Consider the Wizard of Oz. In the movie, the person playing the Guard at the gates of the Emerald City appears again in a different scene just moments later, this time as the Great and Powerful Oz himself.
Undergraduates don’t immediately realize institutions are made of living people as much as history and granite. To me, a person representing an institution took on the authority and gravitas of the institution itself and thus possessed almost god-like qualities. It didn’t occur to me such people had names and personalities, balanced jobs and hobbies, actually dwelled among us mortals.
Hence my fascination when I became aware that this person I kept seeing in two separate institutional roles could in fact be the same guy, a guy named Pete Alvarez.
Some oldmen probably knew Pete personally from time they overlapped in band, or at least through common friends. So if I got a ride to Friday band practice and the other folks in the car acknowledged the guy in the booth of the ASUC parking garage by name, fine, it wasn’t so crazy that a guy in Parking Services might actually know one of us.
But the next day I would look up and see the same guy standing on a ladder during the Saturday Morning Rehearsal, having ascended into the pantheon of Band godhood, in a uniform not unlike that of Bob Briggs himself. This did not seem possible.
In reality I’m sure he was 25 and partying like a rock star in the City every night, little caring about his double strand in the fabric of University life, but to a 17 year old, well, that’s half a lifetime. Pete seemed larger than life.
Anyway, there was some absurdity in there somewhere, and I ended up making a song about it. Or, more specifically, a rap. Rap was very new to the masses in the mid-80’s. Very few acts represented the new art form, but the sound was revolutionary and it was everywhere. For the first time, instead of humming an idea that came into your head, you might rap it instead.
The chorus practically wrote itself. The name was perfect. Pete. Pete Alvarez. Then, the fundamental riddle of the man:
On weekdays he’s the parking man
On weekends he directs the band.
Adding verses to this chorus became an amusing pastime for a few witty souls in band that fall, and after awhile there was quite a bit of material associated with the rap. One day Bill McConahy (Bass, 82 I believe) and I set about creating a recorded version of it.
Bill was a local, going to Cal, but still living in the same house he grew up in on Marin Avenue near the Albany/Berkeley border. In his garage he had set up a mini recording studio. Bill imagined he might like to be a record producer some day. He had not just a four-track mixing board but a synthesizer, drums, and his true love, an Ibanez “Flying V” electric guitar plugged into a stack of Marshall amplifiers. This was truly the classic look and sound of hard rock in the 80’s. (It should be noted Bill himself completed the look with a majestic mane of red hair, no wig props required. I tried playing his guitar but could never achieve this look, any more than a praying mantis could imitate a Minotaur.)
When I first came over to Bill’s house, the main excitement was just turning on the amp and playing a single chord at arena sound levels. But eventually (to the neighbors’ relief, I’m sure) we settled in and began the work of finalizing the verses and laying down the various tracks that Bill would use to produce the final recording.
There’s a whole separate story about cultural appropriation that goes along with all this, but suffice it to say that originally I wanted to sound like what was on the radio. Of course the idea of a privileged kid from Palo Alto trying to evoke the street culture of New York was preposterous. Ultimately we decided to embrace this cognitive dissonance by using a pretty ‘square’ elocution instead. Imagine “Mama Said Knock you Out” meets “She Blinded me with Science”.
And really, what could be more square than lyrics such as
If you’re marchin’
Back and forth
If you lose the beat
Just look to the North.
Don’t look in the air
Don’t look on the ground
Pete’s got the beat
And he’s Gonna Lay it Down.
Oh we tossed in several nods to the popular rap gestures of the day, certainly. LL Cool J’s anthem “Rock the Bells” opens with that classic crunchy metal guitar sample punctuating certain words, as in, ” L L Cool J is hard as *hell* [chord] ” etc. So we dutifully interrupted our rap with a virtually identical break:
Pete Alva *rez* [chord]
is hot as *hell* [chord]
Bill, producer impresario that he was, can be credited with this and many other inspirations that kept the recording lively. In one verse we deliberately abandoned both meter and rhyme, veering into bathos:
On weekdays he wears a uniform
On weekends he wears one too /
The abrupt ending left a hole that cried out for a vaudevillian gag, so we inserted Bill himself into the gap, giving voice to the listener’s puzzlement and incredulity
This may fall in the category of ‘you had to be there’, but trust me, not even the “Doinggg” of a jaw harp could have improved on the sense of slapstick.
When we felt we had the sound about right, we subjected the finished product to the Volkswagen test. Bill believed the surest way to know if you got the mix right was to put it on a cassette and play it while driving around Berkeley in his Volkswagen Beetle. Today, a typical “Sound Package” option on even the humblest car delivers perfect fidelity, but this was more like playing a kazoo while riding in a shopping cart. To our ears, the road test sounded perfect.
We played the resulting cassette tape for anyone who would listen. Pete himself eventually got wind of it and we may have even arranged to play it for him in person once. Pre-internet, the only way to hear the actual recording was via random encounters with someone’s “boom box” or perhaps when it got slipped into the mix at a Tellefsen Hall party. It surfaced at an Alumni Band Day reception a few years later, possibly allowing other generations a glimpse. But ultimately it receded into pure legend.
Is it possible the recording still survives? Bill looked through his old four-track masters recently and found some tantalizing clues indicating the originals may yet exist on some unlabeled tape in a box somewhere. I know I used to have a cassette with this and other sonic mementos of my time at Cal. If I was smart, I destroyed it. The thought of my kids discovering the other material on that tape makes me blanch. I have moved house a couple times since those days and I don’t know if I could put my hands on it without a major excavation effort. But if it turns up, perhaps I will gingerly fast forward to the Pete Alvarez Rap and produce a digital audio file for all to share.
As a musical artifact, it is probably not worth a long search. But as a snapshot of a moment in time, perhaps it has value to a small few. And as an ode to Pete, well, why not? Is it so bad if the Great and Powerful Pete Alvarez lives forever in song?
– Jim “Stretch” Armstrong, Trombone ‘85