|THE GREAT BONGGO
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
TO ARTICLES AND ESSAYS
"Listen to that tenor saxophone calling me home."---Tom
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---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
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
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.