Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Park It Here

I packed a banana into a guitar case and headed for Manhattan, a mere 40 miles but a seeming continent away from the suburbs.

After riding the Metro-North train in from Westchester to Grand Central Station and taking the #1 subway to the Christopher Street stop, I intended to walk directly to Washington Square Park in the West Village rather than exploring any nearby avenues or streets for fear I would lose my way.

But there was a commotion halfway down Christopher Street and I headed in its direction wearing a squint in an attempt to look hard and dangerous, as though I hadn’t just come from my mother and father’s big house on top of a hill in my pleasant, comfortable town of 7,000.

A tall man was laying down three cards on top of an upside-down 5-gallon joint compound container perched on a large empty box. The cards were beat-up and the man barked “Red card’s a winner, red card’s a winner!” A fellow from the crowd correctly guessed which card was red, and I saw the tall man hand over $20, just like that. He laid down another three cards, and again, a man from the crowd guessed which one was red and collected money.

I felt sorry for the barker; he had no shirt and didn’t look as though he could afford to lose his pants, too. But he’d been beaten fair and square, and since a game was offered, I decided to play. The third time the barker shuffled and laid down cards, I spied the red one in the middle, thought quickly, and hesitated.

A low voice next to my left ear startled me. “It’s in the middle,” a battered, elderly man whispered.

That was enough to convince me, and I laid down my entire bankroll---a 20 dollar bill---to bet. In a split second, the barker turned over a black card and the money that was supposed to last me the entire weekend was gone, and in another moment the entire game was broken up, crowd dispersed and the mob around the corner faster than you can say “You’ve been suckered into a three-card-Monte game, and the men in the crowd who supposedly had won cash were shills.”

In massive shock and grief, I hugged my instrument close to my chest, staggered back to 7th avenue and stood in Sheridan Square, wondering what I was going to do now. I ate my banana and took a minute to plot, keeping an eye on the street hustlers, bums and drug dealers, who didn’t seem so glamorous anymore. I finally dragged both palms down the front of my face, recovered, pointed the guitar east and headed off to Washington Square Park.

Ellis Hooks was a tall, lean, light-skinned black guitar player with some visible Cherokee in his cheekbones, a perpetual Iguana parked on his left shoulder and, most of the time, a Stetson on his close-cropped noggin. Delivering his own made-up-on-the-spot soul and blues songs mixed with Wilson Pickett, Stones and Bee Gees, he’d gathered a crowd of about two dozen passers-by, adoring women, drug addicts, students, street people and dancing children in Washington Square Park.

I had developed an allergy to most street guitarists I’d seen in my short, chaperoned trips to Manhattan, the majority of which were guys pawing 6 strings in public because they had no hope of ever getting a gig indoors. But Hooks was a young black Elvis, gyrating, barking, moaning and screeching in tune, and he was irresistible, raw, fun and sexy. After he’d finished a song, a young girl hoisted his open case in the air and walked through the crowd while the grinning guitarist hitched his jeans and made the perpetual pitch:

“10-4, ladies and gentlemen. Cash, check, American Express, airplane tickets.” The case came back full of dollars, fives and a few tens. I figured it couldn’t be too hard to do the same myself. I knew more chords than Ellis Hooks did, I reasoned, so I claimed a spot elsewhere in the park and started my own show.

I got a few glances but no stoppers; I was green, shy and obviously milk white without a teaspoon of soul. I needed money and I wanted to play, though, so I didn’t leave the park for the next 8 hours, hammering out the hundreds of tunes I knew, delivering each one to see if each had any effect whatsoever. Most or all were ignored. I was a musical embryo in this element, and there was no way to hide that. I was also deathly afraid of people and the city and was hardly a good-time glad-hander performer, like Ellis Hooks. Ellis barked a song from his gut, his veins and his heart. I didn’t know how to do that, didn’t even know there was such a thing. We were not the same and I was not “better” than he was, I had to concede.

Ellis Hooks wasn’t the only competition in the park, either. Several times a day, a performer named Tony Vera gathered a crowd of at least 100 underneath Washington Square Park’s arch, watching him spit lighter fluid from his mouth over a torch. This made a ball of fire spew 20 feet in front of him, and he never failed to collect, by my count, at least 100 bucks a set and he did at least 4 sets a day.

As evening approached, a battered, crack-addicted comedian named Charlie Barnett gathered crowds of almost equal size in the park’s dry fountain by walking in a circle and shouting “Show time! Show time!” When the crowd was big enough, he delivered a semi-scripted but mostly improvised set of deadly funny riffs on race, drugs, sex and life. When Tony or Charlie appeared in the park, any gathering of people I pulled in would drain like water from the tub right in the middle of my act. I’d shut my case until their sets were over, after which I’d start again and try to catch the spillover.

Simultaneously, at any given time, assorted lesser acts of one, two or more delivered music, monologues or dance around the park, all competing for dollars and attention. All performers at all times were surrounded by homeless men who drank and drugged and smoked through the day and got by on the change they could scrounge, and who saw others only as a means of getting the next meal. These people took a shine to me, and occasionally repelled the few who eventually stopped to give me and my act a chance. Any invitation for the bums and loonies to find another guitarist to attach themselves to, however, was met with belligerence and a reminder of what country we were in, and that was that.

I collected about 10 dollars over that day and into early evening, mostly coins, $4.75 of which was enough to cart me back home for a shower and a week’s recovery period. My father, rather than discouraging me from street performing, was delighted, and wanted to hear all about Ellis Hooks, the petty drug dealers, the street people and the cops who looked the other way as deals went down, men fooled around with each other in the piss-soaked bathroom, weed was smoked and cheap hard liquor was guzzled. Dad even wanted to come down and check me out, but I discouraged him, wanting the space to be no one from nowhere, and his appearance would have spoiled my fantasy.

The above story will be told in three parts. The next installment is Thursday.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

By the time I get to Tarrytown

dear readers of captain bananas by the time u read this i will be on a bicycle maybe in the rain riding over the tappan zee bridge to benefit multiple sclerosis i will see you when i get back love to you all

Bike MS/Tappan Zee Bike Ride September 28, 2008

Feel free to leave a msg of support in the comments section thank you from captain bananas

Friday, September 26, 2008

Josh M. rates teachers

An article titled "Judgement Day" in the Sunday, 9-21 issue of New York Times magazine talks about how online "student ratings are becoming an influential factor in academic promotions."

Like anyone, I've had outstanding, good and terrible teachers. Here are my ratings and comments:

Diane Cusic, 1st grade

She of the bouffant hairdo and Jackie Kennedy whisper-voice, Mrs. Cusic was my first true love, and I would have married her if I'd been 3 feet taller. She never asked and I never explained why I couldn't speak in her presence, or why I couldn't eat in front of her. A+

Joan Weinstein, 2nd grade

Margaret Hamilton circa 1939 lookalike, soundalike, talkalike, walkalike. Made careful list over several weeks of all the things I'd done wrong in anticipation of the first parent-teacher conference of the school year.
Me, second grade

Among other transgressions, I wandered into the bathroom during a lesson, took off all my clothes sang into the mirror for 20 minutes. A conference was called, and Weinstein's list was produced.

My father looked at it and asked, "Where is the list of things he does right?" which evoked a look similar to Ralph Kramden's when asked "Who is the author of 'Swanee River?'" on "The $99,000 answer."

Mrs. Weinstein also tortured Ross Lipton, who'd been purposely, absent-mindedly dribbling spit into one of his workbooks during a lesson. She loomed over Lipton, 7 years old, and demanded he spit and spit and spit.

"I don't hafta!" Lipton cried, meaning his mouth was now dry. Mrs. Weinstein did not relent.

Damn, I still remember her witchy face. (shiver)

F-, with 5 lines under it.

Marcia Neighbors, 3rd grade

The first to encourage my writing, which resulted in "Blinkertoo The Mouse". Invited me over to her house to swim in her pool, too, and she was one of the few adults I completely trusted not to take me in the woods and kill me. Tall, regal, one of the most liked teachers in the school and one who never gave me the slightest amount of grief for anything---and she easily could have. A+

Richard Devir, 4th grade

Played a mesmerizing "Alice's Restaurant" on a nylon-string guitar. Bought pizza for students. Didn't stop Darryl Tinsley from hitting me in the mouth or do anything about it after the blow. Shoved tables into impossible, unruly students. Refused to discuss class or any of its students when contacted years later for "Confessions of an ex-seeker." C-

Lois Burke, 6th grade

One of the worst, she called me "just a bouncing ball of blubber," and "two-ton". I was 4'11, 121 pounds and by that time, almost completely silent in school, making note of how few words I could actually get away with during the course of the day. I counted 9 once, my all-time low. The 9 were:

"I don't know, I don't know, I don't know."

Burke sent me to the Principal's office for possessing a copy of Abby Hoffman's "Steal This Book", which described how to gyp the phone company, shoplift, grow marijuana and make molotov cocktails, among other things.

My father---again---came to the school for a conference.

He was asked, "Do you know your son is reading this?"

Before "reading this?" was out of the Principal's mouth, Dad replied, "He can read any goddamn thing he wants to."

(When going through my father's wallet, retrieved from a pair of his pants on the floor of his apartment after they'd taken his body away, I found his crumpled Bill of Rights. In the last year of his life, he would whip it out and recite from it when someone tried to tell him what he could and could not say. The man did fly 38 missions over Normandy, Belgium, Germany and France, after all.)
Mrs. Burke: D

Dad: A

Richard Heinhold, 8th grade

Gave me an "A" for writing a riff on Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart" (after verifying that I'd written the essay myself) told from the point of view of one of the policemen. May have had writer aspirations of his own, as indicated by patches on elbows of tweed coat and moustache and beard.

Sent me to Principal's office when I punched Geoff Ryder in the chest for screaming "Jew!" after seeing me pick up a penny I'd dropped. When confronted by my father later that night after he'd been notified I'd been suspended, I told him what had happened.

"Next time hit him in the mouth," my father said.

Mr. Heinhold's nickname was "Mr. Heinie-hole".

Heinhold: B
Dad: A+

Robert Laub, 11th grade

All-time best teacher award. Gave me A-pluses for first-person, stream-of-consciousness prose, lyrics and poetry. Came to one of my public performances; I was shocked to see him drink a beer. A+

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

A Night At The Met

"Monday will mark the first time the Met's glittering opening-night gala will be beamed to distant fans by high-definition broadcast, and enthusiasts from New Jersey to New Mexico are digging out dinner jackets and evening gowns for the occasion," said the Associated Press. This was the 125th anniversary of the Met.

And so I took my seat next to my decked-out, gorgeous bride, and beheld on a beautiful, cool night.

The programs---"La Sopresatta", "Man-o-man" and "Cappucino"---excuse me, “La Traviata,” “Manon” and “Capriccio"---were easy to digest, and the singers---

Renee Fleming

Ramon Vargas

Thomas Hampson

---all entertained, no cracking, no messing up words. (What the hell do I know?)

The New York Times subsequently said of Ramon Vargas, the chubby, short favorite of mine, "The tenor Ramón Vargas was an impassioned Alfredo," and, regarding "Manon", "Mr. Vargas, as des Grieux, was again in ardent form." Dude, the cat sang his cojones off for 2 hours---ya think ya can spare him a few more words than a measly 18?

I'm all about Vargas, now---little dude singing at the one of the top gigs in the world.

I hadn't known if I could last the entire evening, but as one does not stack pizza slices on top of each other and eat them all at the same time, so I ingested small portions of Opera, each satisfying and understood, before moving onto the next.

And there I was, in the heart of Manhattan, under the stars, a feeling of melancholy as the weather chilled and the eventful summer of Goodyear Blimps, Lamborghinis, upstate hotels, Model T Fords and Al Hoffman recordings came to an official close.

Sunday, September 21, 2008

On America, Richard Wright

"Our too-young and too-new America, lusty because it is lonely, aggressive because it is afraid, insists upon seeing the world in terms of good and bad, the holy and the evil, the high and the low, the white and the black; our America is frightened of fact, of history, of processes, of neccessity."

Richard Wright, 1945

Saturday, September 20, 2008

Expert texperts--not.

The author of this New York Times article about the physical dangers of texting ought to have accompanied me to Washington Mutual last week.

If my bank was going down the pipes, as WaMu is, and I was the boss, I'd circulate a memo: "Please do not text while handling clients' hundreds of thousands of dollars' worth of transactions today."

The problem at my bank is that the supervisors, who have come and gone as fast as a patron of a Times Square peep show in the 80s, aren't any further along etiquette-wise.

If you ask a question and they don't hear you, for example, the response is "What happened?"

If I make a withdrawal larger than what I would consider average, they ask what I'm going to do with the money. And, of course, eyebrow, lip, nose piercings are left in because you want to know people who work there are wasssuuuuuup? Waz at da club las' night yo.

Hell in a handbasket? Nah. A free and open society, where trends start and are or are not absorbed by the mainstream, after which they are perceived as normal, and people like me who pick on others who say "Awesome!" every two or three words are seen as odd.

Besides, my teller with the pierces and text messages is a car lover who knows what I do, and we talk while I judge him. He'll find his real vocation one day. I actually avoid that WaMu, which is 3 blocks away, because it is dirty, slow and the tellers text and frequently appear to be hung over. If possible, I go up to Riverdale where the pros are.

I also leave my neighborhood to go to the Post Office, supermarket, stationary store, to eat at restaurants and have dry cleaning done for all the above reasons.

Friday, September 19, 2008

Ink-stained blech

I filed a lawsuit today. It's my third in 12 years. Let me tell you about the other two first.

One was to recover a rent deposit from a landlord who just didn't see why he had to give Mrs. M and I our money back. We went to court and the landlord lost, of course, and subsequently sent me a check, but it took a contentious hearing during which time his wife told me, in front of the judge, "I never liked you from the start!"

I responded, "Gee, that's a shame, because I really liked you."

The judge thought that was funny, and I like to think it helped rule in our favor. ("Gee, that's a shame" was borrowed from "Midnight Run".)

The second lawsuit was involved a dispute over a paint job I had done with a crew in 1997. There is something known as a "punch list", a list of odds and ends which the contractor has the client assemble at the end of the job, and which the contractor addresses. My client didn't like a few things we'd done, but wouldn't let me come and fix them, and wouldn't pay. It was the equivalent of eating an entire Chinese meal, then refusing to pay the bill because you don't like the fortune cookie.

The client got served, immediately called me, I came and fixed, and was paid. What happens in cases like that is the case is called, neither party shows up, and it's dismissed.

Today, my suit was filed in New Jersey. A newly (re)launched magazine I won't name had contacted me and solicited three articles for a certain amount of money. I wrote all three---a car article, a travel article and a bicycle review---supplied photos, and submitted an invoice.

Yesterday, the editor, who on the phone had sounded as though she was about 12, sent me the following email:

Hi Josh,

How are you?

I regret to inform you that we will not be publishing ********* Magazine.

I hope you can find another publication that will accept your work.

I apologize for any inconvenience this might have caused.



It was actually a pleasure to just say nothing, to just pull out a gun and fire. No "I'll see you in court!" email. I've had a rough week, my friends, one full of surreal and earth-shattering events, even for me, and I'm afraid I have no room at all for understanding or even caring why some big, well-funded (trust me) company isn't going ahead with their plans and pleasantly tries to stiff its contributors without so much as an offer of a kill fee.

Despite what's happening on Wall Street.

I used to think there was something cosmically dangerous about suing, but I've come to see it as the big brothers I once had. I cannot call on Nick or Jed Max to go and work the head of the company over in the back alley, so off I go with my club (a pen) and brass knuckles (22 bucks to file.)

I also thought, "Maybe I shouldn't tell people about this on my blog," but why not? Am I to be ashamed? It is not I who reneged.

On the way back from the Hackensack Municipal Court near the George Washington Bridge, I came upon a traffic jam. Thinking the two cars who'd gone around some cones onto a side street perhaps knew something I didn't, I followed. The first car was stopped by a policeman, who gave the driver one of the worst bawlings-out I'd ever heard a cop deliver. He finally let the man go and started in on the second, giving him a piece of his policeman's cap.

I started thinking, "What shall I say when he gets to me?"

I had big, thick sunglasses on and decided to play dumb, be like a sponge, let the man do whatever his thing would be, take my medicine and be off.

He put his face close to mine, said, "Ahhhh" and waved me away.

Sometimes the system ain't so bad. Sometimes they can help you get your money, and sometimes their representative has a heart. Other times, just to be wise guys, they can show up and take everything you own. Such is democracy.

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

A vegan, still on the hunt

Every now and then, one feels the urge to hunt and kill and consume.

I remember how much fun it used to be to buy a barbecued chicken, put it in my backpack and ride home on the motorcycle, looking at the people around me on the highway and thinking, "None of these people know the biker has a chicken in his backpack." People say bikers are defenseless, but if need be, a chicken can always be hurled.

I'd get this chicken home and a good-sized blap of white meat would be clawed into like a steamshovel with the right hand, chickenflesh embedded under the fingernails, deposited on a plate and eaten, warm, accompanied by a baked potato with butter and salt, after washing the grease from the hands, of course. Burp.

The substitute today is two ears of fresh, sweet corn, so sweet they need no butter or salt, and you devour them, the kernels exploding into your mouth, the juice flying, the skins of the kernels getting stuck between your teeth.

This beats broccoli, brown rice, lettuce, almond butter, raisins, soy milk. You have torn into something with an explosion of force, something you used to do to cooked animals.

Thou art the lion, jackal, eagle, grizzly bear, T-Rex---the difference being you're a beast eating food that grows and does not breathe, bleed or feel pain and fear.

Food's one of the great joys and banes of life, and veganism allows me to enjoy it more. Since I consume no sugar, refined flour and almost no salt, what lands on my tongue explodes, and the senses are heightened.

As one moves further on down life's highway, one needs to fight deadening---the dulling of everything. Dull and dead you will become, completely and for good one day, but let us strive to keep the ears, eyes, taste buds, body and mind as sharp as table saws until that day.

And one day you may be driving in a remote upstate road, and may pass a large cornfield, and may glimpse a wild-haired savage, barefoot and clad in a loincloth made of hemp, a spear in one hand and a half-dozen freshly-shucked ears of fresh corn in the other. Stay out of his way, mate.

Friday, September 12, 2008

Two former angry young men hash it out, with guests

There are only two recording artists in my life whom I’ve seen live more than twice, and they are Elvis Costello and Rufus Wainwright. I’ve performed Elvis’ “My Aim Is True”, “This Year’s Model” and “King Of America” in their entirety at various Manhattan venues and have seen Costello live six times since 1984’s “Punch The Clock” tour.

I’ve seen Rufus 5 times in the last year, including out of doors at Central Park Summerstage in a two-hour rainstorm, and have ingested his entire body of released original songs to the point where I have to be careful. As one prominent songwriter remarked, and I'm paraphrasing, "You try to write your own material after listening to Rufus and you think, 'Why bother?"

I therefore have some authority to say a few things about these two.

A new Sundance Channel show, "Spectacle: Elvis Costello with..." features Elvis and guests.

Mrs. M. wangled tickets for a taping featuring Wainwright and the opera star Renee Fleming. We gathered at the suprisingly tiny legendary Apollo theatre on West 125th Street to attend. We were 5 rows from the stage.

E.C. emerged.

Elvis Costello has morphed from an angry, obnoxious, snarling talent to grand elder statesman of popular music. Today, there isn’t a dangerous bone in his body and he’d make a great granddad, or at least a funny uncle. His dress was conservative; ill-fitting wrinkled black suit and absurd red felt fedora that deflated the taking of the proceedings too seriously---legendary Apollo, you know. (You can’t really type “Apollo” without the "L" word. It’s like leaving off the “Sir” in “Sir Paul” even though he deserves it rescinded for “Dance Tonight.”)

In Elvis’ tortured place, now, is Rufus Wainwright, who occupies, audience and respect-wise, the spot Elvis Costello did in 1980 before he began hanging out with Burt Bacharach, who in 1968 may not have accepted E.C.'s tea and songwriting invitation.

E.C. donned a Gibson Blues King Junior guitar at 7:15 and sang “All This Useless Beauty”, a song whose meaning remains a mystery to me ten years after its album of the same name was released. He followed “Beauty” with “If I Only Had A Brain”.

Rufus was announced and emerged, tall, tan, handsome, awkward, magnificent.

Elvis asked him questions about songwriting, about not hiding his sexuality, about his father, about certain songs. Wainwright is, like many musicians, not all that interesting when you hear him speak, but one is compelled to pay attention regardless because you want to comprehend the brain of the man who wrote "The Art Teacher". In the end, his words fall flat and you get no closer.

When ensconced behind a grand piano, though, a sound and energy emerges that’s otherworldy, godlike, mesmerizing. He is not as in pain as he was before his stint in rehab for crystal meth, but his (apparent) sobriety has not harmed his music or performance. He performed "Memphis Skyline" and another whose title escapes me.

Renee Fleming emerged and filled the Apollo with rounded, aching, soaring tones that caused the water to rain from my eyes, which is all I ever require from any performer--laughter, anger, tears. I wanted to dash onstage and give her a bear hug. She was also the more engaged live interview subject, deep yet perky, perfect but not annoyingly so, and compelling whether singing or talking.

The show had a few technical glitches, with the result that we were still sitting in our seats four hours after the proceedings had started. I started nodding, then grew sleepy to the point of agony, wishing for death or to be released from the theatre.

"History in the making!" cried Mrs. M. "Legendary theatre!" But still I wanted out as I’d been up since 6 AM and had biked 18 miles that morning. Rufus’ mother, Kate McGarrigle was announced and appeared with a banjo, and the onstage ensemble attempted an Appalachian-style number written by T. Bone Burnett and Elvis. Attempted is the word, for after two utterly sour takes aiming for 4-part harmony, each a disaster, the third try proved a semi-charm, and the evening was concluded.

Showbiz ain't for sissies.

And the next day I bought "Punch The Clock" on iTunes.

Tuesday, September 9, 2008

Great guns

I went to look at a one-bedroom apartment above 96th Street on the Upper West Side of Manhattan on a freezing January Saturday. I'd found it in the “Roommates Wanted” section of the Village Voice.

I was buzzed in at noon and a 50-something-year-old man named Frank opened the door to the dim flat on the second floor. We sat on rickety chairs around an aged wooden kitchen table with a ripped plastic yellow tablecloth covering it.

I was shy and disappointed, both in the apartment and its occupant.

Frank was friendly and got to the point.

“Where you from?”
“How old are you?”
“Where you living now?”
“In my brother’s place in Hoboken.”
“Do you have a job?”
“Planning to get one?”

It was 9 degrees out when I moved my books, clothes and guitars into the apartment the following Saturday.

The apartment was medium-sized by New York City standards, a seeming palace to others who lived in the city, and closet-like to suburbanites. Each of its windows faced an alley, ensuring no direct sunlight ever hit its occupants, and Frank indicated with pride his stuccoing of the walls and ceilings with joint compound to cure their constant chronic peeling. It was an amateur job, though, meaning Frank’s divots were so deep and sharp that one might scrape a knuckle bloody with a simple arm gesture while standing in the tiny foyer, or in the middle of the night when turning over in bed.

Frank, the son of first-generation working class Italians, was born and bred in Brooklyn. I had been raised in Westchester on a remote suburban road in a house with books. We were therefore foreigners to each other. He assumed I’d been raised a Jew and made occasional not-so-veiled mocking references to blowing the shofar and other Sephardic customs I had no knowledge of. He smoked Parliaments with the filters removed and my alarm clock when he was home was his early morning death-hack as he lit up upon rising.

He was a former actor who never made it past an uncredited part in a semi-hit 1971 movie. He eventually gave up acting and went into customizing and repairing handguns. His customers were cops and a parade of older guys who showed up to the apartment in the very early morning, men with deep voices and big bodies. Frank’s smithing shop was in a neighboring state, where he mostly lived, but he would come into the city to pick up and deliver pistols.

And what pistols they were! I had never seen a handgun up to then except in the movies, and I quickly learned to identify all the names, types, sizes and, after making some wide-eyed queries to Frank, what they could do to a person. When Frank was home by himself, he would always use the steel bar bolted to the front door and secured in a metal divot on the floor to fortify the entrance against blacks and Latinos, and against people who knew his line of work and might be interested in robbing him. He had good reason to fear; it was the height of the 80s crack epidemic and street criminals preyed on anything of the slightest value---wallets, purses, change in the center console of a car---to fuel their addiction. Each morning, residents of the neighborhood would emerge to see yet more cars on their block with windows smashed and sound systems removed.

Frequently Frank’s wares would be out on the kitchen table when I entered the apartment. .357 Pythons, Freedom Arms .45, Magnum Research Desert Eagle .50 and other weapons, enormous, deadly and gorgeous, greeted me upon entering the place. The secret knock was three times quick, a pause, and two slow. If any other knock was heard when we were both home, I was not allowed to answer the door. A pistol was loaded and thrust into the rear of Frank’s jeans as he approached the door and peeped through the hole. No one who wasn’t supposed to be there ever showed up, though, so he never had to pull the gun. If I came home and Frank was there, I had to wait for him to get up and undo the floor-bolt and open the door.

It took awhile, naturally, for Frank and I to become comfortable with each other and for Frank to be completely honest about what he did for a living. But as soon as I got used to seeing a cannon sitting open on the kitchen table, another would appear, and another and another, until finally I wasn’t scared of the guns or Frank. He wasn’t a mobster or a psycho, nor was he selling guns. He was repairing, bluing, maintaining and customizing them.

I had not been around any adult males besides my father and assorted bosses my entire life, and still thought of myself as a kid, the youngest kid, the one with the smart mouth who could do as he pleased and get away with it through precociousness.

The walls of the hallway were freshly painted when I moved in, and I took to leaving my bike leaned up against them instead of bringing it all the way into the apartment. Soon there were slight handlebar marks next to the door.

“Hey,” Frank said the next time he saw me. “I don’t want to give you a hard time, but don’t leave your bike leaned up against that wall, ok?”

I said I wouldn’t, and didn’t, until Frank went out of town again. Each time I knew he was returning to New York, I’d wheel the bike into my bedroom and try to scrub the wall, but the paint had a flat finish and you couldn’t clean it as well as semi-gloss. The mark visibly grew.

I went out one evening and, knowing Frank would appear sometime during the night, I’d left the bike in my bedroom. When I came home, Frank was asleep and there was a note taped to the handlebars:

“REMINDER---PLEASE KEEP BIKE OFF WALL”. I felt ashamed of myself. I’d tried to place the bike gently against the wall, so no further marks would be made, but I guess I hadn’t done a good job.

I knew the world of childhood was officially over; that this man had no reason to let me slide, about anything.

When Frank left for another three weeks, I again leaned the bike up against the wall as I pleased, with a rag between the handlebars and the wall. I got tired of that ritual, though, and finally stopped using the rag. I attempted instead to simply be careful. By now the wall was pretty black and I figured it didn’t make a difference.

One Friday evening I had returned from work, gently leaned the bike up against the wall and went out grocery shopping. When I returned I could see light coming through the peephole of 2G. I felt the color leave my face, and considered finding somewhere else to stay for the night. But I had groceries.

I knocked. I saw the peephole light dim for a moment, meaning an eye had been pressed against it, and I heard the steel bar being withdrawn from the floor. The deadbolt turned and the door was slowly opened.

Frank stood there with three pistols stuffed into the front and sides of his jeans, one in his right hand and a smoldering Parliament in his mouth, the smoke of which made him squint. He didn’t get out of my way so I could come in, but stood there a moment looking at me with bullets in his eyes. We both knew what the problem was.

He finally moved his body so I could get by, and I left the groceries in the hall while I rolled the bike into the bedroom. I never left it leaned up against the wall again, and neither of us ever mentioned it again.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Why George didn't curr for "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band"

The only Beatle who didn't put down "Pepper" in later years was Paul.

Ringo said it wasn’t his favorite album because of the hours, hours, hours waiting for the guys to get their ideas together. He said he learned to play chess during the Pepper sessions.

John was quoted as saying "Sgt. Pepper was Paul's baby,” and that a lot of his songs on the albums were "throwaways."

George said he, too, got tired of the new studio approach where basic tracks would be recorded, followed by niggly-wiggly parts being added.

But as it turns out, even George's niggly-wigglys fell short.

Last night I came across this isolated lead guitar on “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Heart’s Club Band” on YouTube.com:

I listened with natural fascination…then heard something. A little trembling vibrato at 0:07. “Hey,” I says to the self. “That sounds like Paul playing, not George.”

Paul plays lead guitar on "Taxman", "Good Morning, Good Morning", "Another Girl", "Ticket To Ride", "Drive My Car" and many other Beatles tracks the public assumes George played on. You can tell it's Paul by his nervous right middle finger.

I did my research and sure enough, yeah, that's Macca at the top of "Pepper".

No wonder George didn't tout up the album, then or afterwards. The most famous album of all time, millions and millions of records sold, universal accolades. Wherever George went, it was "Love your work, man!"

It probably bugged him no end, despite the fame, wealth and all the trappings of sparkling success. Similar to an executive being held back in a job simply because he’s always had that job and the boys above aren’t really willing to let the guy advance, Georgie had to leave the Fabs to really blossom as a songwriter and slide guitarist.

Yet George's tracks are some of my favorites, especially the early material. I'll always listen to "Don't Bother Me", "I Need You", "You Like Me Too Much" and "I'm Happy Just To Dance With You", and may skip over "Til There Was You", "Dizzy Miss Lizzy", "I'm Down" and "Mr. Moonlight".

George's true talent in the Beatles was his presence, his intelligence, his similarity in height and appearance to John and Paul---and his singular, guttural, deeply accented and instantly recognizable singing voice. Next came the songs he wrote and finally, his actual guitar playing.

So thurr.