Thursday, January 1, 2015

An American Band

This is sort of an addendum to my last First Contact post about Jews. In that post I mentioned a musical band I was a part of in college. This got me thinking about other events that led up to that point in my life. Here I share some of those thoughts.

My first serious musical instrument was an electric guitar. I was in middle school, and my parents bought me a Silvertone guitar from Western Auto along with a small cheap amplifier. It was quite nice. I learned a few songs from some books I bought.

Later I took an interest in classical guitars after hearing a good friend play. One Christmas in high school, my parents bought me a Federico Garcia classical guitar #3 built in Spain. It was quite a fine guitar considering it only cost $78 on sale. I learned to fingerpick on my own for a while and later took lessons. I joined the Louisville Classical Guitar Society and began performing at our monthly meetings which were open to the public. My teacher was the president of this society.

At the very first meeting where I actually played, I was sitting next to a longtime classical guitar teacher in the Louisville area named Basil Gural. As it turned out, the person who performed just before me was Dale, the best classical guitarist in the area. Needless to say, this was a bit intimidating. Once Dale finished, I was introduced. I sat down on the stage, propped my foot onto the foot stand, set my guitar on my leg, and introduced my song.

“And now after that wonderful performance by Dale, I would like to play for you ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’.” Laughter. Ice breaking. That was what I was after. However, a few seconds into the actual song I played, I flubbed it. Not letting it get the best of me, I started again and made it through, albeit a bit shakily.

When I returned to my seat, Basil leaned over and said, “I believe you should have stuck with ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’.” I couldn’t help but laugh. But over time, I became more comfortable performing in front of people and would sometimes play two songs at the meetings.

I was also a big fan of bluegrass music, especially the five-string banjo. I found a cheap Harmony banjo and bought it. However, since I was only used to using my fingernails for picking on my guitar, I was having a hard time converting to fingerpicks for the banjo. Using my fingers was fine when performing solo about the house, but not when playing with other musicians.

About the time I had learned to play the banjo with my fingernails, several friends decided to form a band. These guys were Mike (guitar and vocals), Billy (guitar and vocals), and Roger (keyboards and vocals). They also wanted me (banjo and can’t sing worth a flip) to join. One day we all got together for a practice session. You could barely hear my banjo above the other instruments. Billy finally spoke the obvious, “Randy, you’ve got to learn to use fingerpicks.” He knew it. I knew it. All God’s children knew it.

Well, anyway, I began donning fingerpicks every time I practiced at home. Lo and behold, I actually started sounding pretty good in short order. Our band was officially underway. Now we just needed somewhere to play.

There was a small bar on Bardstown Road named New Philosophy. Unfortunately, their philosophy seemed to be to hire musicians to play for about five people each evening. This was not good for the business, but a great place for a new band to start. We talked to the owners, two brothers, and they told us we could play on Friday night. Saturday night was reserved for the better bands that brought in larger crowds of 10 to 12. Ha! Interestingly, I don’t believe we had a name for the band. I sure don’t remember having one and neither do the other members that I am still in touch with.

Each of us in the band began inviting our friends to our debut performance. None of my friends came. I don’t know about Mike’s and Roger’s friends. It was Billy that saved the day. Somehow Billy knew A LOT of people. Many of those friends were Jewish. Billy’s friends were like a field of dreams. Ask them and they will come.

Well, opening night finally came and the place was absolutely PACKED with people. They were mostly Billy’s friends and their friends. I didn’t know any of them, but I was glad to see them. You know, job security and all.

We played many sets that night, jointly and individually. We were actually quite eclectic. We played soft rock (on which I played bass guitar, which I had to borrow since I didn’t own one, or even play one that well) and bluegrass (on which I played five-string banjo). For my individual set I played classical guitar.

Throughout the night, the bar owners kept offering me and the other band members any free drinks we wanted. I didn’t drink, so I would ask for a soda. The owners were beside themselves and giddy with excitement. They kept saying, “We just can’t believe it. We never have a crowd like this on Friday night, or any night for that matter.” I kept thinking you need to thank Billy.

At the end of the night after all the customers were gone, our band met with the bar owners to get paid. They told us how they wished they could pay us more, but couldn’t because most of the customers were drinking beer rather than liquor, and there was a smaller profit margin for the beer. We were fine. We mainly just wanted to play. The money was more of a perk than a necessity.

Anyway, we were immediately upgraded to Saturday night and continued to bring in good crowds each week. Yet, we had to endure the “we wish we could pay you more” speech after each concert. I thought we were being paid well. I just wanted to go home and go to bed.

In addition to playing regularly at the New Philosophy, we occasionally played other venues. The most memorable one was a house warming party that Billy set up for us. He had some friends whose house in the East end of town had been blown away in the April 3, 1974 tornadoes that wreaked havoc throughout Louisville. They were rebuilding. When they got the house to the point that there was a roof and electricity, they decided to have a house warming party. We had to plug our equipment into electrical receptacles hanging from the rafters. It was a big deal; lots of people were there. The hosts had set up several long tables just loaded down with foods of all kinds. It was all I could do to stay with the band rather than graze at the trough. All went well. We even had the obligatory drunk insisting we play some song we didn’t know how to play.

I remember another gig we had at a large apartment. There were a lot of weed-smoking young people there. The highlight of the evening, for me, was when we were playing a bluegrass song that had a particularly hard banjo run in it. Sometimes I would nail it and other times I wouldn’t. Well, I nailed the first half of it and the crowd went crazy. This threw me off causing me to flub the second half of it. Oh, well, as a boss of mine used to say: “More Fun!”

I remember finding a seat on a crowded couch during a break. The next thing I knew a joint was being passed to me from my left. Since I didn’t smoke, I took it and immediately passed it to the person on my right. Interestingly, this is exactly what I now do when I am at church and the Lord’s Supper is passed to me. Hmmm.

I had always heard about the peer pressure that would be applied if you didn’t join in on the vice everyone else was engaging in. But you know, I don’t recall ever being pressured. I was in a number of situations where booze was being drunk and marijuana was being smoked. It was the way of the day. Yet I don’t remember anyone ever urging me to partake. Perhaps all the people I was around understood that just meant more for them.

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