Accordion Story

Let me tell you about my brief career as an accordion player.

In 1995, I was in the band Martin's Folly, and we were making our first album with producer Eric "Roscoe" Ambel. Singer Chris Gray and I had written some tunes that were "rootsy" or that harkened back to old-time styles. In fact, one or two tunes sounded like sea chanties. "Accordion!" That's what I yelped. "We need an accordion!"

So I went in search of an accordion. At that time, hard to believe, there were two full-time accordion shops in Manhattan: Accordion-o-Rama in Midtown and Main Squeeze on Essex Street in the Lower East Side. I went to Accordion-o-Rama, where the proprietor had rows and rows of accordions on shelves. I tried a few of them and walked out with a full-size, Italian-made accordion, a red one that had the brand name Ferrari. I think I paid $300 for it. Yes, I bought a used red Ferrari for $300.

So I set about teaching myself the accordion. Playing the keys on the right hand was not much of a problem - just like a piano, except that it's vertical. But the left hand, oh, the left hand, those 120 chord buttons arranged in ways that I could not understand. Major, minor, seventh chords, diminished chords. And you could depress more than one button at a time to create some real dissonance. And of course the pulling and squeezing and wheezing action, in and out. And that reedy, wheezy sound, at least when I played it.

One thing I learned from those weeks of mauling the accordion is that music "breathes." An accordion can sound for only as long as you can pull or push that squeezebox. In a similar way, a singer can hold a note for only so long, and you need to leave space to "inhale." Months or years later, when I played organ parts, I kept this in mind. And maybe it has helped me to this day to realize that even instrumental music, even without an accordion, needs to "inhale." 

Martin's Folly got to the recording session, and when I pulled the accordion out of its case, a shadow crossed Roscoe's face. He could see the future, and he knew he did not want to spend hours with an amateur accordionist doing take after take on that reedy, wheezy instrument. Diplomatically, he said that the better thing is for us to use our usual instruments and to merely suggest the presence of an accordion. At any rate, we finished the album, and it sounded just fine without a single note of accordion.

For some reason, other people gigging in town were showing an interest in the accordion, maybe because it was so uncool, it was almost cool. Roscoe's wife, the singer Mary Lee Kortes, had been appearing with an accordionist, and she herself took an interest in that strange instrument, which changes shape as you play it. Roscoe bought an accordion for Mary Lee. Accordion fever!

But my interest in the accordion began to wane. For a while, I thought, "Hey, it's a portable, acoustic keyboard." But an accordion is not a keyboard. An accordion is an accordion. The accordion sat in its case unplayed for weeks, and then months. 

Fast forward a few years, and Martin's Folly is sharing a rehearsal space with Roscoe, who is using the space as a recording studio. He is recording a folky psychedelic band. He phones me from the studio and says, "Do you still have that accordion?" I say yes, it's in the back room of the studio. A few minutes later he phones again and says he can't find the accordion. I say, "What about Mary Lee's accordion?" He said they sold it because she wasn't playing it. I hunted around my apartment but could not find the accordion.

A month or two later, I'm walking down Avenue B, and out of the Lakeside Lounge comes Roscoe. He says, "Jimbo, I need to talk to you." He said that he and Mary Lee were renting storage space, and he went to retrieve something from their storage unit, and there he found Mary Lee's accordion. I said, "But I thought you sold that accordion." He said, "That's what I'm trying to tell you. I accidentally sold your accordion."

If I were a smarter person, I would have pretended to take offense and said. "What? You sold my fucking accordion?? What the fuck?? You sold my fucking accordion??!!"

But as it was, all I could do was laugh. What made it funnier is that Roscoe was apologetic and saying he was really sorry he sold my accordion, and I was just laughing.

We quickly resolved the issue. I said, "How much did you get for it?" He said, "$300." I said, "So how about you give me one free day in the studio, and we'll call it even?" He went for that, and that was fine, because seriously, a day in the studio was much more valuable to me than an accordion that I never played. The accordion was off my hands. And I have decided to leave accordion playing to the dedicated professionals.