In the Midst of Motion, Per Chance to Inspire
Dedicated to Uncle Mike Contardo, 1948-2013
There was this house, this two-story, multi-generational house in Bensonhurst. It was one house that contained two households, two nuclear families, but inextricably interwoven, and it vibrated with the intense sights and sounds and scents of cliché working-class Italian American life. For the uninitiated amongst you that translates as LOUD.
The doors in this house were always open, between floors, among rooms, and the voices coming in and out, over and under, never ceased. Like merging traffic, they rumbled on, leaking through walls and levels, a Technicolor commentary at every dynamic level. Grandmotherly drama and grandfatherly cantankerousness, mother’s exasperation and father’s street humor; the ongoing shouts and stomps of us, the children in this house: me, my older brother James, and then a few years later, brother Joe --who was in training from the start to seek out still newer means to stretch the boundaries of volume. And somehow in the midst of all of this motion …there was Uncle Mike.
Without even really trying, in his own learned, welcoming manner, he made the noise go away. When I was little, when Mike was still living in this family home, I would visit with him in his room often. It was a treat, like a wonderland in there with countless model airplanes and ships, expertly put together and artistically painted, right down to the features on the miniature passengers aboard. A few of the model planes were suspended from the ceiling for realism and he also had metal planes with moveable parts that were absolutely cool to me. On the shelves where many of the models stood, he also had books---books that he actually read! There was also more than one baseball under glass, signed by teams’ members that seemed like they were a hundred years old to me. Next to the baseballs were model figures of some hero players: Mickey Mantle and Yogi Berra and more. I don’t think Mike was ever much for sports---he was the arts guy in our family and I felt a real connection to that. I am sure that the sporting paraphernalia were gifts, probably from my grandfather, but he had them out for all to see along with other keepsakes and novelties on display.
There were superhero comic books, Mad magazines and monster magazines hanging around; enjoyment of the fantastic, the suspenseful and the wildest of imaginations was something else we both always enjoyed, and something else that Mike welcomed me to become a part of---he always loved a good creature feature and so do I still.
On the walls of his room were portraits of JFK, who’d been a real hero to Mike as a young man. He also had ‘60s-ish posters, and a framed original sketch or two. And I can still remember his mirror, standing over the dresser, with stickers from Kingsborough Community College exhibited, keeping watching over his metal comb and brush set (the military kind), some rosary beads and a change cup. And of course my reflection, the one I was sure lingered in there even after I’d gone back upstairs. His room also contained a cabinet with Mike’s record collection secured inside, a most prized item, the majority of which he maintained through the decades, right up until today. And that brings us to music….
Due to a couple of years of compromised health in his own young life, Mike had engaged thoroughly in the arts: drawing, painting, writing, but none of these pursuits moved him more than music. He would tell me years later that when he turned 11 he’d found an old pair of bongos in the house and listened to the latest Chubby Checker records and drummed along on them with a pair of sticks, possibly something he’d liberated from a Chinese restaurant. Playing a simple Twist rhythm across these old bongos had moved him so, driven him beyond the shy kid who’d spent some summers indoors---and also got him singing. Ultimately he began tapping along to every song that came across his record player, the radio or the family hi-fi. Everyone who knew Mike over the years can tell you that he couldn’t sit still when a good song was on in the background. His fingers were dancing with his leftie lead in a rock-n-roll beat. But he could also get that enthusiastic when nothing was on in the background—he only needed to have a song going around his head…and he usually did. Mike would drum along on table tops with fingers, or an ankle crossed over his knee, or on his thigh with a pair of drumsticks or on any surface in arm’s reach, throw his head back and offer up a bit of the phantom verse in his best rock-n-roll tenor…
Drumming was so much a part of his inner pulse that, when he was 14, Mike got my grandparents to buy him a drumkit which he kept set up in the basement. In my earliest memories, he was proudly seated up high behind a gorgeous aquamarine sparkle set of Premier drums (English made!) with glowing Zildjian cymbals. Nothing could look more compelling to me, especially when he was down there rehearsing with his band---one that always included his dearest friend, Buddy, on bass. When the band was playing, you could feel it throughout the house and in warm weather when everyone’s windows were open, they serenaded the block. How majestic! As a child I watched and listened and decided immediately that I wanted to---needed to---become a musician. I can still recall the tightness in my abdomen and the slight breathlessness I got as he kicked out the rhythm. The community of people around him, both band-mates and friends was so welcoming. These folks were different than those in my immediate purview as a kid---they were artists, hippies, biker-types and other renegades, so many wonderful examples of that generation. Exposure to a few of these summer-of-love types fueled my own Left-wing philosophy and activism. But there was also so much laughter and fun and a real sense of commitment. Theresa was the heart of this wider group and I have fond memories of her limitless affection of us scruffy little kids running around during band practice.
After Mike and Theresa married and moved into an apartment of their own, his old room seemed far too empty and the house somehow too roomy. The music had stopped---at least for a few years. It was in my fourteenth year that I pushed MY parents to let me get a drumkit. Mike was there to advocate for this and then accompanied me on a trip to buy some second hand drums and helped me to set them up, taught me how to tune them and offered some basic tutelage as well. My own journey would ultimately take me to formal training and I became a jazz percussionist, but Mike always offered an enthusiastic response to whatever I was doing. We never stopped talking about drums and drumming and his knowledge of music history was vast. It mattered not that he was a self-taught player, he maintained an encyclopedic knowledge of all of the great studio musicians, both here and in the UK, which cuts they’d played on and how this band or that had splintered off to form this one and how one school of rock had progressed into another, and could site the best recorded examples too!
In more recent years he’d also taken to collecting guitars---and the basement of Mike and Theresa’s house came to be akin to a trip through the Gibson warehouse. You need a flashlight and tour-guide to find your way out of the guitar forest. When he got into something, he became an authority on it. He never missed a beat.
Mike’s hunger for knowledge never confined itself to music---he was a fountain of information about film, theatre, politics and of course the world’s history. I always gravitated to these subjects too and over the decades we had much to talk about. I am sorry I never got to see one of his lectures, but I think I get the idea. He could turn any basic description into a thesis and leapt into the role of orator at any given chance. My wife Laurie would be the first to tell you that this is not one of her favorite aspects of my personality…perhaps we can blame Mike for that too.
My uncle was the Family Intellectual and radical. He ushered in the roots of every artistic pursuit I ever had and my drive toward dissent. Even when we didn’t get to speak for stretches, we always caught up and shared. Life moves along quickly, far too quickly, but as an adult I began to realize that Mike and I were actually quite close in age and really interacted more the way cousins would, peers, rather than uncle and nephew. But of course even with all of the depth of conversation Mike’s acerbic humor, tendency toward satire and imitations, kept it light and enjoyable. He loved riffing with jokes flying back and forth----there is no real attempt at holding court without being entertaining. And that influence stays with me too.
These memories of Mike will carry me through these days of his immediate loss and allow me to reflect on him later, and as I move forward through my own life each time I set up my vibes or drums for a gig, every time I write an article or I doodle in the margins of a page, or attend a protest rally or tell a joke or spin a yarn, he will always be within reach.
Because Mike just cannot give up a good audience. Because I still need to know he is there.
-John Pietaro, June 20, 2013
John & Laurie with Mike and Theresa Contardo, Aug 2009, 'Heroes of Woodstock' concert, Bethel Woods, Bethel NY