How I Learned To Stop Worrying And Love The Accordion

A musical autobiography

It began with late 1960s movie musicals. Those songs represented the biggest overlap between my parents’ tastes and became what we sang together on road trips. I would play them back in my head on long bike rides and sometimes make up my own.

In the 1970s I started listening to Louisville DJ Gary Burbank for his comedy bits and more or less tolerated the rock and disco songs in between. An aunt gave me my first two pop albums: Billy Joel’s “The Stranger” and The Cars’ “The Cars.” I loved the words of the former and the sound of the latter.

I took classical piano lessons for nine years but never learned to read chords or got good enough to play and sing at the same time. When a beloved great-aunt passed away I wound up with her accordion and cassette tapes. I messed around with the accordion a little. I liked Frank Yankovic but couldn’t take Lawrence Welk.

I went to college at the University of Chicago in large part because they had a student theater group which sometimes produced student-written musicals. I wrote script and music for a traditional style musical, “Til The End of The World”, presented fall of 1985, and a rock musical, “Rick Cosmos And The Green Things From Mars” presented fall of 1988.

I found new song ideas in a variety of styles were still coming through, but a full-time day job left little time to pursue them. I discovered my solo computer sequencer/4 track tape recording setup could fake “acoustic” pop better than alternative or R&B, and made a cassette tape called “And The Bunny Went Hop” that was heavily influenced by Paul Simon’s “Graceland.”

In the late 1990s I became so frustrated I created costumed alter-ego “Special Guest” and began performing on small electronic toy instruments with output jacks soldered in. The highlight of that time had to be plugging into the giant speaker stacks at Metro in Chicago during a benefit for the Neo-Futurists theater company. But Special Guest was soon joined by Technical Difficulties on such a regular basis I declared they must be the backup band.

Then in the early 2000s my friend Ben Collins-Sussman turned me on to pre-recorded drums, and my friend Mark Frey offered to play guitar and bass for a studio album. We laid down a few tracks during a weekend blitz in Nashville (parts of which survive in the guitar bits on “Fear The Accordion”). But how could I perform those songs live?

If only there were some sort of keyboard-like instrument I could play and sing at the same time…

So I finally picked up my great-aunt’s old accordion and did three songs at a Halloween party (“Captain Ambivalent”, a cover of the Police’s “King Of Pain”, and “The Thousand Mile Song”). Much to my surprise, it worked.

That spring I made the fateful pilgrimage to the Italo-American Accordion Company where I found the original Accordion of Gold. As I began playing open mics and concerts the accordion took over and changed the recording focus. Mark found electric and acoustic bass didn’t fit well with a lead accordion. I tentatively suggested tuba, and the next thing I knew he was emailing me the “Captain Ambivalent” song (subject: “Tuba wooba!”) We threw caution to the wind and he did tuba for all the songs, even the slow ones. Much to our surprise, it worked.

In June 2011 I discovered that the local neighborhood music store near my parents’ place in Louisville had gotten rid of all their pianos and started selling accordions. There I found a smaller and lighter Accordion of Gold that would fit in the overhead bin of an airplane!

In February 2013, in response to a very helpful critique by Louisville comedy promoter Tom Sobel, I finally compared the sound of the big and small accordions scientifically and discovered that the way they sounded to me was completely different from the way they sounded to the audience, with the smaller cheaper accordion having a much better bass response and clarity. It took over the “Accordion of Gold” title completely and if anyone asks I tell them it shrank in the wash. That same critique inspired wearing the costume, tying songs into overall story arcs, and more routinely using wigs and props – becoming the Captain Ambivalent known and loved today.