The weirdest album I ever worked on, by far, was Tubby’s Revenge by The New York Tuba Quartet. It was also the first album I recorded as an engineer.
You’ve got to feel sorry for the beleaguered tuba virtuoso. This poor cat is often relegated to playing oom-pah-pah in the circus. That is, he plays two notes over and over again. He is always ignored, never the soloist, never the star, never in the spotlight, never to bathe in the accolades of the adoring crowd.
For the little amount of glory that being a tuba player gets you, the instrument is also a big, heavy sucker to carry around. The corny joke was always about how it would be better to be a harmonica player.
But on Tubby’s Revenge, the beleaguered tuba player finally got to get a little, well, revenge.
Back in 1976, when I was on the verge of becoming a senior recording engineer at A & R Studios in New York, Tony Price, the top studio tuba cat, approached one of my teachers, Elliot Scheiner, to see if he could cadge a few studio hours to record his quartet of the big brass babies. Knowing my personality, and my position in the hierarchy, Elliot passed the gig on to me.
The idea of recording a tuba quartet sounded totally freaky to me. I was down with it. Their total budget was zero dollars, so we snuck into the studio over several weekends. We recorded eight-track, and I stole several rolls of one-inch tape to get the thing done.
I was a wee-bit intimidated, anticipating working with classical dudes. I had no experience recording that kind of shit, and I imagined the players to be a stuffy lot. Boy, was I wrong. They were funny geeks, and there was a fair amount of smoke floating through the air of the control room during those fun Sunday afternoons.
The quartet was made up of four of the best tuba players in the world: there was Tony, Toby Hanks, Steve Johns, and Sam Pilafian.
The music they chose for the album was pretty damn strange. One piece won the award for the most bizarre musical notation of the year. The record was tres avant garde. The final piece, however, was a delightful departure. The producer, a sweet trombonist named Early Anderson, did a tuba arrangement of a Charlie Parker work called “Au Privave”. I was not familiar with this tune at that time, but I learned it fast. I can sing the complex thing note for note to this day, four decades after we recorded it.
One day, in the middle of recording the album, Sam Pilafian said we’d have to take a short break because he had a gig to do. He said it would take no time at all. He was playing a bit part in PDQ Bach. PDQ Bach was the brainchild of Peter Schickele. It was a thoroughly entertaining, very smart, parody send up of classical music. They were doing their annual Christmas concert at Carnegie Hall, and Sam was in the show.
He asked me if I wanted to come along. Most definitely! We scooted over to 57th Street and 7th Avenue to the location of one of the world’s greatest concert halls. Sam carried his tuba, and I helped out by carrying a – motorcycle helmet?
We dashed though the backstage door, and I found myself in a magical land that was like the inside of a living toy box. As we rushed our way through the labryinthian passageways of the backstage area of the venerable old hall, in the periphery of my vision I thought I saw ladies in tutus practicing their tromboons, fat guys in make-up singing like sopranos, midgets running through their ballet steps in tandem, and anxious performers warming up their nose flutes and kazoos, as they prepared for such pieces as Missa Hilarious and the Howdy Symphony. Maybe I didn’t see all of that – but if not, it was pretty damn close.
Finally, we arrived at stage right. I peered out onto the brightly lit stage and out into the beautiful hall filled with glitterati. Sam ripped off his coat to reveal a tuxedo. He put the motorcycle helmet on his head, pulled his tuba out of its protective carrying bag, and held it in his arms.
He’d made it just in time for Maestro Schickele to announce his act. Sam walked out on stage to great applause. He stood on his head, and played his ax, that now favorite instrument of mine, the tuba.
Upon completing his two-minute sonata, he flipped back straight up, to another round of thunderous approbation. This would be, most probably, the most attention this lonely brass player would ever get.
He ran back to where I stood. He put the tuba back in his bag. He handed the helmet to me. He put his winter coat back on. We zipped through the backstage hallways past the loony performers, and in a minute found ourselves out on the cold holiday streets of the city.
Well, it was a spectacular few minutes. But since I’m writing this for my psychotherapy blog, I’ve got to add some prescriptive wisdom, don’t I? What was the lesson? I hear all too many young folks feeling a tremendous amount of pressure to figure out how to make lots of money as soon as possible after coming out of college. They anxiously tell themselves that if they don’t start saving for retirement by twenty-five, they are losers.
Sure, it is great to be responsible, and we do live in a world far different than the one I grew up in during the 1970s. But the only options they seem to be able to consider are conventional, boring ones: consulting, finance, law. Maybe, if they are really bold, they’ll hook up with a tech start-up.
But is that what life should be about in your twenties? What about experience? What about making life amazing? What about creating mind-blowing memories so when you are as old as me you can remember standing back stage at Carnegie when you were twenty years old watching some dude stand on his head playing the tuba?
Remember Dead Poets Society? Carpe diem, seize the day! You’ve got one life to live – make it spectacular. There will be plenty of time to make money, be conventional, wear the suit. There’s nothing wrong with that. Just not yet. Do crazy stuff, be adventurous, make mistakes, strive for greatness, meet astounding people, have several careers, bleed for a cause, learn life lessons, open your mind, do the unexpected, get lost, do things that you can be proud of, have stories that you can brag about to your grandchildren.
I didn’t make a nickel working on Tubby’s Revenge, and it is an album that maybe fifteen people have ever heard. But it is one of my proudest accomplishments. Through doing it I learned my craft – I learned how to listen. And by being willing to work for free on the weekends, something happened that I never could have predicted. I got to Carnegie Hall.
Read more great music biz stories in my top 25 best-selling memoir, NEVER SAY NO TO A ROCK STAR: IN THE STUDIO WITH DYLAN, JAGGER, SINATRA AND MORE, out now on Schaffner Books.