Vitie Charles Atkocius Jr. is a sound Lithuanian name, but it doesn't sound like a clarinet player. So, every month for the past year a musician calling himself Chucky Valentine has placed classifieds in Baltimore's Music Monthly:
I have played Karen Carpenter's songs 30,000 times. I play Motown, Blue Velvet classics and gravel pit blues. Call late.
What happens to a man who plays Karen Carpenter's songs 30,000 times?
Chucky Valentine has appeared in other forms, too. Chucky Rainbow Fountain Electric Valentine with diamond fingernails, golden fingers, silver palms, quick silver arms and mercury for blood is stuck at the gate with is altered clarinet. Call late.
"He's too funny," says Susan Mudd, publisher of Music Monthly. She takes dictation from the mystery musician, who phones in his ads. In return, Valentine sends her rare bottles he finds buried in woods near his Prince George's County home. He sends her birthday cards and Christmas cards. She tells him, no, you really don't have to.
"I think it's weird, but at the same time I think he's harmless," Mudd says. "I kind of feel bad about taking his money, but what am I going to do?"
Valentine once dictated a whopping $96 classified - his pride and joy, a screed against a music studio that allegedly recorded then stole his music: Help me stop these vampire dingbats from sucking out other people's blood. Next court date coming up soon. Call Late.
The case against the recording studio was dismissed, leaving Valentine to return to Karen Carpenter and to his classifieds: I am a great clarinet player. I have been blowing air for over 100,000 hours. Something is bound to come out. Call late.
Who is Valentine, and what does he want - besides his first paying gig after 10 years of playing a patch-work clarinet in his parents' basement? What does this 51-year-old, unemployed, snake-handling, bottle-grubbing man want out of his clarinet and out of his life?
We called late.
Chucky Valentine has lived in his parents' Forestville home most of his life. He lives in the basement, where 30 kept snakes contribute mightily to the pet-store fragrance. Plastic barrels shelter dalmatian mice. Every night between 6 and midnight, Valentine plays his clarinet before an audience of snakes and mice. Upstairs, his father might turn the TV up loud or his mom might take out her hearing aid. They have adjusted to their son's preoccupation.
"My God, he puts in so many hours," says his mother, Julia Atkocius. "I'd like to see him get eight hours of work somewhere else," says his father, Vitie Charles Atkocius. "But that's his thing - blowing on his pipe all the time."
Tonight, Valentine has a guest audience for a change. As he plays, his clarinet will be inches from a Carpenters' album pinned to his wall. He has built himself a studio in the basement, a cardboard box of sorts. He has a turntable that needs the pressure of a Bic pen cap to approximate 33 revolutions per minute. Valentine - an ex-construction worker with arms to match - flips up a cardboard flap to enter his private studio.
"I normally don't let people back here," he says.
He drops the stylus on the Carpenters' version of "This Masquerade." He picks up his tape-wrapped clarinet, which he has altered from a customary B-flat instrument to a horn of his own peculiar making. The effect of his tinkering is permanent: His clarinet forever plays out of its natural key.
"I take apart the clarinet to alter it to fit Karen's voice," Valentine says. "I've been chasing Karen Carpenter's voice all my life."
As a gimmick, he plays the clarinet with the reed on top rather the bottom. He takes cardboard wrappings from Snickers bars and fashions mouthpieces. He pops the cardboard pieces in his mouth before playing his clarinet with the reed topside. He has one in his mouth now, as he awaits his cue to join Karen Carpenter.
Her voice sounds tinny and shallow coming from Valentine's bargain basement speakers. Nearby, the bookshelves hold bottles - some blue, cloudy and quite pretty. A "Potomac Bottle Collectors 1994" ribbon is pinned to the wall. Bottle grubbers, they're called in the trade. He'd sell all his bottles and snakes to get enough money to buy a new clarinet, Valentine says.
In the barrels, the dalmatian mice flit and tunnel. The musician stands ready, his clarinet inches from a Carpenters' album cover: Karen is smiling and standing next to her brother. She looks radiant and healthy. In his cardboard studio, Valentine starts to blow. He will work alone tonight, as always. He's always seen himself as a solo act.
Months earlier, a chance meeting over a hog's nose snake produced an unlikely musical partnership.
"I met Chuck as `The Snake Man,'" says Larry Jarboe, who runs a lumber business in St. Mary's County. Jarboe wanted a hog's nose snake for his daughter, answered a classified for "The Snake Man," and Valentine delivered the snake. The men got talking about music. Well, Chuck got talking about his music.