Rearview Mirror

Here’s (to) That Rainy Day (#215 in the books)

I recently found myself feeling very thankful … for, of all things, a summer Sunday thunderstorm.

That happened about 32 years ago.

I remember it as one of those glorious, near-Biblical downpours – the kind that mid-summer, Southwestern PA humidity teases and taunts until it comes down full-throated and angry. The kind whose sound used to mesmerize me as it drumrolled, fortissimo, the aluminum awning on our tiny front porch, pouring in a sheet over its edge.

I remember that particular afternoon storm being accompanied by lightning that flashed with such frequency and bad intent it made you involuntarily wince as you waited the couple beats to learn from the companion thunder crack if any trees or transformers had born the brunt.

It was mid-afternoon and Mom was getting an early dinner ready. We were to eat early because Dad was playing music that night.

On the surface, an every-third-Sunday-night gig at a Moose Club in Perryopolis may sound more like punishment than anything, but Dad loved that particular job. It had absolutely nothing to do with the money, as once each of the nine pieces of the orchestra had been paid, the cut was a measly $25 for three hours. Nah, for Dad, the payoff was in the freedom the band had on those Sunday nights. Things were looser at the Moose than the typical gigs — the opposite of the structured, 14-setters that dictated what kind of song had to be played when. On those Sundays, Sam, the bandleader, would even let the musicians request a chart that they wanted to play, or hadn’t played in a long time … or a jazzier chart that was more fun to jam on than to dance to. And playing from 8:30-11:30 a short drive down Route 51 was a breeze compared to the four-hour jobs they’d drive an hour or more to.

As Mom got things ready in the kitchen, I remember the phone ringing in the dining room, and me getting up to answer it (days before caller ID when a surprise always waited on the other end). It was Sam, calling to let Dad know that the Moose had lost power due to the storm, so the gig was cancelled.

I relayed the message, and remember Dad being bummed, but also being OK with not having to rush the rest of the afternoon, and getting his evening back.

Though there was no longer any reason to eat early, Mom finished what she’d started, and the three of us sat down to eat at the kitchen table.

That’s when the phone rang a second time, about 45 minutes after the first call.

This time Dad answered. It was Sam again, calling to let him know that the Moose got power back, so the dance was back on.

So, Dad resumed his gig-prep ritual, getting a shower, doing his teeth (which took a good 30-45 minutes. I’m not sure there was ever a trumpet player more meticulous about his teeth), laying out his suit, his mute bag, etc.

No big deal.

Until the phone rang for a third time. Sam again.

He’d been able to reach everyone in the band … except the drummer, Bob, who also happened to be my drum teacher. In the age before cel phones, when answering machines were still a novelty, you either got ahold of someone, or you didn’t. Sam figured that Bob must’ve gone out to eat or something after learning that the gig was off.

“Tell Pete to get ready, just in case Bob doesn’t call me back,” Sam told my Dad.

Now, this was suddenly a big deal.

So, I was 15 years old. I’d been taking drum lessons for about a year and a half at my father’s, um, insistence. I literally came home from school one day to learn that he’d signed me up for lessons. I had never previously expressed an interest in the drums. And there was no precedent for my father signing me up for anything that we hadn’t previously discussed. But I was an agreeable kid, and, hey, drums were cool, so I just rolled with it.

I didn’t pay much attention to the not-so-subtle clues as to my Dad’s intentions. When he signed me up for lessons he informed me that he’d already pre-arranged with the instructor (Bob) that I was to learn all styles of music, not just rock. He wanted me versed in the bossanova, the rhumba, the cha-cha, and of course, jazz and swing.

I humored my Dad by going along with this, though my heart beat more in time to big, fat backbeats.

My Dad had started having me tag along on gigs with him, just to listen. I remember at first feeling awkward riding to gigs with guys 40 and 50 years my senior, and then sipping Pepsis for four hours while listening to old music and watching old people dance. He’d also asked Sam to make me some tapes of the band for me (which he recorded ‘live’ on an old Radio Shack Realistic recorder), so I could play along at home, applying the beats I was learning in my lessons. Full disclosure: I’d always skip past the boring slow ones, and just played along to the passable jump tunes … In the Mood, Kansas City, etc.

But I always assumed that the tapes and the ride-alongs were just for exposure, and really, to humor my Dad.

The prospect of playing an actual gig was not even close to being on my radar when Sam called that Sunday afternoon. For one thing, my drums had never left my practice room in the back. I didn’t even have cases for them. And since Dad-slash-Santa had delivered them already set up a couple Christmases back, I didn’t know how to tear them down.

KR093 copy

I remember taking them apart that afternoon for the first time afraid I wouldn’t remember how they went back together. When I wasn’t freaking out, I was praying hard that Sam would call back saying he’d gotten ahold of Bob. Alas, a fourth call never came.

The rain had long since stopped by the time Mac came to pick us up. I remember carrying my cymbal stands out one by one, gingerly laying them down in the back of his Chevy Suburban, and covering them with a blanket so they wouldn’t be tempted to roll.

When we were done loading the truck, Mac commented, “They look like dead bodies.”

Not the encouragement I was looking for.

When we got to the Moose, Dad helped me set things back up, bought me a Pepsi to calm my nerves. Sam loaned me an oversized tux jacket, and a gratuitously large, velvet, clip-on black bow tie that wore crooked.

A veteran professional band leader who had logged decades as a successful high school band instructor, Sam was his usual picture of calm. I’ll never forget his only instruction to me, which he delivered with a wry smile: “As long as you begin and end with the rest of the band, you’ll be fine.”

By the time everybody tuned up and gathered on the bandstand, I was in full panic. I gave my full attention to Sam’s every word and gesture, locking into the tempos as he counted off the tunes. From there, I focused on Ralph, the keyboard player (and Sam’s son). Specifically, I hyper-focused on Ralph’s left hand, which he used to play the bass line. After a couple verses, I’d turn my attention back to Sam and wait for him to signal whether the song ended in tempo, if things slowed down, or if everyone was to play the last notes together.

To compensate for all the tunes I didn’t know (which were legion), I’d exhaust my humble bag of tricks on the few that I did, “In the Mood,” “Kansas City,” etc. Imagine a nervous, 15-year-old rock-and-roller turned loose on Glenn Miller. Yeah.

For the others, it was a lot of ‘boom-chicka-boom’ until a tune came to a merciful conclusion. I found myself regretting skipping over all of those boring, slow tunes in the practice room.

I remember little else other than surviving the longest three hours of my life … thanks to a constant stream of advice and encouragement from Alice (our singer) and the guys in the band.

When it was over, I gratefully collected their smiles and handshakes, and then collected myself before turning my full attention to trying to remember how the heck to tear my drums back down.

Then Sam came over to me. Asked me to put out my hand.

Into which he put $25 … my share of the evening’s take.

I still can vividly recall my 15-year-old self’s feeling of surprise and exhilaration as I stared at the money in my hand. It felt like a million bucks to me.

In that humble transaction, I went from being a scared-shi*tless 15-year-old to being a professional musician.

But that paled in comparison to what he did next.

He asked me if I’d consider being his regular drummer.

Excuse me?

He said he was looking for someone who could make all the gigs. Bob sometimes played with other groups, forcing Sam to find subs. He wanted someone steady.

I can tell you with 100% certainty that there was nothing in my performance that evening that earned me the invitation.

But I never gave him a chance to reconsider his offer.

And, for the next 13 years, I rode along in vans with guys 40 and 50 years my senior, playing old music for old people.

And loving every single minute of it.

The long drives to the gigs, listening to my Dad and his musician friends talk music and tell tales of guys they played with and places they played.

Seeing it as my honor, as one of the younger guys, to help carry the equipment up and down the steps of whatever hall we happened to be playing in.

Over time, learning every chart inside and out … not just beginning and ending with the band, but catching every kick and squeezing the juice out of every chart. Laying down a mean rhumba, cha-cha and bossanova for the dancers to indulge themselves.

Delighting in the ritual and routine of it all. The rhythm of the set up and tear down. The meticulous way everything perfectly loaded and packed into Mac and Sam’s vans. The way each musician would warm up (I can still hear Mac playing the Theme from the Godfather every time he pulled his alto from his case). Which halls had the best food. Losing myself in Dad’s trumpet solos.

And, to this day, you could quiz me on the #s of the charts in Sam’s book. “Love” by Nat King Cole? #252. “Two-o’ Clock Jump” by Harry James? #320. Dean Martin’s “You’re Nobody ‘Til Somebody Loves You”? #143. “Cherry Pink”? #125. “Begin the Beguine?” 95.

All of it.

And I hope that, somewhere over the course of the 13 years that followed, that I became deserving of the faith and investment Sam placed in a nervous 15-year-old who didn’t know his Artie Shaw from his Cole Porter.

And for the record, I still have the $20 bill that Sam put in my hand after that first gig. (I recall allowing myself to spend the fiver at the county fair a couple days after the gig.)

A couple weeks ago I heard the news that Sammy Bill passed away at age 89.

My deepest condolences to his son Ralph, with whom I also had the (absolute) pleasure of sharing a bandstand with for many of those years.

Sam was never anything but good to me the entire time I held down his drum chair. Thanks to him, I got to fulfill my Dad’s dream of sharing a bandstand with his son. To this day, it remains one of my greatest joys in life.

I’m just one of probably over a thousand young musicians whose lives Sam enriched through his love and gift of music.

So, for that summer Sunday thunderstorm from 32 years ago …

I am thankful.

Advertisements
Standard
Rearview Mirror

Looking Up

As the youngest, by 10-15 years, of five kids, I grew up looking up.

My older brother and sisters were well on their way to doing adult things when I was at my most impressionable. Before I was 10, my oldest sister Kim had been a Marine, my sister Laurie, married. I held them all in some measure of awe, particularly my brother.

He baptized me at the altar of football. Taught me the sacrament of swearing at the Steelers on Sunday afternoons, Toughened me up (translation: beat the crap out of me) on hundreds of downs of goal-line drills in the living room (he= Jack Lambert; me = Preston Pearson). Ran me ragged running down-and-outs, down-out-and-ups, and posts on the street outside our house, coaxing me well beyond my appetite with pleas of ‘just one more,’ and ‘last one,’ which were seldom what they claimed.

He was responsible for my early musical education. The early lessons came packaged in the 8-track tapes sporting labels faded from wear, and in the FM radio, whose strains wafted from the basement where he lifted weights to the top of the steps where I sat and listened. From his example I learned every word of the hymns of my youth … Clapton, the Doors, the Doobies. The ceiling on early cool for me was riding co-pilot in his immaculate powder blue Buick on summer afternoons, windows down, stereo wide open, while he did his best Jim Morrison on the opening verse of LA Woman.

He was the first mythic figure of my youth. He had an ornery streak, a turn of phrase that pushed the boundaries of euphemism. He and his buddies found a lot of trouble in their fun in their rowdier moments. I remember him coming home one weekend night with a black eye, a sucker punch that, before the transaction was complete, he made sure the sucker regretted. I wish I could forget the aromas in our bedroom on Saturday mornings after his late Friday nights. His football buddies seemed larger than life, in character as well as stature. I hung on every word of his stories of adventure with his band of rogues, and committed them to memory just like the bits from the R-rated Steve Martin albums he let me listen to.

I was also on the receiving end of some of his ornery streak. I remember a school night in seventh grade when I heard him giggling downstairs (we share versions of the same high-pitched giggle when we get wound up). I didn’t discover the source of his mirth until I was at my locker the next morning, when Tom Rocks nearly doubled over in laughter while pointing at my winter coat. I looked down to find my lapel monogrammed with green felt letters spelling out, “Mr. Shitbar.” (I just high-pitch-giggled writing that). Though I initially feared expulsion if discovered, I wore it like a badge for a few days, until our Mom discovered it, ripping the letters off, and him a new one. In full disclosure, being on the receiving end of his ornery streak had its advantages, too. Exhibit A: the six-packs of Heineken I’d find under the Christmas Tree during my teenage years.

He taught me that there was a world beyond the streets of my neighborhood. Aside from our family’s epic Bicentennial excursion to Gettysburg, our family never went on vacation. During his grad school years at WVU, he always reserved a late-summer day for us to road trip to Morgantown to pick up Mountaineer gear. I considered those sacred pilgrimages.  Though I’m tempted to blush at the humble geography involved, I can’t overstate how magical those trips were to my pre-teen self, or how cool I thought myself wearing my WVU gear to junior high. After all, I had brought them back myself from exotic far-off lands (ha).

He made time for me even after he got married. When he and Maur got their first apartment in Hopwood, he’d invite Dad and me out to watch Steeler games on Sundays. I remember shooting .22 after the games in the back yard (which was a great way to burn off the frustrations of those mid-80’s Steeler teams.). I also remember one Saturday night when he gave me and a buddy the keys to their apartment while they were out on a date … and full access to his epic stash of video rentals he’d copied on his wickedly awesome two-VCR set-up. The epic-ness of the experience can only be appreciated when remembering that video rental stores were the only way to see movies outside the theater in those days. (Those were the years when HBO pretty much stood for, “Hey, Beastmaster’s On.”). I remember me and my buddy making our own nachos and watching my first screening of The Breakfast Club, with a Chuck Norris chaser. Saturday night boy cave nirvana.

I remember seeing my brother as a father for the first time. Remember Mom and Dad whisking me with them to the hospital to meet their first grandson. Remember awkwardly extending a handshake to my brother when he came out of the operating room to greet us. He ignored my gesture, and, instead scooped me up in the biggest big bear hug and said, “I’m afraid a  handshake’s just not going to cut it, bud.”

A version of that hug has marked our every greeting and goodbye since.

For The Win 

And I remember, a year later, on my 16th birthday, playing him one-on-one in our tiny, walled driveway. Since it was barely single-car wide, and since he had a good 40-50 pounds on me, the postage stamp size court heavily favored his girth over my moves.  For 15 years, I had been the Washington Generals to his Harlem Globetrotters, with him teaching me humility over and over (and over). But we hadn’t played each other in a while, with most of his time of late being soaked up by new parenthood. I’d gotten a little better since the last time we played … my shot a bit more practiced, his showing some rust. I got up on him early. Answered every one of his baskets with one of my own.  I was on my way to beating him for the first time in my life. I think we both felt it, and it pushed each of us harder. But his competitive streak always had deeper grooves than mine. He went full bore, contesting every drive, every shot. With the winning score within my reach, I drove left, and he moved quickly to cut off my path. As he did so, it forced me into the wall of the driveway, where my left hand met the corner of the top block, busting it open. It began bleeding pretty good, and the depth of the gash prompted a trip to the ER, where it earned a few stitches.

I remember Mom being super pissed at him for being too rough on me, a refrain she could trace back to those years-ago knee football contests in the living room.

I never blamed him for any part of it. He was giving me his best, and making sure my first win wouldn’t come cheaply. He was more than holding up the Big Brother end of the bargain.

For the record, since we didn’t finish, neither of us counted it as a win in my favor.

For the record, we never played again.

Though I was trying like hell to beat him at the time … looking back, I’m kinda’ glad that we never finished the game.

My brother was always, and in many ways still is, my hero. For all the reasons above, and a million reasons more.

I’m not so blind to believe that he was or is perfect. He’ll be the first to admit that.

But not many heroes get to retire with a perfect record.

Mine did.

And I have the scar to prove it.

On the occasion of his birthday, I suppose I could’ve just dropped a card in the mail. But, to borrow a phrase …

I’m afraid a handshake’s just not going to cut it, bud.

 

Love,

Mr. Shitbar

Standard