I called Alex Henderson, a professional trombonist who’s played with Brian Setzer, No Doubt, Green Day and most recently Big Bad Voodoo Daddy, and the first thing he did was tell me a bunch of trombonist jokes, most of them about how trombone players are always out of work. “What’s the difference between a dead trombonist in the road and a dead snake in the road?” he asked me. “The snake was probably heading to a gig.” I laughed a little too hard at his jokes, like I was trying to prove that I knew what it was like to be an unemployed musician (I don’t). But he wasn’t bonding with me so much as making a point. I’d called him to ask if playing a trombone at an Occupy protest was as inherently dumb as I feared, and he was trying to demonstrate why trombone players, more than most musicians, have more reason than most musicians to be upset about economic inequality.
“In a time when a lot of people are cutting budgets, a trombone is always the first instrument to go in any band,” he says. A guitarist gets all the money and attention, but a trombone player is like the migrant worker of the music industry. “It’s kind of a rebellious instrument in that way.”
We debated hypothetical song ideas, as if one or both of us were seriously considering Occupying Wall Street trombone-style. I argued for “Fuck tha Police,” which I think would sound amazing as a trombone solo, but he wisely cautioned me against it. Henderson suggested Bob Marley‘s “Get Up, Stand Up” or Twisted Sister’s “We’re Not Gonna Take It” — anything with a simple chorus and repetitive melody. “I’d definitely go with the Twisted Sister song,” he finally decided. “Plus, it has a double meaning. It’s not just about corporate greed and financial suffering. You’re saying we’re not going to take it anymore as trombone players!”
“So I’d be like Pete Seeger for bitter trombonists?” I asked.
Henderson just laughed. “Well, why not? Somebody should be.”
Things kind of spiraled from there. When a trombonist who’s been on Gwen Stefani’s payroll tells you to make your grasp for trombone glory, you’d be a fool not to listen. I called my mom and asked her to drag my trombone from the attic and ship it to me. It’d been close to 20 years since I’d picked up the old girl, but you never would have known it to hear me play. You would have thought, “This guy has never touched a trombone in his life. Jesus Christ, it sounds like an angry, retarded orangutan.” Then there was the small matter of finding sheet music for “We’re Not Gonna Take It” for trombone, which apparently doesn’t exist. So I had to learn it from memory, which is tough when I barely remembered how to play the trombone at all. After a few hours of frustrated blaring that led nowhere, I realized that I could still play the theme from Pink Panther, which I guess got burned into my subconscious. Momentarily thrilled that I could produce any recognizable sounds at all, I called my brother and asked him to join me at the nearest Occupy protest for a “Pink Panther jam.” If he brought the synthesizer, I’d bring the white fedora and trombone, and we’d show these fuckers how it’s done. Our performance might lack any recognizable political or social message, but that’s what would make us so unique and challenging. If Erin Burnett was confused by what the Occupy movement was about now, just wait till she got a load of two 40-something dudes playing the soundtrack to a Peter Sellers movie for no good reason.
My brother declined to participate. His exact words were “I’ll tell you where you can stick that slide trombone.” Well, no matter. I traded in my trombone for a guitar, and I’ve been practicing ever since. It’s coming slow, because I have a short attention span and get easily frustrated by things I can’t master immediately. But I’ve already learned the second chord in “The Times They Are a-Changin’.” I can now sing up to “Come gather ’round people….” In another twenty years, after the middle class learns to trust the banks again and they gets screwed again and there’s another round of protests on Wall Street in which a lot of people show up with guitars, I’ll be ready, dammit.