I’ve been an accordion player, among other things and with varying interpretations of the word “professional,” for a little over ten years. I’ve written at some length about the specific baggage that comes form identifying with that particular instrument, so I won’t rehash that particular rant at the moment. This is a story not about a specific instrument, but musical instruments in general, what it means to play music with another person; it has the feel of a story about giving, but in the O. Henry sense in which to get something special sometimes you need to take something special away from someone else. It’s going to sound like some kind of fable, but I swear it’s true; in the way that life sometimes sounds like a movie script you’d roll your eyes at if you saw it on a plane.
I’d picked up the accordion under the influence of the cover of the “Basement Tapes,” on which a small group of modern Americans managed to look like an ahistorical band of carnies with the addition of some wide-brimmed hats and some unfashionable instruments including an accordion, a sousaphone, and a mandolin. I duly bought myself a mandolin as a high-school graduation present, and, when I left for New York for college, brought my dad’s little red Hohner accordion.
My father’s German grandfather had brought the accordion from the home country in the mid-century, so his grandson could play him polkas and waltzes. A good child of the sixties, my dad despised it, to the point of taking a steak knife to the bellows to avoid a lesson. (It didn’t work. Duct tape worked as well then as it does now.)
I made a few half-hearted attempts at learning the thing, but mostly moved it in and out a succession of dorm rooms and increasingly remote apartments, an effective filler of under-bed space. It wasn’t until I joined a nine-piece circus-punk orchestra that it came in handy: I’d joined as a piano player, but after a rehearsal or two I said, “I’ve got an accordion at home. Should I bring it?” They responded enthusiastically, and thus began my life as an accordion player.
It was a life based, initially, on an ambitious lie. I didn’t know how to play. As a piano player, I figured, I was halfway there already – literally. But in an unexpected development, the glasses I wore at the time were narrow enough that when I looked down at the piano keyboard now oriented vertically under my right hand, I looked under my glasses at keys too blurry to see. In any case, the band’s rehearsals were loud enough that I could fuck up in a protective haze of incipient tinnitus, and by the time I got a pickup for the thing I had more or less figured it out – enough to play the handful of songs I needed without obvious wrong notes.
I didn’t have a deep knowledge of accordion world. I knew the Band, I knew the Pogues, I knew Tom Waits, and I knew old men of indeterminate nationality on subway platforms. I started working in concentric circles of influence and connection, through 16 Horsepower, the Tiger Lilies, through Taraf de Haidouks, the New Orleans Klezmer All-Stars, Jacques Brel, Clifton Chenier, and the No Smoking Orchestra. It was the range of accordion music from Mexico to South America to Ireland, France, Italy, Eastern Europe, and beyond — an instrument that has few peers, the violin, maybe — as one identified equally with raucous dance music as sentimental weepers.
But there were two that really got to me. One was a Bulgarian band of wedding musicians led by a clarinetist named Ivo Papasov. One of my friends, who worked at WNYC, had gotten ahold of a cassette of the band that some friends and I had burned to a disc and were passing around with sheer “you gotta hear this” enthusiasm. They were, literally, a wedding band, for functions and overnight dance parties, drums, electric bass, sax, cheesy keyboard pads, clarinet, and accordion; playing a frenetic and otherworldly jazz.
Then there was Piazzolla, the tango composer you know if you only know one tango composer; and in a way the mirror image of the Papasov band. Where the Bulgarians were playing virtuosic and elite music in the service of weddings and social events – music for use in the most mundane sense — Piazzolla had taken a popular dance style and elevated it into the concert hall, out of the world and into the vacuum reserved for art consumed in isolation. Schmaltzy, sentimental, but still classy, just the way I like it.
Anyway, point being I realized I was going to need a better accordion. This being 2002 or so, I went to Yahoo classifieds while at work, and found a two or three-line ad for an instrument up in Queens, asking price $700, which was at least 500 bucks more than I had to my name at the moment, but no matter. I called the number, spoke briefly to a guy with a thick accent named Sergio, and made plans to go to Forest Hills after work.
I’m pretty sure that at that point in my life, despite having five or six years in New York under my belt and having at that point moved to Brooklyn, I’d never been to Queens, in the way that New Yorkers have a tendency to look at any water crossing the same way 15th-century Europeans did: hazardous, possibly life-threatening, and with a better than average chance of meeting monsters. In my memory, getting out to Sergio’s place involved a couple trains, a bus, and possibly fording Newtown Creek, but a quick look at a subway map just confirmed that I basically sat on the E train for an hour.
Sergio was probably in his late 50s; dark, hairy, polite, and melancholy in a cardigan and khakis. He invited me in and offered me a cup of coffee. It was a nondescript vinyl-siding house and the kind of interior decoration and not-unpleasant scent I associated with peoples’ grandparents: brown shag, fake-wood panelling, a record player, some ceramic knick-knacks. He led me to the basement, a standard 70s-issue rec room, and pulled out a black suitcase. He opened it and pulled out a silver accordion that looked, compared to the one I’d been playing, the size of a file cabinet.
He strapped it on and played a bit of a thing. “Wow,” I said, and meant it — he was pretty good. “How long have you been playing?”
“Thirty years,” he said, and told me his story.
He’d escaped Cold War Bulgaria in the late fifties, with his older brother, by a convoluted route including sneaking over the Greek border, working a few years in Italy, and, well, I don’t remember exactly how he got to New York, or he didn’t say. He and his brother got blue-collar jobs — Sergio as a plumber, his brother drove a truck — they bought this house, lived there together, never married. They got home each night, cooked dinner, watched TV, and came down to the basement and played accordion duets until they got tired: Eastern European favorites, Sinatra, “La vie en rose,” then goodnight and up in the morning for work.
And then, the month before, his brother had died suddenly of a heart attack. And, he said, he couldn’t bear to play by himself, so he’d decided to sell the accordion.
“My brother’s is over here,” he said, gesturing to another case. “It is not as good as mine though.”
“How much?” I said.
“For this one $700. For my brother’s, I can sell for $200.”
“Uhhh,” I said, and looked at the silver accordion. “I’ve only got about $300.”
He paused, and looked at me, and looked at the accordion.
“Listen,” he said. “I can tell you’re a musician, and that you’ll really play it. I’ll sell you this one for the cheaper price if you promise you’ll give it another life.”
We shook hands, he drove me to an ATM and then to the subway. I took the thing home and then around the world for most of the last ten years. It’s a duct-taped wreck now — accordions aren’t built to travel well; anything that’s an piano crossed with a typewriter is destined to be in a near-constant state of disrepair — but I like to think I’ve held up my end of the bargain. There’s a duality in the way music is used and the way it’s perceived, between the transcendent and the mundane. The Piazzolla tangos I wanted to play are sentimental in the way that deeply serious expressions of romanticism and desire can be; and the music Sergio and his brother played may seem sad and small compared to that grand canvas. But in their dailiness, in their routine, in their pragmatism, they’re shared expressions of suppressed desire and unspoken longing.
And for me it’s somewhere in between: if you choose to build your life around something, of course you want to aim for the transcendent, but you’re still going to work every day — just in my case, work is getting up in front of a bunch of strangers with a live microphone every night and trying to not make them walk out of the room.