Saturday, January 28, 2006

That's Right......I'm Bad

Attitude. You can have attitude without confidence, but confidence begets attitude. How 'bout that? "Young man, you'd better change your attitude"...... "Boy, that chick's got an attitude".......Mr T.... BA..... Bad attitude. I learned early on that attitude can make or break you.
I went to St Mary's Grammar School, Plainfield NJ, in the late fifties and early sixties. Plainfield, like the rest of the country, was feeling the beginnings of social unrest. Here was my plight. From about third grade on I used to walk home from school.....about a mile or so. The problem was that students from Hubbard Junior HS and Plainfield HS were walking in the opposite direction..and they didn't seem to like me too much. Maybe it was the uniform, but everyday it was something. Spit on, robbed, punched or just harassed. I got pretty good at smelling trouble and knowing escape routes. Did you ever see the Seinfeld where George discovers that if he walks around looking angry and agitated all day no one bothers him. It works!! If trouble was coming my way I'd kind of look down...not away.....and mumble to myself. If anybody said anything I'd give them my Elvis sneer and a look that said, "Hey, I got no time for you, pal!", pick up the pace a little and keep an eye out for a convenient escape route. I'd be dealing with this every day so I was used to it, but about half the time a friend or two would be with me and they'd be a little nervous. If a "situation" was developing they'd say, "Teddy, do the Rin Tin Tin story." I don't remember the story now but I'd start talking and gesturing and they'd all be listening intently, apparantly oblivious to anything else and we'd usually skate. Attitude.
It got to the point where I'd abandoned the escape routes, except in dire circumstances, and instead used guile, cunning, chutzpah and, of course, attitude. I found that a bloody lip is preferable to that feeling you get in your stomach when you cut and run. But a good escape from a no win situation can also bring a bit of satisfaction...discretion being the better part of valor. I remember so clearly a snowball throwing incident. This was after I'd moved to Piscataway and my cohorts and I had just unloaded and were getting ready to fly. For some reason I didn't run. I stood my ground on the frozen outfield of the Knollwood School baseball field and watched my friends take off, their frozen breath in the air spelling the words, "Move it, jackass." I wasn't coming this time. Don't know why. The first pursuer flew by me and here came his pal right behind him. I wasn't looking for a fight. When you're fourteen and the competition is seventeen or eighteen you try to avoid that. I was simply gonna adopt a certain attitude and explain to the gentleman that we merely....WHAM!!!!! Y' know, Daffy Duck was right. You really do see stars. The next thing I knew my buddies were standing over me laughing hysterically. They'd escaped and I had a fat lip. But I didn't have that feeling in my stomach
You've heard the term "adrenaline rush." D'ja ever feel it? It is so cool. There are bushes and fences I've leapt in the back yards of Plainfield and Piscataway that I never could have cleared without the big A. I've outrun guys on the football field who should have caught me but for the surge. It's like your body goes into fifth an angel is giving you a gentle push and lift. It's really very spititual. As adults we usually don't get a chance to experience a good adrenaline rush. Or if we do, once again it's in dire circumstances. Clear! Clear!
One of my favorite expressions is "pick your battles." This just means make sure it's worth it. Do you really want to argue with the grocer over how he's bagging? Or with your girlfriend 'cause she's ten minutes late? Maybe you do. You could be arguing with everybody all day. C'mon! And most times you can avoid a situation with...attitude. Y'know who had attitude? Superman. Not George Reeve, the TV Superman, or, as far as I could tell, the comic book
Superman..... but the Saturday morning cartoon Superman. My father and I would watch George Reeve and be amazed that all he did was put on a business suit and a pair of glasses and everyone was fooled. But the cartoon Superman lowered his voice, adopted a swagger, did the little hair thing and look out bad guys. Apparantly the radio Superman's whole persona was attitude. Makes sense.
I have a profound respect for men like Martin Luther King, Gandhi.....Jesus.. They knew they were in for a whuppin' but faced it without raising a hand. Passive resistance. The biggest man with the biggest club can't beat that. I don't think I would have had the nerve to walk with a group of demonstrators down a Selma street in the sixties. That takes a certain breed. People with foresight, a ton of guts, a feeling of "right" and, of course, attitude. The people with the hoses....the clubs...the dogs....knew they couldn't fight that attitude for long. If you've never seen the movie "Braveheart", rent it. Everyone has fear. Some just cover it better than others.
I've sat in with a lot of different bands or played by myself over the years in situations where I knew I wasn't
as prepared as I should have been but attitude's always pulled me through. Show no fear! (this works with angry dogs, too) I used to say faking it, but that's not really it. It has to be in there somewhere or you wouldn't have put yourself in that situation to start with. You take a deep breath, chug on through and when it's over, whatever the result, you won't have that feeling in your stomach. Everyone's got hurdles to clear, some larger than others. But they're usually not insurmountable, nor as high as they look. Attitude. Anybody here......seen my old friend Martin?

Tuesday, January 17, 2006

If you LOOK like you know what you're doin'......

A few years back two pals and I had a band called The Firecreek Band. Not a great band, but mobile, huge repertoire, and an easygoing familiarity that kept egos in check and brawls to a minimum. We were together darn near twenty years, on and off. Side projects would split us up for awhile but sooner or later the call to action would come. Lots of interesting times with those boys. We played a lot! My friend Tom, whom I met while I was playing with the aforementioned Freewheelin, checked out in '98. Way too young. He used to come see the band....yadda, yadda......Firecreek was hatched.
But this isn't about Tom, or Firecreek, but about confidence. In the early eighties we were lucky enough to get a two month gig in Bermuda. Ever been to Bermuda? Perfect. Expensive.....but perfect. We were playing at a place called The Robin Hood Pub. John Lennon used to hang out there while he was living in Bermuda working on Double Fantasy. The title comes from a flower in the Bermuda Botanical Gardens. Many a break time we'd sit in the "John Lennon " booth and.....contemplate. The movie "The Deep" was filmed there. The manager of the pub got a gig working as a gofer on the set.....and picking up Jacqueline Bissett every morning. I wish I could tell you more about that. Nick Nolte would get snockered and sit on the front steps of The Robin Hood and cry. Yeah......good times! My point........ah....confidence.
Right around the time we were playing there the Men At Work song "Down Under" came out and was huge. A guy who would hang out at the Pub soon started bartending there and we got pretty close with him.....a real likeable sort. We'd be messing around with "Down Under" and Grant would kind of be singing along and we finally convinced him to get up and sing it on stage with us. Hell, everybody else was! The first time he snuck up and hung around the back of the stage with his back to the audience...barely audible. But he got a great response 'cause everyone loved him. We were playing six nights a week and the Grant thing would happen almost every night. It would start with one or two people doing the "Grant Chant" and soon the place would be rockin' and we'd have no choice but to kick it in. The Robin Hood was more of a locals place but the cruise ships would dock two blocks away and baby give me a roomful of happy tourists egged on by happier Bermudians to make the night move. Grant was a phenom. Enter....confidence.
Grant would let the first couple of half hearted "Grant Chants" go over his head and just keep serving. When the chant hit its stride at some point, an unspoken thing would happen between us and Grant. We knew it was time and " dada." But Grant.....MAH MAN!!!!!!!! First he'd put on his shades. Then he'd to the stage......slowly......., snatch the mike off the stand and command the front of the stage as the crowd would go wild! Some comments to the room, maybe an intro of the band and.... Elvis meet Sinatra meet David Lee Roth meet....Grant. So what happened? Feedback. Large, spontaneous, sincere feedback. I have a picture of this scene and I taped our last night there so now I have proof and you know what? It ain't all that great....but you really had to be there. 'Cause was great. We encouraged him, the crowd encouraged him....the other bartenders weren't that crazy about it, but they rolled, and Grant became one with his confidence and did it, man.....and did it well!
It's amazing what a pat on the back, some positive reinforcement (sure...a little alcohol may have been involved), and confidence can do for a guy. You think you can! Most of the time, anyway. The lesson? Encourage!!!!! I don't know where I heard it, but I have, taped to my kitchen cabinet, the words, "The greatest risk is taking no risk at all." It's kind of become my mantra in the last few years. You know that feeling you get when you should have tried something..... and you didn't. Not for me, man. You rock, Grant!!!! Now pass me that vegemite sandwich.

Sunday, January 08, 2006

Highway To

Music has been such a huge part of my life, from neighborhood shows, ala The Little Rascals, to a stint with the St. Mary's Boys Choir, to bands, bands, bands. My first "professional" band was with a with a group called The Wichita Straw Band, which quickly evolved into Freewhweelin'. That was when I dropped the guitar and started playing the bass.
It's amazing how little incidents.......a left here....a right there.....go out.....stay home.........can put such a spin on your life. The year was 1972. The place was Highway Music, East Brunswick, NJ.......closing time. Rock, Mike and I spent a lot of time that summer playing guitars, surfing, throwin' and going to keg parties......and enjoying everything that went along with that scene. Everybody and their sister played guitar but soon it came down to the three of us. We were actually working up set lists and considering giving this a shot. Flash to Highway Music. I'll be forever grateful to the sales guy for staying open a little later that night and letting us grab and play. Mike and Rock pulled a couple of guitars off the wall and for some reason.... I grabbed a bass. We plugged in, started playing Johnny B. Goode and I can't explain the ease and the comfort level I felt. You have to be able to recognize a good epiphany when it happens. They're rare. This one kicked me in the teeth. On the way home I was having a hard time explaining what had happened. I was dry mouthed, kind of stunned...remember your first kiss?........ yeah, like that. The next day I bought a Fender bass and about a month later a Fender Bassman amplifier . We got our old drummer from junior high school (I refer you to the "what's in a name" post) and stumbled through a few gigs. And you know what? Girls still liked musicians....even bad ones. YAAAAAYYY!!!!!!
Mike left and went to grad school, as did Ronnie, our drummer. We ran into Lew, a wonderful fiddler. Then Joe, another high school bud, joined us on guitar....a few starts and stutters...... and Freewheelin' was hatched. We played as a semi electric four piece for awhile until one night at a place called The Gypsy in Long Valley, NJ we recognized our future drummer.....Panama Ed......and had a pretty good run for a few years. We were lucky...old friends, liked the same kind of music, and the country rock scene was rollickin' in NJ at the time. We drove to gigs together, ate together, lived together. (It's amazing how quickly crabs can spread though a house) and still play together, in one form or another, every now and then. We'd always stick a few originals in the sets and some label interest developed. But the business end was not our strong suit. Agents would talk to us about tightening up the stage act or dressing better.....the music was fine....but.....we'd always glaze over at that point. Over the years we've thought we probably blew a golden opportunity. But the truth is...better bands than us have come and gone and always will. No regrets.
Freewheelin's last gig was at The Red Fox Inn in New Brunswick, NJ. I thought.... ok.... I got this out of my system, now it's back to school and reality. Well, wouldn't you know. During the night a woman comes up to me, tells me she's a singer in a band and they guessed it.....a bass player. That was twenty five plus years ago and it's never stopped. You see, you can't swing a dead cat without hittin' a guitar offense.....but, I've discovered over the years, bass players are at a premium. Why I reached for a bass on the wall at Highway Music that summer night I'll never know. The road that's followed has not been........ prosperous. But I wouldn't trade it for the world.