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Real musicians don’t sign autographs, date models, or fly in private jets. They spend their lives in practice rooms and basement clubs or toiling in the obscurity of coffee-shop gigs, casino jobs, and the European festival circuit. The ten linked stories in Power Ballads are devoted to this unheard virtuoso: the working musician. From the wings of sold-out arenas to hip-hop studios to polka bars, these stories are born out of a nocturnal world where music is often simply work, but also where it can, ...
Real musicians don’t sign autographs, date models, or fly in private jets. They spend their lives in practice rooms and basement clubs or toiling in the obscurity of coffee-shop gigs, casino jobs, and the European festival circuit. The ten linked stories in Power Ballads are devoted to this unheard virtuoso: the working musician. From the wings of sold-out arenas to hip-hop studios to polka bars, these stories are born out of a nocturnal world where music is often simply work, but also where it can, in rare moments, become a source of grace and transcendence, speaking about the things we never seem to say to each other. A skilled but snobby jazz drummer joins a costumed heavy metal band to pay his rent. A country singer tries to turn her brutal past into a successful career. A vengeful rock critic reenters the life of an emerging singer-songwriter, bent on wreaking havoc. The characters in Power Ballads—aging head-bangers, jobbers, techno DJs, groupies, and the occasional rock star (and those who have to live with them)—need music to survive, yet find themselves lost when the last note is played, the lights go up, and it’s time to return to regular life. By turns melancholy and hilarious, Power Ballads is not only a deeply felt look at the lives of musicians but also an exploration of the secret music that plays inside us all.
I remember all those great bands. Those bands that played pizza joints, VFW halls, and schnitzel houses all over southeast Wisconsin. Don Gruetzmacher's Green Notes, the Tom Dombrowski Seven, Die Musikmeisters, Jan Debaum and His Polka Bums, the Swingin' Udders. My mother had died a couple years back, and Dad still didn't know what to do with me. I'd just started playing tuba in the school wind ensemble (the director insisted I had a tubist's lips—I took him at his word), and Dad indulged my new mania, sometimes driving us as far as Sheboygan to see a group I'd read about in the paper. Pretty soon I was sitting in with every band I could. There didn't seem to be a leader out there able to resist seeing a skinny twelve-year-old kid, his rosy cheeks puffed out, blatting away on "Roll Out the Barrel."
But then Dad tired of ferrying me all around the tricounty area, and we settled for Sunday nights at Wenzel's, the little tavern in town where Bob "Buck" Schlachtenhaufen and the Thirty-Pointers played from seven at night till one in the morning. Buck played a huge red-leather and mother-of-pearl accordion and emceed the evening, welcoming everyone in his thickly accented English, sometimes slipping into German when he addressed certain of the musicians. The crowd was nearly all firstand second-generation Germans, Czechs, and Poles, with a few old-timers who'd come straight off the boat, so to speak.
"So this is where they all hang out," Dad said the first time we went to Wenzel's. "Christ, they keep to themselves, don't they? They ought to mix more, you know, be part of the community." He was just bitter. Last summer, he'd tried opening a Sub Shack in the minimall, and no one had come.
Maybe the patrons of Wenzel's were a little quiet when you saw them around town, the pockmarked men smelling of pipe tobacco, the women with their high, hollow voices and their long hair worn down over their shoulders. But here they were at their ease, grinning at each other across the room from under Tyrolean hats, drinking cheap Milwaukee beer, getting up to stomp and clap their way through the polka. Buck would kick off the set—"And a one and a two and a you know what to do!"—and the Thirty-Pointers stumbled into "Who Stole the Keeshka?" or "That Silver-Haired Daddy of Mine." It was a classic lineup: accordion, clarinet, tuba (of course), two trumpets, snare drum, and acoustic guitar (when the guy showed up). They didn't know what to do, actually, not all of them. Buck and the clarinetist might reasonably be called musicians and could be counted on for a solo each in most tunes, and, as the night went on, sometimes two or three solos. But the rest of the band, who read off huge stacks of sheet music that kept fluttering to the floor like downed geese, were amateur at best.
It didn't matter. People loved them. They were fathoms below even the cover bands I'd seen at the county fair, and people still loved them. Dad and I sat eating brats, me with my kiddie cocktail, Dad with a bottle of Old Style, watching middle-aged women in lederhosen laughing, shouting, practically kicking their legs over their heads.
* * *
It took nearly a month of showing up at Wenzel's before Buck called me up to sit in. I was annoyed by his tardiness—Buck knew that I played—not least because the tubist in his band was so god-awful. Ertold. Ertold Brauswitter. A little, sparse-haired man somewhere in his late forties, he seemed overwhelmed by his horn. No matter how he positioned the mouthpiece crook, it was either too high or too low. He scooted around on his chair, trying to get comfortable, his arms wrapped around the tuba like someone trying to slow-dance a water heater. He clammed on every tune, his time was despicable, and he didn't have the breath control to get more than a wobbling, anemic tone out of the horn. In a roomful of immigrants and immigrants' children, he seemed somehow more foreign than the rest, with his frazzled, overgrown sideburns the color of used steel wool, his polyester slacks, and his pumpernickel dark eyes.
Outside Wenzel's, in real life, he pumped gas and worked the register at the Union 76 on Kenosha Road. The kids in town tortured him for sport, paying for Pop Rocks and Big League Chew with pocketfuls of dimes and pennies, then swiping Slim Jims from the big jar as he carefully counted out the coins. He always insisted on counting—it never failed. And if he looked up from making those teetering stacks of coins and caught the kids in the act, he'd erupt into some phlegm-rattling language, the words of his native land bursting from him like soda from a shook-up can.
Ertold didn't get it. There were parts to be played in a small town: slick, wealthy mayor; drunken police chief. Overeducated, sentimental, pushover school principal; hyperathletic, closeted homosexual gym teacher. Wild but good-hearted kids; forbearing gas station attendant who only pretended to card when the teenagers who hung around the parking lot, swiping steelies or putting crushed-up glass under car wheels, came crowding inside, hauled a twelve-pack to the register and casually, even suavely, asked for Camel Lights and a Bic. But Ertold would shake his head solemnly, put out a withholding hand. "No. Law is law." That's what he said: "Law is law."
Once a kid drew a swastika and the number 666 on the frosted door of the beer cooler, and Brauswitter went nuts. The older kids all said he was a Nazi, and this confirmed it. Though, thinking back on it, he couldn't have been more than ten during the war. And he wasn't German. Getting into the spirit of polka night, he wore green suspenders to Wenzel's but on those suspenders proudly displayed a little orange, blue, and red pin. Rumania? East Prussia? Slovakia? I associate him now with one of those jumbled ancient lands that faded from American memory after 1945. What brought him to our town? Maybe he'd been sent to an aunt or distant cousin, long dead now, who'd settled here in this European enclave of mid-America. Possibly he was a Jew, exiled by the Holocaust. No one knew. In our town—that wide-open, claustrophobic place where the public faith, Lutheranism, was mild as milk—you buried your true beliefs and history deep under your heavy garments.
* * *
Finally, on a Sunday late in September, toward the end of the third set, Buck looked down from the bandstand and beckoned around his red accordion. Come on up, kid. Play a little. My nervous fingers had been running scales on my kiddie cocktail glass all night. Now I leapt up, climbed onstage, and wormed to the back through the chairs and music stands. Ertold, still clutching his horn, smiled at me, a thin smile, not friendly, then passed it over—a dinged-up three-valve Selmer with an out-turned bell, not even as good as the horn I rented at school. The valve keys and casings were warm and slippery from his sweaty palms and fingers, and the mouthpiece, even after I wiped it off, tasted of mustard pretzels and cheap cologne.
That first night, looking down at me buzzing my lips and working the valves, Ertold couldn't help himself. He softened for a moment, and in a pantomime of familiarity, laughed and clapped me on the shoulder. I was no threat to him; I was just a kid. "Do not forget," he said deliberately. "Oom-pah, oom-pah." Then he put his fist to his mouth and burped softly into it.
Christ, I said to myself, as if I didn't know how to play a polka.
Soon it became routine: In the third set (then, more and more, as early as the second), Buck would summon me up onstage. He'd call a tune, and I'd race to find it in the mess of sheet music Ertold kept on his stand. Very quickly, after only a month or so, I started to hear the progressions—they were simple enough—and I didn't need the music. I'd take a huge breath and lock time with the snare drum. Fifth, root. Fifth, root. To my ears, the band sounded better when I got up to play, or maybe it was just that by that point in the night, their fingers and lips were well lubricated by beer. Fifth, root. Fifth, root. To sit alongside these men, so close I could feel the bovine warmth of their wide bodies, could feel the way they strained and labored and lost themselves in their rollicking, flatulent music, could feel almost an equal to them—it gave me some confidence and made it a little easier to get through another lonely week at school: I didn't need to be friends with the trombonists in the wind ensemble, who thought it was so funny and so cool to lob balled-up socks and retainer cases and bologna sandwiches into the bell of my tuba—no, I didn't need them, and they could go straight to hell for all I cared and have a cool little club where they burned and blistered forever like four cool, stupid, acned pigs on a spit. After a bar or two of the polka, I didn't care how sour Ertold's mouthpiece tasted. Fifth, root. Fifth, root. And then, showing off, a run up the scale. After the last note, my head swam, my cheeks were flushed with puffing. Then Buck called the next tune—"My Little Sweetheart" or "In Heaven There Is No Beer"—and, miracle, I was allowed to stay up on the bandstand. People were clapping, dancing, calling out prost! They loved me.
"How about this kid?" Buck said that first night, and I knew it was my cue to relinquish the horn to Ertold. "The little fella is something, ain't he?" It was a good time in the night for theatrics. Everyone was whistling and stomping their feet and calling for "Roll Out the Barrel."
Back at the table, Dad put a hand on my knee. "Good job, guy. You're improving, I can tell." I wanted to hear those words from him; still, I was bereft at having to come down from the stage. Dad ordered another kiddie cocktail, another Old Style. He was having a good time. The sight of all those Krauts and Polacks, as he called them, shouting and dancing amused him no end. He let me try a sip of his beer and grinned when I stuck out my tongue—bleh. Sometimes I think he and I never got any closer than we did going to see that band.
* * *
Ertold came past our table at the end of the set. "Nice work, kid," he said, not to me, but to Dad. "He gives it his all, no doubting about it."
"I think he's getting better," Dad said. I was embarrassed to be seen talking with Ertold, but Dad acted deferential, as if he respected the guy. "Got a few tips for the boy?" And why was he asking for advice? What did Ertold know? I was better than him already.
"Oh, a natural. The kid, he is a natural. If only he practice," Ertold warned. "Make sure he practice all of the time. Every day! The tuba," he said gravely, "it is the anchor. Understand. Solid, must be solid all of the time. Like an anchor."
I nodded to myself. This was true. This was supremely true.
Ertold looked down at me now, and for a moment he couldn't conceal his irritation. I don't expect he much enjoyed being shown up by a twelve-year-old. "And no puffing out your cheeks. You lose power that way. You lose breath!" He sucked his cheeks. "Keep them good, tight."
He was right, but I hated him for it. Obviously, I puffed out my cheeks for effect.
Just then, someone at the bar called Ertold's name and waved him over. Ertold leaned back and twanged his suspenders. His pin trembled like a leaf. (Hungarian? A Magyar? A Gypsy?) He bade us good night, hoped we'd had good fun, and then went off to make his rounds. "I come," he called over to the bar, "I come, I come!"
To my surprise, here at Wenzel's, Ertold was a popular figure. He visited each table in turn, talking with the elderly men in their green huntsman's caps, joshing the little kids who tore around and played hide-and-seek under the tables, even flirting with the mothers. The torment he endured at the Union 76 fell away from him. He didn't stoop or sigh or look at the floor, shaking his head in bewilderment and vexation at the behavior of American teens. After a few weeks, I noticed that he didn't have one native language, but several. At one table, he spoke German. At another, Polish, Czech ... Slovak? His English was broken and bizarre, but over those craggy, alien languages, he mounted like an alpinist.
Still, he was too eager. I saw how quickly the smile came to Ertold's face at Wenzel's—too quickly. I saw the way his eyes shone when he clowned with the children, the way he sat with his tuba across his lap during breaks, oiling its valves, greasing its slides, doting on his battered, beloved horn. When he stood jawing away with his bandmates at the bar, little showers of spit came popping out of his mouth. Onstage and off, he rushed. Discipline, detachment, calm—these are the things a true musician requires. When the band started up, Ertold launched himself into the performance, then got tangled in the lines of the song as they marched steadily forward. It made it worse that he kept looking out at the crowd, following the dancers, not the music. And yet, for all his bum notes, no one ever seemed to mind him. Once, I even caught Dad giving Ertold a nod and an encouraging smile as he passed our table on his way back up to the bandstand.
* * *
Maybe he thought I should've gotten my fill already. He didn't seem to understand why I kept coming back, why every week I was sitting up front, staring at him. When Dad and I walked through the door, it was always Ertold's eyes I met first—he'd started watching for me, as well—and the look in them was not welcoming.
But more people were showing up on Sunday nights—or maybe it was just getting colder, and you wanted to be snug inside a dark, wood-paneled place like Wenzel's—and I figured word had gotten around: I was a hit. By this point, I was playing half of the second set and nearly all of the third. One night, an old guy gave me a ten-dollar bill, "For music lessons," which I took as a compliment. When I looked out from the bandstand at the crowd, I saw Ertold sitting by himself off to the side, not dancing or clapping along, only running his hands through his thin hair, then carefully rearranging those few strands as if he were about to go up and receive an award.
I improvised on the standard parts, played up an octave, then down in the rumbly depths of the tuba's range. I worked on my flutter tongue, my circular breathing. One night, I made a show of straightening the stack of music on Ertold's stand, then turning it blank-side up, to demonstrate to the competent musicians how I could play by ear.
When I wasn't playing, I sat beside my dad in a posture of constant readiness, staring at Ertold. He couldn't concentrate. He clammed all over the place. Buck always saved "Roll Out the Barrel" for him, even gave him a short solo, which he managed by playing the same jaunty little lick over and over. But now Ertold was messing that up as well. He seemed to shrink into himself. He kept scooting around on his chair, more nervous than when he had to count coins at the gas station. I started bringing the school's horn, arriving with it early in the first set. It sat next to me in its case, a bulky black signal of my intent.
* * * Finally, I stood my ground. Buck called "Roll Out the Barrel," and I stayed put. I hoped Ertold would get the picture—it would make things easier on him if he just gave up—but he was already onstage and hefting up his battered Selmer, which had been lying on the floor next to me like scrap. For a second, I thought we were both going to play the song, an uneasy compromise.
Ertold looked down at me and said wearily, "Okay now, kid. Give yourself a rest now."
One of the trumpet players came to my defense. "Ah, let the squirt play one more." I expected the rest of the band—the clarinetist, at least—to second him, but they were busy tuning their instruments and signaling for more beer. I sat there, unwilling to let go my rightful place. Then I looked out into the crowd and caught Dad's eye. He shook his head, mouthed, "Come on, let's go." Slowly, as if weights were lashed around me, I twisted the mouthpiece out of its crook and slipped it into its soft pouch, then upended my tuba and carried it offstage. Ertold took my chair. He knew to check his tongue, but I could almost hear the words: Law is law, kid.
Excerpted from Power Ballads by Will Boast Copyright © 2011 by Will Boast. Excerpted by permission of University of Iowa Press. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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