The other day while “fine-dining” at the Catholic Worker, one of the volunteers who hails from the Finger Lakes region began talking about Rochester and Syracuse whereupon I informed him that in fact, I’d been to both and was quite familiar with the two cities.
Jack was curious as to how I’d come to be so well-acquainted with the locations and he got his answer: Road gigs in a show band. Piqued with interest, he went on to ask if I’d ever played with anybody he’d heard of. So I ran a partial laundry list which would probably impress any music fan aged 50 or so. It turns out Jack recognized none of the names. But the older volunteers certainly did.
It’s a funny thing about all that. While my resume sounds impressive, for every name-brand act I backed (even if their hits had come years before), there were certainly more along the lines of Roy Delane and the Third Herd, The Jamissohn Scott Revue, City Limits, Milly and the Guys – and you get the idea. I was never one to turn down a paying gig even if I knew the music would be painful. Money was money and I had to make a living. If there was no good work on any particular night, I’d take shitty work.
Of the many forgettable gigs I played with even more forgettable bands, a great many involved a short trip up the thruway…left on Route 17…and into what was then called the Borscht Belt, some 20 hotels all concentrated in Sullivan County and dedicated to offering ethnic cuisine and entertainment for New York jews. Not exactly the hippest of crowds or musicians. But again…work was work.
Almost all the jobs were controlled by a goniff (with a capital G) named Sam Maslin, a dirty old man who sat in his home office out in Massapequa and gossiped constantly about which guy in the band was fucking the girl singer – all while he took a 100% commission. And no that wasn’t a typo! If the gig paid $600 for a four piece band, Sam kept half – and we’d get $75 each to play Friday and Saturday night.
Of course, it was a huge rip off but hey! We got room and board and Nature Boy Bill got to go to the country. Eventually, we busted Sam for stealing and prevailed upon him to take 15% – but that’s besides the point.
Anyway, I did a little research on the Borscht Belt history and came to discover that the mid-70’s and early 80’s period (which is when I worked there) was essentially the end of the hey day for all those hotels. And places like Grossinger’s, The Browns, the Nevele, Kutsher’s, and a few others where I played are simply no more. As fucked up and unrewarding as that work was, it sort of made me wax nostalgic in the realization that it’s all history now. Were I to work my way back to playing for money (which I never would), there would be no shitty jobs in the Catskills. They’re all gone.
I have a few memories from back then. And the one that comes to mind most vividly was one of great humiliation. The summer of 1984 was the last time I played in the mountains. By that time, I had a pretty impressive resume. But studio work was drying up (for everybody – not just me) and I took a full-time job for the entire summer at Kutscher’s while I awaited the September release of a record I’d gotten a decent advance for and I felt had a shot at selling.
And really, it wasn’t bad. They had a lake where I went fishing every day. And one of the female employees took a shine to me. So why not, right? It wasn’t like a real musician was gonna find me up there and judge me for playing such a dumpy gig (with really bad musicians, I might add). Yeah, guess again!
Kutsher’s had a pretty serious budget for Saturday night entertainment. Like $15 k! And so, they booked some name-brand stuff – at least on Saturday. (We were just the lounge band playing 5 sets every day beginning at the cocktail hour and on into the wee hours.)
Getting to the point, the Hines Brothers (as in Gregory Hines who was a big star) came up one Saturday with band in tow. And once having arrived at the resort, the boys came straight to the lounge to check out the band. Uh oh! I wasn’t being paranoid. Sure enough, there were a few guys I knew from the city and “real” gigs (like the other guitar player for Stephanie Mills and a trumpet player from the Red Parrot Orchestra).
I was absolutely mortified. Kind of like a closeted gay guy getting caught leaving a notorious gay pick up bar by one of his straight friends who just happened to be walking by. If only I could have hidden! At some point that night, I talked to the guitar player I knew and expressed how embarrassed I was about being seen playing with such bad musicians. He was completely sympathetic. Clearly, how he felt about my musicianship hadn’t changed. His attitude was “It’s money. I get it.”
But the damage was done. That wasn’t gonna happen again! Fuck the lake…and the free food…and the modest salary…and the new girlfriend…and the country. I wasn’t gonna play with that shitty band anymore. And so…I quit at the end of the week never to return to not just Kutsher’s…but the Catskills as well (at least as a paid musician).
I know it sounds weird, but I’d sort of like to drive up there and just look at where I spent those weekends and/or summers in my youth. But ya know what! I don’t think there would be anything to see. The buildings don’t even exist anymore in any form at this point.
Whatever…I can just watch “Dirty Dancing” (the movie) and it will all come back. As far as the Catskill resort vibe is concerned, that movie was eerily accurate. Fuck the drive. To Netflix. I’m out!