1996 - An Epic Year for This Teen

1996 – An Epic Year for This Teen

The blizzard of ’96 hit in the second week of January. I had never seen banks of snow forming walls so high all around the neighborhood. On the initial day of the blizzard when the snow was falling so hard outside that it was nearly impossible to move in it, I passed the cold, snowy day in The BASEment. I was inspired to compose a classic wintry metal ballad in the vein of some songs that really spoke to me around that time such as Accept’s “Winter Dreams” and Amorphis’ “Black Winter Day”. I created an analog demo that day using the Lanzas’ Sing-a-lodeon karaoke machine and called it “Winter” for lack of a better idea. I layered myself playing a few times. Progressive audio sound quality loss came with each overdub. Various parts were not yet worked out, but the essence of something epic had been born. Or at least I thought so. Soon after, I showed the song to the guys in the band, and we slowly and surely adapted it. It arrived in perhaps its full form in mid-summer. 

The second term of high school began in February. Two significant classes appeared in my schedule: Jazz Band and Chemistry 2. Joining the jazz band was a significant step in my musical trajectory. It was a new and exciting challenge. I knew next to nothing about how to play jazz, yet I was in a privileged position. I was the only guitarist in the group, I knew how to improvise, and I was willing to put in the work to be halfway decent in this new genre. Jazz charts expanded my knowledge of chords on the guitar which I began to incorporate little by little into Requiem’s music and my own personal compositions. I took Chemistry 2 class with my friend Jason Hills. He sat right behind me, and we would constantly be goofing off and passing notes and self-created cartoons back and forth. We’d be cracking up in the middle of class unapologetically and we couldn’t help it, it was so much fun! 

I was aware that Jason was a solid musician as he was the principal trumpet player in the symphonic band (which was the more advanced of the two high school bands: concert and symphonic) and from personal experience when he blasted his horn into my ears merely inches from the back of my head during football games when our marching band functioned as a pep band! Maybe he was trying to get my attention. I discovered he was also a keyboard player. The guys in the band and I had been discussing the idea of getting a keyboard player for a little while already. We even had one guy come down and audition, but he wasn’t a good fit. Around this time, we invited Jason to try out for our band Requiem. 

Soon after Jason Hills came down to The BASEment to audition for the role of our keyboardist. He waltzed in wearing a Billy Joel t-shirt and took out his Yamaha keyboard. We came up with some basic chords that he could hold out to get started with to add an atmosphere to our songs. It was sounding cool, and we were all generally excited in a subdued way that this might work out. After the try out as he was packing up his keyboard something accidentally slipped out of his keyboard case. It was a Richard Marx piano and vocal book! Walking into a heavy metal band audition with a Billy Joel t-shirt on was already pushing it, but concealing a Richard Marx sheet music book as well?? Another “strike” against him was when we prepared to go for our traditional post-rehearsal pizza journey. We would normally walk to any of several neighborhood pizza places sometimes walking up to 30 minutes one way. This was shocking to Jason, and he suggested ordering in. Everyone was appalled.

So, with Jason now in the band Requiem had become a 5-piece heavy metal outfit heading in a stylistic direction that might be described as melodic metal. He earned himself a nickname – JayFive. As he was the fifth member to join the band with a name beginning with J, one of us made a joke referring to Johnny 5 from the movie Short Circuit, which led to JayFive. He didn’t mind the appellation and it stuck. Shortly after JayFive joined our ranks, Requiem conducted a very DIY photo shoot in The BASEment and The Creek. It had recently snowed, and it was cold. We had finally become a complete band! 

During the winter and spring Requiem was hard at work practicing and developing new songs as well as figuring out how best to incorporate the sound and skills of our new keyboardist. We continued to record basement rehearsals on a cassette tape player to get a grasp on what we sounded like. It did the job, but we longed for a higher quality recording. By the spring, bassist Jeremy had left the band. Interestingly we found out about another bass player through Jeremy’s crowd of metal dudes, one Milo Peretti. After a short spell without a bassist, we had Milo come to try out. While his name did not begin with “J”, he had musical chops plus enthusiasm in spades. He was our new guy. We soldiered on with the new lineup. 

On a jazz band related trip to Long Island University (L.I.U.) Brooklyn campus one day I had the chance to sit next to an attractive and unassuming young alto saxophone player named Ella Maman. While she wasn’t exactly what I would have described as “my type” at the time I found that she was willing to talk to me at length and it seemed we both enjoyed each other’s company. I felt that she was cute even beautiful in her own unique way. We became friends and before too long we had occasion to hang out together once for a school project, another time for fun. We would talk on the phone. I found myself making extra effort to see and communicate with her.

Ella and I went out together for the first time on a date in late June. We went into downtown Manhattan to The Village near Houston Street and Broadway. We walked around, looked at clothes shops and had something to eat. I was really into her, and I loved her smell. Finally, I had met a girl that I was genuinely attracted to and interested in who seemed to reciprocate my feelings. A few days later I flew to Norway with my family for a 3-week stay. This was not the best timing I felt as I was just getting involved with this lovely young woman and separating from her seemed a shame before we could even have a follow-up date. In any case I flew to Norway on a cloud as it were. I was in love. I wrote her a letter or two during the trip and she returned at least one. 

The actual trip to Norway was something out of a dramatic comedy movie as my stressed-out family was running late between connecting flights and had to race from one flight to the next with two elderly members of our group, Nana and Bampa, in tow. Bampa was struggling with dementia and would often be in a state of bewilderment. This weighed on all of us. I took it upon myself to help him as much as I could even putting him to bed sometimes and saying a prayer with him. At one point he said to me on the verge of tears, “John Henry, you’re so good to me.” Bampa was a grandfather-figure to me. He was a World War II veteran who not only spoke very little but virtually never expressed warm emotions. To a heavy metal teenager who was not too used to showing emotions openly either, hearing this from him was quite a big deal. Our two souls truly met each other.

While in Norway, I read some European metal magazines, I transcribed some Amorphis songs on guitar, and wrote the lyrics to the newly developed middle section of Requiem’s wintry metal ballad now called “Dark Winter”. I was hoping that the guys at home were continuing to practice our songs especially since we were going to be playing a gig at the end of July.

One day Onkel[1] Edvard guided us on a hike several miles through a mountain pass to a remote house that stood alone on a mountain overlooking the sea. Other family members came along for the hike including my mother’s cousin with his baby strapped to his back as we gingerly walked along narrow ledges with steep drop offs into what seemed to be oblivion. That day my brother and I discovered the unmatched joy of drinking icy cold and delicious water straight from a pure mountain stream, something which neither of us ever forgot. One of the great benefits of this trip was getting to know my cousins[2] a bit better. As our opportunities of visiting Norway were few and far between for only brief windows of time, so any time we could spend together was precious.

Upon returning from Norway, I quickly discovered over the phone that my idealized girlfriend Ella was not quite confident in being my girlfriend and that she hoped I’d understand. My journal from the time says, “I took the news like a hammer to the head”. Within a week of my return stateside, Requiem performed our very first live show. It was in the daytime at JayFive’s block party[3] in Mill Basin, Bklyn. A handful of our friends came to hang out and show support including Ella. 

Now at 15, I was able to travel into the city (Manhattan) with friends on occasion. We would go to the West Village and explore. We were interested in the music shops such as Lethal and Bleecker Bob’s which stocked a lot of rare and underground music and merchandise, stuff we could not find in our local area. We’d eat at Ben’s Pizza or McDonald’s on MacDougal Street. Some of the bands we were exposed to because of these shops were My Dying Bride, Mortician, Dark Throne, Anathema, Nightfall, Cradle of Filth, Goat of Mendes, Abagazorath, Emperor, among others. All of this served to influence our sound. 

One August morning after a torrential rain the night before I went into The BASEment and noticed a strange smell. Shockingly, there was an inch or two of water covering the entire floor of the room. It seemed that the sewer had backed up and forced water and sewage into the basement through the shower drain in the bathroom down there. Yuck! There were a few sweaty days of cleaning this up and ripping out the carpet. And soon the basement had a tile floor. This only served to make the sound of the band during rehearsals louder and more reverberant[4]

In the fall I began to play guitar in the L.I.U. pep band which involved travelling to downtown Brooklyn a few times a week during basketball season. At Madison I took a cartooning art class which, outside of music, was one of the most resonant classes for my personal inclinations. Now I had a reason to practice drawing, which I already liked to do for over a decade. I learned some basics of how to create movement with bodies, how to draw still life, how to space text bubbles so that the dialogue was readable and some other cool and useful techniques. Mr. Rizzello the art teacher was friendly and a pleasure to learn from. Another bonus of this class was that I sat next to a tall and attractive Russian girl named Julie. She was not quite my type, but we had a groovy communication going between us and I felt something more was possible if truly desired. 

All throughout the fall semesters, I continued to hang out and regularly communicate with Ella. Even though we were “only friends” it seemed we couldn’t help but be in contact often and in a way that seemed a bit much for just two friends: frequent phone calls, handwritten notes and letters, and hangout time. December rolled around and with it the James Madison High School Holiday Concert. I was assigned to be the concert master for jazz band. I would also have a featured rock-style guitar solo during the jazz band performance of Chicago’s “25 or 6 to 4”. I was growing frustrated with the situation between and Ella and me. So I was planning to go out to the diner after the concert and mingle with fellow students in the hopes that after my big night, some girls might show some interest in me and something might happen. Instead, after the performance Ella found me and suggested that we hang out together. So, a bunch of my friends with Ella and I straggling behind, went back to my place to hang out in The BASEment. Once there, her and I disappeared for a little while. I invited her up to my room to show her a poem I had written. It was about her and I and the heavy emotions I felt as I still longed for us to be more than just friends. She felt it. We kissed. I was in heaven. We later marked that as our first day together as a couple.

A few days later I was walking home from school and had a clear premonition that Bampa was no longer with us. I got home and Billy said to come into the back porch, there’s something he had to tell me. 

“Guess what?” he said.

“Bampa died.”

“How did you know??”

“I just felt it as I was walking home.”

The irony was not lost on me. Within the same week I was the guitar star of my high school’s holiday concert, I had my first kiss and began an exciting relationship with my first girlfriend. I also lost my dear family member and grandfather figure. As a new chapter in my life opened, a previous chapter ended. It was beautiful, heartbreaking, and taken altogether, simply natural.

[1] Onkel means Uncle in Norwegian. Tante means Aunt.

[2] Those who I refer to as “cousins” in Norway are generally 2nd and 3rd cousins.

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