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Existentialist

Boston, 1967 — My band called The Ones was playing a regular gig at the Brown Derby, five nights a week or something like that. We had been reviewed in a new trade paper called Crawdaddy by Jon Landau, who after such humble beginnings later became Bruce Springsteen's manager and head of the nominating committee for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Our group, wrote Landau, was "a good, soulful club band but they are not originators." In the post-Beatles era, this amounted to a death sentence. As our manager, Willy, tried to tell us, "It's a business. You gotta have a product." That meant writing your own songs. This was a skill we had neither in aggregate nor as individuals. We did very well at playing other peoples' songs but this was workaday stuff, not meant for fame and fortune. So Willy, with his confidence in our musical abilities and his own crackerjack business sense, began bringing songwriters around. We needed material to get the coveted record deal. Otherwise it would be union scale or less, and playing long gigs in the Combat Zone or driving for hours to lonely bars in places like Hazleton, Pennsylvania in the future. No fame or fortune.

Problem is, none of the songs they showed us were any good or at least interesting. One of them came to the Brown Derby, where there was a piano in the back room, and brought a guy to accompany his songs.

The piano player's name was Beau, or Bo, since this was the north. After we had rejected the songwriter's efforts, Bo began diddling around on the piano, which was more interesting than his friend's lyrics. He saw my interest and said, "This is existentialist music. Do you know what existentialists are?" I did not. "Existentialists are people who just don't give a shit." In Boston, with all its institutions of higher education, graffiti in joints like the Brown Derby were not of the usual "Call Sally for a good time" or "Nathan is a fag" variety. Here, above one of the urinals and written neatly with felt-tipped pen, was the message "Abramovich is a neo-classicist." If Bo was an existentialist, he may have spotted a kindred spirit in me.

Most of the others had left the room. Despite my lack of education, I surely did have questions about the meaning of life.

And my two or three weeks of Presbyterian Sunday school in the basement of a church had not helped with these questions.

What I recall about the experience was the creepy teacher who handed out candy to the kids, and the painting of a blond Jesus talking to two blond children, all dressed in white, in a perfectly manicured park. Between this and the urging of my Catholic friends, I understood that religion wasn't there to answer questions about the meaning of life. It was there to discourage such questions. Existentialists, not giving a shit, were hardly interested in converting anyone.

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