Following Through On A Calling: The John Tabacco Story

John Tabacco

John Tabacco © 2019

I was born in February 1961. By 1962, music started to pique my interest. I remember stumbling up to the black and white TV set in the kitchen every time this cheesy Wrigley Spearmint Gum commercial came on. Sure, that cute, bendy little elf (just a bunch of simple stills) made me smile, but the real treat was the accompanying song. It made me happy. The woman who sang the song sounded happy. If this is what happiness is, I wanted more. And then it was over in a minute. Huh? I’d proceed to trip over a scary leaf or something and cry.

Life’s ups and downs are learned at such a young age. A year or two passed. I found myself downstairs, where my father kept his hi-fi system. Or what was considered hi-fi. An analog Pioneer amp/radio tuner, two mysterious sand-insulated Wharfdale speakers, and a three-speed Garrade diamond needle turntable that always played the records slightly slower than intended. I didn’t care, nor would I realize this until years later.

Everything I did at that time was strictly felt. I’d ask my mom to play music when my father was at work. She’d scan through the limited record collection and put on Frank Sinatra’s “Strangers In The Night” or the soundtrack to Mary Poppins, a Puccini opera, or a scratchy 45 (a single) from the 1950s. All good stuff, but the vinyl that intrigued me the most was these ultra stereophonic records that were more or less used to test out the audio equipment. I loved how the bongos switched from speaker to speaker. It was magic, and no one questioned it.  By the age of six, I was jumping around to The Monkees, overtaken by The Beatles, and couldn’t keep my eyes off that sexy album cover from the Tijuana Brass LP.

Elementary school and beyond meant that at 2:00 PM, I was going back home to listen to some ear food. I was hooked. When I was nine, I had my dad scratch out the ”F” word on John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band record, and I started to understand the power of lyrics. Wrapped around music – a dangerous thing.  Not to mention the suggestively creative artwork found in The Beatles’ book, Illustrated Lyrics Vol. 1 & 2. Consequently, I drew a lot of twisted objects that looked like something out of Gray Anatomy and wrote a bunch of bizarre, absurd stories while seriously focusing on little league baseball (big 1969 Met fan). But as far as music, all I could do was sing in tune, keep time on the furniture (which eventually led to a proper drum set), and fumble through on the clarinet. I had no idea how to write music. Total mystery.

Fact #1:

My father did not condone my pursuit of creating music and art, but he knew nothing he could say would stop me. He always looked at my lifestyle with pity ( I never made much money or had any form of health insurance) and confusion (I never took any drugs or connected myself with a significant other yet lived in environments with a lot of musician friends). That is until a few days before he died of a heart attack at age 77. The last time I talked to him, he was not happy about the oncoming cold weather, and as I shook his hand goodbye, he said to me, “I guess if you’re happy with what you are doing, then you’re doing the right thing.”  He gave me his blessing.  Something I never thought I’d hear. And that was it. Who was the teacher?

Fact #2:

Some people hear their calling at a young age, some after they are already established in a more controlled job market, and some listen to it when they retire. I heard it when I was fourteen in 1975, right in the middle of listening to Frank Zappa’s mini rock opera, “Billy The Mountain.” I heard a booming voice in my head say, “JOHN TABACCO, THIS IS WHAT YOU WILL DO FOR THE REST OF YOUR LIFE,” I took that to mean “music” since I was not interested in anything else other than cutting and pasting together intricate absurd collages or daydreaming about some girl in school.

And so it was I continued to find solace and deep meaning in vinyl records, mostly by the following artists: The big four: The Beatles (together and separately), Frank Zappa (surrogate father figure), Steely Dan, and The Firesign Theatre. Along the way, Monty Python, Elton John, Paul Simon, Stevie Wonder, Captain Beefheart, Brian Wilson, Thelonious Monk, Stravinsky, Martin Mull, Carly Simon, Joni Mitchell, Billy Joel and a myriad of others.

In high school, I learned music theory but was never a stand-out musician (though I developed a pretty good grasp of the drums), and as stated before, I could always sing. The first time I ever sang in front of an audience, the microphone did not work, and I just belted it out while the band continued to play. This was an embarrassing moment, to say the least and not a confidence booster.

Nonetheless, that event did not deter my musical focus, and it wasn’t until I was eighteen that I figured out how to write a song. Up until that time, I was wrapped around notating theoretical rhythmic dots on a staff paper that never hit the airwaves.  In 1979, I bought a reel-to-reel tape recorder (The Akai GX 4000-D) that opened many creative doors. For the first time (other than a few crude attempts using 2 cassette recorders – bouncing the music from one machine to another) I could try out multi-layered ideas for songs and have the music played back with some reasonable amount of audio fidelity. This process allowed me to play my ideas to another human to see if what I came up with made any sense. It did, and throughout college, I honed my recording and music-making skills.

By 1987, my skills were good enough to land me a job at a professional recording studio, Backdoor Studios, in Huntington Station.

Quick story #1:

The only 9-5 job I ever had was a three-year stint at a local rent-a-car franchise called Pam Rent-A-Car. The job allowed me to make enough money to upgrade my Akai reel-to-reel to an 8-track recording system where you could make some decent-sounding demos. All hail the “Tascam 38” eight track reel to reel and it’s accompanying M40 mixing console. The same equipment The Eurythmics used to cut their hit “Sweet Dreams.”

Anyway, on July 14th, 1986, after a rather unpleasant conversation with my boss, I told him flat out, “I quit!”  Boy, that felt exhilarating and scary to do (if you haven’t already, you should try it sometime). That night, I decided to re-organize my bedroom (an actual place I recorded), and while in this state of cleansing, I came across a pink “Post It” with some writing on it. The note read: “Stop pulling it. Your grandmother is spitting up Orange Fanta, and she’s run out of lavender toilet paper.”  My high school friend and multi-talented musician Chris Pati, who I hadn’t been in contact with for over six years, wrote it.  For some reason, he dated the post it : July 14th, 1986. I showed it to my sister, who immediately recognized this as a sign, and for the next couple of months, she bugged me to call up Chris to find out what he was up to.

At the beginning of January 1987, I did just that. Suffice it to say the phone conversation was as if we picked up where we left off. Chris was running a professional 24-track recording studio in Huntington Station, and we set a time for me to come by.  I showed up at Chris’ facility (Backdoor Studios) on some fateful cold January evening. He arrived a bit late but eagerly welcomed me into his recording lair. It was fascinating to see this big 24-track machine he worked with, accompanied by a mixing console that seemed to go on forever. I nervously played him some of the songs I recorded on my semi-pro equipment, and he was impressed.

I knew, leaving to head back to my home, that my life would change right there and then. And it did. The next day, Chris called me. His assistant engineer suddenly had to move, and he was wondering if I would be interested in taking his place. No brainer. Quickly, I found myself fully immersed in the commercial music world, making some money engineering, producing, sleeping on the studio couch and meeting all these amazing artists. Studios came and went but all the while, I still found myself creating songs and art in tandem. Basically, documenting my obscure life on magnetic tape and later onto visual digital platforms. Why? I’m still not sure, but circumstances have allowed me to do so. Go with it.

In my travels, I’ve met many talented songwriters and formed teams with them. The co-writing aspect always appealed to me as it extended my musical vocabulary with which to create, and it kept the writing fresh. Their influence would allow me to look at ideas I came up with and run it through their filter. Hence, my label: ƒ/x Records.  Because of that, I don’t think my catalog gets too redundant. If anything, co-writing adds to the intricate conceptual continuity that runs throughout each CD. Since I have had control over most aspects of the music (indeed the art), you could theoretically take any of my pieces from any time period and create a reasonably cohesive album. My voice has changed over the years, but the general feel of what I do is pretty consistent.

The most important thing I’ve learned from this kind of reflective life is that everything is connected. People and events fall right on cue. Many times, some pre-occurrences are almost like echoes of the future.

Quick Story #2:

Singer, songwriter, and my co-host on Clam Radio

Susan DeVita and I placed a song we wrote, “Look At Me,” in a movie called What Happened Last Night. Knowing our song actually found its way into an outside artistic project was a wonderful feeling. We went to the premiere. Before we got out of the car, we were discussing Susan’s grandfather, who had passed away. He was a guitarist who played with inventor-musician Les Paul back in the forties. Susan said he would have been proud to see the ”DeVita” name on the big screen. Somehow her grandfather’s favorite phrase, “A horse’s ass,” crept up into our conversation several times. We didn’t think much of it.  We sat down in the theater, popcorn in hand, and the movie played.

About fifteen minutes in, one of the lead characters starts referring to the other’s boyfriend as, “A horse’s ass,”  Now, she doesn’t just say this one time in the scene. She says it five or six times (the phrase being deliberately emphasized with each line). Of course, “A horse’s ass” is not an esoteric thing to say, but coming out of a young person’s mouth in such a contemporary movie at that particular time? Well, we took it as a sign. And the sign said we are in the right place. We are doing exactly what we should be doing.  These connections probably happen in everyone’s lives. They are either meaningless, or they are clues as to what your life path is all about. I tend to opt for the latter.  Of course, I don’t always understand the connections at first, but usually, their meaning is made known to me within a reasonable amount of time.

These synchronicities validate (in my mind) that what I am doing is the right thing and there is no need to second-guess. I’ve always trusted that. The voice I heard back in 1975 was no accident. It was probably me in the future.  Choosing the life of an artist is not practical and frankly improbable (I’m not financially well off and never have been), but somehow, I get just what I need. Always have. And this creative, self-motivated life has been mostly enjoyable, if not entirely ironic. Where it leads, “It’s Anybody’s Guess.”

The Battle Of Plattsburgh
History Of The Battle Of Plattsburgh
NYC's IBM Building
History of NYC’s IBM Building (590 Madison Avenue)
New York's Vineyards and Wine Making History
New York’s Vineyards And Wine Making History
Naming Gotham Book Review
Naming Gotham: Who Does New York City Honor, and Why?
The Transformation From City Life To Suburbia For A Teen In The 1970s
Laura Nyro
A Look At The Carrer Of Bronx Born Songwriter Laura Nyro
George Santos Saga
The Saga Of George Santos And His Disinformation Campaign
History Of The Shubert Brothers And Shubert Organization
History Of The Shubert Brothers And Shubert Organization
The Nightmare Of The Long Island To New York City LIE Commute
The Nightmare Of The Long Island To New York City LIE Commute
My Experience Taking A Greyhound From NYC To Plattsburgh
My Experience Taking A Greyhound From NYC To Plattsburgh
New York State Thruway Rest Stops
Visiting The Just Opened New York State Thruway Rest Stops
Citi Bike
Is Riding A Citi Bike In NYC Safer Than Riding A Personal Bicycle?
Dakota Building History
The Dakota Building: New York’s Most Exclusive Address
St. James General Store
The Wonder And History Of The St. James General Store
History Of New York's Jacob K. Javits Convention Center
History Of New York’s Jacob K. Javits Convention Center
Rockefeller Center's Top Of The Rock
History And Attractions Of Rockefeller Center’s Top Of The Rock
History Of TSS Stores (Times Square Stores) In NY
History Of TSS Stores (Times Square Stores) In NY
History Of Loehmann's Department Stores
History Of Loehmann’s Department Stores
History Of Sears, Roebuck and Co.
History Of Sears, Roebuck and Co.
Bonwit Teller Department Stores
History Of New York’s Bonwit Teller Department Stores
Michael R. Virgintino Releases His Second Book On Freedomland U.S.A.
Jet's Curse
Jet’s Curse Storms Into Stadium Swallowing Aaron Rodgers
New York Mets Trade Max Scherzer to Texas Rangers
New York Mets Trade Max Scherzer to Texas Rangers
Covid-19 Vaccine In NYC
Describing The Experience Of Getting The COVID-19 Vaccine In NYC