Tony Laiolo – Marching Madness

Tenx9 Nashville’s first theme of 2016 was “Whoops.” Here’s Tenx9 regular Tony Laiolo’s tale about a high school marching band mishap senior year. 

Senior year of high school. The best of times. First day of classes, first thing out of the band director’s mouth. “You’ll be excited to know that this year for the first time ever we are going to be a marching band.”

Oh, we were excited all right. Marching? Nobody asked us! Why are we being punished? The boys who’d had junior high P.E. with Coach McWilliams weren’t strangers to marching. His strategy for turning marshmallows into men was to march us around the dirt field doing military call-and-response cadences. “Your stomach is in, your chest is out, sound off, 3, 4.” When we messed up — which was constantly — he’d go all drill sergeant and get in our face with this evil glee.

Not a happy memory, and the concept of stirring in music and uniforms did not exactly improve it. We didn’t know where this brilliantly stupid idea came from, but we figured it had something to do with our arch-rival, Pacific Grove High School, better known as P.G.

Some background. The last game of each football season — this is the Late Jurassic, before playoffs were invented — was a battle between the two schools for possession of The Shoe, a perpetual trophy featuring the bronzed football shoe of our typing teacher. From back in the day. The game really hadn’t been much of a “battle” for a while. The last time P.G. won The Shoe, we seniors had been in kindergarten.

You’d think that kind of domination would be sufficient for your booster types to sit back, puff out their chests permanently and leave well enough alone. But there was one thing that made P.G.’s humiliation incomplete — their accursed, cast-of-thousands marching band, who were apparently born marching and never met a competition they felt like letting anybody else win.

A typical game would feature four quarters of our boys marching down the field, piling up the score versus their alleged football team, and a halftime show of the P.G. band marching down the field, “piling up the score” versus no one, because we — our band — would be busy trying to blend into the bleachers.

Only now — in our senior year, the best of times — they’d march off the field and we’d march on. Like a punchline. Like a patsy. Like the Washington Generals being fed to the Harlem Globetrotters.

Our uniforms arrived. Where P.G.’s were a vibrant, blinding, Roman legion-style red-and-gold, ours were gray-and-gray, with the merest whisper of red. Gray-and-gray. They looked like something you’d be buried in. You know, if they fit better.

We started learning to march. Measured strides? Knees lifted to uniform heights? Military precision? Um, no. Even when we did everything more-or-less right, the “wow” factor was conspicuously absent.

At least this so-called show would not be going on the road. Only P.G. marched at the other guy’s place. But we had five home games and soon enough there we were — first home game, filing out to the end zone at halftime to “entertain” the crowd — one way or the other.

Our drum major was a new kid named Duane. I don’t remember how he won the job. Probably no one else wanted it, and maybe Duane saw it as a good way to become part of his new school. You know: “Here, kid. You get the big hat and the big baton. You’re somebody.”

Well, yeah, you’re somebody with a hat that’s taller than you and a high squeaky voice that when raised to give commands gets even squeakier and cracks up the band. Welcome to showbiz, Duane.

Somehow we got through the first four home games, more of a curiosity than a spectacle. Hard to be spectacular when there’s only 30 of you. But we sometimes approached adequacy and built a fragile confidence that maybe we wouldn’t be completely ostracized from society.

But all along, the rhino in the room was the P.G. game at season’s end. We knew what was coming and there was no way to avoid it.

Only, as it turned out, there was a way to avoid it. As we put on our burial suit uniforms before the P.G. game, someone said, “Where’s Duane?” Well, there was no Duane. Duane was “sick.” Duane would be missing all the fun.

So, plug in the understudy, right? Whoops. There isn’t one. No Plan B. Now what? And there he was, in the trumpet section. Class president, basketball and track star, one of the smartest guys in school. Bob! Come on down!

Bob wasn’t crazy about the idea. Like I said, he was really smart. But he was also ridiculously responsible and really, picturing any of the rest of us out in front was like, “hey, let’s run around with our heads cut off.”

So Bob swallowed his qualms and said yes. And in truth, the band probably had more confidence in Brand New Bob than it had in Deathly Ill Duane.

And he did great. After the P.G. band worked their wonders and levitated off the field, he led us out and we started our routine flawlessly. Maybe we were going to be OK.

Bob really only made one mistake. Out in front of us and facing back toward us as we all marched upfield, he gave the command for the whole band to hang a left. To his left was the home side, our side, which was exactly where we were supposed to go. But remember, he alone was marching backwards. His left was our right.

So at that instant, a random half of the band followed his command and hung a left. And a random half of the band did what they were supposed to and hung a right. Chaos. Cymbals crashing into bass drums, trombones into tubas, flutes into foreheads. It was by far the most entertainment our band had ever provided.

We managed to finish the routine and sheepishly came off the field thinking “thank god for our football team.” Just two quarters from now our guys would be hoisting The Shoe overhead for the 12th year in a row, and no one would remember our band’s 30-car pileup.

Just one fly in that ointment. The scoreboard. For the first time in 12 years P.G. won the football game. In our senior year. The best of times.

Tony Laiolo – Gift, Returned


At Tenx9 Nashville’s November 2015 event “Sorry”, Tony Laiolo shared a story of the sorriest costume he had ever seen…

Late one night, since I was neither sleeping nor working, I was doing what I do the other third of the time — waiting at a stoplight. It was the one in Nashville that eventually lets you onto 21st in the dead zone between the bright lights of Hillsboro Village and the dim bulbs of Brown’s Diner, and I’d been there for approximately eight hours. About average.

There were no other cars, but I wasn’t completely alone. Off to my right was a pedestrian, a young man wearing a large box. His head was visible, and his arms and lower legs, but that was it. Mostly box.

I should point out that it was Halloween. Any other night this guy is stopped for questioning, gets the flashlight in the face. “What’s in the box, kid?” This one night of the year, though, he was free to waltz around looking just as goofy as he wants, and while he wasn’t exactly waltzing, he had the goofy part down.

I couldn’t help thinking, “Well, that is the sorriest costume ever.” The box was bad enough, but his hangdog expression clinched it — like maybe he’d come to the same conclusion I had about his “ensemble.” If I put down the window and yelled “Happy Halloween,” I was pretty sure he’d start to cry.

Now, truth be told, when it comes to costumes, I’ve got no room to talk. My “best” costume ever was without question a bowling shirt I found at Goodwill. Seriously. Over the breast pocket, normally enough, was the name “Sam,” but across the left shoulder, embroidered in flowing red script, it said “Romeo.” So I wore the bowling shirt, rocked a red toothpick, and went as “Romeo from Joliet.”

And that was the best one. Usually I’d just dress all in green and go as a tree. Dogs loved me.

So, no room to talk. Like that’ll stop me. BoxGuy finally got the “Walk” signal and started self-consciously crossing in front of me. It’s a wide intersection and I was in the inside lane, and as he got nearer I saw what I couldn’t see before — the ribbon and the bow. “OK, you’re a gift box. Congratulations. That is still the sorriest costume I’ve ever seen.”

I pictured him earlier in the evening, taping and tying himself together. “This is so cool, this is so foxy.” Maybe he imagined a pretty girl purring, “I want to unwrap you.”

But maybe what he thought was “foxy” was really more along the lines of “boxy,” and maybe his romantic imaginings obscured other, more practical concerns he would have done well to consider. Like “can you fit through a door? Can you even sit down?”

It’s entirely possible he could do neither and spent the whole evening out in the garden, shivering with the smokers and trying to look cool while leaning awkwardly against a tree. And he might have forgotten one other important point. In fact, if a pretty girl said anything to him, my guess is, “Good luck going to the bathroom.”

As he trudged past my windshield all I knew for sure was that his night had gone horribly wrong. This gift, crafted with such care, had been rejected, returned, and now had to take itself back where it came from, all alone in the world — except for one smirking wiseguy stuck at a stoplight.

But right about the time I was considering the phrase “be there or be square,” he finally made it past me and I could see the back of the box. And there, attached to this sad symbol of unwantedness, was the final element of the costume, a large gift tag, which said…..

“To Women. From God.”

…and at that moment two things happened: 1) “Romeo from Joliet” knew he’d just had his little Halloween butt kicked to the curb by “God’s Gift To Women,” and 2) the sorriest costume I’d ever seen became just jmaybe the best.

Tony Laiolo – Dates

Tony Laiolo shares about a date to a silent movie that ended…unexpectedly.

Laugh Track

In my 20s I went with an actress. This was back when I still thought drama was a good thing in a woman. She’d gone to Hollywood for a while, studied Method Acting, tried out for some parts, gave it a shot. She was good, but it didn’t happen. When I met her back in Monterey, she was doing damsel-in-distress roles, melodramas at a place called California’s  First Theater, which, you’ll be surprised to know, was California’s first theater, even though you’d never know it from the name.

We had fun. At least I think we did — I mean, she was, after all, someone trained in pretense. No, we did have fun, and her crowd — the people you meet through somebody new — was fun, too, also laced with actors. Good parties, good walls to be a fly on — a little improv, a little recitation, a little wine, a little pantomime, a little wine, a little regurgitation. Some parts were better than others.

They didn’t just have good grape products, they had a good grapevine. You’d hear about things off the beaten path, and one time we heard about a double bill that night at the local junior college. Silent films. Sounded different. Fit in with the melodramas she was doing. So we went.

It was in a small music hall, maybe 200 seats, with close to 200 rear ends packed into them. Apparently ours wasn’t the only grapevine.

There were none of the usual trappings of the movie-going experience. No popcorn, no Pepsi (in the cup or on the floor). No music either. The first movie started, and one would expect an accompanist, right? — a piano or organ. But no, none of that extravagant frippery for Monterey Peninsula College, thank you. At this minor bastion of learning, the literal truth would be served, and as these were silent films, silent would mean Silent!

Which was a little spooky. You’ve got strangers hemming you in on all sides, and in that kind of seating it was cheek by jowl, and try to keep your legs from wandering. Except maybe on the actress’ side. It kind of felt like everybody was breathing each other’s air. Usually, if you’re sitting in a big silent crowd like that, somebody’s speaking. Preacher. Teacher. Warden. Not that night. Nobody was talking.

Oh, there was some sound. Seats creak, tummies gurgle. But that didn’t so much relieve the silence as reinforce it. You knew the noises were not made gladly by their authors, were not a tonic to them, and in fact only made them even more self-conscious and uncomfortable than the rest of us.

So the movie rolled for a couple of minutes in total silence. I leaned over and whispered to my date, “This is just weird.” Given the circumstances, 23 neighbors may have heard the whisper and nodded in the darkness.

But then something happened. Someone laughed, and then someone else laughed, and — let me try to reconstruct this — that second laugh was kind of peculiar and sounded funny enough that maybe five others — let’s say two sisters in their 30s, a boys P.E. coach, a retired receptionist, somebody’s pet parrot — all laughed in their own unique and inimitable ways, and then something happened on the screen, something about half the crowd found funny and got them going, and then everybody else, the ones not already laughing, start to — because for one thing the seats are joined at the hip and almost every row has at least one person — let’s call him Jimbo — who cracks up convulsively, and who’s rocking the whole row, and they’re laughing at that — while looking for a seatbelt, or they’re laughing because everybody else is laughing and it sounds like fun and they don’t want to get left out, or they’re laughing because the lady one row back just let out a helpless snort that could not fail to amuse.

Did I mention these films were comedies?

You couldn’t help but hear the music in the room. The individual laughs — the solos — and their degrees of merriment. The ripples through the room, like waves at the beach, building on each other, bigger and bigger. The jackpot hallelujah moments of everyone exploding into laughter at once.

Now I was glad there was no piano. If you could hear it at all, it would only interfere. Laughter was all we had, and all we needed.

After a while I shut my eyes for a long time and just listened to this symphony and its various sections. You had your gigglers, your titterers, your chucklers, your chortles and guffaws, at least a couple of cackles, some whoops, some screams…..

And those categories are just a rough beginning, loosely grouped for simplicity’s sake, because now…

  • You factor in whether the one laughing is a woman, a man, a child;
  • You factor in each one’s god-given vocal equipment, its raw volume, its range, its tone, its timbre;
  • You factor in a life led for some stretch of time, things seen and done, that may affect what one finds funny;
  • And you factor in that every single one of us is a unique piece of work with a unique sense of humor, and what tickles us may not always tickle others.

Ultimately what you end up with is: No two people laugh the same.

This orchestra had 200 instruments, each one different. It was conducted by a flickering image on a screen, and had no idea what that image would do next. There’d been no rehearsal. There were no particular notes to hit, or rests to count. You just laughed when moved to do so, and you had no control over when that might happen, or if you’d be the only one laughing. It was free-form, random, sometimes chaotic.

And inescapably, unforgettably beautiful.

My actress friend and I walked out happy that night. I think everybody did.

Tony Laiolo – Fear

Tony Laiolo struck again with another great story, this time for our October event “Fear.” 

“Spiders. Me. A History.”

One day when I was six or seven, my dad brought home a cardboard box the size of a refrigerator, for the eminently sensible reason that it used to have one in it. He thought my brothers and I might have some use for it, and he was right.

Out on the patio, I sized up this box. It was really just a question of “What do I want it to be first? Fort? Spaceship? Goldmine? Shoot, this box WAS a goldmine — it could be anything. Big things were going to happen in this box. I tipped it over and crawled in, then thrashed around and managed to pull it back upright — opening at the top, me at the bottom.

It was surprisingly peaceful in there, sunlight trickling in through the gently swaying branches of the oak tree overhead. You might almost drift off to sleep, lulled by the slow-dancing shadows at the bottom of the box. Except that one shadow was different. Growing larger. Wriggling. My eyes shot up and who should be rappelling into my little sanctuary — looking big as a football, evil in all eight of its eyes, the meanest chunk of malice this side of Lex Luthor – yeah, you got it — Mr. Big, dropping in for a little visit.

Now, at age six or seven I would frequently pack a gun and holster, but instinctively I knew that “bang, you’re dead” wasn’t quite going to cut it this time. I quickly opted for an alternate strategy, the ever-popular freakout, and knocked over the box so I could escape. One little problem. Mr. Big had worked his way just inside the box’s air space, and my knocking it over had knocked him down…all the way down…where I was. Smooth move, Ex-Lax.

My freakout ramped up exponentially. I could not get free of that box fast enough. Only it wasn’t quite that simple. I couldn’t stand, so 1) I couldn’t stomp, 2) I couldn’t run, and 3) because I was crawling, more of my tasty young flesh was offered up for his smorgasbord. We were neck and neck. I had the slight size advantage, but he had the eight legs to my two. I knew what he was trying to do. I’d done my homework, seen plenty of Westerns. He was going to gallop up alongside and hop on over to my calf, rodeo-style. Maybe that’s why they call it a calf.

I don’t think the hop ever happened. This is where the memory ends. I probably ran crying to mama, and she probably said it’s all right. But it wasn’t all right, not after that. The rest of that memory may be lost, but there’s a deeper kind that never forgets, a kind that recognizes a known threat, fires up the old adrenalin pump, and dictates action — fight or flight. Now I had a mortal enemy, put on earth for the sole reason of scaring the crap out of me. Flight hadn’t solved the problem, now fight got its turn. My wrath was terrible, my swath wide. Any spider foolish or unlucky enough to cross my path paid with his life. No exceptions. That’s just how it was.

Then one night maybe a year later, I was in my room. It was on the upper floor and had a ceiling I really liked — rough-hewn pine planks, painted white so you could see them even by nothing but moonlight. There was plenty to see. Each plank had its own personality — the grains and whorls and textures that caught your imagination, there on the edge of sleep, and pretty soon you were dreaming.

That night, as I slept, I felt something wispy and insubstantial on my cheek, and brushed it away. Then there was another. And another. OK, what’s going on? I turned on the lamp. Blitzkrieg! Tiny spiders, hundreds of them, dropping in from the cracks between the boards of my beloved ceiling. It was as though my carnage, my decimation of their ranks, had reached some critical mass and required retaliation. It was personal now, like they’d all lost loved ones. Likely they had. You could imagine their battle cries — Get him! He’s the one! He got Jerry!

I remember no more of that episode either, although I suspect a vacuum hose might be involved. But my haven was gone. Even in my own room, in my peaceful slumber, they could get to me, and I’d given them ample cause. He got Jerry!

But what was a childhood fear did not outlast childhood. Where does that kind of hate go to die? Apparently it goes to Santa Barbara. I’d stayed there the summer before my senior year of college, had a job, but this was Sunday and I was lying on the beach, drowsy head upon folded arms.

I noticed movement in the hairs of my arm, which on closer inspection turned out to be the sorriest, skinniest, least threatening excuse of a spider ever seen. He’d struggle up one hair, teeter on the top, fall forward, then struggle up the next one. It took forever. If you were playing it for laughs, you could do no better. He was a bass drum and trombone shy of a full-on circus act.

And I was fascinated. Why is he even there? Does he live on the beach? Is he kicking himself for hanging that left at the seaweed and ending up in this fix? Is he thinking “bad hair day”? Who knows, but he just kept going. And I just kept rooting for him.

Fear never showed up that day. Things had clearly become different for spiders and me. I could know one on a non-adversarial basis, as a fellow creature simply trying to get by. Somehow I was finally out of that refrigerator box, out from under that treacherous plank ceiling.

Here’s the best way I can illustrate this change. In a corner of my bathroom, suspended on a near-invisible web, is my pet spider. He just kind of hangs there zen-like all day, waiting to see who might drop by for dinner. We talk — he’s a good listener — about baseball and women, and he really likes it when we talk about flies. Cute as a bug.

The others who drop into my domicile are captured and relocated to the garden. Not him. He’s a keeper. Good old Jerry.

Tony Laiolo – Nashville

Enjoy this text of Tony Laiolo’s first story at Tenx9 at our September theme “Nashville.” His delivery was entirely fantastic. 

“Welcome to Music City”

There’s no way around it; whoever lives upstairs is sacrificing a cow. Nothing else could account for that persistent, inhuman, agonizing cry. It’s 2:00 in the morning, and my freaked-out wife just woke me up so we can share the experience.

We’ve lived in Nashville for about five hours,. We pulled the U-Haul up around 9:30 tonight, lugged a few essentials through the sticky mid-July air, then collapsed on the mattress. As first impressions go, there’s really nothing like awakening after midnight to a neighborly cow slaughter, overhead.

Who’s up there? We don’t know. We don’t know anybody in Nashville. Never even been in Tennessee before. Our bottom half of a duplex was arranged for by a local realtor so we can look around for six months and get a feel for where in town we might really want to live. You know, If we live. I mean, I’ve heard the South’s a little different, but what’s this upstairs? Welcome Wagon?

We’ve moved here — this will astonish you — we’ve moved here for music. Bet you didn’t see that coming. Remember reel-to-reel? I’d spent the last couple of years dropping reel-to-reel songwriting demos in the mail, addressed to any Music Row publisher whose dorsal fin wasn’t overly obvious. It was kind of like throwing desperate little messages-in-a-bottle from the coast of northern California that somehow came ashore in shoreless Tennessee and, even stranger than that, found favor. How could we look on that as anything but an invitation?

So here we are — the first-nighters! — awakened in the dead of night by this disturbing low moan that just keeps going. We think about calling the cops, but  — oh yeah — we just got here and this is 1981 and we don’t have a phone yet.

Unbelievably, we even consider knocking on the upstairs door (actually, the wife considers me knocking on the upstairs door), or making some noise of our own — and no, I’m not talking about that — to announce our presence. But we also consider that the next sacrificial offering would probably be us.

And surely there’s some logical explanation. Maybe the neighbor is just a Texan, who brought along quaint native customs when he high-tailed it out of Laredo, one step ahead of the law. Or maybe he makes bootleg barbeque. After midnight? Yeah, because he has a day job…as a butcher. Or maybe it’s nothing. Maybe he’s just an amateur zoologist, or a student of the mortuary arts. In the light of day, we’re sure — OK, hopeful — it will all make perfect sense.

So somehow we sleep, and wake in the morning. There’s a deathly quiet upstairs, and humidity like a shroud lurking right outside the front door. But we can’t just hide in here, we’ve got the rest of the U-Haul to unload — or come to our senses, reload what we took off last night and get the hell out of there.

Oops. Too late. Coming down the outside stairs. Sees us. Here he comes. Looks normal enough. So did Norman Bates. But there’s no conspicuous sidearms, no sword, no branding iron (the odds-on favorite), no demonic tattoos, no heathen accoutrement.

So what do I do? Prove once and for all that I’m a world-class idiot as I gingerly bring up last night’s sonic curiosities. He looks at me, the face of innocence. Noises?, he says. Noises? Then he cracks, confesses. Or at least he figures it out.

They’d passed out drunk, he and his roommate — as young men are “prone” to do — with their reel-to-reel — you remember reel-to-reel — their reel-to-reel running, at Spinal Tap volume. And when the tape rolled past the part recorded at one speed and into the part recorded at another, faster speed, with no one around to throw the switch … Presto! … it’s cow-killing time! [cue molasses-slow, contrabass “cow”: “Country Roads take me home, to the place I belong”]  Hey, John Denver never sounded better. So there’s that.

The boys up above come to be our first friends in Nashville. Joe goes on to tour the world playing saxophone and harmonica for Dolly Parton. Dave becomes a founding member of the hit country band Restless Heart. Great guys. Wouldn’t hurt a cow.

And to me there’s a weird linearity to all this. A most unlikely journey begins with reel-to-reel tape in California, unspools across the country and at the other end there’s another reel-to-reel tape in Tennessee, an essential piece of a bizarre but somehow perfect welcome to Music City.