Music for Non-Thinkers: The Guckenheimer Sour Kraut Band
It is the considered opinion of many noteworthy professionals in the disciplines of human behavior and psychology that every human being is a unique composite imprint of the aggregate influences of both inherited genetic material and social conditioning acquired. Where general consensus among so-called professionals generally starts to fall apart is over the extent to which each has been influential in the make-up of the specific individual. Since each new human life is delivered without an owner’s manual (or even a specific set of formative blueprints), contention over the impact of genetics and social conditioning on human development has generously provided employment for thousands upon thousands of academics whose scholarly work invariably includes much debate and erudite argument on this issue.
Assuming for the sake of discussion that one has been provided with a reasonable genetic quotient of intellectual potential, it seems to me that the experiences we are all subject to often take priority in the overall balance of influences that govern our behavior. Without wading even deeper into what is a recognisable quagmire of conflicting opinion and polarized dissent among highly qualified and well-educated professional behaviorists, I’ll depart from the above context and reflect back on an aspect of my own life that I today recognise as substantively important to my own personal understandings of the human experience.
In my early years I appear to have fallen into music much like an Oompa-Loompa might accidentally fall into one of Willie Wonka’s chocolate factory vats. My very first encounter with music came about when Mrs. Johnson, my first grade teacher, took a small group of us shoelace-tying graduates and provided us with things that went clang, bam and crash to comprise a ‘rhythm band’. The idea was that we would all madly make noise with these items together while she attempted to orchestrate the cacophony with the frantic obsessiveness of a pre Hogan’s Heroes Werner Klemperer clone. In very short order I mastered the sand blocks, proved my acumen with rhythm sticks and progressed to that ultimate kiddie band instrument, the copper cow bell. With my superior percussive expertise demonstrated, Mrs. Johnson rewarded me with a sort of tinkety-tink xylophone like thingie that was played with a stick ending in a hard knob. I finessed that, much to the total disregard of my little snotty-nosed classmates who still hadn’t quite grasped the fact that although there were many kinds of noise, the apparent objective of all the banging and crashing was to achieve some sort of pleasingly syncopated rhythmicity. That, we were told by amply endowed Mrs. Johnson, was something known as ‘music’.
My first post (noise making) rhythm band grad music experience came about as a small (but slightly older) child who each summer visited my Grandmother Nana’s home in Burley, Idaho. ‘Nana’ was quite an interesting woman in that in addition to clearly possessing a high level of innate intelligence, she had also graduated summa cum laude from a prestigious private women’s college, Lake Erie Seminary for Women, located near Plainsville, Ohio. Chartered in 1856 and today a co-educational college, the graduates of that school were awarded seminary diplomas up until 1899, at which time Lake Erie Women’s College began awarding standard undergraduate college diplomas.
Lake Erie College from its inception attracted women of a high caliber, most possessed of extraordinary talents and abilities, and given the fact that from the mid through late 1800s women were not encouraged to pursue higher education, those who passed through its halls were exceptional in more ways than one. It was a time in the United States when at most women were encouraged to complete a grammar school education and immediately marry, stay home and have children; to think that a woman could actually complete a course of higher learning and achieve a professional calling was almost heretical to conventional (male) thinking of that era. Running contrary to that common (male) wisdom in its aims and inspirations, Lake Erie Women’s College shared the same high-minded goals as a small handful of other institutions (like Notre Dame, which also began as a women’s seminary before it went co-ed) and it successfully attracted women from well-to-do families that recognised the need to meet the intellectual needs of both men and women equally.
After graduating from Lake Erie College in 1902 with honors in music (piano), Nana lived in Saint Louis, Missouri, with her family, where she met and married a graduate of Northwestern College who had taken his degree in pharmacology. After the end of the First World War both Nana and her husband, my Grandfather, decided to move west, where they settled in the small rural Cassia County town of Burley, Idaho (located some 24 miles from Twin Falls, on the Shoshone River). There, Grandfather opened up the town’s first pharmacy on Main Street (eventually to be known as the Rexall Drug Store of Burley) and Nana supplemented the family income by teaching piano. As a proponent of the Dunning Piano Technique (founded in the early 1900s by Ms. Carre Louise Dunning), Nana had a number of the town’s children in her daily lessons and enjoyed a local reputation as a cultivated member of the community’s upper crust.
Grandfather and Nana had two children, Charles and my mother, Mary. Charles went on to graduate from his father’s college (Northwestern) and completed a degree in medicine there, returning to Burley where he opened the town’s first medical/surgical practice, while my mother attended the nearby Albion State Normal School and then graduated from the University of Idaho (at Moscow). With his medical/surgical practice established, Nana’s son (my uncle) soon achieved distinction as one of the leading members of the small community and Grandfather continued to operate the town’s pharmacy while his son practiced as a physician and surgeon. Together they formed the solid foundation of the town’s health care facilities in an area that was still fairly rugged and frontier-like.
At any rate, this is all simply more context within which to explain whatever modest musical ability I might have ended up absorbing, since despite my family’s best efforts to coerce me to study violin (my uncle had studied it in school) and her own efforts to instruct me in piano, I somehow managed to rebel furiously in both attempts. Despite this refusal to study violin or piano, each summer my mother and I journeyed northeast from California (where she taught school) to spend the summer months with Nana at her home in Mormon-infested Burley.
Among the interesting things Nana kept in her home, in addition to her beautiful grand piano (brought by horse-drawn wagon from Salt Lake City), was a large collection of old 78 RPM record recordings of classical music and an entire room filled with every single issue of the National Geographic Magazine ever produced (from Volume 1, Number 1 onwards). It was a pretty cultivated environment for a small child on summer vacation and I well recall spending many hours poring over all those fascinating Geographics on lazy summer afternoons. That private library was the equivalent of having a whole school of knowledge and learning at hand in terms of fostering an awareness of the world and its rich complexities, since just about every natural and technological marvel of the period from 1900 onwards was contained therein, in both words and pictures. That was undoubtedly the seminal catalyst of my lifelong interests in history, literature and writing and it was undoubtedly a unique advantage enjoyed by few kids of that period.
Meanwhile, surrounded by a peerless collection of old classical masters recorded on the fragile 78 RPM records that my Grandmother regularly enjoyed, the constant playing of all those symphonies clearly worked a certain effect on me, whether I was aware of it or not. I think it’s quite interesting to note that child behavioral experts today have discovered that exposing infants and small children to classical music does much in terms of fostering positive brain development. So positive are the effects of classical forms of music on pre-adolescent and post-adolescent juvenile behavioral traits that experiments have further demonstrated that classical symphonies played as a backdrop in certain crime-prone civic venues tend to demonstrably discourage juvenile delinquency, gang activity and gratuitous acts of violence (of course the opposite also appears to be true : punk, rap, heavy metal and other youthful forms of frenetic musical expression tend to encourage the opposite effect)! In my case, I spent a good three solid months each summer soaking in the whole range of classical composers, including all the baroque era masters, the romantic composers, and opera of all nationalities. The result is that today I have a vast appreciation for the classics (the only exclusion is opera, of which I am not particularly fond), although I otherwise enjoy a very wide range of traditional forms of music from all cultures and national origins.
When I first entered grammar school back in California, the small public school I was enrolled in had a school band and all new students were encouraged to take an interest in learning to play one or more musical instruments. Whether it was due to the residual impact of the flashy Big Band Era or some other influence, all the white kids in the school wanted to play trumpet. All the black kids wanted to play drums. I won’t state any of my leading assumptions about this ethnic shake-out, since that would imply racial bias, but a brief digression here might help to understand the demographic context of small California agricultural towns of the 50s.
Before the entire state of California became just a larger cultural suburb of the Los Angeles/Hollywood mindset to the rest of the country, it was more notably known for its wealth of agricultural assets. The so-called ‘Great Valley’ that runs north and south of Sacramento contained at that time a preponderance of cotton, beet and potato farming operations, balanced in almost equal number by citrus groves of all types (lemons, oranges and grapefruit) and many other kinds of fruit (peaches, plums, apricots; just about everything imaginable) . It was this broad and diverse range of farming activity that brought the droves of the poor white dustbowl refugees from Oklahoma (we hoity-toity honkies referred to them as ‘Oakies’, ‘Arkies’, and ‘Ozarkies’, since most came from Oklahoma and Arkansas), but it also drew in poor blacks from the south and many thousands of field labor hands from Mexico (the so-called ‘braceros’).
In the towns that were scattered across the valley, these groups tended to cluster into four principal segments: 1) poor blacks (there were no rich ones); 2) poor whites (dustbowl immigrants); 3) wealthy and middleclass whites; and 4) Hispanics (usually seasonal workers, but increasingly many illegals who moved into town instead of returning to Mexico when the growing season had ended). Us white people consisting mostly of the farm owners (who tended to be wealthier), the middleclass bourgeoisie who maintained businesses in the towns, and the poor white field workers, occupied a large part of the typical town. The other two parts of the community consisted of the black neighborhood and that of the Hispanic ones, each distinctly separated from each other although there was no discernible marker viewable as to where one began and the other ended.
The homes in the black neighborhood and the Hispanic one were visibly run-down in most cases, but those occupied by the blacks were usually the most miserable of the lot. The Hispanics (virtually all Mexican) at least had a sense of cultural solidarity in the Roman Catholic Church that fostered some sense of the importance of maintaining civic pride, but for the most part the black homes were simply shabby shacks and disintegrating old wooden structures that looked to be on the verge of collapse at any given moment.
In the white neighborhood, there was surprisingly little stratification in terms of class divisions, with wealthy and poor homeowners living next to each other without much regard for preservation of perceived status distinctions. Thus we lived next to several fairly well-off white families and a few that would qualify as what are often semi-humorously referred to as ‘white trash’. This pattern seemed to repeat itself up and down the valley in small towns with quaintly picturesque names like ‘Dinuba’, ‘Sanger’, Orange Cove’, ‘Weedpatch’, ‘Reedley’, ‘Firebaugh’, etc.) and unlike things on East Coast, most settlements were so new that they had literally sprung up like weeds at the main railroad line watering stops, following the California Gold Rush of the 1850s and 60s.
At any rate, this was the community demographic status quo in the early 50s when I entered elementary school (grades 1 through 6) and was urged to take up a musical instrument for the school band. I quickly found, much to my youthful regret, that just about every white kid in the 5th grade wanted to play trumpet (probably because of all those cool ‘doo-wop, doo-wop’ things you could do with a mute). Predictably, all the black kids wanted to play the drums and the best of them would end up with snare drums; some clueless dummy who could barely maintain a beat and was usually a small giant as well, ended up being given the heavy bass drum. Although I’d never heard of Tommy Dorsey or Glenn Miller, my mother had taken me to see a movie at the local picture-show called ‘The Glenn Miller Story’ (starring Jimmie Stewart as Miller) and the whole story of Miller and his mysterious loss over the English Channel had piqued my juvenile interest in the weirdly shaped but nifty sounding trombone, so I opted for that (fortunately no one else wanted to play it). I soon got used to being referred to as a slushpump player.
The first day we all got together to receive our instruments was undoubtedly a close approximation of the opening scene from Meredith Willson’s 1955 hit musical play, 76 Trombones (another inspiration for taking up the instrument). None of us had a clue as to what to do with our instruments, except for the black kids who immediately started to beat the living hell out of their drums, thereby endangering both our hearing and the band teacher’s nerves with one ferociously hellish din.
Over a period of time we were introduced to basic musical theory and playing techniques required to produce something approximating pleasing tonal sounds, but for at least a year or two our practices were nothing but a horrific mass of uncoordinated squeaks, groans, blats, oompahs, tinkles, crashes, booms and fusillades of squawks that daily provoked many angry protests from homes located closest to the school grounds. For my part, I quickly discovered that while I was hopeless at sight-reading musical scores, I seemed to have been born with a natural ear for perfect tone, pitch and melody: once I had mastered the basic technique of producing a particular note on the trombone, I could listen to just about any tune only once and play it back ‘by ear’. Unfortunately, given this covert talent, my progress with sight-reading languished severely as a consequence. Being somewhat inclined to taking the path of least resistance in life by nature (an Irish trait, I suspect) anyway, I soon came to rely on my ear rather than my visual recognition of notes. Although handy at first, over time this hidden deficit posed problems I hadn’t anticipated.
By the time I reached high school, I had been ‘playing’ the trombone for about four years and usually managed to give a convincing display of knowing what I was doing, unless asked to read a piece of music by sight without having had the benefit of hearing it first. When I entered my freshman year of high school [Note: California’s public school system in those days was divided into four distinct divisions: 1) Kindergarten; 2) Elementary School, consisting of grades 1 through 6; 3) Junior High School, comprising grades 7 & 8; and 4) High School, with grades 9 through 12 inclusive], it seemed therefore perfectly natural to take ‘band’, ‘marching band’, ‘orchestra’ and later ‘jazz band’, since all were offered as regular credit courses.
Now, some of the more notable characteristics of youth are boundless enthusiasm, energetic activity and exuberant social interaction and the school’s marching band was full up to the brim with all of these potentials. The band contained members from all four classes, freshman through senior all mixed together and I am sure the challenges presented therein to any competent band leader/teacher must have been absolutely huge! When the musical learning process worked as one might hope it would, each year of experience playing an instrument contributed appreciably to that youthful player’s ability to make music; increasing maturity combined with basic learning so as to result in succeedingly higher levels of understanding by a student as to what playing music was ideally all about. Too, this consequently improved playing competence in most cases. [Needless to say, it seldom worked that smoothly, given the wide array of abilities, levels of understanding, intelligence, maturity and ability that obtained and there was typically quite a turnover among band teachers on the faculties of these small California towns. Not a few left teaching altogether, so I am understand.]
When I entered high school, my first band instructor was a tall, thin aesthete of a fellow named Scharfenberger. Mr. Scharfenberger (he was a bit formal in preferring that form of address, probably the German blood) would have had a thick, full beard, had he not shaved with a straight razor every day, and was one of those dark complected, intensely hairy people who even have beard on their necks. As a result of his hirsuteness, Mr. Scharfenberger religiously hacked off this growth before coming to the school each day and had the habit of dusting his neck with talcum powder afterwards, resulting in his showing up in the classroom with a strange looking white slotch on his neck, just below his chin. Given his formal nature and serious demeanor, it wasn’t long before we all began referring to our new leader as ‘Scharfie’ behind his back and most of us really didn’t care much for him. Scharfie, obviously perplexed by his daily battles with young farm savages like us, lasted only about a year before he decided that it might be more rewarding trying to train wild animals to jump through hoops accompanied by music, and departed for parts unknown (much to our relief).
To his credit, one of the things Scharfie did for the school’s music department while he was with us was to acquire a professional quality studio sound component system for the band-room consisting of a stereo amplifier, turntable and speakers. With his German background, he also ordered a number of 33 RPM records of rustic German and Austrian music (commonly called German ‘oompah band’ or Alpine music) and had also ordered some sets of sheet music for what I later came to learn were Bavarian ‘village band’ ensembles (i.e. ‘The Hungry Five’, etc.). This was of particular interest to me because I discovered I had a special interest in martial music and quickly became familiar with all of the famous march composers of the late 19th and early 20th centuries (John Phillip Sousa, et al). This particular fondness likely had something to do with coming from a family with an Irish military tradition, since the Celts are a warlike people who don't like to be far from their weapons when anyone with an English accent heaves into view. At any rate that was the start of a lifelong appreciation for marches that remains strongly with me today.
As I entered my second year at high school, the school had just lost Scharfie and taken on a new band leader, whose name was Robert Bangs. Having not especially cared for Scharfie, we were all quite interested to see whom the school district would replace him with. By formal musical background, Bangs was a saxophone player for the most part, although he played several other reed instruments with equal facility. He appeared on that first day of band class to be a 30ish man of medium height, jovial and rotund in appearance, possessed of a crew cut and a discernibly ‘cool’ hipness that belied his looks. The coolness was the product of experiences that were unknown to us rather naïve rural kids: Robert Bangs was a ‘hipster’, hailing originally from San Francisco’s North Beach beatnik culture, where he had once played with Charlie 'Bird' Parker.
It wasn’t long before more of Mr. Bangs interesting background came to light. We learned that he had, for example, recently come to us from an even smaller and more rural locale east of the Sierra Nevada Mountains that lies on Highway 395, that ribbon on lonely highway that stretches north from Death Valley and the Mojave up through Lake Tahoe and further. He had recently been the band instructor in the tiny town of Lone Pine, known mostly in those days for its excellent whore houses, its rough country style bars and regular weekend gunfights on the streets (this in the early 1950s!). One can only imagine the nature of his experiences there, given Lone Pine’s extremely rustic locale and rugged geographic surroundings (the town is the back-country portal to Mount Whitney among other things, the state’s highest peak at 14,505 feet or 4421 meters), wild population of eclectic individualists and authentic, raw-boned cowboys right off the range. At any rate, Bob Bangs turned his back on all that ‘wild west’ excitement (for whatever reason) and came to our equally rural (but slightly less wild) Great Valley community, ready to convert our small town-full of naïve kids into little hipsters and wannabee be-boppers. Not quite the same MO as that employed by Robert Preston in his attempts to convert River City kids into musically talented band instrumentalists, but along somewhat similar parallels. Little did either we or the community suspect that in Bob Bangs was a free spirited inspiration we could all draw upon advantageously in our search for a suitable path to maturity.
Bob Bangs undoubtedly experienced many of the same extreme frustrations suffered by his predecessor, Scharfie, over our youthful musical excesses, but he was a lot more adept at handling it with unflappable cool. Aside from teaching us kids the critical importance of observing musical dynamics in the performance of music, perhaps his most perplexing challenge was in how to get our corps of black drummers to play any other way other than full-bore LOUD.
In listening to school youth bands today, I note that some things never change. Subtlety is not a noted aspect of youthful immaturity, hence whenever you listen to school children playing music there’s not much audible difference between ‘pianissimo’ (‘softly’) and ‘fortissimo’ (‘loudly’). This seems especially true of school drum sections and sometimes it appears all but impossible to get percussion instrument players to ramp down the volume of all that paradiddling and flamadiddling (as any idiot can tell you, a flamadiddle is simply two paradiddles done together…but you knew that, didn’t you?) around in the course of trying to get something played properly by a bunch of excited kids.
At any rate, Mr. Bangs could usually keep his wig on properly, even when subject to the worst of impromptu percussive flailings by our resident Watusis. Things could get decidedly worse if the band’s bass drummer somehow got waylaid in his own private Twilight Zone while practicing and forcefully kidnapped the beat from the teacher, setting off on his own voyage where few drummers have gone before, but Bangs would usually manage to derail that noisome express train from hell and we’d eventually all settle back in to try another method of slaughtering a well-known composer’s masterwork of classical genius.
Actually, ‘loud’ as a uniform dynamic of youthful musical efforts seems to be a given, since once a kid gets a partial grip on the technique of playing his instrument all he wants to do is make his own contribution of semi-musical noise the loudest in the room. Trumpet players committed this atrocity regularly and us trombonists would occasionally also get caught up in a running battle with our short-horned cohorts to see who could shake the living bejesus out of poor Mr. Bangs’ tolerance margins. Of course, the worst offenders, aside from our tribal drummers, were the Sousaphones, the euphoniums, tubas and the bass baritones, since they could hardly be drowned out effectively by anyone else in the room if they were on a noisome roll.
One of the particular wonders of our high school band were the twin Bauer sisters, Marilyn and Marion, scions from one of the more well-off and prosperous German Mennonite families in town. Both juniors when I was a freshman, they were stolidly built just like the bass baritones they played and one got the impression from watching them that you didn’t mess around with either one if you wanted to make it home safely from school. So much alike in both appearance and mannerisms that it was hard to tell them apart (sort of like a female Tweedledee and Tweedledum), they were actually quite skilled musicians and regularly achieved high standings at band competitions (like the All-Western Band Review) for solos, although the medals were often mistakenly handed out to the wrong sister.
The Bauers were almost, but not quite topped in terms of sheer presence by our 'first chair, first trombone' player Aggie Knoy. Aggie (or Agatha, as she was properly named) pumped slush from her sackbut (that’s a term for the trombone's medieval predecessor) with a rare acumen that would have made Glenn Miller blush like an giddy Andrew Sister. Despite her superb mastery of the b-flat slide trombone, Aggie was regrettably built like a dilapidated dairy tank truck and one can’t help but hope that later in life, somewhere, somehow, some kindly male person thought her the most beautiful trombone player he had ever seen and they ended up making lovely marital music forever after (I suspect in reality it worked out a bit differently, though).
Mr. Bangs, although a sort of admirably cool character to us, was often an embarrassment to the rest of the rather square faculty who taught at my high school, since he had actually lived in San Francisco’s North Beach area and played jazz saxophone with local beat groups there prior to going into teaching. They, on the other hand, had no such encounters with the beat world and found him totally incomprehensible from the reflective vantage of their teeny, tiny little Presbyterian and Mennonite social perspectives. For his part, Bangs usually just shrugged off his square fellow faculty members and enjoyed BSing around with a bunch of us after school (when students came in to practice for extra credit); at such times he would tell us stories about his often wild experiences amongst the pimps, winos, hookers, addicts and small-time thugs that inhabited San Francisco’s Mission District demimonde. By contrast, rugged little old rural ‘Lone Pine’ must have seemed tame in comparison!
One such story involved him and his buddies hanging around the San Francisco Greyhound Bus Lines terminal in the late 40s, trying to sell ‘stuff’ to sailors. Since one of the slang terms in circulation then for marijuana was ‘tea’, Bangs and his buddies would buy some regular Lipton’s tea, package it in small white paper packets and whisper to passing sailors “PSSSSST, sailor….wanna buy some ‘tea’?” Since the ‘tea’ really was tea, it wasn’t technically illegal to sell, but by the time the hapless sailor they had singled out had put his wallet back into the pocket of his dress blues after his purchase, they were already hauling ass out of the terminal, another ‘score’ in hand and laughing hysterically. Naturally we all thought that was way cool and it only increased Mr. Bang’s status among us little heathens.
After getting caught up in the jazz band Mr. Bangs initiated at our school (one of the very first in all of California), I rediscovered the sheet music of ‘The Hungry 5’ German band our former teacher Scharfie had squirreled away and mentioned this to Bangs. When he saw the scores, a momentary light appeared in his eyes and he pulled out a 33 RPM record that to this day remains one of my all-time favorites: a recording titled 'Music for Non-Thinkers' by a San Francisco group memorably named the Guckenheimer Sour Kraut Band. The first time I heard it, it knocked me out! Looking back on this, it was truly a seminal moment in terms of my growing musical appreciations.
This particular group of musicians, all prominent San Francisco public personalities in their own professional venues, were also close personal friends who got together informally and started a group that played German ‘village band’ music (in the manner of the archetypal ‘Hungry 5’) at private parties for the bohemian cognoscenti in Sausalito. The difference was that, although each was a highly accomplished musician, they deliberately played the already rustic pieces slightly out of key and either grossly flat or sharp (or both), depending upon the whim of the moment (and the amount of wine being passed around). The result is imaginable: it was simultaneously wickedly entertaining and gut-wrenchingly funny! As momentum grew among Guckenheimer fans, the 'sour krauts' began to play more often and quickly became an inner circle San Francisco bohemian institution, each player wearing odd bits of old German and Austrian military uniforms, WWI coal scuttle helmets and so forth as they loving dismembered timeless old German village band pieces. Listening to them then, on the band room’s professional music system, or now at home, each encounter with solemn old classics like Der Wacht am Rhein done by the sour krauts never fails to send me into barely controllable paroxysms of laughter.
Bangs, for his part, consistently encouraged and supported musical mayhem of this sort, since he felt that any music had instructive potential, although he was occasionally forced to tone things down a bit when the school board began taking note of our wilder rhythmic enthusiasms after regular school hours.
High school was therefore a rich musical experience for many of us, not least due to Bob Bangs’ innovative encouragements and my own associations with the band, the orchestra, jazz band and the schizoid oopahing around we did when the mood prompted. Bus trips to the All-Western Band Review in Los Angeles where bands would compete in many areas of musical activity (marching, solos, small ensembles, jazz groups, et al) were merely another highlight of a yearly regimen of music, football game half-time show chaos, and general cacophony just barely modulated.
Of course, our marching band also had what we called a ‘banner line’ (like all school bands) that consisted of about 10 outrageously cute girls, all dressed in tight little abbreviated outfits that spelled out the school’s name on their precociously protrusive chests, as well as the usual handful of majorettes with fixed smiles who twirled batons and showed LOTS of barely legal leg. Coincidentally, one of the latter was a boy named Keefer, who was clearly a bit over the gender line in terms of his affect. Keefer was embarrassingly gay, even to those of us who didn’t yet know what ‘gay’ was at age 14 and I recall watching him toss his baton around (quite skillfully, I might add) with an approximation of juvenile disbelief.
To his credit, he was a talented twirler and won a number of prizes in various local and state contests, but all those flamboyantly decorated, rhinestone-studded costumes, combined with the sibilant speech and decidedly feminine mannerisms invariably left me a bit incredulous. Sadly, I indirectly learned in recent years that Keefer eventually passed on due to complications from AIDS, but at the time he just seemed one of the more surreal if innocuous aspects of anomalous small-town California life. One adolescent gay kid in a town of 3500 people; compare that to our modern schools where it seems as if almost every other kid has sexual identity uncertainties! How things have changed…
Just a year or so ago, I found myself reflecting back on my high school days as the 50th anniversary of our senior class looms in the near distance. Wondering what had happened to good old Bob Bangs, I located his apparent address in the old town and sent him off a letter expressing my appreciation for the musical encouragement he had given all of us in those uncertain, formative days of high school. I estimate he would have been in his early 70s by that time, of course, and I never heard back from him. Perhaps he has long since passed the point where small expressions of gratitude from former students mean anything to him or perhaps he has Alzheimers and can’t care any longer. Whatever the reason, I guess I’m sorry it took me so long to let him know that he was such a positive and enriching influence in my own early life among the squares of rural, central California.
In a world which grows increasingly less meaningful with each passing year and in which the absolute value of all human hopes and aspirations diminishes inversely with one’s accumulation of years, I am immensely grateful for people like Robert Bangs (wherever he is now), who helped little savages like me grow up to become responsible and intelligently reflective members of society. If he’s already passed off this mortal coil, I strongly suspect I know where he may be found: leaning casually against the wall at the heavenly Greyhound Bus Terminal, going “PSSSST….buddy! Wanna buy some tea?” as the newly arrived squares get off the Celestial Express and approach the Pearly Gates.
Note: For all who have been denied the supremely sublime knowledge of exactly what the “Guckenheimer Sour Kraut Band” is and lack familiarity with their homicidally fractured musical genius, you can find information on them below. In my opinion, they share eternally equal prominence with several other notable cultural phenomenon everyone should be knowledgeable of and constitute the basic foundation of any astute individual's reference on that which matters. These are: 1) The Goon Show; 2) Monty Python; 3) The Firesign Theatre; and 4) The Guckenheimer Sour Kraut Band: 5) The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy .