Petty Humiliations in the Life of an Accordion Player

There are countless small humiliations attendant on being an accordion player for – for lack of a better phrase – a living. It is an instrument upon which has been loaded the better part of a century’s worth of cultural baggage, extra poundage more or less coeval with the lifespan of the Lawrence Welk Show and the rise of Weird Al Yankovic.

It’s cultural baggage, though, unique to the England/America/Australia axis, in which the accordion is a signifier of foreignness. It’s no accident that the countries in which the accordion or its relatives play the biggest role in the national musics – Mexican mariachi, Irish folk music, the various Slavic and Balkan dances, German polka, Jewish klezmer, Italian tarantella, Argentinian tango – are also the countries that rank high on the lists of exporters of immigrants to America in the past century. (The French occupy their own special place in the hearts of Anglo-Saxon xenophobes.) The ethnomusicologist (and my wife) Maria Sonevytsky has argued that the prejudices of Americans against accordion music constitute a variety of the condescension and embarrassment that some first-generation Americans feel toward their immigrant parents and past; that the association of the instrument with the Welk-style Midwest, white-bread “squareness” is a signifier of an “ethnic whiteness” (Poles, Slavs, Scandinavians) which has so melted into the Great Plains pot as to be just another beige lump in a bland stew.

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that I’ve got to answer for my instrument every time I strap it on, in a way that, say, bass players don’t. In my own music, I can use the generalizations people make when they see an accordion as a kind of aesthetic shorthand. But when I take rent-payin’ gigs, it’s almost always playing straight to the broadest type. Or, if you prefer, to the narrowest stereotype.

There are certain times of the year where every accordion player can get work: Oktoberfest, Cinco De Mayo, and Bastille Day. I got an email at about 2:30 in the afternoon, July 14, from a woman named Janice, cc’ed with another accordionist of my long, albeit somewhat tense, acquaintance: “I am hosting a Bastille Day wine dinner in my Hoboken restaurant tonight and am hoping to get an accordion player. Are either of you interested/available?”

I cringed. On the one hand, I look the part: without unnecessary modesty, there may be no-one else in all of the New York metropolitan area that looks more like a French accordeoniste than myself. On the other, I don’t know any French songs. Mostly I don’t know anyone’s songs except mine, on the theory that I’ll never be the best player of repertoire in any situation except the one where I wrote the stuff (and being the best at things is, as anyone who’s played me at Scrabble or ping-pong, a major life priority). On the other hand, in the words of George Thorogood, I ain’t got no job, therefore I ain’t got no money to pay no rent. I called Janice.

“Hi!” she said cheerily. “So, we have this Bastille Day party tonight, and we need an accordion player for the dinner. Do you know the ‘Marseillaise’?”

“Suurrree…” I hedged. (It’s the one that goes “Da-da-da dah dah dah dah DAAAH da-dah,” right?)

“Great! So the big event is at the end of the night, we march everyone across the street to our sister bar, with you at the head of the parade, and storm the bar! It’s tons of fun. You’ll love it.”

“Hmm,” I said. My distaste for playing other peoples’ music is exceeded only by my distaste for other peoples’ ideas of “tons of fun.” “It’s at least an hour each way to Hoboken. Maybe you should try some other people who live a little closer. Here are the numbers of many dozens of other accordionists. Call me back if you can’t find anyone.” Maybe a graduation party would materialize in the meantime. Or a baby shower. Or a thunder shower. Or just a really, really urgent shower.

When I was in college, I had a summer gig playing lunchtime piano at an Italian restaurant. Light standards, the odd soft-rock hit, snifter for tips, the whole bit. I made myself one rule, for dignity’s sake: no Billy Joel. A little too on-the-nose, you know? So naturally, the single most common scene that summer was a carafe-deep dad tripping over a chair on the way to the piano with a five-dollar bill in hand, saying “Hey buddy, play ‘Scenes From An Italian Restaurant!’ Play ‘Piano Man!’”

The regular piano man there did six nights a week, for tips, dinner, and, at least when I started there, as much wine as he could drink. This last was rescinded a couple months in, when the owner realized he was polishing off three bottles of Chianti a night. The kind in the bulbous bottles, nested in a woven hanging net. If the beams of the bar island were pineapple trees, he was a one-man clear-cutting and harvesting Dole Corp. Three hundred pounds if he was an ounce, missing the central upper quadrant of his teeth, called himself Giuseppe for professional purposes and Joe for personal ones. He played Billy Joel; though his real passion was Elton John: he’d do three sets a night, and the centerpiece of the last one was always the Moonlight Sonata into “Your Song.”

When you’re busking, you really only need a three-song, slam-dunk set, maximum, since your audience is recycling every ten minutes. Playing a restaurant is different only in the sense that instead of physically leaving they’re simply totally indifferent. So when Janice called back less than twenty minutes later, I nudged her northward on the price and said I’d do it.

“Full disclosure,” I said. “I don’t know a heck of a lot of French songs.”

“Can you fake it?” she said, with admirable pragmatism.

“Unless your patrons are well-schooled in the stylistic variations delineating culturally authentic accordion performance practice. And annoyed, or crass, enough to call me out on it.”

“That shouldn’t,” she said reasonably, “be a problem. See you at 8:30.”

New Jersey really does get unfairly maligned by New York chauvinists. I lived quite happily in Jersey City for some time, blissful in the double-barreled convenience of the near certainty that I would never run into anyone I knew in the streets and an iron-clad excuse for not meeting in Greenpoint for a drink. Unfortunately, given my line of work, I often found myself in Brooklyn well after midnight, loaded like a Sherpa with a variety of unpopular instruments, staring down the barrel of a four-train, three-transfer, two-hour-plus public transit death march.

There’s also the matter that the beating heart – or, more to the point, vomiting stomach – of the Jersey City-Hoboken-Weehawken-Union City medium-tropolis is a stretch of bars and nacho purveyors between the Hoboken PATH train station and the Maxwell’s rock-and-roll establishment that often seems to be directly transplanted from the likes of Orlando, or Fort Worth. It’s where they keep the post-collegiate lawyers and finance men and advertising account managers, the blue-shirted and chino-shorted blonds and their strap-heeled consorts. It’s the sleeper cell of the yuppie counter-revolution, with the nightlife habits of Visigoths. I’ve not seen so many young women in cocktail dresses falling down on a Friday night except in certain coastal towns of the British Isles (though in those towns, you can replace the blue-and-khaki future power-brokers with black-and-white Adidas track-suited future white-power dilettantes, with the obvious inherent class contrast somewhat undercut by the indistinguishable results.) To put it another way, a great place to get pointed and laughed at by drunk strangers.

Anyway, speaking of laughable, I trudged down Washington Street, accordion tortoise-shelled on my back; slim black suit, white shirt, pewter cufflinks, decrepit trilby. The restaurant was a classy number about a mile down, glass bay windows, a main dining room and a couple of semi-private ones. It was a private, seven-course prix-fixe situation with bow-tied waiters delivering pre-selected wines with each course, and a 6’-5” maitre-d’ with an understandably distracted mien.

“Hi!” sparkled Janice, a slim and slightly leathery brunette in the Michelle Bachmann mode. “You can put your case here. Have a seat, have a glass of wine.”
I hadn’t been drinking for a couple of weeks. My wife was out of town, and I’d noticed that that particular circumstance tended to coincide with a tendency on my part toward lassitude, afternoon cocktails, and somewhat early bedtimes. I noticed a large oil portrait on the wall, of what appeared to be Janice, the maitre-d’, and two pre-teens. “Where should I set up?”

“Oh, you’ll be strolling. You can start whenever you’re ready!”

Perhaps I would have that wine, after all.

There are several problems with the classic “strolling accordion player” gambit. One is the somewhat unexpected heft of the instrument itself. The inside of an accordion resembles nothing so much as a massively hypertrophied typewriter, a rats’-nest of interlaced metal worthy of the fever dreams of a grandiose Underwood innovator, to the tune of well over twenty pounds. There’s a perfectly reasonable, if uncommon, explanation for my slowly generating hump-back.

Second, there’s the restaurant environment. Business efficiency, of course, dictates that as much of the restaurant floor as possible be filled with tables, and the rest with waitstaff and busboys moving as fast as prudence and hospitality allow. Business efficiency has no logical justification for a small man with a ponderously expanding and contracting appendage, sauntering blithely but deliberately in the express lane.

And third, it’s awkward. Imagine a table of reasonably intoxicated, financially comfortable people in a semi-private room, previously insulated by the din of the conversation of a hundred-odd of their peers, suddenly confronted with a funny-looking man at their collective elbow, grinning and nodding and wheezing out waltzes. Their complaints about the President peter out and they don’t know whether to tip, clap, or complain to management.

“Hey! Are you Franz Nicolay?”

I blinked blankly at the middle-aged guy at the end of the table.

“From the Hold Steady? You look just like him!”

I’ve found that it’s a somewhat involved and not always effective conversation to explain to a stranger why the occasional somewhat demeaning gig is preferable to, and often more profitable than, a job in an acclaimed rock-and-roll outfit, so I nodded and grinned and eyed the next table. “Nice to meet you…”

“Wow!” He nudged his neighbor. “Hey, play ‘Sequestered In Memphis’!”

Nearly as unproductive as the public discussion of my career choices is explaining why certain songs not written for the accordion are ineffective, if not functionally unplayable, on that instrument. I bowed and shuffled backwards like a courtier delivering bad news.

“Watch it!” hissed a waiter, lofting a platter of filet mignon over my elbow.

The uncomfortable truth is that for someone who’s often identified, even self-identified as an accordion player, I don’t spend a lot of time playing it. I learned to play by inaudibly faking it until I actually knew what I was doing, and a little of that quality remains in my approach. Basically my repertoire, in total, consists of a handful of songs from old bands – genre exercises in waltz and tango from World/Inferno, some faux-Balkan from Guignol, and whatever cabaret and Cajun-y bits I do on my own, but usually am singing along to. My basic sense of French cafe music was that it tended to be in ¾ time and feature a lot of 16-note arpeggios and basically fiddly bits in the melody. Like I told Janice, probably no-one will notice.

“Hey! Don’t you know any songs?”

This whined from a table of women with the look of a moms’ book club out on a hen do. “What is it exactly,” I thought but didn’t say, “that you would call what I’m playing now?”

“What did you have,” I did say, knowing that my answer would be no, I didn’t know any of those songs, “in mind?”

“Uhh…like ‘Yesterday?’…or…’Yesterday’?”

“I’m sorry,” I said as obsequiously as possible. “This is a Bastille Day party, and they’ve hired me to play French songs.”

“I’ll give you five dollars if you play ‘Yesterday’!”

I ducked a busboy and fled to the other side of the room.

“Hey, Franz!” said the man at the first table, grabbing my elbow as I went by. “Let me take a picture with you!”

“Sorry, working at the moment…” I muttered, and upped the tempo a little.

“Hey Mario.” I looked over at a white-haired, hawk-nosed older man crooking his finger at me from the next table. “That doesn’t sound very French.”

In lieu of a comeback, I grinned and kept playing. Obviously I’d badly underestimated the ethnomusicological aptitude, not to mention the sadism, of the diners.

“If you’re gonna play Italian, at least play some Sinatra.”

“Sorry, I don’t know any Sinatra…”

“No Sinatra!” He shared a raised eyebrow over the table with his wife. “All right, gimme ‘La Vie En Rose.’”

I was running out of safe havens.

“Here’s five bucks,” said a lady at the next table, slipping it into by jacket pocket. “I want you to play ‘Happy Birthday’ for the lady in the blue checked suit at the table by the door.”

“Hey look, he does know some songs!” squawked the ladies’-night-out table.

“Play ‘Yesterday’!”

“Look, Mario, I get what you’re doing. I’m just saying, we wouldn’t be mad at a little ‘La Vie En Rose.’”

“Buddy,” I said, kneeling by the old guy’s chair. “These guys called me this afternoon, couple hours ago. They needed an accordion player, they said they don’t care what I play as long as I know the ‘Marseillaise.’ I don’t know what kind of music you think I’m doing, call it whatever you want, but these are the songs I know. So give me a break.”

………………………………………………………………………………………………………

Around 11:30, the headwaiter pulled a giant French flag from a broom closet and waved it in the main dining room. I struck up the “Marsellaise” – from a matchbook-sized cheat sheet Scotch-taped to the top of the accordion. Flanked by the cooks, we not so much marched as idled down the half-block and across the street, through the bar doors and the velvet weather-block; into a packed, perfectly normal, and extremely non-plussed Friday night bar crowd. Aerosmith coming from the PA, the proud revolutionary anthem was completely inaudible as I elbowed through the crowd to the back room and, figuring that my work was, if not done, certainly pointless, gave up. The Mexican cooks and I eased our way back through the crowd, which had immediately resumed their drinking (if they’d ever stopped). I ran into Janice. “Great job!” she said, slipping me a check. “You should put together a little combo and play the back room here!”

“Maybe I will,” I said.

“OK! Call me! You’re in the family now!” and she slipped past the bar.

When I got back to the restaurant, the waitstaff were congratulating each other and pouring shots. “Huh, the accordion player’s still here,” said one. I packed my bag and walked back to the train.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Franz Nicolay Franz Nicolay

Franz Nicolay is a musician.

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  • Bruce Triggs

    That is a wonderful, kinda horrible, story there. “I’ve got to answer for my instrument every time I strap it on.”

    “When you’re busking, you really only need a three-song, slam-dunk set, maximum, since your audience is recycling every ten minutes. Playing a restaurant is different only in the sense that instead of physically leaving they’re simply totally indifferent.”

    Glad you made it though.

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