Saturday, February 7, 2015

"I'll Never Be This Uncool Again!"

Lots of young men have mentors, but mine was special. I was 19 when, after deciding we’d be in a band together, he on lead guitar and I on drums, mine took me under his wing and began teaching me about life. He was 15 at the time, and hipper than God. He listened to The Fugs, and to John Coltrane. He’d started out as a jazz player, but thought Wes Montgomery, whose name came first to mind when anyone said “jazz guitarist” in those days, hopelessly corny. At the audition where we met, he taught me the bass drum pattern for “Daytripper.” There was seemingly nothing he didn’t know. I called him Tot because of his youth. He called me Johnson, apparently because it was what grizzled old jazz dudes would have called me.

We and the (Farfisa) organ player who’d also auditioned that fateful day soon ditched the singer who’d auditioned us and named ourselves The 1930 Four, with the expectation that we’d have a singer one day, and that our gimmick would be to wear Depression-era clothing. (We found fantastically cool military tunics like those The Beatles’ in the least likely men’s boutique in Santa Monica, though, and wore them instead.) The organ player, who could read music fluently, and had possibly been a star of the Santa Monica High School jazz band, hated me for barely knowing which side of the drum kit to sit on, and not being able to read, and never practicing, but he was no match for Tot. Against my better judgment (I thought we should be doing something like “Ferry Cross the Mersey”) we were one day working up an arrangement of Ray Charles’s “Unchain My Heart” when the organ player, lacking sheet music, asked what the second chord in the verse was. I’d never seen anyone sneer as Tot did at that moment, and you could have stripped paint with his tone. “If we started in A, Victor, what do you suppose the next chord is?” I nearly hyperventilated with laughter.

He knew what he was listening to, did the former Mark Elder. When he pointed out that the rhythm guitar part on The Beatles’ “Here There and Everywhere” was scandalously sloppy, while Zal Yanovsky’s playing in comparable settings for the Lovin’ Spoonful was masterly, I was flabbergasted. It was humanly possible to say such things about The Beatles? And he was of course right, and entitled, being able, as he was, to play the guitar solo from "A Hard Day's Night" in real time. My understanding is that Mr. Harrison had had to record it at half speed.

I believe Tot to have been the first boy at University High School in West LA (alma mater of Marilyn Monroe and Jan & Dean) to get suspended for long hair.  He stole most of his wardrobe from Sy Amber on Hollywood Blvd., the first boutique in LA to stock plaid men’s trousers of the sort Brian Jones, Dave Davies, and Arthur Lee were wearing at the time. The fact of his being shaped rather like a bowling ball put not the slightest crimp in his self-confidence, of which I was absolutely in awe. One night he deigned to allow me to accompany him and his 16-year-old running mate Joel up to the Strip to chase skirts. They, in their long hair, plaid trousers, and cannabis-reddened eyes, spent the bulk of the evening with their tongues down the throats of miniskirted girlies who’d ironed their hair for extra straightness. I, the trio embarrassment, spurned out of hand by my third of the girls, went all Scarlett O’Hara, declaring, “I’ll never be this uncool again!” The next week, I persuaded Tot to turn me on, in the middle of the UCLA athletic field, those being staunchly paranoid times. Victor and I giggled like idiots, Tot smirked at us with indulgent embarrassment, and all three of us ran out on the bill at Mario’s in Westwood. No one has ever eaten a more delicious pizza, or a cheaper one.

We won the Santa Monica Chamber of Commerce’s Battle of the Bands on what has since become the ultra-fashionable 3rd Street Promenade, and lost the finals of local TV show 9th Street West’s similar competition to a jazz trio whose guitarist, around 12, briefly wiped the smirk off Tot’s face. We came to be managed, more or less, by a guy around my own age who was said to have Connections in the Music Business. 

The Paul Butterfield Blues Band emerged, and Tot lost all remaining interest in Mersey Beat. Victor lobbied hard to expel me from The 1930 Four, which had come to comprise five members, and to replace me with this guy who was marginally less awful than I, but who owned a practice pad, which hugely impressed Victor. 

I’ve seen Tot once, very briefly, since 1967, and wonder at least annually what became of him. I never forget the debt I owe him, my early mentor. If you know anything, please holler.

1 comment:

  1. How lucky you were to know him! I hope you find him, I'd love to know what he thinks of today's tunes.