The Unauthorized Biography Of Mike Bellina
Michael Bellina was born in a small town. So small, most map companies won't print it. While growing up in that small town, he became a music lover at an early age. When he was 5 or 6, he used to keep a Kiss 8 track cassette tape in the back pocket of his corduroy overalls. No one is really sure which wore out first, the overalls or the tape, but before long Mike's love of music turned into musicianship, and he was soon wowing crowds of schoolchildren with his unique rendition of "Amazing Grace," which consisted of nothing more than a foot tap and humming through a comb covered with waxed paper. With all that attention, his studies in school naturally suffered, and though his teachers tried to help him, there was no turning back. Mike had succumbed the ways of the whimsical crooner.
Whilst in adolescence, a young Mr. Bellina had a series of teenage heartaches, and decided to stow away on a freight car to try his hand at Texas rodeos and circuses. He packed his harmonica, a penny whistle, a deck of cards, two boxes of granola bars and his favorite hooded sweatshirt. Thinking he might get spotted on his way out of town, he capriciously shaved his head so no one would recognize him as he walked 11 miles to the nearest bus station. He could have worn a hat, but alas, it was time to be young and free. His journey started with him tucked away in the belly of a Greyhound cargo compartment, and after switching trains twice, he arrived in Lubbock, TX. He waited at the train station for what would happen next. Not sure what to expect, he devoured his last granola bar with confidence while the smell of peanuts emanating from the freight car behind his signaled him that there were elephants nearby.
Sure enough, a half hour later he was employed as a circus animal custodian and rode in the back of a commercial trailer that reassuringly read, "P.T. Barnum" on the outside in big bold letters. He was paid $15.00 in advance to look after the six elephants on board for the duration of their voyage to the circus grounds. He sat in the back of the truck, eating out of a sack of unroasted peanuts. Mike knew his days of adventure were just beginning and briefly lapsed into the "devil-may-care" attitude of his younger school days when he reached for his harmonica and started playing. Temporarily forgetting all about the elephants, Mike wrote the first road song of his teenage years titled simply, "Pachydermatologist." Then he scooped up a small pile of peanut shells, wrapped them up in a piece of paper he found next to where he was sitting, and stuffed the crumpled ball of paper into his pocket. Perhaps it was the circus company's fault for not having a cover on their trailer, or perhaps it was Mike's fault for neglecting to continually put lotion on the elephants during the 2 hour trek, but the midday Texas sky got the better of the elephants and three of them were diagnosed with sun poisoning.
When the convoy of animal trailers had reached its destination, Mike emerged from the trailer with a look of dismay. The circus company's transportation foreman had noticed this, and pulled Michael aside. "Why, oh why in the name of Mount Vesuvius did you not tend to my elephants? My sickly elephants! Be gone, you!" Dejected and remorseful, Mike set off for new horizons. He still had $15.00 and had come too far to turn back. Since the rodeo was nearby, he continued on foot across town.
When he arrived at the rodeo, he was immediately offered a job as a bronco groomer by a stout Irishman. He was asked if he had a comb. "No sir, I don't," he said. "Of course, lad! Well what would you comb on that shorn scalp of yours anyway? Very good, then. Here you go. This comb was my brothers, and his brother before him. And that would be me! Never you mind! At least I know the comb will get used for its intended purpose. Off you go!" Mike entered the stable gate determined to redeem himself from his misconduct in the circus company.
Once inside the stable gate, Mike put his hand in his pocket and felt the cold metal of his harmonica as it clinked against his penny whistle. Immediately he removed his bare hand and settled on not touching either instrument until his job was done. "This time," he thought, "there will be no horseplay." He took the comb that was given to him and attempted to comb the hair of the unruly bronco that stood before him. But each time he got near, he was kicked in the shins.
Several more times he tried to fix the bronco's mane until exasperated, he climbed safely to the top of a rail where he perched himself to wait for the wild young horse to settle down. He reminisced about the days when he used a comb with waxed paper and hummed quietly to himself.
Still waiting for the bronco to sit still, Mike grew tired and hungry. He reached into his other pocket and found a granola bar wrapper with some crumbs still inside of it. He shook the crumbs out, letting them fall onto the dirt floor, and proceeded to unfold the wrapper. He held the comb to the wrapper, humming through it, and quietly tapped his foot in the dirt as he struggled through the first few bars of "Amazing Grace." Before he could finish, the stout Irishman slammed open the stable gate and glared at Mike, snarling and foaming at the mouth. There was nowhere for Mike to go. Uncertain of what would happen next, he dropped the granola bar wrapper, surrendered the comb and looked bleakly at the bronco who had by now fallen asleep.
The stout Irishman snatched the comb and sighed. Disgusted, he looked at the sleeping bronco and turned his gaze first toward the empty wrapper on the ground, then into Michael's eyes. "My legacy has been shamed," the Irishman said profoundly. "All these years, I thought combs had but one purpose. You have shown me that in grooming, there is art. Art that yearns to break the shackles of mangy hair. I must call my brother. Wait here."
Mike remained behind the stable gates, gently petting the sleeping bronco. Ten minutes later, the stout Irishman returned, eyes gleaming, and pronounced, "You my young lad, must leave. There is a car ready. My brother awaits you and your talents in garish Las Vegas. Follow me..."
Mike followed the stout Irishman to the rodeo's back entrance where he could see a woman with long brown hair in the parking lot standing next to a Ford pickup truck. The passenger door was open. "Hop in, pardner," she beckoned. The stout Irishman tipped his hat to Mike and turned toward the back entrance to the rodeo. Mike walked up to the car.
"My name is Mister Michael Bellina, and you sure are pudry!" She could tell that his accent wasn't native Texan, but she just smiled and grabbed his hand. "Why thank you, tiger! My name's Caroline. And I'm just taking you to the airport, so you don't need to be getting too fancy, now, hear? I hope I'm not too forward when I say this, but do you need to go before we go? I got a full tank of gas and I'm not stopping on the way to Dallas, so you'd better go now... Well?" Mike shrugged his shoulders happily. "I'll take that as a no, then." She stepped on the gas and away they went.
"I drive fast, there, Mr. Michael Bellina, so you best buckle up, and I'll have you on that plane in five hours flat!" Mike fastened his seat belt and looked out the window. About a half hour into the ride, Caroline handed an apple to Michael and began humming to herself. Mike grinned and tapped his foot on the floorboard. She was humming "Amazing Grace."
Before long, Mike was entertaining Caroline with his penny whistle while Caroline tapped her fingernails on the side of the door as the wind blew her cigarette smoke back into Mike's face. "This must be the best part of my journey so far," he exclaimed. Caroline smiled to herself.
When they arrived at Love Field, Caroline handed Mike a piece of paper with an address and phone number written on it. "Now when you arrive in Vegas, you call this number and ask for Tommy Softshoe. Then get your but into a cab and take it to the address written here. Don't take any crap from anyone, ya hear? You'll do all right, Mr. Bellina. I have a good feeling about you. Here. Take another apple." She kissed him on the nose and Mike entered the terminal.
With ticket in hand, Michael wasted no time. The first thing he did was ask a security officer where the bathrooms were. "That away," pointed the security officer. Mike had no idea what he was in store for, but he felt optimistic, remembering Caroline's words of encouragement.
The flight took about an hour and a half. Mike won a window seat in the back row after he challenged a weary businesswoman to a 2-out-of-3 game of blackjack. She relinquished a small unopened bag of salted airline peanuts to Michael. He held the bag between his teeth and put the deck of cards back in his pocket, discovering a crumpled up piece of paper. He pulled it out and opened it, letting peanut skins fall onto the seat cushions. It was something he remembered from his ride to the circus. On it was written, "There's a sucker born every minute."
When the plane touched ground, Mike was the last person off the plane. Once inside the terminal, he found a pay phone and placed a collect call. "Mr. Softshoe?" Mike hoped he dialed the right number. "Sir," a young man ostentatiously replied, "I'm Mr. Softshoe's personal secretary. Mr. Softshoe just left the office meet with a client. Hold, please..."
"Sir," the voice came back, "can I ask what this is in reference to? Sir? Are you still there?" Mike thought for a moment. "My name is Mister Michael Bellina and I was referred to him by his brother," Mike said pointedly. "Which brother?"
Mike looked at the piece of paper Caroline handed him. "The one in Texas." There was an awkward silence. "Oh, well, then Mr. Softshoe must be on his way to meet with you. The client he was meeting with was referred to him by Patrick. Balzarini, you said?" Mike was confused. "Bellina. Mike Bellina."
"Well whoever you are, I'm sure Mr. Softshoe will be arriving momentarily. Can you hold please?" Mike scratched his head. A man in a peach colored silk robe stopped in front of him and held out a tambourine. Mike crossed his left hand into his right pocket, maneuvered his penny whistle out, and blew it at the man with the tambourine. Confused, the man shook the tambourine and held out his hand. Mike blew his penny whistle again and tapped his foot, holding the receiver between his ear and shoulder. He could hear chanting in one ear and a dial tone in the other.
The exchange was noticeable to people passing by, especially to one redheaded man in particular. The redheaded man stepped between Mike and the man with the tambourine. "Which one of you bald guys is named Balzarini?"
"Bellina," Mike asserted. "You here from Texas?" Mike nodded. "Come with me," he said. The two of them walked away from the pay phone right past the man with the tambourine who held out his hand as they passed.
"I represent some of the finest novelty acts in the city," Mr. Softshoe explained to Mike in the back of the limousine. "We make people laugh, and when it's not so good, we make people cry." Mike was getting nervous. "You've had some rodeo experience. Well let me tell you, the lounge circuit is just like a rodeo. One minute you're on, the next minute you're off. Are you with me so far?"
Mike nodded. "Anyhoo... you like that word anyhoo? Everyone is Vegas says anyhoo. Well, anyhoo, We've got to get you to stop playing harmonica, or whatever it is you do. Have you ever played bass guitar?"
"Well I hear it's really not that hard." Mr. Softshoe laughed. "Ever hear of Rick Bartow?" Mike shook his head. "Well there are two Rick Bartows, one who paints and one who plays bass. Not everyone can paint. But if East Coast Bartow can play bass, you can too." Mike wasn't sure he was being complimented, but he remained silent. Mr. Softshoe handed him the bas tableture to "Amazing Grace."
"Oh, this looks easy enough," Mike volunteered. "Fantastic, because we need a bass player for tonight's show at the Luxor." said Mr. Softshoe. "Driver, take us straight to the rehearsal!"
The rehearsal took place on a stage at the Luxor casino. When they arrived, Mr. Softshoe introduced Mike to the band. "This is the Amazing Elephant Trio," he professed. A man with a jumbo sized Dumbo costume took of it's head and reached out his arm. "I'm Mumbo. I'm the drummer." Mike shook his hand and looked over at the guitarist who waved sadly.
Then Mike was given a Fender P-bass by Mr. Softshoe. He fumbled his way through it on the spot, tapping his foot in time with the drummer. Mr. Softshoe listened while taking notes. "Keep playing," he said. Then Mr. Softshoe left the room and came back with an elephant costume. "Mike, take this into the dressing room, put it on and come back. It's at the end of the hall outside this door."
Mike put the bass on a guitar stand and reluctantly grabbed the costume from Mr. Softshoe. Then he headed down a long corridor toward the dressing room. In the dressing room, Mike noticed some casino chips on the floor next to a trash can. He put the elephant costume on a chair and grabbed the chips. He stuffed them in his pocket and noticed that he still had that piece of paper he used to wrap up the peanut shells from when he was with the elephants on the way to the circus in Texas. Mike dropped the paper on the floor next to the garbage can where it remained facing up.
Mike had the tableture to "Amazing Grace" folded in his back pocket. He reached for it, then changed his mind. He instead took out his harmonica and remembering the ride to the circus, he began playing "Pachydermatologist." After becoming frustrated from several tries to remember the melody, he put the harmonica back in his pocket and felt the chips.
Mike wondered if he might have any luck with those chips. Forgetting all about the Amazing Elephant Trio, Mike headed back down the corridor, following signs to the casino floor. Once there, Mike headed straight to the roulette table and bet everything on black. He lost.
Mike suddenly remembered that Mr. Softshoe was still waiting for him at the rehearsal. With no money and no where else to go, Mike decided to go back there. But before he made it to the stairs, he was stopped by the band's guitarist who was heading toward the casino floor. "You! Mr. Bass player," he called.
"Bellina," Mike said. "Whoever you are, what are you doing? This band has already lost one bass player this week." Mike shrugged his shoulders. "I was just heading back," he explained. "For what? To be a circus animal in a two-bit novelty act? Suit yourself! I'm going to play some blackjack!"
"Blackjack? Really!" Mike looked at the guitarist and asked, "What's your name?" The guitarist grinned mischievously and said, "Matt Puggliese. Pleased to meet you."
Mike accompanied Matt to the blackjack table. Matt played 3 good hands and decided to stop. "Let's get dinner, Mike. My treat."
The two musicians settled on a restaurant that served burgers and hot dogs. During dinner, they talked about life, music and traveling. Then Matt grew serious. "I have a tale to tell..." Mike grinned knowingly. "But I want to tell it through music, and the Amazing Elephant Trio just isn't the way to do it."
Mike concurred. "You want to start a band together?" Mike nodded his head. "Well let's do it. I know of a drummer in New Jersey. We'll show Mr. Softshoe and the whole world what we can do!" Mike felt the same feeling. "I have a tale to tell as well," he said. "That settles it! We'll call the band Two Tales!"
"Perfect," said Mike. "Then Two Tales it is." Matt smiled. "Hey, Mumbo." Mumbo sat down at the bar near their table and ordered a pint of Guinness. "Hey..."
©2003 James Boland
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