When we’re young, we want a lot of things for ourselves. As we age we realize the absurdity of those desires one after another and let them go. I had to come to grips with the knowledge that I would never own a pair of spring shoes that would enable me to leap over the garage. It also became obvious that a boy with a hefty fear of heights would not ever become a jet pilot. But there is one desire I hung onto for years. Despite repeatedly falling on my face, I always thought that someday I could be a good musician. Not a “great” musician, that would be out of the question, just “good” or even “passable.” There were only a few minor problems with this – my manual dexterity wasn’t very good, I had little or no sense of rhythm, and I couldn’t bring myself to practice.
On the other side of the vacant lot* from our house stood the large brick house of Fauniel Fellhauer. She was a piano teacher. Her house had been designed with piano instruction in mind with a large living room – perfect for recitals. It had a raised platform at one end on which stood a grand piano. There were two rehearsal rooms with upright pianos in the basement. When I was seven my mother enrolled me in piano classes. After three or four months of very slow progress, Ms. Fellhauer came down to a practice room to see how I was doing and found me asleep on the floor behind the piano. It was decided that I needed a little more maturity before I could try it again.
After that, there were minor flirtations with the saxophone (that lasted about two weeks) and the ukulele (a month or so) before I came face-to-face with the upright double bass. And that was because of 8th Grade gym class. The rule in gym class was that you first had to climb a twenty-foot rope to the top before you could play basketball or volleyball. Every class became four other nerds and I taking turns hanging from the damned rope while we grunted and struggled to climb it. Meanwhile, all the other kids were having fun and snickering at us. Then I heard that if you joined the school orchestra, you could do that instead of gym class. My only question was, “where do I sign up?”
I had several reasons for choosing the bass as my instrument. I liked that deep sound that an upright bass makes, you can kind of lean on it as you play, and it doesn’t require a lot of nimble finger work. While the violin is flying through some multi-sixteenth-note arpeggio, the bass has to produce a single, “zoooom”. When I realized that the bass was so big I couldn’t take it home to practice (darn!) I was sold.
Over the next year and a half, I learned to play the upright bass. I wasn’t very good at it, but it was a Junior High School orchestra and I was no worse than anyone else. If you’ve never heard a Junior High School orchestra play, and if you like things that are simultaneously painful and hilarious, by all means, go. At the end of the school year, I was promoted to the new Laramie Senior High School on the other side of town. They had an orchestra, but being a member no longer excused one from gym class. So I gave up the bass and went back to standing with the other nerds and weaklings while everybody else played basketball and other sports. Instead of having to climb a rope, we were required to climb a peg board.
I might never have gotten another swing at being a musician if it hadn’t been for the machinations of my older brother Chuck and his friends Dean and Gary. Dean played drums, Gary played electric piano and Dean’s alcoholic father played the saxophone. All they needed was a bass player and Chuck, who knew his way around the guitar, was quite willing. What he needed was a bass – or rather a more portable electric bass guitar. And Dean’s Father’s Music Store just happened to have one of the new Fender Precision Basses in stock.
Having sunk all his money into a hot rod that wouldn’t go faster than forty miles an hour without vibrating so bad your fillings would fall out, Chuck had to try to find a way to get my parents to pay for the new bass. Here was the pitch: “Tim played the big double bass in Junior High, but now he can’t. How about buying it for both of us and we’ll share.” Having been primed beforehand by Chuck and Dean, I lied and told Mom and Dad that I had a couple of friends who were putting together a rock ‘n’ roll band and would love it if I had a bass to play. The instrument was purchased and Mom even threw in some lessons for me.
An old World War Two veteran named Mel Orlick had been a big-band drummer in the 30’s but lost a leg in the war. He and his wife lived in a tiny house in Laramie and he gave music lessons. After the first couple of lessons, I had learned just about everything that he knew about playing the bass which wasn’t a lot. But I kept going back because I liked the guy and enjoyed his company. He would sit on his bed, play the guitar, sing, and beat time with his stump. We’d play “Sweet Little Alice Blue Gown”, “Pennies from Heaven”, or “We’re in the Money” then we’d take a break and he would tell a rousing story about him and his fellow sailors getting in a fist fight with Marines in a Pearl Harbor bar. We’d hoot with laughter, then he’d pick up his guitar and we’d play another old song.
About that time my good friend Charlie, who played guitar and knew a fellow named Dwayne who’d just bought an electric guitar, started talking to me about a rock and roll band. My lies had become prophetic. Although Chuck was playing with Dean and Gary’s foxtrot-style band most weekends so the bass was not always available, Charlie and Dwayne and I were able to put together about an hour’s worth of music. We had no drummer, nobody sang, we didn’t even own a microphone, so we learned instrumental songs like Telstar, Green Onions, Walk Don’t Run and others by the Ventures. We weren’t very good but since we were available and we were cheap, we managed to book a few gigs around town.
At one of these gigs, a dance in the Laramie High School cafeteria after a football game, a kid was standing against the wall in the dark and studying us. His name was Dennis Woods. I don’t know if Dennis already owned an electric guitar or that we inspired him to buy one, but by the time I finished high school and went into the Service, Dennis had begun organizing and rehearsing a band. When I got tossed out of the Service a year and a half later, Dennis’ band was going strong. When they had come to that question that every band comes to – “what the hell do we call ourselves?” – they decided they wanted something that sounded “Space Age”. They settled on the name The Retros. It wasn’t until they had spent money on posters and publicity material that they found out that “retro” meant “backward”.
It wasn’t long before The Retros broke up, as teenage bands invariably do. And Dennis – everybody knew him as “Woody” – began putting together a new band. My old friend Charlie was now in the Navy but his younger brother Don was as good a picker as Charlie was and Woody asked him to play lead guitar. Max, one of the most cheerful and good-natured men I ever knew, was to be the drummer. Woody recruited me to play the bass.
After a month or two of rehearsals, it became clear that my simplistic Mel Orlick-inspired bass patterns were inadequate for rock ‘n’ roll and instead of asking me to buckle down and really learn to play the bass, Woody strongly suggested that I buckle down and learn to play keyboards. His younger brother George had just bought a bass guitar and was already better at it than I was.
After some wheedling with my parents, they agreed to cosign a loan. I in-turn agreed to look for a job to pay for the loan and ended up at a local furniture store delivering console TVs. So I found myself the proud owner of a Farfisa Portable Organ. Now all I had to do was learn how to play it. With a book titled “Learn to Play the EZ Way” and what I could remember from my Fauniel Fellhauer lessons, I was able to play background chords for simple things like “Louie Louie” and “Little Latin Lupe Lu”. But when I tried to play any tune that required a modicum of complexity, my fingers would bump into each other and I’d quickly get lost.
So when we played I mostly stood behind the keyboard, played the tambourine, and sang backup. On some songs, just to change it up, I would stand off to one side, play tambourine and sing backup while Woody played my keyboards. But I was cute, back in the day, and could sing a little, so my bandmates put up with me as long as the band was together. Some friends of mine told me they once had a teenage band in Evanston and they tossed a guy out of the group by stacking his equipment on his front porch, ringing the doorbell, and driving away. At least I was spared that kind of humiliation.
Before we had actually started to play in public and after much discussion, we settled on the name “Mes Amis” which means “My Friends” in French. That meant that most of our audiences had no idea what our name meant and the few that did, hated it because it reminded them of the French classes they despised. Back then I preferred “Woody and the Ax Men”. I still do.
People who believe in reincarnation will tell you that it’s the secret and strong desires you hold in your heart that will dictate the circumstances of your next life, though what you may have to put up with to get there could be truly awful. If that’s true, then next life look for me in a stinking bar on a back street on the bad side of Old Rangoon. I’ll be the piano player.
*Go to the column on the right and click The Vacant Lot