1963, Mrs. Raymond’s 3rd grade class, one afternoon, or morning, I forget which, our regular class was interrupted with a special performance by two BIG KIDS, 5th graders, brought in by Mr. Nocera, the music teacher at George Washington elementary school in Deer Park, NY. They had these instruments called violins and played a couple of songs, upbeat numbers that I forget the titles of some 55 years later.
I can’t tell you the season of the year, not the time of day, nor what the two big kids looked like, let alone their names. I can’t even remember if President Kennedy had been murdered yet. But I think there was one girl and one boy and each of them were making amazing musical sounds with these violins, dragging things called bows across them, raising smoking white dust I later learned was called rosin, and the bow things were strung with HORSEHAIR, but that I also learned later.
What I DO remember though was sitting there staring at them and thinking… After the luring demonstration, Mr. Nocera asked us all if we had interest in learning how to play the violin like these two big kids, all we had to do tell Mrs. Raymond and then get our parents permission. I also remember thinking to myself,
I’M GONNA DO THAT… I GOTTA DO THAT…
Then I remember going home that night and announcing at dinner to my parents and my big sister, “I’m gonna play the violin. I need to bring a note to school.”
“Where’d that come from?” I was asked…
“Saw it in school today. I gotta do it. Amazing. Can I? Can I? Can I? Huh? Huh? etc…”
They caved… I shut up and finished my vegetables and made no waves until they signed the dotted line on the permission slip.
Two years later, 5th grade, I shared first chair violin duties with my friend Joseph M., wonder where he is today, haven’t thought of him in decades. Joseph was real good. HE was now a big kid. Me, I was still the smallest in my class, and would be until I got to high school, when I would finally shoot up as a senior, but for all my life up until then I had been and still was the runt. When I entered high school I would be just 4 foot 6 inches tall and weigh 73 pounds, and all along wearing thick horn rimmed Clark Kent style glasses and carrying a violin case I STILL never got beat up once.
Once under the threat of such while walking home from school while in 5th grade by a local mini-bully with a rock in his hand who said, “Gimmee the violin” I think I might have gotten out of it by suggesting,
“Are you really sure this isn’t a Tommy Gun?” as I started opening the case while pointing it at him, “Do you really want to take that chance?”
He dropped the rock and jutted his chin down the sidewalk. I was permitted to pass. But the next day and for a couple weeks I walked around an extra block on the way to and from school. Being scrawny and geeky and playing the violin had its downside, but one big plus was that it sharpened my wit and kept me out of the emergency room.
Another big plus was every week you got called out of class for 45 minutes to go to the orchestra rooms for your lesson, so on a rotating basis you got to skip every class subject hour any number of times a year. Now, if you were a conniving and clever kid, you learned that if you knew your class schedules by paying attention to and noting such announcements like the teacher saying, “we’ll be having a special lecture three weeks from now on Wednesday at 11 am from Mr. Curd Wheyboring, whom some of you remember having rudely fallen asleep during his presentation last year on the history of how making cottage cheese has been modernized from Colonial dairy farming through the Industrial Revolution up to the 20th century,” you could coax your music teacher to switch your lesson time to coincide, “Why do you want it switched to 11 am?”
“Well, that’s just before lunch, when I’m my most alert, at my best, ready to attack my lesson piece with you. Really show you I’ve been hard at it. Just before lunch, I’m hungry, have a sharp edge, you know…”
“Oh, Billy, why can’t more students be like you?”
Mr. Nocera had followed me to JFK middle school in 1966, where I went to 6th grade. He was a great teacher but he knew damn well how for such a skinny kid how very full of shit I really was. He knew quite well I didn’t practice a lick when I took my violin back and forth to home every day, I just noodled around plucking out TV show theme songs and songs that appealed to me at the age I was, and more than half the time I just held it sideways like a ukulele and picked out melodies by ear.
And he he also knew I hadn’t looked at my lesson material since the prior week and would scold me when I’d fudge it at first, but then it’d sound okay the next time through and the next it would be as if I’d been wood-shedding it all week. I was a quick study and got away with it for years. Years later I wish so much I had practiced. But the compromise of being sneaky and lazy gave me both good cold sight reading skills as well as the ability to improvise on demand.
In 1965 also, I had discovered my father’s Sear Silvertone 3/4 size Spanish guitar, an acoustic which was painted grey and yellow, likely with the same kind of house latex Jackson Pollock was purported to toss about the barn. For me though, it was magical. It only had two strings left, the bottom heavy E and A strings, but I remember working up a blister on my right thumb after I had figured out the intro and incessant lead to the Rolling Stones SATISFACTION.
That Summer SATISFACTION was almost all you heard on the radio, or so it seemed and the US musical world was still reeling from
“the week of 4 April 1964 The Beatles occupied the top five positions of the Billboard Hot 100 chart. In all they had 12 places on the US chart.
The chart placings were as follows, with the respective record labels in brackets:
- 1: Can’t Buy Me Love (Capitol)
- 2: Twist And Shout (Tollie)
- 3: She Loves You (Swan)
- 4: I Want To Hold Your Hand (Capitol)
- 5: Please Please Me (Vee Jay)
- 31: I Saw Her Standing There (Capitol)
- 41: From Me To You (Vee Jay)
- 46: Do You Want To Know A Secret (Vee Jay)
- 58: All My Loving (Capitol)
- 65: You Can’t Do That (Capitol)
- 68: Roll Over Beethoven (Capitol)
- 79: Thank You Girl (Vee Jay)
There were also two Beatles tribute records on the list: We Love You Beatles by The Carefrees at 42, and A Letter To The Beatles by The Four Preps at 85.
My sister, Patti, three and one years older than me, was a full fledged adoring self professed lifetime member of the BEATLEMANIA movement (still is today fifty plus years later), and little brother got swept up in it as well. I even got to go to my first rock concert, that being in August 1965, tagging along with the 4th ticket in my sister’s birthday present from our Mother, the BEATLES, at Shea Stadium. My sister brought her best friend Pat C. and my mother chaperoned, and I got dragged along so I wouldn’t be left at home what with my father on a business trip. Incredibly high priced $5.05 each tickets I recall which my mother had mailed away for and lucked out on a first come first serve or lottery basis, I forget which, and the 5 cents I learned to be the first time we experienced the new and outrageous 1% NY State sales tax.
The Summer of 1965 was also when all my friends were getting cheap electric guitars and we would hang out in Marc Cohen’s garage with our instruments, never playing, except Marc, who would blast away at his drum kit heavy on the snare and cymbals for a while to show who was the loudest and could actually play, and Kevin and Danny with their electrics, no one had an amplifier yet if I recall, and I had the chipped and flaking paint two string Sears acoustic, but,
I could play SATISFACTION…
So, Marc would do his Keith Moon thing, then stop so we could all hear me toughen the callus on my thumb and be able to hear the
DAH dah… dah dah DAHH… dah dah DAH… DAH DAHHHHH….
Nobody was brave enough to try singing of course, and none of us could understand a word Mick Jagger was crowing , except the hook,
“i can’t get… no… satisfaction…” so we’d alternate through that routine a few times then listen to 45s of Paul Revere and the Raiders, Herman’s Hermits, the Beatles and of course the Stones Satisfaction, each record a couple or few times while standing there holding our guitars and Marc just tapping away so we could hear a cheap mono single speaker record player blast out the true beginnings of the British Invasion and what was soon to become known as just,
… more to come …