Musicality, Part Two
Irene Cara at Wilson School, greasepainting in JCHS, and tuning up in the garage
Welcome back to tales of one kid's musical journey through the Caldwells. Thanks for the somewhat overwhelming positive feedback on the first installment–it means a lot! To start, I have to go backward to go forward–I have an earlier sonic tale that I suspect may echo many of your own.
Baby Remember My Name
The year was 1980. The instrument teacher, Mr. Buchanan (I'm fairly certain that was his name; was it Becky's father?), held an assembly at Wilson School to demonstrate all of the instruments on offer to us students for in-school lessons. It was actually a concert; kids who were already enrolled would play a tune. There were woodwinds, a stand-up bass, drums and violins.
During the presentation, some pals and I were getting a little fidgety; the toots of the clarinets and violin squeals weren't exactly captivating. After what seemed like forever, Buchanan and his almost 100% face-covering, dark-black beard had all band students on hand play a song together. It was an odd choice; it had extensive vocals, and there were no vocalists. There were no leg warmers or leotards around, either. However, it was a selection that at the time was on its way to becoming a big hit. It was ... "Fame." Yes, Irene Cara's theme to the film (and later, awful TV show) of the same name was cranked out, elementary band style.
The lead vocal line was "sung" by some instruments, and the thumping bass line was plucked admirably by (here he comes again, that goody-goody), Jon Zigman. We kept shouting "spin it!" at the end of the song he did just that with his stand-up four string.
The Devil Went Down to West Caldwell
Before anyone could glide across the gym with arms akimbo in slow-motion, it was announced that we could now get some primitively photocopied information about an instrument you'd like to play. I immediately got up, and looked for information about taking drum lessons. It was a bummer to learn that the drums that were present were there just for the concert, and were not available to us little ones to study. Isn't that like bait and switch? If so, it worked.
I clearly recall thinking that playing the flute or clarinet was out. That left the violin. Ordinarily, not too many kids would think about playing it, but another song that was recently at the top of the charts would help spike enrollment: The Charlie Daniels Band's "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" featured some awesome fiddling (and so did the group's other big hit around the same time, "In America."), and the fiddle was hotter than Hell. That day, a bunch of us kids "were looking to make a deal" and signed up to play the violin.
After not advancing past "Twinkle Twinkle, Little Star," I lost interest and turned in my instrument. Charlie Daniel's musical muse non-withstanding, the violin just wasn't that cool to me. I personally never earned a "fiddle made of gold," and the devil himself never challenged me to a duel. My father, however, challenged me to a punishment afterward. "You never bothered to try and play the friggin' thing!"
The Friendly Talent Agent Next Door
One day in the spring of '85, my older pal Chaz told (read as: ordered) me that I would be part of his Kiss tribute act for the JCHS battle-of-the-bands type of show. I'd be–or rather, try to be–the "Starchild," Paul Stanley. We would wear makeup, and lip-sync a live version of "Shout It Out Loud." I wasn't going to the high school as of yet, but knew of the 'battles" and was stoked.
There was a little bit of history to this musical recruitment. Around noon on many a Sunday afternoon, Chaz would call me up. I'd hear the ring on my AT&T Slim-Line phone (okay, it was exactly the same as their Princess phone, but rendered in more masculine colors), answer, and the short convo would go like this:
"Albaneseeeeeeezzz!" he would shout, over the din of some loud hard rock music.
I'd go next door, and ring his doorbell which had the same famous eight-note ring as the beginning of Cheap Trick's "Clock Strikes Ten." His mom or someone would let me in, and I'd follow the racket coming from upstairs.
He always had something different going on; perhaps a Def Leppard record would be blastin' out of the Emerson stereo. Other times, he'd have his guitar out, and would be playing along with a W.A.S.P. video. Often times, with a hairbrush for a microphone, we'd "sing" along with Kiss albums. We'd generally always be in agreement about music, with one notable exception: I never liked Bon Jovi.
So, when the call came to be a Kiss mime, I wasn't surprised–and I was ready.
Using My Lips to Kiss
Emulating Paul Stanley for me was like breathing for other people. I barely practiced for this thing.
The day of the show, I remember putting on my makeup in one of the high-school hallways. I looked in one those corner mirrors the school used to have (or still has?). I looked like Scott Baio, with Kiss makeup, wearing one of the guys from Duran Duran's shirts; for some reason, I didn't design a Kiss-in-makeup costume, I tore up a black t-shirt and tied pieces of another to it. Oh well–there was no turning back now.
As the song had an intro from Paul Stanley, Chaz told me to go out on stage first and mouth that part, too. Enter my Achille's heel in this whole thing. I had to go out in front of a packed house and pretend introduce this song.
Cue wise, I didn't have much to work with. We heard some live 1985 cheers, which we assumed were for the canned 1977 cheers, and then everyone yelled "go" at me. I went. Then, halfway out on stage, I stopped. It was a huge crowd, and familiar kids like Kim Stender and Angela Valentino were right in front. I was like Cindy Brady in front of the TV camera in that one Brady Bunch episode. I finally caught up with Paul's screamin' intro and for the next 3.5 minutes, we were Kiss. I even threw out some special guitar picks I had made up to the crowd.
It Wasn't Music, It Was an Invasion!
After all those years serving in the Kiss Army, listening to WABC-AM ("Rrrrron Lundy!"), being glued to MTV, and building a sizable record collection, it was time to start walking the walk, and actually start playing an instrument.
The Stender family in WC was nice enough to take me under their wing and hire me to be a busboy at their Top Notch restaurant in Montclair. I took the proceeds from a couple of month's worth of table setting, bread bringing and dish clearing and had the old man drive me to Star Music in Morristown to get myself a git-box. I chose a rather angular (the style was called "warlock") dark purple Hondo, for $149. I also grabbed a Marshall guitar amp ($199) that today is worth a lot of money–the guitar, not so much. After about a month of noodling with the thing in my bedroom, it was time to form a band.
My buddy J.R. Datoli would play bass, with his mom playing the suffering host as we would be rehearsing at his house on Pine Tree Place. The rest of the band were mostly school pals, coming from outside the neighborhood. Eddie Howell was the Tommy Lee-influenced drummer, and fresh from Mr. Becker's Italian class at JCHS came another guitar player, Tom Ventro. I was worried about him; he was cool as heck, and could actually play a bit, but he had a tight cropped head of hair that looked like it would grow up instead if down–would he be able to have long hair? On vocals was a kid from my wood shop class, Drew Something.
In the finest Reagan-era metal tradition, we would collectively call ourselves Invader.
I recently checked in with the band's bass ace J.R. (now Joe) Dattoli, who recalls:
"I remember Invader! The jam sessions in my garage. Did we ever get through the third bar of "Back in Black"? Our little Crate amps, the Whitaker Warrior entourage ... funny stuff, and great times."
That was pretty much the experience. But to best convey it, let me explain further.
The Beatles, The Stones ... Invader?
Invader's one and only weapon of musical mass destruction was playing a part of AC/DC's "Back in Black." We could play the intro, and some of the first verse, but that was it.
We even stretched it out a bit, by dissecting and using the percussive count-off at the beginning. "Dude, he's hitting the high-hat and something after those first two hits," I'd say to Ed, and he'd agree.
With that, we had a good solid 30 to 40 seconds of awesome musical escapism, that point where you kind of leave the garage, the basement, etc. and feel like you're on stage at Madison Square Garden. This went on for a good month or two, but once the fall turned to winter, I went onto other things. The other guys carried on, and eventually played the battle of the bands.
I Still Can't Play
There it is–an admittedly different musical path of a kid in the Caldwells. No formal lessons, no school band, no nuthin'. With all the miming I did, I'm lucky I didn't end up in Milli Vanilli or something.
I was a late bloomer, and today, although I'm not a virtuoso on anything (and I wouldn't want to be; it hampers creativity in rock 'n' roll), I play the drums, guitar, bass, sing and write and have songs on iTunes. As POLKA DOT!, I do a mini-tour of New Jersey every summer. Can the other guys in Invader say that (ha ha)?
Please forgive the back-patting; I actually have a more important point. When kids take to something like wildfire, only to burn out on it a short time later, there's still a latent value to the experience. The exposure will perhaps manifest itself later on in life.
At the very least, I'm trying to convince myself of the above when I see my kids' minds wander during their musical instrument lessons, and when they ask me, "Now, exactly how many minutes do I have to play for?"
See you next time–please send all Invader reunion tour requests to me here at the Caldwells Patch!