Here’s something strange, My parents bought me a saxophone. My dad read the classified ads all the time and he found an ad for a silver alto saxophone for $200 in the Daily News. He showed me the ad and asked me if I was interested in finding out more about it. I said, “totally”. Now, despite everything I already told you about my horrible study and practice habits, I think deep down, I really wanted to be a musician. I think I really wanted to be good and thought I could be good one day even though i was still shittin my way through my lessons and never practicing.
I think what happened was, we called the number in the ad, and the dude came to our house with the horn. He put the case down and let me open it. It was so fuckin cool! It was silver, but not shiny. It had a dull silver pewter lookin almost nickel finish. The inside of the case was purple and velvety. It was old! The smell it had when I opened the case told me this thing had been around a long time, it had some history to it. It wasn’t musty or dank, but it was just shy of those. It smelled kind of like the band room at North, the smell of music! I put the horn together. It had a white mouthpiece! So exciting, different from every sax I’d seen so far. The horn had a different density to it than the one I had been renting. it was a tiny bit smaller overall, but it was heavier, thicker. It said Buescher on it. The felt and cork parts were all more worn than the much newer horn I’d been using.
I assembled the thing and put a new reed into the mouthpiece. I put my strap onto the horn and began to play. This saxophone had a different tone than the rental horn. It was far less bright. It had a warmth to it, a slightly heavier sound. All of the notes were in the same places, but the way they played was more grounded and less brassy. I was into it. Everything about this instrument was cooler than the one I had. I indicated to my parents that I would certainly be happy to own this saxophone and just like that, 2 one hundred dollar bills appeared and got passed to the man. He said thank you very much, and was on his way, and I was the owner of this amazing instrument that had travelled through time and space to now be mine.
That’s the kind of parents I had. Very very generous. Very supportive. Very willing to take me at my word. Always willing to believe the best about me, even if we all knew I was fuckin off and doin things my way. The fact that they were willing to lay out a chunk of change like that for me on the spot helped me renew my commitment to my music studies. I figured they just invested in me, let me try not to let them down. I still had my doubts. I still didn’t feel I could ever learn to site read, and I thought there had to be some easier way of learning than through actual effort, but their faith in me made me want to work harder than I had to this point.
I put the sax back in the case and took it down the block to where I knew my friends were hanging out. Mike and Todd and Jesse were all hanging in the alley next to Mike’s house. It was just about dusk on a cool mid-summer night. I said, “hey look at this! my parents just bought me this saxophone!” I put it together right there and started playing it. Suddenly I was the jerk under the streetlamp. It’s a real shame I still pretty much sucked at playing. That could have been a cool scene if I was riffin. If I had any blues of which to speak(play). If even I knew any recognizable tunes. No shit, I probably played College Song. You know the one those 4 douchey frinds of Winthorp sing at the country club in Trading Places, the one that the PIs sing to the Tri LAMs in Revenge of the Nerds. You totally know this tune. It goes: G C B C D A D C B A B C. Oh! Duh! It’s the same as Love Me Tender! I probably tried to make it sound soulful. What a twat. I was probably wearing a black fedora with a white hatband because from 1985 to 1987 I was wearing that hat every fuckin day. Totally acceptable head wear for an adolescent northeast Philly Hessian. You know the hat. It was in vogue with the metal heads, the puerto ricans, the duran duran freaks, and you could extrapolate some kind of Michael Jackson connectivity if you really needed to.
Around this same time, I must have seen my grand mom, my step dad’s mom. She was a wonderful old lady named Sarah. We lived with her for a while in the 70s. When my mom and step dad first got together, he had been living with her and his nephew, Georgie. Georgie was just about to move to Canada with a troupe of female impersonators. His Marilyn was superb. Me and my mom moved in and I inherited his very gay bedroom-silver wallpaper and gorilla fur rugs. It was a very fun place to live, mainly because of my new (step) grandmother, Sarah. She was a collector, a big time flea market freak. She had all kinds of crazy shit everywhere in this huge row house in a neighborhood called Harrowgate. She had all kinds of goofy toys for when her many grandchildren would visit, Christmas decorations all year round, lots of baskets, she was way into baskets, tons of plants, awesome old and not so old designer furniture. Actually, come to think of it, she also kind of had a gay man’s style.
She babysat me a lot from the time I met her and one of the places she took me often was to her senior citizen’s club. She was frequently the president of this neighborhood organization which had about 50 or 60 members. They had a club house on Tioga street, just around the corner from our house. They mostly seemed to sit around playing cards a lot. I’m sure they did other things too, but in my memory, it’s always just a bunch of World War 2ers dressed in polyester sitting around playing cards. This memory also features a strong hot dog smell. I think hot dogs were somehow involved.
By 1986, she had moved around a bit and cycled through a few boyfriends and ended up marrying this old stiff named John. She and John lived just a few blocks away from North Catholic, so what probably happened was, I got dropped off at a lesson but no one could pick me up till later, so they must’ve said go hang at your grand mom’s until we can get you. Play her some songs on your new sax. So I did, and she thought it was great. She should have known better! She said that I should come and play for the seniors. My first gig!
A few weeks went by and we came up with a day that would work for me to regale these old folks with my bullshit sax playing. It was the very end of summer and very hot and humid on this August day. I became nervous about the whole thing, so I talked my saxophone buddy John Coyle into coming with me. The seniors weren’t meeting at their regular club house that day. We were told to go see them at Amber playground, where we found them occupying a part of the gymnasium. Maybe it was air conditioned. I can’t remember.
When we got there, My grandmother said “you can stand over there and set up your hurdy gurdy”. That cracked me up. That old time lingo. Every time I hear Donovan’s Hurdy Gurdy Man, I think of wonderful old Sarah. So John and I got our shit together and got ready to play. We didn’t have any arrangements for 2 horns. We weren’t playing any harmonies or anything, just 2 alto saxophones belting out lousy first book saxophone lesson songs and song parts. We played Hot Cross Buns, Twinkle Twinkle Little Star, College Song, Good King Wenceslas, and of course, our original composition, If You Shit In A Coke Bottle (sans lyrics).
We sucked. We were nervous. We were loud as shit in that gym. I don’t think we were remotely entertaining to the senior citizens. I think we annoyed the fuck out of them while they were trying to play cards and chill. It was totally uncomfortable. I wonder what my grand mom thought. If I asked her, she would have probably answered something like, “If they don’t like it, they can go shit in their hat”.