My son was born in late 2012, so I decided to document my bass playing history for him (in case he ever decides to pick up an instrument). I am certain none of you care that much
, but I thought I'd share the story here:
Fortunately it is the success I’ve had during the day as a digital marketing strategist that has afforded me the access to the life I enjoy. I have a beautiful daughter, a handsome infant son and a very understanding wife. All of whom put up with Daddy traveling for work, and, more importantly, put up with Daddy playing in a rock ‘n roll bar band just about every other Saturday night.
I am a 40-something typical American male. I was born in the post-hippie era 70s to wonderfully normal parents who believed in freedom of choice for their kids. As part of their freedom of choice approach to parenting, they readily allowed my brother and I to pursue whatever hobbies or interests we showed an interest in. I somehow ended up following in my father’s footsteps in many ways. I played hockey as a teenager, suffered shoulder injuries and took a very strong interest in music.
My best friend growing up was (and still is) Mike. He and I met when I was in third grade and he was in fourth. He was the new kid in the neighborhood and he and I got on immediately. In fact, there are very few adventures from my childhood (and young adulthood) that don’t include him. Mike’s dad played drums. His father was fairly successful without it becoming a career. His band opened locally for some of the big name rock bands that came around in the 60s and 70s. Mike had picked up his father’s instrument at a fairly young age. One of my first memories of Mike was walking into his basement and him showing me his snare drum that he practiced on in the school band. He tried to show me how to do paradiddles and I failed miserably.
As the years passed, Mike and I became very close friends and on an autumn day we were riding the school bus home. I was in 7th grade, Mike in the 8th, and he told me that he and another friend, Keith, were going to start a band. Keith played guitar and they needed a bass player. I reminded Mike that my dad was the bass player for his bar band I was sure that he would let me use his gear. And suddenly, like an arranged marriage, I was introduced to my lifelong love.
Years before, when I was about 8 or 9 years old, I took acoustic guitar lessons … for about a month. I wanted to play guitar like my dad but didn’t have the patience for lessons. To this day I am a very impatient person, but as a kid with undiagnosed ADHD (I was called hyperactive), being forced to learn scales and repetitive notes was about as interesting as math and history. My parents stuck to their philosophy and never forced me to practice and while I am sure they were disappointed I didn’t finish my lessons, they let me drop guitar. To this day I regret having not kept up with it. Can you imagine what kind of a guitarist I would be if I was playing for 32 years?
After Mike said it would be OK for me to play bass in his new “band” I went home and asked my father if I could use his gear … and if he could teach me to play bass. He had an early 70s Gibson Ripper blonde bass and an Ampeg B15 flip top amp. When I see those B15s today, they look so small, but when I was 12 years old it was a monster; a towering box of bass with glowing orange tubes that shined through the grille at its top. And the Ripper! While the body was 15 inches wide at its apex, it felt like an unwieldy weapon in my untrained hands. The neck was so long I could barely play a low F while plucking the strings over the pickup.
As far back as my memory goes, I remember my father playing music. As the ultimate Who fan he named me after Pete Townshend and my brother after Keith Moon. He played guitar in college and was in various forms of a band with my “uncle” (his best friend since college) throughout my childhood when he switched to bass. I have vivid memories of going with him to his regular Saturday afternoon gig at a marina/bar when his duo, Russell and Marshall, played for the boaters at a local lake stop. I was the only kid there and I sat in a booth right next to my father and uncle watching them entertain the crowd of regulars singing hits from the 50s, 60s and 70s. I remember my dad and his friends jamming in our living room when we moved into our house when I was five years old.
As an older man now, I have an appreciation for the Gibson ES335 Mr. Martinez played - but when I was little it was simply a guitar - an instrument to play rock music on. A powerful device to strum while he and my father and other people drinking beer from cans and eating vegetables dipped in fondue sang the popular songs of the day. I have vivid memories of joining my dad as a “roadie” to private parties for the last band he was in. I remember overhearing him tell my mother stories of how they kept one guy in the band only because he got them good gigs even though he was clearly the weakest member of the group. I remember hearing stories of infidelity and band politics. It was my first exposure to the real life of a bar band.
My dad’s philosophy to teaching me bass was so ingenious that it maintained my interest in a way the “professional” teacher at the music store ever could. To this day I have employed the technique during the few stints as a teacher I’ve had myself. It’s simply brilliant. He said, “what song do you want to learn to play?” He immediately got the bass on my lap and plugged into the amp. Why was this so important and what makes that a big deal? Simply ask yourself this: what attracts us to rock? Is it the hours of musical theory study? Is it the study of how a chord is built and why it works? Not exactly. It’s the power of a bass drum, a cymbal crash, a booming bass note or a screaming guitar solo. While it is undeniably important to learn all about how and why, it is never in question that the desire to achieve the rock “outcome” is always the driving force behind why we play. And by not bogging me down in theory, my father allowed me to jump right in and feel the power behind becoming a rock musician.
So, to answer the question: “What song do you want to learn to play?” I responded with “Down Under” by Men At Work. Not sexy, I know, but little did I know that that was a great choice. Very simple – three chords essentially. And the fact that it was uncomplicated - at least the way my dad showed me - made it easy for me to quickly start rocking. Yes, it is arguable whether or not Men At Work can be considered “rocking” in any way, shape or form. It turned out that Keith didn’t know “Down Under” so the second song I learned was the one song he did know: “Should I Stay or Should I Go” by The Clash.
Our band had its first and only practice in Mike’s parent’s basement. My dad came along and helped me lug in his B15. He agreed to stay for our whole rehearsal. He probably wanted to make sure I didn’t mess up his gear because he was actually making money with it. Somehow, he was able to sleep through the racket we made and I still can see him slumped down on some tires that lined the back of Mike’s parent’s basement while we muddled through the Clash classic a good (or bad) ten to fifteen times. I’m sure it sounded awful but he supported it and watched through a sleepy eye as I became a bass player.
And, even though the band collapsed after that one practice, Mike and I still played together, bass and drums, very regularly. Soon thereafter, my father bought me a Harmony short scale bass guitar and a practice amp with a 10 inch speaker with the name “Stadium Bass” emblazoned on it. That summer, I trekked across the neighborhood to Mike’s house almost every day with the amp in one hand and the guitar in the other so that he and I could “practice” together in his bedroom where his drumset was set up. I would play the same simple lick repetitively while Mike bashed his drumkit. We were “writing” music, and, while there were certainly no hits, it was incredibly important to both our development as musicians.
Around this time, I was very much into bands like Yes, Genesis and the Who. I was also starting to get into RUSH. For Christmas that year, I was given the “Exit… Stage Left” VHS tape and I watched it incessantly. I obsessed over Geddy Lee’s style of play and his prowess on the four string. I remember being shocked (and changed forever) when I realized that the solo runs in “YYZ” were bass and not lead guitar. How did he do that on bass? Can I do that?
While I was studying what could be done on the bass, I became enamored with the rock greats: John Entwhistle, Chris Squire, Paul McCartney, Jack Bruce and a handful of others. I started learning about different instruments and styles. I recently came across a notebook from 8th grade English class where we were required to keep a journal. The teacher, Mrs. Evans, asked us to write in one of our entries about something we would love to own. My response was a Gibson Ripper bass and a Rickenbacker Longhorn (which is what my father called the 4001s).
I wanted to play all the time and become a better bass player. And even though I was raised on the Who and Yes, I wanted to be like Geddy. Something about his style appealed to me. Perhaps it was the fact that he wasn’t simply playing the root notes – Hell, I could do that! Maybe it was the fact that he sang and played keyboards while he played. Whatever it was, he became my role model for playing bass.
In 1984, RUSH released their “Grace Under Pressure” album … this was a turning point for me on multiple levels. Number one, it was the first album I had ever eagerly anticipated. When I first discovered RUSH, my father gave me two cassettes: one was “Abacab” by Genesis (which I LOVED) and the other was “Signals” by RUSH. I was not quite old enough to be counting down the days for its release but I remember knowing it was coming and that I couldn’t wait for it. One Saturday morning in 1984, I woke up to find the “Grace Under Pressure” album in vinyl sitting on the chair in my bedroom. Once again, my dad came through. Apparently he picked it up on his way to his gig (band job – he’d call it) the night before, and he placed it there when he got home. To this day, nothing beats the feeling of peeling the plastic shrink wrap off an LP, drawing the album in its paper sleeve from the cardboard cover and pulling the black disc out to drop the needle for the first time. I listened to it front to back multiple times that day. Later, I gave it a spin with Mike and then later with John Spitzly – another drummer friend – and his guitar playing older brother.
Additionally, this was when MTV and music videos were in high gear and RUSH had their first music video. It was for the song “Distant Early Warning” and in it, Geddy had abandoned his Rickenbacker and was playing a Steinberger headless bass. As part of my bass playing affliction, I had to know more about this bass and so I got guitar magazines and found out all I could. One night, my dad saw a “knockoff” called an “Alien” bass which had the tuners at the base of the body and four jazz pickups paired up to be humbucking. It was black (like Geddy’s Steinberger) and so he surprised me by buying it that night and handing it to me soon thereafter. It was awesome – I am sure it would be a disappointment today in quality, etc., but at the time, to me it was Geddy’s bass. I played it constantly… with Mike and my Stadium Bass amp.
As I grew up, I had a few other basses; a Guild Crossbow, an Aria Pro II and for my graduation from Kittatinny Regional High School, my parents gave me the Carvin guitars catalog and told me I could order any custom bass I wanted. I designed a Carvin LB-75 five string bass with black everything. Black tuners, black bridge, black fretboard, black neck. It was beautiful … and HEAVY. With a neck-thru design, it weighed a ton, but with active electronics, it sounded sweet.
When I was a senior at high school and Mike went off to college we started a band called Afterdark (PM? “P”ete and “M”ike? Get it?). Mike had been writing some progressive metal music and recording it on his Tascam four track. We found a singer named Pat (I can’t remember his last name) and a guitarist named Nick. We played mostly songs Mike had written and our biggest gig was a party at a high school girl’s house that ended early because we were drinking under age and got caught. It wasn’t meant to last, but it was my first real band.
When Mike and I were at Glassboro State College together, we did some more musical collaboration (he wrote all the music, I wrote some of the lyrics) and decided to really record some of the Afterdark tunes. Mike found some musicians at school to play on a four song demo we did at Eyeball Studios. I affectionately named the demo “Fourcast” and the songs we recorded were called “I, Destiny,” “Fortress of Solitude” “The Rebel” and a fourth I can't recall. I played bass and Mike played drums and rhythm guitars. It was very cool and very ambitious as well. Sadly, it went nowhere, but some of the songs were played on the college radio station, which of course was celebrated by all us and our friends sitting around a stereo and toasting wildly to ourselves when the DJ introduced and spun our tracks.
My first “gigging” band was one I played with thanks, once again, to Mike. After sophomore year, Mike hooked me up with a Christian Rock band he was playing in called “Millenium.” They had done some originals before I joined, but by the time I got there, they were doing all 70s rock covers. I was young and happy to be playing in a band in bars. It was my first exposure to the bar band scene. We played wherever we could: local gin joints, town picnics, church gatherings. Rick Molner, the singer/guitarist, and his wife led the band and booked all of our gigs.
It was also here that I learned a little about band politics. Rick began to take a little extra money off the top because he found the gigs. This did not seem fair to me but I was the youngest and didn’t voice too many complaints. It also introduced me to the rigor of rehearals and late night load outs after our job was done. I’m not sure how many gigs we actually played before we split up, but it was a huge influence on me and really whet my appetite to play live.
After college, Mike and I still wanted to make music, so we started a band to play the songs Afterdark had created. We found a guitarist named Kevin who was, in hindsight, the most amazing guitarist I’ve played with to date. No offense to any other guitarists I've played with, but Kevin was touched by God. I absolutely did not appreciate it at the time.
Mike met Kevin at a Sam Goody record store in the mall near his office. He was a skinny kid from Boston with long straight blond hair. Mike simply asked him - because he had a certain look, “Do you play guitar?” He said “yes,” and before we knew it, he was in our new band. We liked the same stuff: King Diamond, Fates Warning, Queensryche and Living Colour. He was a few years younger than us, but he fit right in.
We still needed a singer. After a few duds (including former guitarist, Nick), I hooked up with an old high school acquaintance named Sig at some reunion sort of thing. Sig, Mike and I got to be friends toward the end of high school but instantly lost touch after graduation. He was always in the school chorus and plays with his baritone voice. On a whim I asked if was into singing in a metal band and he was. After a few “auditions” he was in.
Kevin quickly decided the Afterdark songs weren’t going anywhere and we dumped all of them but “I, Destiny” which he had added his own unique style too. It too was soon dropped from the set in favor of the dozen or so solid metal originals that we played in clubs in the NJ and occasionally NYC area. We changed the name of the band to Free Bozo (a long, long story goes with that name). It was a blast. Sig became one of my best friends and we eventually went into the studio.
In Lodi, NJ was a studio that the band Samhain recorded their albums in. As I was a Glenn Danzig fan, and he was one of Sig’s biggest influences, it was a thrill to record there. Our engineer was a guy named Bill Zircher who had done a lot of work with R&B and dance bands – most notably SWV (Sisters With Voices). We recorded six songs at $75 an hour. I am not sure how any of us afforded that – other than Mike, we all had relatively paltry jobs, but Mike was saving for his wedding.
The six songs made up the EP Lost in BozoLand were Age of Rage, Sally Was Wrong, Sick, Waiting to Fall, Requiem and Playing God. Each song had its own special place or meaning. Age of Rage was a reaction to the PMRC and the censorship of metal music. Sally was in reference to Sally Struthers and her pleading “feed the children” commercials that flooded television. Sick was also a commentary on television of the time. It was pre-reality TV but critiqued talk shows, Geraldo and televangelists. Playing God was about egos and their influences. Requiem was written as a group and had a little bit of a RUSH influence to it (including some cool interplay between me and Mike during the solo section). What was great about it was that we all sat in Mike’s room one night and wrote the lyrics as a band. You can sense a little bit of everyone’s story in the words. Waiting to Fall was the only Free Bozo song that I wrote completely. I did it in drop D tuning and was influenced initially by King’s X (although, Kevin’s style doesn’t reflect it but certainly makes it a Bozo tune). The lyrics were written in my bedroom after I had a little too much to drink and imagined what an addict must feel like as he recognizes that he has lost the battle.
My gear at the time was initially a Yorkville Sound B-15 stack with a Fender P-bass Lyte and my heavy Carvin. I then went to a Hartke 3500 amp head, a Hartke 210 X-porter cab and one of the two Yorkville cabs.
It was in 1993 that I got my first “real” bass. Geddy Lee had come back around full-circle as it relates to instruments. He had gone from his Fender Jazz of the 70s, to a Rickenbacker, to a Steinberger to a Wal bass. Then, when their Counterparts album came out in 1993, Geddy went back to his 1972 black Jazz bass (the one Fender modeled his signature bass after). Since RUSH was my favorite band, and Free Bozo was playing a lot, I decided to get myself a “Geddy” bass. The signature model did not exist yet, so I went to the music store I frequented at the time and selected a red Fender Jazz bass. It had a rosewood neck and, little did I realize, a longer upper horn. It was part of a short lived era of Fender Jazz basses that has come to be known as the “boner” basses and was one of the few Jazz bass body modifications ever made (and since discontinued).
Over the years the bass wore in nicely. A few casual chips of paint came off here and there, the nut had to be replaced from overuse, the case was broken and neck adjusted multiple times. It became the only bass I played in Free Bozo and eventually was one of only two basses I owned at any one time.
After Free Bozo finished recording Lost in BozoLand, the band began to shake up. Kevin talked about quitting off and on and eventually he had to leave the band to go back to school. When we broke up in the mid 90s, I kind of stopped playing. I would go through spurts, but had lost any aspiration to become a bassist, and was resigned to make it a hobby. I would play occasionally, but didn’t really have a desire to do it for a number of years.