The Rip Post


THE GREAT BONGGO BEANE

by Rip Rense  

  "I would only believe in a god who could dance. And when I saw my devil, I found him serious, thorough, profound, and solemn. . ."---Nietzsche

    "Listen to that tenor saxophone calling me home."---Tom Waits.

   
         Years ago, when I bluffed my way through reviewing the L.A. Philharmonic for a year, primarily to go to a lot of free concerts, I came to look forward to seeing Bonggo Beane almost as much as hearing the orchestra. On the nights when he wasn't there, outside the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, after the symphony or concerto had ended, the world seemed a little more solemn, a little too profound. Music still hung heavily in the night air; Mahlerian questions of life and death tainted shadows.
         Bonggo played saxophone, after a fashion, not because he was prodigiously gifted, or because his mother made him take lessons, or because he had dreams of picking up where Charlie Parker or John Coltrane left off. He played because he wanted to. Someone gave him a worse-for-wear old tenor, if I remember right, and after some pad replacement and a few rubber bands to hold the keys in place, Bonggo blew.
         Bonggo---this was his given name---was about six-foot-twenty. Skinny as a telephone pole's shadow on a late June afternoon. Looked like something drawn by Walt Kelly, or Walter Lantz, or the other Walt. Always wore a great, tweedy trenchcoat and an oversized cap. When he played sax, his cheeks inflated like two blowfish, his eyebrows leaped nearly to his scalpline, his eyes crinkled like those of a laughing baby. He somehow managed to smile and wave and dance around while wailing away with the thickest vibrato I've ever heard on his favorites: "Over the Rainbow," "When the Saints Go Marchin' In," "Theme from 'Rocky'," "Battle Hymn of the Republic," "The Star Spangled Banner," "Hava Nagila," "Yesterday," "Misty". . .
         I used to pop 50 cents or a buck into his beat-up sax case, accepting him, as everyone else did, as human bric-a-brac. In time, though, I came to value him more, especially after being cooped up for two hours in a concert hall surrounding by people being death- ly, self-consciously still. Sometimes, I found myself enjoying Bonggo as much as a good performance of Brahms' quiescent third symphony, or the exquisite "Four Last Songs" of Richard Strauss. Sometimes I'd stop and sit under that huge Lipschitz sculpture outside the Music Center, "World Peace," that looks like upside-down elephants tied in knots, and listen to Bonggo and his enchanted saxophone.
         It was probably at that time that I decided there were two kinds of music: music with integrity, heart, and sincerity---and music with artifice and pose. I also, more or less, broke people into the same two categories.
         I first encountered Bonggo one blustery Christmas Eve in the courtyard of the Shubert Theater complex, where I had just seen a movie. I was full of the Christmas spirit, which is to say, I felt like having a stiff belt of high-quality juice and going to bed. A sound stopped me like a swig of spoiled eggnog: "Hooooonnnnnkk! Honk-honk-honk!" It cut right through the perfumey, holiday-opiated crowd, annihilated the Christmas lobotomy Muzak sneaking into my ears, and commanded---no, demanded---attention, like Michael Jackson coming down your chimney.
         It was Bonggo, and the music of the moment was "Jingle Bells"---a "Jingle Bells" unlike anything I'd ever heard. Imagine a whale yodeling. It was the kind of sound that made you want to get a one-horse open sleigh and dash through the snow. It wasn't uplifting, it was supercharging; it was adrenalin-as-noise. People danced, clapped, shimmied, dropped dollars into his beat-up old sax case, and smiled. They all smiled. I did, too. There was no more escaping it than. . .Christmas.
         Eventually, I realized that Bonggo was a concert worth reviewing. One night I wrote "call me---I want to write about you" on a business card and dropped it in his sax case. It was three weeks before he overcame his humility enough---or disbelief---to place the call. Bonggo turned out to be a former Jefferson High kid who lived in a hotel near The Original Pantry, and had a girlfriend with the poetic name of Jacqui Valentine. "I plant the songs in my mind," he told me. "I get the melody down real good, then I try to get the right keys that feel good, and hopefully, I reach the people, if you know what I mean." The article ran in the old Herald-Examiner in 1981, and he thanked me for years. I finally gave up trying to persuade him not to. I can still hear it:
         "So listen, I know you don't have much much time, and I sure appreciate you seeing me. You wrote that article and man I say this from my heart, I'll never forget it. You're a real gentleman and may God bless you. Hey, here's a picture of me and B.B. King. I went to see him, and I went backstage to tell him what a great man he is, 'cause you know people need that---especially famous people, but they need to hear it from the right person, you know? From somebody they don't even know."
         I can still picture the B.B. King snapshot, and many others he always carried: Bonggo and his old friend Tom Waits, back when Waits was starting out at the old Troubador in the early 70s, Bonggo and the Godfather of Soul, James Brown, backstage at who-knows-where. . .
         After the article appeared, Bonggo took to dropping by the Her-Ex once in a while, always wearing that trenchcoat and cap. His sax case was coated with laminated copies of the article, the head- line proclaiming, "The Great Bonggo." Once, I asked him as a favor to play "Battle Hymn of the Republic" for the city room (a kind of private joke on editors), and he kindly obliged. When he hit that downbeat, pens flew from reporters' hands, one especially delicate colleague popped a valium and swore, and the editor-in-chief actually ducked into his private bathroom and locked the door.
         Bonggo also stopped in one particularly rotten day, when I was wondering if I'd gotten into the wrong business (I eventually concluded that yes, I had.) We sat together on a couch in the great, cavernous, white marble Her-Ex lobby, and he pulled out from under that perennial coat a portable keyboard---one of those $100 models---something he'd been saving for. "I been practicing something, and I want you to hear it," he said.
         Turning the little device on, he hit a couple of chords. The lobby, its corners braced with leviathan carved mahagony archways, echoed with petite, angelic sounds, like a solo celeste in an empty concert hall. The girls at the ad counter stopped working, looked up, and grinned. Bonggo was staring at me with the purest face you'd ever see, and he was singing, in a kind of light, elastic baritone, softly, that old Shep and the Limelites song: "Daddy's home. . .to stay. . ."
         His eyes crinkled up even more, and he smiled as he sang, more sincerely than I thought humanly possible. I. . .tapped my foot. It was good medicine.
         Soon after that---about 1983---Bonggo quit playing the sax. Vanished from the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, and the Shubert Theater. I don't know why; don't know which muse he followed instead. I didn't see him again for a good ten years, until we bumped into each other briefly at that post-quake fund-raising concert Waits organized at the Wiltern. We talked for a just minute, not long enough for me to find out what he's doing these days, or if he ever married his effervescent girlfriend, Jacqui. Haven't seen him since. But I do know one thing:
         This town is too serious, profound, and solemn without the honking, dancing saxophone of Bonggo Beane.

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