A Bright New Year

Christmas 1966 saw us returning in a way to our old tradition of helping the less fortunate except this time it was for people in our own family.

Francesca’s fortunes went to prison with her husband. She was a housewife and mother to Frank’s seven children and was pregnant with another. The welfare system provided a meager subsistence that barely fed the growing family. There was nothing left over even for used clothes for the growing children. My dad paid to have their fuel oil tank filled so they wouldn’t freeze – he worked out a deal with the great family that owned Kimmes Oil in South Superior in exchange for custom machined parts that he made for them after normal working hours.

Grandma Blackwater obtained a turkey and ham at Stroozas Grocery from the family that owned the business. Blackwater aunts repaired clothing – those that needed repair for most garments were in “like new” condition – that would warm Francesca’s children’s bodies and minds. There were enough Blackwater children of varying ages to clothe a small village with their hand-me-downs. All gifts were individually wrapped with the name of one of Francesca’s children on it. I bought several boxes of Lincoln Logs for my cousins as my contribution to their Christmas.

The oldest cousins were 7 and 8. Francesca has squirted out one kid for each year of marriage. If there was one positive to take from Frank’s imprisonment it was that Francesca’s loins would receive a much needed rest from reproductive activity after the bun in her oven was done.

The afternoon of Christmas Eve we brought masses of food and armloads of presents that filled the entirety of our Pontiac Wagon to Francesca’s house. The children were all bouncing up and down with smiles wide as the Mississippi River where it outlets into the Gulf of Mexico. Francesca was in tears most of the time that we were there. We ate dinner with them first. The kid’s shoveled food in as fast as they could while squirming on their chairs in anticipation of what bounty was to be found in those brightly coloured packages. The dark clouds that they had all been living under parted to allow sunshine back into their lives.

Watching the child open their presents was as emotional a time as I had felt in my days. It was handled in an orderly manner with one child at a time opening one gift so that all could share in the delight. The tactic also prolonged the experience for all. Joy had been hard to come by in of late, it was best to make it last as long as possible, like licking a Popsicle slowly, savoring each delicious slobber. The order was from youngest to oldest with the two oldest children helping the infant and toddler.

Many of the children peeled their rags from their bodies as soft, new pajamas burst from packages for each. Their lack of modesty served as tender testimony to their true joy. As far as I’ve seen, kids aren’t looking for clothes at Christmas. Clothes are a disappointment. Toys are what kids want; stuff to play with, not clothes. Yet, in that house on December 24th, 1966 one family of kids was delirious at receiving clothes. Francesca celebrated with each of her offspring as gifts were revealed. The packages had been numbered for each child – and great care was taken to assure that each opened the same number of presents – so that they started with clothes but ended with toys, like the finally of a great fireworks show on the 4th of July in a dazzling display of generosity. The Blackwater’s had delivered an astounding 15 gifts for each child.

One-hundred and five individually wrapped gifts require a lot of wrapping paper. Every last square inch of that paper came from Granny Blackwater’s attic. Granny saved everything. Much of the paper dated back to the earliest days of the 20th Century. Each gift that Eva Blackwater received was carefully opened so as to not tear the paper whereupon she would neatly fold the paper and store it away. “You never know when you might need it.” Well, we needed it and it was there. I’m not sure what is more impressive, the fact that she had enough paper to wrap that many gifts or that this effort hadn’t come close to exhausting her supply.

My Lincoln Logs were a big hit. The big kids built cabins and towers and the little kids knocked them over only to be rebuilt and knocked over again. These were ancient times, before Lego had conquered the world. Interlocking wood pieces were state-of-the-art, and still made in America. Lincoln Logs were hugely popular in Wisconsin due in part to the fact that they were invented by Wisconsin native John Lloyd Wright, the son of the greatest architect of all time, Frank Lloyd Wright.

But, I think the most appreciated gift of the night belonged to the eldest child, Nora. Mother had mentioned that Nora had taken to reading at age three and loved to write. That information spurred me to buy a diary and pen set for her. I watched with fascination as she locked and unlocked the diary and clutched it to her heart over and over. I knew that I had opened a magical world to her where her innermost thoughts could be expressed and secured. I didn’t know realize it then, but this gift launched the career of best-selling romance author.

Francesca impressed me that day with her strength. She had literally gone through Hell in previous months and days yet there was no hint of self-pity in her, no hint that she was near the breaking point, and no sense that she would ever crack under the strain. She was strong because her children needed that strength. She was their shining light, their beacon of hope. I suspected that she might be the one Fischetti that the crazy gene had skipped. Either that or she was the one with the strength to battle and defeat the mental illness that ravaged generations of that family.

Mother chose to stay with her sister for the night, which was the best for both that night. Strange as it seems, tragedies like this situation helped my mother’s state of mind giving her something to focus on, a reason to rise up, and the ability to ignore the “the voices”.

Across town, the bitter Esther seethed in her joyless existence.

I rode with my dad out to Granny Blackwater’s house for their traditional feast. I was a growing boy. It had been almost three hours since my last meal. I was starving again by the time we arrived.

Cousin Danny had long since come and gone from the party. I was left as one of two teenagers, the other being one of my girl cousins who wanted to hear all about the night I met that “dreamboat” Peter Noone. It was an interesting exchange. She heard about one of her idols and I gained insight into what female fans see in the stars.

This Christmas emphasized the difference between the two sides of my family. The peace and serenity of the Blackwater’s contrasted against the murky grayness of Fischetti despair.

~~~

On New Year’s Eve we played a gala event at the Duluth Arena to a crowd of nearly 1,000. We played three solid, ass kicking sets.

Politicians droned over the PA during our breaks espousing the greatness of their accomplishments made possible only by the cooperation of those in attendance. That was as high as I’d ever seen bullshit stacked. Duluth was a grimy city on a hill in the frozen tundra of northern Minnesota with a rapidly declining industrial base from outmoded factories that belched black bilious clouds of death and dumped taconite tailings that were quickly fouling the largest fresh water lake in the world. There were no big accomplishments to herald though I’m sure these same folks would have boasted of how well the first half of Titanic’s voyage had been. After all, it was only those last two hours that were less than pleasant.

I received compliments all night from gracious folks as well as the many overdressed, overly pompous pretenders. This was the socially acrid atmosphere that had turned a quiet young Robert Zimmerman into the acerbic poet genius of Bob Dylan. I was beginning to understand the roots of his contempt. The captain’s of the disaster drank champagne, dined on caviar, lobster, and choice steak while impoverished thousands huddled near coal fires to stave off the subfreezing temperatures.

I collected the largest pay of my career up to that point that night, $300 for a single night of playing organ. The cash gave me enough that I could finally afford the Fender Rhodes of my dreams. I drifted off to sleep that morning with visions of piano keys beneath my fingers.

In the afternoon, I walked downtown through the 20 degree chill. I walked past Nickelson’s Music, which was closed that 1st day of 1967. I walked on down to Lurie’s Furniture Store where they were having New Year’s Day sale. Earlier in the week I had spied this beautiful green leather Lazy Boy recliner complete with heating pad and built-in massage. I talked with the owner of the store and secured a deal to purchase the chair for my father and a thick, lush rug for our living room floor, in essence for my mother, for the sum of $289, tax included. The Fender Rhodes would have to wait.

My father enjoyed that chair every single day of his remaining years.

~~~

1967 felt like a special year from the start. One of the first songs I heard on the radio in that bright New Year was from a voice I knew from New Orleans. Tell It Like Is by Aaron Neville was rising quickly up the charts.

Hearing that song brought me back to my hometown where we rode the St. Charles Streetcar out to Valens Street to watch three young girls who called themselves Little Miss and The Muffets rehearse in the garage of their cousin’s house where the bulk of their backup band lived. Aaron was one of the younger kids in the group that included older brother’s Art the keyboardist and Charles the sax man and 14 year old percussion phenom Cyril Neville. This must have been around 1962 because in ’64 Little Miss and The Muffets changed their name to The Dixie Cups and scored a series of hits with Chapel of Love hitting number 1 on the Billboard Charts. It would be another decade before the Neville Brothers hit their true stride as a band, but I remembered the rhythm and vibes they sent out. This was obviously a great omen.

At my next guitar lesson Jack taught me a song titled We Ain’t Got Nothing Yet that had a bouncy line to it. Here was another song with an active organ part played on a Farfisa. The band on the record had the psychedelic name of The Blues Magoo’s, which made me giggle when I heard it. A popular TV cartoon series of the time was Mr. Magoo voiced by Jim Backus who also played Mr. Howell on Gilligan’s Island. I bought a copy of their first album which was titled Psychedelic Lollipop. How could anyone resist a name like that? I found another song on the album that I loved because it had an authentic Delta blues vibe to it. Sometimes I Think About became one of our signature slow songs.

At the end of the lesson Jack asked if I had ordered the Fender Rhodes yet. I explained what I had done with the money and that I’d have to wait. Jack suggested that I talk to Len Nickelson to see if he would finance the instrument for me, an option that I had never considered. People of our station in life didn’t have credit cards back then. Furthermore, my father would never buy anything on credit. He was not even comfortable with a mortgage, which he was trying hard to pay off early. Only insanely rich people had credit cards back then.

I talked to the music store owner and sure enough he had no problem accepting the $400 I had available for a down payment and finance the rest at $20 per month. I don’t recall the total purchase price, but I know I paid the account off within six months. Len placed the order and within a week I had my 73-key Fender Rhodes Stage Piano. Man, what an instrument that was. Summer In The City sounded nearly like the record when I played it on the Rhodes. Thus, the Fender Rhodes became the second instrument in my armada that would stay with me for life.

The down side to the Rhodes was that it weighed 125 pounds; one more heavy keyboard to haul to each gig. It sounded ok through the Leslie, but didn’t have the bite that I wanted, or near the bass response that I needed. So, I wound up charging a Fender Bassman amplifier to my account. That didn’t have enough highs, so I bought an Electo-Voice high frequency horn as an additional speaker. That did it. I had the sound I wanted, for awhile.

School became more insufferable every day. I had nothing to do in study hall so I would transcribe song charts or study advanced mathematics. That semester brought a new teacher in as the study hall monitor, Mr. Silverman, who just happened to be the school’s math teacher as well. At first, he was somewhat dismissive of my questions concerning trigonometry and calculus. “These courses are too advanced for you,” he said. I ignored him and continued studying. Eventually, he relented and provided help and explanations. Math was like music to me, a natural expression of related notes and events. I had alacrity for both. Why couldn’t I study them at my age?

The school system was clearly failing me. The classes were boring repetitions of stuff I’d already been taught. There was no challenge. They had no courses or special classes for gifted students at that time. There was an entire curriculum for the retarded kids. They were referred to as retarded back then, not mentally challenged or inversely gifted or whatever the fuck the current politically correct phrase was. No matter what you called them, they were slow learners who had difficulty counting their fingers and toes in one sitting, but there were special education programs for the “short bus” kids, as well there needed to be. I’m not saying that they shouldn’t have been provided the programs that helped them to be functional people in the adult world. I don’t begrudge them in the least. I am decrying the fact that there were no programs for the opposite end of the intelligence scale. We had our own special problems too. I was certainly in need of guidance on how to use and live with this affliction.

The school system issued another of those IQ tests that administrators loved back in that era. I scored in the upper 1 percentile of intelligence. So what? People hear me say that and they think I feel myself superior to them. I most certainly do not. I’ve always called this genius label a gift/curse. It isn’t all fun and games to think at this level. In fact, it is sheer torment most of the time. I can never shut it off. I have never slept well without drugs or alcohol to shut the machine down for a few hours. I am hypercritical of myself in everything I do. I am never as good as I think I should be at anything. I am driven, driven, driven to the point where I often long for the sweet relief and peace of death. Some fucking gift, eh?

I’m sorry if that sounds bitter. I’m not, really. It is very difficult for many to understand that high intelligence comes with a large burden. It is a curse as well as a gift. If not for the curse, I wouldn’t appreciate and value the gift as much as I do.

That’s enough of my rant about dismantling the entire school system in favor of anything else.

Time at school plodded on, time in the band brought joy and happiness. I spent more and more time in the library reading anything and everything. I discovered a great new source of records at the UW library. They had rooms with stereo phonographs with headphones. I could read while listening to jazz, blues, and classical and even spoken word albums. The library served as an oasis where none of my detractors would ever think of looking for me.

During one of my random investigations I found magazines from the Audio Engineering Society, the AES, which then led to a series of articles by Dr. Robert A. Moog. In the articles Dr. Moog describe a new electronic process that provided literally unheard of control to the musician. This guy was the inventor of the Moog Synthesizer. He even looked like an inventor.

I copied down the formulas that Dr. Moog provided in this ultimately technical magazine, written by audio engineers for audio engineers. The calculus formulas described how voltage control was converted to current control that then led to frequency and timbre control. Confused yet? Well, math teacher Mr. Silverman just looked at the formulas and shook his head. He had no idea of what they meant. He could offer no suggestion of to decipher them. It was about then that I started to realize that high school teachers didn’t know much beyond the next day’s lesson plan.

At least I was able to see pictures of a Moog Synthesizer. They were housed in large cabinets containing many individual modules. As an electronic enthusiast already this seemed like the coolest thing I’d ever seen. I wanted one, but I wasn’t a University. I presumed that the modular systems were prohibitively expensive and they were. What I didn’t realize was that I was learning about the instrument that would revolutionize music in less than fifteen years.

I knew that I was expected to become an engineer as my grandfather’s ancestors had been for centuries. I liked math and electricity so Electrical Engineering looked like the best direction for me to pursue as a career. I wanted to be a professional musician first and foremost, but EE looked like a good backup plan and fit perfectly with music.

During January and February we rotated between bars Copper Kettle, Ramble Inn, and Apollo Club every weekend. Our song list continued to grow. My favourite new song was Gimme Some Lovin’ by The Spencer Davis Group. The introduction section of the song was nothing but large Hammond chords with the Leslie screaming at full speed. It was a pumping tune, one that got the dancers up bumping and rubbing together generating great heat. In other words, it was Dynasty’s type of tune.

We had earned quite a reputation as a hard rocking band with an attitude. Jack Ghostly was dour in those days. Ted Anderson with his massive frame and scowl was menacing. I looked like what I was, one pissed off Indian. Timmy was always smiling and happy back on the drums, which in itself was pretty spooky by contrast. Rock had a carefully crafted intense sneer borrowed from Elvis Presley, pushed to an extreme. Or maybe he was doing James Dean, I was never quite sure.

In mid-February one of my classmates I could barely stand told excitedly that The Animals were coming to the Arena. I put on my best bored face and said that I knew that.

“How did you know? I just heard. It was just announced.”

“I heard when we signed the contract to open for them,” I said in as deadpan a voice as I could muster.

Of course, in reality I had almost shit myself when Ted called me with the news that we would be opening for The Animals in early March. I mean, Herman’s Hermits was cool, but this was The Animals, one of the three hottest bands from England along with The Rolling Stones and The Beatles. This was the biggest thing that had ever happened to me.

The Animals latest single Help Me Girl was in frequent rotation on the radio. Len Nickelson papered his front window with Animal/Dynasty posters that he’d made to advertise Nickelson’s Music Guitar Teacher Jack Ghostly on lead guitar. I was disappointed that he didn’t add my name with as much money as I had been spending in his store lately.

We rehearsed a few extra nights the week of the big concert. We expanded our show from 90 minutes to 120 minutes. We were the only other band that night and scheduled for 90 minutes. If 120 minutes wasn’t enough we would drop into one of our long blues jam songs that we could play until sunrise if need be. And, we had to replace House of the Rising Sun from the show because it was an Animals song.

We got to the Arena about 3pm to our show that started at 8. We didn’t want to be late. We set up our equipment and jammed for a half hour to get used to the acoustics of the room. We sounded great in this big room with sound echoing off multiple surfaces. My Hammond and Rhodes felt and sounded better than ever. I was excited and nervous. I would eventually get over the stage fright of playing at these large shows, but that day I was shaking. My mother’s youngest brother told me that I looked “more nervous than a dog shitting razor blades.” Yeah, that was exactly the fucking image I was looking for at that exact second. Fucking eye-talian.

There was a huge banquet of food backstage. Fresh shrimp! I hadn’t eaten fresh shrimp since we left Louisiana. Where the hell did they get fresh shrimp in Duluth? There were also many different cheeses and fresh fruits. Fresh fruit? Again, where the fuck do you get fresh fruit in Duluth in March with the average daily temp still below freezing? It was an overwhelming display and there was just no end to the food. There was also every kind of beverage you could ever want from Coke to Scotch and around the world of alcohol. All states of inebriating beverages were represented. I had a glass of red wine that calmed my nerves slightly.

The first Animals to arrive backstage were John Weider (guitar) and Danny McCulloch (bass). They were really nice guys. I’ve always been a sucker for a good accent.

I talked with Danny McCulloch for awhile. He was new to the group as was John Weider. He explained that there had been a wave of discontent in the group over the past two years and all the original Animals had quit except for Eric Burden. Wait, no Allan Price?

“There came a showdown between Eric and Allan. Eric boasted that he was the group. They were a hit because of his voice. Allan claimed that it was song selection and arrangement that put them where they were. They were both right, but only one could prevail. It got pretty ugly, I was told. Ultimately, Allan quit because he didn’t agree with the direction that Eric wanted to go and Allan didn’t want to tour because he has an enormous fear of flying in air-o-planes. Me, I’m just happy to have a job playing music,” said Danny.

I expressed regret that I wasn’t going to meet Allan Price, who was the best rock keyboardist at the time. No other group had focused as much attention on the organ, except maybe Paul Revere.

Danny McCulloch was really a quite interesting guy. He told me of his fascination with writer Mary Shelley who was the wife of poet Percy Bysshe Shelley. Naturally, I had read Mary’s novel Frankenstein several times by that age, but Danny served up information that wasn’t available anywhere else, that couldn’t have been published at the time. He recited a biography of Percy Shelley that astounded me. Shelley had abandoned his pregnant first wife and their child in England and ran off to Switzerland with Mary eventually marrying her after his first wife committed suicide. He talked of their travels and interactions with some of the largest names in literary history like Lord Byron and John Keats.

The real bombshell was that Mary, who was the daughter of famed author Mary Wollstonecraft (A Vindication of the Rights of Women), lured Percy to her mother’s grave on his birthday and “buggered him good right there on the grave, I’ve heard.”

“Buggered, I’m not familiar with that term,” I admitted, feeling quite comfortable with this cat.

“You know, buggered, shagged, knocked in the knickers,” finally resorting to visual aid by poking his right index finger in and out of his cupped left hand.

“Oh, fucked,” I translated. “She fucked him on her mother’s grave?”

“That’s what, she foked him right there over her mother’s bones in the light of a full moon as the tale goes back home.”

I was in stitches. This cat was really cool. I could have talked to him for months, but then in came another member that Danny wanted to introduce me to. “Vic this Armond Blackwater, the cat is a real live Indian.”

“Vic Briggs,” he said, extending his hand to shake mine vigorously. “You’re an Indian? That is so cool.”

I was speechless. This was the first time since I’d moved to the Northland that anybody had actually thought it was cool that I was an Indian, other than other Indians. “Yes, I’m a Nakota Sioux. My grandmother’s tribe was from what is now North Dakota.”

“Fargo,” Vic blurted. “We’re playing there some bloody time. What do you play?”

“I’m an organist, a keyboard player,” I offered.

“Is that you’re sweet Hammond out there,” only he pronounced the word Haw-mawnd.

“Yes, that’s my A-105.”

“Do you mind if I use it tonight?” he asked.

“No, play away, man.”

“Reason is, they’ve got this Vox piece of shyte. I play piano and that tinny rubber-keyed wonk is a nightmare.” Or at least that’s what I surmised he said. I freely admit that I didn’t catch every word through his thick British accent. “Wait till Eric hears that I’m going to play the organ of a real Indian.”

8pm came and it was time for us to go on and play the audience into the auditorium. There was no sign of Eric Burden. By 8:30 the place was packed tight with few new arrivals. The crowd was courteous, but they didn’t come there to hear us. Around one hour into our set I saw a really short guy standing in the wings next to Danny. His arms were folded and Vic and Danny were both pointing at me. Apparently, Eric Burden had a romanticized fixation with American Indians or Native Americans as folks were starting to call us all. Burden watched me for awhile and then retired backstage until we finished our set at about 9:40.

We received respectable applause as we bowed and left the stage. Once I got backstage there he was, Eric Burden, THE MAN, or, as he’d later dub himself, the longhaired leaping gnome. He was about as tall as a garden gnome. We all shook hands with him and wished him a great show.

He looked directly into my eyes and said something like, “Ural anja east dar royt.”

“What?” What the fuck language was he speaking?

Vic translated, “He wants to know if you are really an Indian.”

“Yes, I’m a Nakota Sioux.”

“Sar somdum anja,” he grinned.

“He wants you to say something in Indian,” Vic interpreted.

Is he for real? He wants me to say something in Indian? That’s not a language. What kind of fucking question was this? What kind of fucking idiot asks a question like that? I thought.

“Hoka Hey,” I finally said.

“Wha der mine?” he asked.

“Literally translated it means ‘It is a good day to die’” I replied. Shit, I was starting to understand the little guy. “It reminds us that we must live every day to its fullest because we never know when it may be our last. Hoka hey, viellalo – my new friend.”

“Das cooo,” he smiled and walked off toward the stage.

I was stunned. Was he drunk? Was he having a stroke? Did I just meet the dumbest fucking guy on the planet? I strongly suspected the latter.

Eric Burden and The (New) Animals put on a great show. I loved hearing my Hammond with somebody else playing it. I kicked myself for not offering to play House with them. No balls yet at that point in my life. The crazy thing was that I knew Vic would have let me if I had offered. He did a half hearted rendition of the Price solo, but nothing like I would have done. Shit, msybe if I had the longhaired leaping gnome would have hired me, just to have a token Indian to use as a living, breathing totem.

What I didn’t understand was how did sing so clearly? He annunciated most words perfectly when he sang, but couldn’t complete a fucking sentence when he wasn’t singing.

Ted and I talked more with Burden after their set. Burden was drenched in sweat and dry ice residue. He’d used something that looked like a vacuum cleaner on the last song “Sky Pilot” that shot smoke all over the stage. It also deposited a film of sludge all over my Hammond and Rhodes keys.

Danny McCulloch and Vic Briggs shook my hand and said they looked forward to seeing me again. Of course, that never happened. I never saw these cats again. They were out of the band within two years in yet another Burden complete swap of personnel.

Eric Burden shook my hand limply and said something to me as he left. Again, I had no idea what he had said to me. He may have invited me to have tea with the Queen for all I knew. Or, it may just have been the sound he made whenever he crapped his pants. He did smell funny.

Years later Spade McQuade told me of opening for Burden in Europe in the 90’s. Spade confirmed that Eric was indeed one of the dumbest people on Earth. He also related how Burden would dress up in a Hollywood-style Indian headdress before each show and “donce some weird donce while chanting some sheet. It was foking weird, man. We were like, ‘Who the foke is this guy?’”

(Spade McQuade is from Belfast, Northern Ireland. I don’t understand him half the time either, but at least he’s always saying something intelligent and usually quite witty.)

Strangely, Rock avoided Burden backstage, didn’t approach him, and didn’t talk to him. I asked him about that on our way back across the High Bridge that spans between Duluth and Superior.

“Why didn’t you talk to Burden,” I asked.

In typical posturing my cousin said, “Let him come to me.”