Center of the Universe (9)
The Front Room
It’s not always Saturday night at Sorellas, you know. And that’s just the kind of crap that ticks him off.
Gio plays Fridays, front room, corner, and has been faithfully banging 30 pounds of squeezebox in that jampacked bistro for a dozen years of Fridays, and no one’s writing any blog posts about him!
To be clear, he didn’t say it. But he could have. And when he did, you might notice, under the loud, frequent laughter and jolly, jiggling middle, the glint of an edge.
Gio is what his friends call him, and I’m proud to be one. It’s short for Giovanni — which is also not his real name. His real name is John, but try performing as the authentic Italian accordionist at an authentic Italian restaurant (never mind that it’s owned and operated by Brazilian-Koreans) with that gringo handle. Who in their right mind would ever tip a suonatore di fisarmonica with a single-syllable name?
But Gio’s no one-trick, or even one-two, pony. In addition to the requisite Italiano squeezit, he serves up Polish, German and Russian polka (if that’s even a thing), and, having grown up in Europe, spawn of a German fraulein and US GI, does it in the native tongues. And when it gets past nine and the crowd gets loose, Giovanni gets them looser with some sweet-ass, bellows-based rock ’n’ roll.
Among my favorites of his accordion transcriptions are “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida” and “Brown-Eyed Girl.” Iron Butterfly’s proto-metal epic becomes even more paleolithically ludicrous when enacted on squeezebox. And when Gio busts into the Van Morrison chestnut, I always pop up from the family table to supply high harmony. Not only do I love the tune, I love singing harmony. And — if I say so my own pneumatic self — do it pretty good. Good enough that Giovanni asked me if I’d like to put together a duo (and, believe me, I thought about it, conjuring the glories of sharing the front-room corner as Gio’s Garfunkel, aka Roberto).
The man knows a million songs and the words and changes are penciled onto well-thumbed index cards clipped to the top of the accordion in a kind of built-in music stand. Occasionally, between numbers, he’ll pull out the whole stack and shuffle through, in search of a tune that might be particularly apt for the table just arrived.
Giovanni is nothing if not a crowd-pleaser.
Our friend Sandy is a famous producer, manager and songwriter, best known as the inventor of the Blue Öyster Cult (and the true-life guy behind “More cowbell”), and we bring him to Sorellas every Friday night we’re all in town. But Gio has never heard of “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper,” let alone transcribed it, so, for our distinguished classic-rock guest, he offers up a different rock classic from the cards.
Now let it be said that, before our black-clad German opera buff amigo invented “thinking man’s metal,” as one reviewer dubbed BÖC, Sandy was a rock critic, one of the first. And as a fellow former critic, one of the later, I can tell you it’s part of the game to hold and express, in no uncertain terms, the most acid opinions, no matter how uncertainly rooted.
In short, it helps to be mean. A crowd-hater.
Sandy despises “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.” Which only makes sense — no less a derisive duo than John and George openly despised Paul’s song, even as they were scribing it to magnetic tape at Abbey Road. Now, I go a little soft when it comes to the Fab Four, who were where I began, not just in music, but in pretty much everything else I cherish culturally. So I actually like “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da.” And I’ve noticed that when Gio taps out that opening telegram of notes, Sorellas patrons, young and old, promptly start to sing along. And that may be the source of the confusion. One night — I guess Sandy was there — Giovanni was having trouble rousing the post-nine-pm crowd, and I mentioned that “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da” always seemed to get them going. Somehow Gio mistook my offhand observation — which was immediately followed by Sandy saying, No, no, no — as a request.
So now, after he does “Brown-Eyed Girl,” for me. He cranks up “Ob-La-Di, Ob-La-Da,” for Sandy. Every time. And, every time, the Magus of Mental Metal snorts snidely, gathers his leather and canvas darkness about him and says, “Well, dudes, gotta go.”
I’ve tried to clarify the phenomenon to Giovanni. But once he locks in an idée fixe, there’s simply no arguing. So I don’t and, as I watch Sandy backing his battered Z3 (an in-lieu-of payment for long-ago production services) out of the Fairfax French Cleaners across the street, I join Gio in flawless, two-part harmony.
“Desmond has a barrow in the marketplace…”
I’m all about Gio. Whenever there’s an opportunity to have him perform outside of Sorellas, whether for our company anniversary (thrice), my daughter’s housewarming or a Russian friend’s impending marriage to a Pole, I give my man a call (sending an email is not a technological option). And one day, after years of duetting on “Brown-Eyed Girl,” I picked up a couple copies — one electronic, one paper — of the first biography of the song’s composer Bert Berns and presented it to the maestro in the corner.
Here Comes the Night by Joel Selvin.
I don’t think it was the book so much that made him mad. I think it was that I kept asking him if he’d got around to reading it. I, who generally enjoy pop bios, had really enjoyed this one, ploughing through in a weekend. I was excited. I assumed he’d be.
To be fair, he never told me he wasn’t. But a half-dozen Friday nights later, Gio said he had a gift for me, pushing into my doubtful paws a DVD of a Rodney Dangerfield movie called “Back by Midnight,” co-starring Randy Quaid and Gilbert Gottfried, featuring Kirstie Alley.
Watch it, he commanded.
His tone was genial, if a tad intense. But I detected no irony or sarcasm. Still, every Friday thereafter Gio would start to bugging and poking and hectoring:
Did you watch it? Did you watch? Huh? Huh? Huh?
And eventually I got the point. I think. And now I’m worried because I’ve lost the DVD that I did not (and could not — no player) watch, and that, to add to the anxiety, he also said he wanted back.
(Sorry, Gio.) (Ha-ha-ha-ha!)
My brother Lance, who came within one credit of graduating from music conservatory — which makes him practically a music conservatory grad — says Giovanni’s a damn fine accordionist. And, for some reason, that makes me feel good. I like it when experts certify my friends. But much as I groove on his grooves, what most attracts me to Gio is his character, his stoicism. Gio gets pissed, but — per the Bert Berns controversy — keeps it to himself. Kinda. I wonder if it doesn’t have something to do with his military training. Because before he was the accordionist at Sorellas, he was a quartermaster in the US Army for either nine or 13 years, depending on who you believe, me or Roni. I think he also played in the army band, but I’m not sure how the accordion worked into his quartermaster duties, not to mention the band.
Strangely, I’ve been fascinated by the role of quartermaster for a long time, especially the role in movies, where I first learned of such a thing. There was a savvy quartermaster in Apocalypse Now and a rapacious one in the POW melodrama King Rat, and I think there was a devoted elderly one — Pappy, or some such, with scraggly gray whiskers — in a John Wayne western (and I’m pretty sure he was the first to take an arrow, expiring in Duke’s arms). But my curiosity was permanently piqued by Catch-22, the WW II satire where the man behind the curtain — of everything — turns out not to be the four-star general or C.O., but a quartermaster, an unctuously fishy figure named Milo Minderbinder (played by, of all people, Jon Voight). And how he exerts his power, from a relatively underpowered rank, is by controlling the booze, chocolates and fungible silk stockings. So just as I imagine Saturday night trumpeter Dave Bergman as the unsung King of Cool Jazz, I imagine Giovanni, beneath the paisano Kris-Kringle shtick, as Milo.
Whether he is or not. (After all, this is my true-life fantasy, not his.)
(Kidding, kidding, kidding!)
There’s a rumor that one time Giovanni did not keep his feelings to himself. I first heard the rumor from none other than Giovanni, when he was still drinking — before he quit the first time and would only order rum and coke, before he quit the second time. He told me that they wouldn’t let him into Peri’s, the venerable Fairfax drinkery. Said that a few years prior, he was in the pool-table room, and some drunken jag-off kept needling him, clapping his back harder and harder, and, well, Bob, a fella finally reaches his limit. Gio hauled off and gave the guy what-for.
And that’s how he got banned, my button-strumming bro-tello explained.
First, I thought it was just sitting-around-the-storehouse quartermaster shit, the kind of studiedly slack braggadocio soldiers might share on a slow watch. Then one day, after the last wheezed note of Gio’s set, on a Friday when I was avowedly drinking and he avowedly wasn’t, and, nevertheless, there we were, three or four rum-and-cokes to the wind, both of us, I cajoled him into coming to Peri’s to see a friend’s band. My treat. Though he protested that he had been 86'd — banned — I assured him that was all a long time ago and we’d work it out with the bouncer. But when we got to the door — me, Gio and the indecently sportsmanlike Roni — the bouncer pointed and said, He can’t come in. And when I wheedled and whined, the bouncer assured me:
Oh, you guys can come in, but he can’t.
And that’s how I found the rumor might be true. And found a new level of respect for the rank of quartermaster.
And now I gotta find that DVD.