Lead guitar

The Boys in the Band

This essay—a personal favorite—is published here for the first time.

My husband was only ten years old when The Beatles set fire to America on the weekly Ed Sullivan Show. In the winter of 1964, on an otherwise normal Sunday night, he sat on the couch with his parents in front of their hulking console TV and watched as John, Paul, George and Ringo ignited the grainy black-and-white screen with I Want to Hold Your Hand.

The kid on the couch was struck speechless. Up until then he had dutifully played clarinet in the school orchestra, honking his way through Autumn Leaves and feeding his father’s fantasy that he would grow up to be Benny Goodman. But this was a thousand times better. No one playing a clarinet had ever looked that cool.

By Christmas he had badgered his folks into buying a Kay acoustic guitar and a year’s worth of private lessons at Broberg’s music store. (He had to keep up with the clarinet, too—that was part of the deal.) The lessons were fine, as far as they went, but slogging through lame instruction book songs like Skip to My Lou and Little Brown Jug failed to give him the rush he’d felt when he watched The Ed Sullivan Show. It was way more fun to jam after school with a classmate named Ricky Riker, a sandy-haired kid with freckles, whose parents had also eventually caved in and bought him a cheap guitar.

Every moment that wasn’t needed for eating, sleeping, or schoolwork was spent hunched over a Beatles songbook, picking out wobbly melody lines to Can’t Buy Me Love and A Hard Day’s Night while Ricky Riker wailed away on chunky, loud, basic chords. It was pre-adolescent heaven. Ricky couldn’t read music (having never been forced to play clarinet) but his zealous, fanatical strumming really helped fatten the sound.

On the annual Show and Tell day at school the two boys screwed up their courage, stood up in front of the classroom and blew their sixth-grade peers away with a truly recognizable version of I’ll Follow the Sun.

Their classmates applauded harder for them than for anyone else on the program—even for Mary Jo Hansen who tap-danced and did the splits. But it was a brief shot at glory. Just as the sweet summer loomed ahead, with junior high only a muffled threat far off in distant September, Ricky’s dad got promoted at work and moved his son out to the suburbs. For the young lead guitarist, left in the dust, it was a brutal first lesson in how fast a band can explode.

Junior high school was agony from the moment he stepped on campus. He was skinny, nearsighted, irrelevant—lousy at sports, average in class and too well-behaved to be cool. Only during the bleak, cold hours of his morning paper deliveries, shuffling around in the darkness with a sack full of rolled-up newsprint, did he dare to imagine himself as the fabulous pop star he knew he could be.

Then one miraculous, mind-blowing day a long-haired delinquent named Mark Mercato, wearing in an old Army jacket and stinking of cigarettes, leaned up against his locker and said, “I hear that you play guitar.”

Mark’s friend Damon, a drummer, was putting a band together. “But none of that weenie acoustic stuff. I’m talking about rock and roll.”

All the skinny kid had to do was buy an electric guitar and an amp and he could get in on the action. It was as if God had smiled. He cashed out his paper route savings account and bought an imported Lyle guitar with a slick cherry sunburst finish, then stashed his old Kay in the closet next to his clarinet.

Jeezus, it was exciting. Even now, decades later, he still gropes around for words to convey the screaming, high-voltage sensation of plugging in with a band.

“It’s like revving a Harley Davidson. Like ripping the cord on a chainsaw and swinging it over your head.” Muscular. Powerful. Dangerous. Loud. And every geeky teen on the planet—hassled by parents, tortured by teachers, dying at Friday night dances—wants a big slice of that.

The rock quartet they called The Blue Lights (a name inspired by the far-out blue light they rigged up inside Damon’s bass drum) tackled a total of eight or nine tunes and lasted for less than a year. It fell apart primarily because lead singer Larry Rappaport, a kid who’d been headed for law school since the day he crawled from his cradle, wouldn’t come to rehearsals until he had finished his homework.

“That’s crap,” said Damon. “He’s out of here. This is a serious band.”

The guys regrouped as a trio and landed a slot in the school talent show under the new name Lyme Fyre. That was the first time I saw him: playing the flaming guitar part to Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze during the afternoon program for all the kids in the school.

“You saw the good performance,” he says. Later in the evening, at the show they put on for parents, something went wrong with his fuzzbox, so the great psychedelic anthem—stripped of all groovy guitar effects—came out like Skip to My Lou. It was the most embarrassing three minutes of his life. He blamed the disaster on sabotage by a rival band on the program, but had to admit it was possible he hadn’t plugged in all his gear.

“That’s really crap,” said Damon. And that was the end of Lyme Fyre.

If the failure rate for American marriages runs about one in two, the failure rate for American bands is close to 100 per cent. When even multi-platinum acts—the kind that can sell out stadium tours—eventually blow to pieces, groups that rehearse in garages and cellars are pretty much doomed from the start.

But it’s a hard dream to let go of. He tried one more time in high school, hooking back up with the studious Larry Rappaport (who, to get back at Damon, had taken up playing the drums). Despite lots of loud rehearsals in Larry Rappaport’s basement, that band lasted only until the night of its first house party gig when their keyboard player got drunk and threw up in Mrs. Rappaport’s car.

It was all a long way from the fantastic buzz he’d gotten from watching Ed Sullivan. Life in a band, so exciting at first, seemed more about dodging egos and hauling heavy equipment around than it did about making music. When even The Beatles were calling it quits, it was probably time to move on.

He traded in all his electric gear for a mellow, if middling, acoustic guitar and began to learn rambling Bob Dylan songs and plaintive Neil Young tunes instead. The folk-poet thing, he was pleased to discover, worked like magic with women.

“Especially with you,” he says.

So who would have guessed that twenty years later a solid-body electric guitar would call out his name in a pawnshop? He was, by now, a 40-something, desk-sitting civil servant with a wife, a mortgage, an arthritic elbow and only some of his hair.

The pawnshop guitar, on the other hand, was a high-powered slab of energy with beefy Humbucker pickups, the kind of blunt instrument favored by rockers like Joan Jett and Kurt Cobain. Who can say why it flagged him down? Surely it must have gone mad.

What he failed to explain when he brought it home is that such a guitar needs accessories. The first thing it needs is an amplifier. The next thing it needs is a band. Unlike an acoustic instrument, which is happy to play alone quietly, an electric guitar needs to party, to get a whole group together and really crank up the volume. It’s the only way to recapture that dangerous, swinging-the-chainsaw feeling. And every middle-aged cubicle worker longs for a big slice of that.

He started by taking his new axe down to Blues Night at Sandy’s Tavern, a weekly jam session where amateur players could sit in with the house band. The place smelled like day-old popcorn and the band played only the obvious tunes, but still sometimes, if he closed his eyes, when he took his turn down at Sandy’s he felt just like B.B. King.

That’s where he finally hooked up with Phil, an affable guy about his own age who played the electric bass. Once, back in his college days, Phil had played with an R&B band that had come close to hitting the big time. Now, at nearly 50, he still maintained a blond ponytail, a single gold gypsy earring and a dogged belief that someday it was going to happen again. In the meantime, he worked in insurance.

Phil began to drop by our house practically every Sunday so that he and my husband could work out classic blues tunes together. If he’d brought a Beatles songbook along it would have been just like sixth grade.

There was, of course, something ludicrous about a couple of middle-class
white guys trying to sing the blues. You have to work hard to deliver a line like “Six months on the chain gang, b’lieve me…” with any sort of authority when you’re cashing a regular paycheck and wearing khaki pants.

But at least they weren’t a gray-haired band singing Gloria over and over as if they were still in high school. The blues never go out of fashion. Old guys can keep on singing the blues ‘til they’re laid in the cold, hard ground.

It helped when they added Mario, a public relations specialist who looked like Carlos Santana and dabbled in slide guitar. Mario’s technique was variable—he was sometimes both brilliant and dreadful in the space of a single solo—but his hip Latino appearance really boosted their quotient of cool.

Next they recruited Jimmy, a harmonica-playing attorney, and Piano Ted, an accountant, although Ted had to skip some rehearsals when tax season rolled around.

What they didn’t have was a drummer. My husband, who’d spent his teenage years awash in a sea of drummers, was totally unprepared for how hard it was to locate one now. They tried out a guy who played salsa, a guy who could only play shuffles and a screaming heavy-metalhead who duct-taped his sticks to his hands, but they couldn’t find a drummer who could manage to play the blues.

The best they could do was Jason. Ten years younger than any of them, Jason worked in software and buzzed with more natural energy than a hydroelectric dam. If Jason was late to a practice it was because he was running a marathon or rappelling his way down a mountain or sitting in traffic on his way home from a whitewater kayaking weekend. Jason made Phil, the bass player, want to sit down with a single malt Scotch and smoke a slow cigarette.

I think my husband would have been happy to keep rehearsing forever. His joy was in playing the music: finding the chords, nailing a solo, singing ‘bout big legged women and ridin’ that train out of Dixie. The only audience he required was the one that lived in his head. But Jason, perpetually restless, got bored with the concept of practice.

“What’s the point in rehearsing if nobody ever hears us? We’re ready, man, we’re smokin’. We should be playing in dance clubs. We could go into a studio and pump out our own CD!”

And that was the moment they all lost their minds. It was just too good, too seductive, the thought of recording their own compact disc, of standing around in a soundproof booth saying things like “More treble on slide guitar” and “Dial back the reverb on vocals.” They started imagining what they would wear when they posed for the shot on the cover, who they should thank in the credits, how it would feel to drive around town with their own music on in the car. Didn’t Ted have a cousin in radio? Shouldn’t he give her a call?

Jeezus, it was exciting. They booked a local recording studio (tucked at the rear of a parking lot next to the neighborhood Piggly Wiggly), went in at ten on a Sunday morning and didn’t come out for nine hours. By then they were famished, exhausted, hoarse, stiff in their knees and lower backs and as high as a hot air balloon.

Man, it was just like the movies. They had sung into studio microphones. They had loitered around the control room. They had even impressed the sound engineer, a guy who’d actually worked in L.A., who found them exceptionally well-rehearsed compared to the half-baked garage bands that usually rented his place. It was the wildest, fiercest, happiest revving-a-Harley sensation ever—although it was hard to wake up on Monday and get to the office on time.

Those salaried jobs were essential, too, because membership in the blues band was starting to squeeze their pockets. It wasn’t just the personal stuff, like the two additional guitars (one electric and one acoustic) my husband suddenly needed. The CD project was swallowing cash at a truly voracious pace for things like mixing and mastering tracks, licensing fees, photography and professional graphic design. Mario, Jimmy and Phil, it turned out, were all a bit short at the moment.

“Pay you back from the profits, man,” Mario liked to say.

Jason, impatient as ever, wanted to get to the fun part. Even before the disc was finished Jason had pestered a nightclub into booking the band for a CD Release Party gig on a Friday night. It wasn’t just Sandy’s Tavern this time. It was the huge Volcano Club, a dinner-and-dancing venue with a vaguely tropical menu and the biggest dance floor in town. Recovering now from a bit of a slump, having lately been sold to new owners, the old club was courting new customers with a wide range of live local bands.

“There’s room on that dance floor for everybody we’ve ever met,” said Jason. “We’ll sell a million CDs.”

Well, maybe not quite a million. As their scheduled release date loomed closer, they found they had only enough money left to finance a piddling order of 100 finished discs. The actual cost for each of those units, once they’d added everything up, came to $24—more than twice what they felt they could reasonably ask the public to pay.

Still, it was a helluva thing to hold their own CD in their hands just before storming the spotlighted stage at the trendy Volcano Club. The posters were up, the sound check was finished, the CD sales table was ready. How could it get any better? As long as a decent crowd turned out, and all of their gear stayed securely plugged in, this middle-aged, white-collar blues band was ready to tear the house down.

And that’s what they did. No kidding. They’d waited so long to make their debut that nearly 300 people they knew—neighbors, co-workers, cousins and friends—showed up to hear them play. The dance floor was jammed to capacity all the way until closing and the mob ordered so many dinners that the kitchen ran out of food.

Best of all, the band found its groove and held it straight through the evening. Except for a little fluff-up at the start of the final set, when Phil took too long a smoking break and the guys had to go on without him, the whole three-set performance was as hot as an August in Memphis. On top of which—hallelujah—they sold 67 CDs.

The manager of The Volcano Club, staggered by the night’s fat receipts, thought they might have potential. Even before they’d packed up their stuff he offered the guys a regular slot on the nightclub’s revolving calendar—only a Tuesday, but still!

In the course of one glorious evening they’d gone from a group that no one had ever heard to a band on the cusp of discovery. Every member went home that night with one-sixth of $300 and a goofy, unstoppable grin.

The giddiness lasted just long enough for the band to place a rush order for 300 more CDs. “You gotta spend money to make it, man,” Mario liked to remind them all, though so far he’d spent none of his.

And then it all fell to pieces. Two weeks before their first Tuesday gig—too late to cancel their order of discs—the struggling Volcano Club quietly went out of business. Six of their friends returned CDs with complaints that they were defective, forcing the guys to refund $60 they didn’t actually have.

But none of that hurt half as much as the bad news dropped by their bass player. Phil announced he was leaving the lineup to join a more lucrative blues band, one that was playing as many as two or three paying gigs every week. “Sorry, guys,” he apologized, shaking his ponytail sadly. “But this could be my big chance.”

To Phil it was merely another step toward getting out of insurance. To my husband it felt a lot like the day that he’d watched Ricky Riker head off to the suburbs, waving goodbye from the back of his father’s ’64 Chevrolet.

The number of people willing to buy a homemade CD by a blues cover band was disappointingly small. But at least the surplus inventory made excellent stocking stuffers, so that none of the guys had to hit the mall for Christmas shopping that year. They handed out CDs like candy canes to their colleagues and clients, their massage therapists, their babysitters and bosses. For a couple of teenage nephews, lost in guitar fantasies of their own, it was the coolest gift under the tree.

We even gave one to Lila, a friend I’d known since the seventh grade, when she drove through our town on vacation. She laughed out loud at the cover shot, where the guys had tried to look brooding and tough, but showed polite interest by asking how long my husband had played with a band.

“Practically forever,” I said. “You probably saw him play Purple Haze in the junior high talent show.”

Lila gasped and nearly dropped the free CD she was holding. “No way!” she shrieked excitedly, turning to stare at my husband. “You used to play with Lyme Fyre?”

That’s what they can’t give up on. Even when it takes four months to find the band a new bass player. Even when they have to play at boozy retirement parties and 50th birthday bashes to pay off the credit card charges they owe on unsold CDs. Last time I checked there was still a box of a hundred left in our basement. Sometimes, when no one is looking, I throw one of them on the player, turn up the volume as far as it goes, close the living room curtains and dance my middle-aged brains out.

I’m the girl who goes home every night with the guy who plays lead guitar.