Jim Bates

Jim lives in a small town twenty miles west of Minneapolis, Minnesota. His stories and poems have appeared in over two-hundred online and print publications. His short story “Aliens” has been nominated by The Zodiac Press for the 2021 Pushcart Prize. His collection of short stories Resilience is scheduled to be published in early 2021 by Bridge House Publishing and Short Stuff a collection of his flash fiction and drabbles will be published by Chapeltown books in 2021. In addition, Something Better, a dystopian adventure, will be published by Paper Djinn Press in early 2021. All of his stories can be found on his blog: www.theviewfromlonglake.wordpress.com.

The Battle of the Bands

Don’t get me wrong. I love holidays. But Labor Day was never high on my list of favorites. Why? Because it always signified the end of summer and school was just around the corner. But that Labor Day in 1961 was different.

            Let me tell you the truth. I’m not the best student in the world. Not by a long shot. I have one of those minds that tends to wander. I have trouble focusing. It’s a big issue for my parents, especially my mom.

            “Ben, you’ve got to get your mind in the game,” she’d say to me. “School’s important.”

            “I know, Mom,” I always say to her. “I’m trying.”

            “Well try harder.”

            If he was around, which he wasn’t most of the time since he worked a lot, Dad would just smack me across the back of the head and say, “Listen to your mother.”

            I tried my best but still, being in school continued to be challenging.

            So maybe it was fortuitous (like that word? It’s one of the few big ones I know), that I discovered band in the fifth grade. Well, I discovered music first, then came band.

            My brother Eric is three years older than me and it was in the middle of the fifties I think, probably at least five years ago, that he got a transistor radio for his birthday. Mom and Dad gave it to him. He was probably ten so that would have been in 1955, so, yeah, I’m doing the math here, so that would have been six years ago since it’s 1961 now.

            Anyway, he started playing it all the time. It was red with a golden metal circle in the middle where the sound came out, and I thought it was the coolest thing ever. Being brothers, we didn’t always get along; once I got mad and threw a glass of orange juice at him that broke into a million pieces and I got ten lashes with the belt from dad for my trouble. But Eric saved my life when we were swimming a few years later when I got tangled up in weeds and started drowning, so, you know, things even out.

            He had the radio on all the time tuned to KROC the only local station that played rock and roll music. I loved listening to it with him (as much as he’d let me which was more often than I thought he would.) The year he got his transistor I heard a song by Bill Haley and the Comets called “Rock Around the Clock.” Well, let me tell you, that driving beat was infectious. Me and Eric would start dancing around whenever the song started playing making Mom roll her eyes if she were nearby. But I think she secretly liked the music too. I’d sometimes noticed her taping her toe in time to the beat.

The next winter for Christmas my folks gave me my very own transistor radio, and I was on top of the world. It was blue and chrome and was even cooler than Eric’s because it had earphones. I was eight years old and on top of the world. I listened to it all the time.

            Like I said, I had a mind that wandered when it came to school work, but when it came to music I was right there, zeroing in on a song like a cat eyeballing a bird. I’d listen to, say, “Wake Up Little Suzy” by the Everly Brothers, and focus on the music and listen to each instrument that was played and each voice in the harmony of the singing. I could hear it all. It was easy for me. Mom said I had a natural aptitude for it. She liked that I showed an interest in music since my school work wasn’t the best.

            When I entered fifth grade I have to say, and I hope I’m not being overly dramatic here, my life changed for the good. That was when in my school district you could enter band. Yeah. Now it might not sound that great to a lot of people, but to me I was thrilled. It was 1958. The year one of the top hits was “Sweet Little Sixteen” by Chuck Berry. Buddy Holly released “Peggy Sue” and the Everly Brothers knocked me out with “Claudette.” Jerry Lee Lewis, Fats Domino, Sam Cooke, and The Del Vikings were all on my little blue transistor radio. I mean, man, it was a fabulous year for kids like me who loved rock and roll.

            One of the songs I liked a lot was “Rudy’s Rock” by Bill Haley and the Comets. It had a saxophone in it which I thought was the coolest thing in the world. One day listening to it, I had a way out there in left field kind of thought. Hm. If I could convince my mom (dad wasn’t around much) to let me be in the school band, maybe I could learn to play the saxophone. It was worth a shot.

            I remember it like it was yesterday. That first day of fifth grade was as hectic as you could imagine it to be. My new teacher was Miss Gunderson who was in her second year and seemed nice. (Nice was important to me, given my lack of ability when it came to schoolwork.) I was in the same class as my best friend Randy, so that was good. We got a short recess in the morning and afternoon and a long recess at lunch which was excellent as far as I was concerned. And then there was the general sorting out with lunch and the library and everything, including which activities were offered at school.

As the final bell rang that first day, I ran outside, jumped on my red Schwinn bicycle, and pedaled home as fast as I could to show Mom what had got me the most excited. It was a flyer Miss Gunderson had sent home with us.

            “Look, Mom!” I yelled, bursting through the back door into the kitchen and handing the flyer to her.

“Calm down, Ben,” she said, turning from the sink. “Here. Sit and have something to eat. You must be starving.”

How’d she know? I sat at the kitchen table and watched as she fixed me a plate of chocolate chip cookies and a glass of milk. I’m pretty sure I was tapping my foot on the floor the whole time. Patience was not a strong suit of mine back then, even though I loved her chocolate chip cookies.

She set the cookies and milk down and then sat across from me. It seemed like I was watching everything in slow motion as she pick up the flyer. Finally!

            She looked at it. “What do we have here?”

            “It’s for band, Mom,” I told her. I pointed to the sheet. “At school. I can join if I want.”

            “Band?” She looked at me questioningly. I’d never shown any interest in anything having to do with school before.

            “Yeah. It’s really cool.”

            Cookies and milk forgotten, I proceeded to tell her about how much I loved music, which she knew, and that if I could join band I’d practice really hard. I even got off point a little and told her I’d help with the dishes every night for the rest of the school year. I was pretty jazzed up.

            Mom sat and listened. Then she went to the stove and poured herself a cup of coffee and picked up her pack of cigarettes (a sure sign we were going to have a serious discussion) and came back and sat down.

            She lit her cigarette and took a sip of coffee. “Band, huh?” she said.

            “Yeah, Mom.” I watched as she smoked thoughtfully. It was push come to shove time. I amped up my pleading. “Please. I really want to join.”

            “What instrument do you want to play?”

            “Saxophone.”

            “Saxophone? Really?”

            “Yeah. It’s the coolest instrument, Mom. It really is.” I then told her about Bill Haley and the Comets and Duane Eddy and how they had saxophone players in their bands. And how I would practice all the time and that I wanted to learn how to be good at it. I might even have mentioned that I’d always help her with the laundry in addition to the dishwashing comment from earlier on.

            I remember Mom smiling at that and saying, “Laundry, huh? In addition to helping with the dishes? You must very be serious.”

            I nodded enthusiastically. “I am, Mom. I really am.” Under the table, I crossed my fingers. On both hands.

            I think, in the end, Mom saw how passionate I was. As I sat there with my fingers crossed, she reiterated, “Band, huh? Saxophone?”

            “Yeah, Mom. Please.” I uncrossed my fingers and put up my hands like I was praying. I felt I was begging for my life. “Please, please, pretty please with sugar on.” I know it sounds dumb, but I was pulling out all the stops.

            Mom must have finally realized I was very serious. She took a drag off her cigarette and snubbed it out. Then she smiled at me and said, “Okay. We’ll give it a try.”

            “Yippee!” I leaped to my feet and did something I hardly ever did. I scooted around the table and gave her a big hug. “Thanks, Mom.”

            She hugged me back. “You’re welcome.” Then she said, “Okay, finish your milk and cookies.”

            I did. I drank all my milk and ate all my cookies. They never tasted better.

And you know what, she never did mention talking it over with my dad.

***

That was three years ago. I got my saxophone the next week at school. Of course, I was awful, but you had to start somewhere. The band practiced once a week and I practiced every day, mostly down in the basement away from Mom and Eric. And Dad too if he was home.

            The next year was 1959 and great saxophone-driven songs were coming out like “Raunchy” by Bill Justis, “Rebel Rouser” and “Ramrod” by Duane Eddy. Not to mention “Tequila” by The Champs. I was in seventh heaven. By then Eric had used his lawn mowing money to buy a record player that played 45s, so we bought records and listened to them in our room. I have to say, it was a good time for me and my brother since we didn’t always get along. But music, rock and roll music, was something we shared a love for. And that was pretty cool.

            So what was different about Labor Day of 1961? A day I’d normally be dreading because I was going to have to go back to school the next day? It was the music. Specifically, the band I was in was playing at a Labor Day picnic at Powderhorn Park in Minneapolis, and looking forward to playing with my band was way more exciting than thinking about going back to school. Anytime.

Some older guys I knew from the band at school had been playing together for a few years. Jeremy played rhythm guitar and sang. Alex played lead guitar and sang back up. Bobby played bass and sang backup. Lenny played drums, and, like me couldn’t sing a note. I had been practicing with them all summer long because, as Jeremy had put it, “We want to broaden our sound.” It sounded good to me even though I wasn’t quite sure what he meant by the statement. It became clear, though, that they wanted to add more songs, songs with a saxophone in them. They knew me from band at school and asked me to audition. I played them “Yakety Sax” a song by Randy Randolph I’d learned just for fun. I nailed it and they asked me to join right away.

With me in the band, they changed the name from The Ramblers to The Amazing Rhythm Ramblers and I have to say we were pretty good. The older guys were going into the tenth grade that year and we were excited to maybe play at some high school dances. We looked at playing at Powderhorn Park as a chance to show off our stuff. It was a battle of the bands. It was organized by the Park Board and MC’d by a local Deejay named Tony “The Tunesmith” Thompson (whose real name I found out later was Albert Swartz but who cared? He was a good guy.)

The contest started at noon and bands played all day long. Each band could play three songs. We chose “Tossin’ and Turnin’” by Bobby Lewis. “Runaway” by Del Shannon. And our signature song, “Rebel Rouser” by Duane Eddy because of the great saxophone part. We were the third band. We got up on the small stage. The guys plugged in their guitars and Lenny did a “One, two, three,” countdown on the drums and we sailed into our first song. We did pretty good. We didn’t win anything but people liked us. Some people even danced.

What I remember most about it, though, was not only Eric being there, clapping and cheering us on for all he was worth, but, also, that my mom and dad were there. This was unique in my life because Dad was hardly ever home, and when he was, he rarely had anything to do with us boys. So having him there at the contest was a big deal. As big as us playing. Maybe bigger.

When we had finished our last song, “Rebel Rouser” (which I have to say sounded pretty good), he even came up to me and shook my hand.

“Good job,” he said.

Surprised, I recovered my astonishment in time to say, “Thanks. I’m glad…”  But I didn’t get a chance to finish and say, “Glad you liked it,” because by then he had turned fast on his heel and headed off into the crowd. Probably to get a beer or something.

Mom stepped up to me, squeezed my arm, and winked. “You guys sounded great,” she said. “I loved your saxophone part.”

Then she went off after Dad.

The next day I started eighth grade. Mom told me I could stay with the band if I kept my grade up to at least average. Done deal!

So this year in school, I’m making a promise to myself to buckle down and concentrate on my studies. After all, if I can focus so well on music, I should be able to do the same thing with my schoolwork. Right? Plus, if I keep my grades up, I’ll get to keep playing with The Amazing Rhythm Ramblers and that would be fantastic. I feel like when I’m making music with them that I’m more alive; that I’m creating something that’s never been created before, even if we mostly do covers. The point is that I feel the music in me and it comes out when I’m playing my saxophone. I guess the easiest way to put it is that I feel alive. You know what? That’s incentive enough for me.

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