Through the miracle of Facebook, I have reconnected with legendary New York City cat, Binky Phillips (raconteur, leader of the punk band The Planets, proprietor of the best record store in the East Village) who has been posting his memoirs on the site Sonic Boomers. He’s a great writer and for anybody who loves rock and roll, his stories are a thrill. Check out “The Father, the Son, and the Holy Guitar,” for one.

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newjoeI read in the New York Times today that Joe Maneri, an experimental musician, died on Monday at the age of 82. Though I only met Joe a few times, he taught me a wonderful, enduring life lesson.

In 1979, at 24 years of age, I decided to retire for the first time. I had been working 20 hour days at A and R Recording Studios  since I was 16. I was finishing up a year-long stint working on the film, “All That Jazz.” As anybody who has worked with director/choreographer Bob Fosse would tell you, after one of his projects you needed an extended break. Besides, I wanted to take some time to “woodshed.” That is a phrase musicians use that means to return to learning. I had never studied theory in depth, and as I wanted to be a producer, I thought it best if I got my chops together. I asked Emile Charlap, a lovely man who was the premier contractor in those days – he knew everybody in town – if he could recommend a teacher. He turned me on to this cat, Alan Grigg.

Grigg was a devotee of the Arnold Schoenberg school of harmony. Though Schoenberg was notorious for having destroyed western music through his innovations in atonality and the invention of 12-tone music, he was profoundly grounded in conventional harmony. Not only was he the world’s greatest modern composer but he was also a genius theoretician and teacher. Grigg was a direct descendent of the Schoenberg didactic line. Schoenberg taught Berg, Berg taught Schmidt, Schmidt taught Maneri, and Maneri taught Grigg. Grigg taught me technique, but he told me that fundamentally the Schoenberg tradition was about love. I didn’t quite get it. When I looked at the severe pictures of that fin de siècle Viennese composer and followed his strict rules of chord progression, love was not the first word to come to mind.

When I told Grigg that I wanted to get out of town and leave the biz to study, he recommended that I visit his teacher, Joe Maneri, in Boston. I called up Joe and he generously invited me to come and sit in a class of his. He was teaching at the New England Conservatory of Music. I took the bus up to Boston. In spite of the fact that I had supped with Mick Jagger and assisted Dylan when he recorded “Blood on the Tracks,” I felt somewhat intimidated walking through the Beaux Arts hallways of the Music Conservatory. Here were the hallowed halls of serious music! And I was going to get to hang out with Maneri, who had virtually hung with the genius, Schoenberg! I walked into his class and took a seat in the back. I looked at my watch. He was late.

Finally, Maneri, this short round guy with a classic Sicilian vibe, plunges into the room. Before he’s even inside, he dives into his spiel. His voice sounds like someone chewing rocks. I sit up attentively waiting to hear what he has to say about the secrets of remote modulations. Instead, he says,

“Every one of you in this class is here because you think you’re going to get into the Boston Symphony. Well, let me tell you something. Not one of you is going to make it. And that’s not what it’s about anyway. Me, I play nursing homes. One day I’m playing this nursing home and I walk up to this guy sitting in a chair, and I realize he’s deaf. Now I’m a musician. What can I do for a deaf guy? So I look up to God and pray. And I get it. I take my clarinet out of my case, that’s what I’m playing, the clarinet, and I put it together and I wet the reed, and I look into this guy’s eyes, and I open my heart, and I start to blow. And I look in the guy’s eyes and suddenly tears start to flow. He’s crying.”

Maneri stops talking for the first time since he walked in the room.

He looks at us, points, and says, “Now that is what it is all about.”

The bell rings, and the theory class is over.

Years later, back in New York, I was producing an act that featured three girl singers, all under the age of 12. Early on in the project, I got them a gig in Atlantic City that turned out to be less than what was promised. It ended up that they would be playing for no money for a small audience of mostly handicapped kids. Backstage, before we went on, I could see their disappointment at the unglamorous nature of what they were about to do. I didn’t know what to do. I looked up at the sky, and prayed. And then I remembered the love thing. We stood in a circle and I told them the story of Joe Maneri and the deaf guy. They looked at me with understanding and nodded their heads and smiled. One of those little divas said, “Let’s go, girls!” And they ran out on stage and sang their asses off.

Now that is what it’s all about.            Thanks, Joe.

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