Aftermath

Staash picked me up in his beater and we drove downtown to Jerzy Nojinski’s trial, if that’s what you want to call it. Staashu spotted Sabina right away and headed over to the seat beside her. I thought oh Jesus they’re going to make a big scene here in the courtroom but she gave him a hug and held his hand as Jerzy pleaded guilty to defrauding the union. White collar crime in a blue collar organization. 5 years. Guilty Your Honour, and that was all she wrote.

The New Polka Kings were done. Our manager Bananas Foster abandoned ship, disappeared as if he had never been around. Nobody would book the band – we were poison on the music scene. It seemed that everybody was afraid of the record company. Advice to up-and-coming musicians: punching out your record producer is a bad career move. Still I didn’t blame Staash and neither did the others. It was time to move on, whatever that meant.

Maggie took a bartending job at Ruby’s to make ends meet for a while. I was spending plenty of time there so I saw her around most every day. Ndidi and Boom Boom took over our practice space in the old Polish Hall and started rehearsing an Afro-beat band. Much to my surprise, Staashu and Sabina got back together and took off on a road-trip somewhere down in the southern States. I didn’t see him again for months.

After a couple weeks drinking too much and feeling sorry for myself, I realized I didn’t want to stop playing music. Nobody was rushing to hire me, so I picked up the big accordion and hauled it down to Kensington Market to do some busking. I set up in front of a suit discounter and played every day until my fingers swelled and my bones ached. When the market was busy I did pretty good in tips. I liked the routine too, and started referring to my little piece of sidewalk as my office.

That’s where Dakota tracked me down. She came walking up Baldwin and around the corner, big smile on her face. I thought she was beautiful. Still do.

Lazy Goddam Allen.

That’s me.

The bartender at Ruby’s told me where to find you.

Oh you mean Maggie? So what brings you to Kensington Market looking for a washed up bellows-shaker?

Can I buy you lunch?

Sure, I can use a break.

You sound damn fine by the way.

I dropped my tips into the little rucksack I carried around and stuffed the accordion back in its case. I couldn’t help but notice Dakota was carrying an accordion case with her as well, hers considerably smaller than mine. Bet it’s a triple-row diatonic, I thought to myself. We found a café and ordered up burgers and beers.

I learned Dakota was fronting a band doing some kind of blend of Swamp Pop, Zydeco and Tex-Mex, and her squeezebox of choice was indeed a triple-row. Vintage Hohner Corona II.

We’re just starting out, playing around town. You guys paved the way for us, you know. Before NPK nobody wanted nothing to do with squeezeboxes.

I had no idea.

100% true. I got a bit of a problem though. Bad reed on my Corona.

The guy up on Eglinton is the best in town. He’ll fix you up.

He’s all backed up Lazy. It’s going to be a week and a half before he looks at it. I got a gig Saturday and I can’t afford another box. I started asking around and your name kept coming up. Any way you help me out?

Back when I was playing the polka circuit, I did all my own repairs. I still had all my tools and a bunch of reeds packed up in the basement somewhere. It was going to be a pain in the ass to pull everything out, though, and anyway I hadn’t worked on a diatonic box in years. I took a deep breath.

I’ll try. Bring it by my house tomorrow noon.

Really? That’s awesome. Thanks so much Lazy.

Don’t thank me yet. It’s been a long time since I worked on one of these.

Dakota showed up at noon on the dot with a six pack and sandwiches. I’d spent the morning digging things out and setting up a little workbench in the basement. Taking apart her instrument was the easy part. Besides the broken reed, some of the waxes holding the reeds in place had gone brittle and were starting to break off. The wax job was easy. The reed was another story. I had plenty of piano accordion reeds but nothing that was going fit this little diatonic box and there was no place to get one on short notice. There was nothing to be done but cannibalize another reed and make what we needed. For me, that was some tricky work.

While I was busy trying to fashion a new reed, Dakota was like a kid in a candy store, messing about with my accordions and other instruments. Turns out she could play anything and play it well. A real natural. I was already crazy about her.

It took me hours to replace that damned reed. While I was at it, I replaced some worn bellows tape and fixed the action on the button board. Those old Hohner Corona IIs are great little instruments but there’s a bit of a design flaw. When you play, the buttons sink too deep into the framework, making them noisy and too slow. I used some thick felt to restrict the action so that each button sat flush with the button-board when depressed.

Dakota watched me reassemble the instrument.

Well?

I handed her the accordion. Dakota strapped it on, tested the new reed (it sounded true and good) and started right into Shake, Rattle and Roll. I pulled on my big accordion and started playing along, tentatively at first, finally finding the groove.

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The Producer

Back in my day – I mean my first time around as a musician – making a record meant gathering the band around a microphone and playing your heart out. We’d work out all the arrangements and rehearse the hell out of any tune we wanted to record, you know feel it in our bones before we ever walked into the studio. The idea was to get it down as quickly as possible. We always figured every time we had to do another take, the tune would lose a little something. Somewhere along the way things changed.

The New Polka Kings – everybody was calling us NPK by this point – walked into T-West Sounds on September 14, 1982. I remember the date because it was my birthday. Our crazy-assed manager Bananas Foster really came through for us and set up a recording deal. We were over the moon. NPK was headed for the big time or so we thought.

Timing was perfect, too. Me and Staashu had been working at the Bottle & Can to make ends meet and I guess you know the story, the strike and all that. We had just found out the wigs who ran the joint decided to shut down Canadian operations completely and move to Mexico. That meant no more straight job to fall back on for me and Staash. It also meant hundreds of good men and women without work, but that’s another story.

T-West Sounds was located in an old coach house behind a kitchen contractor on Ossington Avenue, south of Dundas. The place was discreet, I guess you could say. The entrance was from the alley. There was no sign, just a number spray-painted on the door. Lots of big acts recorded there over the years and no one was the wiser.

The record company sent up a producer from LA, a guy who called himself Ricky Diamond. He had his name on all kinds of big records. The guy was a piece of work though, let me tell you. He showed up with his poofed-up hair, his black Armani suit, his cocaine, and his bad attitude. We shook hands all around, and Diamond handed me and Staash binders.

What are these?

Your songs. Learn them.

We already got songs.

Yeah, I heard the demo that Bananas guy sent down. Is that really his name? It doesn’t matter. We’ll be recording these instead.

Um, the idea is, we’re the band and we do our songs, eh.

Yeah well, I’m the producer, and we’ll be recording these, ok?

No it’s not ok.

Look Dudas, my job is to make a record that will sell and that’s what I’m fucking going to do. If you think this is about you, you’re just wrong.

We got off to a bad start and it went downhill from there. Next thing we found out we couldn’t record together as a band. Ricky planned to lay down individual tracks and build up his “sound” behind the mixing board. To him, we were just raw material. Then he tells us he was bringing in session musicians from LA.

Fuck that.

Take a breath Staashu.

This is bullshit.

Listen, we’re here, we should give this guy a chance.

Jesus Lazy, he’s sucking the soul from this band and we haven’t played a note yet.

Bananas Foster wandered in, all smiles. We dragged him outside for a conference.

Do you want a list of the hit records this guy produced? He knows what he’s doing.

You think we don’t? It’s our goddamned band.

Of course its your band, but these guys are in the business of taking a sound and adapting it for a larger audience. That’s what we all want, right? You want to eek out a living playing bars for the next 10 years?

I just want to make a record.

You’re in the big leagues now. You got to make compromises.

Screw compromises.

And you did sign a contract. They have final say on everything.

Come on man.

Look, you got to give the guy a chance.

We tried. You need to know that. We showed up and did what this guy wanted for 3 days, but we hated every minute of it. You also got to know this Diamond guy may have been a famous pop music producer but he was also a grade A asshole. It wasn’t just me and Staash, either. Maggie was pissed off. Ndidi and Boom-Boom were totally frustrated too because they were being pushed to the sidelines in favour of session players.

By the third day, Staash was beside himself. I’d known him most of his life and I never seen him angry like that. Diamond had him recording a concertina break over and over and over, and well, Staash was right, he had it nailed.

Alright Dudas, one more time. Let’s get it right this time please.

Diamond insisted on calling Staashu by his last name. I think he did it on purpose to rattle Staash’s chains.

Finally, Staashu took off his concertina and his headset and called together the band.

You know I love you guys, right?

No doubt Staash. Take a break, man. Have a beer.

Laze, look after my concertina, will you?

What are you going to do Staashu? Just don’t…

Hey Dudas, what are waiting for. Time is money, man.

Staash gave me a big hug and walked over to the door separating the booth from the players. He stepped into the room as Ricky Diamond was snorting back a long line of cocaine.

What are you doing Dudas? Get back out there.

Ricky Diamond didn’t see the haymaker until Staashu’s fist smashed into his nose. One was plenty enough, but Staash took two more shots, knocking Diamond into the mixing board.

Staashu stood over the producer, staring him down, blood in his eyes.

That’s Mister Dudas to you.

Staashu dusted himself off, saluted us through the glass, and left the building.

The rest of us quietly put away our instruments in silence. Diamond pulled himself up, stared at us for a minute, then stormed off. We never saw him again.

That, my friend, was the beginning and the end of our recording career.

 

 

 

True North

Gravenhurst. Huntsville. North Bay. Sudbury. Gogama. Chapleau. Wawa. White River. Marathon. Thunder Bay. Our crazy-assed manager Bananas Foster booked The New Polka Kings into joints across Northern Ontario. And it was a kick too, let me tell you. Those were some of the best days I had with the band.

We had this beat up old school bus, plenty big enough to hold the band and all our crap. It was a real old shitter if you know what I mean, with one of those engines that just ran forever. What it didn’t do was go fast, and it seemed like we spent a sonofabitchin lot of time rattling around in that thing.

In the city we had some good crowds, especially since the punkers kind of adopted us, but up in those northern mining towns and pulp and paper towns, it was always a fantastic party. I don’t know, Maybe The Kings just connected with northern audiences in some special way or maybe it’s like that for rock bands playing up there too. I just know I loved every minute of it.

One night we were playing in, oh Jesus I can’t remember which town now. It was at some joint with a name like the Empire Hotel, and if it wasn’t the only bar in town it was one of maybe two. The band was cooking, and the dance floor was crowded and everyone was just having a great time.

Between sets, we were standing around, chatting with the locals, and I see this big guy lumbering towards me. He’s got an armful of beers, Labatts 50s if it matters, and when I say an armful, I mean he’s got to have more than a dozen bottles and he’s locked his arms around them and he’s somehow holding them up by pressure or maybe divine intervention. I could see he was aiming for a table just past where we were standing. His buddies were over there, laughing and having a good time. I’m seeing all this while I’m talking to somebody about his Uncle Clem who used to play accordion. Anyway, this guy is just a couple feet in front of me and he stubs his toe on something and he’s lost his balance and I can see he’s going to go ass over tea kettle, beers akimbo.

I abandoned Clem’s nephew and pivoted around and grabbed this guy and his beers, but the beers were popping out and we were spinning around and and the both of us were grabbing bottles. Staashu saw what was going on and he joined our crazy little dance. The three of us somehow or another spun to a stop over at the guy’s table without spilling a drop.

I guess a bunch of people noticed what was going on because they started to cheer and once a few people started to cheer, everybody started to cheer. Beer guy, who was very drunk, held up a bottle and shouted at the top of his lungs “POLKA IS GOD” then drained his beer in one fabulous gulp. The crowd cheered so he did it again and at this point everybody is clapping together and I look at beer guy and I can see the glint in his eye and I know he’s not done yet.

Beer guy grabbed another bottle of 50 and danced his way onto the stage, with the crowd urging him on. He started into a drunken parody of a burlesque dancer, and began stripping off his clothes, first shoes, then socks, then shirt and  trousers. He was whirling the clothing around his head, hurling each item from the stage into the cheering crowd. Buddy was down to his jockeys by the time his friends led him down from the stage toward the front door of the bar.

I turned to Staash and said I think it’s time to play some music, and we headed for the stage. Ndidi, Boom-Boom and Maggie were right behind us. Well the crowd was amped right up and everyone was dancing and having a fantastic time. Man what a set.

At the end of the night, I was exhausted, dragging my ass down the three steps from the stage, when this woman approached me, and she’s got one of beer guy’s socks and one of those heavy duty black markers and she wants me to autograph the sock, which of course I did. In fact I got the whole band to sign it. Why the hell not.

Now I never thought another thing about that sock until one day a guy I know calls me up and says there’s a New Polka Kings bootleg out. I didn’t know anything about it and Staashu didn’t know nothing either, so I go down to where he tells me and it’s a head shop on Yonge Street. Seriously, a head shop, where they sell bongs and shit. I go in there and I say, um do u sell records? And the guy he looks at me like I’m from Mars and points to a corner at the back of the place.

There it was, right at the front of the rack. The back cover had a picture of our old bus, and on the front there were 3 letters across the top – NPK – and below that, a photo of the sock, with all our signatures on it.