ding ding ding.

Ralph called me and asked me if I could come into the studio one Saturday in mid-May of 1996, and record piano on one song for Schmeckle City Rubdown.  They were finally almost finished recording, with Rob Grenoble of Water Music, along with Bill and J from American Standard.

He had asked me once or twice before if I would contribute some piano to a track, and I was flattered beyond belief, but never wanted to push it.  I never really knew if he actually wanted me to play, or if he was just blowing smoke up my ass.  So I never brought it up, and eventually, I thought he either forgot that he asked me, or he had been blowing smoke.

And then he called and asked me.

I was thrilled.  The idea of playing on one of our own records just had me jazzed, and doing it for my favorite band?  How many people get to play piano with their favorite band?

The only problem was that I didn’t know what song they were going to ask me to play on.  And the week before I was supposed to go into the studio with the band, he finally told me: a song called “Keep Me Blinded.”

“Keep Me Blinded” was a typical early ’96 Footstone song – a fast and hard-driving, major key punk/pop song with long instrumental passages between each verse that later in the song became the chorus.  It wasn’t my favorite Footstone song, but it was still very good, and because it was such a hard-driving song, they used it to open most of their shows.

“At the end of the chorus part,” Ralph explained, “that’s where I want piano.  I’m looking for some Elton John, rock and roll piano.  Right there, hear?  Ding-ding-ding-ding-ding-ding-ding – right there, at the end of that measure.”

I was thinking he wanted a Jerry Lee Lewis sort of riff, just one note and an octave, repeated over and over with a gliss at the end.  But I didn’t really know for sure.

I had no piano.  I had two old synths – a Roland Juno 106 that I scrimped and saved for when I was 13 years old (paid my mother a hundred dollars a month from my job in a dress store, til it was paid off), and a Korg DW8000 that a friend of mine stole from the music store where he worked and gave to me as a gift when I was 14.  Neither of them had a passable piano sound.

“We’ll figure something out,” Ralph said.  I figured they must have a piano at the studio.

Water Music was huge, as far as I was concerned.  So many great bands recorded there – The Feelies, for one, but also American Standard, Chavez, and a bunch of other indie bands I loved.  Bob Mould was there.  I’d heard that Lenny Kravitz recorded there, and even Madonna.  It was a pretty heavy duty recording studio.  I’d played in front of a lot of people at various points in my life, but had never actually played piano in a recording studio before.

I met Ralph and Mark in Hoboken, and we walked to the studio together.  Mark had borrowed a Kurzweil keyboard from somebody he knew, and he lugged it to the studio.  When we got there, Rob (the engineer) was eating lunch, so the three of us went out and got a slice of pizza.

Ralph and I spent the entire lunch talking about the Yankees.  The new season had begun, and there was a lot of promise.  Even though it was still a little chilly out, baseball was in the air, and the two of us were pretty excited about it (Ralph is a big Yankee fan just like I am).

We finished lunch and went back into the studio, and Rob put “Keep Me Blinded” on in the studio.

It sounded ridiculous. The music was ten thousand feet high, and it weighed eight tons.  It occupied every square foot of space around me; there wasn’t even enough room for my brain.

“See?  Right there.  Ding-ding-ding-ding.” Ralph was trying to explain it to me.

I played something.

“No, not quite that.  More like a ding-ding-ding-ding.”

I diddled around for a few minutes, and finally, Ralph said “THERE.  Just like that.”

So we played the song through, and every time we came to the chorus, I did this “ding-ding-ding-ding” thing.  I was nervous and my hands were shaking, and it took me a few takes to calm down and play even the most simple thing.

Rob came out of the control room.  “You could do something else, you know.”

“Like, what else?” I asked.

“Well, you could embellish on that a little bit,” he said. “Play over some more parts of the song.”

I had never played the song before.  I made up a sucky riff to play over the chorus.

“Yeah!” Mark said.  “That sounds amazing!”

It did not sound amazing.  It sounded like I was playing a toy piano on a children’s television show.  There was absolutely nothing rock and roll about what I was doing, and I was doing it over and over and over again.  If you go on YouTube, and search for “Rock And Roll Piano,” you’ll get a thousand videos of weak-ass amateurs playing terrible, entry-level boogie progressions on weak-sounding Casio keyboards. That’s what it sounded like.

We played it through once more, and I played it with absolutely no emphasis whatsoever.  No feeling.  Mark went outside for a cigarette, and I started noodling around on the piano a little bit.  Eventually, Rob came in.

“Hey, you know who you remind me of?” he asked.


“Ben Folds.  Have you ever heard Ben Folds?”

I’d heard Ben Folds.  We played piano nothing alike.  First of all, Ben Folds knew how to play the piano.  Second of all, I play piano like Tori Amos, only I don’t actually know how to play it – fingers fumbling all over the keyboard, plopping down big, fat, minor key chords, using the damper pedals to make chords even fatter.

“Never heard of him,” I lied.

“You should check him out,” he said.  “You’d like him.”

He then gave me a pep talk about playing with some emotion.  And they rolled tape again.  Ding-ding-ding-ding. Again.  Ding-ding-ding-ding.  Again.  Ding-ding-ding-ding.

It was awful.  I went into this studio, thrilled to be recording in such a legendary place, thrilled to be recording in any place, much less to be recording piano with my favorite band, on a song that was going to come out on my own record label.

I walked out of the studio, embarrassed that my band was now going to feel obligated to put my shitty piano playing on their record, embarrassed that I wasted Rob Grenoble’s time, embarrassed that I couldn’t come up with anything creative to play in even the most simple, major key pop song.

We listened to the Yankee game in Footstone’s van on the way back from the studio.  Ralph wanted to stop for a beer, but I was tired and just wanted to go home.

~ by Al on November 5, 2009.

One Response to “ding ding ding.”

  1. i like the ding ding ding. thanks Al. maybe you can play it live in February?

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