the root cellar: john pinamonti

I watched every series game in October that year against the Atlanta Braves at O’Connor’s, wedged in between Taciturn Eric and a newcomer, a tall stranger clad in a blues fedora and a Contra drug-dealing shirt, with the requisite cheroot peeking out of the breast pocket…”

 

by mike morgan

 

Watching a baseball game on television in the old O’Connor’s bar in Brooklyn was a surreal experience, a throwback to one’s salad days of hallucinogenic drug dabbling and experimentation, like trying anything once, even methylated spirits filtered through a loaf of white bread. The publican, Pat O’Connor (R.I.P.), would wobble on the stepladder, vainly attempting to position the rabbit ears for better reception. The patrons would yell advice to him, like “Stay there!” “That’s it!” “A little to the right,” or “No!” The picture itself would fluctuate between a fuzzy black and white to a luminous, blinding, bedazzling color, reminiscent of early Vanilla Fudge album covers. This variance was dependent upon whether the juke box was playing or not. If the scramble phone rang, the set shut off completely If a bus went by, it automatically changed channels. If both teams were donning white or grey uniforms, it was a toss-up as to who was batting or fielding. If Pat fired up the microwave to zap a Stewart lard sandwich, zebra stripes would appear, totally obscuring the image. But the real artistry, reserved for those with 20/20 vision and good guess work, came in figuring out where the ball was, interspersed with all of the other white snow and dots on the screen. The sound worked, so whenever the crowd at the stadium would stand up and cheer, with a blurry flurry of activity taking place in the outfield and a figure scampering around the bases, this would have a domino effect on the O’Connor’s viewers, verbalized by the universal query, “What was that ?” In 1996, the NY Yankees began their run of championships. I watched every series game in October that year against the Atlanta Braves at O’Connor’s, wedged in between Taciturn Eric and a newcomer, a tall stranger clad in a blues fedora and a Contra drug-dealing shirt, with the requisite cheroot peeking out of the breast pocket. It was difficult not to engage your neighbor in conversation. The dodgy television situation demanded it. Silent Eric was out of the question. That’s how I got to know the Man-With-No-Name, aka John Pinamonti.

Amongst other items of small talk, John told me that he was a guitarist and songwriter, but I have to admit that this didn’t register immediately. Perhaps it was because everybody that I knew then wore a different hat, nobody wanted the single dimension rap. John had given his first record to Pat O’Connor, who played it often enough that it began to make an impression. Pat, who would butcher any name that was vaguely foreign-sounding sans an Irish one (he pronounced guacamole “quacka quacka”), would stick the John tape on and proudly announce, “This is James Palo Alto. I know him.” The drinkers all agreed. This Jimmy Appaloosa fella wasn’t half bad. A year later, the great migration from O’Connor’s to Freddy’s Bar occurred. I will spare you the details of the outer crossing, the middle passage, and the rough landing on the rocks. Unlike O’Connor’s, where live music was very occasional, at Freddy’s it was on the agenda. Today, Freddy’s is considered a music venue in Brooklyn, thanks in no small part to John Pinamonti’s perseverance. John was one of the first to perform there on a regular basis, always for gratis (‘til this day), and he was the pathfinder. Early on, he played with miserable house sound equipment, was instrumental in upgrading it, treated his audience with grace and respect, held the stage with dignity, and showed us his skills. I soon became a supporter. Pat O’Connor would have been proud of his kid, Johnny Provolone, or was it Joey Pastrami.

John Pinamonti’s music springs from the waterway that irrigates the soil of Americana roots tradition and struggle. It keeps this hallowed ground rich and fertile. The original fettered ones and jazzmen ploughed these fields first, ensuring an abundant harvest. This is what entices a Bruce Springsteen to record the Seeger sessions, what makes young white city dwellers adherents of old black Delta blues pickers and hillbilly fiddlers, and that pays righteous homage to the variety of Hanks, Mels, Merles and all of the Kings, Freddie, B.B. and Albert. It’s what the young Elvis Presley listened to, and, if he hadn’t left us so soon, what the old Elvis Presley would still be listening to. It’s what Bob Dylan never freewheeled too far away from, and what Dion DiMucci always wandered back towards. It’s what fueled Maybellene’s Coupe De Ville, and drove big bad Bo Diddley’s bus. It’s the music that recognizes the sheer beauty of a Phil and Don Everly harmony, the forlornness of a Townes Van Zandt, the eerie, lonely yearning of a Roy Orbison, the twang of a Duane Eddy, and the poetry and hope of a Woody Guthrie to chronicle and survive grim times for poor people. John’s material is another tributary of this mighty body, whose waters sustain life, the whiskey river. We listeners are happy campers, safely settled ashore in the warmth of the whiskey tent. Like many of his peers and those who came before him, John Pinamonti remains in large part an unsung hero, a best-kept secret, locked out by the all-consuming blandness of what now passes for popular culture. This is through no fault of his own. It’s the nature of the beast. This does not deter John. He soldiers on.

John Pinamonti’s own songs are parables and tales, stories of his experiences, the micro-macro of his vision of our neighborhood, the city, the country, the world and relationships, brought to you with swing and a honky-tonk beat to boot. They are often about the things that we should see clearly and comprehend, but usually don’t. They can be topical or obscure. They are clever without him being a smarty-pants, sometimes funny (ha-ha, not peculiar), and sad without being maudlin for the sake of jerking a tear. Hell, the words even rhyme. A typical John Pinamonti show will consist of a stripped-down band, drums, bass and another talented guitar picker, with John doing all of the singing. The songs themselves will mostly be his own, with a healthy smattering of tasty covers by the likes of Snooks Eaglin, Tom Waits, Mickey Newbury, Jimmy Reed, Neil Young, even the Ramones, to name a few. If there is a visiting musician acquaintance in the house, John will always invite him or her up to join in. The audience is a participant at a John Pinamonti gig. Inclusion, rather than exclusion and elitism, is the order of the night. For this weary soul, that’s downright refreshing.

I’m lucky, because I’ve not only became a fan of John’s music, but I also gained his friendship, the benefits of which I am still reaping. John grew up on the other side of the country, in Portland, Oregon, and spent many years there as a guitar player in a West African big band, led by a Ghanian master drummer. I’m not a musician, but I can well imagine this wasn’t too shabby a unit to do one’s basic training with, certainly more diverse and complex than learning the Creedence Clearwater Revival songbook. In 1992, John came to New York City and wound up in Brooklyn to pursue his career as a troubadour. He was on his own, and he started from scratch. He built his following the hard way from the ground up, by playing out and making records, footing the bill for all of them. Since then, he has performed countless gigs throughout the metropolitan area and released four cds, each one, according to my reckoning, better than the previous one, which was pretty damned decent in the first place. If I had to choose a favorite, it would be Live at Sunny’s.

Sunny’s Bar is in Red Hook, Brooklyn, on the waterfront, surrounded by rusted semi-submerged tugboats and barges, disused railway shunting wagons and empty warehouses, approachable for outsiders only by bus or taxicab. Like the rest of our city, it is being encroached upon by Ikeas, Costcos, Wal-Marts, passenger ship terminals, expensive refurbished condominiums, the invasion that is called money or progress, and, of course, its front-line storm troopers, white hipsters with loads of dosh to spend on themselves. Sunny Belzano, the owner, is an older man, a genuine bohemian and a Jesus-look alike (he starred once as the Big Banana himself in a local production of a passion play, Mel Gibson take note). Sunny’s Bar is a rare gem. Its walls and shelves are covered with knick-knacks and memorabilia reflecting the bygone era of the Brooklyn docks and the longshoremen. Sunny, always a contrarian, only opens on certain nights, usually when he feels like it, but definitely on Fridays and Saturdays. For years, Sunny’s Bar wasn’t quite up to snuff with regard to the licensing crowd, so the joint was officially referred to as a “Yachting Club.” Small time mob men might congregate there as well as original residents of Red Hook, a dying breed. Back then, an honor system was in place. Each drink ordered would receive a pencil check mark on a stub of paper placed underneath the imbiber’s glass. At the end of the night, it was up to the customer to settle with Sunny. This method of doing bar business is unheard of in today’s untrustworthy smash and grab climate of looking after numero uno, a la “the customer is always wrong.” Sunny sponsors plays, art exhibits, readings and music. On the first Friday of every month, John Pinamonti and his band perform at Sunny’s Bar. They set up in the little seating section midway along the bar. The venue is ideal for John’s music. It is unobtrusive, down home, warm and friendly. Sunny’s Bar was made for John and vice versa. In June of 2006, John recorded two live sessions over a weekend which is the basis of the Live At Sunny’s album. I could go on and critique all of John’s recorded music, but if you’ve never heard him before, or want to hear more, Live At Sunny’s is the primer. It’s a mother of a record.

As a youngster in our house and an avid reader, I remember the encyclopedic folios. One was the The Regimental History of the South Wales Borderers – Twenty-Fourth Foot. My parents were both from Cardiff, Wales, so I assumed this was laying around as a result of nationalist pride, until Mogs (my father) told me that a distant relative was done in at the Battle of Rorke’s Drift in Natal, South Africa, an unusual affair whereby a handful of Welsh squaddies held off entire Zulu Impis, after the restless natives had knocked the stuffing out of the main British force at the Battle of Isandlwana. The film Zulu reenacts this 1879 bloody event, however inaccurately. The other tome was Debrett’s Peerage and Baronetage, a biblical listing of how to assess the decay and decline of the European aristocracy, a kind of snobs’ telephone directory with the wrong numbers. This one was bound in red leather with gold and black lettering, and it looked important, even though its contents were worthless. I had no idea why we had a copy, other than there was another familial connection. There was. I looked up “Morgan.” We were in the “Unfaithful Servant” section. The explanation ran as follows, “Merlin Stanley Bernard; Dismissed; Caught in the act of doing the shamboolie with the chambermaid in the master bedroom of Earl Viscount Baden Pottinger.” I was always intrigued by that volume, because I naively believed that I could create my own list, a Morgan’s Mensches. Now, I’m convinced that I should’ve. It made me conjure up what my top ten hit parade would look like, a desert island slate of super-duper human beings worth knowing. John Pinamonti’s name would be close to the top.

By now, I bet you’re wondering where the rub is. “Who is this person, John Pinamonti?” I can hear you asking. “A male incarnation of Mother Theresa and Wanda Jackson rolled into one or what?” Look, we’ve all got our faults, mine too numerous to mention here, a heinous one being that I pontificate on endlessly, under the delusion that others are actually reading my diatribes. And I don’t want to be accused of writing a puff piece about my buddy. Far from it, this one comes from the soul and deserves to be shared. I have to say that John Pinamonti’s shortcomings are so minor in comparison to what he brings to the table that they are irrelevant. For John is a true mensch. I’ve seen him perform at wakes for old departed comrades. I’ve heard him play at church weddings for younger uniting ones. He has selflessly volunteered his services for the cause, whether those be our magazine funding events, the anti-Bruce Ratner development rallies and concerts, or to raise money for friends in dire straights. His is a heart of gold.

The story goes like this. Some time in the 1980s, Bruce Springsteen found himself in a bar in New Orleans, where a young local player by the name of Mason Ruffner was strutting his repertoire. Springsteen was duly impressed with the set, so much so that he stayed after the gig and helped the band load the equipment onto the van. Mason Ruffner went on to have a short but successful career. John Pinamonti is the Springsteen character here, except he doesn’t have the fame. I can recall the many times that John has stepped aside so that another act can have a chance to play, where he’s been the one loading out when everybody else has gone home. For performing live is not only the moment in the spotlight and the applause after the song, it’s also the toil of making it all happen, before and after. Because John doesn’t have a supporting organization, he does this on his own, and usually for the benefit of everyone else on the same bill. This is unrewarded labor, and it comes with having the work ethic of a journeyman.

One of the perks of being John Pinamonti’s friend is a ritual we both undertake, referred to as “The Swap.” The Swap is what happens when two like-minded individuals discover that they both collect rare records and decide to share them. The Swap can go on for years, until it’s time to do “The Return Swap.” In the latest Swap episode, I am about to lend a Long John Baldry piece of vinyl to John and receive another one from him. Long John Baldry, who died a few years ago, was an original English rhythm and blues belter, a tall, gawky looking geezer (he was seven foot) and compadre of other fellow countrymen nutters like Screaming Lord Sutch, Rory Storm and another beanpole, knock-kneed, bespectacled geek, Freddie Garrity, front man for the Dreamers. Long John Baldry is said to have discovered Rod Stewart and later became the voice of Doctor Robotnik in The Adventures of Sonic the Hedgehog. To give you some idea of his clout, one of the Long John Baldry albums boasts a photograph, dated 1961, of a baby-faced Paul McCartney and the man himself chatting on a Liverpool train station platform. My contribution is Baldry’s Back, the cover of which has a sneering British lion in a leather jacket wailing into a microphone. In return, I get to listen to Baldry’s Out, with the single “Don’t Try To Lay No Boogie-Woogie On The King Of Rock And Roll.” One might correctly surmise from these album titles that Long John Baldry was in and out of the looney bin. My point is this. In our community today, I could probably count the number of people who are aware of Long John Baldry on the fingers of one hand and still have enough digits left to enjoy a substantial nose pick. John Pinamonti knows his musical history well enough to be one of those present and accounted for at the Baldry roll-call.

Like many gifted musicians, John cannot earn a decent living by playing alone, so he has a day job. This is our bane, our lot in life. While some lawyers charge more per hour than what we get paid in a week for their monumental contributions to the shit pile of history, those of us, like John, who actually have something of value to offer, struggle to juggle our creative time with drudgery. The flip side of this is that it keeps us honest and gives clarity to the perspective and the project. In the end, that’s all that matters. And John Pinamonti matters. When he first came into our lives and played in Freddy’s Backroom, the audience would be we few and a passed out drunk or two. Today, he can pack the room. His willingness to stick at it and hone his craft is paying off. Certain European deejays play his songs constantly on their radio programs. Listed below is a discography and address for John’s website, where his records can be purchased. Go there, read and listen. If you live around the New York City area, check out the musical press guides for when and where he’s playing next. It’s time well spent. And then you’ll agree with Mr. Patrick O’Connor, and have another exotic glass of Pina Monti for his pal, John Pina Colada. You won’t be disappointed.

John Pinamonti Discography:

Tragico Magico” (1996)
High, Wide and Handsome” (2000)
JP3” (2004)
Urbane Myth – Live at Sunny’s” (2007)

John Pinamonti’s website address is http://www.pinamonti.com

John Pinamonti on MySpace.

Originally published:
Issue Fifty-One
January 2008

 


A Brooklynite by way of Wales and South Africa, Mike Morgan is the founder of Burrow Magazine and serves as one of its Senior Editors and Contributors. In addition to these duties, he has been and continues to be at the heart of a thriving literary, art and music scene and is a regular at several neighborhood bars, where he can be found discussing global and local affairs, rock and roll, various New York sports teams, and whatever books he happens to be reading at the time. More from Mike Morgan can be found in the Vault of Smoke.

Comments are closed