An Old Friend Comes Home

October 4, 2012

Good Friday, 1968: I wouldn’t turn 15 for five months and was still too young to drive a car, so my mom took me to down Caruso Music in New London, CT. For as long as I’d been interested in playing bass, I’d lusted after a Fender Jazz Bass, with its long slim neck, contoured body and unmistakable headstock. I had saved every cent from mowing lawns and odd jobs and I was carrying exactly what I needed to buy the bass: $225 cash. In fact, I was so anxious to get the bass that I’d decided to buy it with a gig bag instead of saving up for a hard shell case.


Caruso’s was legendary in southern New England. Everything in the store was always 40% off and you paid cash. There simply was no better deal on musical equipment anywhere else in the region. The store itself was on Bank Street and you’d miss it if you drove by quickly. The store front could not have been 20 feet across and looked more like a thrift store than the a bustling music store. As I recall there was only one person working in the store that day: ‘Old Man Caruso’ as we called him. Middle-aged with curly grey hair around a bald head, and a face that always seemed to be smiling. The store had almost nothing on display. Instead there were boxes stacked floor-to-ceiling, front-to-back in the store. You walk in, tell Mr. Caruso what you wanted, he’d go back and pull it out, you’d hand him the money and off you went. It did help to call ahead to make sure he had what you wanted, and if he didn’t have it, he’d order it for you.


I’d called ahead, so Mr. Caruso was expecting me. I walked in with my mom, not a prim and proper lady by any stretch—especially with four boys and especially married to my dad. But little did I know that ‘Old Man Caruso’ was fond of using ‘colorful’ language. Here it was Good Friday, and this guy was sounding more like a trucker than the owner of the best music store in the world. My mom just sort of turned red silently. He brought out my bass in a hard-shell case and I told him I’d only brought enough for the gig bag. That just set off another colorful barrage—all with a big grin on his face. He simply would not let me buy the bass without a hard-shell case. In the end, he threw the case in for free—something that should have cost me another fifty bucks or so.  (Years later I would write him a letter of gratitude after my college girlfriend accidentally backed over the bass with her AMC Gremlin—Not a scratch thanks to the hard-shell case!)


The Jazz Bass was as good or better than advertised. I’d only been playing for a few years and my abilities skyrocketed with a top notch instrument in my hands. My family could not get their heads around me playing bass, so the first thing I did was to move up to the attic of our house where my dad had built a small study under the sloping roof. I moved a tiny roll-away bed into the room, borrowed the family’s old mono record player and I had a place where I could retreat and play with no one around. I put on stacks of vinyl and played along, listening and copying every bass riff I could glean from the scratchy recordings of musicians like Hendrix, Cream, and Jeff Beck. My dad had installed acoustic tile on the ceiling of the room that got dented and dinged from the big wind-up-toy tuning pegs on the Jazz Bass. My poor family must have been going crazy down below on the main floor, although I don’t recall any real complaints and I wasn’t trying to break any decibel records. I was more interested in learning the licks than making my ears bleed.


I played the bass in a couple of great bands in high school. The first was a soul band with two trumpets and a trombone: very fun music and way different for that little corner of New England. They kicked me out of the band allegedly because I couldn’t sing, but the reality was that there were personality conflicts (in a band of teenagers? Really? I took the rejection as a poke and studied voice privately for the rest of my high school years.) My next high-school band was a high-powered blues band. I’d learned 12-bar blues from my days in the attic, and this band drove that ubiquitous form into my very DNA—something that I have used in virtually every band I’ve ever played with since. This band also dabbled on the fringes of jazz, playing a lot of early Jethro Tull. Dan Morretti played sax and flute in the band and went on to become a successful jazz musician in his own right


I took the Jazz Bass with me to college, but oddly enough never found any musicians who weren’t either studio level players or dope heads who played lousy and loud, but thought they were wonderful. After college, I went back to Rhode Island and played the Jazz Bass in a lot of different groups from liturgical music at the university to country to a kick-ass country rock band named Ricochet. I finally figured out how to play bass and sing at the same time—a big accomplishment for me.


In the early ’80s I’d been doing a lot of woodworking and was feeling pretty good about my abilities. The Jazz Bass had taken a number of spills off stages and the like, and it was looking pretty banged up. In a weak moment, I dismantled the bass and striped off the chipped and scratched sun-burst lacquer, leaving the natural wood of the body. I did a meticulous job and was very proud of my work—that was until someone at Carusos told me that I’d probably cut the value of the instrument in half when I removed the finish. But the natural finish still looks great. Live and learn…

The last time I played the Jazz Bass regularly was in the mid-‘80s with a band called Three-Legged Horse, a wonderful trio that played an incredible variety of music. It was the first time I played in a band where the bass was the principle rhythm instrument. I liked having that responsibility and my playing improved exponentially. When that band wound down, I felt that I was in a bit of a rut with the Jazz Bass. The neck had developed a bad bow and I just needed a change of “bass scenery.” In the Summer of 1985 I headed back to Caruso’s, now being run by the old man’s sons. There was now a legitimate showroom and no colorful language drifting about. They put me in a corner with a Bass Walkman and I tried dozens of basses—none of which was preferable to the Jazz Bass. Then they brought me a used Steinberger XL-2. I couldn’t put it down and had to have it.


The Jazz Bass sadly went back in its case where it sat, barely used, for years. The ‘Berger handled like a sports car while the Jazz Bass was like an old Caddy. In the early ‘90s I took my instruments into Caruso’s to be appraised. The store had been relocated and expanded. I wasn’t ten feet inside the store when a guy stopped me and asked what I had in that Fender case. He offered to buy the Jazz Bass on the spot—even with the bowed neck. It wasn’t for sale. He said the Steinberger wasn’t worth anything because they’d been bastardized and mass-produced since I bought mine. I didn’t care—the ‘Berger wasn’t for sale either. He did offer to straighten the neck on the Jazz Bass for me. I wasn’t using it, so I left it. I got it back with the neck straight as an arrow. It was vastly improved, but the Steinberger was still more fun to play.


Over the next two decades, the Jazz Bass waited patiently in its case, making cameos at rehearsals, but never making it to “public appearances.” Fast forward to this past summer—the most intensely active musical time in my life. Although I’d become fairly proficient on the upright bass, I found myself playing much more electric bass with the Bass O’Matics and the Fringe. But I kept looking over at the case in the corner of my studio office, and guilt got the best of me. So I restrung the Jazz Bass and I took it to a couple of gigs. My years of neglect and the Cape Cod humidity swings had taken their toll on the neck and it needed to be straightened again. I took it to the master, Fran Ledoux at Bay Fretted Instruments . The neck had to be heat set, along with a truss rod adjustment, some minor fret work and repair of a small crack in the finger board. 44 years after that Good Friday at Caruso’s, the repair was $27 more than I’d originally paid for the instrument (more of an ironic commentary on the steadily shrinking dollar than a complaint about the cost). The repair was worth every cent! I got the bass back in time for the last Fringe gig at Matakeese Wharf and the old Caddy drove like brand new. I’ve been using it along with the Steinberger at the Bass O’Matics gigs as well. Frankly, it now plays better than the ‘Berger in many ways, and it might be time for Fran to give that headless critter a once over (the Steinberger turned 30 this year with a born on date of May 2, 1982!). For now, the guilt has been banished and it feels great to get reacquainted to the feel of my old bass, especially with my playing style that seems to have grown more aggressive over the years. But I’m just thrilled to welcome this old friend back in my hands again.

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