Accordion, Instrument of the Gods It Happened to Me

Why Accordion?

This essay is from my old site. It explains how I got into accordion
playing and I thought it was time I moved it to the blog. Enjoy!

Sooner or later, everybody asks: Why accordion?

Photo: Me with my accordion standing beside Linus Torvalds, who's holding a pool cue. Taken February 2001, LinuxWorld Expo, New York City.
Even the great Linus Torvalds approves of the accordion.
(February 2001, LinuxWorld Expo, New York City)

It’s really Cliff’s accordion

It’s all the fault of a guy whom I haven’t run into in about ten years.
His name is Cliff, and his parents made him take accordion lessons when
he was young. Taking instrument lessons is one of childhood’s
right-of-passage traumas, and doubly so if that instrument is an
accordion. It’s forever associated with the likes of Lawrence Welk, Weird Al, Urkel from Family Matters, fat men in lederhosen and an endless sea of bands that play covers at wedding receptions.

At this point in the story, you might say “Bruce Hornsby plays the accordion,” to which I would reply “I rest my case.” And that’s just the way it is.

Photo: Me with my accordion, Alicia Robinson, George Scriban and Masaharu Morimoto (Iron Chef Japanese) at the bar in Nobu restaurant. Taken November 1999, Nobu, New York City.
Iron Chef Japanese meets Iron Chef Squeezebox, Alicia Robinson and George Scriban.
(November 1999, Nobu restaurant, New York City)

Cliff’s lessons eventually ended, and his accordion, a Titano
two-reed student model, ended up sitting in its case in Cliff’s
basement for a couple of years. Near the end of high school, Cliff
decided to raise some money by selling the accordion. With the help of
a car-equipped friend, Rob Strickler,
Cliff went to a pawn shop only to find that it was closed. They turned
around, planning to come back some other day, leaving the accordion in
Rob’s trunk. They never managed to return to the pawn shop, and after a
while, Rob and Cliff lost touch with each other. The accordion
hibernated for about 10 years in Rob’s parents’ basement, somewhere in Oakville, a suburb of Toronto.

Photo: Me with my accordion, drinking a Heineken at a patio bar. Taken May 2000, Temperance Street, Toronto.
Accordion playing makes you thristy!
(May 2000, Critical Mass, Toronto)

Cliff, if you’re reading this, drop me a line and let’s work out a deal.

The accordion changes hands

In the fall of 1998,
I was passing through a couple of pawn shops in the pawn shop district
of Toronto (around the corner of Church and Queen) and saw a couple of
beat-up accordions for sale. I was with Rob, and I mentioned to him
that it might be fun to take up the accordion. After all, it was a
keyboard instrument (which meant I could play it) and it needed no
power nor amplification (which meant I could play anywhere). Rob said
that I didn’t need to buy one — he could give me one for free. A
couple of weekends later, Rob brought me the accordion that had been
sitting in his parents’ basement for nearly a decade.

Photo: Me with my accordion at a tent in Burning Man, probably doing some punk number 'cause I'm yelling. Taken August 1999, Burning Man (Black Rock Desert, Nevada).
(August 1999, Burning Man, Black Rock Desert, Nevada)

My first attempts at playing it weren’t too good. You can’t get a really good look at the keyboard, the chord buttons
were a complete mystery to me, and coordinating the two while
constantly squeezing was incredibly difficult. I wheezed out a very
sorry rendition of Smashing Pumpkins’ Cherub Rock for my visiting friends George and Alicia, who feigned amusement and made little “that’s nice” compliments behind nervous smiles.

Photo: A Ferengi poses with me and my accordion. Taken July 2001, Quark's Restaurant, Las Vegas Hilton.
“You crazy hew-mons and your musical instruments!”
(July 2001, Quark’s Bar at the Star Trek: The Experience in the Las Vegas Hilton)

the next few months, I occasionally picked up the accordion, noodled
about for half and hour and then put it down for about a week until the
next time. My keyboard-playing friend Karl Mohr
tried mine out and liked it so much that he bought his own accordion, a
Rossini student model that had a harsher, punkier sound than mine. We
made plans to do some busking
(that’s “being a street musician” for any American readers out there)
in the spring. We figured it would be a good way “meet new people”.
Where “people” means “women”.

The first day out

On May 1, 1999, the usual suspects organized a protest against the Ontario government’s cutbacks
to hospitals and schools. They put out the call for all artists and
musicians to join in the protest to make art and noise. Karl and I,
being politically slightly left-of-center (okay Karl’s more than slightly left) and looking for an opportunity to busk, decided to join in.

Photo: Karl Mohr and his accordion, wearing a hat with horns, standing at a rally in Queen's Park. Taken May 1999, Toronto.
If there was a prize for best hat at the rally, Karl would’ve won it.
(May 1999, Queen’s Park, Toronto)

hard part was figuring out what to play. Karl only knew how to play
songs he’d written, and while I knew some of them, a lot of his recent
work had either been soundtracks or electronica. We opted for simple
pop tunes that we both knew or that I could teach him in short order.

Photo: Me and my accordion, making the devil sign at a rally in Queen's Park. Taken May 1999, Toronto.
Even the mighty Mike Harris must bow before the power of the accordion.
(May 1999, Queen’s Park, Toronto)

We played:

tried to fulfill requests that people made. A gaggle of high school
girls from Washington DC on a field trip asked if we could play any DC
punk, and we faked out way through Fugazi’s Waiting Room. Some metalheads asked if we could do Sabbath, and we improvised through Supernaut. We faked our way through The Beatles and Hendrix.
It became clear to me that it’s much easier to remember lyrics when
you’re singing along to the actual song — it’s much harder when you’re
doing it all by yourself.

Since I knew the lyrics, Karl made me sing. I’d never sung in public before, but we were willing to try anything that day.

The first night out

ended up walking down Queen Street and saw that the doors to Toronto’s
venerable goth bar, Sanctuary Vampire Sex Bar, had its doors open
(sadly, it closed down; it’s now a Starbucks).
It was still mid-afternoon, and we walked in to see what was going on.
It turned out that they were just airing out the place, but we stayed
and talked to the bouncers. One of them, a big guy named Mark, was
celebrating his birthday, and we bastardized a Marilyn Manson song into a goth birthday tune: “I don’t like the cake, but the cake likes me.”

DJ Todd,
who’d seen the whole thing from his perch in the DJ booth, was so
amused by this that he made us an offer. If we came back that evening
an performed an accordion rendition of a tune that the club’s regulars
would like, they’d give us all the beer we could drink.

Photo: Me with my accordion, Mark the bouncer from Sanctuary Vampire Sex Bar and Karl with his accordion. We're standing by the bar. Taken May 1999, Toronto.
Me, Mark and Karl at Sanctuary.
(May 1999, Sanctuary Vampire Sex Bar, Toronto)

ran home and changed into all-black and boots. We chose a simple tune
that we’d been brainwashed with since our days at University: Head Like a Hole by Nine Inch Nails.
We nailed the tune in about a half-hour, during which time I discovered
my ability to do a decent Trent Reznor-like whine. We’re sure that Trent felt some mysterious pain all that evening, but couldn’t figure out why.

We returned to Sanctuary and did Head Like a Hole in the lobby to a shocked but appreciative crowd. We hopped up on the stage near the dance floor where DJ Todd announced over the P.A.: “You’re not really hardcore unless you have an accordion.” Inspired by the way Buddy carried his guitar in the movie Six String Samurai, we slung our accordions on our backs when we weren’t playing. We drank several pitchers of Upper Canada Dark Ale.

Photo: Karl Mohr (looking demonic) and me, each of us holding a pitcher of Upper Canada Dark Ale. Taken May 1999, Sanctuary Vampire Sex Bar, Toronto.
Free beer! Whoo-hoo!
(May 1999, Sanctuary Vampire Sex Bar, Toronto)

After last call, we went to Amato,
a nearby pizza joint, where the usual post-club crowd hung out on the
sidewalk. A couple of people called out to us and asked us to play
something, so we did. Suddenly, people started throwing money at our
feet. We’d never even thought about that, and suddenly we had enough
money to buy a large pizza.

And thus began my accordion adventures.

Photo: Audience of club-goers outside Amato's pizza, giving a thumbs-up for my accordion performance. Taken May 1999, Queen Street West, Toronto.
A thumbs-up from the fans!
(May 1999, Amato Pizza on Queen Street West, Toronto)

4 replies on “Why Accordion?”

This is a little off-topic, but the US Air Force is looking for a good accordianist. Unfortunately, you actually have to join the Air Force, so it’s not all beer and skittles. But in these uncertain economic times…

Dearest Joey,
“Imagine my surprise as I happened upon your blog one morning”
It appears as if my accordian has been transformed into a ‘magical flute’ of sorts for you.
I’ll avoid an all too tempting invective about appropriation in this missive and opt instead for giving you kudos for a life well lived as the ubiquitous accordian guy.
I will though ask you to clarify a few facts about the history of the accordian.
As a keen but quirky sixth grader back in the 80’s, my accordian lessons were not forced upon me by my parents. Much to the
contrary, my folks would have preferred the continuation of my soccer career.
Needless to say the accordian lessons opened up a world for me that I may not have otherwise experienced as a working class kid in Oakville (Pre-Greenbelt and Concrete Annie). Mr Devilla I can assure you that the accordian was one of my many nascent attempts to connect with a bigger world.
Regarding the would-be sale of the accordian a decade later. Downtown Oakville isn’t exactly a haven for “pawn shops”. Having entered my second year of Queen’s, books were my major concern. Hence the would-be sale of the accordian to Hi-Note Music Academy.
For obvious reasons I’m not too thrilled with the designation of “Street Accordian”.
However, the enthusiastic manner in which you’ve infused that old wind bag with life & meaning has, I suppose given you the right to ascend to the throne of the accordian guy.
Live long and prosper.

This is your most recent post about Critical Mass (the event), so it seems the best place to mention that you are apparently in Critical Mass (the documentary). You are at 0:34 in the clip, for about a second… dunno about the full 55 minute doc.
BTW: It looks like there is a bug with the code which handles posts like this one. Specifically the a href gets the attribute rel=”nofollow” added (understandably to avoid comment spam).. but after I previewed and re-edited a couple of times, there were 4 rel=”nofollows” in the link. If the verbosity is desired then fine it’s not a bug, but I figure one is enough. Hmm.. just checked again, one iteration of “preview” & “edit” generates two rel=”nofollow” attributes. And they grow from there. No harm = feature?

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