Some Drugs Are Stronger Than Heroin

Going down to “The City” to audition for bands I’d met through the Village Voice had become a ritual for me at this point. I was living close to my college in Westchester County New York, and had just purchased my first new car which was the absolute cheapest car on the market aside from the Yugo (even as a college student prone to bad decision making I had the sense to run for my life from that thing). I hadn’t even gotten the hang of driving a stick shift and yet I was making the 45 minute run back and forth once or twice a week to Manhattan for band auditions. This resulted in my brand new car being downgraded to “prop from Sanford and Son” in a single semester.

I think it’s really important to mention that at this point I no longer wanted the life I had built for myself as a “legitimate professional musician”. The gigs were mostly boring and unsatisfying, and I was already making a living at it even though I had just turned 20.

I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had in fact become addicted to the drug I first tasted when I did those “Kids From The Real Fame School” shows back in high school. I was still chasing that high, to no avail. Playing weddings and bar mitzvahs, in orchestra pits for musicals, and recording sessions for middling singer-songwriters wasn’t doing it. There are only so many times in your life that you can play “Celebration” by Kool and the Gang before you either take the gaspipe or get yourself into some serious heroin.

leonardbornsteinHere’s a Fun Rake’s Progress fact for ya . . . in the late 1980’s both Stu and myself played in the band of “Leonard Bornstein, the Bar Mitzvah King of Northern New Jersey” (pictured above).

Let me break it down for you – most “professional musicians” are miserable. I learned this first-hand in my 2nd year of high school when I performed with the New York Philharmonic as part of the All City High School Orchestra program. We did a couple of concerts together every year, with both orchestras onstage at Avery Fischer Hall, alternating seats (meaning I was seated in the bass section in between two members of the Philharmonic bass section). The track I was on with my music at the time was focused on becoming a professional orchestral musician, so getting to have this experience was, to me, like telling my son who loves baseball “hey Theo, guess what….Your little league team is going to play a game together with the Giants against the Dodgers. Pagan, Posey, Pence, and Crawford are batting 2, 4, 6, and  8 in the lineup, and you, Nate, Oscar, Gabe, and Josh are batting in the 1, 3, 5, 7, and 9 spots. You’re batting leadoff, Son, go get ’em!” It was kind of nuts to be given this opportunity at such a young age.

The morning of the first concert, we assembled in what I was told was the Philharmonic’s dressing room, backstage at Avery Fischer. They were big, nondescript rooms, one for the women and one for the men, containing various sized lockers, showers, big mirrors, and the rest of what you’d expect in a locker room, nothing fancy. There was to be a morning rehearsal, then an afternoon concert, and there wasn’t much to do at this point but wait around until we were called up to the stage.

After a few more boring minutes, some grown-ups began showing up. They were a pretty rough looking group, unkempt, unshaven, stinky, and not looking happy at all to be there. I turned to my buddy Victor Lawrence and said “holy shit, check it out Vic. This isn’t the Philharmonic’s dressing room – this is the dressing room for the janitorial staff!”

“Yeah, what’s going on with that?”

Our conversation was interrupted by the disembodied voice of the stage manager coming through a loudspeaker. “All-City High School Orchestra Members To The Stage, Please!”

We grabbed our instruments and were led up the stairs and onto the great stage where Leonard Bernstein once held sway. I made my way to my seat in the bass section, and anxiously began warming up by playing the opening measures of “Overture to Ruslan and Ludmila” which was the first piece we were to rehearse with “The Phil” that day. It kicks off with these insanely impossible virtuostic scales that we’d been practicing for months. I was wound up so tightly that it actually felt like I was about to shit my pants right there on stage.

A few moments later, one of the janitors from the locker room came up beside me, a half-smoked unlit cigar dangling from his lower lip. He was holding an incredible looking, rare, Italianate upright bass, and was also moaning somewhat. He plopped his fat butt down in the seat beside me, at which point I realized the man was John Schaeffer, Principal Bassist of the New York Philharmonic. Looking like WC Fields. Smelling like he’d rolled right out the door of the Jameson’s distillery tour in Dublin Ireland.

ny_phil_schaefferAbove: The great John Schaeffer, sans unlit cigar, with his wide head of grey hair and bloated cheeks, as seen in the back of the bass section behind conductor Zubin Mehta

The man didn’t say a single word to me then, nor did he say a single word to me the entire time despite the fact that we were 2 feet away from each other. I don’t think he was a nasty guy. I just think he was miserable.

A few moments later I had a new compadre on the stand to the right of me, one John Deak. He was also somewhat unkempt and grizzled at that hour of the day, but introduced himself in a kind manner and asked how long I’d been studying. I asked him how many years he’d been in the orchestra and his eyes glazed over. “Ohhhhh, I dunnooo… thirty-two, thirty-three yeeeearssss???”

I figured the man was high on drugs, some kind of high-grade grownup drugs that nobody at my high school knew about (and believe me when I tell you I went to high school with some people who were VERY advanced in that area). He was a really nice guy but it was clear to me that he was SO over it. Thirty some-odd years of sitting in the same orchestra, playing the same exact “standard repertoire that the ticket buyers want to hear” year-after-year. These guys were MISERABLE! And this was supposed to be one of the GREATEST ORCHESTRAS IN THE HISTORY OF THE WORLD!!! At that moment, I realized that if this was what success looked like as a professional orchestral musician, I wanted no part of it.

I’d get to know John Deak some years later, as I performed his composition “The Ugly Duckling” for my senior recital at Purchase. It turned out he wasn’t on drugs at all, he’s just a really spacy guy sometimes.

There is lots more to this story, and once again I find myself digressing on non-Rakes Progress related things to the extent that I need to steer myself back to the story at hand. There will be time to go back and tell the rest of that one later. The whole purpose of me telling you the story above, is to illustrate that by the time I went down to “The City” to audition for Tim & Gregg I was completely done with wanting to be a “legitimate professional”. I wanted to be in a BAND. A band that wrote and performed the music that I wanted to hear and play, and made records and traveled the world sharing that music with everyone.

In high school, I was the guy spending hours sitting in his room by himself for hours with his bass guitar, listening to records by Rush and Yes, trying to learn the bass lines note-by-note. That, in lieu of hanging with friends or chasing girls or anything else normal teenagers do. I was the guy fantasizing that I was Geddy Lee or Chris Squire or John Entwhistle. This whole “professional musician” thing was DEFINITELY NOT FOR ME.

Interesting to note that the most insulting thing you can say to a serious music student at a serious music school is “you’re being unprofessional”.

So, I made it down to the rehearsal studio on West 28th Street where I’d be meeting and playing with Tim, Gregg, and their drummer Tim Curry for the first time. There were 2 main buildings full of band rehearsal studios in Manhattan at the time – one called “The Music Building” and the other one called “The Music Building”. This one was in neither, which was somewhat of a shock as the phone conversation for setting up an audition always ended with “which Music Building, the one on 30th or the one on 8th Avenue?” This time it was in a completely different location, in a building I’d never been to before.

Damn, I did it again. I ran out of time today to get to the story I wanted to tell. That will have to come tomorrow. To tease you old-school Rake’s Progress fans, it will include the story of our first time playing the following songs:

The Fact of the Matter

Charm

Arcade Colors

NEXT–> Tapin’ In!

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