Friday, November 06, 2009

Art School 101: In The Beginning...

So, as I move into a new place and reclaim my stake here on the web, I decided to start writing about happier memories. My Atheist rants are surely wearing on some people, and all the talk of the more depressing parts of my life can't be good, either. So, here now is a snippet from my 'college' days, when I began my life with a clean slate in the City of Champions.

After my acceptance to the Art Institute in Pittsburgh, I began to gather my stuff together and get ready to move on from my rural existence and into a faster-paced life in Pittsburgh. I'd visited the city several times before: Once, I went with the Boy Scouts to my first Pirates game at the old Three Rivers Stadium, as well as a day tour of the city which included Point Park and Allegheny Center's Buhl Planetarium. There, I ran around in a fountain that I would become very familiar with just six years later.

That day came when I discovered that the school-sponsored apartments for AIP were provided by the very same Allegheny Center. That fountain? Walked past it every day I went to class while I lived there. Even went down there to hang out quite a bit. It's always fun to have a previous connection to something that becomes a big part of your life.

Anyway, Allegheny Center also played host to the old Pittsburgh Public Theater building (PPT is now located downtown), where AIP decided that it would hold a "Roommate Orientation Day" of sorts. They would gather our incoming class into the theater, and have us sort ourselves out based on similarities and differences in order to find ourselves roommates.

The first division came from the obvious big problem: smokers vs. non-smokers. This was the funniest part of the whole ordeal, as the better majority of the incoming students (including myself) were indeed smokers. It was like a lopsided parting of the Red Sea, if you believe in such feats of engineering in ancient history: A large mass headed for the west side of the theater (and occupied a good majority of the south side as well), while the smaller mass of non-smokers took to the east side seats. Once we all got seated, I found myself next to a student named Jacob (Jake).

To be perfectly honest with you, I don't remember what the second division was. It was probably by major, but we never got that far. Jake turned to me and said "Look, I don't really want to go through all this bullshit. You look alright, wanna room up now and go have a cigarette?"

Aha. Someone thinking like me. "Sounds like a plan." With that, we stood up and left there rest of our future classmates to continue dividing amongst the chaos of Resident Life's valiant-but-futile effort at an easy solution. Our plan was better.

As we stood on the theater steps slowly killing ourselves with cancer sticks, we hashed out our similarities and differences. Jacob and I were both musicians - he plays multiple instruments with his best by far being the saxophone. We both loved rock music, especially Classic Rock and good old fashioned Heavy Rock, so there would be no conflicts with genres on any level, really. Jake was less of a geek than I am, but still nerdy enough to get what I was saying and enjoy the kinds of TV and movies I dug, too. As I recall, he was a decent Star Trek fan as well.

To be quite honest, Jake was probably the best choice of roommate I could have made out of the whole crowd, as I would come to know many of them in the next few months. For our first three days, though, Jake's friend Richard came to stay with us and experience our first time out in Pittsburgh. It was during those days that a stupid little ditty was written with me on guitar, Jake on harmonica and Richard as a James Brown wannabe. Ahh, musicians in college dorms...

Within the first few hours of move-in, Jake and I found ourselves easily making new friends, mostly by sticking our heads out of our 9th floor window (oddly, we found ourselves in apartment 911) and seeing who else was poking their heads out. It was in this manner that we met Amy and Anna, who were on the 10th floor. Mind you, even though both were attractive, they remained just our friends as we decided to venture out into the neighborhood in search of the elusive "something to do."

Jake found a cajun restaurant on James St. which also doubled as a Jazz club. While these days my stomach can't take the spice, back then, that was absolutely perfect. It was a Thursday when we went, and the club was featuring a open jazz jam hosted by local musician Leroy Wofford. I'm not much of an improv Jazz musician, but Jake of course brought both his sax and his harmonica.

Before he got on stage, we were surprised to learn about the arrival of Pittsburgh's then-mayor, Tom Murphy. Bonus! Not bad for our first week in the city if I do say so myself. Leroy was joined on stage by another popular local musician, sax player Kenny Blake, making it even more exciting once Jake took the stage, called out a tempo, and hit the first note. The rest of the band caught on in a hurry, and pretty soon, people were up and dancing as a high energy free-form song unfolded from the front of the room. Even the mayor was digging it!

Some days later, I found myself using Jake's copy of Dennis Leary's "No Cure for Cancer" album to make sound clips for a Windows sound scheme.

And then came the Great American Smoke-Out 1996. Our favorite radio station, WRRK (then a classic rock station, but last time I checked it's now "Bob FM," where they play "anything"), and the DJ at the time was giving away a gift certificate for a carton of smokes and yelling "smoke 'em if you got 'em" on the air during the afternoon drive. Coincidentally, the DJ on the air was Jude Sheets, who is actually from DuBois, PA, not that that's awesome or anything...

His contest for the carton? Well, Deep Purple (the original Mark II lineup, sans Blackmoore) was coming to do a show at Duquense Universitiy's A.J. Palumbo Center, so he wanted four callers to sing "Smoke on the Water" in their best smokers' voices. When the contest was announced, I called in and became contestant number three, and cued up some of the sound clips I had made from Jake's CD just a few days earlier.

I recorded my bit, sticking in a few clips of Dennis Leary saying how he smokes "seven THOUSAND packs a day, OK" and declaring "I love to smoke." Once that was done, I remained on the line while Jude went live with the contest recordings from the other three contestants and myself in the third slot.

But the carton of smokes on Smoke-Out day? No, that wasn't enough for this crazy DJ. He talked to the prize people, and upped the ante after we had recorded our segments. Now included with the carton of smokes was a copy of Deep Purple's new CD at the time, "Purpendicular," as well as two tickets to see them live at the Palumbo Center.

Score! Excited, Jake and I listened on as the contest began.

The first contestant was a female, and sang it in her normal voice, declaring it her smoker's voice. FAIL. Jude then proceeded to the next contestant, who must have rode the short bus to school as a child, because he couldn't figure out what he had been asked to do. ULTRAFAIL. And then came my recording.

Live, on the air, Jude completely blew off the fourth caller and declared me the winner. In the background, you could hear him rushing about the air studio, trying to kill the contest recording and cue up some contest winner sounds, which came seconds later as he was screaming "Dude, you're the winner, buddy! He comes with his own sound effects, I love it!"

Of course, Jake and I went to the show, where we met up with Jude before the opening act. It was an awesome night, both bands were spot-on, and it pretty much capped what would become some of my fondest memories of my time at AIP.

I'm hoping I can dredge up some more memories from that time to share here on the LP blog, and turn "Art School 101" into a series. It's about time I talked about some positive stuff for a change...