Fun with mortification
Over 30 years playing on stages from dirt floors to the Hollywood Bowl, I’ve participated in a few dozen truly awkward on-stage moments. But one stands head and shoulders above the others as my crowning embarrassment. First, some of the runners-up:
MORTIFICATION BY PROXY: In 1986, I was unemployed, and unemployable, after having struggled for four long months with my fuel-injected 1969 Volkswagen 1600 Squareback, which I finally just left by the side of the Long Island Expressway just this side of “Cahoots” off exit 54. So I was thrilled when I got a call to go to Florida to work on my first cruise ship, the “Scandinavian Sky”. The “Sky” was a little glorified garbage scow doing day cruises out of Port Canaveral, FL. I made $275 a week. And each morning, the cruise director, Robert somebody, would come bounding out with a thick crust of scabs under his nose from all the cocaine he was doing and warble the theme from “The Love Boat” while we played behind him.
Due largely to the volume (or due to the largely volume) of cocaine he’d inhale in the morning to prime himself for his big debut, he was constantly pushing very sharp as he fairly shouted the lyrics. The band, a “sober group of trained professionals”, helpfully attempted to keep him in tune by raising our pitch to try to match his. I played with one hand on the keyboard and one on the parameter slider, set to “pitch”, on the DX7 I was playing, and the bassist would bend his notes sharp until, at a sign from the bandleader, we would modulate into the next higher key, at which point I would reset the pitch back to “0” and start raising it again. One morning, with Robert bellowing with particular ardor, we made it up a full major third in the 3 minutes he sang the song. Robert also was a truly horrendous comedian, some of whose moribund gags unfortunately involved the band. Every morning he’d look toward the stage and shriek “ANYONE WHO CAN’T TAP-DANCE IS GAY!”, at which point we were all to jump up and tap-dance. Mercifully, the whole band got fired two weeks after I showed up, but they gave us a month’s notice (this whole episode merits a post unto itself), and from then on, instead of tap-dancing, we would all just continue reading the paper and talking amongst ourselves. In instances like this, it really helped to be led into battle by Kenny Venezia, a great saxophonist with a very good perspective on what mattered and what did not; while it was embarrassing to be on a stage with the Robert Show, I may never laugh that hard again in my life.
MORTIFICATION BY TUXEDO: A musician and his tuxedo have a very special relationship. Fred and Ethel Mertz have a very special relationship. But my relationship with my tuxedo was more special than most. The whole point of the tuxedo I bought in 1986, as far as I was concerned, was to buy the very cheapest excuse for a tux I could find that would barely meet the technical definition. My need for a tuxedo was first occasioned on another cruise ship, the SS Oceanic. I was determined to find a tuxedo in a thrift shop, and finally found one at the Salvation Army in Port Canaveral. I wear a 44 long, and the thing I found was a 38 regular. But it was only $25. Close enough! I could not, however, find a thrift-store bow tie, so I went to Penney’s to buy a new one. And there, right in the middle of the elegant black bow ties, was a hot pink one. I thought that would look kind of cool with the black and white, so that’s what I bought. I took a certain amount of ribbing from the other musicians in the band for this decision, but the trouble really started when the bandleader, who was wearing a classy burgundy-colored bow tie, noticed that I was outshining him onstage with my hot pink one (everyone else had a boring black bow tie). He made several comments venting his umbrage over this, but for one thing, I couldn’t see why I shouldn’t wear my nice hot pink one, and for another, I didn’t want to go lay out another $10 for this guy’s lame vanity. So he then enlisted the ship’s comedian to make fun of me and my bow tie during the show. And now I was really digging in my heels; I sat there while this flaccid comedian made a bunch of groan-inducing jokes about me and my bow tie in front of 800 people at a time for a couple weeks. Finally, realizing that this wasn’t working either, the bandleader told me I was going to have to get rid of it, and that put an end to that chapter. I was out $10. But my mortification-by-tuxedo had only just begun.
Back in New York, I began working with a wedding band in Connecticut, an excellent band full of very funny people which was another source of great mirth in my life. My battered, tiny tuxedo was serving just fine until one day when the incredibly polyester pants split open right at the crotch. Having heard that dental floss was the thing to use on a repair like that, I went to the medicine cabinet and got out such as we had: a nice box of Pathmark mint-flavored dental floss. The only issue was that it was a brilliant green color. I used it anyway, figuring “nobody’s ever looking that closely while I play, and if these well-off stiffs at these yacht clubs spot a bunch of mint-flavored dental floss in a piano player’s pants, it’ll probably do them some good” and thinking that I’d make a nice, tight seam there and nobody would even see it anyway. But I overestimated my talents as a seamstress (seamster?), and things took a dump with my minty tuxedo pants in short order: I was to play the cocktail hour by myself, and by the end of the cocktail hour at the first gig, I had a bright green zig-zag pattern across my groin and was doing a nice peek-a-boo thing with my pants. This just delighted the other members of the band, of course, and for the last half-hour of the cocktail hour there was a steady parade of these people crossing in front of me to refill their plate of little sandwiches or fish puffs or get another beer, staring at my crotch and tittering behind their hands. I should probably be embarrassed to admit that I wore that tux, just like that, for another two years, but I’m not; how was I supposed to buy that Digital Hoovilator Deluxe if I was wasting my money fixing the crotch of my tuxedo pants? But the crowning jewel of my mortification-by-tuxedo was yet to come. It happened on New Year’s Eve, 1989. I’d been out of town until a couple days before the gig, and had just thrown my tuxedo jacket on the floor with my gear bags after the Christmas party we’d played two weeks earlier. 10 minutes before I had to leave the house, I went to retrieve the tux, and discovered that for some reason known only to cats, our cat, “Diablo”, had decided to use my tuxedo as her cat box for the two weeks it had been sitting there on the floor. It was wringing wet with cat urine. And I was going to have to wear it. I turned on the shower, rinsed it out as much as I could, then figured that if I turned on the heat in the car and left the windows open as I drove from Brooklyn to Connecticut, it’d dry out and I’d be OK. I was wrong on both counts; cat urine is far more tenacious than that, and the tux was still dripping wet by the time I got to the gig. But it was New Year’s Eve at some country club, and I had to wear it. So I strapped it on and rang in 1989 with my mint dental floss and cat urine in all their glory; a feast for the senses. But I did the gig, what a professional! I realize as I write this that I’m not sure where that tux is. I should find it. You never know when there’s going to be an occasion and you’re going to need to be elegant like that.
MORTIFICATION BY GOOD OLD-FASHIONED IDIOCY: By 1995, Mike and Randy Brecker had long since put my tuxedo days behind me. I was forced to find new ways to mortify. One night the Brecker Brothers were playing in, I think, Madrid, in a large hall full of people. We got to the encore, which was “Inside Out”, a tune of Randy’s whose title is almost certainly some sort of double entendre. The solo section went around between Mike, Randy, Dean Brown, and then me, and the tune always started with a drum solo. The great Rodney Holmes launched into it. Something got into me and I thought to myself “By golly, I’m gonna pull out some sort of really unusual, really aggressive sound when I’m blowing and freshen this thing up a bit!”. I’d been doing a bunch of programming in my Oberheim Matrix 1000, so I put on a pair of headphones, hunched over my rack and started going through the sounds I’d created. SPROING! SPROING! Nope, that’s not it…SQWAAAAAAK, nope….DWEEEOOOOOOOOO! Huh, I thought these were better than this… BRRRRAAAAAAPPPP, BRRRRRAAAAAAPPPPPP: yeah, maybe this one…BRRRRAAAAAPPP, BRRRRAAAAAAAAPPPP….yeah, maybe, what’s this…number 113 BRRAAAAAPPPPBRRAAAAPPBRAAAAAAAPPPABBRAAAAAP…This went on for a nice long time. I don’t remember how I was notified that while I had done a good job of dutifully putting my headphones on, I had failed to remember to turn off the sound to the house and the on-stage monitors. So I had been “spicing up” Rodney’s drum solo, LOUDLY, with my sound-shopping, the whole time. I am, unfortunately, one of those people who flushes on occasions like this, and I would love to have a picture of the shade I achieved at that moment.
There is something about being “onstage”, whether it’s Carnegie Hall or over behind the waitress stand at the Ground Round, that makes everything that happens there a bigger deal than it would be anywhere else. There are more stories where these came from, but as I’ve mentioned, one incident is in a class by itself. That’s for another post! I invite everyone to share their mortifying moments here; I will hope that some are worse than mine and thus I can begin to heal (sniff…)