Guitar Zero

Can a 53-year-old with no musical experience live out his rock ’n’ roll dream? With a little help from an over-the-hill keyboardist, a 10-year-old drummer and rocker Sonny Geraci, our writer makes one last grab for greatness.
I’m 53-years-old and have never rocked a day in my life.

It might seem like an odd time to start, but this has been in the works for a while — since 1964 to be exact. That was the year I fell boom in love with the Beatles. Grainy, black and white footage of four shaggy kids with guitars and drums pounding out the most infectious noise I’d ever heard is indelibly stamped in my brain.

The first time I saw them and all those screaming girls, I decided I’d have my own rock band one day. But like a lot of things, that dream was shuffled off, forgotten, lost somehow, somewhere along the way.

After lying dormant through marriage, parenthood and my turn as a competitive eater, the bug got hold of me again. But this time it’s older, meaner, and it’s not letting go.

I realize my hair is graying, my neck is getting turtle-skinned and the former buzzes of my generation — Rolling Rock, Marlboros and those that will remain anonymous — have given way to new friends with names like Rogaine, Viagra and Lipitor. But I’ve also still got that arrogant, narcissistic, self-indulgent baby-boomer spirit that isn’t quite ready for the rocking chair.

Sure, Led Zeppelin sold out to Cadillac, Bob Dylan has helped peddle women’s underwear and — gulp! — a Beatles song somehow turned up in a Target commercial, but I still really believe in this music.

That’s why, even though I don’t play an instrument or have any real musical ability, I’m going out to find my Paul, George and Ringo. And I am going to rock.

"Hey, you haven't heard me lately. I've gotten really good! Me and another guy played at a retirement home for some senior citizens, and we really rocked the place!"
- Phil Angelo

My best friend, Phil Angelo, is a rotund, 62-year-old painting contractor with a thin, curly, white wisp of hair that fluffs back into an Elvis-like pompadour. From our 30 years of friendship, I know that any place that houses a piano — be it a church, school, music store, retirement home, restaurant lounge or bar — will never be safe from him.

Once it’s discovered, Phil’s addiction kicks in and someone is going to be serenaded with the likes of “Blueberry Hill” or “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.” It’s his musical era, and just like me, he’s stuck in it. It’s a no-brainer to ask him to join my band.

“Are you kidding? I’ve been waiting for this shot my whole life,” he explodes. “You know, ever since my heart operation, my little finger in my left hand keeps getting stiffer. I don’t how much longer it’s gonna hold out. I’m running out of time.”

Running out of time.

I get goose bumps. That’s just the kind of desperation I want in this band.

“That’s it then,” I declare. “We’re officially the Running Out of Time Band.”

"Got to pay your dues / If you wanna sing the blues / And you know it don't come easy ... "
- Richard Starkey (aka Ringo Starr)
I soon notice I'm subconsciously evaluating everyone I know for a spot in the band. I work as a painter at a huge apartment complex that employes a lot of people, and I'm mentally auditioning each and every one of them.
Dan, the head landscaper, was once a drummer. I recall he used to play in a rock band on the biker bar circuit. He's the kind of guy who would wear a leather bandana and a Harley-Davidson T-shirt to church.
Just the kind of outlaw attitude I’m looking for.

The day after I tell him I’m starting a band, he pulls up in his truck and sticks a dirty old tape into his dirty old cassette player. “Listen to this,” he says proudly.

Eager? Check.

I can’t tell at first if it’s the tape or the cassette player that’s gone bad. A few more seconds of listening and I’m sure it’s neither.


No, the music just sounds like it’s been lying out on a sunny dashboard for years.

“God, you guys are great,” I tell Dan’s big happy face, while silently devising a way to eventually sidestep this nice man’s interest.

Yeah, Dan, about that band I was going to start ...

Candidate No. 2: Rob the roofer. His résumé? I once heard him play Pink Floyd’s “Wish You Were Here” on a kid’s guitar he fished out of an apartment complex Dumpster.

This guy is a front-runner.

“Well that’s about the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” he replies when I ask him to join. “You can’t even play guitar! And I’ve heard you singing on the job.”

“So is that a no?” I reply innocently.

Stay cool. It’s OK to eat a little crap if it means getting a good guitarist.

“And here’s another thing I don’t like,” he continues. “What’s the big deal with this my bandtalk? A band is supposed to be a group.”

OK, enough of the crap sandwich. See, Rob, it is my band. I’m the alpha dog. Mick Jagger ruled the Rolling Stones, not Keith Richards.

I think all of this, but of course, say none of it.

"All my rowdy friends have settled down ... Everybody just wants to go back home / I myself have seen my wilder days / All my rowdy friends have settled down"
- Hank Williams Jr.
Has every one of my friends, except Phil and, God bless him, Dan the landscaper, given in to old age? What’s up with the “Won’t Get Fooled Again” generation?

I’m a few weeks into my search, and so far, I only have a keyboard player. Assuming I can round up other musicians, I still have to find a practice spot, learn songs and find gigs.

The mature, practical solution would be to kill the whole idea and roll off into over-the-hill obscurity. But I’ve never been particularly mature or practical, and the dread of my becoming socially invisible slaps me in the face.

With my last bit of grit, I remember an old high-school buddy, Andy Hawes. I haven’t seen him in a few years, but the last time I did, he was still playing with his band, The Fabulous Voices. I find his phone number and give him a call to share my dilemma.

“I think I can help you find a drummer and a guitar player,” he calmly responds.

“Are you sure they’d commit? I’m finding that no one has the time.”

“Oh, yeah, they’d be happy to do it. The guitarist has about 10 years of experience and can play just about anything after listening to it. And the drummer? Well, I know for a fact he’s been playing since preschool. And, uh, they even have a place to practice: a little music school out in Kent.”

Goodness gracious, great balls of fire! This is too good to be true.

“Who are these guys?” I ask, dizzy with excitement.

“My 14-year-old son, Tyler, and his 10-year-old little brother, Mason.”

My jaw drops.

“And don’t worry,” Andy assures me. “They’re really good.”

"You're quiet," I say to my 10-year-old drummer, Mason, who's reading a book as we wait for practice to begin. "Kinda like Ringo ..." He looks up from his book, squinches his nose, looks me dead in the eyes and asks "What's Ringo?"
A week later, Phil, Andy, Tyler, Mason and I meet for our first practice at the kids’ music school, Jam Sessions, in Kent.
The school, which specializes in rock bands, is the brainchild of 28-year-old musician Kurt Reed. He’s a handsome little guy with a perpetual smile in his eyes, and he’s delighted with the idea of turning this lopsided group into a real band. He escorts us to our practice space — a fully equipped studio with piano, speakers, microphones and drum kit —and helps us set up.

Phil and I have rehearsed the classic rockabilly song, “(My Gal is) Red Hot,” so we perform it for the others. Afterward, Kurt picks up a bass and shows the kids what he wants them to do in the song. It’s only then that I realize my glaring oversight. I still don’t have a bass player. In a moment of sheer panic, I ask Kurt if he’d like to do it.

“Are you sure?” he asks tentatively. He has to be kidding.

A few minutes later we’re all jamming out “Red Hot.” Phil is pounding the keyboards, Mason is right there on drums. Kurt is bouncing on the bass, Andy adds some harmonica fills and Tyler: Damn! On the first take, he burns out the dirtiest lead since James Burton played alongside Elvis. To my ears, he’s a prodigy. I’m the singer on this tune, and my intense biting belt is exactly what the song calls for.

For the first time since the beginning of this rock ’n’ roller coaster, I’m feeling like I can pull this off. I’ve got a cupid-dart-straight-in-the-heart, love-at-first-sight kind of high going when Kurt looks over and asks me what instrument I play.

I cringe with inferiority and fess up to the fact that I’m the lone fraud in the group. Without missing a beat, he hands me a guitar and shows me a few simple chords.

While everyone waits, Kurt insists I strum while counting out a 12-bar shuffle. It’s awkward and slow, but I nail the rhythm, and it sounds right to me. It turns out this little slice of knowledge is the equivalent of rock ’n’ roll duct tape. You can use it to play hundreds of songs.

I’m still a little overwhelmed with the idea when I catch a glimpse of myself in the studio mirror. I like the look. It’s me: the guitarist, the singer, the poet. All those screaming Beatles fans back in ’64 are screaming for this guy.
"To everything -- Turn, turn, turn / There is a season -- Turn, turn, turn / and a time to every purpose, under heaven ..."
- The Byrds
Our first goal is to get good enough to perform at the Jam Session recital in four weeks. We pick three songs for our set: “Red Hot,” “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” and a simple, doo-wop-style ballad I wrote, called “Just the Thought of You.”

As smart as Phil and I think we are, we find out there’s much more to this than just letting it fly. There are six people in this band. That means playing together. At first, Phil and I flub through several takes before playing an entire song with no errors.

What seemed to be so easy alone is truly difficult to execute as a band. But it’s also fun. Our practices are in the evening, after Phil and I have put in long workdays. We go in tired, but there are moments of successful grooves, times when we’re getting it. We leave each night as excited as high-schoolers.

I practice my singing and guitar at home; my dog has finally found something he hates more than ambulance sirens and vacuum cleaners. A few days and a few hundred doggie treats later, he decides to tolerate my 12-bar blues.

Then there’s my wife, who doesn’t exactly swoon from my guitar playing. “A little too much sensory overload,” is what she calls it. So every day, I banish myself to our basement, practicing hard enough to get some serious calluses on my fingertips. And every practice, I get better — I’m no Jimi Hendrix, but I’m better.

"You just pick a chord, go twang, and you've got music."
- Sid Vicious

It’s a late-winter Saturday afternoon as we enter the Robin Hood bar in downtown Kent for the Jam Session recital. The place has the worn look of many generations of collegiate parties: cheap neon beer signs, worn linoleum floors, ancient pinball machines.

When the show begins, it’s the younger kids first — the 8- to 12-year-olds who have just started lessons. It’s good for me to see these kids, because my guitar skills are still iffy.

Soon, I have the demented courage of a psychopath. I look the part, too. I’ve cut my hair into a Mohawk. I’m wearing a wife-beater T-shirt, rolled-up jeans, white socks and thick black work shoes. I am a white-trash, James Dean/Iggy Pop peacock, and I can’t wait to shake my tail feathers.

When it’s our turn, I’m motionless on stage, listening for the clicks of Mason’s drumsticks that set us in motion. Four taps of E-flat from Phil’s piano, and we blast off.

More than four decades of pent-up rock ’n’ roll adrenaline rushes from my guts to my vocal chords. I’m mainlining from the fountain of youth. My muscles feel bigger. I have a cocky swagger, grooving with my weird Frankenstein bounce-dancing. I am an Incredible Hulk of confidence.

After the first song ends, Phil launches into “A Whole Lotta Shakin’.” He’s pounding the keys so hard the keyboard is bouncing, right to the edge of the stage. Kurt shuffles over and knees the piano in place, and everything is fine again. Until we get to the chorus, and a 20-second solo suddenly turns into a dizzying 50-second detour: Phil has lost his place and can’t seem to bring the song back.

He eventually finds the verse, and we finish strong. But the glitch has us unnerved, and it shows. In our last song, the chorus dissolves into chaos. Right there, I stop everything and ask the audience for a do-over. Not the most rock ’n’ roll moment, but we do it right the second time, and everyone applauds our spunk.

Afterward, I’m beaming — even with all the screw-ups. We were performing in front of middle-aged band mothers and rather-be-on-the-couch dads, but for that moment, I felt ... powerful.

"As long as my phone keeps ringing with requests for me to play, I'll keep playing."
-Sonny Geraci, Cleveland rock icon
I now have a legitimate band. But I’m restless. I still feel like I’m missing something I can’t quite put my finger on. I need a pep talk. So one night, I go on the Internet and try to find contact information for some of Cleveland’s rock royalty. They’re people just like me, right? They probably have some good advice.

I either send e-mails or leave phone messages with Michael Stanley, Sonny Geraci and Alex Bevan. I hear nothing, and I’m about to give up. Then comes the day when I pick up the phone and Sonny Geraci is on the other end.

The lead singer for the Outsiders and Climax, scoring top 10 hits with both groups, is next-door-neighbor nice as I bombard him with all my questions about playing rock ’n’ roll.

“I’m not one of those guys who thinks it ended with us. There’s still a lot of good stuff out there,” Geraci counters, after I lament the music of today. “It may be different than I prefer, but it’s good.”

Then what Geraci says next hits me square between the eyes. It’s the answer I didn’t know I was searching for.

“Back when rock ’n’ roll started, it was 18-and 19-year-olds writing for teenagers. It was honest music made by kids. Not contrived. Some of the groups today are more concerned with choreography and lighting than the actual singing and playing.”

Honest music. Not contrived. Wow! These are the virtues I want to impart on Tyler and Mason and the rest of the commercialized, computerized, American Idol-ized world. It’s what I want most out of my rock band experience: to show off the simple, earthy tones of my youth before they become completely lessened to the world.

“Hey, listen. I gotta go,” Geraci tells me as his words sink in. “Let me know if you need anything more.”

I beg him for one last pointer.

“I wouldn’t start a band with a 62-year-old keyboardist.”
"Call me a relic, call me what you will/ Say I'm old fashioned, say I'm over the hill / Today's music ain't got the same soul / I like that old time rock and roll ..."
- Bob Seger
Finally, we have a real gig. Sure, we’re piggybacking on Andy’s band, The Fabulous Voices, but we get to play a three-song set when they take a break.

Phil’s nervous. He has the gout. But the boys are excited. Kurt is, too. The place is packed. We give Phil’s toe a little reprieve from the pain with a few Seven and Sevens.

I’m more concerned about screwing up this time, because this is a bar and restaurant with people eating and drinking — people who can leave. Andy’s band has 35 years of professional polish, and this is their crowd. I don’t want to come off as a pathetic wannabe riding on my friend’s guitar strings.

But when the time comes, I look at my band, and they are stomping their feet, ready to go. That gets me pumped. Then I hear, “Ladies and gentlemen! Let’s hear it for the Running Out of Time Band!”

Bomp! Bomp! Bomp! Bomp!

“My gal is red hot!” I screech to the audience.

“Your gal ain’t doodly squat!” comes my band mates’ taunting reply. And we’re rocking.

I see an old lady put her fingers in her ears and mouth the words, “It’s too loud!” That just makes me sing louder. I can’t hear if we’re good or bad, but I can see one thing: People are dancing. They’re dancing like mindless banshees to my caterwauling. Not the screaming girls of the Beatles’ Shea Stadium days, just moms and grandmas — giddy, goofy and good enough for me.

Next, as we tear through “A Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On,” for the first time in the thousands of times he’s sung it, people are actually shaking their asses as Phil sings. And when we close the set with “Just the Thought of You,” men and women crowd the dance floor, arm-in-arm, holding each other tight.

And with that in sight, I get it. For a brief moment, on this night, in this room, I am a true rock ’n’ roller. It’s the best high ever, and it’s over way too soon.

Afterward, back at one of the tables, Kurt asks if this is the end. We want to keep the band going, but Phil and I aren’t delusional. We both know there really isn’t anything in it for us other than the thrill of getting up on stage and banging out the rebel yelps of our youth. Just then, 14-year-old Tyler walks up to our table to say goodbye. But before he walks away, he has one last request.

“Coondog, if you don’t mind, I think the band should learn 'Johnny B. Goode.' I think I could do really good on the guitar on that one.”

I chuckle deep inside. It’s a good choice for him ... and the band. Not all of us are running out of time.
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