September 2012

Friday 9/7/2012

Little Things

Have you ever done something seemingly insignificant... that later turned out to have affected your entire life?

In late September 1971, in the lobby of the student lounge at Carnegie Mellon, I posted a note on a bulletin board.

(This was back when "bulletin boards" were framed pieces of cork.  You would write your message on a piece of paper, and then, using a thumbtack, you'd stick your message to the board.  People would walk by, and see it!)

My brother John and I were forming a band and we needed a lead singer.

(This was back when "singers" actually had to be able to sing.)

I didn't spent a lot of time on the note.  And I didn't expect great things.  I certainly didn't expect to be writing about it forty-one years later.

(Although, when you're young, you don't expect to be doing anything forty-one years later.)

The message read:  "Wanted- lead singer for new band.  We're into The Kinks, The New York Rock Ensemble, and JPG&R.  Call Carl 621-4734."

(Back then you didn't have to use area codes to dial locally.)

A few days later I got a call from a guy named Lane Ruoff from the Drama department.   He said he was a singer, and sure enough, he was.  We formed a band, did a few gigs, and then broke up.

(I don't know why we broke up.  Hey, how am I supposed to remember what happened forty-one years ago?)

Since I was in the Math department I didn't often cross paths with Lane, so I was surprised to get a call from him in January 1972.  He had just joined a 1950s parody band with other members of the Drama department.  They had a gig booked in the student union, and their drummer canceled at the last minute.  There was no time to rehearse, but we talked through the songs, and I did the gig.  Since I had never played any of their songs before, I played it straightforward and simple.  Apparently that was preferable to their other drummer, and the following week they asked me to join.  I wasn't crazy about the band's name, Zit Blemish & The Hots Rods, but since I was a Math major and they were Drama majors, I figured they knew more about show business.

It wasn't long before the band started to take off.  It turns out that they really did know a lot about show business, especially Zit himself.

(His actual real name: Glenn Super.  Yes, "Super."  I met his Mom, Dad and the entire Super family, from Great Neck, Long Island.)

We played all around the area (here is a newspaper clipping) and in the summer of 1972 we moved to New York City.  I stayed with the guitarist, Mitch Weissman.

If you remember Woodstock... or if you were there (like Scott)... you might know that in the early 1970s there was already a famous 50s parody band, named Sha Na Na.  But some people thought there might be room for another.  Unfortunately by the end of the summer it became obvious that the second-most-famous-50s-parody-band would not be Zit Blemish & The Hot Rods, but rather our competitors, Flash Cadillac and the Continental Kids.  So, we broke up and I moved back to Pittsburgh.

(It wasn't a problem.  I wanted to finish college anyway.)

I stayed friends with Mitch, though, and often visited New York City.  And I loved looking at the used guitars on display in several guitar stores on 48th Street.

In 1976, Mitch and I saw an ad in Greenwich Village for "Beatle lookalikes."  I don't look like anyone (well, maybe Ozzy) but Mitch was born to play Paul.  At the auditions I mentioned to the producers that I had a few Beatle instruments and I'd be happy to look for more.   Mitch got the job on Broadway, and I spent the next year or so buying guitars for the Beatlemania show.

It was so much fun buying instruments that in 1979 I opened Pittsburgh Guitars.

Meanwhile, backtracking a couple of years...  Zit Blemish & The Hots Rods made a lasting impression on Pittsburgh booking agents.  In 1974, after the band broke up and I moved back, I got a call from a local agent.  He was booking yet another 50s parody band, The Blades, from McKeesport.  (Apparently there can't be too many 50s parody bands!)  He asked if I could manage them.  When I started to work with the band, one of my first recommendations was that they add a female singer.  A few weeks later they hired Debbie.

And a few months later, The Blades self-destructed.  But I was impressed with Debbie, so I again formed a band with my brother John, this time with Debbie as lead singer.   That band, Fragile, played a thousand gigs.  When we eventually broke up, my brother married Debbie. 

And they had some kids, one of which is an astrophysicist of some sort.   And he was recently heavily involved in launching a new satellite, NASA's Nuclear Spectroscopic Telescope Array (NuSTAR).  This satellite will use high-energy X-rays to measure black holes around the universe, including one that is located 2 billion light-years away at the center of another galaxy.

So, to sum up this story:  I put a small piece of paper on a bulletin board.  That led to meeting a guy.  Months later, he got me in his band.  That led to me meeting Mitch, the guitarist in said band.  That led to me buying guitars for a Broadway show.  That led to me opening Pittsburgh Guitars, and selling guitars to three generations of Pittsburgh musicians.  Meanwhile, the previously mentioned band also led to my brother meeting his wife. And that led to them having a kid. And he is now helping NASA analyze black holes both inside and outside of our Milky Way galaxy, answering questions about how the cosmos behaves and evolves.

Yep. I wouldn't have predicted that when I made that little sign.  But that sign sure had a long-term impact.

Has this happened to you?  I don't mean the day you won the lottery, or the day you met your spouse (although those were certainly great days).  I mean the day you did something that, on the surface appeared to be small and insignificant... yet it ultimately led to far greater things than you could ever have imagined.

Well, that's life for you! 

See you soon,

PS:  I never got a chance to thank Lane Ruoff.  We lost track of each other after the band broke up.  And when I searched for him online today, I found that he passed away in 2010.  I wish I could have thanked him.

PPS:  I did see Mitch last week though!  He was passing through town playing bass for the "Happy Together Tour 2012" with Gary Puckett, Mickey Dolenz and the Turtles (Flo & Eddie).  They were at the Carnegie Library Music Hall in Homestead.   (A very nice place, by the way.)

PPPS:  Thanks to everyone who responded to my recent "then-than" email.  I'm sorry I wasn't able to reply to you all, but I appreciate the fact that so many people are on the side of correct grammar. 

PPPPS:  The grammatical errors I complained about in the previous email were all examples of folks substituting "then" for "than."   But one reader, Steve G., sent a photo of a sign in a Butler auto shop that went the other way!   Here it is!

PPPPPS:  Now scheduled:  Night Of The Singing Dead #20!  The twentieth edition of our wacky Halloween show.   In the words of Sherman Hemsley, this year we're movin' on up... to the ballroom of the Rivers Casino!  More info soon!  Meanwhile, here's a link!   Here are some pictures from last year's show!



Friday 9/14/2012

Another True Story

Have you ever found yourself staring at an inanimate object, and then realized why?

Last week I was asked to play drums at a birthday party in someone's back yard.  It's always fun to play outdoors, so I grabbed my drums, organized some songs with our make-shift band, and everyone had a great time.

As we were playing some unrehearsed rock & roll classic ("Gloria," maybe?) I glanced down at my high-hat stand.

(Note: for the non-drum-nomenclature folks in the audience, the "high-hat" is a stand that holds two cymbals, with the concave sides facing each other.  The bottom cymbal is stationary and the top cymbal is attached to a spring-loaded rod. As the drummer presses down on a pedal, the top cymbal is pulled down to hit the bottom cymbal.  When the drummer's foot releases the pedal, the cymbals separate.)

I've often said that February 9, 1964 is the day that changed my life.  That fateful evening I was already a fan of The Beatles' music; their songs were being played non-stop on the radio, and "I Want To Hold Your Hand" was  #1 on the charts.  But seeing them on Ed Sullivan added a new dimension.  I was able to see the tools they used to create this new music.  Under the studio lights, the guitars and drums shone. It was only black & white, but the instruments looked fabulous.  (One side-effect of the black & white TV was that for years many of us thought that George's guitar was black. It was a surprise to learn that his Gretsch Country Gentleman was actually dark walnut.)

From that day on, I became fascinated with musical instruments. I used study pictures of  the guitars and basses in the Sears catalog. Whenever I got to see a live band (at a school dance or some other under-age event), I tried to memorize the design of the guitars and drums, and sketch them later.  There was no way to record anything on TV in those days, so whenever a band was on, I had to sit up close to the TV screen and quickly try to examine the instruments.   Guitars came in so many varied shapes that it was hard to keep them organized. But they were all amazing.

When my brother got his first electric, a 1965 Gibson Melody Maker, I was in awe of its design.

And when my mother lovingly bought me my first set of drums, I couldn't believe how lucky I was. I loved the complex way the drums fit together.  I loved the look of the hardware on the drums.  And the way the stands held the cymbals in position. And the beauty of the cymbals themselves.  It was just like in all of the pictures!

And you know... that thrill has never left.  I've been playing drums for forty-six years now, and I still get the same sense of excitement I got as a twelve-year-old kid making sketches in my school notebook.   Last week I looked down at the high-hat stand I've been using for over four-decades, and I thought, "What a cool piece of hardware that is!"  Right in the middle of a song, those same little-kid feelings came rushing back, and I smiled.

It was sweet.

See you soon,

PS:  I only admired my brother John's Melody Maker from afar, since it was his guitar.  But I was still struck by the magic of electric guitars.  Years later I finally bought my first electric, a 1972 Telecaster, and I've had a personal love affair with the electric guitar ever since.  I always keep one nearby, both to strum and admire.

PPS:  Getting back to the high-hat cymbals... Most often a drummer hits the high-hat cymbals when they are pressed together.  This results in a tick-tick sound that helps keep the beat of the song going.  Tasteful sounds can also be created by striking the cymbals while opening and closing them.  Like at the beginning of this song:  Mellow Yellow

PPPS:  When it comes to overall volume, you would think that the loudest cymbal sound a drummer could make would be pounding on a big 20" crash cymbal.  But you can actually get a louder sound by striking the high-hat cymbals when they are just slightly touching each other.  Ringo was one of the first drummers to introduce this style.  I suspect he started to play that way in an effort to be heard over the volume of the screaming audience members.  You can see it in action at 0:27 in this video:  All My Loving




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