Sunday, 27 January 2013

guest story - The White Falcon by Dennis J. D’Amato

Andy Cosmo is an old geezer now. You can usually find him at the music store downtown where I work.

The place is different from the way he remembers it. The hangers on the pegboard walls that once held saxophones and violins and clarinets for display now carry Les Pauls and Fender Jazz Bass guitars. He always complains about the floor and all of the drum kits and newfangled amplifiers that get in his way when he tries to walk around the place. It is a running joke that he can’t wait to get to the back to the bathroom to take a piss. Seems like he is always taking one or telling somebody he needs to. If you really want to hear him go off, all you have to do is mention somebody like Eric Clapton to him. He can’t stand anybody who started playing guitar after he was born. He tells me that rock and roll really screwed up music and put “real” musicians out of work.

“How the fuck can you listen to that crap?” he asks. “You know how many guys can’t get a fucking job because of that crap? That Clapton guy can kiss my ass!”

I pretend not to hear him. Besides, when I don’t answer him, it just pisses him off more. The rest of the guys in the store always get a kick out of that. Instead I usually choose to engage Andy in some meaningless banter.

“Hey Andy, how’s it hangin’?”

He responds with the predictable expletive.

Like I said, the guys at the store just get a kick out of the old bastard when he’s mad, and I know how to get to him madder than anyone else. He stops by the music store from time to time. I guess it gives him the chance to re-live his career, which, if you ask him, is quite impressive. You see Andy is what is known as a “cat.” A jazzman. You’ve seen guys like him in those old movies about big band leaders. You know, the guy sitting down holding an old Gibson or Gretsch wide body jazz guitar, strumming away and holding the rhythm section in check. Of course, you never realize how important that guitar guy is. He’s usually just window dressing for the band leader or the sort of fictional Frank Sinatra character in Pal Joey. Those days are long gone though. Now he’s a cantankerous old son of a bitch who seems to be mad at everything and everybody. Today he has a particular problem with Tommy Dorsey.

“Dorsey? Yeah, I played with him. He was a real prick”

This is news to me. Everybody I know who knew Tommy Dorsey can’t stop telling me what a great guy he was to work for.

“Why do you say that?”

“He wouldn’t let my wife go on the road with me and the band, so I had to make a decision.”


“I chose my wife of course.”

“But you got to stay with the love of your life, right?”

“Nah, the bitch left me a month later. Fucking Tommy Dorsey was a prick!”

He’s not exactly the most attractive person you ever saw either. He’s bald with those red things that old guys get on their heads sometimes and he tries to hide them with a comb over of about ten long hairs. He’s got stubbly grey beard hairs that struggle to the surface but don’t seem to make it. He walks like somebody hit him with a baseball bat across his knees. All bent over rickety. He moves as if he’s using one of those walkers, but he doesn’t have one. He probably should get one I guess.

His fingers are all bent out of shape from arthritis and he can hardly use them anymore. The only thing I ever see him use his hands for is to light up one of those el squillos stinky little cigars you see mafia guys smoke in the movies. That, or to flip somebody a feeble finger when he’s mad enough. Which is pretty much all the time.

I sometimes see him getting off of the Chapel Street bus around the corner from the store. Takes him about ten minutes to climb down the three steps to the sidewalk. He’s usually screaming at the bus driver about not taking his transfer or some such. If he’s not getting off the bus and screaming at the bus driver, he’s hobbling down State Street screaming at anyone who is passing by about whatever he thinks is the issue of the day. Usually at the top of his lungs. He always wears this green plaid woolen CPO jacket over a black t-shirt and a pair of stained dungarees. The holes in the jeans seem to move around from day to day, so I think he might have a few of them. But I’m not really sure. Anyway, no matter how he gets here, I can usually tell he’s around by the sound of his screaming voice. Or from the smell of those stinky cigars when he opens the door and enters the store.

In spite of all that, I have to say that I kind of like the old bastard. I kind of think he likes me too. Or at least he likes me as much as somebody as miserable as he is could possibly like anyone. He always seems to find his way over to me when he comes in. Maybe it’s because he knows I won’t put up with his attitude. Or maybe it’s because he knows I can give back anything he can dish out. Whatever the reason, I’m usually the guy he bothers when he’s here. The other guys at the music think he’s full of shit. I can see why. After all, we are talking about a guy who once told us that he knew Les Paul before he invented the famous guitar.

“That Les Paul son-of-a-bitch! I taught him every fucking thing he ever knew. I shuldda married Mary Ford before she got hooked up with that bastard.”

We all looked at him with predictable disbelief.

“You taught Les Paul how to play guitar?”

“Yeah, I showed him. That prick couldn’t hold a candle to Django. Django. He’s the best you ever wanna see. All these Les Paul bastards are just little pricks!”

He loves to call people pricks for some reason. And if they are really pricks, he loves to call them little pricks. I can’t disagree much with him about Django though. Django Reinhardt is the best I ever heard. He invented a style of guitar playing called “Gypsy” music. He lost fingers on his left hand in a fire or something, but he played stuff that people with twenty fingers haven’t been able to play the way he did. Andy always says that “Tiger Rag,” a song Django did with legendary violinist Stephan Grapelli, is the best music ever played. I can’t really disagree with him on that either.

Anyway, the only time Andy smiles is when he’s talking about Django. If you listen to Andy, Django is the only guitar player he didn’t teach how to play. 

Andy’s dissertation on Tommy Dorsey ends abruptly when he notices the Gretsch White Falcon on one of the guitar racks. His distraction is somewhat understandable. After all, a White Falcon is a thing of beauty. It’s a pure white lacquered semi-solid classic jazz guitar with all gold appointments. I think it was one of the first stereo guitars too. They say the new ones are not as good as the first ones made in the early fifties. I’ve never played one of the old ones so I can’t really say. The new ones are just fine for me though. I promised myself a couple of years ago that I would save up enough to buy one of those things. Maybe someday I will. Most guitar players kind of smile when they see a White Falcon. Of course, Andy is not like most people. His response is something different.

He pulls out one of his stinky cigars and starts to light up. Chucky the drum guy protestd before Andy could get a match to the stinker.

“Oh, come on Andy. Give us a fucking break with that, huh? It’s bad enough we have to smell you in here.”

Andy blows the match out and leaves the box of cigars on the glass display cabinet and returns his gaze to the White Falcon.

“I had one of those fucking things. They gave me the first one they made because I was the best guitar player around.”

This is just too much. The first one they made? Andy explains that back in 1954, Gretsch wanted him to promote the guitar. He said that because he taught Les Paul everything he knows and that he taught every guitar player in the world beside Django how to play that he was the only man who could get their new guitar off the ground. Total bullshit of course. Even by Andy’s standards. Doesn’t matter though.  It’s still quite a story.  

“Andy, you still got that thing or what?”

“Piece of shit! I gave it to some bum about thirty years ago. I think he used it for firewood.”

He waives his hand as if to brush the memory of the thing away. Obviously, he doesn’t want to talk about it. Andy notices that the others are not interested in his tall tales and figures it’s time to end the bullshit session until next time.

“Fucking bus is coming. You little pricks don’t know jack shit about jack shit. “

Andy stumbles his way to the glass door onto Chapel street, to the corner to wait for the bus. As he walks out the door, Chuck the drum guy yells to Andy as the door closes behind him.

“I forgot to tell you, Clapton called and he wants to take lessons.” Everyone laughs.
As the bus pulls up, I notice that there is something on the glass display case.  

“Hey, Chuck, what’s that?”

“It’s the old man’s pack of el squillos. I guess the maestro forgot them.”

I try to get out to the bus so I can give the old guy his stinkers, but it’s too late. The bus pulls away before I could get the driver’s attention.

I know where he lives though. I could drop by later and bring the things to him. I’m pretty sure nobody wants them polluting the air in the store for the next couple of days. And I sure as hell don’t’ want to hear him if he comes in looking for them if somebody throws them out. 

Like most weekdays, business is a little slow at the music store. Rock star wannabees can’t get their parents to spend money until the weekend, so on nights like this we get to spend most of the time jamming. We like to call it quality control. Somebody has to make sure our customers are getting the best product possible. Some of the regulars come in and join us. It’s really a pretty cool place to work when you are a musician. In honor of Andy, I choose to check out the White Falcon hanging on the wall. I don’t know how nice the older ones are, but I can’t imagine them being any better than the one I’m playing. Plugged into a Fender Twin Reverb and cranked up to eleven, it sure works for me. It’s particularly fine for fat blues rhythm stuff. Not exactly the kind of thing you would use to shred, but perfect for the blues. Unfortunately when we are busy jamming, closing time comes around like a flash. We have strict orders to make sure the place is shut down on time. We don’t’ want to cut into the owner’s ongoing poker game downstairs. So we make sure we follow this one rule to the letter. Register counted, money in the safe, lights out, alarm set and me and the rest of the guys are ready to boogie. We’re halfway out the door when Chuckie points to the counter.

“Hey, don’t forget Cosmo’s stogies.”

 “Oh yeah, thanks for reminding me.” 

I am able to grab them just before the alarm is set, and we all get out before it goes off. We say our usual good-byes and make plans to maybe hook up later to slug some brews and see who is playing around town. Bands love to let us sit in. They figure they can snag a bigger discount if they do. We let them think that. It’s just one of the perks of working at the place. I’m kind of looking forward to playing later. Sometimes no matter how much you play, it just isn’t enough. I had just enough time to stop at Burger King for a Whopper and a Coke and to take a quick shower before meeting the guys downtown. Oh, and I had to drop off Andy’s stinkers on the way. That would only take a minute. I’m sure Andy isn’t the kind of guy who is going to invite me in for a glass of wine or anything. 

Andy lives in this apartment building on Elm Street. You know the kind. The entry is finished in old art deco tile that probably hasn’t been washed in about fifty years. It reminds me of Grand Central Station’s bathrooms. It sort of smells likes that too. Andy’s apartment is on the first floor and has windows looking out over the busy street. I wonder how he gets any sleep in there. It’s hotter than hell out, and his windows are wide open. The rusted old air conditioner is not on. Probably because it doesn’t work or Andy can’t afford to run it. I have to admit that I’m curious about what he does in there all day by himself, so I sneak up to one of his windows and hear a familiar tune playing on his radio or record player or something.

Of course, it’s Django’s “Tiger Rag” playing. It’s kind of strange though. I don’t hear Stephan Grapelli playing along. I never heard of a version with just Django. Now I’m really curious. I move closer to the window and poke my head in.

I’m amazed at what I see.

Andy Cosmo is sitting with his back to me in one of those old tapestry covered over- stuffed chairs you see in funeral homes and old black and white Scrooge movies. And he’s holding it in his hands. Its white lacquer has yellowed with age, and the gold appointments are worn and faded. But that’s it for sure. There can be no mistake. He’s playing the White Falcon. The reason there was no Stephan Grapelli on the record is because it wasn’t a record at all. It was Andy Cosmo playing “Tiger Rag” on the White Falcon.

No, he’s not playing it. He’s making love to it. His disfigured fingers are flying over the ebony neck with great ease, as if it were that day in 1954 when he first got it.

He’s playing the most beautiful music I’ve ever heard.

Every note true to Django’s original rendition.

But with the kind of heart and soul that can only be captured by the greatest of masters.

Suddenly, I reach into my pocket and I remember why I came here. The el squillos. Of course. I came to give them to him.

The melodies and chords continue, though, and I find that I do not want them to stop. No. The stogies can wait. I think I’ll give them to him tomorrow. I’m too busy listening to Andy playing “Tiger Rag.”

Maybe he’ll do “Sweet Georgia Brown” or “Honeysuckle Rose” or some other Django classic. The Whopper and the guys downtown can wait a few minutes. Right now, I just want to listen to Andy Cosmo play that White Falcon. And you know, I think maybe he actually did teach Les Paul everything he knows. Maybe Tommy Dorsey really was a prick. I’m not so sure anymore. I’ll wait until I see him next time to ask. For now, I’ll just listen. And I realize that I can’t wait to hear his next story.

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