Power Pickers
of the '60's

Musicians of the Flower Generation


Archive for February, 2010

BOB HITE, THIS WAS YOUR LIFE (THEN)/”How the Cossacks Took Their Vodka”

I want to at least start a post on the late Bob   “the Bear” Hite,  mover and shaker —— especially  shaker——with my all-time favorite blues band, Canned Heat, since Feb. 26 is his birthday, and this is Feb. 26. But it is also the eye of one of the great mid-Atlantic snowstorms of recent times in which this being written, and I’m about to lose power. In fract, the lights just flickered, and I don’t wnat to lose anything, so I’m going to post this now and come back to it. At least I will have made the deadline.

View from my window right now

Bob and Canned Heat were very kind to my band, Evergreen Blueshoes. They turned us on to the Topanga Corral,  an important venue in their early days, and turned the owners of the Corral onto us.  The Corral WAS our early venue for many months, and really has to be considered our launching pad.

I knew Bob via Barry Hansen, aka Dr. Demento,  as a blues collector, well before he co-formed the Heat with Al “Blind Owl” Wilson, another blues scholar and fellow student in UCLA’s Anglo-America Folklore and Folkmusic Dept. or whatever it was called, in the mid-‘Sixties. Yes, Al, Barry, John Fahey  and I were certainly interested in the genres, but we were absolutely FASCINATED with staying out of Nam, and the Folklore and Folkmusic graduate program gave us IIs student deferments to do just that, don’t ask me why.

Anyway, Bob and the Heat gave us our start in a way, and I will love his memory forever.  He had a terrific sense of humor, and an even better sense of irony.

One of the many times they got busted for drugs–a drama which they seemed to revel in–they were thrown into some cell in LA, I have no idea which one,  made their call, and began the short wait for their attorney to come and get them out. But I guess he couldn’t get there fast enough for them to get high again,  so Bob developed a headache, asked for some aspirin, ground it up, put it in cigarette and passed it around.

“What the fuh!” was almost all I could say when he told me.  “Why?” was the rest of it.

“Well, it was  better than nothing, wasn’t it?” he said. You can’t argue with that.

He was a classy guy,  a good blues collector, and a thunderous presence on stage.  Say what you want about the importance of blues guitarist/singer Al Wilson and rock  guitarist Henry Vestine (btw, both gone, as is Bob) when I think of  “Rollin’ and Tumblin’ , hearing it on the radio and seeing it performed live, I think of Bob Hite. In my knowledgeable and arrogant opinion, he was the heart of the band.

And it looks like I got my 2 cents worth said before the next wave of this storm hits.

*                       *                   *

Here’s an historical event I’ve been trying to write up for 20 years or more with no success, and I don’t think I’ve broken that run now. But I just have to get this on the record, and I can’t wait until it’s ready to come out of me in its own good time.   It’s really kind of cool, and I hope you read it.

*                                  *                               *

How the Cossacks Took Their Vodka

by Allan Ross

This is one of very few personally-related, historically interesting stories I collected from my family, and I think it needs to be recorded. Though it’s now almost two centuries since the event took place, it still lives in my family’s generational memory, even if the generation is represented by only me, as personal experience. It’s what I call “touching the hem of the hem” history.

As usual with ancient, oral accounts, accuracy is not the point. The “facts” were presented to me as facts.

The story was told to me on a hot, blast-oven-dry Los Angeles summer afternoon when I was home on semester break from college, my parents were in Las Vegas and I was sitting at the kitchen table with my grandfather, Papa Dave, drinking bourbon in shots and listening to stories from his childhood. This is one of them.

*                          *                    *

In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, in rural peasant Russia, vodka was bottled by filling an open flask with liquor, then blowing the top closed so that the vessel was completely sealed. (Remember what I said about oral recollection vs. facts).

Papa Dave guessed it saved a few steps in the bottling process, but it meant you had to break off the top of the bottle to get to the vodka. You would then spill a little of it onto the ground to rinse away any shards on the jagged edge, pour yourself and your friend a glass, say “Na Sdrovye,” and—down the hatch. Except for the Cossacks.

The Cossacks would drink straight from the bottle, passing it to each other and getting drunker and drunker as the booze made it’s from horseman to horseman, first mingling with, then joining their body fluids with its own. Bottles would replace themselves as soon as they were empty.

In the early rounds, while the Cossacks were still sober, they would hold the shattered mouths of the bottles above their open maws, goatskin-like, and let the liquor pour out and down their throats.

But sometimes, after drinking this way for awhile, anesthetized and growing clumsy, they would begin stabbing away at their lips and faces with broken bottlenecks until blood ran down their cheeks and necks, onto their tunics, down their arms, where they drew veins on the backs of their hands and onto the white snow.

When they got drunk enough they’d decide what they were going to do to whatever peasants were unlucky enough to be around at the moment. The sight of bloody-faced, rifle-waving Cossack horsemen was something no Russian peasant could ever forget. The Cossacks, for their part, seemed to live for these moments.

Their standard procedure was to descend, eight or ten strong, on a settlement, rein in their huge, steaming horses just outside some family’s hovel, smash the first bottle across a fence post or porch rail or anything else solid enough to withstand one blow from a blown vessel, and begin passing it around while the locals cringed in barn, house, or wherever they were huddled, in unspeakable fear, because they never knew what the Cossacks would do once they were drunk. Usually, neither did the Cossacks.

This time, though, in my grandfather’s story, the Cossacks had a purpose: it was to savage an enemy’s army as it retreated across the frozen Steppes after losing a battle at the gates of Moscow during a typically bad Russian winter in the early 1800’s. It was a desperate chase where the once great army could not stop long enough to bury its dead. The best its recoiling troops could do was kill their dying before the Cossacks did, in a way far worse than a lead ball through the head. The survivors would then continue back-pedaling, begging potatoes or bones or a nite of shelter along the way to safety from quaking serfs who usually stared at them thru panic-blinded eyes and did nothing.

However, in my grandfather’s story a peasant family does the unthinkable: with the Cossacks one town away and closing hard, they succor two infantrymen for a night and a day, hiding and feeding them and finding enough rags and leather scraps to make them footwear that had a chance of holding up for the frigid, problematic journey home.

There was nothing special about the two soldiers; probably a couple of poor farm boys from some rural area in their own country who’d joined the army hoping they might get dealt a better hand in life soldiering than plowing. In some ways they were not that different from the peasant family quartering them, risking all to give them an advantage maybe ten, fifteen kilometers on the Cossacks. And maybe that’s why they did it: they saw themselves in the two soldiers. There is simply no way to ever know.

Anyway, in my grandfather’s story, they somehow get away with it, the French foot-soldiers and Russian peasants, with the Cossacks less than half a day’s ride behind the two boys. As far as the family knew, the boys made it back to France.

*                          *                          *

What makes this story light up in neon for me is that the story was told, as you’ve probably figured out by now, to my grandfather by his grandmother who’d been one of several daughters in the family that took in the soldiers. The soldiers were part of Napoleon’s troops that limped back to France after their defeat in Moscow in 1812.

I do not know her name, and I doubt if I ever will, but my great, great grandmother actually saw and remembered the Cossack horsemen, their vodka turned red from their own blood, their yellow eyes narrowing as they pranced their horses thru her shtetl, probably trying to decide what hovels to fire, who to rape, who to kill, you know, the usual. And when my grandfather was old enough my great-great grandmother told him. I guess he figured at 18 I was old enough for him to tell me.

No wonder I was, and still am, a little bit excited. That story really was about the Napoleonic wars, the beginning of the end of the Empire, and that really was my great-great grandmother telling my grandfather all about it, up close and personal. And that really was my grandfather telling me the story of how our—my!—family hid Frenchmen from the Cossacks, and how the Cossacks took their vodka.

So it’s my story now, and can you imagine telling it in a fraternity bull session after someone else is finished talking about how his dad ran out of gas on the Oakland Bay Bridge? Well, I did and it got me an extra dessert.


HAPPY, HAPPY to HARRY/”Rebuilt the Valiant”

Photo and research courtesy of Jason Odd

I just received a late Christmas present from my two sons: a 1969 Harry Belafonte album, By Request (RCA LSP-4301), on which trax I played guitar. My sons’ timing was great: Harry’s birthday is next Monday, March 1. He will be 83.

Altho’ Harry himself has hardly been central in my life, he’s touched it in one way or another for more than fifty years.

I ushered at one of his annual appearances at the Greek Theatre in Hollywood while I was still going to Fairfax High, so it must have been either 1958 or ’59. His was also the music that first turned me on to something besides Rock n’ Roll; and then there was this here album, produced by Jack Pleis and Andy Wiswell and recorded at RCA Studios on, I think, Sunset Blvd. in LA (Jason Odd, you can correct me on this if I am wrong) on August 18 and 19, 1969.

(BTW, looking in my daybook for those recording dates I see I did something for Sam Russell and Irv Hunt on the afternoon of Aug. 19 at Sun West—and that studio, I’m sure, was on Sunset Blvd. I don‘t know what I was doing there for Sam and Irv; they were, they said, producing Little Richard at the time, but I was also high at the time, so don’t ask me what was going on. Jason, any ideas?)

Anyway, playing on the BY REQUEST album did become a pivotal event in my life, because the other guys on the dates were his regular band, and they became my homies when I moved to New York five years later. It was an awesome posse of players, the first all-black session I ever did. It was also the first time I ever did coke, with them, between sessions at the Montecito Hotel.

The players, besides me, were: Bill Eaton, arranger; Ralph MacDonald, percussion; Bill Salter, bass (Ralph and Bill had not yet written “Where is the Love” and wouldn’t until

I can’t find it. [Jason?]. Obviously, “Mr. Magic” and “Just the Two of Us,” also from the pen and bongos of MacDonald, were yet to come); Arthur Jenkins (who brought Reggae into my life in 1970) ,  piano ; and Rudy Somebody on drums. I’ll write about my adventures with them, particularly with Ralph MacDonald, who I came to know well, on another post.

For now, I’m appending a short story [for the second time, it turns out; I appended once before. Sorry] I wrote years later, just before I came to New York. It is…

From the book Growing Up Jewish in L.A.


By Allan P. Ross

“Hey, asshole, get off the road, your rings are shot!” were the actual words the biker used to convince me to rebuild my 1961 Plymouth Valiant. I know that sounds like a pretty big cave-in on my part, but he was a pretty big biker.

He’d been eating my smoke all the way down spiritual, twisting Laurel Canyon Road until he could pass me, which he did just above Sunset Boulevard, yelling and snarling and giving me the finger. I was lucky he wasn’t a Hell’s Angel. I considered it an omen.

My life right then was at a low-water mark. My ladylove (and partner in a house we’d bought together in the Hollywood Hills) had left me, my rock career had tanked, my bank account was empty. My student deferment was the only thing keeping me out of Viet Nam, and that was about to end.

But until it did I had to keep driving the ’61 Bermuda Blue Valiant with the maroon driver’s-side replacement-door and roped-down hood. It had over 100,000 miles on it, had never been serviced and smoking was not its worst habit, by far.

Nothing sucks like driving a car that is both unchic and decrepit in L.A. But since I couldn’t afford new wheels I had to do something about the Valiant. The problem was I knew nothing about cars and car repair. I was a member of a sub-section of the population not known for caring how things work or keeping them working: male, pre-law, Jewish.

And yet I wanted to do this, i.e., rebuild the Plymouth. And it was not just because I needed transportation. I wanted to be able to say things like, “Your exhaust manifold is loose,” or, “You’ll need a cherry-picker to get that engine outta there,” and know what I just said. I hated being dissed on the road and not understanding the insult. Worse, I am a hothead, and I hated not knowing what to say back.

I had a resource. Warren. Warren was a retired “salt,” an ex-Army tank driver, construction worker, machinist, gandy dancer, jobs that require using one’s back and hands. Which is not to say Warren hadn’t learned to use his head, too.

In fact, I know he thought of himself as a mind- over-muscles kind of guy. Whenever he’d hear me grunt with strain he’d look at whatever I was doing, bray like a mule, and say, “Muscles are for dummies.”

Not that he didn’t have them. Muscles, I mean. Warren was built like an old-fashioned fullback: thick, sinewy ropes connected his head to his body so that his upper limbs seemed to start at his neck. Popeye forearms and powerful hands spoke of years of picks and sledgehammers swung in short arcs, as is necessary in mining and railroad-tie spike-driving. I once asked him if he’d played football in school.

“Well, since they didn’t have no organized teams until the sixth grade, I guess not,” he’d answered.

In spite of his curtailed education he was a current events freak and had been one for so long he could probably qualify as a history freak, too. The small shack he shared with his wife across the road and down in a gully was bursting with books, newspapers, periodicals and any other non-fiction media he could lay his hands on.

“I was a Wobbly before the Russian Revolution,” he told me, fishing through his wallet and proudly showing me his I.W.W. card.

I’d never met a Wobbly, an Industrial Worker of the World, before, and I was impressed.

“Took some balls to join, didn’t it?” I asked.

He shrugged, but I could tell he was surprised I even what he was talking about. His blue eyes twinkled behind the thick lenses of his “seein'” glasses (he had another pair, very dark, that he couldn’t see out of; Warren was legally blind) and he sucked in the little rivulet of saliva that would always form at the corner of his mouth whenever he got excited.

“For a while there, we had enough members to scare the life outta those sumbitches up in Washington,” he said, winking at me conspiratorially, “you bet we did.

“But I unjoined when Comrade Lenin and Comrade Trotsky took over and tried to get our union to become Bolsheviks. I could see where that was goin’ and I didn’t want any part of it.”

He reminded me a little of Harry Truman right then. He had the clean, square lines of Truman’s face, and his rimless “seein'” glasses focused the sunlight into bright patches under his eyes, just as “Give-’em-Hell” Harry’s did.

“Nosiree. That’s where I disagreed with Big Bill Haywood. He was the Union’s leader, y’see. ‘No sir,’ I told him, ‘you can be a free-thinker and still be an American.’ That’s what I said then, and it’s what I say now.”

He also said he’d be glad to help me with the Valiant, but that I shouldn’t be surprised if it needed to be, well, rebuilt.

I was ecstatic. Up until then I had avoided even using the word, let alone bringing it into a sentence that included me and the Valiant. I half-wished the biker were there, so I could say something like, “It’s not the rings, dickhead, it’s the rocker arm panel (I’d seen that parts description once, by accident), so we’re gonna rebuild the engine.”

And so, one hazy L.A. morning, we parked the Valiant in the dirt field next to my house, jacked it up and put it on blocks (wooden blocks, because concrete blocks can break while you’re under the car, and then you’re just another chuckling auto shop teacher’s story about someone who didn’t take his course).

You could almost hear the neighbors groan when they saw all four wheels of the car leave the ground, because they also knew that moody, Jewish, pre-law draft-dodgers weren’t likely to be handy with tools, and cars up on blocks in front yards may be fine in Georgia and Mississippi but not in the Griffith Park section of Los Angeles. I am sure they prayed every night for Warren’s continued robust health.

You’ve got to understand one or two things about Warren: As I said, he was almost blind. Also, because of some speech impediment or habit, he talked a little like Walt Disney’s Goofy. What he said was almost always clever, but the presentation was sometimes a little comical.

It also may help to understand that I was, as I have said, a monumental hothead with a quick temper and a big mouth, “full of sound and fury, etc.,” but full of shit.

So, what the engine-rebuilding process might have looked and sounded like to the casual observer was Goofy the Dog telling Donald Duck how to build a spaceship.

But the partnership worked, and Warren and I became good friends as a result.

Warren would sit ramrod straight in a kitchen chair that I would set next to the part of the car I was working on, and say things like, “That hose is going to be held onto the pipe with either a spring clamp or a screw clamp. Which one is it?”

“I don’t know,” I’d probably say.

Then he’d say, “It’s a spring clamp; even you would recognize a screw clamp.”

Then we’d go across the street and down into his gully to a rusted-out 1932 Model-A Ford that served as his toolbox, to get a special pliers for removing spring clamps.

This process took time, but I had plenty of that. Also, it was entertaining. For one thing, the tool we’d be looking for almost always came with a story.

“I got these pliers when I was pouring cement for FDR’s Redwood City aqueduct,” is the one that came with the spring-clamp pliers.

“Now, Franklin Roosevelt,” Warren said, looking up from his rummaging, “he was sly dog. He never let the right hand know what the left was doing. The Redwood City dam wasn’t built anywhere near Redwood City, y’know. It was built in Wyoming, a thousand miles away.

“Old Roosevelt, see, he couldn’t get Congress to give him the money for the project in Wyoming—people were still bitching about Teapot Dome; you know what that was, don’t you?—so he renamed the project for Redwood City, in Oregon, raised the money and built the dam in Wyoming.

“Here it is,” he said, holding up the spring-clamp pliers and cackling with glee over FDR’s little hijinx.

Another thing: finding and using special tools for special tasks turned out to be a real confidence builder for me, because it made so many more jobs do-able.

But mainly, special tools brought me closer and closer to the amorphous fraternity of people who can do things with their hands. I loved being able to say, “I think we’ll need a half-to-quarter-inch swivel-drive to get to that tie-rod,” and know what I was talking about.

One day, when the last mount bolt was finally off, and the engine had been pared down to just the naked block sitting inside the motor well, I actually heard myself say to Warren, “We’re gonna need a cherry-picker to get that sucker outta there.” What a moment.

There were other, slightly less glorious moments.

There was putting the water pump back on without a gasket, thereby inventing the first self-contained, under-the-hood, high-pressure car wash.

And then there was the great Pin-bearing Panic of ’69, performed in front of a live audience at sunset, Warren sitting on my lime-green kitchen chair next to the rear fender, me under the back axle, proudly removing the universal-joint while several of my friends watched.

“Arnie, now, you gotta be real careful when you get the plate off the joint; you don’t want to drop those pin-bearings,” Warren said, in a loud, clear voice.

“What are pin-bearings?” I said back.

“Well, they’re right under the plate you’re taking off. They’ll look like a row o’ needles, but they’re just stuck in there with grease, so if you’re not careful as a cat, they’ll—”

“Oh, I see what you’re—”

“…fall right into your—”


I saw what he was talking about.

Certainly the best moment of all had to be a warm, golden October afternoon with all the cherry-pickers and pin-bearings and gaskets back where they were supposed to be, neighbors on porches and front lawns pretending not to notice what was going on in the dirt lot at the end of their road.

Orville was behind the wheel, Wilbur was hovering over the open engine compartment, nose to carburetor, ear to distributor.

“Okay, turn ‘er over,” Wilbur yelled to Orville.

Orville turned the key, and…

“Rhurrr-rhurrr-rhurrr,” went the Valiant.

Wilbur held up his hand immediately for Orville to stop.

He did. It took everything he had not to look up and catch the neighbors’ head-shaking and eye-rolling that had to be going on.

But Wilbur was too busy to notice. In a moment, he held up his hand and twirled his index finger in the air.

Orville turned the key again.

“Rhurrr-rhurrr-rhurrr-rhur-rhur-rhur-rhr-rhr-rh-rh-r-r-r-RHOOOOMMMMM!” went the Valiant.

We had ignition! It was only for a moment, and a very rough ignition it was, the car lurching and pitching in place like a cartoon jalopy. But the engine did turn over, so we knew we’d got most everything back in its place, which to me was tantamount to squaring the circle or curing cancer.

Now I chanced a look at the neighbors. The Chinaman pretended to be going back to raking a leafless front lawn, and the two old gals who lived together at the top of the hill made like they were inspecting the roofline of their red raised-ranch cottage. The little knot of kids that had come out of somebody’s living room where they were probably watching TV were guileless in their lack of pretense.

“Run outta gas?” one of them said, as I let the engine die. “My dad said you don’t know the difference between a screwdriver and a chainsaw.”

Warren signaled me to get out of the car and join him at the engine well.

“This is the part you need eyes for,” he said, handing me his homemade timing light. “I’ll crank the engine and you do what I told you.”

He got behind the wheel while I took off the distributor cap to expose the points. (Just saying these things now gives me chills of excitement.)

“Remember,” he reminded me, “you gotta hold the light steady, or it won’t strobe. Tell me when it’s doin’ that.”

“It’s doing that.”

“Okay,” he said, killing the engine and handing me the key, “get back in the car.”

I did. I turned the key, the starter motor turned the engine, the engine turned the crank shaft, the crank meshed with the universal, etc., etc., and we were off.

Several of the neighbors had overcome their skepticism and were clapping. Mac, who lived across the street and up a couple of houses from me and always seemed to be fretting about neighborhood real estate values, seemed to be crying.

As we took off down the hill I saw another “pre-owned”-type vehicle coming at us, left front fender crushed, muffler ruined, smoke billowing up behind it. It was a winding, narrow street, and when I rolled down my window my face was no more than two feet away from the other driver’s.

I smiled and said, “Hey, asshole, your rings are shot. You really should get that fixed.”

Then I sped off down the hill. Even slumped behind the wheel the guy looked pretty big.

Keeps on Roland; Fanfares for the Duke of Pearl/”My Son’s First Concert”

Had several exchanges with Diane Bouska,  mandolin-player Roland White’s wife,  over the last few days. Among the many tasty morsels the two of them have put on his website,  http://www.rolandwhite.com/,   is a brand new demo of Roland slowing down and explaining his instrumental version of Danny Boy.

I wish I were  still trying to learn mandolin, because he makes it all so clear.  All, that is,  except the part where his signature knack for beautiful note choices kicks in, and you know you’re listening to the real deal in Bluegrass playing. Remember, Roland played guitar and toured with Bill Monroe before Bill died (as opposed to after), and is one of the last men standing in the world of genuine Bluegrass players. (Roland didn’t study the genre in college, like most of us ex-hippies;  HE  was who we studied).

It’s a wonderful learning tool, but I want him to put back his visual demo of  how to tremolo on the mandolin.  It fell off the screen for some reason,  and I’ve asked him and Diane to put it back. You’ll see what  I mean when you go to the site.  And if you agree with me, that it’s an important part of the lesson, email them and tell them. They love feedback from fans, and they respond. Also, you’ll see one of the classiest Sites in all of Roots and Folk Music and hear and learn about one of the half-dozen or so greatest  mandolin players in the whole genre.

This just in. It’s part of Roland’s wife’s answer to my email requesting a visual of the tremolo: “[Though] I didn’t like letting it go that way, I didn’t think we’d
get another decent take without somebody losing patience.
Some other people have asked to be shown tremolo and given
some tips.  It’s on the list.  Roland also addressed this in the Mandolin
Christmas book and recorded a track demo-ing and talking about it.
If you have that you might want to go back and listen.”

My guess is you can get these items from the site for the asking.

*                       *                        *

Same time as I got the Danny Boy demo from M/M White, I heard from old friend Chuck Erikson, one-time banjo-maker and now king—or should I say “Duke?—of the mother-of-pearl business worldwide. Yes, planet-inclusive.  And that means the Far East, too, an area you might guess would be harvesting and selling the most pearl of all.

Anyway,  Chuck just got a….y’know what?  I’m going to let him tell about it thru the e-note he sent me yesterday:

“Here’s a nice little article on Duke of Pearl that just came out in Acoustic Guitar Magazine:” http://www.acousticguitar.com/article/default.aspx?articleid=25360

The Acoustic Guitar article  does justice to a man that, so far, has had  one of  the most colorful and variegated lives of anyone I know.  And now one of the hottest.  Not only has AG seen fit to profile him in depth, but it looks like Fretboard Journal is going to do a piece on him. Why are all my old friends getting writ up, while the only one writing about me is me?  Maybe it’s because I’m a writer, not a mandolin player or mother-of-pearl tycoon. Yeah, that must be it. A writer.

Chuck’s trippy website is http://www.dukeofpearl.com/. Prepare to spend some time there.

*                         *                         *

Speaking of writing—like that segue?—,  I continue to make good on my promise (threat?) to publish short stories I’ve written over the last couple decades. After all, I’m having an interesting life, too. At least my therapist tells me I am. Here’s a short-short tale of my youngest son’s first music  concert (he’s a sax player, but he loves pickers from our era. He’s the one that got me to start this blog in the first place). He hadn’t been in this country very long (both my sons are adopted Korean brothers) when the following action took place:


I was at the computer when Ben, my younger son, kicked open the front door and announced his candidacy for the Lewisboro Little League All-Stars Team. “I’m a slam-dunk,” were his exact words, and I felt my stomach tighten as if to counterbalance his own breezy assurance.

Little League is very political, and our family was not good at that artform. I desperately looked for a way to support and yet still prepare him for a painful letdown.

And then, from out of nowhere, came this guided missile of a gift: “Oh yeah,” he said. “I’m supposed to tell you guys the concert is May 29th. What’s to eat?”

The annual Katonah-Lewisboro Elementary School Musicale is not an eagerly awaited event. But I saw in it a chance to balance the ledger in case the All-Star team somehow overlooked Mr. Dunk. I said, sharing a thick slab of firey kim-chee (both my sons are Korean), “you’re going to do something nobody expects.”

“Whuzzat,” he said?

“You’re going to be good,” I said, my eyes tearing from the food. “And I’m going to help you do it.” His eyes rolled back in his head as maybe he remembered my helping him with his pinewood Derby car; or maybe it was his Styrofoam solar system for a Third Grade science project. No matter; I had a plan. And he was already a good saxophone player.

We picked two songs to go straight for a forty-something audience’s jugular:  The theme from “Casablanca” and “I will Survive,” the Donna Summer crowd-pleaser of the early ‘Eighties (or was it the late ’70’s; would you pls look it up and tell me? Thanks.)   “Mr. Feldman [the music teacher] said only one song each.”  The kim-chee welts were finally responding to the yogurt I was shoveling into my mouth, so I was able to say,  “you’ll need an encore.”

And then we did something almost unheard of in public school music education: we practiced.   We put in half an hour a day for two and a half months, Ben on my King “Slip-action” E-flat alto sax, me on my ES-335 Gibson Electric. Although the ritual brought us together, Ben couldn’t see any glory dividend to compare to making the All-Star Team, and didn’t hesitate to tell me so.

Son Ben practicing on my King alto sax

Son Ben practicing on my King alto sax

[ This is where I wish  I had some shred of  aural  record of us working on those two songs, but I don’t. So I’m sending you the next best thing I can think of, a fragment of the CD we sent to Colgate to help Ben get accepted there. My wife still seems to think it was the difference between him getting and not. Who knows?]

The night of the concert was hot and airless, perfect accompaniment to the evening’s program: phalanxes of otherwise harmless American youth committing felonious assault with rented musical appliances;  until it was time for Ben. He was nervous in the wings, always a good sign. I told him to take a deep breath and think about center field. The music teacher introduced us, and unlike anybody else, we tuned up. Then I counted down to the pickup note to “As Time Goes By,” and Benny began to play.

We didn’t go for anything fancy, just straight melody, good tone and the sure-footedness that comes from the unmistakable sound of woodshedding, what musicians call (usually) catch-up practicing. We reprised the last four bars for a “professional” treatment, and went out on a retard with a sustained closing note and chord.

The audience was on its feet before Benny took the mouthpiece from his lips. I told him to bow. They clapped and yelled for more. They wouldn’t stop. The music teacher asked Ben if he had an encore. Ben looked at me, smiled, and began playing the Donna Summer piece. When he finished, the crowd went wild all over again. Why shouldn’t they? With school taxes averaging $10,000 per household (it was 1987; that was a considered a lot of money then) weren’t they entitled to something more for their money than the cacophony  of  80 students playing every cent (one one-hundredth of an octave) of pitch on every single note they collectively hit? I mean, what were these kids supposed to be learning to make in music class, music or sonic mayhem?

Later that night, over a pie at La Famiglia Pizza and Pasta, Ben learned he didn’t make the All¬ Star team. I tried to console him, but his friends were also there, and they kept interrupting me to tell him how good he sounded up on the stage “and everything.”  Between mouthfuls,  he eventually said it wasn’t the worst thing in the world, not making the All-Star team. I think his exact words were, “I’m re-thinking my priorities. Could you pass that piece with the pepperoni?”

© Allan Ross 2010