A Vision At The Bandshell

harriet

I was in a foul mood. I’d been working at Pickwick all winter. It was a half-year long, frozen piece of my life, and this afternoon when work lets out, I sit in my car and watch the snow finally melt. The shifts on that warehouse floor are draining me; body and mind and I’m not sure how long I can hold out.

Last week, just to ease some of my pain, I wrote a petition to Pickwick HR, complaining about how we warehouse workers weren’t allowed to listen to music during our shifts. In retrospect it seems that I was more into causing a stir then actually needing any music. But by the time I handed in the petition, I had over a hundred signatures. I knew I was headed for trouble too, but it was also nearly impossible to resist writing the thing, especially with my co-workers goading me on. Needless to say, they were the first to sign.

The following is a reconstruction based on memory, of the petition itself. It is my earliest attempt at legalease:

Petition To Allow Music To Be Listened To During Work Hours

We the undersigned declare that it is both unfair and unwise, that as we are employed in a warehouse, constructed heretofore, and dedicated to the purveyance of music for human enjoyment, and acknowledging that you as management know from first hand experience, as well as from accurate and current scientific data on said subject, that listening to music is beneficial on both a physical and an emotional level.

 We furthermore find this prohibition exhibits cruel and unusual punishment, given that we are ourselves workers in the music trade, and are forbidden to listen to the company’s own product (music) on work hours.

 Imagine if you will, a chewing gum company (i.e: Wrigley, Cadbury Trebor Bassett, or Japanese marketers, Lotte LTD) that prohibits gum-chewing among its employees, or an air conditioner manufacturing company (i.e.: Amana Corporation, Lenox, or GE) that disallows its work force to enjoy the benefits of cool air in the heat of summer?

 If, as of Monday, February 13, 1978 ( in the Year of our Lord) upon learning that your decision to allow the listening of music during work hours is in the negative, I hereby state for legal record, that we the undersigned will, upon learning of said decision, refuse to come to the workplace at: 7500 Excelsior Blvd. in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, until such time as the injury to the undersigned has been effectively and completely remedied.

Signed,

 Peter Himmelman – Warehouse Associate

The petition became a far bigger problem than Russ, our immediate supervisor, could handle. I was called up to HR not more than one hour after submitting it. I was met there with grim faces and told that if I didn’t write a speedy and complete retraction of the petition I would be fired; effective immediately.

Lacking any resolve whatsoever, (I wasn’t about to support my own petition nearly enough to sacrifice a weekly salary of $450 that I was now becoming increasingly dependent upon.) HR didn’t have to do anything more than hold it up to my face and I was already writing a retraction:

To Pickwick International Shareholders and Management:

 The petition I drafted, dated February 8, 1978 is now null and void, and none of its contents are valid or true. All signatories to this document are to be considered as if they had never signed it.

 Sincerely,

 Peter Himmelman – warehouse associate

Not long after the petition I got a call that would change my life. The bass player from the Calypso band that I’d seen playing at the Lake Harriet Bandstand (and largely forgotten about) last summer called after six months of carrying around my number on a scrap of paper and asked me to come to an audition the following evening. Here’s how they came to have that scrap of paper.

***

It’s late summer, 12th grade is starting in two weeks and I, moody person that I am, am in a particularly foul one when my friend Blair Jonas, a guy I’d known since our mother’s had toted us around in strollers, calls me and tells me there’s a reggae band playing at the Lake Harriet bandshell in a few hours. “Can you please get your lazy-ass out of bed,” he says. Blair isn’t moody by nature, nor does he have the one problem – no sex – that seems to account for most of my bad moods. Lucky for him, he’s never been laid and doesn’t yet know what he’s missing. In fact he’s as happy as a golden retriever most of he time, which is why I’ve stayed friends with him so long. It’s true, seeing a reggae band at this moment does sound mildly appealing, even if it means that I’ll have to get up and get dressed. An hour later we’re at the bandshell and my bad mood is threatening to become a thing of the past.

The sun is starting to set as clouds of mosquitos rise up from the lake and into swarm into an eerie green sky. There’s been a statewide tornado watch that’s kept the Twin Cities on alert for the last six hours, but nobody’s afraid of dying, not tonight anyway, because when Minnesota’s own Calypso/reggae band, Shangoya, takes the stage all fear and sorrow disappears.

When the music starts, it instantly hypnotizes me and somewhere between the bone crushing bass notes and the rhythmic clang of time being beaten out on an ancient break shoe by Aldrich Peter Nelson, the band’s six foot three inch Trinidadian lead singer, I believe I’m on the verge of having an epiphany. I feel as if I’m hovering over the bandshell, watching myself on that stage, playing my guitar and taking complete control. ‘I could do that,’ I think.

After the show Blair tells me he needs to hightail it home before he’s late for his 10:30 curfew. “Gimme a couple minutes,” I say. I spot the bass player, a fit-looking dude, around thirty-five or so, rolling up his cables and wiping down a black Fender Jazz bass. “Hey, how ya doin,” I say as I walk up to him. “I had a great time listening to you guys. I’m a guitarist and I think you’d be a lot better with me up there with you guys. I could kick some ass actually.” He laughs and says, “How old are you den?” “I’m seventeen,” I say.” “Me’ name’s Lloyd and if ya tink you dat good, maybe I outta take ya numbah jus’ now. Shangoya’s been tinkin’ bout a second gitarist.” That’s when I give him my number.

Six months later there’s a note on our kitchen table:

‘Peter, a guy with a funny accent named Roy called this afternoon and wants you to try out for his band.’ Love, Mom.

Given the malaise I’ve been experiencing since my early graduation and my sentence at Pickwick, this news is like manna from heaven. I’m not particularly concerned about the audition either. Since that night I saw Shangoya playing at the bandshell, the image of me up there on stage with them has stayed so clear in my mind. Becoming a part of the band is just a technicality.

***

Challenger5Small

On the night of the audition there are at least a dozen players waiting in the living room of Aldrich Peter Nelson’s small house in South Minneapolis. Most of these guys are in their mid to late twenties, a couple of them look like they might be almost forty. They’re holding expensive looking guitars and sitting on their first-rate amplifiers. I’m here with the solid state Kustom Challenger that I bought four years ago with my Bar Mitzvah money. It’s not exactly a youth model, but it’s certainly no first choice for any pro.

The sound is coming up from the basement; I can hear each player as he’s auditioning. The first guy is using the same Mu-Tron funk box Andre Cymone was killing me with last year at the New Year’s Eve show downtown, except this guy’s over-using it, he’s got no sense of perspective and instead of it adding color to the music, it just sounds murky and redundant.

The next player’s got incredible dexterity, no doubt he’s been woodshedding, and for a second, I get a little concerned. After a minute or so, I relax. What the dude has accomplished in the areas of speed and fluency, he fucks up with an overall lack of regard for the music itself. He’s stepping all over everything, coming in when he should lay out, and drowning out Aldrich Peter Nelson when he’s in the middle of a verse. Instead of making music, this chump’s just auditioning his chops. The Shangoya players may not be the best studio cats in the world, but they’re way too sensitive and soulful to fall for this shit.

Now the guy next to me picks up his gear and heads downstairs to show everyone what he’s got under the hood. No worries here though. He seemed like a nice enough person, but he’s a prog-rocker, and the stuff he’s into, while totally suitable for a Genesis cover band, make absolutely no sense in the context of reggae and Calypso.Just as he emerges from the basement someone calls out from the bottom of the staircase, “Peter, you ready?”

I pick up my Les Paul and my Challenger and head down. It’s hot and cramped and I can see that the band’s in dire need of a break. I wish they had on some fresh ears down here. Aldrich Peter Nelson’s smiles, but he’s tired. “Can you play Reggae mon,” he asks. “Hell yeah I can,” I say. He smiles again and then Carlos Roque, the drummer, counts in the band with four clicks of his sticks.

They start a slow groove in A minor. It’s a a good tempo, just right for me. I’ve never been a shredder, not in bed and not onstage. I like to make each note count. I don’t come in playing right away, I give myself some time. I’m not afraid I’ll screw up or anything, I just need some air around the notes I feel myself getting ready to discharge.

Now my music feels like it needs to come. In an instant I flick up the toggle switch on my Les Paul to the rear pickup, I need that fat sound for where this is going. And just before I start in, I turn back around to my Challenger and twist the volume knob all the way. I won’t use all that gas, not right away, but I want to make sure I’ve got it in reserve if the need arises. I start out with some long Santana-esque notes and let them hang a bit, and then I travel up and down the neck.

I’m not fucking around tonight, making a bunch of slick noise with my fingers, I’m playing things that mean something, sounds that tell the story of a soul in exile. I feel like I’m homing in on an echo, on some far-off need to come back to center, to achieve an extraordinary bliss and mostly to fly. I want to leave these past months so bad, to leave all these empty moments that have been weighing me down. I’m not auditioning for these guys – or anyone anymore, I’m doing this for myself alone.

At this point I do need that extra volume, I twist my pots and turn it up. The Challenger wasn’t built for this and it sounds like it’s about to blow apart. I hope it blows the fuck up; right here in this basement while the other guys in the waiting area, trying to get into this band, are sucking their own dicks in fear. When the music finally stops, Aldrich Peter Nelson is smiling, and this time his smile sticks around for awhile.

“What ya tink you can bring to de band if we hire you all jus’ now,” he asks. I don’t answer him right away. I grab a paper towel and wipe the seat off my face. “You see that little amplifier?” I say, pointing to the Challenger. Everyone is watching me now, waiting to hear what I’m gonna say, what kind of deference I’m gonna pay to their fearless leader. “When I’m onstage with you guys – and I will be onstage with you guys – it’s gonna shoot fuckin’ flames…”

Now the whole band is laughing at me. I’m not at all upset, I know what they’re thinking, I’d feel the exact same way, ‘Who is this seventeen year-old, white, Jewish prick?’ They can’t help themselves, it’s overpowering to witness a true believer.

***

I played with Shangoya for just a year and a half. When you’re a kid though, those eighteen months feel like a lifetime. Not only did I get a chance to drink in a whole new harmonic and rhythmic paradigm, I forged deep friendships with beautiful people I would never have had the chance to meet. Aside from the music and the camaraderie, the one thing I miss most about playing with them is the food.

Every evening before practice began, Aldrich Peter Nelson would have his pressure cooker going and every dish he made was served with a yellow paste they called pepper sauce. They way they said though, it came out as: peppah sauce; with the accent on the word, sauce. Peppah sauce wasn’t just a condiment, it was, like many things in Caribbean culture, a proving ground for one’s manliness. If you’ve ever eaten a habanero pepper you’re just getting to the edge of town in terms of heat compared to peppah sauce. When you cross over the city limits and into the middle of town, you’re getting into Indian Ghost pepper territory, the main ingredient in peppah sauce. If you’ve never tried it and are curious about the way it tastes, imagine you’re sucking on a fully lit flamethrower. Peppah sauce is the very tip of that flame. It’s basically Indian ghost peppers and salt. There’s usually a squeeze of lime in there too, just to have something that won’t kill you in the mixture.

Before practices I’d sort of hover around the table like a schnauzer looking for a bite of anything Peter had cooked up. Some nights it was Callaloo, the traditional Trinidadian stew, other times is was oxtail soup, curried fish, or curried chicken. And when the Lloyd the bassman arrived, the competition for ‘most manly Caribbean’ began.

A small dish of peppah sauce went into the middle of the table and slowly, Aldrich Peter Nelson and Lloyd began spooning small sprinkles of it on the white rice, which accompanied every meal. The sweating and the cursing started soon after, followed by bigger and bigger drops of the peppah sauce and more sweating. Finally they’d progress to actual spoonfuls of the stuff and the towels would come out of the bathroom to wipe the sweat pouring down their faces. By the time practice began, one man, the loser, would slink quietly away from the table in shame. The other man would walk downstairs, smiling with the knowledge that tonight anyway, he was the bigger, stronger, and therefore the better man; all because he could endure to most pain.

Our tours never got us too far from Minneapolis; a couple trips to Duluth for overnight gigs, an occasional wintertime jaunt down to Iowa city, where the novelty of having this mostly black band from the Islands brought a certain warmth to an otherwise frigid college town. The co-eds, who were always up for a cross cultural experience practically threw themselves at the band – unfortunately a suburban Jew, such as I was, who technically should have still been in High School, didn’t count as cross-cultural enough.

I remember Lloyd playfully (if what I’m going to say next can possibly be described as playful) grabbing one young blonde student by the crotch. (To picture this properly, {if you care to} imagine a person gently squeezing a handful of “crotch” between his thumb and index finger.) The amazing thing about the grab, wasn’t the technical expertise, which Lloyd had somehow acquired, it was that, not only did the blonde co-ed allow this to happen, she actually found it charming. I can only imagine having tried this stunt myself, I’d have been locked up in some Iowa City jail faster than a bell clapper in a goose’s ass.

I went on to make my very first record, a B-side of a 45 with Shangoya in the spring of 1978, just around the time I went back to graduate with my High School class in a cap and gown. Along with lengthy reggae versions of Like a Rolling Stone and All Along The Watchtower, which I sang lead on, we’d been performing a number of songs I’d written for the band; reggae songs, never Calypso, because though I learned to appreciate Calypso’s rhythms and pithy, sardonic lyrics, it never felt natural to me.

Towards the end of my stint with the band, we were playing three of my originals every night onstage; Dictator, Playing Silly Games, and Get a Grip, along with a handful of Dylan covers, which I’d recently come to love. When I sang on these originals or the Dylan stuff, it was as if there were two different shows happening, one was straight Shangoya, and the other, a hybrid of rock and reggae that would inform my musical direction for years to come.

I mid May, we went into the studio with, now legendary producer, David Z., famous for hits by Prince, Government Mule, The Fine Young Cannibals, and Minneapolis’s own Lipps’ Inc with their mega-hit, Funkytown. We tracked two songs for the record, in one take and totally live. Side A was a Calypso song with heavy percussion called Moco Jumby. Side B, much to my joy and surprise was my tune, Get A Grip, which featured a long guitar solo and a rhythmic break that brought the song’s length to well over six minutes.

To give you some idea of my own hubris; not even for a moment did I consider that I was doing anything wrong when I went into Sound 80 with David Z. (David Rivkin at the time) to do a radio edit of Get A Grip without even consulting the rest of the band. What David and I decided, was to eliminate the rhythm breakdown entirely. Asshole that I am, I wasn’t apologetic, I was shocked and surprised when the band found out and was pissed as all hell. We went back into the studio together the next day and wound up leaving the edit just as it was.

I’m happy to report that I was stone-silent throughout that second studio session; chastened for bowing, yet again, to my extreme self-interest. Live and learn I always say, and I was to have many more chances to do just that.

 

 

 

 

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