Working on the line takes staying power, not brain power. Pretty much anybody can do the job. Sticking it out day after day after day is another whole story. It may be easy work but it takes a certain kind of personality to handle it 8 hours a day, 5 days a week, 52 weeks a year.
There are two choices. Either you live in the moment, be here now and all that, or you live in some imaginary place nowhere near the Bottle & Can. Some people medicate themselves to get through shift. Drink. Pills. Powders. Herbs. Whatever it takes. That’ll get you through alright, but it’ll catch up with you eventually.
Me and Staashu got through by shooting the shit. Shooting the shit is a special form of conversation, a kind of conversation that slides from one topic to the next, a kind of conversation that goes on and on without really saying too much. There is a special sub-category of shooting the shit that’s all about one-upmanship, a sub-category Staashu and I indulged in from time to time.
Like one day I was telling Staashu how I met the Clown Prince of Polka, Walt Solek, at a stag in Wisconsin. My band, Lazy and the Rockets were playing out there at some kind of polka-fest. We met all kinds of players out there, some of the top guys. To make a long story short there was this guy, this trumpet player, Bourbon Harris, I met out there. Bourbon Harris, as his name might suggest, was a bit of a piss-tank, and he was half in the bag and he was selling tickets to a stag party.
Now we didn’t know the guy getting married or know anyone, really, outside of these musicians, but it didn’t seem to matter. Bourbon Harris was selling tickets and we had an off-night so we showed up and did some drinking, and got involved in a 7 card stud poker game. So we’re playing and I don’t know anymore if I was up or down, but anyway that doesn’t matter, what matters is this. What matters is that Walt Solek walks in, and he says, hey boys got room for one more?
I’m talking about Walt Solek here. Pierogi Polka. Who Stole the Kishka? They’re Always in the Way. The Julida Polka. I’m talking about the Polish Spike Jones here. I played 7 card stud with Walt Solek.
So I was about to tell Staashu about what a lousy poker player Walt Solek really was, but he interrupted me and started telling me about some night back when he was with West King’s band at their house gig at the Palace. Now I’m the first to admit Staash Dudas played B3 in one of the truly great R&B bands. I mean they were top drawer if you know what I’m saying.
Anyways, Staashu starts telling me about how they’re playing Cry to Me, that old Solomon Burke number, and he catches some kind of glint from the back of the room and he looks up and that glint belonged to a gold cape and the gold cape belonged to the Godfather of Soul, James Brown. And Staashu says, Lazy, honest to God I never felt that way before. I felt like I was in the presence of royalty.
Now I had heard this story more than once before, but I did what was expected of me. I said, James Brown? THE James Brown, the hardest working man in show business? Soul Brother Number 1? And Staashu says, you know it Lazy. It was THE James Brown and he was walking toward the stage, and West King stops singing, and we were playing Cry to Me and West says, Ladies and Gentlemen, ladies and gentlemen, this is a very special evening. This is a very special evening, my friends, because we have a very special individual in the house tonight. Ladies and Gentleman, Mister James Brown.
And Staashu goes on about how James Brown waves and blows a kiss to the crowd as he gets up on stage, and the band closes out Cry to Me, and James Brown looks at the band and says, Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag.
So now it’s my turn to interrupt Staashu, but it’s pretty damn hard to top James Brown. I had one ace in the hole. That must have been something else, Staashu, something else again. I never played with any famous R&B musicians. Then I paused, just long enough….but I did get to play Johnny’s Knocking with Li’l Wally once.
There’s a certain point in this game of one-upmanship when you just have to call bullshit. Staashu knew that I knew that he really did play with James Brown that one time. But I had never told him before that I’d played with Li’l Wally, and I might as well have told him I’d been onstage with I don’t know, God. For polka players, that’s how big Li’l Wally is.
Jesus, Mary and Joseph, Lazy Allen, you never played with Li’l Wally.
Cut the crap, man. You did not.
Yeah, like I’m going to believe that.
The buzzer sounded to end the shift, and that ended our shooting the shit game for the day. We headed over to Ruby’s for some beers and just let the whole conversation slide.
Later that night, I was at home, sitting at the kitchen table, at least half-way drunk, and I drifted back to that night at the 505 on South Brainard Ave in Chicago, way down in Hegewisch. I had been introduced to Wally once before, by a mutual friend, Trever oh-I-can’t-remember-his-last-name, who told Wally I was the best accordionist he had ever heard – but I never expected Li’l Wally to actually remember me.
It was between sets and Wally was walking over to the bar, talking to people as he moved along, and he saw me and the son of a bitch recognized me. Hey, don’t I know you? Aren’t you Lazy Allen? And I said Mister Jagiello… and he said none of this Mister Jagiello crap, Lazy. You just call me Wally. My dear old friend Trevor has told me many times you’re tops on accordion. And I said, Wally, I play, yes I play, but I’m not in your league. And Wally he says, we’ll see about that, and off he goes to get his drink.
So the next set starts, and they do a waltz followed by an oberek, and then Wally says, I’d like to bring up one of the best accordion players in the land, ladies and gentlemen, Lazy Allen. I froze. I was stunned. I didn’t know what to do. And then I heard my name again, Lazy Allen, come on up here. So I walk up to the stage and Wally’s accordion man hands me his box, and I sling it up on my shoulders and look over at Wally and he says, Johnny’s Knocking, and off we go.
In those days, Wally was playing concertina, and there we were onstage trading licks, and the dancers were all up and Wally nods at me and gives me a solo. I played my heart out. I gave that polka everything I had, and when we finished, Wally put his arm around my shoulders and said, Lazy Allen, ain’t he great? Lazy Allen, ladies and gentleman.
The funny thing about it is that there was an entertainment guy there from one of the papers and he was doing a story about the polka scene and he shot a picture of Wally with me up there right beside him playing Johnny’s Knocking. It ran the next day with a caption, Li’l Wally returns to the 505. I wasn’t mentioned or anything, but there was my picture in the paper, playing with the king of the polka.
I walked downstairs and started looking through a few old boxes I had packed away until I came up with my old photos and press clippings, and there it was. The newspaper had turned golden brown with age, but you could see us, me and Li’l Wally plain as day. I stuck it in an old drugstore frame and hung it up over by the kitchen table.
One day, this is a month maybe two months later, Staashu comes over with a care package. Everybody’s always trying to feed old Lazy. This time it was Staashu’s mom, Beatty. She sent him over with a tray of her wonderful home-made cabbage rolls. Staash comes in with the gwampkis and puts them down on the table and I can see he’s spotted the picture.
I didn’t say nothing about it and he didn’t say nothing about it. Staashu he just looked over at me and nodded. I said, tell Beatty I said thanks for the cabbage rolls Staash. Tell her the old man appreciates it.