Building Blocks

“Building Blocks”

by Tony Scaltz

When I was a kid, way before I got into music, I very much looked up to my Uncle Joe, my mother’s brother. I have memories of him taking me into Philadelphia for the first time to see the 76’ers play, and he always had a coolness about him that any kid could latch onto. I mean, he drove a ‘64 gun metal gray Corvette Stingray that you would hear before you would see. This thing’s exhaust was so ridiculously loud, the neighbors knew it would be mere minutes before all of us kids would gather on the street to fight to be the first to be blinded by the lasers of sunlight dancing off his polished chrome fenders.

Joe listened to classic rock, too,…and we’re talking like ZZ freakin Top. He would take me for a ride in the Stingray, pull just far enough away that the family couldn’t hear, and blast “Legs” on his system, while showing me what a muscle car could really do.

My Uncle Joe was defining cool in the late 70’s and early 80’s. One evening, when I was about 12 years old, he took me to a local basketball game, and we hung out in seats right near some of the players where I promptly received a thorough education on Dr.J and the mechanics of the perfect “hook” shot. But, my mind was about to be blown to smithereens with a new level of coolness once we left the stadium:

He approached the Stingray.

I put on my seatbelt.

He opened up and pounded back a can of Budweiser.

Crushed it. Tossed it.

Jumped in the seat…and away we went…

If that wasn’t America, I don’t know what is.

It makes complete sense that Joe and I stayed in touch a lot over the subsequent years, especially when I was in my late teens and got close to his children, becoming more of a sibling to them than a cousin. But, it was also around this time that Joe discovered I was really into music. He took it upon himself to get me into the bands that are still my go-to’s after three decades.

One night, we had to take my mom to the airport for some conference or something, and after we dropped her off at the terminal, we both got back into his huge Extra Heavy Duty Ford F-100,050…you know, the kind that needed that small ladder to access the passenger seat.

No sooner were we at cruising velocity when he says to me, “Do you like The Wall?”

I was beyond ashamed to admit that I had never heard of this seminal album in music history (ironically, years later I met Brian Christian, who was one of the engineers on that album…but that’s a story for another day).

Uncle Joe said, “Listen to this and tell me how this is music for you.”

What followed was the most sonically life altering two hours of musical magnitude and disturbance that to this day, even during moments of silence, haunt spaces in my head. On that ride home, with Floyd on my brain, no words were exchanged between us…no need. I came home and went right to work on a new level of my musicianship, one where sounds existed as real entities in physical spaces, and if I could only learn how to manipulate those entities, then I could become, in a sense, a constructor- a builder of Music.

Fast forward a few years, and I was somehow no longer that excitable kid, full of wonder at new information and sounds; I was confused, angry, in conflict with people for reasons I couldn’t grasp, but worst of all, I felt as if I had no direction or purpose. At this time, I had gone to work with Joe in his business. He was a pharmacist and owned a couple of pharmacy/convenience stores. I was happy to have a job to pay some of my bills, at least to show that I was not being a completely useless member of society until I became established in music.

Ah, though to quote Zach Braff: “Your body goes through puberty in your teens, but your mind goes through it in your twenties.”

Hence, now at 21 years old, I was in the throes of what the ancients called “the psychomachia”, which literally translates into the battle of the self, or internal war. Have you ever seen that sequence in TV shows and movies, where a man is visited by the angelic and demonic parts of himself on his shoulders? Well, that’s the nice version of it. A true psychomachia for a young, confused mind has the potential to wreck havoc on the only thing that matters to that youth: an identity.

My identity, not only as a musician and artist, but as a human being in general was being mutilated by a sickness of mind. And, I was in the process of succumbing to this destruction of myself as a person of agency and talent, when Joe, in the same coolness he exuded with his knowledge of muscle cars, basketball, and Budweisers, pulled me aside and said to me, “Haven’t you figured it out yet?”

“No, what’s that?” I asked.

“Why are you so confused?” he prodded.

“I can’t get it, Joe,” I said taking short breaths. “What if I never figure myself out?”

“Tony, ” he said, “Rome wasn’t built in a day, and neither will you be.”

And that was it. There was no expounding of this new wisdom. It was almost as if I should have known this all along. What is really strange is that the more I sat with the idea, the more I realized he was right. This idea did not come from him, directly; it was already in there…I was already in there. I already knew who I needed to be, and the detritus in my life telling me I wasn’t very good, or I would go on to establish nothing but a long line of failures was, in the end, just complete bullshit.

See, I figured that the only person who could ever exert power over my life was, is, and always will be me.

That lesson was like now having too much freedom in my pocket. Where do I go from here? I needed to figure out how to allow patience to do its job, how to slowly embrace the things I was uncomfortable with in order to view them as necessary in my development, as opposed to some estranged brothers in fierce battles.

The truth is that I am still building and suspect that I will never be completed. And while I am much happier in terms of my musicianship, I am fearful for the day I wake up and think that I may be a finished project. I hope that never happens, because aside from learning about coolness, and that girls really dig guys with beards, what I took from those years with my uncle is that those blocks you sometimes hate to haul around with you carry more good weight than what you’re building.