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Al Martinez

I was in that dream place at a dream time on an evening that never existed. : Music, Maestro, Please

April 18, 1985|AL MARTINEZ

Sometimes, when the heat of the day drains to a balmy evening and sunset paints the horizon with pastel shades of watercolor orange, I get a restless feeling. I want to be someplace I've never been, a dream place where the stars are diamonds and the sky black velvet.

I want to be where music I've never heard plays on a night I've never seen in a world that doesn't exist. Soft music I can feel rather than hear. Music that stirs the soul and prolongs the mood, vaguely recalling a moment on the far edge of memory.

So I wandered out into just such a cognac-colored night last weekend and ended up at Tony Roma's in Santa Monica. A friend had said the combo there played the kind of music dreams are made of, and she was right. But she was also wrong. Right music, wrong dream.

Nothing kills good music quicker than someone chewing on rib bones, unless it's punk rock thumping on the other side of a cardboard wall. Tony Roma's has both.

Trying to hear a honey-sweet sax making magic under those conditions is a little like drinking vintage wine mixed with root beer.

I mean, Johnny Gamboa, Tony Mora and Joe Dupuis were making sounds that should have been played to nothing louder than a summer breeze, but instead they had to contend with the chaos of slam-room punk and all that damned chewing.

All right, so it's a rib joint, and people go there to eat ribs, not pineapple yogurt, and punkers have just as much right to bad taste as anyone else. But, dear Lord, why there?

"It gets worse later in the evening," Johnny Gamboa was saying. He does the vocals and plays piano and sometimes writes the music.

"The eaters go home and there aren't as many people to absorb the sound. That happens just about the time the place next door turns up the volume."

"You can feel the vibrations through the floor," Joe Dupuis said. He was a barber who gave up clippers for drums.

"I've never played at a club before where the noise from next door made pictures fall off the wall."

"I care about these two guys or I'd never play in a place like this," Tony Mora said. He's a street kid who abandoned gang fighting in the barrio to play the sweetest reeds you'll ever hear.

"We've learned to make music against incredible odds."

"But what the hell," Johnny said, trying to be philosophical. "The place has a lot going for it, and we've known all along we were second to the ribs."

"The meat is the headliner," Joe said. "We're the fixtures." He thought about that for a moment then added, "You want to know how bad it gets? One night a little kid came up and started beating on my drums with a spare rib."

On another night a drunk stumbled toward the piano. Johnny had a drink next to him as he played. The guy was so far gone he couldn't tell a glass half full of booze from an empty tip bowl. He put a dollar bill in the scotch and asked Johnny to play some Miles Davis.

"I picked up the glass," Johnny remembers, "and sipped at the scotch with the dollar bill still in it, right in front of the man's nose. 'Sure,' I say, 'anything else?' He's too far gone to notice the money in the glass. 'No,' he says, 'that'll do it,' and staggers back to his table."

You do what you have to do. I have written in blizzards on campaign buses traveling mountain roads so dangerous that only maniacs and political candidates would use them. I have composed columns while ducking artillery fire, without blowing a single adjective. I wouldn't trade it for anything.

It's like the guy who is asked why he doesn't quit the circus when all he does is sweep up elephant manure. "What?" he says, "and give up show biz?"

Playing at Tony Roma's represents the major source of income for both Johnny and Joe. Tony also teaches music and repairs instruments. But there's more than just income at stake here.

They want to make music, they want to make it together and they want the music to be heard. They'd play in a factory if they had to. When the melody's stirring around in your soul, man, it's got to come out or you end up howling at the moon.

I thought about that as I listened to them. Johnny singing in a kind of smoky, late-night voice, looking off at nowhere, seeing nothing. Tony on the alto sax, blowing a melancholy sound, like street blues played through silk. Joe brushing the drums with a riff as soft as a kitten's paw.

It didn't matter somehow that a kid banged his fork on a table or that the village boor thought that what he had to say mattered to everyone in the room or that the fat lady ate ribs like God was going to outlaw red meat the first thing Monday morning.

I could even forget the boom, boom, boom of the punk-bass tingling up through my feet. All that isn't really the restaurant's fault. They don't control next door. They can't regulate eating noises.

For just a little while I was in that dream place at a dream time on an evening that never existed, where the sun sets in pastels and the air is as warm and sweet as a night on Acapulco Bay.

But then reality burned in like acid, and I left.

There will be other moments like that, I suppose. I'll hear from Johnny, Joe and Tony again. But it's going to have to be in a club where ribs are forbidden at a time when punkers no longer exist.

A quiet place where you can hear a little music and dream a little dream.

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