Nothing hurts quite like the sting of a sharp polka

July 09, 1998|By Kevin Cowherd

AS REGULAR readers of this space know, I have spent the better part of my life avoiding accordion music.

This is because the accordion is the most annoying instrument known to man, something that dawned on me at the age of 2 or 3 (and I was not particularly precocious).

The fact is, there are only about 20 people in this country who actually enjoy the accordion. And these are mostly societal misfits, people who were dropped on their heads as infants, etc.

For the rest of us, the sight of someone strapping on an accordion is the most terrifying sight imaginable.

You want to clear a room in a hurry, don't pull the fire alarm. Just reach for an accordion.

Anyway, over the years, I had done a pretty good job of steering clear of this horrid little instrument. Then, during a recent stay at the beach, my family and I attended an evening concert at a nearby bandshell. The concert was billed only as a "Special Musical Event."

Let's face it, you always have to worry about something billed as a "Special Musical Event," because it could be anything from a chimpanzee playing the kazoo to a dozen half-lit Shriners blowing the theme from "Bridge Over the River Kwai" on empty Michelob bottles. Anyway, promptly at 9 p.m., a spotlight fell on the bandshell.

And just as promptly, a gasp went up from the audience.

Standing before us were 20 men grinning inanely under a huge banner proclaiming: Ike Alston and his All-Star Accordion Band.

Oh, god, you should have seen it.

Not only was each band member holding the most irritating instrument known to man, but each was dressed in Gay '90s attire -- starched white shirts, pinstriped black pants, vests, bowlers, the whole nine yards.

On a verbal cue from Ike, they launched into some kind of incredibly bad polka number.

As you can imagine, the audience was absolutely stunned by this turn of events.

Here we had all come out for a relaxing evening of gentle music by the sea.

Instead, we were being subjected to a wall of noise that called to mind an army of cats being done away with in a slaughterhouse.

Naturally, within seconds, many people were picking up their lawn chairs and blankets and sprinting to the parking lot.

But a lot of us stayed, transfixed by the whole scene, the way you'd be transfixed by a particularly gruesome car accident.

I don't know if I can adequately describe the full horror of what followed, although I'll certainly try.

First, close your eyes and imagine the incredible irritation caused by one accordion, the numbing effect on the central nervous system, the way it makes you want to lash out at something -- anything! -- to make the noise stop.

Now imagine all those symptoms multiplied by a factor of 20.

Right, it's almost unimaginable.

But that's what we were forced to endure for the next 50 minutes, an unrelenting assault on the senses that left us reeling and depressed.

To make matters worse, all the accordion players continued to grin inanely and bob their heads to the music.

This is something I could never understand.

If you're a performer and you know you're inflicting this kind of punishment on people, how can you stand there enjoying it?

And yet accordion players do this all the time.

Studying Ike Alston now, a graying man with a jaunty step, I thought I arrived at the root of this sadistic bent.

Closing my eyes, I imagined young Ike stepping up to the plate on a dusty neighborhood ballfield 50 years ago, bases loaded, bottom of the ninth inning, tie game, his teammates jumping up and down with excitement.

Suddenly, the upstairs window of a nearby house flies open and a woman's voice cries: "Ike, you get in here right now for your accordion lesson!"

The ballfield falls silent. The game breaks up. And here is young Ike trudging home dejectedly, kicking rocks in the road.

As he nears his house and sees his mother on the porch chatting with Mr. Finch, the accordion teacher, he clenches his fists and mutters:

"I'll make them pay for this. I'll make them all pay! People hate the accordion! From now on, I'll never stop playing it!"

And 50 years later, in a dusty bandshell by the sea, he's still making people pay.

Oh, he sure got me good.

Pub Date: 7/09/98

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