Months after I stopped taking lessons at Debellis Music, I still stopped by to buy guitar strings and check out their new guitars. I bantered with Mike Debellis who worked behind the counter. Mike’s family owned the business.
“Have you tried these D’Addario strings?” asked Mike, chewing gum. He wore sunglasses on his head, his forehead matted by locks of brown hair. Mike handed me the package of strings. I was mesmerized by the bright and colorful packaging; they looked like something made of gems.
He stared at me for a moment after he stopped speaking.
“Hey, would you be interested in trying out for a band?” he then asked.
“Me?” I replied dumbly.
“Our guitar player just quit. You look like you can play.”
“I can play.”
“What kind of stuff do you play?”
“Rock music, you know, Led Zeppelin, Hendrix.”
“We play ballads,” he said. “But we can rock. We’re looking to cut a demo tape, get a contract. Can you read music?”
“Not really,” I said. “I can read chords. I have a good ear.”
“Didn’t you take lessons here?” he said, cork-screwing his nose.
“I took some lessons,” I replied, a little defensively.
“And you don’t know how to read music?”
“That’s OK,” he said, shrugging. “The guitar stuff isn’t really complicated.”
“Where do I go for the try-out?” I asked.
“We rehearse here—at the store. Come down, Wednesday at 8 PM.”
I turned to go away.
“You don’t have to bring a guitar,” he said, pointing to the wall of electric guitars. “You can use one of these.” Hanging from the rack was a sunburst red Gibson, a Flying V and a bone white Fender Stratocaster, like Hendrix played.
I left the store mulling over what Mike said. They were looking to cut a demo tape, get a music contract. I was excited. I was still young enough to believe that maybe I could be a rock star.
I started playing guitar when I was about fourteen, inspired by images and sounds of rock music. The dragon roar of Led Zeppelin’s Heartbreaker solo. The Valkyrie shrieks of Plant’s vocals. Santana, The Who. Meaty Beaty Big and Bouncy. The psychedelic album covers. The guitar shapes and burning colors. Coming from a drab working class industrial section of Queens, rock music was like a mysterious call from mythological beings. I had to learn to play guitar.
After practicing for about six months, I achieved forty percent of the soloing guitar skill I have today at fifty-two. Practicing with my best friend, Lan, we played extensive jams, emulating our heroes, like Cream, Hendrix and Zeppelin. We weren’t afraid to play badly, or loudly and sometimes we even sounded okay. And all of this playing and listening occurred in a chamber of marijuana smoke. Pot helped elevate my listening to music; it also supplied the trapdoor I needed to escape the deadened steel factory prison of Long Island City. While smoking weed may have offered transport to a fairytale land, it also enabled me to hide behind a cumulous wall. I could fail at everything and blame it on the pot smoking. If I didn’t do anything, I could always wrap myself up in a blanket of smoke to feel better. Pot was a cloud I could take cover in, get lost and find myself in, like an Aztec Maze.
As we started to play more and more, I realized I needed some guitar lessons. That’s how I found Debellis Music on Broadway, near where I lived. My assigned teacher, Jim, was only a few years older. Jim taught me some basic scales, bar chords and some fingerpicking technique. I also sold an ounce of weed for him. But, after about a year, I stopped going to music lessons. I stopped because studying music was work; I just wanted to play. Instead, I used the money my father had given me to buy pot.
Then, at about sixteen, after going to a school counselor, knowing I was spinning around on a carousel to nowhere, I stopped smoking pot. With the cloud lifted, I began to see who I really was: an insecure kid, uncertain of myself. I’d spent nights on the stairs of our project building waiting to come down from a high so I could confront my parents. I’d hung out with some crazy tough guys who were intent on killing themselves. Then I stopped hanging out with reckless lunatics. And now I was trying to attempt things without a crutch, or a shield. If I failed, it would be my failure.
I showed up to the rehearsal at Debellis Music a little nervous.
Mike introduced me to the band.
“This is Jeff, the bass player.” Jeff was tall and nerdy looking. His lanky body curved, like he was made of rubber. He smoked cigarettes holding them backwards between his thumb and forefinger, like a European.
“And this is Matt, the piano player,” added Mike. Matt wore horn-rimmed glasses and looked like an engineer. “Matt writes the music to all of the songs.”
We talked a little bit about the music we liked. Jeff was into New Wave groups like Devo, the Cars, but studied jazz and could read music. Matt was a classically trained piano player. I felt a little self-conscious. They were knowledgeable and serious. And they were all older than I was, by a few years. How was I going to be able to hold my own?
Then they played one of the songs they had written. We were only going to perform original songs. The song was called “Now Love Begins.” Mike sang vocals. He wasn’t very good. The song was a little corny, but it was catchy. The piano and bass parts were interesting. It was a little like smooth jazz.
“Can you play along this time?” asked Mike. “Which guitar do you want?”
I walked over to the row of guitars, pulling the Fender Stratocaster off of the hook.
Mike then placed the sheet music for piano in front of me.
“I don’t know the chords,” I said, a little embarrassed.
“That’s okay,” said Matt, taking my guitar with his left hand. With his right hand he played chords on the keyboard. Then he wrote the chords down on a piece of paper. They were jazz chords, sevenths, major-sevenths and so forth. Not what I typically played.
He handed me the paper.
“Let’s try now,” said Mike.
I strummed along hesitantly, as Matt galloped through the opening verses.
“Like this?” I asked.
“You can give it more swing,” offered Jeff.
I picked up the rhythm, alternating on up and down strokes.
“Now, there’s a guitar solo part here,” said Mike. “That’s what Tony used to do, at least.” He paused. “You don’t have to.”
“I’ll give it a try,” I said. “What key?”
“It’s in A minor,” said Matt. “You can play the A Major scale over it.”
When Lan and I used to play, I soloed for up to five minutes sometimes, like my guitar heroes Clapton, Alvin Lee and Hendrix. Even if we weren’t very good, we played with exuberance. Our playing was charged and athletic. All of this poured out in the seconds that followed. As if a light bulb went on, my soloing caught fire, with a mix of rapid trills and bluesy pull-offs. But this stretch only lasted for a few brief moments; then I suddenly became scared and backed off. Like I was caught dreaming out loud.
Then we practiced on a few improvised blues songs. It was clear that I was more comfortable improvising. Afterwards, they rehearsed a few more of their songs. I played along after hearing them a few times. One of their songs, “First Class Love Trip,” had a tricky time signature and I struggled through the chords. Despite this, the songs sounded okay. They were very good musicians and, for what I lacked in knowledge and skill, I made up for in willingness. Overall, though, I felt that I didn’t fit into the band’s style. They were more like a wedding band. I was like a hot pistol dropped on a dance floor, randomly shooting bullets.
“Sorry, that was kind of a train wreck,” I said, after the song, knowing I missed some of the changes.
“It was rough,” said Mike. “But it was good.”
“It was good,” added Jeff.
I wasn’t convinced, but appreciated the feedback. I was sunk into the notion that I wasn’t very good and they were better musicians. I saw everything from that perspective.
“I need to go to the bathroom,” I said. When I looked at the clock, I realized we’d been playing for three hours.
“You know where it is,” said Mike. “You’ve been here before.”
When I came back, it was like I interrupted their talking.
“It’s late; we should call it a night,” said Mike. “Try out is over.”
I unplugged the Stratocaster and hung it back on the wall, knowing I didn’t play well enough.
“So, what are you doing next Wednesday?” asked Mike.
I shrugged, I don’t know.
“Want to come to rehearsal?”
“Do you mean to try out again?”
“No, I mean rehearsal. You made the band.” He looked at the other guys. “That is, if you’d like to be in the band.”
“Well, wow, let me think about it,” I said, stunned. “I mean, of course, I’d like to be in the band.”
“How old are you, by the way?” asked Mike.
“I’m sixteen,” I said.
“See,” said Mike, adding “I told you he was a few years younger than us. He’s a kid.” He chuckled and then we all laughed a little along with him.
“So am I still in?” I asked
“You got something there with that playing. It’s a little rough, but I can mold you.”
I just looked at him; I wasn’t sure if this was a compliment, or what.
“See you next week,” said Mike.
In the months that followed, I attended every rehearsal. The band actually started to sound good. I continued to see myself as the weakest link, even though they all supported and encouraged me. I was adapting to the style, taming my heavy handed rock guitar playing. Also, now Tom had joined the group, as the drummer. Tom was now also attending our rehearsals, bringing a rock sensibility to the group sound, slightly more akin to my playing.
Mike Debellis was not only the leader of the group, he was also the primary singer. While he wasn’t very good, he enabled us to use the store for rehearsals and instruments. And he kept talking about the demo tape we were going to record. And Mike seemed to be our promoter, talking to agents and contacts about potential shows and even a record contract, he said.
“I’ve booked us to play at a high-school in Long Island,” said Mike, as if that was impressive. This is where our tour would kick off. We didn’t yet have any other dates scheduled.
“We’re going to be big,” added Mike. Matt, Jeff, Tom and I shook our heads in agreement. None of us had either the courage or the heart to say anything otherwise.
Privately, Jeff and I met and played together. Jeff’s apartment wasn’t very far from me. We played rock songs and extended blues progressions. I looked up to Jeff; he knew more about music than I did. I was everyone’s understudy, the kid in the band.
“Mike’s full of shit with that ‘we’re going to be a star’ crap,” said Jeff, wedging his cigarette between strings on his bass, a cool rock musician trick.
“I know,” I said. “He sucks as a singer, too.”
“His sister can sing, though.”
“She’s great. I wish Mike sang like her,” I said.
“She’s going to come to more rehearsals, I hear. Along with Greg.” Greg sometimes came to our rehearsals. Greg was a natural musician. He played piano, guitar and sang harmonies. He had long hair, like a hippie. He was studying music and film at New York University. Greg came from a world I wanted to be in.
“They’re going to make up for Mike’s shitty singing,” said Jeff. “Hopefully they’ll just sing over him.”
We both laughed.
As the weeks went by, we were all excited about the upcoming studio session, the scheduled performance date and other performances that would come. Things were looking up.
When we arrived at the studio to cut the demo tape, everyone was dressed up, like we were going out to a party, since Mike wanted to take promotional pictures, too. The pictures would be on the jacket of the album, he said. I wore white Capezio shoes, since they were the fanciest shoes I owned. Everyone laughed at me, except for Amy, Mike’s sister. When she said, “They look cute on you,” and looked me up and down, it sent a chill up my spine.
We didn’t have a lot of time, so we played the songs a few times over and recorded each take. I was very nervous, afraid that I’d make a mistake that would ruin the demo tape. I kept apologizing to everyone.
We took a break at the half-point of the day. While the engineer, Adel, was mixing the recording, I was in one of the back rooms making out with Amy. This was bound to happen, as she’d been flirting with me at the past few rehearsals. I hoped Mike wouldn’t be upset at me for fooling around with his sister.
“OK, now it’s your turn in the booth,” said Adel. “For the solos.”
I wiped my mouth with my shirt, trying to remove any trace Amy’s hot pink glossy lipstick. The fragrance of the lipstick lingered on my own lips.
I took a deep breath and picked up the Fender Stratocaster that I’d borrowed from the store. I was slightly emboldened by the hot kissing I’d been doing in the backroom with Amy and also a little bit embarrassed.
I walked into the soundproof booth, put on the earphones and sat on a stool.
Adel talked to me through the flicking switches on the board.
“OK, we’ll do one take and then try a cut,” he said.
“Ready when you are.”
The music started, I waited for my part. I played an improvised solo, as I had always done. I followed the melody in my solo, adding some flourishes, unable to completely suppress my rock guitar sensibility.
“That was a good take,” said Adel. “Now, we’re going to do a real take.”
The song started again. I adjusted myself on the stool, crossing my right leg over my left leg. This time, I felt better. I started playing, looking at everyone through the glass window. I was digging into the melody, bending the strings. It actually sounded good to me. The engineer, Adel, pumped his fist toward me as I played. Mike and the others cheered me on, like I’d just hit a fly ball that was heading toward the bleachers. On that stool, I felt like I was perched high above the ground, like an eagle sitting on a branch at the top of a tall tree, seeing everything around me. I wasn’t self-conscious. I was lifted by the moment to a rarified place, like my moorings were unattached. I was floating high above the Long Island City factory buildings, soaring into the clouds. I was high. Very high. But mostly, I was high without smoking pot.
Days later, at rehearsal, Mike produced a tape of the recordings. Now Amy attended the rehearsals. She’d even sing some of the songs with Mike. As we gathered around to hear the recording, Amy sat next to me. We held hands. I was a little embarrassed to be so public about our affections.
“Be good to my sister,” said Mike, raising an eyebrow as he wagged a finger at me. He was half-joking.
When Mike walked away, Jeff whispered, “Hey, because of you, we have a real singer coming to our rehearsals now.”
Now our focus was on the show in Long Island. Mike talked it up like we were playing at Carnegie Hall. It wasn’t even a paid gig; it was at a high-school.
Not sure if it was my inner cynic, but I felt that things could only go downhill from here. I never said a word about it to anyone, not even Jeff. I just didn’t believe that good things could happen for me.
I was nervous the night of the Long Island show. When we arrived, I saw the stage we’d perform on. It didn’t look like a stage where a rock band would play. It looked like a place where talent shows took place.
The performance itself is a fog to me now. All I can remember is that we didn’t play the songs terribly well. Despite the miscues, Mike, strutted and pranced, like a peacock. The wide cuffs of his shirt were rolled up to his wrists. His shirt was unbuttoned, the hair on his chest exposed. A gold cross lay on a bed of chest hair, like it was giving comfort to the crucified Christ.
In the weeks that followed, I learned that I received a scholarship to attend New York University. All my attention was directed to that. I had visions of going to school in the Village, hanging out with cool looking people, discussing philosophy and literature. Only a few years ago, I’d hung out in Washington Square Park smoking pot, inhaling nitrous-oxide and trying to cop mescaline. Now, I would walk through the park proudly, as a student. I wouldn’t be just a street kid looking up at the campus buildings. I’d be walking their hallways, sitting in their classrooms.
I missed a few rehearsals, feeling bad that I was abandoning the band, that I was breaking the spell of Mike’s dream. I didn’t call Amy either.
The summer was nearing an end. As the weeks drifted by, I lost all intentions of returning to rehearsals, or calling Amy. My sights were set on the future that awaited me. It didn’t include playing with the band. We didn’t even have a name.
But I had the recordings on tape. Even now, I take the tape out (now converted to CD and also copied to my iTunes playlist), I listen to the songs and recall that, in practicing them, I was saving myself. I feel bad that I never called Mike, or anyone else. I feel terrible that I just split the scene.
All that remains are the songs. They are echoes from a past. They’re not so bad. And the guitar playing is pretty good. I hear Amy’s voice soaring above the keyboard notes. The music remains placed high on a misted mountain peak. I can still feel the flight of that solo. When I hear the song, I can still see the azure blue of the sky I was reeling in.
Mike Fiorito is an Associate Editor for Mad Swirl magazine. In 2018, his short story collections Freud’s Haberdashery Habits & Other Stories and Hallucinating Huxley were published by Alien Buddha Press. Mike’s writings have appeared in Narratively, Mad Swirl, Ovunque Siamo, Pif Magazine, Longshot Island, Beautiful Losers, The Honest Ulsterman, Chagrin River Review, The New Engagement and many other publications. He has been nominated for the Push Cart Prize.