Transcript

31:

When You Talk About Music
Transcript

Originally aired 08.09.1996

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Full audio: http://tal.fm/31

Act One. When You Talk Music.

Ira Glass

From WBEZ Chicago, it's This American Life. I'm Ira Glass. And each week on our show we choose a theme, invite writers and performers of all kinds to do stories on that theme. And, usually, somewhere near the top of the show, I tell you what the theme is and give you a little road map of what's coming up in the hour. But I think that today, it's going to be more interesting if we just start right in on the first act and let things unfold for a while before I give it a name, before I tell you what the theme is.

Act Two. My Brother, Tom Jones.

Ira Glass

So our first story is by Dael Orlandersmith. It's originally from her Obie-award winning show, Beauty's Daughters, and was recorded at a variety show here in Chicago, called Millie's Orchid Show.

Before we begin this story, two quick caveats. Number one, some of the language might not be suitable for younger listeners. Though, as you'll hear, we've beeped out the nastiest words. And, number two-- and usually I would never point something like this out-- you need to know that Dael is a woman, an African-American woman. And I point this out because, If I didn't, you wouldn't be able to enjoy what the audience in the theater with her gets to enjoy, which is the pleasure of watching her complete transformation into this loudmouthed, white guy. So here's Dael Orlandersmith.

Dael Orlandersmith

Hey! Ah! Jerry! How you doin', buddy? How you doin'? Lorraine, you lookin' good honey. You lookin' so fine. Lenny! How's it going? All right.

Johnny Black, nectar of the gods. Oh, man. I tell you, Len, today was [BLEEP]. Yeah, yeah. I know every day is [BLEEP]. But today was really [BLEEP], you know? So [BLEEP] busy.

See, everybody I know who works in the fish market-- because my clothes are gettin' [BLEEP] ruined here-- everybody I know who works in the fish market, their clothes are [BLEEP] up.

And I tell you, Len, I can't stand the thought of goin' home right now. I just can't. Theresa's gettin' fatter and fatter. It ain't 'cause she's pregnant because I don't touch this bitch.

[LAUGHTER]

Dael Orlandersmith

Well, what? What? I'm cold for saying that? Why am I cold? Lenny, let me explain something. No, please wait. No, please, please listen to me. Lenny, I'm 31 years old. I'm married 12 years. I got seven kids. I'm a young man. I'm [BLEEP] trapped. And TT's the laziest bitch in the world. No, no, hear me out. Here she is, 28 years old, looking 50. The problem is? The problem is I married too quick.

My cousin, Jimmy, says to me, he says, "Anthony, don't get married so quick. You's two are young. Go out and get laid. Have a pisser." But, of course, I don't listen, right? I don't listen. So this is what I am today.

Come here. I wanna tell you something. Come here. I wanna tell you something. Come here [BLEEP]. Don't [BLEEP] with me. Come over here. Come over here.

[LAUGHTER]

Dael Orlandersmith

I met this chick at my friend Manno's wedding. Yeah, it's a black chick. Yeah, right. Anthony Mancuso. Right. Same [BLEEP] guy from Red Hook. Right. Same guy. Right. He's been in here with me a few times. Right. He lives on 36th Avenue now, in Bensonhurst. Right. It's the same guy. Yeah. Yeah! It's the same [BLEEP] guy. Yeah, it's the same guy.

[LAUGHTER]

Dael Orlandersmith

So, anyway, you know, we're at the reception, right? And TT's talking to Manno's wife, Gail, with the rest of the Cusonettes, right? They're sitting there. They're talkin', "Nah, nah, nah, nah nah." And Manno's wife, Gail, is no prize either, [UNINTELLIGIBLE]. So anyway, this black chick-- Diane, her name is, right-- is sittin' over to the side, right?

So I look over at her, smile. She smiles back. Then I notice that she's big, not fat, big. In proportion, the way TT used to be, right? So I go over to her and I say, "You know, I really think you're good-lookin'. And they really need to get rid of words like Nigger and Guinea. Do you know why? Because I wanna put my tongue in your mouth." She gets mad.

[LAUGHTER]

Dael Orlandersmith

She says, "Let me tell you something. The only reason why you came over here is because I'm the only black person at this wedding. Well, guess what? I don't have a problem with that. You do. So do yourself a favor. Get out of my face before I hurt you."

Now I'm standing there [BLEEP] slammed, right? So I say, "Listen. Listen. Come here. Listen. I don't care how big you are. Woman or not, you hit me, you're dead," right? Then she says, "First of all, my being a woman is not the issue because I'm more man than you'll ever be and more woman than you'll ever know."

Audience

[WHOOPS]

Dael Orlandersmith

"Second of all, technically, I know I can't whip you because you're still a man. But, if you lay one finger on me, I'll give you such a fight you'll wish to God you stayed home today. In other words, my name is pain. I will inflict. Now, do you really wanna [BLEEP] with me?"

Audience

[WHOOPS]

[APPLAUSE]

Dael Orlandersmith

So now, you know, like, I'm quiet, right? And I'm also scared outta my mind. Now, part of me wants to give her a smack, and another part of me's in love, Lenny, she's so [BLEEP] tough, right? So I say, "Rocky! Hey! Hey! Hey! Hey, Rocky. I'm sorry, baby. I apologize. Come with me to the bar to get a drink," right?

So we go to the bar. We go to the bar, right? So I say, "Diane, let me order you a rum and Coke, because I know that blacks and Ricas like that, right?" She gets mad again, right? And she says, "Order me Stoli, rocks, lime garnish, and stop being an asshole." So now I know I'm in love, right? Right.

So we go to the bar. We're hangin' out. We're talkin', "Yadda, yadda yadda." And the DJ starts playing. I give you one [BLEEP] guess, man. One guess. There you go, baby, Sinatra, Jerry Vale. I swear on my mother, every Guinea wedding, Sinatra, Jerry Vale, right? So then, since all of us are in our '30s, the DJ started playing disco because that's what we danced to when we were kids, and [UNINTELLIGIBLE].

And I asked Diane would she like to dance. And she says, "No." She hates disco, likes rock, old R&B and jazz. I said, "Oh, my God." I said, "What? You like jazz?" So she said, "Yeah." Lenny, I swear on my [BLEEP] mother, for the next three hours we're talkin' jazz.

You see, I don't know whether you know this, but I was a major jazz fan, man. I used play. I used to play horn. I was playing both sax and trumpet. And my [BLEEP] record collection, man, I had Cannonball Adderley. I had Miles and Prez, you know? See, jazz, at that time, man, was like so a part of me, you know? But I can't touch it any more. You know what I'm saying?

So Diane is a poet, you know? And I never knew a poet before. And she was talkin' about, maybe, that I could pick up my horn again, and maybe she could write lyrics. And God, I swear to God, Lenny. This woman is so [BLEEP] beautiful to me now, right? And I'm thinking well, yeah. Maybe, yeah, you know? I could pick up the horn again. You know? And she's just talkin' and talkin'. And I swear she's the most beautiful thing I ever seen, right?

And she tells me, she says-- I'm gonna sound [BLEEP] queer saying this to you, all right-- but she says, "Anthony, when you talk about music, your face becomes beautiful." Yeah, she said that to me, Lenny. She also called me a pain in the ass. But she said, when I talk music, I become beautiful.

So, Lenny, all of a sudden-- wait a minute. Wait. I don't want nobody to hear this, right? All of a sudden, Lenny, sittin' there, talking about all these people that I liked in jazz, I felt like crying because I'm not going to be able to touch it again. And nobody ever saw that in me before, you know? Nobody.

So, anyway, we're talking. And she's really hot, you know? And I wanted to get outside because I was dying to ask for her phone number, right? Seconds later, TT walks out with the kids. "Anthony, me and the kids are ready to go home. Now!" Diane looks at me like I'm [BLEEP] crazy, right? TT's standin' there looking like a [BLEEP] whale. What the [BLEEP] can I do? Bada bing. Bada bang. I introduce them to each other. Diane says, "Pleased to meet you. I'm outta here. I'm doing the slide."

That night, I take TT home, right? And dig this. Dig this. I go down in my basement, right? And, for the first time in five years, I pick up my sax. And it feels so [BLEEP] good to hold it, you know? Then I put it to my mouth, and with every note I can taste, feel, Diane. See, she's all over this [BLEEP] horn.

Then I put the sax down, open my eyes, and it dawns on me I ain't going nowhere. I ain't going nowhere. But I could always do another shot of Johnny Black, right, babe? Well, wah, don't worry about me. I won't get junked. I can't. I gotta go to work tomorrow. But, you know, this is my time now, right? Just let me sit here for a few minutes, all right? I tell you what, my time. I'll go in a little while. I'll go in a little while.

[APPLAUSE]

[MUSIC PLAYING - ORIGINAL SAX SOLO BY KEN VANDERMARK]

Ira Glass

Ken Vandermark on the sax. This story was by Dael Orlandersmith. And this brings us to today's theme, which is people who come alive for music, people who live for music, even though, for most of them, they'll never get very far with music. All our stories today, on today's show, are people about whom you could say--

Dael Orlandersmith

When you talk about music, your face becomes beautiful.

Ira Glass

That's right. In our program today Act Two-- we just heard Act One-- Act Two will be a brother who struggles to be a star. Act Three, Choosing Fandom. Act Four, a life in music without fame or fortune.

Act Three. Choosing Fandom.

Ira Glass

So we are now at Act Two, for those of you who are keeping careful, careful score. I know there's so many of you who are. Act Two is a story about somebody who decided to follow his dream, about being a musician. And, you know, usually, when you hear stories about somebody chasing a dream like this, stories about rock stars or Olympic athletes, or writers, or painters, or basically anybody who had to get out there and follow that star, follow that dream, we don't hear how crushingly hard it is for the overwhelming majority of them. And in the middle of the story, usually, you don't wonder is this worth it?

Well, the story you're about to hear does not have that shortcoming. You definitely wonder. The story you're about to hear was produced by Jay Allison with Dan Gediman. Dan is the one who narrates the story.

[MUSIC PLAYING - "FALL IN LOVE" BY ALEX JONES SINGING TOM JONES]

Dan Gediman

That's not Tom Jones. It's my brother, Alex Jones. And that's not his real name. His real name is Mark Gediman.

Mark Gediman

You know, my real last name is Gediman, G- E- D, as in David, I- M- A- N. You know, I'm proud of the name. But, as far as show biz is concerned, it can't be spelled.

Dan Gediman

My brother's middle name is Alex. He bumped it up to the front.

Mark Gediman

But I like Alex. Alexes work. There aren't too many Alexes that are big these days, so I'm sticking with that name. It's very catchy because people always remember Alex.

Dan Gediman

For a while, when he was in this rock band in the late '70s, he called himself Alex Space. But that's another story. For the past five years it's been Jones, Alex Jones.

Mark Gediman

I had a jones for singing. I had an addiction.

Dan Gediman

That's pretty much the truth. My brother has had a jones for singing for just about as long as he's been alive. All he ever wanted to do is make music, to sing for people.

Mark Gediman

The Kiwanis group, the Knights of Columbus, the Lions Club, the Elks, the Sons of Italy, you name it, if there's one of those, I've been there.

Dan Gediman

My brother sang constantly in our house when we were growing up. He always wanted to be a rock star or the next great soul singer. Once he was out on his own, he sang everywhere he could. And he still does, anywhere he can find an audience to appreciate him.

Mark Gediman

--the Jerry Lewis Telethon. I've done schools. I've done colleges. I've done arts exhibition and whatever-- they also have cows and things like that, you know, one of those-- and, basically, anybody that'll have me, you know? Yeah, Tom gets around.

[LAUGHTER]

Dan Gediman

My brother's been in countless rock, blues, and R&B bands over the years. But, these days, he's mostly hired as a Tom Jones impersonator. He does that by night, though. During the day, he holds down a straight job.

Mark Gediman

You know, it's tough to tell people, your co-workers, I'm going to be Tom Jones, particularly when I've been trying for the last few years to develop an image of this-- I've been working as a computer analyst-- and developing this image as this kind of conservative nerd-type. And I've totally, totally blown it.

[SINGING - "FALL IN LOVE" AS TOM JONES]

Dan Gediman

My brother performs with a revue called The Hall of Fame Superstars. There's a Patsy Cline, an Elton John, Buddy Holly, Roy Orbison. And then my brother closes the show as Tom Jones.

Mark Gediman

Singing as Tom Jones is very similar to the way that I naturally sing. We have a lot in common. But I've gotten to the point where I'm hitting notes and doing things that are beyond the scope of what he did.

Dan Gediman

My brother is nothing, if not confident, at least on the surface. He thinks positive and has an uncanny, almost, overconfidence. It's an amazing quality, really, even unsettling.

My brother's 43, not married, doesn't have kids. He's had a lot of girlfriends, but he doesn't have a steady one now. These days, he's living at home with my parents in Massachusetts.

Dan Gediman

Why don't we go to the music room?

Mark Gediman

All right.

Dan Gediman

--for a little bit to get out of the way.

Growing up, we had a room in the house we called the music room.

Dan Gediman

Now it looks a whole lot different.

That's where my brother and I talked the last time I was home visiting.

Mark Gediman

There was a Scott amplifier.

Dan Gediman

Right. Right in the corner here.

Mark Gediman

Yeah, and in the corner here was a very large, professional turntable, which had come right from a radio station. And I forget what the brand of that one was.

Dan Gediman

Rek-O-Kut.

Mark Gediman

Rek-O-Kut, yeah. But it was a top-of-the-line.

But, yeah, this was a great room, great atmosphere. And you walked in this room and there were little musical notes bouncing all around it. And it was a place where we could just go in and play around and make believe you're the star.

[SINGING] Come on, baby. Oh, let's loop-a-loo. She's a ha-hum, baby. Nothin' she can do. She's my little baby. Little Latin Lupe Loo.

Dan Gediman

This is a tape of my brother pretending to be a star, recorded on my family's old Grundig tape recorder back around 1966. My parents put a lot of insulation in the walls of the music room, so my brother could really scream.

Mark Gediman

The entertainers who really are memorable and who've stand the test of time, a great deal of them have tremendous screams. So I've always thought that screaming was essential to someone who-- not necessarily in the popular music idiom. But, in anything that had any kind of edge or soul to it, there's got to be a scream there, somewhere. And the whole reason is the same reason. It's a expression of the most inner, primal feelings.

Wow! Hey! Oh!

Dan Gediman

This is the room where my brother began studying the great rhythm and blues singers, people like Al Green, Little Richard, Otis Redding, James Brown, and Tom Jones, who my brother thinks brings them all together.

Mark Gediman

Just at the beginning of What's New Pussycat, he goes, "What's!"

Dan Gediman

Right.

Mark Gediman

See? Now, you're getting, now, right there with the what;s, you've got James Brown, "Wow!" You know?

Dan Gediman

Right.

Mark Gediman

And then you got Wilson Pickett, "Ah-Ow!" And then you got Ray Charles, "Mm, Oh!" You know? And then you've got like, "Yeah!" Then you get, "Uh!" and, "Ah!" and, "Hey! Hoy! Ah! Ah-oh! Ew-oh! Oh! Mm! Mm! What's!" See? So that's there, you know?

Dan Gediman

I remember the first time I ever saw my brother perform. My parents took me to see him at a high school variety show when I was still in elementary school.

Mark Gediman

Now, nobody knew that I could sing. But there was a band, the Blood, Sweat & Tears, and the first version of them with Al Cooper. And there was a song on there called, "I Love You More Than You'll Ever Know", which is a real bluesy ballad. And I used to sing that over, and over, and over again in this music room. And so I ended up singing it.

It was my first real performance, as me, in front of a stage, being the performer, like the Elvis or something. And I can remember having this silky shirt on. And I probably had my ID bracelet hanging. And I opened up my collar a little. And it was quite an experience, as I recall. And I think I did fairly well. I still do. I really sold it out, you know? I really started screaming there at the end.

Dan Gediman

I remember, by the end of the number, your shirt was virtually half off or something. That was my recollection. I was very impressed. I'm sure it was the first time I ever saw you perform.

Mark Gediman

I don't even remember that you were there.

Dan Gediman

Oh, I was absolutely there.

Mark Gediman

Yeah?

Dan Gediman

Yeah, absolutely there. And I remember that very well. And mostly, of course, I remember you.

I have a vivid memory of being on the playground behind my elementary school, trying to explain to the other kids that, the night before, my brother was this big star. And I imitated you, singing the same song, which, of course, I had heard endlessly with you rehearsing it.

And I still know the song. And I went out and bought the record, by the way, about five years ago. And I have it. And the only reason I know that album is because of you.

But, I remember, I was imitating you complete with undoing my shirt. I felt like a celebrity, even though the other kids didn't know it, because, god, my brother, he just did this thing. And so I was pretty impressed.

If it's not clear by now, I idolized my brother. I used to sneak into his room when he wasn't home and look through his things, put on his clothes, smell his cologne. As a matter of fact, I still have a YMCA T-shirt that he used to wear when he was a counselor at Camp Beaver. It's full of holes, almost a rag, but I'd never let it go.

And I've always followed his career in music because I was sure, especially after high school, that he was going to make the big-time. And he almost did. His close calls with fame were many.

Mark Gediman

They proceeded to tell us that they were going to put something like a half a million dollars behind The Super Group. And we were going to be the next Beatles or Monkeys. And I think, at the time, I was 21, I believe. And I'm just sitting there going, "Wow. I made the big-time."

And he actually said to me that, "I think you're the next Bruce Springsteen." He, at the time, was an A&R representative for Atlantic Records.

Joining this band called, Easy Action.

They said, "Listen, we want 50% of you." And I said, "Forget it." I started a band right after that called Alex Space and the Orbits.

"We're going to take you to the top."

I moved to another band now, called Flyer.

And we had a band called Future City.

That band was called Zippers Polite and the Ambassadors of Love.

It came to the point where every record company thought that the other record company was going to sign me. And, in effect, that I was going to be the next big thing. There were articles written saying that I was going to be the next Kiss, and this, and that. And Warner Brothers, they were going to have cartoons. And even where they were talking about designing some sort of video pinball game, a real total marketing thing.

And I was so excited. And we were a couple of weeks away from signing the contract when OPEC had a oil embargo in 1979. The price of plastic went up 400%. And that was the end of my shot right there. It just vanished before my eyes.

We ended up getting them to sign us up for a booking contract. And then, one night, they came up to us. And neither of these guys drank. They had ulcers. And they both walked around drinking a glass of milk. I remember, one day, they both walked up to me with a glass of milk, and they said, "Would you mind wearing an Elvis mask?"

To make a long story short, the thing really kind of fell apart. And, at this point, I really got just totally discouraged with the whole scene. And, in fact, I remember just feeling like that what I really had inside me wasn't coming out. And I took this microphone-- I still have it to this day-- and I threw it up against the wall. I don't know. It's all smashed in. I just left and never went back. I left everything I had that was related to music in that room, and just, basically, quit.

Dan Gediman

My brother left music completely for many years after this time, around 1984. For a while he dabbled with a little home recording setup trying to write some songs, but his heart wasn't in it. He stopped going out to clubs, lost touch with most of his musician friends, didn't play, didn't perform, just left. Then, in 1991, seven years later, he discovered karaoke.

Mark Gediman

I was sitting having dinner. And I heard this music in the lounge. And this chorus of women singing was beautiful. I said, "I have to go in and hear this group." And I went in there, and there's no group. There's a guy who looks like he's sitting behind a keyboard. And he's got this big thing saying, "You are the star. "Sing the hits", or something like that.

And I'm looking up. And there's a video playing of follow the bouncing ball. I didn't know anything about karaoke. And it just sounds fantastic. And I'm saying, "Jeez, all these years I've been sitting around trying to wait for the drummer to show up, or the bass player's having a nervous breakdown. And here there's no band, they just have these laser disks. They play the music and you just go up and sing. Not only that, you don't even have to remember the words because they're showing you the words. They had a little monitor that faces up to you. I mean, this was a singer's delight. It was heaven.

Dan Gediman

After that, he was hooked.

Mark Gediman

At the height of my interest in karaoke, easily, I was going out all seven nights.

Dan Gediman

People loved him. He'd steal the show, knocking out the audience at bars all over the Boston area. And he began winning contests.

[APPLAUSE]

Announcer

All right, just take it. All right, just leave it right there. We have our five finalists standing over by the video monitor. And, Billy Costa, all four judges have assembled and decided who the winner is going to be. Why don't you tell us who that is.

Billy Costa

Wait a minute. OK, I'll just do it through this. I think it was unanimous. The guy was spectacular, Alex Jones.

Announcer

Alex Jones!

[APPLAUSE]

[MUSIC PLAYING - "FALL IN LOVE" BY TOM JONES]

Announcer

How about a hand for our talented and fabulous Alex Jones, folks!

Dan Gediman

My brother had found his way back to music. But, this time, he was Tom Jones.

Mark Gediman

I feel authentic. I feel real. This is real.

Dan Gediman

So where are you at in your process here?

Mark Gediman

I like to put the leather pants on because it just feels good. But I forgot one thing. I've got to put something in my pouch. The ladies love this. You've got to roll it up so it's just about that thick, and then you fold it over, OK?

Dan Gediman

Uh-huh.

Mark Gediman

And what you got there is a real peach.

Dan Gediman

So now you're going to stuff this down the front of your leather pants?

Mark Gediman

Absolutely.

Dan Gediman

And this is for the?

Mark Gediman

Authenticity's sake. The next thing I do is I put a couple of belts with lots of metal on them because it just feels good. [LAUGHS] It also keeps my pants up. OK, now I have to get the makeup on.

Dan Gediman

OK. Can I follow you?

Mark Gediman

Oh, absolutely.

Dan Gediman

OK.

Mark Gediman

Absolutely. I don't have the ruffled shirts. They're all at the cleaners. Yeah, I don't have time to pick up another, so that's the best I can do. It's kind of got that look a bit. See? That's what I have under. But over, as I'll show you later, I have a nice sequined tux that I put over all of this. And I kind of take a couple of things off.

Dan Gediman

I see, OK.

Mark Gediman

Because I get real hot, you know what I mean? OK, got to have rings and bangles and bongles. I got the big cross because he always had the big cross. So now what I have to do first is tie up me own hair. Oh, I forgot. Also got to put the mascara on the chest hair.

Dan Gediman

When he was done, my brother was transformed. Not exactly Tom Jones, but close enough and ready to go.

Mark Gediman

Five minutes late ain't no problem when Tom Jones is in the house.

[APPLAUSE] Yeah! [WHOOPS]

Mark Gediman

Thank you.

Dan Gediman

My brother and I go to a gig outside Boston where some company's holding its employee appreciation party.

Mark Gediman

Any pussycats out there? Do I hear any meows?

Dan Gediman

It's in a function room next to a hotel restaurant, Bumbershoot's, Rockingham's, or something like that.

Mark Gediman

Oh, yeah. Meow. Yes.

[SINGING - "WHAT'S NEW PUSSYCAT?" AS TOM JONES]

Dan Gediman

The night before this, my brother told me, he'd performed at a Chinese restaurant. And after his finale, the whole place, all the guests and the waiters, even the stagehands, they all stood up and gave him a standing ovation. He said it was like being in a movie.

Mark Gediman

[SINGING- "WITHOUT LOVE" AS TOM JONES]

Dan Gediman

A few months after I interviewed him, my brother got laid off from his computer job. My parents told me they were pretty worried about him. Now he's playing the stock market, trying to parlay his retirement money into a nest egg that will carry him for a while until he makes it big with his Tom Jones act.

While my brother performed, I circulated through the room talking to people.

Woman

Yeah, this guy is just very good. He's very good.

Dan Gediman

He's pretty close?

Woman

I thought he was very close. If I didn't meet him in the hallway and know otherwise, I would have questioned was this really the Tom Jones?

Dan Gediman

I didn't tell anyone that Alex Jones was my brother. I just asked them what they thought of him.

Woman

He's got a great voice, a really great voice. He does. He's good.

Woman

So how do you get him, anyway?

Woman

I can make sure that he gives you his card.

Woman

Yeah, I would. I'd like to have his card.

Dan Gediman

I wanted to hear that he was making them happy. I wanted him to succeed. I wanted to help him get more work. I wanted to hear that they loved him.

[MUSIC PLAYING - "FALL IN LOVE" ALEX JONES SINGING TOM JONES]

Ira Glass

Dan Gediman's story about his brother was produced by Jay Allison with consulting producer Christina Eckhoff. And it comes from Jay's series, Life Stories, which was produced with funds from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the National Endowment for the Arts.

Dan and Jay are currently working on an upcoming series for NPR called, This I Believe. Their website for that, thisibelieve.org. Alex Jones can be hired to work as Tom Jones at private parties and corporate events, but he's working on a CD of his own music under the name Alex Space Jones.

Coming up, other strategies to keep music in your life, if traditional music careers don't fly, from Chicago Public Radio and Public Radio International when our program continues.

It's This American Life, I'm Ira Glass. Each week on our program we choose a theme and bring you a wide variety of stories, documentaries, radio monologues, reportage, found tapes and found documents, which is what I have right here in front of me. Our theme today, stories about people who you could say this about.

Dael Orlandersmith

When you talk about music, your face becomes beautiful.

Ira Glass

Aha. And, of course, not everybody agrees about this beauty. Some people do not find it touching or inspiring to see people who love music. In fact, there are people who believe that loving music is a crisis of global proportions.

And the document I hold in my hands is an advertisement, a call to arms really, from Motorbooty, a zine, a pretty great zine. And it's an advertisement for the First Annual Conference on World Band Population, on stopping the crisis of world band overpopulation, specifically.

Says this ad, "According to recent studies, by the year 2001 there will be more people in bands than the global economy can ever hope to support. The US Census Bureau puts the current number of audience members to band members at a ratio of 2:1. The present trends threatened to reverse this relationship, disrupting the delicate balance between performers and normal people. Soon, not only will virtually everyone be in a band, but everyone in a band will be involved in several side projects, creating a glut of virtually indistinguishable groups of guitar-wielding miscreants who, when not performing their so-called music, will be endlessly talking about it to anyone unable to flee."

And then the ad explains what's going to happen at the conference. The seminars dealing with the imminent dangers of band overpopulation, Legal Strategies for Achieving Zero Band Population Growth, Private Sector Initiatives for Ending Band Growth, Strategies for Ending Multiple Band Membership.

Here's some of the things that they suggest can be done to combat this global crisis, let's see, three-strikes-and-you're-out rules; creating stiff criminal penalties for artists who release more than three full-length albums per career; waiting periods for instrument purchasers to allow for mandatory background checks for prior infractions, and a cooling-off period to discourage thoughtless and impulsive band formation; stiff fines for bands that imitate other bands; civil infractions for air bands, and an all-out ban on cover bands.

They also suggest-- let's see-- boycotting labels that refuse to stop signing additional bands as well as cracking down on pointless, local, so-called, indie labels; finally, supporting random band testing by employers, especially in high-risk businesses like coffee shops, copy shops, cafes, bars, and record stores.

Well, given the crisis of global band population explosion, perhaps the only honorable course for all of us is to forget about performing and just put that energy into being members of the audience. And what we present next on our program, as Act Three, is a case example of how to do exactly that.

Act Four. No Fame, No Fortune, Just Music.

Ira Glass

This is the Fastbacks, a pop, punk band from Seattle that's been around for years, actually. And the story you're about to hear is not about being in a semi-obscure but well-respected band, it's about being a fan of a semi-obscure but well-respected band. Sarah Vowell is a writer and a music columnist for the San Francisco Weekly, and she tells the story.

Sarah Vowell

Sometimes, opening your mail can be a little like listening to the radio. You're not paying attention, just absent-mindedly flipping through the letters and bills, and then, wham, some little surprise comes out of nowhere and changes your day.

I got this package. Inside was a letter, thanking me for mentioning the Fastbacks in a book review I had written, not from one of the Fastbacks themselves, mind you, just some guy in Chicago. His name was Scott Lee, and he'd enclosed this xerox booklet about the band.

Flipping through it, I stopped cold at something called, "The Fastback's Drummers Pie Chart". Since they formed in 1979, the Fastbacks have gone through about a dozen drummers. And this pie chart identifies the drummers by name, listing the percentage of songs which each one has contributed to. But, at the bottom of the page, small print warns, "Note, Rusty and Nate's shares may not be totally accurate. Their percentages may be approximately 0.68% off." And I don't think a decimal point had ever struck me as endearing before. The drastic exactitude of 0.68% sort of captured my heart, and I had to meet this person.

Scott Lee

Basically, it has your standard discography. And then there's just some facts here that I dug out, 139 total songs, eight hours, 25 minutes, 43 seconds worth of songs.

Sarah Vowell

So he showed me other stats, like total recorded versions of songs, total number of seconds of songs, which is 30,343, in case you were wondering.

Scott Lee

--shortest song, shortest instrumental song, shortest song with vocals, the longest song, and the longest song without a drum solo. That's only because--

Sarah Vowell

I was stunned. I mean, I thought I liked the band. And, normally, as a music lover and as a woman, I rail against the mostly-male, record-collector geek habit of reducing rock and roll to baseball card collecting. They flatten out this complex, thrilling thing down to manageable lists of names and titles and dates.

But Scott Lee's Fastbacks tribute has the devotional fervour of a medieval illuminated manuscript. The list of facts and figures is so relentless and exact and painstaking that it takes on this liturgical glow, as if the Fastbacks were a religion and Scott Lee its prophet.

Scott Lee

But some of the new additions to this-- as I ramble here-- listed out the songs A through Z and did the percentages of songs starting with each letter. And the letter that won was I. There were 19 Fastback songs that started with I, representing about 14% of the songs. With every album, they seem to have a song that starts with, "In", like, "In America", "In The Summer", "In The Winter", "In The Observatory".

Sarah Vowell

I soon found out that the band has befriended Scott Lee and that they've sort of informally appointed him their de-facto archivist. Singer Kim Warnick corresponds with Scott via email, sometimes, like four times a day. Guitarist and songwriter, Kurt Bloch, graciously calls him "A good person to have on our team." Though, when he first saw Scott Lee's packet, he had some understandable worries.

Kurt Bloch

Ah! I mean, it was like, boy. The first thing that would come to my mind is, is this guy really scary? Is he the kind of person I would run away from, if he was ever in the same room? Is this the kind of person that I would stop answering my telephone if he called? And, no, it's not. Not to make you think that we don't think Scott Lee is actually fairly crazy of a person, but he's not the annoying kind of crazy person that you read about. And I think he appreciates his own over-the-top-ness.

Sarah Vowell

If anything, the Fastbacks are a little protective of Scott Lee. When I was talking to Kurt, I jokingly called Scott his stalker. But he set me straight.

Kurt Bloch

No, he's not a stalker. He's a super-fan.

Sarah Vowell

Oh, a super-fan?

Kurt Bloch

Yeah. Stalker, that has negative connotations. Yeah, that's something we don't need. Super-fan is fine.

Sarah Vowell

Like the super-fan, the members of the Fastbacks all have day jobs. So, on any given day, it's possible that Scott is devoting more energy to being a fan than the Fastbacks devote to being in the band. When I interviewed Kim, the gaping differences between being a band member and being a super-fan were never clearer.

Sarah Vowell

OK, so I have a pop-quiz for you.

Kim Warnick

OK.

Sarah Vowell

How many total songs, before the new album, New Mansions in Sound, have the Fastbacks recorded?

Kim Warnick

What is it, now?

Sarah Vowell

How many total songs have the Fastbacks recorded?

Kim Warnick

Well, you know, unfortunately, I don't have something in front of me that could answer that question.

Sarah Vowell

Really? OK. I have to say it is 127. And I was wondering also if you knew the median song length?

Kim Warnick

The what?

Sarah Vowell

Well, let's start with an easier one. What do you think is the average length of a Fastbacks song?

She doesn't know. But, according to Scott, it's two minutes, 51 seconds.

When I visit Scott Lee's house on Chicago's north side, his roommate lets me in. Scott's playing his guitar along with the new Fastbacks album. His room is decorated with Fastbacks posters. And Scott himself wears a Fastbacks T-shirt. He shows me this incredibly complex chart he's working on, a sort of family tree to the Seattle music scene, a town, by the way, which he has only visited once.

The producers of This American Life would like me to say here that, when Scott talks about the Fastbacks, he becomes beautiful because that would go along with the first piece in the show today. But I would never say something so corny.

Sarah Vowell

When do you think you made the switch between just being a listener and being, as Kurt Bloch called you today, a super-fan?

Scott Lee

I think the transition really happened when I was in law school, and I had made this tape of my favorite Fastbacks songs. And I was walking across a very icy, cold midway in Buffalo. And, despite how cold it was, when I listened to this music, it really just pumped all this life into me. It was really a life-affirming experience, as corny as that might sound. But, I don't know, I was just really happy at that point. And it was just a light on me that shown. And I hadn't seen it before. And now everything seemed better.

Sarah Vowell

When you show this info packet to people, what is usually their reaction?

Scott Lee

I think the first question I always hear is, "Do you have a lot of spare time?"

Sarah Vowell

In fact, Scott's spare time is limited. He holds down a full-time job at a Chicago advertising agency, and he writes his own songs. And, truthfully, he flirts with the idea of not staying a fan. He's moving to Seattle, partly to be closer to the Fastbacks. He's actually in their circle of friends now. And he's tried a couple of times to start his own band.

Once, he was invited on-stage with Kurt to play along with the song. It was exciting. But he's left-handed. And they didn't have a left-handed guitar for him. So it was sort of a disaster, not the moment a super-fan dreams of.

Sarah Vowell

So, in this show, what happens is someone tells their little story and then we play a song. So you get to pick which Fastbacks song gets to play at the end of your story.

Scott Lee

At the end of my story? Whew. [LAUGHS] I'd probably say, "Save Room For Me", then. Because I've definitely saved room for the Fastbacks, so, "Save Room For Me".

[MUSIC PLAYING - "SAVE ROOM FOR ME" BY FASTBACKS]

Ira Glass

Sarah Vowell, our contributing editor and the voice of teenage superhero, Violet Parr, in Pixar's new movie, The Incredibles.

Act 4.

Ira Glass

Act Four, A Life in Music. Sam Franco's 72 and has spent his life playing and teaching the accordion. And the thing to know about him is he hates accordion music, most of it, anyway.

Sam Franco

The sound of the accordion, we don't associate ourselves with too much, is like this.

[ACCORDIAN PLAYING]

Sam Franco

See? I haven't done that for years. It's hard for me to even play a regular style.

Ira Glass

I see why you like it the other way.

Sam Franco

Well, the other way it swings. [LAUGHS] It swings with the one finger. And I get a jazz sound, like this. Watch.

[ACCORDIAN PLAYING]

Ira Glass

Sam Franco hates that accordion oom-pah beat. He doesn't like the normal Lawrence Welk chord progressions. In his music, he changes them into jazz chord progressions. And, where normal accordion players use lots of chords all over the place, he prefers to play single notes. In his head, when he plays, Sam hears Coleman Hawkins and other jazz greats. He invented this style. And, if you check the Chicago Yellow Pages for jazz accordion, Sam is the only listing.

[ACCORDIAN PLAYING]

All this hour we've heard from people who want to make their living, full-time, from their music. They dream and strive for that. Sam's done it all his life, playing gigs, working, never getting famous, though.

Sam Franco

You know what saved me? That I had the knack for teaching. You understand? That was my ace-in-the-hole, would be the teaching part. If I didn't have that, I would be out of the music business completely.

Ira Glass

He's watched players who weren't any better than him get a lot of attention, get notoriety, get more gigs. And, in the end, he decided he doesn't care. That life doesn't suit him.

Sam Franco

You couldn't pay mortgages, buy a house, on playing because you played one night. That's it. How would you like to go look for a job every week? And that's what it amounted to. I never did have that kind of energy.

[ACCORDIAN PLAYING]

Ira Glass

Most of the people who Sam started playing with back when he was a kid did not stay with music. Back when Sam began, accordion was huge, huge. Every band in Chicago had an accordionist doing their keyboards because pianos, in those days, were so impractical, you know? You can't carry them around. The one that you find at the hall is always out of tune.

But that era did not last. When Elvis hit in the late '50s and rock and roll followed, accordion business died. Nobody hired them. Nobody wanted to take lessons. And lots of guys who Sam played and taught with quit the music business.

Sam had always played guitar too. And he was actually one of the few people in his crowd who made the jump from the swing era to the rock era. These days, he jokes that every brick of his house was paid for by rock and roll. A big poster of electric guitarist, Randy Rhoads, is the biggest thing in his music room. He taught lessons for years on the guitar. But Sam still views the guitar as an inferior instrument. He can lecture you for a long time on how it's not in the symphony orchestra. Basically, in his view, America's 40-year love affair with the guitar is a concerted effort to slap back at the accordion.

Sam Franco

Because everybody's mother and father played the accordion. And they said, we're not going to play it, you know? We're going to play something different. And there it was. It just came out as a rebel cause, I think. It only has five notes, a set of six strings. Two are the same, so it brings it down to five notes, you know? You have to hit it with a pick. You've got to use two hands to make one note. Does that make sense? Why would you want to do that? Why would you want to use two hands to make one note?

[ACCORDIAN PLAYING]

Ira Glass

I met Sam through one of his students, Catherine Boyd, who totally adores Sam, has known him for years and says that, whatever goes on in Sam's life, he's always happy when he's talking about music.

And the most surprising thing Sam told me when we talked is that it took him a long time before he was completely at peace with the way he plays. He started playing accordion when he was 10. He's 72 now. He played accordions back in the old neighborhood on Taylor Street as a kid. He found his way to the jazz sound that he loves by high school.

He played in USO shows during World War II. He taught and gigged for the next half century. But he says he never felt good about his playing until he was in his '50s. Up until that point, the sound that he heard in his head wasn't what was coming out of the instrument. In his '50s, he said, he just stopped worrying about what people would say about his playing. He just played.

Sam Franco

I'd like to say this, is that I never enjoyed playing as much as I do today. In all my days, I never enjoyed playing as much as I do now. So, why is that? Ask me why.

Ira Glass

Why is that?

Sam Franco

Yeah, why is that? Because, today, I know what I can do. I know my limitations, and I know my abilities. Like, if I can't do it, I say who cares, you know? I can do something else. But, when I was younger, I knew my limitations. Of course, we all know our limitations, and that bothers you. But, today, it doesn't bother me.

[ACCORDIAN PLAYING]

Ira Glass

Today, in his music room, surrounded by his instruments, with one of his favorite students, Catherine, egging him on during our interview, Sam couldn't seem happier, really.

[ACCORDIAN PLAYING]

Credits.

Ira Glass

Well, our program was produced today by Nancy Updike and myself with Peter Clowney and Alix Spiegel.

[ACKNOWLEDGEMENTS]

Our website, www.thisamericanlife.org, where you can listen to our programs for absolutely free or buy CDs of them. Or you can download audio of our program at audible.com/thisamericanlife, where they have public radio programs, bestselling books, even The New York Times all at audible.com

This American Life is distributed by Public Radio International.

[FUNDING CREDITS]

WBEZ management oversight by Mr. Torey Malatia, who is staring in your eyes right this second when he says--

Dael Orlandersmith

When you talk about music, your face becomes beautiful.

Ira Glass

Yes, it does. And we'll be back in your face next week with more stories of This American Life.

Announcer

PRI. Public Radio International.