My 9-year-old son broadsided me the other day with one of his unanticipated announcements. "Dad," he said, "I'm going to start a band."
"Really?" I remarked.
He gave a vigorous nod of his head and then swept the horizon with his outstretched arm.
"Yeah," he said. "There's gonna be four of us. I'll play drums, and then we'll have a piano, violin, and flute."
The only complication I could see at the moment was that my son didn't have any drums. Nor did he know how to play them. In fact, his musicianship ranged only so far as the C scale of his plastic Yamaha recorder.
But I had no intention of raining on his parade. After all, I had had a band when I was about his age, and it was a jolly good one, too.
It was 1964. Our inspiration had been - who else? - the Beatles, who had just made their American debut on the Ed Sullivan Show.
Beatlemania was sweeping the land, with garage and basement bands forming everywhere. Guitars were flying from store shelves, and Beatle haircuts and collarless blazers were de rigueur. (My hair was too wavy for a mop top, but with monumental dollops of "hair trainer" I was able to take a bristle brush and muscle my hair into a temporary helmet of Lennonesque locks.)
In my New Jersey neighborhood, we had a small talent pool of musicians, but not the requisite three guitars and one drum set. Instead, I made do with my clarinet, Charlie Rutigliano manhandled his massive black accordion into service, Bobby Slavin played rhythm electric guitar, and my brother Steve pounded aluminum garbage cans in lieu of the drums that had not yet materialized for him.
We began to practice in my basement, hauling the garbage cans down from their usual curbside spot. We had cobbled together 75 cents to purchase the sheet music for the Beatles hit "All My Loving."
Still, our first practice session was impossibly dissonant, and we couldn't figure out why. Slowing or picking up the tempo didn't seem to help.
Bobby's father - an erstwhile trumpeter and avid onlooker - rescued us when he pointed out that the melody had to be transposed for the clarinet.
Once he showed me this simple maneuver, we struck up the band again - and this time we made music. It was slow, halting, and lacking in anything resembling feeling, but it was real music.
After a couple of weeks, our band - named the Individuals - had a repertoire of four pieces: two Beatles tunes - "All My Loving" and "I Wanna Hold Your Hand" - and two old standards retrieved from my mother's piano bench: "I'm in the Mood for Love" and "Ain't She Sweet."
Our Jersey City debut took place on a warm, cloudless night in the summer of 1965. We noisily hauled the garbage cans back up the basement steps and into the backyard and set ourselves up in front of the garage.
Younger siblings had been making the rounds of the neighborhood, shouting "Concert! Concert tonight!" By 8:30, softly backlit by a receding sun, we were ready to play.
Family and friends relaxed on the grass before us, some in lawn chairs, others standing. A couple of kids hung over the green picket fence. Mrs. Strenger next door leaned out her upstairs window. My Great Aunt Hattie walked four blocks to be there.
Without further ado, we launched into "All My Loving." Well, perhaps "launched" is too peppy a word. We kind of lurched into it, the way an ox would begin to pull a heavy cart through a muddy field.
But no matter. We were determined, if nothing else.
I tooted, Charlie laboriously pumped his accordion, Bobby strummed insistently on his guitar, and my brother beat the garbage cans, pausing only occasionally to pick up a lid when it flew off.
It's hard to recall what the crowd looked like as we played, because we were so focused on the music. But when we finished, there was enthusiastic applause, which only egged us on.
We galumphed our way through all four pieces, finishing with the romantic "I'm in the Mood for Love." It contained a glissando for the accordion, with Charlie's fingers moving over the keys as delicately as a meat cleaver against a butcher block.
But that didn't really matter. We did it, and when we finished, there was a rain of nickels from the adults.
We were, in a word, ecstatic.
These are the memories my son brought back to me with his dream of putting together a band of his own. My first impulse was to chime in with, "I'll help you." But I caught myself. This was his project, and no matter what the result, I knew it would be music to a father's ears.