- Elegy for Happiness
The album: Cuca Records, Sauk City, Wisconsin. 1965. Perhaps 1966. There’s no copyright date on the album’s jacket, the outside of which is worn like a teenage boy’s wallet when a condom nestles between the folds. With time and pressure, the shape of the disc inside has embossed the outside. Over ten years ago, I slid the album from my father’s collection. I have hauled it halfway across the country three times. For decades before I pilfered it, this record rubbed elbows with the big names: Johnny Pecon, Vern Meisner, Lou Trebar; Tony, Richie, and especially Johnny Vadnal.
On the front of the album, watery blue letters bounce: High Flying Polkas. Above them perch thick block letters, white on the black background: AL ROBERTS. A polite cursive connects the two: AL ROBERTS plays High Flying Polkas. Next to the letters, the man in the black and white photograph, not my father but his best friend, has the wide shoulders of the factory worker he was. But the neat crushed-velvet suit he wears appears both roomy and comfortable. More than other musicians, he’s got to be able to move. Without a thought to his clothing, he’s got to be able to push and pull the chromatic button box that rests half open on his lap and make it do more than sing. He’s got to make it dance.
The instrument is custom-made. While ornate, its grill is less lace doily, as with many accordions, and more art deco. Think geometric sunbursts juxtaposed against repetitive line cuts. Its bellows are embellished with white piping that forms variants of the same straight-edged, hourglass design when open and closed. Pearl letters spell out Al Roberts on the top panel of the grill. The letters are at least twice the size of the ones spelling out Italo American, still a famous name-maker of accordions today. I imagine Al [End Page 77] picking up the accordion for the first time in the downtown showroom of Lo Duca Brothers, tossing it lightly to judge its heft, possibly as much as 30 pounds, before pulling it to him and climbing into the straps that let him hug the instrument close. Still too tentative to actually press the buttons, he steps his fingertips over them lightly as if tracing the bones of a woman’s spine. After a while, with the bellows still tightly secured to keep the instrument silent, he taps the fingers of his right hand over the treble buttons and presses down. His left hand joins in on the bass buttons without him realizing it. At first, the buttons’ play seems stiff, and his fingers hit two keys at once until they recognize the terrain. Then they polish-hop as nimbly as the feet of those who come to hear him play. Still, just to be sure, he fingers a full song, maybe the “Swing Shift Polka” or “Kukavitza.” Instinctively, he tries to pull the instrument. Irritated with its resistance, he swears before remembering the problem. So he unlatches the top strap, and as the bellows fill with air, the instrument melts into his hands.
“Okay,” he says heavily after finishing the song. He knows there’s no way to give it back now. The sound is too pure. Like a tamed fox, the instrument belongs to him now, and he rubs the letters of his name affectionately, pricked only a little by the knowledge that Alvin Robert Gostamski had to become Al Roberts to get radio play by the deejays. Finally, he settles his instrument back into its case and hands over the money. Cash, of course, straight from a tavern job the night before. His head still rings from the free drinks that constantly appeared on the bandstand without him even having to ask.
When I pull the actual High Flying Polkas album from its jacket to examine it, the glossy black vinyl is so pristine, the white fleck of lint that lands on the surface mars it like an inflamed boil on an otherwise alabaster back. I realize this record may never have been...