Essay: “My Brilliant Non-career” Part 2

The Poly 800 had lots of sounds, was relatively easy to reprogram with different sounds, allowed saving of the sounds, and weighed about 15 pounds. It had pegs at either end, so of course I had to buy a strap and go all 80s on it. Sometime around this time I let go of the Elka and the Deluxe Reverb, and got a new (used) small low-powered P.A. with a bunch of inputs for my equipment. I also bought a nice microphone, which held up until around 2004.

Overheard: Hey, cool...look at the smoke billowing from the keyboard player's amp! This is cooler than that Styx show we saw last week. Mister Roboto indeed. Early Stone
I remember the night it happened. We were playing downtown Atlanta at a place called Margaritaville, and in the midst of one of the songs the crowd began cheering wildly. I was surprised to find the applause was directed at me. More surprised because I wasn’t doing a solo or anything special at all. Even more surprised to see that smoke was pouring from my amplifier head. The punters thought it was for effect. It wasn’t. My Univox P.A. with the name of the band that owned it before me — “Early Stone,” — stenciled on it, R.I.P.

Those speakers always reminded me of the rocks at Stonehenge anyway.

Regular gigging was hard on my Wurlitzer. The way it works is through a series of tuning-fork-like things, which are actually hammered when one hits the keys. This gave a great, piano-like action, but it also meant lots of fragile parts. Moving the instrument around, coupled with my aggressive playing style, put wear and tear on the Wurlitzer. Replacing broken forks was a big project. First I had to find the correct forks: the store would have all forks thrown into a little cardboard box, and I’d have to sort through each time. Then I had to open the board up, socket-wrench the old fork out, put in the new one, and then file it down to the correct pitch. No kidding. File too far and either (a) it breaks or (b) it’s flat. Either way, back to the store. Eventually I needed something more “reliable” so I sold it. Incredibly stupid in retrospect, but at the time I needed a keyboard I could throw in the trunk of my ’66 Mustang and not worry about.

The Hohner Pianet. Sturdy as could be, but no action, no sustain and (in my case anyway) no cover like in this photo. I got a Hohner Pianet to replace the Wurlitzer. Similar sound, but no moving parts and horrible action. It served me for a number of years, though. I eventually sold it at a garage sale in the mid-1990s.

Remote Control played a lot of gigs, and my equipment met my needs in nearly all cases. I did buy a guitar, too. It was an Aria copy of a Gibson ES-335, blonde lacquered and beautiful. I strung it left-handed so I could play it, and used it in performance whenever the other band members would let me. I couldn’t play; still can’t. I eventually sold it, years later, around 1998.

One gig we had was supposed to be a big deal: the Atlanta part of the Labor Day Telethon. This was 1985. The Hohner simply wasn’t going to be suitable, so I rented an amplified piano. I don’t recall the name, but it was a big, horrible thing with lots of moving parts and some sort of ribbon pickup inside of it. When the show began I was mortified to find it completely out of tune. Quick, back to the Pianet.

The Yamaha CP30 Electric Piano. Nice action, great sounds. No MIDI, weighed a ton.
We did a bit of studio work, and the producer insisted I use a Yamaha CP-70 (electric grand) and a Yamaha DX-7. The CP-70 was great sounding but had horrible action. Several takes and I left the studio with black and blue fingertips. The DX-7 I always hated. It sounded so sterile, and I never wanted one.Towards the end of my time with Remote Control (this was early 1986) I bought a Yamaha CP-30. The keyboard player for another local band, The Surf, had one, and I thought it was cool in look and sound. It had good action; not quite like the Wurlitzer, but far superior to the Hohner. And nothing at all like its big brother the CP-70. It also had some cool electric and acoustic piano sounds, harpsichord, and chorus and vibrato. All the selections were rocker switches like on an old organ, and I could combine them in all different ways. A bit like the Magnus Chord Organ in that fashion. It was noisy, but it was cool. Stereo output, too.Elementary Penguin, circa 1987. That's me with the leather pants and suspenders. Twenty-two years and twenty-odd pounds ago. Side note: rhythm guitarist's imperial, courtesy magic marker. The band broke up in June 1986 (on the day of my graduation from GSU) and endured a very messy divorce. But a year later I was at it again, with friends and new acquaintances, playing in Elementary Penguin. Named, of course, after a line in “I Am the Walrus.” At this point my equipment lineup was the CP-30, the Poly-800, the Moog Rogue and the Aria. We played something on the order of two gigs, and that was it for performance (and playing with other musicians) for ten years.Years in the Wilderness
I got married in 1988. I had my ’66 Mustang towed to our new home(!) but eventually my (then-) wife prevailed upon me to sell it. With the meager proceeds I bought a four-track recorder and some other goodies.A Gift From the Prophets to Me
1993 was a simpler, more innocent time. So it was that I found myself at a garage sale a few blocks from my home. A man was selling a keyboard that I had never seen before. It seemed to have some problems, so he let it go for $10. That’s right, ten dollars. I got it home and found that the internal sounds were fried, but that it worked great as a MIDI controller. So now I owned something nearly as rare as that Mellotron I passed up: a Sequential Circuits Prophet VS.

The Prophet VS. Singlehandedly provided justification for the thousands of garage sales I've attended over the years. Now playing Kraftwerk, Scorpions or Falco cover tunes, no doubt. In 1996 I started my own business and needed more space at home. I sold the CP-30, plus a Korg P-3 Piano Module I had bought around 1988. I also sold the Moog Rogue and traded the Poly-800 for a Kawai X-140D, which was essentially one of those consumer-grade synthesizer things, what with built-in drums and such. Even so, the X-140 would become my main keyboard for a few years. I also sold the Aria guitar. At this point, all I had left was the Prophet, the new X-140, a Tascam Porta Two deck and a Roland TR-505 drum machine.

Roland TR-505 Drum Machine. Featured on my 4-track demo of Todd Rundgren's I SAW THE LIGHT. Available nowhere. That same year I decided it was time to get rid of the Prophet. I didn’t know, really, what I had, but I wasn’t playing music and it was taking up space. Plus it didn’t really work, it ran hot (when it was on, you’d scorch your hand if you touched the case) and Sequential Circuits was long out of business. I posted an ad offering it for parts, best offer. To my amazement, I got offers from all around the world. I sold it to a guy in Dresden Germany. He had offered to wire-transfer several hundred dollars to my account, and would have his freight company pick the board up from my home. So off it went to der Fatherland, and I had some mad money.

Around 1997 some neighbors of mine invited me over to play music. I hadn’t been near my equipment in some time, so I brushed up a few days and then went. It was a disaster, mainly because they were all smokers (which I despise) and some of their hangers-on showed up strung out on crack. Plus they played music I hated.

One positive outcome was my getting the spark to play again. Two friends of mine had an acoustic duo and hosted a monthly coffeehouse. Long story short, I joined their group.

Peavey KB100. Nothing clever to say about it. A good piece of equipment, and my first amp actually designed for keys. Over the next few years, the group grew into a more rocking sort of outfit, with regular (monthly) gigs. I played mostly acoustic piano, as the venue had a very nice one, and added some mostly organ sounds on the Kawai. As we added a drummer and bassist, it was again time for some real equipment. At a December 1998 gig we did a couple Holiday standards.

Over the course of a couple years, I acquired some new stuff. I went into Guitar Center and bought a cheap little interim P.A. which said “great for karaoke” on the box. It was actually pretty nice, what with plenty of inputs and all. It lacked power, though, so eventually I sold it to the drummer. I replaced it with a Peavey KB-100 keyboard amp, the first amplifier I’d ever owned that was made for keyboards. It was one of the first times I’d bought something from someone over the internet. The guy I bought it from actually lived about 5 miles from my dad in Florida, so Dad was kind enough to pick it up and bring it to me on one of his visits. Not long after I got it, something came loose and I got it fixed for a few bucks. The KB-100 is still part of my rig.

It’s the End of the Century and We Feel…Old
The Kawai X-140D. Got in in an even (!) trade for the Poly-800. Looks so amateur, but plays fine. Now part of my B-unit setup at home. When I started playing again, I was convinced I needed some more “realistic” sounds. I used that Kawai X-140D, which is sort of a home keyboard, but with MIDI and so forth. I would forgo the cheesy drum parts and the bozo sequencer, but the sounds and touch-sensitivity were pretty OK. Those internal speakers and the stereo out jack gave it away as a family model, though; sort of the minivan of the keyboard world. But I kept it and occasionally still use it at home.

I spent a lot of time looking in the Atlanta Advertiser, a weekly classified magazine full of guns, furniture, cars and such for sale by owner. It wasn’t unusual to find a great deal on used keyboards. I found a pawnshop listing for a big-boy Roland keyboard. A Roland RD-300s digital piano / MIDI controller. Finally. 88 keys and good action. Eight or so built-in sounds, MIDI control in/out/through, and me with a bit of knowledge to make the MIDI work. I must be the last keyboard player on Earth to discover MIDI. Getting it was interesting. I went to the pawnshop and found the thing. The place was full of (again) guns. Nobody there knew anything about musical instruments. I found a sticking key in the upper register and stated to pound on it. Of course it only made sound every third or fourth try. I found that one of the stereo outputs was dirty, so naturally I plugged into it. So here I was, playing a sticky key through a crackly output, pulling all kinds of mock-disappointed faces. I offered them a lot less than they were asking, and they said yes. They threw in the heavy-duty stand (this thing weighs a ton) and included sales tax. The RD remained the central piece of my setup for several years.

The Roland RD-300s. The centerpiece of my setup for several years; since sold to a church.
Things We Play Today Roland D-110. the most user-unfriendly interface imaginable. I hate that part of it. But the sounds were wicked.Next I picked up A Roland D-110 sound module. $90 from a guy on the Internet. A real pain in the ass to get to work, but the sounds were stellar. With my newfound MIDI knowledge, rack-mounts seemed to be the way to go. They didn’t give the banks-of-boards look, but they got the job done and actually made playing easier and more centralized.Roland Alpha Juno 1. Very synthy.I had been in touch with another drummer friend of mine who had come into possession of a Roland Alpha Juno 1 synthesizer. He got it in some sort of trade, and didn’t play it. The previous owner had put sticky-tape on the keys to indicate A, B, C etc. The tape was long gone but the stickies remained. Now, with the surrendering of my Moog, I needed something for blips, bleeps and squawks. So I got it, with a gig bag, for I think $150. I used a solvent to get the goo off; it looks a bit rough (the gloss is off the keys) but plays great and is easy to tweak.

Ensoniq Mirage. My Wayback Machine. They all laughed.Back in the 80s the Ensoniq Mirage digital sampler came out. It was billed as the first “affordable” sampler, selling for only $1795. Well, prices drop over the years. In 1999 I got one from a used shop in Atlanta for $100, including a big stack of sounds on floppy disk. Since I let that Mellotron slip by, I got this to try and duplicate its sound. I also have my old Wurlitzer on a floppy-disk. Isn’t technology wonderful?

Around 1997 I got this crazy idea: I would buy a kit and build myself a Theremin. Yeah, you know the thing: (a) the “woo-woo machine” used in 1950s sci-fi movies, and (b) the otherworldly sound on the Beach Boys‘ 1966 hit, “Good Vibrations.” Well, if you thought that, you’d be half right. The BBs did NOT use a Theremin, despite what certain recovering acid casualty geniuses might lead you to believe.

To be continued.