Oddly enough, I was raised surrounded by accordions, and so harbor a tender spot in my heart for the wheezing little bestids.
You push it, you pull it, you play it like a piano: truly, the accordion has it all.
I played, in my teenage years, in an “Old Tyme” band: polkas, waltzes, schottisches, foxtrots, mazurkas, and, of course, our “rock” medley, which was reserved for the end of the night, just before “Autumn Leaves”.
You’re not ready to hear about the rock medley just yet. Trust me.
I loved Aloysios Derke and the Melody Artists. Whether there were three musicians or 18, whether we drove one hour or six to get to the ballroom, whether we played on a float in a parade pulled by Clydesdales and following a flock of goats or in a ballroom holding hundreds of people, we made $40 apiece.
The leader, Al, was in his mid-60s. Al had forgotten more songs than most people will ever hear. We had the sheet music for well over 500 songs, anything from a trio to a full-blown swing band. Al hired well; and aside from me and a talented friend, the rest of the band were college students, and, true fact! Eddie Berger.
Eddie had a drug problem, I believe. It was hard to tell, and frankly, who cared? His solos were sublime.
Have you been to a ballroom? An enormous dance floor, sprinkled with sand, the big lovely stage, center-front. Concessions were in the back corner: set-ups only. Men with hip flasks and women with bottles in their purses sidled up to the bar to buy ice, glasses of 7-Up and Coca-Cola. Somewhere in the building a popcorn machine has been fired up, and somewhere else the ladies of the P.O.L.K. of A are zipping up their flashy, patent-leather boots.
Ah. The Polka Lovers Klub of America. Average age: 60, easily. Check them out, though. The women, in their fashion boots and ruffled skirts – in my precious 17-year-old mind, they had faces that looked as if they’d been carved out of apples and left to dry, but their legs? Whoa, Nellie! “Check out the stems on that one,” I’d hear one 70-year-old point out to another.
The crowd was old, the band was young, and Al didn’t believe in breaks. What’s that? You need a band for four hours? Four hours it is then. What? No, the trumpet players don’t need a break! Their lower lips are supposed to look like raw hamburger. Her? Oh, she’ll be fine, she’s young – we need more Coca-Cola up here, that’s all.
Eventually, after an evening of “The Liechtensteiner Polka ” and “The Beer Barrel Polka”, the P.O.L.K. of A. got sufficiently riled up to let loose their inner rockers.
Enter the Rock Medley.
Krikava, the sax player, would lean into me. “I say we launch into Zeppelin’s “Black Dog” and see if the tuba player can keep up.” I would giggle because, one, the tuba player was a red-hot musician and, two, well, there’s a handsome college guy leaning into me.
We would talk, of course, about the rock medley that would be sure to drive the dancers to new heights of bouncy-spinny-ness: a little Zeppelin, a little King Crimson, a little Pink Floyd and drivin’ ‘er home with the Rolling Stones.
In reality, our rock medley started with Woodchoppers Ball (the theme from the Gong Show). The crowd would jump up, shouting, and the dance floor would fill, hips and legs a’swingin’. Woodchoppers Ball went to (You Ain’t Nothin’ But a) Hound Dog, whereupon the drummer/part-time singer, Craig, would shout mildly obscene encouragement in Polish for the ladies to lift their legs higher.
We took as many solos as we could get away with during the Rock Medley. Al would wave irritably at the drummer to wrap it up once he tired of us; but until then, it was anyone’s game.
“I’m gonna do it! I’m gonna do it!” Krikava would shout at me. Inevitably the opening notes of his solos were stolen directly from Led Zeppelin or Jimi Hendrix; and the band would grin knowingly around their mouthpieces.
Such clever children we were.
Hound Dog eventually morphed into Rock Around the Clock and back to Woodchoppers Ball again, and the crowd would drift back to their tables for a quick Seven-and-Seven and a cigarette before the last song, the last dance. The snow could be knee-deep in the parking lot - some of those cars may not even start - but inside we were flush with happiness, with drink and song and graceful men and women who smiled at each other from under the glow of chandeliers that were old even then.
I miss those days, and you know why?
Because there ain’t no stoppin’ a polka band’s rockin’ cuz a polka band’s rockin’ don’t stop.