The Rat, The Ox, The Fish and Me

Saturday afternoon I concluded, rightfully and formally, if not a bit hurriedly, a forty year journey. I played bass, on a stage, in a club, with a small band. Never mind that my guitar player and drummer are teachers where I take lessons and that the stage setting was that of a the year-end recital. I took “play in a band” off the bucket list.

Deep, networked appreciation of the journey of 10,000 musical missteps begins, as it should, with a piano lesson. It’s 1970, the Mets had won the World Series early in the school year, and I’m taking piano lessons from our next door neighbor. I barely made it a year, because I didn’t practice, and that’s probably why I still harbor a mild fear of the bass clef. Years later, her son would be something of an inspiration, gently letting me know it was acceptable to bury myself in the rhythmic and modal vagaries of British prog rock. Thanks, Mrs. Millering and Brett, for helping me identify with Chris Squire, my first bass hero, and essentially the root cause of what was to follow.

Fast forward seven more years, to private clarinet lessons at Caiazzo Music in Freehold. Caiazzo’s most famous customer was one Bruce Springsteen, and despite never seeing him come up those few steps from South Street, I vividly remember a hand-printed sign on the cash register that read “When the bank sells guitars Caiazzo will cash checks.” A leading indicator about musicians, across multiple economic cycles. On either end of my 30 minutes with classical etudes, I explored the guitars and basses hung on the walls, a mosaic of colors and inlays and pickguards that awed me. Standalone, they made a tinny, tiny sound, but plugged into an amplifier the sound leaped out of them. For years I tried to decipher how an instrument with no power source other than a fast picking hand could generate a signal (more on this later).

Middle school concert band. One of the most dedicated music teachers ever — Ben Webb, who bore an uncanny resemblance to Zoot the Muppet — and my first taste of public performance. What I remember more from the halls of Clifton T Barkalow, though, was a conversation at a lunch table one day about The Who. One of the cool kids — currently a performing guitar player, and a genuinely good guy — was in a heated debate about whether the Who were relevant. Someone asked me if I knew the Who. I did, and provided a reference (likely the fact that “Boris the Spider” was the B-side of “Pinball Wizard” on 45), and my 40-year admiration for The Who’s John Entwistle was cemented in the scree of Ron Howard movies.

High school was clarinet, saxophone, concert band, jazz band, pit orchestra for school musicals, and a few years of marching band. During one particularly long rehearsal the pit orchestra broke into an extended jam, completely spontaneously, right out of the lunchroom scene in “Fame.” For six minutes, until the drama teacher coerced everyone back into whatever real life scene wasn’t working, it was the most fun I had had playing an instrument. By the early summer, I played my last high school concert, took a perfunctory saxophone solo with the jazz band, and effectively didn’t play “real music” again. Didn’t make the Princeton Jazz Band, didn’t want to march in the band again, had neither skill nor interest in concert band. But thank you Nick Santoro, and Jettie June, and several dozen band mates, for putting the performance bug in me.

I met another crazy Springsteen fan from NJ, who was an amazing piano player, and he invited me to bring my saxophone over to the common room one night to jam. At one point he said “Listen to Bruce’s songs, Clarence is always playing something, but you don’t hear it up front, you have to listen.” Best advice ever about playing in a band. Thanks, Steve B (and Hillary who listened, politely, to the whole train wreck of staves and notes).

Home on a break from Princeton, and after my first bit of delayed rebellion (I bought hockey skates and insisted on taking them on our annual winter vacation) I drove myself to Caiazzo and picked a Fender Squire bass off the wall, tobacco burst color, for just under $200. I didn’t buy an amp, deciding instead to use the Rube Goldberg sound chain: bass connected to Radio Shack cassette player with a 1/4″ to 1/8″ cable, putting the cassette deck into “record” mode to use it as a notoriously noisy pre-amplifier, 1/8″ to mono RCA cable to connect cassette player output jack to tape deck input (with correct impedance and level matching!) on my stereo amplifier and voila! Bass sounds came out of my component stereo system, the “adult purchase” of the previous break. I bought a fedora (because, you know, the cover of Weather Report’s “Heavy Weather” had one) and had no idea what I was doing, until some sophomores from nearby Wilson College heard my thrashing about and invited me to sit outside and play with them. Not only did I not know how to find the roots on the bass, when they mentioned Lou Reed’s “Rock and Roll” or “Sweet Jane” I had no idea who Lou Reed was. Thank you, Steve “Rat” for opening my ears and teaching me the first song I played (truly horribly) on bass. Every single time I hear “Rock and Roll” I think of that afternoon on the steps outside of Wilson Hall.

Later that academic year, deep in the throes of Physics 106, I had an epiphany. I figured out how electric guitars work — the magic of pickups and inducted current and moving magnetic fields. It didn’t help my playing one iota but it convinced me that maybe there was something to my tone chain that didn’t result in electrocution. Some introductory electrical engineering, discovery of WPRB-FM, and new friends with diverse musical tastes. But my performing days — with an instrument, not just a voice — were done. I played other people’s music and told stories about and around the songs, a trend that lasted until 2015. I sold my bass to a fellow WPRB DJ, never playing more than one song on it. But thank you Matteo Cavelli-Sforza, Supersonic Surber, Bill, Alan, Brita, Chuck, Mark, Steve, Jordan, and Ray.

After watching our son turn into an accomplished bass player, and applying that moldering but still useful electrical engineering knowledge to building guitar effects pedals, I decided it was time to really, truly, certainly learn to play the bass. Having won a month of lessons in a tricky tray auction (which I bid on only after discovering the offering new music school — So.I.Heard in Millburn — via a search for a pedal retailer), I bought my second bass — another Fender Squire, this time in Lake Placid blue, for only slightly more than I paid in 1980. Thank you, Ben, for being patient with me, teaching me about strings and tone and setups and technique and making sure my left hand was at least in the vicinity of correct position.

Here’s the hard thing about picking up anything new after age 50: it’s really hard. Your brain isn’t as plastic, your reflexes aren’t as good, and new motions tend to tweak anything that was bordering on the arthritic. But patient, fun teachers with similar musical tastes produced a bit of deja vu all over again this spring: When Max suggested some recital pieces, he asked “What’s the best Who song with a bass solo” and my first thought was “Boris the Spider” (revisited, 42 years after 7th grade lunch table). He was aiming for the Ox signature piece, “My Generation”, 16 bars of bass solo recognized by anyone who has listened to a radio. And so my recital piece was selected. That was the easy part.

Entwistle got that demanding tone out of his bass through pure physical effort. He played hard, he played dangerously loudly, and he was technically on another large-handed planet. Listen to the bass lines on “The Real Me” and you hear a jet engine, a blues scale, and a working class cry. Most of Entwistle’s lines are, it turns out, based on fairly simple blues progressions. Playing them isn’t nearly as easy, but that was my lesson in recital prep: play what you feel, play the song the way you want to perform it, and worry less about the notes and more about making music. My Caiazzo clarinet teacher, who later also taught me saxophone, used to describe a good solo as “Not a lot of notes, but the right ones.” Right is a many valued thing, always in the moment, but better when louder.

Two days before the recital I was convinced I wouldn’t ever master enough of the song to avoid sounding like the punch line to every bass player joke on the internet. And Max and Fabian just had us trade four bar solos around the practice room, truly an etude in G, until I felt that I could play with confidence. If you want to know the difference between music education of the 1970s and the 2010s, it’s that – developing the confidence to own my own notes. Thank you Max, Fabian, and Sam.

And so 37 years after stepping off of the Freehold Township High School stage, I strapped on the blue bass, turned up the volume (after plugging into the correct amp on the second try) and plucked out “My Generation”. I was, for two minutes, back in the pit jamming away, and it was insanely fun. Mike Gordon has nothing to worry about, and I’m more inspired than ever to lose another 20 pounds so it’s easier to see the frets when I play standing up, but I now feel like the story that began in Caiazzo Music (now, sadly, a condo building) has hit the dramatic climax. And no drummers exploded along the way…..

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