation alone.
Conversely, Roy was very much in a hurry. He wanted to get it over with. And I'd soon found out why.
We got back to the school. There were hundreds of kids and the place was vibrating with energy in anticipation of the rock and roll rumble about to take place. Remember now, it wasn't just two teens randomly going at it with electric guitars. These people had the opportunity to see 2 performances of the greatest guitar solo ever. "Eruption", by Eddie Van Halen.
And there we stood; the buzz from our amps behind us just the tiniest bit louder than the students amassed in front of us. We had our guitars on. His impressive fluffy black mullet was a bit mussed up from all the walking and the warmth in the room. Me, I had brought along my clear and amber plastic bottle of Dep which was now almost empty from chronic use. I couldn't look more rock and roll if I tried.
We stood up and the room grew quiet.
"Do you want to go first?" Roy asked me.
I looked him square in the eye, ran my fingers through my hair, took one deep breath and said,
"No. This was your idea, and I think it's only right that you get the first shot."
"Ok." He said.
And that was his first mistake.
The crowd sat up in their seats and collectively fixed their eyes on the fluorescent green guitar.
Roy applied his pick to the strings and an ungodly sound came out of the speaker.
"Wwwwhhhhrrrrrr deeedly whhhhhhrrrrrrrr sccccreeeeeechhhhh wwwwhhhrrrrrrrrr clunk!!"
It sounded like a lawn mower caught in a wood chipper. It was awful, and the whole room knew it. Well, the whole room minus Roy's henchmen who were clapping and whistling and not helping out the situation at all.
After what seemed like an hour of rapid fire BB gun pellets to the ears, Roy stopped.
He got a modest response from the crowd. Roy was done. It was in my hands now. F. Alex Johnson, whom the class of '88 barely knew.
The modest clapping which was dying down suddenly started to come together in a simple unison rhythm accompanied by a soft but steadily growing chant:
"A-lex" "A-lex" "A-lex" "A-lex."
I realized at that point that more people knew my name than I thought. And the ones who didn't were getting a crash course.
I looked at Roy and smiled and said "Nice job." He looked away. I have a feeling he didn't even hear me. He was sweating so much I wouldn't have been able to make out tears if there had been any. It didn't matter anymore.
I picked up my guitar pick, smiled at the crowd, and dove in.
I was on fire. When the whammy bar part came I hit my low E string and de-tuned it with my left hand as quickly as I could, immediately re-tuning it back in place. The first stunt was greeted with hoots and hollers, as expected.
The middle parts were a little rough, but I barreled on through. When I came to the part of the solo right before the two handed tapping part I let the strings ring open; just a big open mess of a non-chord. Somehow, it worked.
I took 5 seconds or so and flexed my clasped hands above my head before I carefully positioned my left hand over the neck and started into the part.
It was money. It was ferocious. It was by far the fastest thing I had ever heard produced by my will. It wasn't perfect, but after Roy's meltdown, moments prior, it at least sounded like the piece we had agreed upon. That signature part felt like it lasted 20 glorious minutes, although I know it was 30 seconds or less. It was enough.
I finished with another full de-tuning on the E string and I then I dramatically bowed and let my Dep drenched head hang over my Aria Pro 2 in front of me. I was done. I was sweating. I was tired from walking all day. And I had only brought in about 30 dollars or so for the walkathon.
The place went nuts.
I shook Roy's hand in front of about 300 people and accepted the hilarious title of "Best Guitarist" at Bishop Connolly High School. I gave him an awkward hug and he hurriedly packed up his gear into his candy apple red 1984 Pontiac Fiero. From the windows of the cafeteria you could read his name in the back window all the way to the end of the parking lot until he took a left and sped off to the Newport Creamery.
October is a wonderful month. It brings the trees to their natural state of annual surrender. Some leaves turn the color of the sun that initially gave them life. Some turn the color of the fruits their branches brought to term. Either way, it is spectacular to see. My Mother was a science teacher. Earth science was her focus. She once explained to me that the colors of the leaves you see at peak foliage are the colors the leaves are for their whole life. It's the chlorophyll that covers up their personality and makes them uniformly green. When that chlorophyll is drained by the coming of winter, the leaves respond and reveal their hidden talents. Like the brilliance of fireworks born from plain, rough, wrapped paper and powder.
I shook a lot of hands on that cool October day. I met a lot of people who said they were glad to meet me. I told each and every one of them the same thing. I told them that, on the contrary, that the pleasure was mine. And I was happy and excited to finally join the class that I started out with; to remind myself that it wasn't so long ago that I had been the guy with the brand new book bag, wandering around nervously walking into the wrong classroom and rushing back out; the guy who was meeting his classmates for the first time.
The guy who was finally proud to be a part of the class of '88
As promised, there's another exciting track from Fall River's most legendary band, Atria, waiting for you to make its acquaintance. This one is sung mostly by Dean. I handle the parts that were too high for him. Until you actually hear the song you won't understand what a ridiculous idea that was.
Another one from a movie that we all know and love.
"You just bought yourself a month's worth of detention, mister!"
Photos of B.C.H.S. by F. Alex Johnson c.2005
Sunday, February 24, 2008
We have a glossy photo. And we all look bad ass.
But I never told you how that photo came to be.
Allow me if I may...
Atria had landed a gig. It was to be at the Bank Street Armory in (you guessed it) downtown Fall River. My Aunt, Lynda, had secured it for us. She didn't become our de facto manager until the end of 85, but she did help us quite a bit before then. She had contacted the Fall River Herald News and worked her magic in the press office. They agreed that Atria deserved a mention, and set up the photo shoot for the listing that would appear in the weekend section.
That's the short story.
This one's just as accurate but a bit more fun to tell.
The Bank Street Armory show wasn't our first gig, but it was our first conflict of interest.
You see, Deano (that's what I called Dean) was a music lover just like the rest of us. And in 1985 there was an amazing music explosion going on due to MTV. At the time, MTV was the greatest thing to happen to music since a gut string had been stretched over a flat surface and plucked.
My family didn't have cable until '87 or so. Until then, we watched something called V66.
V66 was a maverick among television stations. First off, it was predominantly a music video station. This was unthinkable on "regular" television. MTV was the only game in town for 3 years or so.
If I wanted to watch MTV, I had two choices. I could either walk down the street to the Thomas Chew Memorial Boys club and sit with the other mesmerized kids in front of the big screen. Or I could walk a block down Johnson St. (named for my Great Grandfather) to my Grandpa's printing shop.
My Grandfather's name was Alex, but in the barber shop he was known as Alley; as in alley cat.
He was an amazing individual who passed away many years ago at the respectable age of 86. He was a powerful public speaker who had risen to the upper eschelon in the Kiwanis association. When he spoke you could not look away for fear you might miss a raised eyebrow that would send shivers through the room.
And funny? I could write for hours about how funny my Gramps was. I'll just drop this example.
He printed up buisiness cards that said: "My name is Alex Johnson. I am a very important Catholic. In case of emergency, please call a Bishop."
Like I said, funny guy; found a way to make his work more like fun.
Nobody made 'em laugh like Alley. I've been stealing his bit for 37 years.
He had operated his print shop since the thirties. It was the first of its kind in town.
President Kennedy-excuse me-President John F. Kennedy, had solicited my Granfather's services to print up business cards when he was making a run for state rep in 1947. I can only imagine who could possibly have one of those now, but I'm sure the box they came in had my Grandfather's name and address prominently stamped on it. He was always proud of that brush with untold greatness.
So, as I was saying, if I wanted to watch the curiously evolving cable music channel, I'd have to go over to the shop and wait until he fell asleep and begin to audibly snore. When that happened, I'd turn down the volume ever so slightly (with a Scientific Atlanta remote, no less), and I'd press in those magic numbers:
"...You, hear it...Chunka-chunka-chunka-chunka-...first."
I'd usually get to watch for 15 minutes or so before Gramps woke up. As the snore sounds from his throat became more and more staccato, I'd have to quickly push those buttons with my little Jimmy Dean sausage fingers, being careful not to drop the expensive and important device onto the dark, hardwood floorboards. I'd carefully return the ancient-albeit massive and majestic-Sylvania back to the news channel.
"Scrrrch pop!"..."President Reagan blah, blah, blah...."
Always something about Reagan.
After a while, I'd give him a big hug and kiss his perpetually sandpaper-like stubbled cheek and head back out into the sunlight.
"Tell your Mom and Aunty that I love 'em..." he would invariably say, and I would do as instructed. I was a good boy.
But I digress. It's what I do.
Back to the music...
I'd go back to my house, dial in V66, and sit and watch the music videos and play my Aria Pro 2 electric guitar. It had a "thru-the-body neck" that I'd point out to anyone who'd listen.
There was a song called "All You Zombies", from the album Nervous Night by a hot new band called The Hooters. It was a favorite video of mine. Dark and mysterious, with a strange melodica sound mixed louder than the guitars. It was a novel idea in a time of untested musical boundaries.
Deano loved The Hooters too. And he bought two tickets to a show at the Providence Civic Center that was slated for Friday, June 28th 1985.
My Aunt had worked hard to get us our first high profile show. She was a highly regarded teacher at the time and knew some people in the recreation department. They were looking to hire some entertainment for the Community Development Recreation Program's summer music series. It was at the Bank Street Armory smack dab in the middle of downtown. They had one date open. It was a Friday night in June and she grabbed it.
Dean was furious when he heard the news.
"But I have tickets! I've had them for months. It's the freakin' Hooters! I'm supposed to go with T____"
T____ was the girl he would always love regardless of the fact that she called him Deano and play-punched him on the arm when he'd get too close.
"They'll play there again Dean." I said, "this is an important gig. It our first big show. My Aunt worked her ass off to get us this gig and I refuse to let her down."
"Mrrrrgggg... grumble grumble grumble ... mrrrrgggghhhh...all right Alex, I'll give my ticket to my sister."
And so he did. And we played the show. And we had to lug all of our cheap, heavy gear up 3 flights of stairs into a gigantic room as boomy as an airplane hangar.
And it sounded even boomier because there was only 7 people there; three if you didn't count our relatives.
Deano always resented me for making him play that gig. And he had to hear from his sister how much fun she and T____ had that Friday night. He had to watch T____ wear the way too small tour shirt that he would have bought for her if he had had the night off. He would have gotten her the correct size though; a size that was respectable to wear out on a date.
Here's that glossy press photo from the Herald News again that came out on Thursday, June 27, 1985.The caption below it says, in bold letters: "Rock Band To Perform."
If you go back and look at that press photo, you can see the rock star glare from me, Bob, and Dave. We look like we're saying, "Come on out and we'll rock your socks off. We're Atria and we've got a big show to play."
If you look at our bass player it seems as if he's shrugging his shoulders and saying ,
"This wasn't my idea. I have tickets to a show..."
"...I've had them for months..."
Thanks for reading.
Now how about another song from Fall River's finest. From the unreleased album "The Legend of Atria"
This one is sung by the youngest member of the band. His name is Alex and he hopes you enjoy this special treat.
See you tomorrow.
"Boys, I think it's time to make a record."
I vaguely remember uttering this trite sentiment; and I meant it too. We were so hungry for gigs and we absolutely needed a demo if we were going to get any.
Serious professional musicians don't just sit around in a musty basement pretending they're Bono, Michael Stipe, Simon Le Bon, and Bryan Adams. No, serious professional musicians went into the studio and cut demos of songs that those artists had made famous.
And that's exactly what we did.
But first, we would need a producer.
Jerry G. Yes, that's the guy.
Jerry G. was a friend of mine. He coincidentally had a lot to do with me playing rock guitar. Or rather, his brother, Dave did. Dave was much older; almost out of High School a couple times over.
Dave had a silver Gibson Les Paul. It was the guitar. I'd come over to Jerry's house a lot to hang out and play Atari. Dave would always be rocking out in his smoky bedroom; sunglasses on; with the door shut and a towel rolled up to keep the sound in. I remember it smelled really weird in that bedroom. It was the same foreign smell I remembered from various Sha Na Na concerts my Aunt had brought me to throughout my youth (I saw them probably 20 times). When I would mention the funny smell, she would always contest that she didn't smell a thing. Anyway, I asked Dave to show me a couple of Jimmy Page riffs on his silver Les Paul. He had it plugged into something called a Pignose. It sounded damn good for an amp the size of shoe box. Maybe that's what I needed. A Pignose. Better save up for the electric guitar first. For now, the acoustic would do. I had been playing pretty much exclusively John Denver stuff on my guitar; a little Dylan, maybe a bit of Peter, Paul and Mary-simple 3 chord stuff-but mostly Denver; the Bard.
Dave showed me what I had been missing: The nasty 3 chord stuff. Zep, Sabbath, Deep Purple, and The Stones (up until then I was a Beatles boy. The Stones had always sounded so Alpha.)
And one of those nasty chords was sometimes a minor. That flatted third was almost as exotic as fresh peas.
I'd like to admit that Dave taught me how to play "Stairway to Heaven" right then and there, but strangely, I already knew it.
I had heard it in music class in Middle School a couple of years before. Our teacher, Mr. Nadeau, had come in pretty hung over that day and I think he needed a good long record that he didn't have to explain, so he busted out the big guns.
I had never heard the masterpiece which is Led Zeppelin IV. How could this have happened? One of the best selling records of all time and it was all new to me. It was 1982, and for the past 11 years I had pretty much subsisted on Sesame Street, Bill Cosby, Bob Newhart, John Denver, The Beatles, Blondie, John Williams, and The Captian and Tennille. Robert Plant scared the hell out of me; all that wailing and moaning. What kind of music was that? Phooey! I was practically an 80 year old man masquerading as a 12 year old kid in a nice roomy pair of Osh Kosh B'gosh's.
Well, Mr. Nadeau put that record on that day and I heard all of side one for the first time ever. It was magnificent. It was one of those old school turntables with the speaker built in, and the name of our school in big black marker to keep other schools from stealing it.
It was a mono player of course. Sweet, simple mono. Booming out of that little 5 inch speaker with midrangey pushiness and bouncing around the massive room.
The music room was a thing of beauty. Dark, dusty, cob-webby, mahogany lined and high up the stairs on the third floor to the right of the cafeteria. The perimeter of the room itself was dark due to the old wooden walls. The blackboard dared the low wattage incandescent bulbs to shine on its depressingly practical surface. But the middle of the room, the part where we sat on heavy, metal, dark-green, folding chairs, was brightly lit via the large east facing windows striated with safety wire. Studios pay big bucks to have production designers re-create rooms like this for movies. All I had to do was walk down President Avenue and haul my books upstairs in my red B.M.C. Durfee book bag. And then, all that was required of me was to sit and listen.
Mr. Nadeau nervously dropped the giant tone arm onto the black pool of plastic. It caught a groove and settled in. The muted, meaty chug of Jimmy Page's Les Paul threw me off. Then Plant stated his intentions in that high pitched yell:
"Hey, hey mamma said the way you move, gonna make you sweat, gonna make you groove..."
OK. If you say so Mr. Plant.
Sounds like Phys Ed. to me. I had that two periods ago, but I'll give it a chance.
Then the off time guitar/drum line. One of the best freaky jams ever. I almost slid off my chair. What the hell? Now this, I like. And it's called "Black Dog?" What was that supposed to mean?
See, I was used to comedy records. And a comedian's career is contingent on the agreement with the listener that you understand everything that he or she is saying; that you can relate. This disconnect would take some getting used to.
"Rock and Roll" came next. Heavens. Those drums. And all that guitar. And the singer again with the yelly high voice. A short, powerful number. Rock and roll indeed.
"The Battle of Evermore" threw me a curve. Mandolins were rare in rock and roll and still are. They're like midget actors. You don't see a lot of them, but when you do, they're usually really pro. And they almost always make you feel good. Not too many hack mandolin players or midget actors out there. Good thing too. Life is so short. "Evermore" was a foreboding, spooky song with a female harmony to add tension. It was enough to put you in a trance.
Looks like the that's exactly what happened to Mr. Nadeau. He had fallen asleep in his chair with his History of Western Music teacher's edition splayed over his giant belly; his snores rumbled along with the thunderous noise made by these heroes of rock and roll.
Then came the show stopper: "Stairway to Heaven."
I had to admit I had heard the song before, but it was usually halfway done by the time I paid attention to it. This time I was ready. The acoustic guitar sounded so warm and full with Jimmy's fingers audibly squeaking over the strings, confidently securing the correct position on the fret board.
The recorders chimed in; two of them. Who uses two recorders in a rock song? Balls. Big, rock balls. I tells ya.
At this point, Mr. Nadeau's book had fallen on the ground and roused him from a deep slumber. He did a nice job of feigning innocence, but couldn't quite pull it off as his glasses were just about falling off of his bulbous red nose.
And then, the twelve string. Another underused weapon in the world of rock. It was so nice to hear all those strings chiming at once. So smooth.
Still no drums. We're well into the song and there's no drums yet. Oh, there we go. Now we're groovin'.
We get to the pre-solo and it's so regal. That slashing D chord. I can picture knights and Kings and Queens and people from villages near and far gathering for a joyous occasion. It really is something special, and it brings us right to the main guitar solo.
Jimmy's lead begins a marked turn of emotion from introspection, vulnerability and celebration to one of attack. His technique is muscular and perfect. It sounds to me like a sorcerer on a mountaintop casting a bolt of lightning down into the valley. The sorcerer bringing darkness upon two armies at the ready. It truly is a beautiful piece of guitar playing; expertly crafted and executed with a low slung swagger. It's one of my all time favorites.
And then the vocals appear over the three chord end figure; a minor chord, followed by two majors; that flatted third sounding as exotic as fresh peas. Round and round, back and forth, until we arrive at the battleground with the drummer pounding away and instilling fear in our opponent; with Robert Plant shrieking into the ominous night with such force and emotion it feels as if the heavy rains which Mr. Page has just summoned might sweep us away if we don't grab on to something. Anything.
And just as quietly as side one began-with only the muted, meaty chug of Jimmy's E chord-we are left with Robert Plant's expressive voice solely executing the resolution. It not only starkly contrasts with the outro but it maddeningly leaves us with a perplexing sentence fragment:
"...And she's buying a stairway to heaven."
End of side one.
Time for lunch.
That day changed me forever. I went home that afternoon, threw my books on my bed and grabbed my acoustic guitar. I learned that intro riff-the one everybody goofs on-without any music in front of me; neither on paper or grooved vinyl. I picked out the notes one by one; the main melody first, then the bass, then the chords on the first position. It was an amazing dance my fingers learned that day. Part ballet, part Celtic traditional, part medieval, and one hundred percent practical. They should teach this stuff in school.
Oh yeah, I almost forgot, the demo.
We got Jerry G. to come over to our practice space and record five songs on his Tascam Porta-2 four-track.
He came over, set up some mics, and pressed record.
"The red light means go."
Whatever you say.
I'm not going to tell you that these were good versions of some classic songs, but I will say they were as good as we could do at the time; twenty four years ago. Hard to believe.
I'll be putting up a new one each day for the next 5 days starting this moment (4:41 am). I hope you enjoy them now as much as did then.
Thanks for reading.
PS- Song one is a track you may remember from a very funny movie about a black cop in Beverly Hills c. 1984. Yes, that song..
Friday, February 22, 2008
This, my friends, is for real.
This is my photo from picture day, sometime in September 1984.
I most assuredly have an unbreakable comb in my back pocket, and I can guarantee that it had just been put to use touching up this marvelous new haircut I had received only days prior.
I also have a small pin on my lapel; a guitar pin. A beautiful, blue Fender Telecaster in highly detailed pin form.
It was my thing.
See, I got my first guitar at age 10 or so, and I was instantly hooked. I had to have everything guitar related. This applied to birthday cakes, decals, skinny ties, alarm clocks, key chains, etc. My family happily complied. Not every teenager is easy to please, but I knew what I liked. Thankfully for them, guitar oriented items are as common as guitar players.
I bought a guitar pin one day from Fereirra's music store in the Flint section of Fall River where I took lessons. I put it on my black leather vest and checked myself in the mirror.
Now I had a niche. Some people collect thimbles; some collect snow globes; I collected guitar pins. I had Fenders, Gibsons, electrics, acoustics, every color of the rainbow. I even had a freaking double neck. I would be given a new one for every celebratory occasion. By the beginning of September 1984, I had amassed somewhere close to 30 or so guitar pins and I wore one every day.
Every day, that is, until I stepped into Mr. Angelo's classroom.
Mr. Angelo taught biology. He was the head of the Ski team as well (bunch of rich pricks). He was also my freshman year home room teacher. He was in his early 30's and in decent physical shape. On his round head sat equally round tortoise shell glasses. He wasn't bald, but there wasn't much hair on his head either. What was there was short, dark and mossy. He had brown, greasy skin and on that greasy skin was perpetual stubble. He stood all of 5'5, had a raspy sarcastic voice, and, despite his stature, could stare you down with beady eyed rapaciousness. He favored Sperry Topsiders on his feet (sans socks) and was otherwise swathed in Izod or Le Tigre. His bloated sense of self-importance was superseded only by his daily, noisy arrival in an antique Karmann Ghia ragtop.
His ilk was the jock crowd. I think he coached track too. His preferred students were the rich, young girls from the Highland section of Fall River. They'd giggle endlessly and exchange coy looks during class while fiddling with their still affixed ski passes. When the girls playful fidgeting started to reach a crescendo, Mr. Angelo would mention them by name and play-scold them until they'd almost explode in their seat from the precious attention.
Silly, catty, superficial, and utterly forgettable. All of them.
Needless to say, he had no use for a sensitive, would-be artist type like myself.
He took one look at me-one look-and he had my number.
"Mr. Johnson is it?"
"I don't allow jewelry on boys in my class. You'll have to take that pin off."
"But it's not..."
"You are familiar with the principal's office, aren't you Mr. Johnson?"
"Well, actually, this is my first day and..."
"Off, I said!"
Why are some people such assholes? I mean really.
So, every day, I'd have to take off the god damn pin, put it in my collared shirt pocket, and put up with Mr. Angelo for 45 minutes. Mr. George Angelo, king of the pricks.
I found out recently from an old High School friend that Mr. George Angelo is now married to a girl 15 years younger than him. And she was 15 years younger than him when she sat next to me in home room in 1984.
Yeah, that's what I said.
So, not to veer too far off the subject, I was in this band. We were called Atria. It was my first rock band which I started with my friend Dean.
Dean was a very nice guy of Portugese ancestry who studied hard and got good grades. He was in MENSA, as were a lot of the folks I hung around with. I was a freshman and they were all seniors. They were all in honors classes; they were all into Dungeons and Dragons, and they quoted Monty Python verbatim-whole 8 minute skits-endlessly. Yes, they were all geeks- supergeeks you might say-and they accepted me instantly.
One of the supergeeks was named Bob. He played keyboards. More importantly, he had a keyboard. And he heard Dean and me talking about the band incessantly. He wanted in. We told him to bring his keyboard (a Roland, even) over to Dave's house and we'd try him out.
What I meant to say was, I encouraged him to memorize how to get to Dave's house so he could subsequently pick my 14 year old ass up for practice every week. But to Bob, he thought of it as an audition.
He arrived early and was dressed for the occasion. He was wearing the style of the time: Gaudy.
He was into prints and luckily it was the eighties. I think it was some sort of dark blue linen jobber with lightning bolts and spaceships on it. I was jealous.
He set up his keyboard and amp and mussed up his hair.
He checked the sound patch to make sure it was set on "organ."
And he was off. He launched into Johann Sebastian Bach's "Toccata en Fugue in Dm." The one from the Phantom of the Opera. The organ song. That mother-fucker. How could anyone dispute the Toccata. It was the money shot.
He played it flawlessly and he played it with panache. He wanted in bad.
And so he was.
We immediately put together a song list that featured keyboards. As it was the eighties, this was an easy task.
"Shout" by Tears for Fears; "Save a Prayer" by Duran Duran; "In the Flesh" by Floyd; "Money for Nothin" by the used-to-be great Dire Straits and of course, "Axel F." from the Beverly Hills Soundtrack. This was hot stuff; this was on every radio station; this was what people wanted.
It was an accurate reflection of the times; not unlike staring into a Def Leppard mirror from the fair.
OK. So now we have a complete band. What next?
A promo shot of course. Now, if I only had a copy of that great picture of us from way back when.
Hey, wait a minute...
Just let me rummage around in this pile of junk over here...
I'll give you a minute to take it all in. Go ahead. Stare. It's OK, I won't bite.
But our mean, jerk of a drummer Dave might. I know, it's magnificent isn't it? Just look at these guys. What are they thinking?
Let's start with Bob. Like I said, the kid liked prints. Who didn't? And he just has to be playing an imaginary chord so you won't confuse him with Dean, the bass player.
Dean brought his bass as you can see. That's what he plays; bass.
All the way to the right is the meanest man in the world; Dave. He looks like he might just take those drumsticks and jam each one in your eyes if you dared to say hello. No belt on that guy. He left it wherever he last beat up a hobo.
And then there's yours truly. I can't, of course, recall my exact thoughts as the shutter mercilessly opened, but I bet it was something along the lines of:
"Hey baby, how's it goin? My name's Alex, and I play guitar. This, coincidentally, is the guitar I play. I also do my hair up special for no reason at all. Wouldn't you like to be that reason?"
And so it was; my first non school related photo shoot.
The picture is dated June 18th, 1985. I had turned 15 a month before. Not a freshman, not yet a sophomore. That would have to wait a couple of months.
So more about Bob. He plays keyboards. He also comes from a very Christian family. He actually went to Bishop Connolly High because it was a Catholic school, not just because it was the lesser of two evils (the other worse evil was B.M.C. Durfee High, where everyone else went).
Bob's parents weren't exactly thrilled with his decision to join up with a bunch of roustabouts like us, but they went along. They let him use the Olds to get to my house and then to rehearsal. And they put up with him learning all manner of heretic rock and/or roll.
Until we went too far.
One night Bob showed up for practice with his head hung low. We, of course, were concerned.
"What gives, Bobby boy?"
"Well, it looks like I...I mean we have a problem."
"OK. Spit it out, what's up?"
"Well...my Mom and Dad heard me learning one of the songs we picked and freaked out. They said they wouldn't allow me to learn it."
"Was it the Bryan Adams song? It wasn't "Heaven" was it? Because that song is very spiritual."
"No...it was...it was... "Burnin' for You."
"You're kidding me."
"I wish I was...they heard the line about "living for giving the devil his due", and said no way."
"That stinks Bob."
"It sure does."
And that was that. We never learned one of the greatest songs ever. I think we learned Golden Earring's "Twilight Zone" instead. It proved to be a showstopper.
That was a busy summer. The summer of 1985. Some horrible music was released and promoted that year and I'm not going to rehash it here. But the point is that we painstakingly learned a lot of that horrible music and we were unbelievably psyched to play it.
So, the band has a new name, a new member, a rockin' glossy press photo. What we need now is a new logo. Hmm...I wonder who is going to design that?
If I only had a copy...
Get it?...The band name looks like an EKG...Atria...the heart...get it?
I made about 300 of these scribbily little kid- "Lemonade .50 cent"- style posters and put them all around school. Notice we include some original material. I can barely remember the songs but there was a song Dave wrote called "Rebel Song" which I remember hating. And there was a song I had written called "Too Late For Dreaming." That one I liked.
I also bastardized and lifted a lyric from a popular song of the time for the catch line. Wow!
So, we needed a gig. A big gig. A gig that would break us.
How about the school dance? They have bands sometimes. We could charge them $50 and have a great time.
But first we'd have to get it by the Student Government. And the Student Government has an important overseer who also happens to be a teacher at Bishop Connolly High School.
A biology teacher; the head of the ski team...
...and he just hates guitar pins.
To be continued...
Coming soon: Two words- one life changing event: Talent Contest. Oh boy!
If you've made it this far, thanks for reading. If you haven't made it this far, you may never will.
Thursday, February 21, 2008
That's what it says on page one of my police report.
Mu-sician. Full time. Quit the day job and keep the receipts because tax time is a bitch.
It's something I'm quite proud of. It's something I've worked hard for almost 30 years to accomplish. And it's also something that has unfortunately taken its toll on my mind, body, and reputation.
But I knew what I signed up for well in advance. I just thought I was smart enough to not let all the smoke and mirrors fool me.
Back in 1984, as a freshman in High School, I had a lot going on. I had just changed my name from Fred to Alex. That first day was a lot of fun during roll call in each class:
"Um...I'm going by my middle name now. Can you please call me Alex?"
Snicker, snicker, snicker.
"OK ...Alex." Weirdo.
I was dating a senior. I had joined the drama club and had successfully secured an important role (read: 3 lines) in the 1984 winter production of the Sunday afternoon (read: second string) performance of "Twelve Angry Jurors."(Yeah, weird I know, but there were girls and stuff and we had to rename it.)
Oh, and I was in a band; a rock band.
The band consisted of me on guitar and sleeveless striped shirt; a bass player named Dean; and a mean jerk of a drummer named Dave who blurted out outrageous sentiments such as: "I don't sing, so I don't think I should put in money for monitors." ...ahem...as I was saying, we had a mean jerk of a drummer named Dave, and we had a lot of time and energy. We were kids. Both Dave and Dean were 3 or 4 years my senior but as far as being in a band went we were all pretty inexperienced.
I'll never forget the night I got the phone call from Dean telling me he knew of a drummer who had a basement and did I want to go over and jam. Oh my god. Did I ever. I have an amazingly vivid memory of me packing up my Aria Pro 2 Thor Sound 600 guitar, Yamaha amp, Boss SD-1 distortion pedal and light blue D.O.D. chorus pedal (it was the 80's and chorus pedals were de rigeur). I kissed my mother on the cheek and headed on over to play in a group for the very first time. I left my house on 1073 Bedford St. to play rock and roll with a bass player and a drummer in a cold, musty basement on a school night.
And that was the end of my childhood.
That night I felt it slip swiftly away as I feverishly launched into the simple, two note guitar intro to U2's "I Will Follow." I heard the drums and bass kick in and I began to sing. I felt the blood in my veins start to heat up. I saw my hot breath in front of my face and felt the "whoosh" of air come out of the bass drum. I stood there, mouth agape and guitar wailing, and watched my childhood innocence float away. I saw it escape up the rickety wooden staircase and out the storm door. It knew better than to look back. It didn't leave a card.
It was gone for good. So to speak.
So, what next? We would need a name.
Fre...er...I mean, Alex. Any ideas?
How about a bad one? How about C.I.A.?
C.I.A. stood for "Creative Image Artists."
I know. It's awful. Simply rubbish, and it means absolutely nothing. I liked the intelligence agency angle as I was into spys and spying (I once took apart a watch and stuffed a guitar string inside it in case I needed to strangle an adversary, Roger Moore style). I had also designed the logo myself and was quite proud of it. Said logo made its presence known to the whole student body of Bishop Connolly High by having the perfect placement in large black letters on white typing paper under the clear plastic front of my green Trapper Keeper.
How cool was I.
When you do something long enough and often enough, you start to believe in it. You don't want to give it up because you've gotten used to it, and you can't think of doing it any other way.
But the name didn't last long.
Our mean jerk of a drummer, Dave, renamed the band "Atria."
Some would say it was a better name. I will never agree.
According to the medical dictionary which, by the way, is much more gross than the regular dictionary:
"Atria (plural of atrium) refers to the top two chambers of the human heart. There are two atria, one on either side of the heart. On the right side is the atrium that holds blood that needs oxygen. It sends blood to the right ventricle which sends it to the lungs for oxygen. After it comes back, it is sent to the left atrium. The blood is pumped from the left atrium and sent to the ventricle where it is sent to the aorta which takes it to the rest of the body."
That is so rock and roll.
We had a regular practice night and we came up with a list of songs to work on:
"Sultan's of Swing", "I Will Follow", "Sunday Bloody Sunday", "Roadhouse Blues" and plenty of others.
We got a gig.
It was at a friend's house and there was supposed to be girls and beer.
When we arrived, there was neither. This situation didn't last long but it was, in effect, my first load in. It was also my first encounter with an incorrect contract rider. Certainly not to be my last.
We set up in the living room. People started to filter in. Not just dudes, but girls too. And the girls brought the requisite Bartles and James' wine coolers and two liter bottles of Purple Passion.
Someone else brought a keg.
Now that's what I'm talkin' about.
I had a couple of beers. The first one tasted kind of gross. The second one not so much. And then we played.
I once again busted into "I Will Follow", and the joint exploded. There were tons of people at this point and they were all dancing. Jumping. Throwing themselves around and generally freaking out.
I was singing the only way I knew how- incorrectly, but that didn't matter. The song sounded pretty good and the girls were smiling. The breakdown happened in the middle with the pedestrian harmonics and I experienced a major head rush. The beer was working its magic and the music became a gigantic swirl of energy, emotion, and transistor distortion.
It was the perfect moment at the perfect time on the most wonderful night of my life. I even got to kiss a girl on the lips for the very first time.
I made out with the girl my bass player had a major crush on. He refused to make a move because he was deathly afraid of losing her as a friend if it wasn't reciprocated. I was three years his junior, she wasn't my friend, and I didn't give a rats ass. Plus, I had backup; a good, 4 beer buzz and a rock star afterglow.
One of my first buzzes at my very first gig, and I got to kiss a girl; a pretty one.
Not bad for a fourteen year old.
And, I had made an important discovery.
Rock and roll, + beer and girls=an unbelievably good time.
And who could argue with that equation? It's so simple and pure. It's practically laboratory tested. It's what parents used to warn their kids against because they knew it was a powerful mixture. They were well aware that if those ingredients were not handled with the utmost care, they could explode and cause some serious damage.
That could happen in chemistry class if you're not careful, too.
But that police report didn't say "Occupation, Chemist."
No. It didn't say that at all.
Coming tomorrow: Atria gets a Christian keyboard player; the all important High School dance gig, and the headshot heard 'round the block.
Oh yes, there are photos, and I will be sharing.
Wednesday, February 20, 2008
It's not that I don't have my fair share of delusions. I just don't care to identify with a large group of people who have them publicly (which is probably why I never became a Dead Head). But I will confess that I enjoy the benefits of Catholocism: Bazaars, craft shows, Sundays, sins, wafers, Madonna, Santa Claus and The Easter Bunny.
I have always loved Easter.
It is one of those great events that is drenched in dogma and gravitas, while being promoted with costumes and candy. Man, those Catholics are something. "Here, this one's like Christmas. It's all about Jesus but we think that won't sell. Let's make the cutest little animal in the world -who is the spokesperson for overpopulation- be the mascot. We can even get kids to want their picture taken with a guy dressed up like him at every mall in the country."
And the deal is, you don't get toys, you get candy!
Kids may not understand that by being born they have already committed a sin, but they sure do understand candy.
When I was a little kid, my Mom was worried about my teeth. So instead of giving me candy, I got prizes.
The deal was, there'd be little plastic eggs that she would hide around the house. Each egg had a little piece of paper with a number inside. Each number corresponded to a prize. The prizes ranged from a new bike seat, to a pack of markers and a sketch book or a roll of Bang Caps.
Sounds simple right?
Right. Because it was. And it worked like a charm. It successfully postponed my very first cavity for 35 years.
One of my earliest memories is from when I was probably 3. It was Easter Sunday. My Mom came in my room and put me over her shoulder. She carried me out of my room and into the living room where I was about to begin my hunt.
What nobody knew was that on my way past the knick-knack shelf, I had caught a glimpse of one of the carefully hidden prize eggs. This was possible only due to the elevated view of the room I had. A Mom's eye view. I'll never forget those precious few seconds in time; high above everything. In motion but also fully focused. And then spying it in all its fuscia and lavender glory. Two plastic halves protecting a most valuable note. A lucky ticket.
A lucky break.
What a fix.
I remember feeling that power of an unfair advantage but I didn't care. I had found my prize. I had claimed my first catch of the day and I felt tremendous.
One of my prizes that day was a brand new bicycle seat. Thick and nicely padded, just like me.
I saw Easter candy for sale downtown today. The big day is over a month away but they have got to put the candy out early so we won't forget.
And for the life of me I can't tell you the story of Jesus and Easter. I think I was something about a bunny who lays candy eggs and then can't find them. Then he eats his friend, Mr. Pig, for dinner and goes to the mall where all the kids want to have their picture taken with him. Does that sound right?
Maybe I should just go to bed.
I've got to get up early.
Rise and shine as they say.
Rise and shine.
Tuesday, February 19, 2008
I can smell a bottle of vodka being opened 10 feet away.
And the kids in school used to call it "odorless."
Yeah right. And it will help you lose weight too.
Just another batch of High School hooey that we were taught from our elder peers. It usually came right after the one about "If you ask someone if they are an undercover cop, they're legally bound to tell you."
Usually, if you're in a situation where you have to ask somebody if they're undercover, they won't tell you until right before you are legally bound with handcuffs.
Smelling booze doesn't make me want to drink though.
It makes me want to vomit; something I could hardly ever do after a night in, despite my best efforts.
It reminds me of how I used to save my vodka bottles behind my front door for the clear goodness that would collect at the bottom.
At my peak, I used to drink between a .750 and a liter each night. Often, surprisingly, upon checking the freezer in the morning, there would be just about enough to allow for a proper eye opener. I'd enjoy that around 8 am while watching The Today Show. After that was gone I'd be in limbo until the package store opened at 9.
Time for a little improvising.
I'd open up each bottle one by one.
"Ffffssss..." it would hiss, and I'd stare at what was left in the very bottom of each vessel like I had just been bitten by a snake and this was the serum. It wasn't very much, a half a teaspoon maybe. Then, I'd hold the precious clear bottle with the red safety ring over my head and let each drop corrupt my waiting toungue.
And then I'd cap it and put it back. And I'd move on to the next bottle until I had emptied them all. And then I did it all over again. Because as that last bottle was being left alone, it was preparing itself for another round. It was pulling itself together. I'd continue my proceedings and eventually my hands would stop shaking.
And I did this until the package store opened.
The package store I used to go to had an awful smell about it. I never could really figure out its origin. But then again, I didn't spend too much time there. Quick in and quick out, everyday.
It smelled kind of like rotted plants crossed with a million cigarettes, with just a touch of Christmas Tree Air Freshener and all the empties in the back. I'm sure it still smells like that.
I can smell it right now if I concentrate on it.
In fact, I can conjure up that smell, and then I can imagine myself opening up that big twelve dollar bottle of vodka; twisting that red metal cap off in the car, and quickly taking a big pull. I'd wipe my mouth with my sleeve and shudder. That shudder was important. That shudder meant it was working. That shudder just came over me as I was typing. No word of a lie.
I can do all that right here in front of my computer and it freaks me out.
How did this all come up?
I was sitting here at my desk with my window open. It was unseasonably warm today and so, I opened my windows.
I realized I still had one of them open as a pungent smell filled the room. An awful smell. A toxic smell.
But the first thing I thought of wasn't a skunk at all. Of course not.
I thought of weed. Good weed. Skunk weed.
I'm not going to open up this can of worms right now because I don't have to. I like weed. I always will. But right now my life won't allow for even the slightest bit of trouble. So I'll keep clean.
But I find it amazing that a smell which, to a vast majority of people would signal the horror that is being skunked, can make me excited. Giddy even. It made me immediately smile, look out my window for hippies, and slap myself in the face.
But because I'm not smoking weed right now I remembered to shut my window. It's supposed to get chilly tonight.
I hope Mr. Skunk has a safe warm place to call home.
I bet it smells better than that package store. I think, to me, anything would smell better than that.
But if I were him, when I got home, I'd open a few windows. There may be undercover cops hiding in the bushes. And you don't want to be getting busted because you smell like really, really, really good weed.
Thanks for reading,