© 1998-2001 by Joseph L. Monzo
me in June 2000
me in June 2000
I was born January 5, 1962, in Philadelphia. As far back as I know, my ancestry is Italian. My maternal grandfather Zenone was from a farm somewhere near the Molise area, on the Adriatic side of southern Italy (across from Naples) -- he was the most recent ancestor I had from the "old country". I knew many more people on my mother's side of the family than my father's, and knew them better and saw them more often.
my maternal grandfather Zenone
1936 (42 years old)
I grew up the the Overbrook section of Philadelphia. This neighborhood is on the western edge of "West Philly", near the city limits. It's an area of brick row houses and concrete driveways between the streets, inhabited then by largely Catholic Irish and Italian families.
My mother, Marion, and my father, also named Joe, had both graduated from Overbrook High School (in different years), knew each other from the neighborhood, and were married in 1960.
my parents, Joe Monzo and Marion
wedding picture, October 1960
They bought and lived in a house which they sold when I was still a baby, then we moved into the house where my mother had grown up.
It was a corner property owned by my grandfather. We lived in the third-floor apartment, over the one housing my grandparents and Aunt Tina. The ground floor had a cellar and a store. My grandfather used to make several barrels of wine once a year with a press he built, and by the time I was on the scene, the store was occupied by "Joe's Hobbie Shop", a place for my father to spend his evenings.
Me, 4 years old
and my only sibling, brother Mario, 2 1/2.
I used to hang out with older neighborhood kids every night during the summers in or in front of the store. They nicknamed me "Jo-jo" (my family all called me "Joey"). It was a natural gathering place for the area, because local softball teams played regular league games in a field across the street from our house. I remember hearing hippies hanging out there late at night in the summer darkness, after the games were over and the lights had been turned off.
Surrounding this ballpark were woods and a golfcourse, and across the street was a city playground, which was also utilized as a schoolyard by St. Donato's, the local Catholic school which I attended. I played many games of "boxball" with my friends. This was played just like baseball, but the only equipment needed was a plain rubber ball and four items (they could be rocks, jackets, almost anything) to mark the bases. There was no pitcher, catcher or bat. The "batter" simply tossed the ball up and hit -- "boxed" -- it with his fist, hence the name. I was never any good. Later, when I got a basketball, I'd walk across the street and shoot hoops by myself for hours. I was never good at any competetive team sports, though, except as a good football kicker. Most sporting enjoyment came from riding my bike.
We had a baby grand piano in the house until I was about 5 or 6 or so. I remember learning "Chopsticks", but that's it. My mother recalls my being really interested in it, but I don't. Anyway, we had to get rid of it at some point, and I do remember crying over that. I didn't lay my fingers on a piano again until I was 12, in the 7th grade, by which time I was already quite accomplished as a musician, and didn't play it regularly until I was 17.
As a kid, I recall being really interested in science (especially Astronomy and Chemistry), football (American, naturally), and my coin and stamp collections, especially the coins. In grade school, my best friend Richard Hamilton and I were the two brightest kids in the class, and we were in constant competition for the "smartest kid in the class" crown. Eventually it became a fight over "smartest kid in the school". I also served as an altar boy in church for a few years, and was really into religion when I was young. My mother thought I would become a priest when I grew up. I wanted to be Bart Starr (Green Bay Packers quarterback and My Hero) when I grew up.
I was taught a little bit of Italian in school in the 2nd grade, then some years later I got ahold of "Teach Yourself Russian" records, and became fascinated with Russian (largely because of the Cyrillic alphabet). I've had a fascination with languages and writing ever since, and I perceive now that this also includes musical notations ("notation" in an extremely broad sense, encompassing all kinds of visual representations of sounds). Despite a smattering of knowledge of several dozen languages (along with the usual German, Spanish, etc., this includes various Alaskan Eskimo dialects, Finnish, Turkish and Kirghiz, some Arabic, Vietnamese,... you get the idea) the only one at which I am at all proficient, besides English, is French.
My parents bought a summer house in Ocean City, New Jersey ("America's Greatest Family Resort"), and we would spend my father's two-week vacation as well as most summer weekends there for the next 9 years. My father bought an inboard-motor boat (that is, a pretty good-size one, bigger than a small outboard), and I remember spending quite a bit of time on or in the water during these years, at least for the short periods we were in Ocean City. I remember how I always looked forward to playing with my "other" set of friends every summer.
I attended a Catholic School up to the 5th grade, public schools after that until graduation from 12th grade. I distinctly recall what a culture shock public school was to me. It seemed like I'd been taken out of the army and landed right in the jungle, virtually by myself (but for a handful of sane comrades toughing it out with me).
About once a month, my father used to bring out a clarinet and play several big-band swing tunes on it for a couple of hours -- I realized years later, with my mature musical ears, that he sounded just like his idol Benny Goodman. When he was finished, as he cleaned it and put it away, he told me nostalgic stories of his younger days, jamming with his buddies in the back room behind the TV repair shop where he used to work. I never realized until now what an effect the romantic appeal of his tales must have had on my developing psyche. Other than that, and liking the Beatles a lot, music was not something I thought about much.
I do remember that I had a set of small 78 rpm records and a player for them, and I remember playing them a lot, but the only tunes I can recall were "Buffalo Gals" and an excerpt from the first movement of Beethoven's 5th. A little later, I got the LP of "Mary Poppins" for my birthday, and played it seemingly all the time.
Anyway, exactly when my debut at public school was about to commence, I spotted the clarinet case one day in the closet as my mother was cleaning. No-one but my father was supposed to touch it, but she allowed me to open it up and try to put the clarinet together. As indicated by my use of the word try, I couldn't figure out how to do that properly, let alone get a sound out of it (I didn't know the mouthpiece had a cap on it!). Naturally, when my father came home and found out I was interested, he (and my mom) decided to send me to lessons. It turned out I could get them for free at school, so public school had one saving grace after all.
Well, I took to the clarinet like a duck to water, and when I went to a new school in the 7th grade, I met two people who were to have a profound effect on me. John Jadus was my new music teacher, and he encouraged my musical development in its crucial early stages far more than I will ever know. The other was Marc Johnson (not the well-known jazz bassist of the same name), a trombonist and life-long friend who is today also a masterful jazz keyboardist, composer, conductor, and teacher. The old "best in the school" tournament happened all over again with Marc, this time for "best musician". This competition between best friends also encouraged my musical development to the extreme, just as my earlier competition with Richard encouraged my overall intellectual development.
Around this same time, my father had started playing his Beethoven records for me, and I liked it (Beethoven is still one of his and my favorites). He gave me my first stereo record player, and let me borrow some of his classical records. My favorites were Beethoven's 5th, which I virtually memorized, and Georg Solti (in one of his first recordings) conducting von Suppé overtures. (I still like this rendition of them above all others I've heard -- it has a "brio" that the others lack.)
Shortly after this, I was with my parents in a thrift store, rumaging thru some old books, when I found the score to Beethoven's 5th for 25 cents! I had read about scores, but had never actually seen one. (after this I virtually began collecting them). There was also a book called "Masters of the Symphony" by Percy Goetschius, which I read and re-read and re-re-read (I think that cost a quarter too). My parents, quickly recognizing the direction my life was taking and liking it, snapped them up for me (thanks, mom & dad!).
I forgot all about football and became very seriously interested in composing. I found a little book at the library called "Introducing Music" by Otto Karolyi, and read it so many times I virtually memorized that too. I tried my hand at composing pieces for the first time, and wrote a lot of stuff that was bad imitation Haydn and Mozart.
I used to look at department store catalogs as a kid, some Sears, but mostly another one whose name I can't recall (I think it was Bennett-Smith) -- it had real expensive stuff, everything from bicycles to electron microscopes, and I was interested in all of it. One section I memorized was their banjo selection.
By this time Mr Jadus had made very good recorder players out of Marc and myself, and Marc was also now playing a cool gospel tune on piano. I was envious, couldn't play anything but "Chopsticks" and a boogie-woogie blues bass line my father had taught me somehow (was it really from way back when we had had a piano?), and decided I was going to learn to play as many instruments as I could. I pestered my parents for a banjo, which they gave me upon graduating 8th grade. I progressed quickly, until I could sort of play "Foggy Mountain Breakdown" (my goal), by the great Earl Scruggs, but after that, string instruments have proven to be my nemesis. I have had periodic bouts with the guitar throughout my mature musical life (am in round 6 at the present).
Marc went to a different school starting in 9th grade, so my musical development took an abrupt turn towards inner development, since there was no one else in my musical circles who was anywhere near as good or as knowledgeable as myself other than my teacher John Jadus, and because of how the school was set up and changes in the music teachers schedules, I didn't have as much contact with him as I used to either, from this point on. So I continued with my self-education in music, and to this day haven't stopped.
We had also moved several blocks away to a different section of Overbrook. It was quite a change -- a suburban sort of setting: stone twin houses, big yards, lots of trees, fireplaces (a lot like the neighborhood I live in now). This house had a huge room on the third floor that became our music room. I was in heaven for 2 years.
The first time I had ever heard of Gustav Mahler was in an entry in the Guiness Book of World Records for 'longest symphony ever written' (his 3rd). I was immediately intrigued and couldn't wait to hear it.
Goetschius had written about Mahler much more compactly than about Beethoven, Schubert, etc., with only one measly little musical example from the 5th Symphony, but mostly in glowing terms which got me interested. I read everything else I could find on Mahler, including an absolutely glowing appraisal of his 2nd, and before I had ever heard a note of his music, had convinced myself that he must have been the greatest composer of them all. Well it turned out I was right : )
It wasn't too long after that (ah, serendipity!) that WFLN fm, the local classical music station, had just begun playing, one symphony per week, the entire new Solti Mahler cycle. At last, I got to hear the eternal Gustav! I taped every broadcast, then went totally out of my mind over Mahler, becoming completely engrossed in his musical universe. To this day, he's still my favorite composer and I'm still awed by the all-encompassing grandiosity of his musical and intellectual genius, to say nothing of his ethical, moral, and artistic integrity as a human being.
I also began playing oboe, and later bassoon. After 9th grade, I went to a summer music camp with my friend Marc. Our big end-of-camp concert was to be the opening act for George Benson, who was the "real" opening act for Maynard Ferguson. Their jazz styles were beyond my taste at the time, but Maynard's version of "Don't Let The Sun GoDown On Me" (I believe it was his final number) got me interested in Elton John, of whom I became a huge fan (along with Lennon & co. -- all my life I've loved the Beatles). I listened to Elton a lot right up to the time I went to college.
Also during music camp was my first real involvement with a female, Joyce Johnson (not related to Marc, but actually an old friend of his), an African-American girl who also played clarinet. She already had a boyfriend, so things only progressed so far, but we kept in touch for at least a year afterward. My relationships have been mostly with African-American women ever since then.
During 10th grade, I also attended Settlement Music School on Saturdays. I was taking clarinet lessons here too, but was much more interested in my theory class (Marc was here too -- we were still competing, though we had by now gone different ways musically), and after class would spend the rest of the afternoon in the school library. It was the first library I had found that had a big score collection. I also became extremely interested in Carl Nielsen's work, particularly his "Inextinguishable" Symphony (what a great title!).
Periodically throughout his life, my father has been serious about painting (in oils), and he's quite a good artist. My brother, Mario, was going to art school (he was very talented as a cartoonist when he was young -- too bad he never went into the field), and I got intrigued by art, and also began to draw and paint. My father would drop me off at Settlement and go to art class with Mario, and when he came to back after class to get me, I was never ready to leave -- he'd always have to park the car, come into the school, and find me (in the library).
I went to music camp again after 10th grade, and this time began attracting the attention of the teachers more because of my composing than my abilities as a woodwind player.
11th Grade in Ocean City
|My family moved from Philadelphia to Ocean City, just before I started 11th grade. This again was a culture shock. Ocean City was founded by Methodist ministers and had strict Sunday "blue laws" -- you could hardly do anything on Sunday except go to the beach or stay home and watch TV. Most importantly, it was a dry town -- no liquor anywhere (except at home). If you've never lived in a dry town, you don't know what an effect it has on the overall feel of the place -- it's incredibly peaceful. At the same time, pretty boring too.|
The ethnicity of the place was dominantly Anglo and Protestant, and the only reason I fit in is because I and the community were reasonably tolerant of each other, and there were several accomplished musicians in the school who recognized my abilities (so did their parents) and could "dig where I was coming from". I had hardly noticed any of this when we just vacationed there, but living there full-time certainly brought it to my attention. At any rate, it was much different living there than in Philadelphia.
My friends at this time became almost exclusively musicians. I used the quoted phrase above because most of the kids who were good were into jazz, and I guess under peer pressure, I began to listen to it and appreciate it (in fact, Maynard was the man of the moment). A big probable cause behind this was that the school had a "stage band" -- a big band jazz group, consisting of the "cream of the crop" out of our huge (approximately 100-piece) school band. I played Baritone Sax, and really enjoyed it (but boy, was it a pain to carry around!).
Another new feature of my life was Marching Band. Basically, this was a drag, but I eventually played Tenor Sax as a squad captain, and it was kind of nice to be involved in football again, albeit tangentially. The big bonus to putting up with Marching Band was being able to go on the band trip at the end of the year. Unfortunately this only happened my first of the two years at Ocean City, but boy what an experience! Away from home for the first time, in Virginia Beach --it was a memory in the high school yearbook for myself and all of my friends. One of my best friends at the time was Jeff Morris, who went on to study acting and became a playwright and director in New York, and is still a very close friend (it happened that he and his wife moved to Philly for a few years while i lived there again, later.) He wrote, produced, and directed the play Invisible Haircut, which ran in December 1993 in New York, and for which i wrote the incidental music and theme.
There was one person with whom I became very good friends who was only a sometime classmate (depending on the course), who was a year ahead of me, and who didn't play music -- Chris Wittmann. (He's the JustMusic partner who's in Germany and always busy -- Hi Chris!). He was crazy about Emerson, Lake & Palmer and was always playing them for me. But mostly, he was into computers and higher math. We became friends mainly because we both liked Astronomy (the branch of physics) and Queen and Pink Floyd (the rock groups) a lot.
My musical tastes were branching out quite a bit. I also had a different set of friends in Ocean City -- the kids in my neighborhood. We had been vacationing there since 1968, so I knew most of them long before we moved there. They must have been quite a crew, because I remember that the school bus ride in the morning was just long enough for us to perform Frank Zappa's "Billy the Mountain" in its entirety before we got to school. I had never heard it, but knew it by heart by the time I graduated.
Two things about the change in schools affected my 12th grade greatly: I missed Driver's Ed, and I had almost enough credits to graduate at the end of 11th grade, so that 12th grade was really lightweight and easy. I filled out my schedule with all the music classes I could associate myself with, and never did learn how to drive until I was 21. Instead I became a passionate advocate of a mode of transportation I'd never stopped loving since childhood: bicycling. I also remember being heavily into Nietzsche at this time (-- was I nuts?). I fell in love with a succession of beautiful blond girls, but nothing ever got serious -- at this point in my life, music was my woman.
Chris was already in college, and after school I started hanging out with Dave Nickerson. Thus was I introduced to Devo and what I thought was really weird jazz (I recall Anthony Braxton in particular), and got to finally actually hear some Frank Zappa records. We would listen to all sorts of unusual music, they stranger the better, and at one point formed a little jazz group with another friend, but it never went anywhere.
My parents also finally bought a piano for me. It was an old run-down inexpensive job, and it served me almost until the time I left for college, about a year, before it pretty literally began falling apart.
I had two big projects for the year. One was a 12-inch reflecting telescope I was building from scratch for Physics class, for which I received some kind of small grant from a government educational program. I never did finish building it. The other one was musical: an arrangement I made of excerpts from Mahler's 1st symphony for the concert band. I got to conduct it at my final school concert, and it was a resounding success. I thought my career as a conductor had begun (boy, did I want to walk in Mahler's footsteps!).
I studied composition, theory, counterpoint, jazz arranging, clarinet and conducting privately with Flip DePhillips, a local clarinetist/ saxophonist, composer and music teacher. I also played clarinet in the Ocean City Cultural Arts Orchestra, conducted by Edmund DeLuca. A few years later, in college, I would find a record of one of his compositions (small world again). I also played for short periods for other groups that never quite got off the ground.
My trumpet-playing friend Steve Villager once played a Don Ellis tune called "Bulgarian Bulge" (download a video of it here) for me. He was going away on a summer-long trip to Europe, playing in a concert band, and said I could go in his place if I could tell him the time-signature. He was pretty confident that I wouldn't succeed, and I was pretty cocky about my abilities, but I couldn't do it -- it turned out to be in an extremely fast 31/16. But the back of the record jacket had a measure of it written out, and the metrical subdivisions fascinated me -- I would later seek out Bulgarian music.
By this time, I had become determined to go to New York to study music seriously, had already been there for the first time and loved it, and had gotten accepted to Manhattan School of Music. Off I went.
I absolutely loved New York, which at the time really wasn't a very nice place (it was just beginning to rebound from near-bankruptcy). But I really felt like I came alive there. Manhattan was a great school. I majored in composition with Elias Tanenbaum, who opened up my mind to corners of the musical universe that I never dreamed existed. I became good friends with Rand Steiger and Aaron Jay Kernis, both of whom have gone on to fame if not fortune, and with the small self-contained "composers class", which included Dan Palkowski, who later became a roommate, Santiago Perez, who is apparently quite successful these days in Barcelona, and Deniz Hughes (I knew her, pre-marriage, as Deniz Ulben), who is still active as a New York composer. I also became friends with Remo Mazzetti, who has since made his own completion of Mahler's unfinished 10th Symphony. Another freshman classmate for a very brief time was Zoe Tamerlis, who left school because she got the starring role in her most famous movie, Ms. 45.
The composers at Manhattan had different theory courses from all the other students, so we ended up together, and isolated from everyone else, in a lot of our classes. Dan was about six or seven years older than the rest of us, and had been around. He had a quirky way of looking at the world which I found intriguing, and I really liked his music (still do).
180 Claremont Ave., New York
|My living situation my first semester in New York wasn't too good, and when my building was condemned and I had to move out, Dan offered me the recently-vacated room in the apartment he was sharing three ways. This was musically probably the most fruitful period of my life. The apartment was only a block away from school, which meant that I could spend lots of time at school, and it was easy for other students to visit and jam. Dan also kept trying to turn me on to Yes. I finally became a big fan the year after I left school -- I just couldn't digest them at the time. This was also the period of the all-night copying sessions with Santiago, while we listened to Steve Reich's "Music for 18 Musicians" over and over again.|
Other than the vast new horizons Tanenbaum opened up to me, the most important musical influences at this time were my discovery of real Bulgarian folk music (download "Shareno Horo" at this site), with its fast asymmetrical meters and unusually close and dissonant vocal harmonies, and the increasingly popular style and technique of composition called minimalism, particularly Phillip Glass's "Einstein On The Beach". I went really nuts over both.
I also became infected with a perversely intense interest in maps (something which I've been surprised to find in quite a few of my friends) and a concommitant wanderlust. My first trip anywhere by myself was a train ride to Montréal (where I was eventually to spend my honeymoon). I've loved the place ever since. (To me, the interest in maps, travel, languages, and music notation is all of a piece)
Back during my first semester (1979), when I lived in mid-town Manhattan, I had purchased an interesting-looking book called "Genesis of a Music" by a composer I had never heard of named Harry Partch. To this day I'm not sure what caused me to buy it -- little did I know that it was a turning point in my life. He had some nice things to say about Mahler in the first part of the book, and there were color pictures of very odd-looking but beautiful instruments that he had built himself, so I bought it. I enjoyed reading that philosophical first part, but was bewildered by the mathematics which followed. It would be several more years before that part of the book would be absorbed and have any kind of effect on me.
I progressed quite well in school up to the end of my second year. Then suddenly, I got severe composer's block. I didn't realize it until later (after I had finally digested Partch's theories), but the cause of the problem was that, no matter how hard I tried, I couldn't write in the academically-accepted serial manner because I personally couldn't escape the shackles of tonality which I felt around my musical thinking. But at the time, I didn't know the cause and was very frustrated.
Christine feigning drunkeness, 1981
|I was frustrated for another reason too. There were several attractive young women at school whom I liked, and about halfway thru my second year I began going out with Christine LaForgia. This was my first real true love. When I needed to find another apartment, I decided to move to Staten Island, partly because I craved natural surroundings that I couldn't get in Manhattan, partly because I wanted to be close to Christine. I was really crazy about her. However, the relationship was never consummated, and being far away from school had a deleterious effect on my studies.||
Christine and her dog, Hubby, 1981
After Christine broke up with me, I decided that I needed a break, so when summer vacation arrived, I headed for Montréal, taking enough money to get an apartment, figuring I could find a job as a cook (which I had been doing since 12th grade) easily enough, intending to work and live there until September, then return to Manhattan and get serious about school again. Things didn't work out that way at all.
I was honest with the Border Patrol but totally ignorant of international employment regulations. After being detained at the border for 7 hours, they sent me back to the USA. I was stranded in the middle of nowhere (disguised as upstate New York), with my backpack and bicycle, and now, a lot less money than I had started out with. The easiest thing to do would have been to admit defeat and go back home to Mom & Dad for the summer. So instead, wanting to prove my independence to myself, I went back to NYC (I had to go at least as far as Albany, quite far from where I was, to get anywhere) then to Los Angeles by bus. What a trip!
LA is not just geographically opposite of New York, but opposite in almost every other way as well. I had read an article about LA in Playboy, and I suppose I was seduced by fantasies of the women, beaches, and sunshine like everyone else. But certainly the most powerful stimulus for going there was the fact that I'd recently become fascinated with Jim Morrison (of Doors fame), and because of my great Social & Political Theory class at Manhattan (really an open-forum kind of class, guided wonderfully by James Allen) I got crazy ideas about experiencing life without money, which kind of tied in to the Jim-Morrison-living-on-the-rooftops-of-Venice-Beach thing. Of course I never took into account that that was 1966, and this wasn't.
This story is already far longer than I had intended, so I will omit much detail from my amazing six week odyssey in California.
In brief, I arrived with $1.37 in my pockets and no bicycle -- I found out later it had gotten misplaced in St. Louis and sent back home to my folks -- no place to stay, no friends, no car (no driving ability yet either), but loved the place and decided I would stay there permanently. I got a job within a week, got a room in a downtown LA skid-row hotel, and spent a lot of time hanging out at Venice Beach.
I eventually quit my job, left my hotel room, lived in a car for a couple of weeks, and in general just became a homeless bum (among dozens of others) in Venice. The only thing that made me different was that I'd sit on the beach for long periods of time reading Herbert Marcuse's "One-Dimensional Man" (from Dr. Allen's class at MSM) and Will Bryant's "The Story of Philosophy". It was fun for a while, but staying hungry gets old real fast. After a few weeks of this, the buddy in whose car I'd been living (Jim Barr, where are you? I'd love to hear from you again.) sold the car for $500, spent $100 on booze so we could celebrate our immanent departure, split the rest of the money with me, and we got a bus east.
I moved back in with my parents, who had actually moved while I was away at school, to Williamstown, New Jersey. This was at the time a little country town near the middle of "South Jersey". Unfortunately, my parents's arguments had become too much for either of them, and a few months later my father left and they divorced. I've remained in contact with both of them, although they haven't spoken to each other since then. My father started playing clarinet again, gigged quite a bit for a while, and was quite good the few times I saw him. My mother and brother Mario both moved (separately) to Miami a few years later.
Because I hadn't written anything over the summer, when I re-auditioned at Manhattan, I didn't make it. So I ended up staying in Williamstown, learned how to drive (I had to, to go anywhere), worked intermittent various day jobs, finally understood Harry Partch (more on that later...), became custodian of Mom's backyard swimming pool, and became a keyboard player in my first rock band, a heavy-metal group called Meanstreak.
Why they wanted a keyboard player, I don't know -- I suppose it was because the leader, Ed Majewski (with whom I became close friends for a couple of years), liked prog rock a lot. There really wasn't much for me to do in the band, because the music was totally guitar-dominated, and at this point I only had a Fender Rhodes electric piano -- no synths or organ. The group only did one gig, but it was my introduction to playing in rock bands, and I was friends and jamming partners with some of the guys for years afterward.
The most insane musician I ever knew was the bass player for Meanstreak, Lenny. My favorite memory of our gig was when he took a flying leap off the stage to play a solo on the dance floor (literally, lying on the dance floor), and didn't realize that his cord had come flying out of his amp and onto the floor with him, so no one could hear anything he was playing. He pretty much spoke his own unique language with some English mixed in, and coined new words all the time. (Lenny eventually got married, had kids, and settled down to a quiet life tending his organic garden. Go figure.)
20 years old, in my dashiki
|Bob Toppi, the bass player from another band, the Midnight Riders, saw that gig, and he was impressed enough by me to take my number. I really don't know what he found so impressive - I wasn't doing much but pounding out chords on the Rhodes. I suppose it must have been my stage presence -- I've always loved acting absolutely wild on stage while playing rock'n'roll. Meanstreak didn't last, so when we broke up and Bob called me inviting me to their gig, I went. I joined the Midnight Riders that night.|
I stayed with them from 1982 until 1985. The night I first saw them, they were a raw, musically very limited, but very exciting band playing southern rock (the best stuff was by the Allmann Brothers) and Rolling Stones tunes. The only music I had ever played that came as close to this in excitement was Tchaikovsky's 4th Symphony, and that was left totally in the dust by these guys.
We had two guitars, bass, drums, keyboards, and both male and female lead singers. Steve Shelder played great guitar solos with his slide, and Nick "Bulk" DelVecchio pounded the hell out of his drums. I should also mention that they were a biker band -- that is, our devoted loyal following was mostly a local motorcyle club -- really great guys, but still a pretty rough crowd.
The musical direction of the band changed quite a bit after I joined. We started doing Pretenders songs (I was crazy about them!), the Clash, and other more punk/new-wave type stuff, and I made sure that from now on the guitarists played the right notes in all the chords and riffs. Actually, to get them to do a minor-7th chord, I'd tell the guitarists to play the relative major chord (I'd tell them by letter-name -- they had no patience for theory), and the bass player to play the bass root-note. This got me thinking this way compositionally, and I started writing tunes where the chords were somewhat independent of the bass (for example, So Ultraconservative).
We worked a lot, and we drank even more. The biggest gig we ever did was as opening act for Black Oak Arkansas at a huge outdoor biker rally in upstate New York -- there was a crowd of about 8,000. We made it as far as recording a four-song EP, which got some airplay on local college radio. But the songs were the ones written by the other guys -- I guess mine were too difficult. I eventually got frustrated with this situation, quit, came back, and quit again. In the meantime Bob had quit, and I brought in Lenny Dramis, the crazy man from Meanstreak, on bass. Our style got heavier again.
The next-to-last incarnation of the Midnight Riders
around 1984, at the height of our popularity, rehearsing in the basement
Lenny on bass, Steve on guitar, Nick on drums, Jack on guitar, me on keyboards,
and Shirley on lead vocals
Lenny and I both left the Midnight Riders around the same time, so we formed a new band called Viper with a couple of guys he knew. It only lasted a few months, and that's when I returned to the Midnight Riders.
I spent the summer of 1983 in Wildwood, New Jersey, working in Cape May, still gigging and rehearsing with the Midnight Riders in Williamstown, and again travelling by bicycle. This was a really crazy summer -- almost a match to Venice Beach. Musically the most significant thing that happened was an amazingly intense new interest in Bruce Springsteen, whose records I used to hate with a passion. Suddenly, he caught my ear, and I listened to his stuff almost daily all the way up to about 1992, when I got married. Also around this time was my first mature experience with a woman, but there was still no serious relationship.
While sitting around at Mom's house with no job, I re-read Partch's book about four more times, and finally began to understand what he was talking about. This was the key to my "serious composing" problem! I realized immediately that I wanted to compose in just-intonation, and that I wanted to do it flexibly and accurately on the computer. This is a dream that is only now beginning to be realized. But it has been my obsession since 1984. I knew nothing at all about computers, so I set about to learn, and bought a really cheap Timex-Sinclair. I think it had 16 K of RAM, used casette tape for storage, TV for a monitor, etc. It got me started.
During the fall of 1984 I drove once a week to New York, to study computer music with Charles Dodge at Brooklyn College. I learned a lot, but unfortunately (mainly because of distance) it didn't really gel into what I hoped it would. Also at this time, I was listening every day to WXPN's "Directions in Music" program, which exposed me to lots of recorded contemporary music. I miss that show.
I had gotten interested in Atlantic City during my summer in Wildwood, so I studied to be a craps dealer at the Casino Career Institute there, was quite good, got my license, but then was offered a good job as a real-estate field appraiser, so I never did get to the casinos to work, until years later when I played music in the lounges.
After quitting the Midnight Riders for the second time, I had gotten acquainted with a new circle of musicians who were very much into progressive rock -- King Crimson, Yes, Rush, Genesis, etc. By this time I had come to like this kind of stuff, and we formed a band called Tsunami, which was musically the most able band I ever played in, but unfortunately it didn't last long enough to get us a gig. About this time, I also first got to know the work of Van Morrison, Rickie Lee Jones, and the blues, all of which influenced me a lot.
By this time, I had moved out of what was now Mom's house and into an old farm house with a few of these friends. This was another very creative period in my life. We turned an old chicken coop into a studio, and it seems like we played and wrote music all the time.
But I tired of life in the country, and moved to the nearest big city (so I could keep my day job). Thus ...
My first apartment there, in South Philly, was shared with a female nurse, Robin Culp, with whom I was "just friends". I didn't do any active musical work for a few years, although I continued to develop my just-intonation theories. I also renewed my friendship with the long-lost Marc Johnson. We hadn't seen each other in 10 years, but, as Marc says, "we picked up the conversation on the next sentence".
Meantime, I eventually lost my job, so I took to delivering pizza. This was a job I really liked, because it was no pressure, and I had free time to work on my music when it wasn't busy. I did it on and off for the next ten years.
Terri in my South Philly living room
|Nearly a year after moving to back to Philly, I met Terri, the woman with whom I had the first really serious relationship in my life. She already had four children, and I moved in with her when she got a house in a city housing project. Boy, was that an experience! We were together for three years, and I had a big ready-made family.||
Terri on the shore of Lake Ontario
A few years after Terri and I met, I secured a spot as keyboard player with a Top-40 band called One Night Affair. We also gigged a lot, not only locally, but as far as the Catskills and the "Jersey shore". We eventually made it to the casino lounges, not doing our own act, but as back-up band for Tony Saxon, a talented and funny casino entertainer. I was with them from 1989 to 1993. I got to stretch out a bit and do some lead vocals on our own gigs -- fun stuff like "Glory Days", a Little Richard medley (I loved that!), a Dion imitation. But although we became quite good, and the money was pretty good, playing Top-40 eventually was too confining for me, and still, we weren't playing any of my original songs, even though I was composing steadily, and, I thought, always improving.
Shortly after I joined
Giac, me, Marcia, Eli, Donna, and Chuck
In our "pajama" suits
our tall anonymous guitarist, Chuck, me, Eli, and Marcia
I got some money together and bought a big old house
in Germantown (with a lot of financial help from my
father -- thanks, Dad! Even if I can ever repay you,
I can never repay you.).
Germantown is a very historic old neighborhood
in Northwest Philly, which has historically always been
very ethnically and religiously diverse and integrated,
which appealed to me as much as the beautiful
country-like, and hilly, setting. (I only found out after he died
that Sun Ra and
many members of his Arkestra lived just a few blocks away.) I got a place
that was big enough for each of the kids to have
his own room and still give me a music room, but
things didn't work out quite as planned, and Terry
and I broke up not long after I moved into the house
by myself. Now I had more space than I needed.
I had a few short relationships after this, some very difficult because they were long-distance.
29 and looking stylish with Mooeshae, 1991
With my wife, Helena, around 1993
Then while standing around in the pizza store one day,
in walked the woman I would marry, Helena Riley.
She had a great interest in music, and is an
outstanding dancer, and a talented singer and model,
among many other things. She fell in love with
me and what she considers my genius, we had a
whirlwind courtship, and married in November 1992.
She agreed to support us both for a year so that
I could put my notes together into
the book I had
been wanting to write for years, and for that I
will be forever grateful.
One day at the pizza store, I heard a voice that I recognized immediately. It was that of Henry Varlack, announcer for WFLN, the classical-music station that I'd been listening to all the years that I was within earshot. This meeting eventually led my getting a job as a fill-in announcer for the station (a job I'd dreamed about as a teenager).
Within a couple years of getting married, I had quit One Night Affair, and was working hard on the book (which is only now nearing completion). Helena and I had planned on having a child, but again things didn't work out as planned (her child-bearing days ended early, then later we started having conflicts), and after putting up with our marital difficulties as long as she could, Helena left at the beginning of 1996. It was a crushing blow to me, but we've since at least remained close friends (I often think we're closer now than when we were together).
1996 was really a tough year for me. I damaged a floppy disk that was the only copy of all the music I'd written since our marriage, and lost it all. Then, while attempting to patch things up with Helena, I allowed her adopted daughter and her boyfriend to stay at my house with their new baby. I was also involved with other women by now, and spent a lot of time away from home, but assumed I could trust "family". Well, I was wrong about that: almost all of my large CD collection (many of which were extremely hard to find in the first place), practically all of my vinyl records (ditto, but even larger), and all of my keyboards, instruments, and musical equipment, disappeared. The three of them disappeared right after, and I'm thankful that I still have my home-made Rational Guitar and my computer, but it certainly has made composing more difficult, not to mention trying to earn a living performing (which I couldn't do at all until replacing the equipment).
As if these problems weren't enough, in losing my "other half", I was stuck with all of "our" debts, and had no real job. Also, I had a car, a van, and a motorcycle, all three of which died on me in short order. I contemplated suicide, went back to delivering pizza, eventually worked for nine months as a receptionist for Mazer Real Estate Company, then got work as a temp.
I was seeing Ada at this time. Ada is a wonderful woman who somehow saw eye-to-eye with me; although it seemed we disagreed on a lot of small things, I suppose we agreed on the really important stuff, and that kept it working. We broke up and got back together again a couple of times, until she took getting 'saved' seriously at the beginning of 1999 and ended our relationship (since my religious attitudes and ideas are quite different).
Bob Mazer generously let me convince him to buy a state-of-the-art computer system and let me use if after-hours to work on my stuff. I can't thank him enough. However, I needed more income, so I started doing secretarial work as a temp. One of the places I worked for eventually hired me, and I met and became involved with Z----.
||Z---- had two sons, age 1 and 3, and I must have really loved her and the kids, because at this point in my life I think I really knew that this kind of a family situation was not what I needed, but I made a serious attempt at it anyway. It lasted six months.|
So during 1997 all I did was work and support the family. 1997 ended first with Legalgard firing me, then with Z---- breaking up with me. I was overjoyed at the first, nonchalant about the second. The pressure of a full-time corporate job where my work wasn't appreciated because the perception was that I "was not a team player", and its impersonal, demeaning, and abrupt end, really left a bad taste in my mouth about having any kind of non-music job, especially in the corporate world, and I was way behind on my musical work at this point anyway, so rode the subway home smiling and thinking about how much free time I now had. Collecting unemployment only made it that much sweeter. And I guess I was at this point mature enough to realize that although Z---- and I had a lot in common, our lives and heads were really in two different places that didn't meet before the horizon ended the view, so I accepted it pretty stoically.
So for the first six months of 1998, I slaved away at the computer on projects I've had on the shelf for as long as ten years, not to mention constant work on my book JustMusic: A New Harmony -- Representing Pitch as Prime Series. I've become a subscriber to the TUNING List, which has given me a nice forum to debate topics of microtonal interest before they get published in my book. And was introduced in cyberspace to many programmers who wanted to help me finally make my dream of microtonal software a reality.
I embarked on what was supposed to be a one-month trip across the USA in June of 1998, the purpose of which was to visit with west-coast microtonal composers and hopefully secure a way of moving out to California. The trip turned out far differently than I had intended. I made it as far as Phoenix, Arizona, where I then spent the rest of the summer (by far the most disgustingly hot weather I've ever experienced - never again!), and finally moved to San Diego in September, where I established myself.
Jonathan Glasier, founder and publisher of the seminal microtonal journal Interval, generously provided me accomodations and access to a computer during my first stay in San Diego, and along with Denny Genovese, founder and former director of the Southeast Just-Intonation Center, the three of us formed the Sonic Arts center, headquartered in Jonathan's Sonic Arts Gallery, the purpose of which is to bring together and provide services for as many microtonal musicians as possible. Denny left San Diego in 2002. My association with Jonathan has been very fruitful, introducing me to many other people in the microtonal world who are friends of his, and to other artistic people in general.
In December of 1998 I returned to Philadelphia to take care of my house and other business that I had left hanging, expecting to be back in San Diego by Christmas. But because of "extenuating" circumstances (a very long story which I will not go into), I stayed for another year and a half. While i was there, Johnny Reinhard invited me to perform a piece on the Microthon! concert of the 1999 AFMM, and so I composed A Noiseless Patient Spider setting Walt Whitman's poem. It was very well received. (see Kyle Gann's Village Voice review.)
after a 40-mile bike ride, July 1999
Joe and Linda
I met Linda in Philly in June of 1999. We
took our vacation the first week of the new year in San Diego
for the big millenium celebration, then at
the end of February embarked on a great 3-week road trip
across the United States which constituted our moving to
San Diego, which is where we both live now (but no longer together).
I spent the summer of 2000 doing deep research into Sumerian and Babylonian mathematics and music.
In November 2000 I returned to Philadelphia ostensibly for two weeks (again) to take care of my property there. Things did not go as smoothly as I had expected, and good job opportunities kept hitting me in the face, so I stayed until the end of the year. The weather was freezing, I almost didn't make it out of the airport in a big New Year's Eve blizzard, and got to spend one night and morning in San Francisco. Then when I returned home Linda and I split up.
I wrote a few reviews of microtonal concerts, three of which have been published online in David Beardsley's Juxtaposition Ezine. And I started up an auto lock-out business, but after trying to make it work for about a year, it wasn't doing well and I stopped taking the service calls.
Since May 2001 i've been making a living full-time as a private music teacher.
Performing one of my own pieces at a California Music Studios recital, July 21, 2001.
I was invited to give a presentation at the ISMA (International Society of Musical Acoustics) 2001 conference in Perugia, Italy. (More details can be found at the bottom of this page and also here.) As it happened, my lecture was given on the fateful day of September 11, 2001. I did a lot of traveling outside of the conference (first time in Bruges, Rome, Perugia, Florence, Venice, Brussels, Amsterdam, and The Hague), met a lot of terrific people in Europe, including some of my microtonal colleagues, and hope to visit again often.
At the beginning of November, I took part in the second El Paso Microhoot,
giving lectures on
Microtonality in a
Robert Johnson blues vocal and my
on Sumerian Tuning, as well as performances of my piece
A Noiseless Patient
Spider. My travel-mates were
In May 2002 i bought an old
Yamaha Radian motorcycle,
which i enjoyed using a lot until i had an accident in November.
Luckily i wasn't hurt badly.
Also that same month, I met a young lady from Zambia,
with whom I had a relationship for several years.
In February 2003, i officially incorporated
with my old friend Chris Wittmann. We've been working
since then on Tonescape®
microtonal music software,
which creates rotatable 3-dimensional
giving a geometrical model of the mathematics of
any desired tuning system, in conjunction with
a full-featured set of tools for composing
and producing mp3's of microtonal music.
We ran out of investment capital at the beginning of 2006,
with the software stuck for now at alpha-test phase.
In the spring of 2007 i became a father for the first time,
of a beautiful daughter; in the winter of 2010 my son was born.
I've been quite busy with the kids since then,
while continuing to earn a living as a private music instructor.
During June/July 2010 I traveled to Zambia, where I got married.
In December 2011 I was invited by Ozan Yarman
to give presentations on Tonescape at the
Microtonalist Entrepreneurs International Meeting (pdf file)
in Istanbul and Ankara, Turkey.
In March 2012 I joined a band, Bacchanal, as keyboardist, vocalist and sax player.
That's the story as of March 30, 2012.
In May 2002 i bought an old Yamaha Radian motorcycle, which i enjoyed using a lot until i had an accident in November. Luckily i wasn't hurt badly.
Also that same month, I met a young lady from Zambia, with whom I had a relationship for several years.
In February 2003, i officially incorporated Tonalsoft® with my old friend Chris Wittmann. We've been working since then on Tonescape® microtonal music software, which creates rotatable 3-dimensional lattice diagrams giving a geometrical model of the mathematics of any desired tuning system, in conjunction with a full-featured set of tools for composing and producing mp3's of microtonal music. We ran out of investment capital at the beginning of 2006, with the software stuck for now at alpha-test phase.
In the spring of 2007 i became a father for the first time, of a beautiful daughter; in the winter of 2010 my son was born. I've been quite busy with the kids since then, while continuing to earn a living as a private music instructor.
During June/July 2010 I traveled to Zambia, where I got married. In December 2011 I was invited by Ozan Yarman to give presentations on Tonescape at the Microtonalist Entrepreneurs International Meeting (pdf file) in Istanbul and Ankara, Turkey. In March 2012 I joined a band, Bacchanal, as keyboardist, vocalist and sax player.
That's the story as of March 30, 2012.