The photo is from 1978. My son, his truck. Behind him, my truck.

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Music Man

August, 1978
Bob Swain was an affable businessman with a wry sense of humor.  He and his wife Pauline ran Swain's House of Music in Palo Alto.  I liked them.  They could be shrewd or soft-hearted, and I never knew from day to day which personality would win out. 

When Jerry Garcia decided to move beyond bluegrass and go electric, he and the rest of the Warlocks borrowed - or rented - their equipment from the House of Music.  According to Pauline Swain, Jerry borrowed guitars from them.  She told me they nurtured many bands the same way over the years.  Meanwhile Bob Swain told me Jerry rented the guitars, same as every other budding musician.  That, Bob said, was how you run a business.

I worked for Bob and Pauline maintaining and upgrading the ancient electrical system in their store as well as maintaining their modest home in Menlo Park plus a couple of rental houses in the area.  They paid promptly and good-naturedly, which is really all I ask of a client.

Pauline Swain

At their home they had a garage filled with lovely grand pianos covered by sheets.  Pauline would lift a sheet and with a musing, faraway look on her face, she'd play a few notes.  She told me they were investments, not for sale.

Pauline wanted to replace all the fluorescent lighting in the store with warmer natural-looking lights.  Bob refused.  It cost too much.  Sometimes I felt I was witnessing a domestic dispute. 

I overheard a couple of salesmen bitching with each other and threatening to get a court order against discrimination.  The young manager there was a snotty son of a bitch.  I watched a musician come in, sit down at a gorgeous Bosendorfer grand, and play a few notes.  The salesman started blathering about the polish of the wood and the prestige of the brand, annoying the pianist so much that he walked out.  Discrimination?  These clowns didn't have a clue how to sell to a musician. 

Upstairs at the store, they gave music lessons and had practice rooms.  There was a constant passage of kids through the showroom coming and going.  The lessons, Bob told me, were the backbone of the store.

They had an instrument repairman named Charlie.  One day when I was pulling wires, I wiped the wire-pulling lubricant from my fingers onto a clean cloth somebody had left on a desk.  Big mistake.  That was Charlie's lap pad, or so he called it.  Charlie threw a fit and ranted throughout the store until finally Bob calmed him down.  Charlie was temperamental but irreplaceable. 

Swain's House of Music

One day I wired the electric connection for a backyard fountain at Pauline's house, and then she spent a half hour fussing and worrying and seeking reassurance from me - of all people - about an illegal rental that they owned.  I told her there were illegal rentals everywhere.  It seemed to settle her down.

After one broiling August day in downtown Palo Alto, Bob locked up the store and offered to buy me a beer.  At a cafe on University Avenue he told me about the care and feeding of Charlie: "If you think musicians are neurotic, try working with a music repairman."

He told me about an IRS audit in which a man pored over his books for three entire days, then departed saying, "We'll be in touch."  Later, Bob received an envelope from the IRS.  With shaky hands he opened it.

Back home, I wrote this:

The Music Man               

The IRS agent sat down and shuffled
through ledgers three solid days and left
without comment.  Six weeks
later came the form letter:
"No changes recommended."
Which has become the motto of this store.

You hear that salesman?
The guy just wanted to hear
how it played, and that dingbat's
yakking about the polish
on the wood for chrissakes.
You can't hire a good piano salesman.
Hafta do it myself.  Mostly, we
get schoolkids.  Lessons upstairs.
Sheet music.  Drums.  You name it.
Repair it, too.  Hired Charlie
twenty-eight years ago
and he was a crank even then.
Hear him raving?
Somebody got grease on his lap pad.

Fire department comes in here
once a year, gives me a list
of violations.  Same list, every year.
I say Yes Sir. Right away, Sir. 
Then I throw it away.

Man offered me more money
for the land under this store
than I could make
in the rest of my life.
Laughed at him.

Both my daughters play piano.
Son, guitar.
All married.  Grandkids?  You bet.
Me?  I never played a note.

The building that was Swain's House of Music at the corner of Kipling and University Avenue in downtown Palo Alto is now an Apple Store.  When I bought my laptop there, I couldn't help but think of Charlie with his lap pad, long ago, and how deeply I had offended him by wiping my greasy fingers on what I'd thought to be an old rag.  The ghost of Charlie, hovering now inside this store, can't wait to drop machine oil and metal filings into my new keyboard while the ghost of Bob in the bar nearby is hoisting a beer my way and chuckling, repeating: No changes recommended.

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