The Biggest Mistakes of my Life?

Posted on March 29, 2014 by

Solo Accordion

I started playing the accordion when I was 11 and was very good at it.  We couldn’t afford a piano and there wasn’t enough room for one in our apartment in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn.  It was my mothers’ idea but I always felt that the accordion was a dumb instrument with a clownish sound.

By the time I was 14, I’d made my way through all the Palmer Hughes accordion lesson books – polkas, marches and waltzes – and my teacher thought it was time for me to take the instrument to the next level.  He started me on a jazz improvisation method by a pianist named John Mehegan but I couldn’t sustain my interest.

I was depressed and distracted by problems in school and at home and – despite my nimble fingers and musical ear – the image of an accordion player didn’t do anything to lift my self-esteem.  So I quit.

About five years later, I was with a group of musicians in a loft in Borough Park and mentioned that I used to play the accordion.  My teacher, I said, was Johnny Solo.

Solo taught in a small studio above the retail stores on 86th Street, right next to the elevated “West End” Subway Line.  I wasn’t thinking about this at the time, but I suspect now that his stage name was an abbreviation of a multi-syllable Italian-American name in a neighborhood populated mostly by second generation Eastern European Jews and Italian (and some Irish) Catholics.

“You worked with Johnny Solo” one of the musicians said.  “He’s a great local jazz accordionist.”

With that, I knew I had missed my moment and would never recover.  Decades later, I kept an accordion in the garage but it just got dusty and moldy.  Johnny Solo was my shot at accordion bliss.  I enjoyed “squeezing the bellows” while playing the piano keyboard with my right hand and fingering the “120 bass” buttons with my left.

The problem was that damn sound.

Could an anguished adolescent have worked through his resistance to avert a lifetime of regret?  If I could do it over, I would seize the opportunity to be mentored by the one and only Johnny Solo.

 

The World According to John Irving

You think I would have learned my lesson by the time I went to Windham College in Putney, Vermont in the fall of 1971.

I had survived the worst period of my life – 14 to 16 – and after a binge of high-school truancy had even discovered my academic potential.

I loved small-town New England (so-long Brooklyn) and began my ten-year fling with Vermont.  I could take just about any class I wanted at Windham and signed on to English, Sociology and Psychology (a few years later, I would try a “psyche” grad school but gave that up for political journalism).

I read novels and tried to write.  In fact, Windham – 20 miles north of the Mass boarder in the Connecticut River Valley – attracted quite a few aspiring writers as faculty, including a cool-looking relatively young dude who had just finished his first novel (Setting Free the Bears) and would read excerpts from his next work (the Water-Method Man) in the basement of the student union.

Any time I wanted I could have taken one of John Irving’s classes or even done a one-on-one independent study with him.  But something in me balked.

Instead, I attached myself to a buttoned-down English prof named Dan Schneider who told me that among his ambitions was to publish one short story in The New Yorker.

So I surrendered my chance to work with one of the most successful and prolific American novelists of our generation to throw my lot in with someone best know for his 1960s literary criticism of  Henry James:  The Ironic Imagery and Symbolism of James’s “The Ambassadors.”

While Irving went on to write The World According to Garp, Hotel New Hampshire and Cider House Rules (with screen credits to boot), Schneider, though he may have helped me with my own “ironic imagery,” never did get a piece in The New Yorker.

I’ll never know what I would’ve learned from Irving but I certainly missed out on future bragging rights (“yes I studied with John”).

 

Miscellaneous

And then there are some less pivotal errors which can’t be undone.

For example, despite following the New York Mets on TV in their early years, I failed to make the trip by train to the Polo Grounds to watch them in person and will never be able to recall to memory that historic baseball stadium, demolished in ’64.

Finally, there are those “why didn’t I listen” moments which come back to get you.

Clearly, I should have paid more attention when people urged me to “stand up straight” because – eventually – bad posture will affect your neck, back and even your knees.

I’m still coping with life-long pain from spending my adolescent years moping around, eyes to the ground.  But then again, maybe it was those god-damned according straps pulling at and rounding my shoulders.  Good thing I stopped playing when I did.

Comments (13)

 

  1. Dude! Start playing the accordion again if it would bring you joy! Listen to the music, not to what people say about it. Bragging rights are boring, having studied with someone famous has nothing to do with whether you play or write well, and just because your teacher wasn’t published in the New Yorker has nothing to do with what you learned from him or the pleasure of each others company. You need to be de-mopified and get in touch with your inner squeeze box. Your downer post is a schande and I suggest you go off to the desert to meditate or do peyote until you recommit to joy.

  2. Ethel says:

    I think we must have lead parallel lives. My mother’s friend bought her daughter (who was my best friend) a piano. My mother was very competitive with her — what her daughter had, Ethel had to have. We could not afford a piano plus we also moved frequently so that would not have worked out. So she went to Macy’s which at that time had a Music department, and bought me a violin for $10.00 I started lessons at the Jewish CommunityCenter (on 77 St and Bay Parkway) and then ended up at the Music School Settlement on the lower east side. Took lessons for 10 years until I was 16 and hated every minute of it and quit. But it got me easy A’s in college. When I was planning my life after retiring from the District realized that I might as well go back to the violin.My mother would not be there to nag me. And someone gave me a good violin in return for a donation to my Temple. Having alot of chutzpah, I joined the Los Angeles Doctors Symphony Orchestra since they did not require an audition. I was terrible. It took me about 4 years to regain my skills. I love it now and it gives me great pleasure. It is not too late, Lou. Find an accordion and go to work. I second what Michael said in his last sentence.

  3. Deborah Kaye says:

    I played the accordion, too, for a brief spell at about age 12. Don’t be sorry. It has limited appeal unless you want to play background music for a French film or move to Paris. (Not a bad option.) What I wish I’d kept up was the piano, which I resented because I was forced to play. It would have been a useful skill to have developed.

  4. Christina Perez says:

    Lou, I never took you for the next Jewish Flaco Jimenez, kool!! But I imagine you really get down with a band of
    Creative musicians. Yes, the can be clownish, and soulful, and shy kickin AND romantic! Never too late.
    And what’s the big deal about John Irving when you got US!

    Loved this Lou!
    Christina

  5. Mindy DeLuca says:

    Listen to Gypsy Jazz

  6. Emma says:

    Looks like the consensus is here: it’s not too late! ;)

  7. Judith Samuel says:

    I love the accordion! My Dad had a beautiful small accordion and we all thought it was so special.
    Play, take it easy, take deep breathes, and enjoy the peace of nature….listen to some (can’t think of the great Italian accordionist) and try to play again!

  8. Peter Dreier says:

    Lou — I urge you to stop going to Accordion Anonymous and pick up the instrument again. You will be rusty for awhile but it will come back to you quickly and you’ll enjoy it. Perhaps your old Brooklyn neighborhood didn’t have any klezmer groups back then, but they proliferate now, so listen to klezmer and get back in touch with your Jewish roots. There’s even an album of Woody Guthrie music in klezmer style. As for John Irving, you may have missed bragging rights but you didn’t miss much, because from what I’ve read, he’s an asshole and a conservative. As for your bad knees, it isn’t just moping around. I was a good athlete in high school and college and I have bad knees, too.

  9. The World Accordion to Garp

    by Lou Siegel

    • Ron Auer says:

      Mark’s idea is perfect. Write the novel, Lou, self publish, sell in digitally on Amazon. Then write a second novel. Think “The Life Accordion to Brian”

  10. Alan Abbey says:

    Yeah, Lou, I saw the Mets at the Polo Grounds a few times from 62-63, including a game in which Willie Mays, in his pre-Mets days, hit 2 home runs against them. But don’t have regrets.

  11. Martin Jay says:

    Lou,

    We look at those things as “mistakes” or even regrets – but
    in the long run – all of those “zigs and zags” were necessary for you to be where you are now.
    Also – I also too took lessons at the “Benson School of Music” which changed my life.
    No regrets

    See you soon – Buddy

  12. John Connolly says:

    Well Lou, You Certainly Touched a Nerve with This Column!

    So many great comments above!

    The image of you Schlumphing Through Deepest Brooklyn burdened down and moaning like a pre-teen Eyeore, the Accordion straps abetting gravity, tugging at your shoulders, the massive squeezebox threatening to topple you forward onto the broken sidewalk under the West End line elevated the box wheezing a desolate dissonant chard … just as it begins to rain … is pretty vivid study in misery, ain’t it?

    The mercy is that you only come in 2nd in the Schlemiel-of-the-Month Club Sweepstakes … Woody Allen trumps you by being the Most Miserable Kid in Brooklyn, by being forced to play Cello … in a Marching Band (‘Take The Money and Run’).

    oy.

    Now THAT’s Misery.

    But be of good cheer … you are definitely in the Big Leagues of Childhood Misery.

    Me? I was SO beset by a dozen Catholic Girl Cousins who were all SO cute and SO scared me our of my wits cause I was SO horny ALL the time … that I told them a completely FALSE story that I was dedicating my LIFE to GOD and becoming a PRIEST, so I CAN’T kiss you (even though that’s EXACTLY what I wanted to do! … ALL the time!)

    As you can see I had no time for any musical instrumentation whatsoever.

    After foolishly, falsely fending-off all these lovely girls for so many years, I had to figure out how NOT to actually go to the Seminary.

    Then for the next five years my Catholic Girl Cousins had to fend ME off.

    It just never stops does it?

    John Irving … and Philip Roth … and Joh Updike are all right about that.

    I am glad however that you’ve decided to return to your One True Love … The Tuba.

    j connolly

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