My last post was one in which I lamented my dead dog. I hope that this one will be even funnier.
Yiddish is an extremely colorful language that was spoken by my ancestors, and many of its words and phrases have made their way into other tongues. For example, two of my favorites are shlemiel and shlemazel. The accepted definitions: a shlemiel is someone who spills soup on someone; a shlemazel is someone who gets soup spilled on him.
The reason for that brief linguistics lesson will be apparent in a moment, but first let me get to the crux of my gist: Mayhem happens in every workplace, and the bandstand is certainly no exception. I’d like to relate four memorable episodes, two in which I cast myself as shlemazel and two as shlemiel. Let’s start with the former.
In the 1980’s era of Trickle-Down Economics, every working keyboard player simply had to have a Yamaha DX-7. It was all the rage, and I went with the flow. The thing about it, though, was that it really didn’t have a decent acoustic piano sound. I will admit that the Log Drum and Wild Boar sounds were outstanding. So, I eventually invested in a little module thing that had a variety of passable faux-acoustic sounds, and I hooked that up to the mighty DX-7. One particular gig was a “Jazz Wedding” in Manhattan (that’s a term for a gig in which the clients claim to want a jazz band, thereby eliminating the need for a rock guitarist or singer). It was a good band, led by violinist Andy Stein: trumpeter Randy Sandke, bassist John Goldsby, drummer Arnie Kinsella and DX-7/module stylist JK. The gig was going smoothly when it was time for the First Dance. We commenced playing “As Time Goes By”, with Andy’s well-intentioned (if not entirely pleasant-sounding) vocals leading the way. The Happy Couple were gazing meaningfully into each others eyes as they danced in front of their guests, and it was about a minute into the song when Randy felt that he no longer needed to be on the bandstand. I’m guessing that Andy’s vocal stylings were perhaps causing Randy some variation of Acid Reflux. While beating his retreat, Randy bumped into my new module, causing its settings to change. Wouldn’t you know, it went into “Demo” mode, whereby it started playing a bunch of prerecorded selections that were designed to show you how great it sounded. Its first selection was a Toccata and Fugue by Bach, played at lightening speed and ear-splitting volume. I immediately tried to get it off of there and back onto its previous setting, but I had only recently bought the thing and and it seemed like it took forever. In the meantime, the Not-Quite-As-Happy Couple had stopped dead in their tracks and glowered at the band as Andy gamely tried to explain the technical malfunction. John and Arnie assisted me by turning red and convulsing with laughter. A First Dance to remember, no doubt. I wonder if they’re still married.
Around that same time, I was in a band called Vince Giordano’s Nighthawks. We played for a lot of very wealthy people, and a favorite venue to illustrate one’s opulence was (and still is, I’m sure) the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Fifth Avenue, particularly in the huge room that houses the Temple of Dendur. One such gala was thrown by Steve Ross: a birthday party for his wife. Ross was, at that time, the Chairman of Time-Warner, so it was a very high-profile affair. Not only had he hired our 13-piece band to play in the Temple, but he had also rented out another section (the American Wing) for cocktails. The musicians for this cocktail portion of the evening were Vince on electric bass, Mark Lopeman on sax et moi. It was arranged that there would be a piano provided for me to play during the cocktail hour, and that another piano would be provided inside the Temple area. So, imagine our surprise when we discovered that there was no piano in the American Wing. The other piano was hundreds of yards and many flights of stairs away, so moving it was not an option. Needless to say, there was no emergency electric piano in my car. As we were only a few minutes away from the start of our gig, Vince jumped into Crisis Mode. “Quick! Run back over to the Temple and grab Arnie’s orchestra bells!” He was referring to Arnie Kinsella (see above); part of the band’s unique sound was the inclusion of orchestra bells along with the drum set. I did as I was told, and liberated Arnie’s bells for our emergency. The new challenge was the fact that I didn’t see any mallets with which to play the bells. What was a boy to do? I grabbed a setup of silverware: knife, fork, spoon; no doubt some combination thereof would produce the Lionel Hamptonian effect I was seeking. So there we were, playing tasteful cocktail music: Vince on his electric bass (which he despised; he had no use for any instrument that didn’t exist in 1932), Lopie on tenor sax, and me, desperately trying to look like a happenin’ and giggin’ NY musician as I whacked little metal bars with cutlery; looking GQ in my tuxedo (parts of which were held together by duct tape). As I recall, my efforts did not sound like Lionel Hampton. Fisher Price was more like it. In the middle of a tune, I looked around at the hobnobbing guests and noticed two men conversing about six feet away from us: Quincy Jones and Paul Simon. I suddenly didn’t feel so happenin’, but I later spun that moment of humiliation into a hypothetical phone call from Paul Simon to Quincy Jones: “Q! Did you check out that cat last night who playing bells with spoons? Whatta sound! Man, I’ve gotta sample that for my next project.” I’m guessing that no such exchange took place. I don’t even know that they checked us out. Taking no chances, I moved to Chicago not long after.
I now move to the shlemiel portion. In all honesty, the metaphorical soup that I spilled was no accident; the messes that I created were strictly the result of a belief that no one was paying attention to these attempts to amuse myself. Consequently, there may be a more accurate Yiddish word for the type of person in these circumstances. Putz comes to mind. I have always had a bit of an irreverent and cynical streak in me, so I apologize in advance to anyone who might be offended by the choices that I made in the following accounts. Chalk it up to immaturity and youthful indiscretion. I’d like to think that I’ve evolved considerably since then. But, then, I’d like to think all kinds of things.
There’s nothing like a good disease to get the Rich Folk to rub elbows under a tent. Oops: did that sound irreverent and/or cynical? What I meant to say was that those who are in a position to assist others can almost always be counted on to do so in the name of noble and worthy causes. One such occasion found me at a benefit for Alzheimer’s in the lobby of a big office building in midtown Manhattan. Once again, I was lucky enough to make some extra dough by playing for the cocktail hour. I was joined by a wonderful sax player whose name shall be omitted so that his reputation won’t be sullied. I’ll call him Tram. We started making Happy Cocktail Jazz, pretty much ignored by our Charity Festivants. Musing on the whole premise of this event, one of us (Tram, no doubt) thought it would be funny if we played a tune like I Remember You. We played it, of course. Then, feeling naughty, amused and empowered, our program quickly devolved into this tasteless abyss. Any title ending in a question mark or having to do with memory was worthy of our shameless consideration. Some titles that I recall were Where or When?, It’s Easy To Remember (But Hard To Forget), I Didn’t Know What Time It Was, Who?, Try To Remember, What Is This Thing Called Love?, What Am I Here For?, etc. You get the idea. Determined to rot in Hell, we kept at it, unaware when a party-goer approached our Den of Insincerity. Sizing her up, she did not appear happy. When she asked me if we had just played Remember by Irving Berlin, I had no choice but to confess that, yes, ma’am, that was what we played. I mean, she obviously knew and recognized the tune, so I felt that I had no choice but to accept whatever fallout our profound lapse in judgment might bring. Bracing myself for the worst, she looked at me and said, “That’s my favorite song”. Then she walked away.
This last entry makes me swell with pride each time I recall it. If you place the above paragraph at a certain level of callous tastelessness, then take a Bob Beamon-esque leap further into the abyss and you’ll then be properly situated for what you are about to read. I was hired to play in someone’s lovely house for the celebration of a Bar Mitzvah. Once again, I numbed myself into thinking that no one was listening and started to amuse myself with thoughts as to what I might play that would be just the right witty/wry/sardonic commentary on my surroundings. Suddenly, I thought to myself, “Self? You know what I’ve always thought was a pretty catchy tune? ‘Springtime For Hitler’, that’s what.” Damn the torpedoes and full speed ahead, I launched into my own unique interpretation of this classic composition from the cinema. My reverie was interrupted when I noticed a boy standing next to the piano. He was about thirteen years old and was looking at me. “Excuse me”, he said, “but what you’re playing sounds a lot like ‘Springtime For Hitler'”. Yikes! Totally busted (yet again), I chose the strategy of Deny, Deny, Deny. “No, no, no. That’s not what I was playing”, I told the young lad. But I reflected for a second and tried to satisfy him with, “But, you know, you’re right. What I was playing does sound an awful lot like ‘Springtime For Hitler'”. I finished out the gig with a lot of songs from Fiddler on the Roof.