13 Years Ago, I Became the Accordion Guy

by Joey deVilla on May 3, 2012

Summer 1998: A Gift from My Friend Rob

Me and Rob circa 1998.

In the late summer of 1998, I was chatting with my friend Rob in my apartment, which was then smack in the middle of downtown, at the corner of Yonge and College Streets. The living room windows looked south on Yonge along the wide part between College and Gerrard, where the sidewalks are wide and busy with people making their way towards the livelier part near the Eaton Centre. Not far away and six storeys down, a guy with a guitar was playing to passers-by. A number of women were gathered around him.

“Look at that,” I said after taking a swig of beer. “Now there’s something I could probably do. Too bad I can’t play guitar. Never had the talent for anything that doesn’t have a piano keyboard. I’ve been thinking about heading down to the Church Street pawn shops and looking at some accordions.”

“You know, I’ve got an accordion in my parents’ basement,” Rob answered. “It’s been there since the end of high school, and I sure as hell don’t play it. You want it?”

“Sure,” I replied. “It could be fun.”

Late 1998 – Early 1999: A Few Trial Runs

A few days later, Rob met me downtown and brought a brown suitcase. Inside it was a barely-used accordion: a black Titano student model, with 120 bass buttons, covered in lots of chrome and “mother-of-toilet-seat” (my nickname for fake mother-of-pearl) keys.

Karl Mohr and me (with one of Erik Mohr’s paintings in the background), early 1999.

Over the next few months, I would play the accordion only a couple of times. I played my synthesizers considerably more often. The photo above shows ome of those rare moments: me with my friend Karl Mohr, playing accordion at his brother Erik Mohr’s art show at a gallery downtown. Even then, I was still more of a synth guy — we were providing background noise at Erik’s show, with Karl spending more time playing my accordion and me on a Roland MC-303 Groovebox dance music machine.

I didn’t start playing the accordion seriously until May 1, 1999.

Saturday, May 1, 1999

A couple of days before May 1st, I got a phone call from Karl inviting me to an event at Queen’s Park.

“It’s a protest thing,” he said. “Against hospital cuts. It’s a good cause, they’re looking for musicians to come and play and it sounds like fun. I just got my own accordion and thought maybe we could do something together. What d’you think?”

I didn’t give it much thought and said “Sounds like fun. I’m in.”

Karl and me, out on the town on the first day out with our accordions.

That year, the first of May was one of the first truly warm days of that year. It was the kind of day when you’d feel guilty for staying inside when you just had to be outside: bright and cloudless, with the streets filling with people who’d switched to their summer clothes. There couldn’t have been a more perfect day for the both of us to take our accordions out on the street for the first time.

Karl and I had jammed together before, on synths, so we were pretty used to improvising instrumental pieces together. For the first little while, we did just that.

“What songs do you guys know?” someone asked.

“I don’t really follow pop tunes,” Karl said to me. “You know any?”

It hadn’t occurred to us to come up with a list of songs or to rehearse them, and we hadn’t rehearsed. We’d simply gone out on the street with our accordions to see what would happen.

“Let’s do some standards,” I said. “I – IV – Vm in A,” I said to Karl and started playing Wild Thing by The Troggs.

“I can play along, but I don’t know the words,” yelled Karl over the chords. “You have to sing!”

It was my first time as a lead vocalist, and I’d never really sung and played an instrument at the same time, especially a relatively unfamiliar instrument. In spite of this, it wasn’t difficult. It just felt right.

Most of the musicians there had guitars and various flavours of African drum. We were the only accordion players present, and for many of the people there, it was the first time that they’d ever seen an accordion up close. A number of people were surprised to see rock and pop music being played on accordion, as if they couldn’t possibly play the same notes that the other more common instruments play.

We hung around Queen’s Park for a short while, after which we decided to wander about downtown. Wherever we went, we were stopped by people who were curious about a couple of guys walking around with accordions. A lot of people had come out that gorgeous day, and we stopped at nearly every block to play a number for a new audience.

We ended up on Queen Street, heading westward from University Avenue. This was when the stretch of Queen between University and Bathurst was a little edgier than it is now, back before Parkdale was what it is now, when the Drake and Gladstone were still run-down fleabag hotels, before there was a Loblaws, back when Igor was still a master bike thief who was considered by some to be an urban legend. It was also a time when Toronto’s best-known goth night club, the Sanctuary Vampire Sex Bar, was still operating. (If you’re wondering what became of it, it’s now the Starbucks on the north side of Queen Street, just east of Trinity Bellwoods Park.)

It was still the middle of the afternoon when we walked by Sanctuary, which meant that its doors should’ve been shut and the place should’ve been quiet. However, its doors were open and there was music playing. Between the weather and the accordions, the whole afternoon had an “anything can happen” kind of feel to it, and that’s probably why we walked through those doors to see what was going on.

It turned out that the staff were mopping the floors and the doors had been opened to helped them dry more quickly. DJ Todd was in his booth, trying out some new music that he’d just bought. A couple of the bouncers, Darren and Mark, were helping out and were greatly amused by the sight of a couple of guys with accordions wandering into a goth bar. Mark decided that he had to pose for a picture with us and we were only too happy to oblige:

Darren said “Hey, it’s Mark’s birthday. Why don’t you play Happy Birthday for Marky Mark?”

“Let’s goth it up,” said Karl, with a glance in my direction.

“Minor key, maybe? G minor,” I said, and then we took Happy Birthday in a decidedly Marilyn Manson direction, ending it with the line “Don’t like the cake, but the cake likes me”, a reference to this goth hit.

Mark was quite happy with his little birthday gift and asked for one more: a chance for both him and Darren to pose with our accordions. Once again, we were only too happy to oblige:

After we took the photos above, DJ Todd emerged from the DJ booth. “I have a weird idea. Wanna play in front of an audience?”

“Sure,” I said. “Who else is here?”

“No,” replied Todd. “I’m talking about tonight, when we’re open. What if we put you on stage, in front of everyone on the dance floor? We’ll mic you, you play.”

“Sounds like fun,” I said, and Karl nodded.

“Okay. Come back tonight. Play something that the crowd can get into, and if they like you, if you get any applause at all, I will set you up at the bar with all the beer you can drink.”

“You’re on.”

A Night to Remember

We went back to my apartment to pick up a change of clothes for me, as well as figure out what we were going to play that night. As I pulled out some appropriately black clothing, Karl was going through my CD collection.

Godlike would work, but it’s just not the same without that guitar riff,” he said, holding up a KMFDM CD.

Virus might be doable,” I said. “And hey, someday I’d love to do an accordion version of Stray Bullet, but I can’t imagine doing that without being backed by a sequencer or maybe the Groovebox. We’ve got only a couple of hours, so I think we need to pick something simple. Something we already know by heart.”

A little more searching through the CDs led us to Nine Inch Nails’ Pretty Hate Machine. As soon as we saw it, we said Head Like a Hole! nearly simultaneously. It was fitting: I met Karl at Crazy Go Nuts University at an event where I was the DJ; he heard me play Head Like a Hole and came to the DJ booth to compliment me on my taste in music.

It didn’t take us long to work out an arrangement, after which we went to Karl’s place to get him a change of clothes and grab a bite to eat before returning to Sanctuary.

Karl and me, before our performance.

We arrived at Sanctuary a little before 10 p.m., clad in head-to-toe black, with our accordions at the ready. The club’s owner, a big guy who went by the name “Lance Goth”, saw us coming, shook his head and cradled his face in his hand. “Now this…” he said, “this is a sign of the Apocalypse.”

We were escorted in and put onstage, and DJ Todd introduced us. “You’re not truly hardcore unless you have…an accordion!” he said, and we immediately broke into Head Like a Hole.

At first, the crowd looked at us with great disbelief, but by the final chorus of “Bow down before the one you serve / You’re going to get what you deserve”, we’d won them over. When we finished, they erupted into applause, and we climbed down from the stage, accepting handshakes and high-fives from all directions.

Todd put on a song and led us to the bar. “Give these guys all the beer they can drink,” he told the bartender, who grabbed a pitcher and asked “What’ll you have?”

Karl and me, after our performance.

Our new-found goth celebrity status made it easy for us to get a place to sit at the crowded club. People were only too willing to let us join them, and we shared the contents of our bottomless pitchers with the fans we’d made.

“This is insane!” I told Karl. “I’ve been playing synths for years and was always second fiddle to the guys on guitars and drums. I’m on the accordion a single day and all this has happened.”

“I know! The accordion is so uncool that it’s cool.”

“I don’t know about you,” I said, “but I’m thinking of carrying it around more often. It’s like a big good luck charm.”

Some of my audience outside Amato’s pizza on that first night.

When last call came about, Karl headed home to make his appointment with his girlfriend. Having no one with whom to make a similar booking, I went to what was then Amato’s, a pizza place that stayed open late and was popular with the club crowd. I got a slice when I got another “Hey, do you know how to play that thing?”

“I sure hope so,” I said. “Otherwise I’m just walking around with twenty-ish pounds of fashion accessory”.

I started playing whatever songs came to mind and whose lyrics I could remember and whose chords I could fake. Luckily for me, the dirty secret of rock and roll songs is that most of them boil down to one of six or seven patterns, and it’s a matter of knowing the words. I played, and somehow pulled it off. In return, someone took up a collection for me in an empty pizza plate and put it at my feet, and when I counted the money, it had turned out to be around fifty bucks — not bad for a half hour’s playing. Walter, Amato’s manager, brought me a slice of pollo basilico pizza.

“Here you go…” Walter said. Not knowing my name, he finished his sentence by calling me “Accordion Guy”. The others heard, and they started calling me that, and the name stuck.

At the end of the night — about three-thirty a.m. or so — I made my way home, tired but exhilarated from a very full day.

Aftermath

I still consider this the best accordion picture ever.

Since that day, I’ve often taken the accordion with me whenever I’ve gone out socially. It’s paid off in all sorts of ways, from making new friends to landing my last few jobs to discovering opportunities that would’ve otherwise passed me by to things like the photo above. It’s brought me through good times and some of the rougher times I’ve had to face over the past couple of years. It’s practically part of me.

Happy anniversary, accordion. Thanks for everything!

{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Mike Adamson May 3, 2012 at 1:48 pm

Neat story…congrats!

Paul May 3, 2012 at 4:35 pm

That is one of the awesomest pictures ever. You and the photographer who took it should see if Stella Artois is interested.

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