A Picture's Worth, Chapter 1

(The first in, I hope, a series, of posts about a picture that are exactly 1,000 words long [according to MS Word]. Get it? And, oh yeah, these words don't count. The rest of them do.)

September 8, 1995. That's not when this picture was taken. I'm guessing I snapped it in 2000 (at Maxwell's in Hoboken, New Jersey) with one of those old-fashioned contraptions that you loaded film into, took pictures with, and then hoped for the best when you got the roll developed. I got a winner here (full disclosure: I used newfangled technology to crop out the side of a woman's head).

But back to that Friday night in September, in Ithaca, New York.

I was only a few days into my sophomore year, after a freshman year that felt a lot like failure. I'm being a little dramatic, but I think this proves my point: having acquired so few friends that I knew no one who wanted to live with me, I squatted my spot in the triple I lived in in the least convenient building on campus. That is, I decided to stay where I was and again live with two strangers in a fairly tiny room. This is not the action of a guy setting the college world on fire.

In any case, my new roommates had just settled in when I headed downtown and saw a poster that said NRBQ was playing at the State Theater. I had started venturing downtown to see shows midway through my freshman year and had discovered the blues at a club called The Haunt when I went to see Luther "Guitar Jr." Johnson on a weekend night. I came back to the dorm so revved up that, as I was breathlessly recapping the show, I realized that I had walked into the middle of one of my roommates making out with his girlfriend. Sorry, Bob.

But, you see, I'd found live music. I'd been to a few concerts, but they were all in big theaters or under festival tents. I'd never been in a small club and seen it all right there in front of me. Something big had opened up in my world, and nothing--particularly my sense of hearing--was going to be the same.

So, anyway, the NRBQ show.

I had a little awareness of NRBQ, mainly through their connection with pro wrestling manager Captain Lou Albano and their recording of "Captain Lou.” I can't quite recall if I had bought my cassette of Lou and the Q prior to the show, but I'm guessing I might have because I knew the guy on the left in the show poster wasn't Big Al Anderson and in those early Internet days, I can't imagine how I would've known about Big Al (who left the band in 1994 and was replaced by Johnny Spampinato, brother of NRBQ bass player Joey). So, it's quite possible that I bought my ticket for the show on the basis of one album featuring a pro wrestling manager rather than just one song about a pro wrestling manager. What else would an 18-year-old do on the first Friday night of the school year?

I'm not saying I made a ton of great decisions in college (the final tally is between 4 and 7), but buying that ticket to see NRBQ was definitely one of them. The 1,600-seat theater was probably 1,500 shy of a sellout, but you wouldn't have known it if you looked on the stage. The crazy guy with the blond hair, Terry Adams, was banging away on the piano and this weird piano-looking thing that made bizarre, spacy sounds (later determined to be a clavinet). The curly-haired guy on the drums, Tommy Ardolino, was, like all good drummers, making everything seem effortless while alternately swinging and pounding throughout the set. And the brothers Spampinato were grinning ear to ear, particularly during the spell-along song that bore their last name. Everybody, from the stage on out, looked like they were having the time of their lives. It all ended too soon, and after I got three of the guys to sign one of those posters I'd seen, I went back to my squatted triple with some sense that everything was going to be OK. I was going to get through college just fine, and music was going to be there to help.

I did, and it was.

As the picture indicates, that wasn't the last NRBQ show I went to. In fact, there were about fifteen more, at a street fair in Hoboken, at the Bottom Line, on a boat, at Castaways back in Ithaca after I graduated, and at the Bowery Ballroom for what might be my favorite show of all time, their 30th anniversary concert, which featured Captain Lou himself, a moment so joyous that I wish someone had taken a picture of me. I could've given you a few thousand on that one.

And I don't think I ever left an NRBQ show without a smile on my face. It would've been hard to do so, because Terry, Joey, Johnny, and Tommy looked to be having such a good time being goofy boys in grown men's bodies (staging puppet shows in the middle of a set, waving to the audience after every song, taking turns blowing the trumpet) that you couldn't help but join in. Or, to paraphrase their own song, they felt so good, and they wanted you to feel good, too.

But I don't feel good right now. Tommy Ardolino died on Friday. It felt like a punch when I read the news. But later in the day, I thought about this picture. And I smiled, thinking about all those shows in all those places with all that fun. And I felt a little better that I'd had the chance to see Tommy behind the drums so many times and that I bought that ticket in Ithaca.

I'm going to see the new NRBQ next week, with three new and equally talented guys now backing Terry. I'll probably feel a little sad for a bit.

But not for too long.

I plan on leaving with a smile.

Thanks, Tommy.

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