The Last Days of the Black Rock Rhythm Aces

I was tired, the kind of tired that makes you feel good right through. The muscles in my shoulders and arms ached and I could feel the sweat down my neck and on my brow. I guess we’d been playing three maybe four hours. Staashu was a demanding son-of-a-bitch of a bandleader I can tell you that.

He kept saying one more time, one more time, I’m not feelin’ it yet, one more time.

Finally I just said fuck it I need a break. Don’t forget I’m an old man. I grabbed a can of 50 from the cooler and sat back on the old sofa Boomboom had hauled into our practice space. Maggie rolled up a couple joints and sparked one up.

Hey Lazy, you’ve played like 10 million gigs, what’s the worst gig you ever played?

Geez Maggie, the worst gig I ever played? The worst gig I ever played was in Buffalo New York, back maybe 15 years or more. I guess it was the mid-60s. I was subbing on accordion, just a short term thing with this polka band, the Black Rock Rhythm Aces. The regular accordion player was out with a broken arm and I was between bands so I took the work. The job was ok you know, the usual repertoire of polkas, waltzes and obereks, and the players were all pretty hot so it was a lot of fun playing with them. We were gigging regularly, church dances, weddings and like that, and we had a weekly Saturday night thing in this beautiful old dance hall. There was me, a concertina, electric bass, sax, clarinet, and a drummer. Man, we could make a lot of noise.

Well on this particular night we were playing a dance in this big old hall in a church basement. They put out this really nice spread first. They had those big round tables set up and they had all that good old Polish food you know, and this was Buffalo but they liked their Canadian whiskey and each table had a twenty-sixer of Canada Club. The dinner, well it was fantastic, and everybody was getting pretty lubricated, including the band, and after a while they cleared the tables away to make room for dancing and we were on. It was a big-ass hall like I said but it was in the basement and so the ceilings were pretty low and the ventilation was shitty and the room was filling up with cigarette smoke. Everyone was having a great time if you know what I mean.

So we did a set and everybody was dancing and it was getting a bit crowded in there but you know it was alright and we had just started into the second set when the trouble started. Some guy was flirting with some other guy’s gal and a bit of pushing and shoving started and that instigated some more pushing and shoving, you know how it goes. Somebody threw a punch and man that kind of thing is contageous. I looked around that basement and as near as I could tell there was only one way out and it seemed mighty far away.

Well our bandleader was named Killer, I mean that wasn’t his real name but that’s what everybody called him, but Killer was this little guy see, skinny as a rake, and very quiet, hardly said nothing, but once you got him on stage he came alive. Anyways Killer he looks at us and he shouts let’s get the fuck out of here, and we scrambled to grab some of our instruments and headed for the stairs.

At this point everything had gone to hell. I mean everyone was liquored up and it seemed like all these people who were just having a dance, having a good time, had morphed into god-damned zombies.

We didn’t have no beef with no-one, we just wanted out of there. I was carrying my big accordion and I was hunched over some like a football player just trying to push through the crowd, and then this big guy with a brush cut grabbed my accordion, but it was strapped on, you know, and he pulled and pulled and he swung me right around and I crashed into some guy who was busy pounding out some other guy and then my accordion strap broke and Brush Cut Boy, he just about pulled my arm off see, and I went flying and took down three or four people like bowling pins.

Next thing you know, my accordion was flying through the air. That thing weighed like 35 pounds and I don’t even know where it landed. I found myself on the ground and there were people on top of me and it smelled like beer and ashtrays and blood and puke and I could hear some guy, I guess it was a cop, shouting through a bullhorn.

I stopped to light a cigarette, and took long drink of beer.

Go on Lazy, what happened next?

Ah Geez you know, it’s amazing nobody got killed. I mean nobody even got seriously hurt. The cops locked everybody up. I think they understood we were the band, just the hired help, and they gave us our own cell and they didn’t charge us with nothng. Next morning they let us go, and we were almost out the door when this cop called out, hey you. He handed me a big black garbage bag and says I think this is yours. Inside was the remains of my accordion in several chunks. Heart-breaking, that’s what it was. Even back then that accordion was worth a couple thousand bucks, and it was my baby. The body was in pieces and the bellows were all ripped up. Some of the keys were still OK and at least the reed blocks were intact. I used the reeds from that accordion for repairs for years.

So what happened with the polka band after the fight?

It was all over. Killer was about ready to retire anyway and he just packed it in. The other guys went on to play in different bands around Buffalo.

There’s a sad epilogue to the whole business, though. A couple years after the fight, Killer and his wife moved to Florida to enjoy their retirement without all that shitty Western New York weather. Well there was a bunch of muggings down there, and Killer he marched out and bought himself a Smith & Wesson for protection.

Don’t you know it, he only had that gun a couple weeks and hadn’t even fired the damned thing and some guy comes up to him and says, you know, stick ‘em up, gimme all your money. And Killer he just snapped. You want it you got it buster, and he pulled this gun out of his coat and he fired 6 shots into the guy. They said it was self-defense, that he was just protecting himself, but the thing is Killer snapped. When this guy said stick ‘em up, Killer just lost it. He couldn’t even function hardly after that, kept landing up in one hospital after another and finally he was committed to some mental facility down there until he just couldn’t live with himself anymore.

Jesus, Lazy that’s terrible.

Depressing is what it is. Anyone want another beer?

Come on you guys, let’s get back to work.

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Boomboom and Ndidi

We were nursing beers, me and Staashu, in a dank basement punker bar with some kind of Vietnamese name, over in Kensington Market. He’d been dragging me to dive bars around the city looking for musicians for this crazy polka band he was putting together. I was sure this time he’d lost his mind.

I was the oldest guy in the bar by a longshot and I felt plenty out of place with my slicked back hair and flannel shirt. By that point Staash had taken to wearing suspenders, and he had this pencil moustache happening and the two of us were gathering snickers from the Mohawk crowd.

The Strip was already on stage when we got there, hammering their way through a cover of Too Drunk to Fuck. Somebody in the back hurled a beer bottle across the club. The drummer ducked his head out of the way without missing a beat. The bottle smashed against the wall, and the band carried on like this happened all the time.

These the guys?

That’s them. The singer there calls himself The Razor. He’s out on bail. They got him cold for sticking up a Beckers store. He’ll be out of the picture pretty soon. Bass player is Ndidi Nigeria and the drummer is her boyfriend, goes by Johnny Boomboom.

What’s with the names?

I figure the punk scene is a lot like pro wrestling. You got to have a nickname.

What makes you think these people want to be in a polka band, Staashu? They’re punkers for God’s sake.

It don’t hurt to ask, Lazy.

Ndidi Nigeria and Johnny Boomboom laid down the rhythm like the evening train while Mr. Razor did his anti-dance bad-ass rebel routine across the stage, spitting out the lyrics with as much venom as he could muster up. Hardcore, they called it. Straight ahead, 4/4, loud and aggressive. Not my thing but they were good.

You must be the polka boys.

In person.

Boomboom was staring at Staashu.

I seen you somewhere before.

I been around.

Yeah, I remember now. Didn’t you used to play B3 in West King’s outfit?

I’ll be damned, that was a while back now, but yeah I did.

I used to listen to you guys at the Palace. Old school R&B, I loved that stuff.

Oh yeah?

I was pretty young, you know. I had this bad fake ID but it got me in.

We had a helluva band back then.

What happened? You guys played that gig for a long time.

West finally retired and him and his wife packed up and moved down to Miami to be close to their daughter.

What you been doing since?

Haven’t been playing much. Working for a living for a while. Hey this is Lazy Allen.

Hey man.

Good to meet you.

Lazy used to play in some of the best polka bands around. He’s been out of it for a while too.

So, polka’s dead man. What are you trying to do?

I don’t know. We want to take the music somewhere different I guess.

Crazy.

I thought you two might be bored. Heard your singer there is going away. Thought maybe we could do something interesting.

This ain’t our only gig. We got some studio work going on.

That’s cool with me. Listen, we got some rehearsal space at the old Polish Hall out in Long Branch. We’re going to do a late rehearsal Thursday night. Come on out, play some music with us, then let’s talk.

We got a gig Thursday. One set at 11.

That’s no problem, me and Lazy are working until 11, then heading over to Ruby’s pub for a few. Meet us there after.

Ndidi finally spoke, to Boomboom.

You want to, B?

What the Hell. Why not?

We got to get back on stage. We’ll see you guys then.

Halfway through the next set, a cop walked into the club, in full blues. He walked straight up to the front and shook hands with the Vietnamese dude who owned the joint, who looked about as out of place as us. They talked for a minute and I could see the guy was pointing over at us.

Sure enough, the cop paid us a visit.

You boys here to cause trouble? I don’t want to see no trouble here.

No trouble boss. We’re just here to take in some tunes from the band over there.

You think I’m a fucking idiot? I don’t know what you’re doing here but I can smell trouble cooking. Time you two moved along.

We’re not causing no trouble.

I’m going to tell you one more time. Move along. The Silver Dollar’s more your speed. Why don’t you head over there. Go now and you’ll be in time for last call.

He had that tough-guy cop look about him that said he meant business. I looked over at Staashu. I really didn’t feel like getting beat up.

We were just leaving sir. We don’t want no trouble.

Ndidi and Boomboom watched from the stage as we were escorted out.

Star Beauty

The buzzer cut the air, loud and long, followed by the rhythm of the punch clock as the third shift at the Bottle & Can left the plant and spilled out onto the street.   Some of the guys jumped into cars and sped off home to their families. Others rushed down the road to catch the streetcar on Lakeshore. The rest of us made the short migration over to Ruby’s Place, the unofficial company bar.

I liked that walk. We’d go the back way, through the parking lots behind a few of the old industrial buildings, shooting the shit, smoking, laughing. Most nights I could pick up the different smells spewing from the factories. On winter nights like this one, when the air was crisp, the odours were fugitive, hard to pin down. Later in the year, in the dense heat of July and August, those smells hung heavy in the air. Long Branch, New Toronto, Mimico, there was a lot of work going on in those days.

Before Ruby, it was an old man’s bar, if you know what I mean, the land of broken dreams. We started going over there after work soon after Ruby bought the joint and fixed it up some. She had dart boards and a couple billiard tables put in, and she hired a cook. I didn’t play no darts or billiards, but I did have dinner there every night after work – the special of the day. I’d been on my own longer than I cared to think about, and I wasn’t up for cooking for myself.

I saw Staashu standing at the bar when I walked in. I hadn’t seen him all week, thought he was sick or something.

Hey Staash.

Hey Lazy, how you doin’?

Me I’m doing OK. How bout you? Where the hell you been hiding?

He took a deep drag on his smoke.

Not you too, man. Sabina already gave me shit.

Oh yeah? You deserve it?

I rode the dog down to Buffalo for a couple days, and I kind of neglected to tell Sabina I was going.

Kind of?

Well it’s long story.

You’re going to pay, brother. She’s not going to buy no long stories.

No doubt.  It was important though. I bought a concertina.

No way.

Way.

Staashu slid off the barstool and bent down to pick up a black box, shaped like a big cube, bigger than a typewriter, smaller than a suitcase. He hoisted it up on the bar and opened it up. Nestled in the padded case, glistening, was a chemnitzer concertina – what we used to call a polka box – and it was beautiful.

Jesus, Mary and Joseph, it’s gorgeous.

Damn right. This one was made in 1974. It’s got a built-in mic and everything. The bellows have been totally redone. The waxes too. Totally overhauled. Damned near perfect condition.

It’s a lot like my old one, isn’t it? Mine’s got STAR BEAUTY in rhinestones across the front  just like this, but you remember mine is that funky white pearloid.

I remember Lazy. When I was a kid I thought your concertina was about the most beautiful thing I ever saw. It must have been from the early 60s, eh?

Yeah, 62. Made in Chicago of course. But my question to you, Staashu, is this: what gives? I remember like it was yesterday you told me no more of that polka shit, you were done with it.

I know it.

Remember when you bought that old Hammond C3 when they took down St. Basil’s Church and you made me help you haul that son of a bitch out of there.

You know I still have it, don’t you? Stripped it right down. Got rid of the goddamned modesty panels, cleaned it up, and plugged it into a Leslie cabinet. I played a lot of R&B on that baby.

You thought you were pretty hot shit in those days, Staashu.

I really was pretty hot shit, Lazy.

You haven’t been told today, have you?

Ha, not by you.

So what the hell’s going on? I never thought I’d hear you play the old music again.

Staashu pulled the instrument out of the case and worked the straps up onto his shoulders. A few of the guys saw this and drifted on over. Staash played a chord, then started stomping his foot and singing.

She likes kielbasa – that’s her dish.

She likes kielbasa – better than fish.

Then he started playing, swirling around the melody the way he used to do. It took me right back in time. I taught Staashu concertina, and accordion too, back when I was a working musician. He was my best student if you want the God’s honest truth, and it was obvious he still had his chops. By the time Staashu finished the tune, just about everyone in the bar had gathered around. People were cheering and laughing and clapping. Ruby brought Staashu a shot and a beer, on the house.

By this time Sabina had showed up. Sabina was Staashu’s girl, and they were crazy for each other but you wouldn’t know it the way they argued all the time.

I see he’s brought out his new toy.

It’s beautiful, Sabina.

Yeah well, you’d think he would have called me. Christ I was worried sick and he was down there getting drunk in fucking Polonia.

Dammit Sabina, I saw the ad, and I just couldn’t let it get away.

Why the hell not? Nobody even plays these things anymore.

The thing is I got this idea for a band. A polka band.

Jesus Christ.

Give me a break, Sabina.

You serious Staashu? About a polka band?

Yeah I am, Laze. The thing is it’s not going to be like Honky or Cleveland or nothing like that. Maybe a little like Chicago Push but I want to push the envelope some if you know what I mean. I want to bring polka back from the dead.

You’re crazy man.

That’s what I told him.

Yeah well maybe I am. But I’m gonna need an accordion man, Lazy – a bellows shaker.

Don’t look at me. I haven’t been on a stage in a decade. I’m too old for that shit.

Right, right, you’re an old man now, I forgot. You probably lost your chops years ago. You used to be the best.

I still got my chops.

Bullshit you do.

No, I do. I play all the time. Late at night, when I get home from the bar. I just – I don’t know, I just keep it to myself.

So, what’s your problem?

I don’t have no problem.

So, you’re in?

Christ, Staashu, I don’t know.

C’mon. You in or not?

I downed my shot and chased it with a long swig of ale. I looked at Staashu for a long time.

I’m in.

The Bottle & Can

Nothing changed. The lines clunked and banged and clinked and rattled their way along with occasional human interventions, no beginning, no end, save the buzzer setting us free to truck on over to the bar. Each day was one unending stream of factory life, not good, not bad, not anything.

The Bottle & Can was a union shop and those old-school union characters they took themselves very seriously. Everybody on the line was Brother this or Sister that and anyone upstairs was The Boss. Some of those guys knew them goddamned Pete Seeger songs by heart, you know, Joe Hill and Solidarity Forever. I didn’t put much stock in that union business myself. Hell, I’d never held a straight job in my life until I signed on at the plant – but I wasn’t complaining neither. I needed the steady work and the sick benefits and the dental plan and all the trimmings. I had the little bungalow – inherited that from my ma, so at least I had a roof over my head. I never saved much money playing in bands, though, and without gigging, what I did have was disappearing fast.

To be honest, that job saved my bacon. The union made it its business to protect the workers from any kind of unfair treatment and you really had to go out of your way to get yourself fired. Of course they also looked after the misfits and fuck-ups and no-accounts and junkers and even washed up accordion players like me. Equal treatment and all that jazz. When I signed on I needed a heavy dose of equal treatment, believe-you-me.

You can call me Lazy; everyone else does. It don’t mean I’m lazy with a small L, you know. It’s short for Lazarus. Lazarus Allen Czerwinski, that’s my name. Back in the day, when I was playing in the polka bands, I was just Lazy Allen. I even had my own band for a while, Lazy Allen and the Rockets. Yes sir. We played down in the States, up and down the Rust Belt and we toured Canada too, across the north, playing dive bars in all those mining towns and pulp-and-paper towns.

I had a hot band too, all good players. There was Sammy Bosco on concertina. He had this really flowing style, top notch man on the polka box. He’d do these insanely long, ornate high melody runs. I loved the way he played that thing. I was the bellows shaker, which is what we called the accordion player on account of the accordion emphasized the rhythm for the dancers. We had two brothers, Johnny and Jerry Malinowski – we called them the Raspberry Brothers – on drums and bull fiddle. They’re both gone now, God bless them both. Then finally, we had two kick-ass trumpet players, Bobby Friday, and Polly Pasternak. They were jazz players who moved back to polka because back then we were getting the work. Those were some times. Even today I can hear that band playing in my head.

I suppose thought I’d just go on playing music for the rest of my life. I never did anything else, and I wasn’t any good at anything else for that matter, but in the end it didn’t happen that way. Even now, a dozen years later, I’m not sure just what did happen. I was burned out, that much is for sure. Being on the road all that time is hard on your soul. And I was drinking more than my share, I’ll admit that too. The way I remember it now, I just felt tired, tired of everything.

Times changed. Used to be we could get all kinds of gigs playing dances and bars and so on, but it all started drying up at the end of the 60s. There came a point we couldn’t get enough bookings to cobble together a tour. Everyone wanted rock bands and the accordion was going the way of the do-do in the popular imagination, if you know what I mean. Sure, polka still thrived in small pockets, in the Polish and Czech areas in the big industrial towns in the States especially, in Buffalo and Cleveland and over in Chicago. It was a different story up here in Canada. The whole scene was pretty much winding down.

I got the interview at the Bottle & Can thanks to Staashu Dudas putting in a good word for me. He’d already been working the line 2 maybe 3 years. It ain’t all that bad is what he told me. Steady. Fair pay, benefits. Staash was a musician too, and that’s a whole other story. I admit the thought crossed my mind the Bottle & Can was maybe where washed up musicians go to die. I didn’t dwell on it too long though. I was running out of money and I was mostly sitting around the house drinking every day, and I knew that was just going to kill me if I didn’t get it under control. Staash came around and said he’d put in a good word for me at the Bottle & Can so I thought what the hell and I went down there and got an application form and filled it out.

A week later I got called in for the first and only honest to God job interview I ever had. I didn’t know what to expect. Staash just told me to go in and tell them I’ll do a good job. Don’t worry, you’ll be fine is what he said.

So I went in, and the receptionist sat me down and told me to wait, which I did, and twenty minutes later she leads me into this boardroom. I was like a fish out of water and I’ll tell you I was some nervous.

They had me sit on one side of a long rectangular table and on the other there was this guy wearing a suit, but he looked really uncomfortable in it, if you know what I mean, Iike he only wore it when he had to do job interviews. It turned out he was the plant manager, the head honcho for the Toronto division, name of Walter Martin.

Sitting beside him was a woman from the staffing department. She was all proper and businesslike and no-nonsense. I can’t recall her name now after all these years. I don’t think I ever saw her more than a few times after that interview.

The woman started the interview. Mr Czerwinski, I don’t see your resume here. Did you bring along a copy? Now I had no idea what the hell she was talking about. I’d never seen a resume in my life. Staashu just said to fill in the application, that’s it. No I’m sorry, I didn’t bring an extra copy, I said, implying that I actually had one.

The plant manager cut in. Lazarus, ok if I call you Lazarus? I wanted to say just call me Lazy but I thought maybe it wasn’t so good to call yourself Lazy at a job interview. What kind of experience do you have? Well to be honest I’ve never worked in a bottling plant before. I see, what other kinds of work have you done? I’m a musician. You’re a musician. Yes, I play accordion mostly and some polka box, you know, concertina, and piano and organ, and I can fill in on drums in a pinch. I’ve played in a bunch of polka bands here and down in the States too. I can also do arrangements pretty good, for horns and such.

You’ve played music in the States, but you’re Canadian? Yes sir, I got my Canadian citizenship in 58. I was born in Poland and came over with my folks when I was a boy. I didn’t like the way this was going. I never had no work visa for the States or nothing like that. It was all about cash money. There was no need for me to worry on that account though. I think they were just trying to figure me out, figure out what the hell I was doing there. At that moment I was trying to figure it out too.

They kept asking me about my work experience, like they never seen a guy who’d never worked for the man. I must have seemed like some kind of freak to them. Well, I’ve mostly just been a musician. You’ve never done factory work before? No sir. It sounds like music is what you should really be doing. How come you want a job here? What could I tell him? I’m looking to settle down, I said. I’ve been on the road playing in bands for a long time. I thought it would be good to stay in one place for a while.

I wanted to tell him, look man the job can’t be so hard and I need the coin, but I knew that was a bad idea. My knees were starting to shake and I jammed them together to steady myself. Mr. Martin, I’ll do a great job for you, I really will. My friend Staashu Dudas can vouch for me. Staashu Dudas? Yes, he works afternoons on the line. Staash says this is a great place to work. I see. By the look on his face, though, he didn’t see. I think he had no idea who Staashu was.

Well thank you for coming in Mr. Czerwinski. We’ll call you once we’ve made our decision.

I shook hands with both of them and figured that was the end of that. Why would they hire a guy with zero experience to work on a production line in a bottling plant? Two days later I got the call. When can you start? Well when do you want me? Immediately? Yes, yes I can work afternoons. Ok, tomorrow at 3:30. Thank you, I’ll be there. I never did find out why they decided to hire me.