Being cool with an accordion

Abe Goldstien, a longtime member of the Des Moines, IA jazz scene, tells about the instrument he holds most dear, the accordion.

It’s 1964 and the Beatles are on Ed Sullivan. All the girls in my seventh grade class are in love with the Beatles. So, to impress Sherry Sheinfeld – the heartthrob of No. 8 school in my hometown of Rochester, NY – I save my money and buy a Beatles wig.

She was not impressed.

OK, I thought, maybe playing an instrument will impress her. But what instrument? Regardless of what instrument I told my parents I wanted to play, they had a reason why that wasn’t a good choice.

Drums were out, because my brother played drums and we’d fight over them.

Electric guitar was out, because my 87-year-old grandfather lived with us and that would be too loud.

Saxophone was out, because I was going to need braces.

But with each of my suggestions, they would offer their own recommendation.

“Why not play the accordion?” they said.

“The accordion!?” I would repeat incredulously.

What self-respecting teenager trying to be cool in the mid-1960s would want to take up the accordion? Only nerds play that thing!

Eventually, I gave into their suggestion.

“Great,” my father said. “I have one in the basement for you.”

Little did I know, my father had been secretly taking accordion lessons. The fact that he needed to take lessons secretly should have been my first clue as to how uncool this instrument really was. Unfortunately for him and for me, he had slipped on the ice that winter, dislocating a shoulder and breaking a wrist, so no more accordion for him.

But, what was he going to do with the second-hand accordion he picked up? Pawn it off on his unsuspecting son!

That was the day I became an accordion player.

And trust me, that certainly did not impress Sherry Sheinfield.

The accordion is not the coolest instrument, especially if you are a teenager in the mid-1960s, but I figured I’d make the best of it.

My teacher, Joe Allesi – what a perfect name for an accordion player, much better than Abe Goldstien – had his name in big, bold silver letters mounted on the front of his accordion. “Joe!” it declared, daring you to ask him why he played accordion.

OK, I thought, that’s pretty cool.

But, all I could afford were those stick-on letters you use on the side of a mailbox. Not so cool.

OK, I’ll join a band, I thought. Accordion or not, being in a band is cool. Problem was the only guy in my high school starting a band was a clarinet player who wanted to play for his grandparents’ 50th wedding anniversary party at the local Jewish War Veterans Hall. Not exactly the coolest venue in town, but neither was our music – “The Anniversary Waltz,” “Tea for Two” and, of course, “Hava Nagila.”

Oh, and the name we chose for this quartet was . . . wait for it . . . the Noble Four. Again, not cool. This was the era of bands like the Beatles, the Stones, and the Ventures. All cool names.

I was not going to impress girls as a member of the Noble Four.

But, over time, the Noble Four became popular – among friends of our parents, that is. We played for their anniversary and birthday parties. We picked up jobs at area country clubs for dances and, of course, Purim and Chanukah parties for the sisterhoods and brotherhoods at the local temples.

The only time we played for a younger crowd was our junior prom, and that was only because the class couldn’t afford a band.

So, off to the junior prom I go with my accordion and my date. But, once again, the accordion was of no help to my love life. I had to play the bass lines with my left hand and the chords with with my right. I sat there playing while the clarinet player danced with his date, and the trumpet player danced with his date, and the drummer danced with his date. My date just stood there.

I can’t imagine she said, “Oh, I’m with the accordion player!”

In fact, I know she didn’t, because the next year for our senior ball, when we could actually afford a band, she asked our drummer to be her date.

Now that would be devastating to the ego of most young boys, but as an accordion player, you learn to live with rejection.

I thought college might be better, so I packed up my accordion to headed off to Drake University.

At the time, I was a relatively nerdy-looking Jewish kid with an accordion. My roommate walks in and this guy is a real hippy. Think: long hair, beard, jeans, leather coat.

The first thing he says to me is, “Hey man, is it cool if I have MDA in the room?”

For those of you who were not children of the 1960s or are naive like me, MDA was a hallucinogenic drug.

I had no idea what MDA was then, so my response was, “I guess that’s OK. I mean, I have an accordion here.”

Looking back, MDA is probably the perfect thing to be on when your roommate decides to practice his accordion.

So, while my friends were enjoying the era of sex, drugs, and rock ‘n’ roll, I was stuck in the era of fox trots, waltzes, and cha-chas. I was playing in bands with “orchestra” in the name, doing strolling gigs at country clubs for their Italian- or French-themed dinners, and, of course, making my annual radio and TV appearances to recognize Accordion Awareness Month.

That’s right awareness, not appreciation. The same way they treat diseases.

That’s just the way it is for us accordion players. We’ll never get any respect. We’ll never be cool. There has never been a sex symbol who played the accordion. You can’t gyrate your hips with a 30-pound instrument strapped to you. And, trust me, you can’t play the accordion with an open shirt.

Then there are the names that have been given to the accordion: the stomach Steinway, the belly Baldwin, and worst of all, the squeezebox.

Plus, all the jokes. Like, what’s the definition of a gentleman? Someone who knows how to play accordion, but doesn’t.

Or, what’s the difference between an accordion and a trampoline? You take your shoes off when you jump on a trampoline.

So, by this point in my story, you know who the underdog is: the accordion. The accordion is the underdog of musical instruments, right down there with banjos and bagpipes. And anyone who chooses – or in my case, is chosen – to play it, is an underdog, as well.

But wait. Now that I think about it, let me propose a different narrative to my story. That the accordion is not an underdog, but a champion. My champion! It’s been strapped to my life for almost five decades and it has come to define me. I mean, I would not be who I am today without the accordion.

It taught me not to shy away from being different, but to embrace it and celebrate it every chance I had.

It taught me that it’s cooler to be yourself than it is to try to be cool.

Most of all, it taught me to never take life too seriously.

After all, what better for a self-deprecating Jew like me than a self-deprecating instrument like the squeezebox?

I’m not certain my parents had any idea how important the accordion would become to me when they suggested it. For my Dad, it was just a way to recoup his $10 investment on a second-hand accordion.

Or, maybe my parents knew that there was no way a chubby Jewish boy named Abram Hersh Goldstien would ever achieve coolness, so they figured they better set me straight from the outset.

Whatever the reason, thanks, mom and dad. Because of you – and that accordion – I have been able to squeeze out a life that’s all my own.

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