Thursday, April 16, 2009

DBTL 22: Meet the Vontzim

Warsaw, Polish Commonwealth
17 July 1945

"This isn't exactly what I had in mind," said Herschel Grynszspan.

Shlomo Kaminsky looked around the dingy room where he and his three bandmates were staying while their gig at the Ratcellar lasted. There were large sections where the plaster had fallen out of the walls, exposing the half-rotted wooden beams beneath. The bare mattress on the floor held a number of the band's insect namesakes, which Shlomo thought was going in for a bit too much authenticity. There was no bulb in the room's overhead light, which was just as well, since experimentation had demonstrated that the light didn't work in the first place. In the daytime, the only light came from a window that faced out into the brick side of the building next door. At night, the room's illumination came from the ceiling light of the outside hallway (provided the room's door was left open). As far as living accomodations went, it was as close to being rock bottom as you could get without actually living on the sidewalk. Shlomo could see Herschel's point, but he shrugged anyway. "You've got to pay your dues if you want to sing the blues," he said, quoting their song "It Don't Come Easy".

"But I don't want to sing the blues," Herschel pointed out. "I want to sing klezmerol."

"The principle is the same," said Shlomo. "Anyway, think of all the bands out there who don't even have a steady gig like we've got. They'd kill to play at the Ratcellar. Also, think of the incentive this room provides us. I for one actually prefer being on stage to being here."

"Being onstage isn't any better," Herschel maintained. "I'm sick and tired of having to dodge beer bottles when I'm playing. And that's when they like us! Leon's got the right idea; find yourself a girlfriend with her own flat, and move in with her. I tell you, Shlomo, Colonel Paruszewski has got to find us a better gig."

But Shlomo knew what would happen if they asked the Colonel. He'd say, "Boys, it takes time. This is a good gig I got for you, the pay may not be so hot, but you get free room and board, and you're making a name for yourselves in the Warsaw club scene. Another month or two and we'll have enough to book some time in a studio and cut a single. That's where the money is! Get some airplay on PRT2, and then the clubs will be begging you to play them!" Shlomo had heard the same spiel so many times that not only could he set it to music, he had; in fact, the resulting song, "Have a Cigar", was one of their more popular numbers.

To Herschel, Shlomo said, "If we want to get a better gig, we've got to be a better band. It's time to rehearse."

"But Leon and Ringo aren't here."

Shlomo sighed. "So we'll rehearse without them until they show, all right? Anyway, it gets us out of this box."

"This is true," said Herschel. Picking up his clarinet case, Herschel gave the mattress an unaffectionate kick as he passed it on his way out the door. Shlomo hefted his accordion and followed.

As soon as he started playing the accordion, Shlomo felt his weariness drop away. Even though he and Hershel were playing to an empty room, the feeling of being on the cutting edge of popular music made Shlomo feel like he was on top of the world. Klezmerol, an unholy mix of traditional Jewish music and American jazz, had swept the Polish Commonwealth since the end of the war. Shlomo had incorporated some of the cowboy elements he had picked up playing piano in the Flying Deutchlander in Bialystok, and the result sounded like nothing else ever heard before. They played to packed crowds at the Ratcellar every night, and Leon reported that some of the Warsaw bands had started imitating their sound.

Shlomo and Herschel had been playing for about fifteen minutes when Ringo Gold showed up. He waved to them from the back of the room, disappeared for a time, then came bounding up onto the stage to take his place behind the drum kit. With Ringo's rock-steady beat behind him, Shlomo felt the music begin to soar.

The set came to an abrupt halt when Leon Svirsky burst through the door shouting at the top of his lungs. "We got it! We got it!"

In the sudden silence, Shlomo said, "Whatever we've got, I hope penicillin will clear it up."

By the time he reached the stage, Leon was panting with exhaustion. It took a minute before he had recovered his breath to the point where he could say, "I just heard from the Colonel! He's booked us a recording session at Novy Swiat Studio next Tuesday!"

Instantly the others surrounded Leon, asking him questions. The Colonel had booked six hours on the 24th from 9 AM to 3 PM, no he didn't know who would be producing, no he didn't know how much it was going to cost, yes they should bring their own instruments, no they hadn't decided which songs to record.

"That's all right," said Shlomo, "we've got the next week to decide which songs to record. In the meantime, the club is going to open in another hour, and we'd better rehearse while we've got the chance." Leon hurried back to the room to get his bass, while the others resumed their places on stage. When they were all ready, Ringo counted off the time, and they swung into "Klezmerol Music".

Shlomo Kaminsky knew it in his heart: they were on their way to the top.

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