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My Life of Sex, Drums, and Rock 'N' Roll
By Carmine Appice
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2016 Carmine Appice Enterprises Inc.
All rights reserved.
In which our wet-behind-the-ears Drummerdude explodes cockroaches, runs with gangs, goes lugging, hurls trucks from unfinished bridges, falls in love with drumming, hangs out with Jimmy James in a hooker's shitty apartment, and gets married
Hey! You kids come back here!" No way! I was out of there! It was 1959, I was thirteen years old, I was being chased at full throttle through the grimy side streets of Brooklyn by New York City cops, and I was terrified.
It wasn't the first time this had happened. In fact, it was getting to be a habit. I had started hanging out with a gang of hoodlums — we called ourselves the Thirty-Eighth Street Park Boys — and far too many evenings were ending with me tearing down the local sidewalks with the cops in hot pursuit, my heart pounding so hard I feared it would explode.
This particular evening had started out, as always, with my mob of adolescents kicking around in Brooklyn, bored and looking for mischief. We had found ourselves under the elevated, old, and now gone BMT line, part of the New York subway system, where some boxcars stood unguarded.
It took us seconds to decide to break into them.
I wasn't one of the main instigators. I was hanging around in the background, nervously keeping watch as the gang leaders smashed open the locks on the car doors and began passing out the cardboard boxes full of radios and other small electrical appliances — at which point, four NYPD cop cars appeared, sirens wailing, and screeched to a halt all around us.
Shit! Here we go again! I was off at full bore, running faster than I even knew I could. My feet pounded on the sidewalk as I zigzagged through the backstreets and alleys. Scared shitless, I tried to lose the burly cop in hot pursuit while one loud thought dominated my panicking mind: He can't catch me — my parents will kill me!
That was my teenage life in Brooklyn, or at least a big part of it, and there is no doubt that my mother and father would have been brokenhearted if they had known what I was up to. Because, as far as they were aware, I was an innocent, reasonably well-behaved, God-fearing Italian boy.
I was born on December 15, 1946, and christened Carmine Charles Appice. I am actually a Jr., Carmine Jr., as my dad was also named Carmine, but nobody ever called him that. He had exactly the same name as me, Carmine Charles, but everyone called him Charlie.
We grew up in a little one-bedroom apartment, 1431 Forty-First Street, in the Borough Park area of Brooklyn. I guess it was a typical crowded, chaotic Italian American household. My grandparents had bought a two-unit building and converted it into three units, and they lived on the first floor. My uncle George, aunt Estie, and cousins Linda and Roseanne had a one-bedroom apartment at the front of the second floor.
It was cramped for them, but that was nothing compared to what it was like for us. My father, my mother Mary, my older brother Frank, and I were all squeezed into two rooms and a kitchen at the back of the same floor. When my younger sister, Terri, and brother Vinny were born, that made six of us fighting for space in an apartment built for two.
It meant we had no privacy at all. The sleeping arrangements were crazy. My parents slept on a fold-down sofa bed in the living room, while Frank and I shared my parents' old bed in the bedroom. Terri was an inch away from us on a folding bed, and Vinny slept by Mom and Dad in a crib that was so small, he often kept us awake from banging his head on it.
Frank used to take his eye out at night. That was kind of freaky. He is four years older than me, and just around the time I was born, he got his eye shot out by a bow and arrow. So if you walked into our kitchen at night, there was Frank's glass eye sitting in a solution in a glass by the sink.
Money was tight, and we were living right on top of each other, but I had a pretty happy childhood. My parents were strict-but-not-really-strict in that typical Italian way. My mother loved her kids like crazy, and we could do no wrong in her eyes. My dad had a leather strap to beat us with, but he rarely used it.
My father was a cop for a while, but for most of his life he was a mechanic who fixed oil burners. He was always working overtime to make every cent he could. On weekends he took us to church. My mom stopped going when Frank lost his eye. She reasoned, "What kind of God would let that happen to my son?" But my dad took all of us kids to St. Catherine's Roman Catholic Church every Sunday morning.
I didn't get much out of this ritual. The readings were in Latin and might as well have been beamed in from another planet. We would stop on the way to church to buy fresh-baked buns and pastries from the local bakery. I only got through the services by looking forward to eating the buns afterward.
If I had thought church was bad, my first school experience was even worse. My mom deposited me, aged five, at PS 164 on Forty-Second Street and Fourteenth Avenue, a block from home, and as soon as she left, I went crazy. I screamed at the teacher and kicked her in the shins. She couldn't calm me down, so the principal called my mom to come and pick me up.
Luckily, this kiddie anxiety attack only lasted twenty-four hours, and the next day I played happily in class. My mom loitered anxiously outside the classroom in the hallway until the principal spotted her and told her to go home.
As I grew older, naturally I started looking for ways to get into trouble. We had a cellar under our house, and I would go down there with my Gilbert chemistry set and make gunpowder and rockets out of aluminum cigar cases. When I tried to set one of them off in the backyard, it blew a big hole in the ground. My mother went crazy, yelling her catchphrase: "You son-of-a-bitch bastard!"
Down in the basement my dad had ten-thousand-watt transformers for his work. I'd put wires on the poles and flick a switch, and then a spark would fly across the poles. It was my Frankenstein machine; I thought it was so cool. I also used to use my father's alligator clip wires to electrocute cockroaches and water bugs, until the day I gave myself a huge electric shock that terrified me.
Every summer we would go on vacation to a bungalow that my family had bought in Lakewood, New Jersey. It was great to get out of Brooklyn when it was unbearably hot. I had a bunch of friends down there, and we'd make soapboxes out of wood with old carriage wheels and have soapbox derbies like we'd seen on Our Gang and Little Rascals.
One time our next-door neighbor, Mr. Comitto, was building a well, and there was a whole load of huge, round concrete shells lying around. My friends and I started climbing onto them and accidentally rolled one down a hill. It smashed to pieces at the bottom against a tree. When Mr. Comitto saw this, he came over to our house and flipped out at me. Naturally, I denied everything. I'm not sure my father believed me, but I got away with it.
Yet most of my bad behavior happened around home. Brooklyn in the 1950s was a wild place to grow up. It was a real melting pot, with Poles, Jews, Puerto Ricans, Italians, and "blacks" all crammed in together. Prejudice ran rampant: we talked about "Polack bastards" and "nigger bastards" as easily as talking about the weather. We knew they were saying similar shit about us.
I used to hang around with my friends after school at a small park called the Thirty-Eighth Street Park (hence the Thirty-Eighth Street Park Boys). Other times we called ourselves the Fifteenth Avenue Midgets. We would go to the local cinema, the Windsor Theater, sneak up to the closed balcony, and set off fireworks, terrifying the audience while Godzilla was showing.
Our gang leader was a kid a few years older than me named Joey DeVino. Joey was a real high-energy ass-kicking motherfucker. He didn't give a fuck about anybody or anything and was scared of nothing. He also drank beer, which seemed ultracool to my teenage self, even though I didn't like the taste (in fact, I still don't).
The Fifteenth Avenue Midgets had a range of delinquent activities. We thought the Hassidic Jews looked weird, like aliens, with their big beards, long black coats, and hats, so we pushed them around and pulled their hats off. It seemed like fun at the time.
Another favorite pastime was lugging. Some of the older guys in the gang had cars, or would steal one, and we would speed down a narrow Brooklyn street with a guy hanging out of each car window, holding a lug wrench in his hand, and smashing every parked car's rear window as we went.
Why did we do it? Fuck knows — we were bored and looking for kicks.
There were a few times when our criminal antics took a more sinister, darker turn. One of the worst happened at Coney Island one hot and sticky summer day when I was fourteen.
By then, like any teenage boy, I was perpetually horny and totally obsessed with girls. I would try anything to get my hands on a tit or a pussy, but never seemed to get anywhere and was still a frustrated virgin. At least at Coney Island I could ogle all the chicks in their revealing bathing suits.
Our gang used to always hang out on bay eight at the beach, which we saw as an extension of our turf — Thirty-Eighth Street Park by the sea. We thought we were the kings of that little stretch of sand and ocean, and one day we were delighted when three Puerto Rican chicks came wandering into our bay.
They all looked cool and sexy, with big boobs spilling out of bathing suits that were cut low at the top and high up around the crotch, just how we liked it. They knew they were hot stuff, and as they swaggered to the water we catcalled at them with a stream of sexually suggestive comments.
It started off as harmless joshing and banter, but it soon turned ugly. As the girls stood waist-deep in the tepid, gray Brooklyn water, a bunch of our guys surrounded them. The jokes became verbal abuse and then sexual assault as my friends grabbed at the chicks' tits and tried to pull their suits off. Joey led the attack.
The terrified girls fought back, and two of them managed to escape, running off up the beach screaming insults at us. The third chick was not so lucky, and suddenly two guys lifted her out of the water and pulled the crotch of her suit to one side, revealing her black pubic hairs. The guys then took turns finger-fucking her as she cried hysterically.
How did I feel? I was sorry for the poor girl, but I admit I was also secretly aroused as I watched the fingers sliding in and out of her. But I was way too scared to go and get a piece of the action myself. This was to prove extremely wise.
The chick finally broke free and ran to the boardwalk, yelling at us that she was a Chaplains girl and that we would pay for this. The Chaplains were a notorious black gang with hundreds of members. But so what? We were the kings of bay eight. "Fuck you, spic bitch!" we yelled at her. We thought we were untouchable.
We were wrong. Two hours later, as the afternoon turned into evening, we became aware of black dudes around us — everywhere. It was like the end scene from The Warriors. Chaplain gang guys were all along the boardwalk and the borders with bays seven and nine. I swear some even came in from the ocean! We ran to Joey: "Whadda we do?"
Joey might have been a thug, but he also had a weird noble and self-sacrificing side to him. Often if we were deep in the shit, he would avoid a fullon battle by offering to fight the rival gang leader to settle the grudge. If he had to lose and take a beating to save our asses, that was what he'd do.
So the Chaplains got revenge, and Joey got beaten black and blue until his face was swimming in blood. After their head guy finished with Joey, he told the girl who had gotten abused to point out everyone who had molested her. They all had to get down on their knees and apologize as she went along the row slapping their faces hard. Now I was real pleased I had held back!
This was the incident that made me think I should maybe draw back from the gang activities. What had started as fun was getting dangerous. It could easily take over your life, and a lot of guys from the Thirty-Eighth Street Park Boys went on to the Mafia.
The Mafia was everywhere in Brooklyn in the 1950s and '60s. You didn't have to look too hard. I was constantly aware of Italian guys hanging around outside bars, wearing suits and ties or smart black turtleneck sweaters. They were always there, day and night, and clearly didn't have regular jobs. My parents told me to stay away from them because they were gangsters, and I did.
Joey wasn't so careful. He joined the Mafia, got into drugs and gambling, and died young.
So what led my teenage self away from a potential life of crime and onto the straight and narrow? Simple: I fell in love with music — or, more specifically, drumming.
I had always loved music. My brother Frank was really into the doo-wop thing and would listen to "the father of rock and roll," DJ Alan Freed, on WINS on the kitchen radio. Frank was even in a doo-wop group called the Laurels and taught me how to sing harmonies. He bought Elvis, Buddy Holly, and Little Richard records, and I would get into them as well.
When Alan Freed hosted a weeklong rock-and-roll show at the Paramount Theatre in Brooklyn, Frank went but wouldn't take me because it wasn't cool to be seen hanging out with your little brother. So my mother bought me a ticket and went with me instead. I saw some great acts at that show — Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Smokey Robinson, and the Ronettes — but what really blew my mind was the drumming.
The house backup band that played with all the artists had two drummers — two drummers! — and it was fucking amazing. I loved watching Ronnie Spector in the Ronettes wiggling her butt in a miniskirt, but I was even more captivated by the beats coming from behind her. How could anybody make a noise that powerful, that immense?
It was my first gig, and from that moment I knew exactly what I wanted to do with my life: I wanted to be a drummer.
I didn't have any drums, of course, but that didn't stop me. From then on, as the hits blared from the radio, I would bang along on my mom's pots and pans.
My cousin Joey had a Blue Pearl Slingerland drum set that I would jump on eagerly every time we went to his house on family visits. My parents took note of how excited I was whenever I played Joey's set, and in 1959 they bought me my own little kit for Christmas from the very first Sam Ash music store, on Utica Avenue in Brooklyn. It cost them fifty-five dollars and was just a bass drum, a snare, and a cymbal, and I thought it was the coolest thing in the world.
From that point on, when I came home from school, all I wanted to do was practice drums. I set them up in our cellar on a platform I made by balancing my grandmother's antique table on top of four concrete blocks. It was my first, primitive stage.
At first I didn't really know what I was doing, and I would just play around with lots of snare-drum stuff. Then I started playing grooves I heard on records and the radio. My grandfather was a shoemaker, and the table he used for repairs was right by my drums. Often he would be working by me, and I'd ask, "Hey, Grandpa, can you bang your hammer to this tempo, and I'll play along?" But Grandpa had no rhythm. Plus, he was deaf.
At fourteen I went to a high school dance where the drummer in the band was amazing. He was about my age but so much more advanced. I got talking to him, and he gave me the number of his drum teacher. The teacher's name was Dick Benette.
I had to ask my parents if I could take drum lessons. This was a big deal since they were raising four kids on my dad's monthly three-hundred-dollar wages, and every dollar counted. But they were both supportive and agreed as long as I promised to really work at it.
The weekly journey to Dick's place in Flatbush took me an hour and could be hairy. I had to get a subway and a bus, and often some black guys from a Coney Island gang would bust my balls. They'd see me with my drumsticks and laugh and dance around the train, saying "Hey, drummer boy — play us a rhythm!" Some weeks they robbed me of my money, and I'd have to borrow my fifty-cent fare to get back home from Dick's house.
It was worth it because Dick was an amazing teacher. He taught me technique and shortcuts as well as how to read drum music and in no time had improved my playing incredibly. His lifestyle also deeply impressed me: he had a beautiful house, drove a Cadillac, and, most impressively, made nearly a thousand dollars per weekend in his own band playing weddings, bar mitzvahs, and jazz gigs.
That was what I wanted: I wanted to be like Dick.
By now I was also playing music in school. My parents told me I needed to get a vocation in case the drumming didn't work out, so I enrolled at the local vocational high school, Grady, to train to be an electrician. I quickly joined the school marching band and orchestra; I was the only person able to read drum music.
Excerpted from Stick It by Carmine Appice. Copyright © 2016 Carmine Appice Enterprises Inc.. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
ContentsForeword by Rod Stewart,
Introduction: Ask Sharon!,
1 Brooklyn Nights,
2 A Supreme Way to Fudge Reality,
3 Why Is Hitler on Our Album?,
4 This Business Is Full of Sharks,
5 The Cactus with the Pricks on the Inside,
6 Welcome Cactus Singers!,
7 Baker Fogert Appleseed,
8 On Patrol with the Sex Police,
9 I Could Never Take a Place with You, Man,
10 If You're Not Blond, You're Not Coming In,
11 Go East, Young Man,
12 Tuning in to the Radiochick,