Of Songbirds, Salesmen and a Bigger Soul

by Mark Dvorak

Today I disassembled my banjo and put a new drum head on it. Such operations are never simple or clean. There is always a certain amount of jerry-rigging and adjusting and guessing and tinkering. I am reminded of the time I went to the shoe store and asked the salesman for a pair of shoes that felt something like the worn in, beat up loafers that had taken me eight years to break in, to form to my feet and fit to my gait. Of course he had no such shoes in stock, but the new ones he showed me looked like the old ones used to look before I cared about them. 

A new banjo head is stiff and makes your banjo sound different. And I cleaned all the dust and corrosion off of some of the innards and tightened everything down to specs and made a crude modification to the design of the tail piece and after a morning and an afternoon of monkeying around with it and playing it and taking it apart again then tuning it again then adjusting the neck angle again, it still isn't anything like my old comfortable banjo, the one I took apart this morning after I happened to hear the news that the great tenor Luciano Pavarotti had passed away.

I've never been to the opera, although I've listened to some on the radio. I have been around long enough I think, to most times recognize artistry where and when it occurs, whether I understand it completely or not. I grow evermore thankful for those moments, and could not help but think about Pavarotti while dismantling my beloved Vega banjo. I couldn't help but think that the world has lost another precious songbird. To be sure, I haven't followed his career very closely. A good friend of mine was once a member of the Chicago Lyric Opera and I remember him all aglow when the great Pavarotti was scheduled to come to Chicago. And I remember him then bemoaning the series of cancellations that ensued, so many so that it led the Lyric to no longer require Pavarotti's services. Ever. I think perhaps that's when I began to take some notice of him. If I remember correctly, he said something like, "Pozzo del' oh," which means, "Oh well." 

I remember seeing Pavarotti sing on televsion with The Three Tenors and being absolutely knocked out by the sounds he was able to make. If you think you don't like opera, or that kind of singing, try making some of those same sounds on your own. Go on into the shower, right now, and turn on the water and begin. After you towel off, you still may not like opera, but you surely will have greater admiration for one who could sing with such power and grace, and at the same time make it look effortless. Pavarotti made singing look like fun. Go ahead and put your pants back on.

I saw Pavarotti sing with the Spice Girls too, on television. When he received harsh criticism for degrading his art by appearing with them, he shrugged it off and said, "Più gente ora gradisce l'opera," which means something like, "Nobody cares what you think."

And then at some point Pavarotti left his wife of thirty-seven years and married a woman very much younger than he. The split was messy, the new relationship public. His character was called into question time and again, and time and again he responded, "Sono felice," which means, "Mind your own damned business."

While driving to the hardware store to buy some hardware with which I had hoped to jerry-rig the tailpiece of my Vega, I heard Rudy Giuliani being interviewed on the radio. Rudy is not an opera singer, nor is he Italian. He is Italian-American and he is campaigning to become the President of the United States. And he talked like a pitchman behind on his sales quota. Not so fast Rudy, I'm not so sure I am interested.

'Il presidente?' 

'Prego dio!' 

The journalist interviewing him was neither Italian nor Italian-American, but he generally agreed with everything Rudy said and offered a lot of like opinions. Isn't a journalist supposed to ask questions? 

"Il vostro parere non importa" roughly means, "Your opinion is not so important." You can look up "Due baci-asini" for yourself.

Seriously Rudy, if you want my vote in the election a year and two months from now, try reading the United States Constitution again, the "Libro di Regola," and talk to me about that on the radio. Everything both you and I need to know is in there, and it strikes me that it may have been awhile since you last looked at it. But what do I know? I am a banjo player on my way to the hardware. Mama mia!

Here's another opinion. The guy who works evenings at the hardware store in town is a Saint.

"Questo uomo è un San." 

He is a young man and doesn’t say much, but he knows where everything is in the store. I showed him the tailpiece to my Vega and showed him the little holes where the pin used to hold it together. Immediately he said, "Let's go back and start digging around." Right away this kid recognized his chance to participate in the the holy practice of jerry-rigging, without ever once thinking he had to know the first thing about a banjo. 

"Come un Dio." 

And when I got back to the car, Rudy and the interviewer were still prattling on, talking about things that anyone with access to a computer and Google.com would be able to call into question. I didn't hear Rudy talk about policy, nor did I hear him offer any meaningful proposals. He may have done so during the seven minutes or so I was in the hardware store, but I went in during a commercial break and I don't think so. Rudy reported very few facts, maybe none, and he generally spoke poorly of others in his own chosen field, those also campaigning to become President.

"Come un Dio o caduta dal riposo."

Then once more the commercials came. A car salesman, a pitch for a vacation package, a medicine commercial, a couple of program teasers, a restaurant ad. I changed the channel, and there was Pavarotti. He was singing "Ave Maria," and it made me cry.

I once had the chance to listen to Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. speak and I have remembered something that he said. Toward the end of his talk he said, "We are here on earth to fart around. Don't let anyone tell you different."

And Kurt also said, "Art isn't a trade, it's a way to make your soul grow. We become by practicing art, no matter how well or how badly. Practicing art is a way to make your soul bigger."

Luciano, avete un'anima grande. Grazie. Resto nella pace.

9.6.07


Stay in touch • info@markdvorak.com • PO Box 181 • Brookfield IL 60513 • 312 315 4273