The Prodigal Altar Boy

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Tales From The Crypt - The Prodigal Altar Boy Recalls his Berlin Daze

The "Pope's Revenge"


Tempelhof Central Airport (TCA)
Every Air Force person assigned to Berlin during the Cold War knows Tempelhof Central Airport or “TCA”. This eagle-shaped airport was headquarters for all U.S. Air Force operation in Berlin, holding all of the administrative offices as well as the chow hall and barracks for single Air Force personnel. Offices for the host and tenant Air Force units clustered in the middle of the five-kilometer structure on the ground and upper floors, with the upper floors of the “wings” of the eagle housing recreation areas (bowling alley, gym, library, etc,) and the barracks.

The Americans rebuilt TCA after WWII and concentrated restoration efforts on the ground and upper floors of the central buildings and hangar areas that comprised the wings of the stylized eagle. Areas below ground, some heavily damaged during the final days of the Reich, were the last renovated, and “renovation” meant ensuring structural integrity and only remodeling o provide temporary space. As offices abandoned the lower floors for newer renovated space on the upper floors, much of those empty spaces went unoccupied; a labyrinth of empty offices connected by a long hallway with steel bulkheads every few hundred feet.

Musicians, like nature, abhor a vacuum. Like pigs root out truffles, musicians with more volume than talent will find the remote areas of their environment. Niches where they can set up drums, cart bass amplifiers and wheel in stacks emblazoned with “Marshall,” “Vox,” “Yamaha” and play “Whole Lotta Love,” “Wild Thing” and “Hey Joe” as loud as they want until some senior NCO coming off the swing shift barges in and tells them to keep it down.

 While no one will ever know all of the “jam spots” at TCA, one of the most famous ones was an appliance storage area sandwiched in between the bowling alley (one floor above) and the racquetball court (one floor below). While I was there, an SP (Security Policeman) from the host unit with a Les Paul laid claim to that spot. Someone had set up a drum kit and a community bass amp that could make the derelict washers and dryers rattle and inch cautiously away when things got rocking.

My friend, drummer Mike Paine, and I discovered an abandoned indoor firing range on one of the upper floors. The drum kit was a cast off from an Army recreation center had rivets in one of the cymbals. The amplifier, also an Army reject, was ancient, but nothing a distortion box and a wah pedal couldn’t fix. We never got around to finding a bass player, but I did manage to record some of our “jams” on a portable cassette player. Mike was a great drummer. As for my performance, if I ever achieve any modicum of fame as a musician, those will be the first tapes I destroy.

Keith Garside, Antonio Fargas, Cal Thomas
Another friend, Keith Garside, had a band called TetraFusion. They played at Tempelhof’s Club Silverwings, had been on a local Armed Forces Network television show, and were as big time as you could get and still be in the Air Force. They had the most secluded practice space on TCA, a large abandoned office in the tunnels that they called “The Crypt.” Unless you knew the layout of the tunnels, it was hard to find that space, so an invitation to The Crypt to witness a rehearsal was the hot ticket among the would-be musicians. Note the word “rehearsal,” instead of “jam session.” With gigs and TV appearances, TetraFusion had transcended the awkwardness of the jam phase. They never had to worry about not letting someone sit in with them because this was a rehearsal, not a jam session. They had material to polish, songs to write and careers to work on. An invitation to witness TetraFusion in The Crypt was just that, an invitation to witness; don’t bring your guitar, because you won’t need it; real musicians at work.

If you have watched more than fifteen seconds of any “Behind The Music” you know it’s time for that Ken Burns-style montage of black and white TetraFusion pictures as the narrator pauses and says, “But little did they know.” By the time I was sitting in Club Silverwings, slack jawed, watching TetraFusion play, I’d seen the Beatles break up, the Jackson 5 lose their name to Motown, hot grits send Al Green into ministry and even Wham! was on shaky ground. Bands have been breaking up ever since there were bands. A band is breaking up as you are reading this, and yet when a band breaks up it is always a surprise.

The "Weather Station"
The first inkling I had that TetraFusion was in trouble was when Keith approached me at work and asked me if I know how to play octaves. I had heard of octaves, so I said, “Sure.” I never bothered to ask that if by “octaves,” he meant the bell-like chimes you can make by plucking a string above the 12th, 7th and 5th frets, which I could do, or if he meant playing the same note simultaneously on two different strings, a la’ Wes Montgomery, which I could not.. Over the course of the shift, he told me that the drummer, Pete Dixon, had been born again and his testimony of a life of sin, coupled with some erratic behavior, caused him to lose his security clearance. Les Baxter, the bass player, destroyed TetraFusion’s master tape right in front of Keith. Rather than rebuild that group, Keith decided to start a brand new band. He was holding a jam session in The Crypt for prospects, would I be interested?

Wally Gunther, another SP, talked a lot about the bass he owned and his thundering bass amp. Wally continually lamented his eagerness to play and annoyance his father would not ship his prized gear to Berlin. Since bass players were scarce and few rarely lent out their instruments, his story was plausible enough to escape challenge. As TetraFusion flamed out, Wally’s star rose on self-promotion alone. When initial rumors of the breakup wafted through the jam spots, Wally mused, aloud, that if whatever arose from the ashes of TetraFusion needed a bass player, he would pressure his dad to send the gear, and maybe even send him some cash to speed shipment. When Keith made the rounds of the jam spots to announce the audition session, Wally Gunther did something that shot his stock through the roof.

One thing musicians do more than lying about their ability is accepting other musician’s lies about their ability. It is an unwritten code we follow that lets us add to our reputation, secure in the knowledge we will never be challenged. The corollary of the code is never put yourself in a position where you have to make good on a musical exaggeration unless you can plead extenuating, verifiable circumstances (“I hurt my hand pulling a German woman off the U-Bahn track, here’s the Berliner Morgenpost article”), or you can actually perform at said level.

A few days out from the jam session, Wally Gunther stood the code on its head. Rather than bemoan his dad wouldn’t pack the gear, or surmise even if he did, it would not arrive in time, Wally made the move that galvanized everyone. Wally bought Les Baxter’s bass rig. By the rules of the code, this meant one thing; Wally absolutely had to be the toughest bass player on the face of the earth.

Studio luminary Tommy Tedesco wrote monthly columns in Guitar Player about buying various instruments for session gigs for television shows, movie scores and hit albums. Wally went Tommy Tedesco one better by purchasing a bass rig for an audition. The logic of the code dictated that only someone who knew how to play bass would spend that kind of money for a jam session.

The Crypt was packed the night of jam session. The drummer was warming up on the kit. The guitar players filed in and plugged in their amps. Wally came in with his new bass rig and plugged in. Keith hit the open “E” on his guitar and invited the guitar players (all two of us) to match his “E” and tune up. Normally, the bass player would tune up as well. Wally just stood there, watching everyone else.

All I could think was, “Not only did this guy buy a rig just to jam, he also tunes by ear. Wally must be one of those perfect pitch guys that can hear the color of each note.” Usually, after tuning up, most players like to noodle on their instruments, playing snippets of the riffs they have practiced the most just to let everyone else know how good they are. Wally wasn’t noodling.

I am near panic now because not only does this guy play by ear; he has the discipline of a seasoned studio musician. He’s saving it all for the audition. I knew I should have practiced more. By now, Keith is explaining to the drummer the groove he wants. “Let’s start out easy with a nice slow blues in ‘A,’” Keith tells everyone. The drummer counted off the beat, each crack of the sticks echoing in The Crypt like underwater explosions, on “One,” I looked at the other guitar player. On “Two,” a bead of sweat inched down my forehead. On “Three,” the drummer began a fill that would lead into the downbeat.

We were a third of the way through a 12-bar blues before I realized the off-key tones staggering around the steady beat of the kick drum wasn’t the other guitar player. Keith was not glaring at me, so I knew I wasn’t the blame. The drummer, the other guitar player and I kept going as we watched Keith stride across the room, turn Wally’s bass down and ask, “Man, do you even know how to play?”

Mumbling sheepishly about “Not being used to that kind of bass,” Wally packed up his gear and disappeared down the corridors leading away from The Crypt. I do not remember much of the jam session after that. Keith never formed another group, and Les bought his rig back at a nice price. Keith and I became friends and made many recordings I still enjoy hearing. If I ever make it as a musician, those will be the first tapes I will play.