I fast-forward now from the trials of a socially outcast nine year old little leaguer and his one moment of glory all the way to the winter of 1978-79. This is where value of that brief acquaintance with Gray Howes in 1973 became apparent.
With the un-amplified electric axe and olive-green folk guitar in my possession - and the better part of a year of guitar lessons under my belt - I was a ninth-grader resolving to play with other musicians and start a band. Lack of proficiency on either instrument was not a barrier to entry in my mind. The key was to get on with it.
Some months earlier, I'd met a kid from a few blocks away named Dale who claimed to play drums. He had some practice pads and pair of sticks, and so it was agreed that he would be "my drummer" and we'd build a combo from there. The difficulty of the arrangement became apparent when Dale's percussion via practice pads could not be heard above the olive-green acoustic guitar.
As experienced sound engineers will tell you, the main role of that discipline is to solve problems. We didn't need experience to tell us we had problems, namely lack of ability and lack of equipment compounded by lack of volume. How did we solve the lack of discernible percussion when a drum kit was out of financial reach? Simple: telephone books. I grabbed the collection of current and expired Bell Telephone yellow and white page directories from under the living room end table and assembled an ad-hoc "drum set" for Dale to pound.
Our acoustic guitar and telephone book duo rehearsed admirably for about two weeks in my mother's living room. We went by the name, "Mitochondria" because it sounded suitably "prog rock" in the fashion of the day. We had no agenda beyond trying to make any kind of sound and see what would happen.
As those couple of weeks drew to a close, a grim realization came upon us; we really needed a more capable player to help us find our way. It was Dale who said, "There's a guy with a guitar who lives a couple of blocks away from me named Gray Howes. Do you know him?" "Gray Howes!” I answered, "Yeah, I played baseball with him years ago. I've seen him around here and there. I heard he played piano. I didn't know he played guitar, too."
Now, I believe I'd seen glimpses of Gray around the village, probably at Fourth of July parades or at the Erie County Fair in the midst of a crowd of people. We hadn't had direct contact since our little league season because he attended a different elementary school (he of Pleasant Avenue School, me of Charlotte Avenue School). The schools were far enough apart that we had no contact with those kids unless extra-curricular activities intervened.
Deck Decor finished the season the following week with a loss, and a year-end record of one and eleven. It was not important. The boy had the lifelong gift of a precious memory of his assistant coach's gratitude and his father's joy. So potent are these memories, that this author still feels quivers when he thinks of them. That pudgy boy, after all, was me.
I received another lifelong gift that season, though my nine-year old self could not have foreseen it then. That summer with the team had been torture for the most part: shunned by my teammates, I felt alone and out of place with everyone there. Well, everyone except the slightly older kid with the unusually curly hair who stood next to me at practice in center field. That boy had a kind smile, and actually caught fly balls hit his way. A testament to his kindness was that he never said an unkind word when I went on my inevitable search and rescue missions for the ball when I was called to action out in right field.
One Saturday practice, the curly headed guy said to me, "You know, just hold out that glove and try to get under it". It was not said maliciously, but with much encouragement. The next time the ball came my way, I did as he had suggested. By God, I caught that ball! I caught it at the very top of the glove, with half of it poking out, but a catch is catch.
"Great catch!" the curly headed boy said. In fact, he made a point to say so at least three more times during that practice and once more the following week. An acquaintance was made; I was introduced to Graham "Gray" Howes. By extension, Gray introduced me to his quieter - and rather tough-looking - twin brother Ted "Tee" Howes.
Gray and Tee were fraternal twins, not at all similar in appearance or build, but the counter balance was palpable and their bond undeniable. Tee was a big kid, and seemed somewhat sullen. He was not the talking type, and one would suspect he would be capable of a punch up. What shortly became clear was that he bothered no one if similarly respected.
Gray, on the other hand, was more apt to smile and talk (though not at unnecessary length). He was rather "low maintenance" as one might say today. In any event, I appreciated having a friendly compatriot standing to my right in the outfield. I can't say that we developed anything beyond a friendly rapport that summer, but we knew each other by face and name.
The season ended, and our team dispersed. I didn't re-up for little league the following summer, as my enjoyment per inning was running on fumes. I resumed my activities of mythical map drawing, fort building near the banks of 18-Mile Creek, and an obsession with the "Planet of the Apes" movies. As previously detailed, The Beatles and their magnificent "Rubber Soul" LP created a potent boil of an interest in rock n’roll.
Now, it should be said here, that the assistant coach had a speech impediment, making it hard in routine circumstances to clearly understand him. This is no matter for ridicule or cruelty, and the boys knew what a nice man he was and appreciated his mentorship. In present circumstances, though, that speech impediment only added to the mystery.
So, as the assistant coach was skipping rapidly toward the boy at first base, arms flailing, and yelling with great and unintelligible excitement, all the boy could think was "What have I done? Did I mess up?" That thought was soon blown to oblivion when the assistant coach picked him up, squeezed him, and said, so the boy could clearly hear him, "We won! We won!"
We won? What? Then the boy looked and saw the team huddled around home plate, cheering, laughing and clapping. That magnificent sight was followed by one even more meaningful; his father emerged from the stands, moving as quickly as his polio-weakened legs would allow, a broad smile on his face and a gleam in his eye clearly evident. "Son! Son! Do you know what you did? Do you?"
"You batted in the winning run!"
His goal, once his mind was back on the contest, became rather simple: Just hit the ball for once. He had been shamed by his team and admonished by the head coach all season for his "chop", as opposed to a swing. He was the right fielder. He didn't really try to catch fly balls. He instead chased them and allowed the other team to rack up run totals. Thus, as the game's outcome was up to this most untalented fellow, everyone braced for the worst.
"He won't swing", the catcher mocked, "He'll hope you walk him, 'cause he can't hit." The batter turned around and immediately understood the sarcasm and felt duly humiliated. "He's right", the nine-year old washout thought to himself, "that's what I do. I strike out by default in hopes of walking to first."
The passing of years does not allow this author to recall the count. Two balls and a strike? One strike away from another crushing loss? It really doesn't matter. What matters is that, with two outs in the bottom of the ninth, the batter eyed the pitch and swung at it with all the power he could muster.
Contact...a hit! It wasn't pretty, but that chopping swing made contact, and the ball shot over the pitcher, just evading his glove. The ball landed in the near outfield where someone - anyone - from the opposition had to run and retrieve it. It bought that pudgy little runner enough time to peel out from the plate and kick up a trail of dirt and dust on the path to first base.
The white square loomed ahead, the runner's eyes fixed on it. The thought, "I must make it", cycled over and over in his noggin. That quickly, and "thump!", he landed on the bag. He was safe, right?
The call at first base never came, and the boy suddenly realized that a commotion was going on behind him. He turned around. What he saw then is still clearly emblazoned on his optic nerve: The assistant coach of his team was, in half silhouette against that setting August sun, running toward him, arms waving in almost circular motions.
It's another humid evening at Legion Field on the west end of Hamburg, NY. Parents sit on bleachers at the many baseball diamonds that comprise the sole purpose of this park, the home of Hamburg Little League. The summer sun is low in the sky and lazily saying goodbye to a long August day. It has not over-stayed its welcome, as its services are still needed in the final moments of the present game. A nine-year old boy is in position at home plate. At this particular site, a bespectacled man, age 50, patiently watches the game. His son is the one at bat.
It was the penultimate contest of the season, and it had not been a happy campaign for the rookie. Through his initial practices with the team, and into the actual season, plain fact revealed that he was the very worst player on the very worst team in the league. The team, Deck Decor, had until this summer been a powerhouse. The rookie had initially been pleased to be chosen for Deck Decor, thinking he'd play for a winning squad before cruel reality set in: He was no good at baseball and many of his compatriots were hardly any better. Named for the team's sponsoring retailer in town, he'd even been disappointed when his dad informed him that Deck Decor meant "floor decoration". He was not old or sophisticated enough to have any gratitude for what was undoubtedly a generous and civic-minded local business.
Deck Decor had one star left over from the prior season, a 12-year old who would move from the midget ranks to the junior level next summer. He was a home run slugger: lean, wily and quick. The nine-year old rookie was, by contrast, pudgy, sluggish and prone to daydreams.
The boy, until this moment, had not really paid any attention to the game; he had been, rather, admiring the languorous sunset, and had no idea of the score or the circumstances to his back. The head coach called to him: "HEY, your turn to bat. Get up there!" Jolted back to current events, the pudgy lad grabbed the closest available bat and walked over to the plate. The circumstances of which he was not aware: It was bottom of the ninth with two outs. There was a runner on third base. So it was that the least capable boy on the least capable team - and therefore the least capable player in the 1973 season of Hamburg Little League - had the game in his hands. He did not understand the agony of his teammates, his coaches, or his father. After all, that sunset was beautiful.
The first guitars: January gave way to February, and I finally had the required forty dollars to make the purchase. Thus - on a snowy and windy Saturday in February 1977 - my mother drove me over to Mr. Everett's guitar shop so I could commit to the deal. The car trip seemed an eternity, and I'm sure I was pressing down on the clump of bills in my pocket to make sure they didn't fly away - my dream along with them.
We walked into the showroom, with guitars in racks all over the walls, along with the glass case where various accessories were on display.
Mother had called ahead, so the clerk on duty was expecting us. A hard shell guitar case was atop the glass countertop. After an exchange of friendly greetings, the clerk on duty opened the case, revealing an olive green "no name" guitar (the type that Paul McCartney describes as "guaranteed not to crack" when he discussed beginner's guitars). It didn't matter to me. It was olive green, it was big and it was beautiful.
The clerk lifted it from the case and allowed me to hold it. I tentatively plucked the open strings, having no clue how it was tuned or how it would feel to my fingers. After a moment, the inevitable, "well?" was asked by the clerk. I looked at mother, and she looked at me. She was smiling. It was time.
Suddenly, I was overcome by a warm rush. Impulsively, I removed my winter coat, saying rather hurriedly, "I always take off my coat when I spend money!" My mother and the clerk laughed aloud. I handed over the forty dollars. The guitar was mine!
Mom told me on the way home how proud she was of me for earning the money for a guitar, and so she agreed to pay for my weekly guitar lessons at Mr. Everett's studio. I was a determined student, and set to learning open chords, first position scales and simple songs from the "Mel Bay Guitar Method" instruction book. My patient teachers taught me how to tune the thing, and taught me how to use a pick and other rudimentary details.
I was audacious enough to start writing my own songs by the age of 13, though not for public sharing. The fuse was lit though. It was lit enough that - by the following winter - I'd sold another round of greeting cards to scrounge up thirty dollars to buy my first electric guitar. This was a 1960's Kay model, purchased from a nice young man up in Buffalo thanks to an ad he'd placed in the "swap sheet" newspaper. Too bad I didn't think it through to also buy an amp.
I hammered away on both guitars for a few months, but I really wanted to hear that electric guitar "with the juice". I also felt like I wanted to start a band...but with whom? Who would share a vision to play music I liked, and also put up with my quirky self?
The answer to these questions, and the next step on this long journey, involved an unlikely person... a kid I'd played little league baseball with at age nine, and hadn't otherwise had any contact with in the ensuing years. All that was about to change.
Where it began: A southern suburb of Buffalo, NY, Hamburg is a quintessential USA village with traditional main street shops, stately older homes on tree-lined avenues within its core, and modern tract housing on its periphery. With good schools, plentiful church steeples, friendly neighbors, and being far enough removed from the gritty steel mills a few miles north (now long since shuttered), it was an ideal small town for growing up. Farms unfold immediately to the south of the village, making Hamburg the perfect blending point between urban and rural living. Downtown Buffalo, which seemed so large with its few skyscrapers and old-style department stores, was a day trip on the metro bus going up Route 5. We lived in the snow belt, with over a hundred inches covering us every winter, and only counter-balanced by hot and sticky summers spent on baseball diamonds and playgrounds.
My two older brothers and I, in '73 or so, were enthralled enough with records from K-Tel that we probably could've lived happily with those vinyl compilations for a number of years. That changed, though, when middle Brother Jonathan asked for a Beatles record for his birthday.
Mom or Dad - I can't remember which - purchased the American LP version of "Rubber Soul" for him. That's when it all changed. Oldest brother Bill, Jon and myself listened to it for hours. I remember being transfixed by that famous LP cover, instantly thinking that George Harrison is the coolest looking person ever. (He still is/was, by the way, except for maybe Lou Reed and Johnny Ramone...but I digress).
From there comes the bedrock of my influences: ringing chords, an irresistible beat, and lots of harmonies. Songs that "come in and go out and don't overstay their welcome".
Brother Bill eventually acquired the "red and blue" Beatles collections, but it was I who became determined to acquire their entire catalog. I bought and borrowed every book about the Fab Four I could get my hands on.
I started piano lessons at age twelve. That proposition was not a hard sell, seeing as we had an upright piano in the living room of our apartment, and a highly regarded instructor lived next door. So, for five dollars as week I dutifully learned the fundamentals of piano and made it through a couple of formal recitals.
Convincing mother of my earnestness to learn guitar was entirely another matter. Spare money was not lying around, and she made it perfectly clear that if I wanted a guitar, I would have to earn the funds myself to procure it. I immediately picked up a Current Greeting Card Company catalog and resolved to sell their products door-to-door until I had enough money for the cherished instrument.
It was January 1977, and I was due to turn 13 in a couple of months. I was determined, and knocked on enough doors to raise the capital necessary to purchase a beginner's acoustic guitar at Howard Everett's Guitar Studio on Buffalo Street. Mom had been kind enough to make inquiries there on my behalf once she saw how driven I was toward raising the money. The good people at Howard Everett's - this being a friendly small town business - agreed to "hold" a suitable guitar for me until I had enough money for the transaction. The price was forty dollars, which seemed like a King's ransom back then.
… and you're gonna know it for sure! New song a coming….this week maybe…. and I mean NEW.
Just posted: A re-mastering of my solo version of "Christmas Is In The Bag", my ode to speed shopping. This song was originally recorded by my old band The Fitsners in 1998 and it appeared on our album "Applesauce", issued by PopSmear Records. Well, that's a good version, too….
You know, I live life on the edge. I'm hesitant to admit it, but last night I drank a beer! I know this is shocking to you, and I wanted you to know before I revealed this to the press. Oh, and I had crackers and cheese with it. Excess, I know. As a renunciant, I usually only consume spinach salad and water. Well, I hope I didn't let you down. Thanks for being solid in your friendship.