When I gave up making my living as a traveling musician – or maybe I should say when it gave up on me – the whole thing came to a full stop. No more gigs, no studio work, nothing. I even found other teachers for the last of my die-hard students. I never expected to ever again play in front of an audience, though I often day-dreamed about doing just that.
I was an accordion man, a bellows-shaker, and a good one, but by the early 80s the accordion had lost its shine outside of Polonia down in Buffalo and some of the other dying industrial cities south of the 49th. After a decade working at the Bottle & Can, I convinced myself I was satisfied with warm memories of the old life.
Then one day Staash Dudas traded in his Hammond C3 for a Star Concertina and announced he was starting a polka band. A polka band for God’s sake. Staashu grew up on a steady diet of polka. I know because I was his teacher. And I can remember like it was yesterday the day he put the old music down. I can’t play that shit anymore is what he told me, and he meant it too, so I was plenty surprised when Staashu suddenly fell in love with the polka all over again.
And just who the fuck do you think is going to listen to this polka band of yours?
Kids? It ain’t children’s music.
No, not children. Kids. You know what I mean. Like kids who go to bars. Rockers.
Rockers? You’re out of your mind.
Listen, there’s these guys over in London England…
English guys playing polkas?
No, no, no, no.
Well that’s what you said.
That’s not what I said.
What did you say?
I was trying to say, if you didn’t interrupt me all the time, there’s these guys over in London playing old Irish folk songs except they’re playing them like punk rock.
No shit. It’s crazy, man, it’s got this amazing drive. It’s like they’re reinventing it. You see what I’m getting at? I want to reinvent the polka.
That’s how the whole thing started, see. Staashu had heard The Pogues. Now, I was flattered when Staashu asked me to be in the band and all, and you know in my day I was the best bellows-shaker around, but I only said OK because I never thought it was ever going to happen. Next thing you know Staashu was dragging me around to all the punker dive-bars looking for musicians. Hell, I was old enough to be their father. What was I doing there?
Now Staashu, I think he’d been thinking about this band of his for some time, and he had a head full of ideas. First of all, and I didn’t know it yet, he’d been writing tunes, buckets of them, polkas, obereks and waltzes mostly. But that’s not all. Staash didn’t just want to play polka music like it had never been played before, he wanted to play other tunes as if they were polkas.
This is where I need you, Lazy. Find us 10 tunes to cover. See, my idea is that every set has originals, classic polkas, and cover tunes.
Like what kind of tunes?
Monster tunes. Big ones. Tunes with big riffs. Tunes with a groove. Dance tunes. Christ I don’t know, I need you to figure it out.
I can do that, Staashu.
I had a mission and I took it seriously. You should know that I know a lot of tunes. I’ve got one of those crazy memories. I can’t tell you what I had for breakfast today but if I hear a tune I remember it. The lyrics too, everything. So I started listening to old music, new music, punk, new wave, folk songs, polkas, rock ‘n’ roll, zydeco, R&B, everything I could get my hands on. Slowly I put together the list I thought we could work with.
At our first rehearsal we started working out with some old school polka numbers: Who Stole the Kishka, Zosia, Buffalo is a Polka Town, Pierogi Polka, that kind of thing. Staashu had found us a rhythm section – Boom-Boom Johnny on drums and and Ndidi Nigeria on bass – who attacked those polkas like Godzilla crushing Tokyo. And Maggie, oh my God I didn’t recognize Maggie. Mind you, I hadn’t seen her since she was a kid and I was teaching her accordion. Now she had a shock of black hair, a black Ramones tee shirt, running shoes and a Stratocaster. And then there was Staashu, with his concertina, red suspenders, pencil moustache, and slicked back hair. Staash was running his concertina through some kind of Echoplex deal and he had it amped up to the edge. Me, I was shaking the bellows, holding it all together. Man, what an outfit.
We stopped for a beer break and Staash asked me what I’d come up with for covers. I started down the list:
In no particular order…
Sex and Drugs and Rock and Roll by Ian Dury and The Blockheads
Sweet Little 16 by Chuck Berry
You Used to Call Me by Clifton Chenier
Sixteen Tons by Tennessee Ernie Ford
Folsom Prison Blues by Johnny Cash
Most Likely You Go Your Way by Bob Dylan
I knew the Bride by Nick Lowe
Cadillac Walk by Mink deVille
Last Date by Conway Twitty
Goo Goo Muck by Ronnie Cook and the Gaylads
Before I could say Ronnie Cook, Maggie screamed, THE CRAMPS, I love the Cramps. I just laughed. I had heard of psychobilly but had no idea The Cramps covered Goo Goo Muck.
That’s what the doctor ordered, Lazy!
One more, there’s one more.
OK, what is it?
I pulled on my big accordion, a signal to the others to put down their beers and pick up their instruments.
Johnny, give me a big-assed polka beat.
He started the groove and I let him settle into it, before leaning into the vocal mic and starting into the spoken word introduction:
Maggie screeched into a power chord. Johnny started an avalanche, and we were off.