Monday, May 16, 2022

Carry a Tuba, Be a Celebrity

You can make a living as a freelance musician in NYC if, and only if, you're able to chameleon yourself into any musical context (I wrote about my crazy musical promiscuity here and here), and double or triple up your gigs. You must work like a madman, and there's often no time to take a breath and register how odd your life has become. One particularly jam-packed day - June 9, 1993 - nudged into extreme oddness.

The night before, I'd played with my raucous brass band - veteran downtown players copping funky NOLA stylings with a boisterously avante perspective well ahead of its time. And the legendary Bob Dorough had driven in from Delaware Water Gap to sing a medley of his "Schoolhouse Rock" tunes with us, a decade before those 1970s gems came to be celebrated as a cultural touchstone.

We performed to an empty house at Greenwich Village's Gulf Coast restaurant, having chased away diners with our boisterousness - manager Jacqui Perrine (a helluva hip gal and friend-of-the-band), incensed that her customers didn't love us as much as she did, summed up her feelings tersely - "Fuck 'Em!" - and spent the night sashaying around the room in what was essentially a command performance.

The gig paid primarily in food and drink, and the latter rolled on until wee hours of the morning. So when my alarm clock blared the next morning at 8:30am, I was in un-fine fettle. Having hit "snooze" a few too many times, there was no time for shower or breakfast. I had to jump on a subway and go accompany a phalanx of giant trippy puppets (someone somewhere had gotten a grant) at World Trade Center as part of a lesbian drum band. All in a day's work.

I threw on a dilapidated tank top and shorts and dashed for the subway with my gigantic hundred year old sousaphone. Alas, in my stupor, I got on the green line rather than the red, necessitating a tricky cross-town transfer. So I emerged at City Hall Station in high dander, frantically flagging down taxis directly in front of City Hall, where a bored press gaggle was waiting for something newsworthy to happen.

A cab pulled up, and I instantly realized that I was about to make a spectacle of myself by trying to wedge an enormous sousaphone into a taxicab mere feet away from a phalanx of unoccupied photographers while in an unshaven, half-naked, and horrendously hungover condition. Oops.

The smart route would have been to disassemble the tuba to fit it into the cab, but that would take time I didn't have, so I tried to nonchalantly slip the sousaphone into the taxi, self-consciously aware that every choice was making things worse. And the damned thing absolutely I began to panic at the sound of advancing footsteps behind me - the press surging en mass down the steps to grab a local color shot on a slow news day. "Grungy homeless musician comically tries to fit sousaphone in cab." Ha ha ha ha ha. Funny.

Finally, I braced my arms against the cab’s frame and impelled the tuba inward with my feet - success! - jumped in, slammed the door, and commanded the driver to move! I never looked back. If they'd shot my face, I'd have been recognizable...and disgusting. Hearing the clicks of multiple shutters behind me, I felt like Lady Di hightailing it away from paparazzi.

I arrived at my gig in the nick of time, sliding suavely into the queue of musicians as we emerged behind enormous puppets in the sunny plaza between the twin towers. Video cameras from all local TV news stations were there to excerpt the event. More press, argh!

As we finished up, I was ready to get home and finish cobbling together a night's sleep. But the band's trumpeter, my frequent musical co-conspirator and fellow non-lesbian non-drummer Frank London, suddenly announced that he and his girlfriend, Tine, had decided, spur of the moment, to get married. We were, after all, close to City Hall! So...would I come serve as tubist/witness?

The press, thankfully, had deserted City Hall. We found the marriage certificate office, Frank and Tine filled out paperwork, the judge did his bit, and I boomed some schizo-Mendelson on my sousaphone until staff from surrounding offices poked their heads in to request cessation with a gentility unique to NYC bureaucrats.

One can't get married without a celebration, so the plan was to head over to Odeon Restaurant - yet another crosstown jaunt. Frank (in shabby pawnshop tie, tails, and top hat) and Tine (in an improvised lacy white Bridezilla get-up) strutted proudly downstairs and west on Chambers Street, stalkishly followed by an incongruous hirsute brute bopping funky bass lines on a 19th century tuba.

We drew attention. And while I was as underdressed for a wedding as any human being since the late Mesolithic, I'd reached a point of glazed giddiness, finally going full-metal Jacqui. Fuck it!

The strut transformed into a boogie. We shimmied and jived and moon-walked to Odeon, with pedestrians and construction workers hollering in approval, some following us for a block or two.

En route, a guy came up to us, poking a professional-quality microphone in our faces. "I'm Brrbz Brrbzn from CBS national radio! Can you tell me what's happening here?" Frank and Tine gave him a nano-interview, I churned out some soulful bluesy licks on cue, and Brrbz was off, hollering over his shoulder that this would be heard by X million people later that day. Hey, more press!

We paraded to the restaurant, necks craning to fathom what seemed like some celeb "happening". The streets throbbed with music and cheers as Frank tipped his absurd Mad Tea Party top hat toward strangers left and right (also: above, as we were waved at from office windows).

I later learned that the silly WTC gig had been reported on all the local news that night (none had shown up for our historical brass band performance the previous day), and that the radio report was heard by some huge swathe of the American public (radio was still a thing back then). But I missed every bit of it, having yet another gig to play that same night, cleaned up in suit and tie, contributing dulcet trombone tones to some classy soiree. All in a day's work.

And while it can't be the only photo from my taxi fiasco that surfaced in print, I couldn’t miss this one on the cover of the following day's NY Times Metro Section:

Photographer Steve Hart, the NY Times rookie covering City Hall back then, has gone on to become a respected fine art photographer (seriously check out his stuff, it's great), but kindly took time to dredge up the original image:

The moral of the story: If you ever want to make an enormous impact, 1. bop around Manhattan with a huge antique sousaphone, and 2. steadfastly resist attention.

Oh, and the nationally-celebrated tuba is still with me, now a still-jaunty 130 years old. At this point, he's like a family member:

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