Tuesday, August 12, 2014

A Music History

1974  Harry Ailster, the flamboyant, mercurial music teacher of my fourth grade class, calls on me to answer a question. I look up, gape-mouthed, as I have not been paying the least bit attention. "He's reading Bugs Bunny," a classmate informs Harry, pointing at the book I am trying to hide under my desk. "I'll bugs HIS bunny!" Harry roars, and snatches the book from my hand.

1978  Harry makes each pupil learn and perform for the class a verse from an old folk song. I get up and sing my verse of "Joe Turner." Harry gives me an A and informs me I will be performing in the upcoming 8th grade musical, The Truth About Cinderella.

Taking my bow.
1980  On a gray, cheerless Monday in January, my mother has become alarmed enough by my reclusive, semi-destructive state of mind to hustle me off to a family therapist. The therapy center is in a large converted house, drafty and cold. I am sitting in the waiting room, embarrassed and uncomfortable. I try to boost my spirits by looking forward to the end of the week, Friday, January 18, when I will be taking my first guitar lesson. In retrospect it is abundantly clear which appointment did me the most good.

July-August 1980 I spend the summer mostly with my only real friend, John Krause. We take frequent bike rides and bus rides to the library, where we borrow books and records to feed our new fascination with John Lennon. Krause is especially interested in Plastic Ono Band because it has a lot of strong piano parts. We get sheet music and learn the songs, practicing and performing them together at the Presbyterian Church, which has permitted John to borrow its magnificent grand piano.

September 1980  It is announced that John Lennon and Yoko Ono are returning to public life with a brand new album, Double Fantasy.

December 1980 John Lennon is murdered in front of his New York City apartment building.

Spring 1982 I am ordered by the head of the English department at my high school to report to auditions for the senior year musical, How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying.  I ignore the order, being too cool and punk rock for such things (e.g., being an idiot). The head of the English department responds by giving me detention and orders me again to report to auditions for the senior year musical -- which happens to be directed by none other than Harry "I'll bugs his bunny" Ailster. I win the part of Benjamin Burton Daniel Ovington.

May 1982 I join the New Providence High School Folk Club.

May 1982  By the time of the New Providence High School Folk Club Concert, I had joined and performed with my first band, PinPoint (later the Hot Rods, among other names), a 50s-rockabilly quartet. But on this occasion I am playing with Kazumi Umeda, a superb classical pianist, and Steve Muller, a gifted bass player, and we had put together a set of John Lennon songs to perform at the concert. At this point I had suffered a lot of ridicule for having been so expressive about my grief over Lennon's death (such as carrying one of his albums around the halls in a daze the day after), and it had gotten so bad that kids would yell out "Lennon!" when I passed through the halls. I didn't care. Well, I sort of cared. On this, my first and last public appearance in front of my high school peers as an audience, I am greeted onstage by catcalls and mocking. The huge, stupid bully who had beat me up regularly a few years before yells out mockingly "LENNON". I quaver, a little.

Kazumi sits down at the piano and starts a gentle, perfect rendition of "Imagine". Amid hoots and whoops I start to sing. Seconds later, dead silence from the audience ensues. During the next two songs, "God" and another I can't recall, you can hear a pin drop. The applause that follows our performance is loud, and it stays with me and sustains me through a lot of years.

[EDIT: Kazumi tells me the third song was probably "Jealous Guy". I am certain he is correct.]

1 comment:

  1. John -- Found your post when Googling for material for a remembrance of Harry Ailster, who passed away yesterday. Put up a brief post, but don't know any details yet. You can see it at --

    or give me a call at 908-448-7688

    Dan Damon