This is another installment from the musical memoir I wrote in 1998 (and have been tweaking ever since), called “Brushes with the Great and Near Great,” chronicling some of the famous folk I got to meet during my 13-year career in music retail. Today’s story covers getting to know a genuine talent who, if there were any justice, should have been a huge rock star.
Scratching your way toward a shot at rock and roll stardom is a rough trip. Working at your craft in cramped bars in front of a bunch of ill-mannered drunks can harden anyone. A person that can excel at this for 20 years is truly a remarkable individual. Norman Nardini is one such person.
He’s a guitarist out of Pittsburgh, who’s played the club circuit for years. He almost broke big in the 70’s, with a band called Diamond Reo, which opened for several big name bands on arena tours, but fame stayed just out of reach. His remarkable talent and showmanship has earned him a very small but loyal following in the Midwest and along the East Coast. I was fortunate to be able to call him my friend.
I first saw Norman at a company District Manager’s meeting. He was scheduled to be the entertainment for one of the nights. I’d heard of him when I was back in Toledo, having seen a tape or two in the racks, but I’d never heard him play and really didn’t know what to expect.
So there we are in a Sheraton ballroom, filled with uptight district and regional managers, and assorted company big shots, and here’s this little guy looking like Paul Simon on amphetamines, playing guitar like Stevie Ray Vaughan and ranting like Dennis Leary. Then he’s out in the crowd with his guitar, standing on people’s tables and playing in their faces, making these incredible “guitar faces,” like some kind of mutant. I was hooked.
It wasn’t just the showmanship, either. The songs were good too. No frills, just honest to God power trio rock and roll, usually with a good deal of wit. His drummer, Whitey Cooper, in addition to providing some wicked fills and solos, sang great harmony, plus a featured vocal on Norman’s signature song, “Smoke Two Joints.” I found this song particularly enjoyable, as it was being sung to this group of buttoned down corporate types. I said to myself, “I gotta check this guy out.”
I contacted Larry, who was a salesman for Relativity Records and the founder of Circumstantial Records, the label for which Norman recorded. I shared my thoughts on my first experience with Norman, and Larry came across with some albums for me. He said he’d set me up, the next time Norman came to town.
The next time turned out to be late in the summer of 1992, when Norman played a club called The Metro, in Saratoga Springs. Future Ex and I went to the show and sat with Dave (my boss) and Larry. Before the show and then during the set breaks, Norman sat down with us and that’s where we got to know him.
The show was killer, of course, and though the crowd was not large, they were won over. He always knows who to play to. He told us earlier, “I know my people. See that guy over there?” he said, pointing out a longhaired biker-dude in a raggedy denim coat. “He’s gonna dig me, he’s my people.”
Norman worked through the crowd with his customary energy, playing on tables and what not. He actually bonked Cathy, a friend of the Ex’s, on the head with his guitar while playing atop her table. (Based on my enthusiasm for this guy, Future Ex got some friends of hers from work to come to the show.) The great time we had this night set the stage for an even better one.
On Halloween of 1993, Future Ex, her aforementioned friend Cathy and I took the train down to New York City to see Joe Satriani play an invite-only show at the Hard Rock Café, followed by seeing Norman play at Kenny’s Castaways in Greenwich Village. This excursion was courtesy of Relativity Records, in other words my buddy Larry, who was also putting us up for the night at his place in Brooklyn.
But first there was dinner at the Russian Tea Room, with some other big shots from Relativity, as well as Vinnie and my friend Brian, who was a fellow Bowling Green alumnus and our company’s Independent Music Buyer. I shudder to think of the dinner bill picked up by Relativity.
Then in an elaborate show of ‘because I can’, Vinnie made them get him a cab to go the two blocks between the Tea Room and the Hard Rock. The rest of us walked.
I felt kind of weird at Satriani’s show, probably because most of the crowd was wearing Halloween costumes and our little group was not. But the place was hot, and so was Satch. I got to meet him later in a real elbow-to-elbow crowd and somehow managed to get in a picture, with him between Brian and I.
We all hopped cabs to Greenwich Village in time to see the beginning of Norman’s 2nd set. Same act though, but a larger, more “with it” crowd. I believe the people there knew who they were going to see, as opposed to his gig in Saratoga. As before, he hung out with us in between sets. He told us he was holding out the good songs until we got there.
Not the kind of table dancer you're accustomed to...
Norm introduces Vinnie to the crowd. The crowd has no idea why.
Norm jams while Brian waits for the bathroom to clear out.
We got to hang with Norm and Whitey the next day too, as they were also staying at Larry’s. It was a regular slumber party.
Me, trying to be a yinzer version of Cameron from "Ferris Bueller", drummer Whitey Cooper, Norman, Brian, Cathy, and Larry the Label Guy.
Norman came back to Albany in the spring, to open a show for Pat Travers at a sports bar called “The Scoreboard”. We showed up with Future Ex’s secretary, Maria, and her boyfriend, Gary. I brought my camcorder. This was the time that I got to know Norman best.
I caught him early, as he was tuning up, and got permission to videotape his show. We talked for a while longer and then he went back to setting up his gear.
The show was a good one, though different. He was polishing the material that would become his next album, a live-in-studio project. The crowd began with its usual “who’s he?” ambivalence, but as the show went on, Norman’s manic energy and wild raps visibly won them over. You could see by watching the tape I made, that by the time he wound through the crowd during “Smoke Two Joints,” the looks on the people’s faces said that they were his. On his way back to the stage, he gave me a little lean-in to the camera, for one last guitar-face.
This was Norman's usual opener, an uptempo cover of Duane Eddy's "Rebel Rouser." Please excuse my shaky camera work here... I was just getting settled in.
This is the 2nd verse and a wicked guitar solo during "Good Rockin' Man." I love the move with flicking away the butt and then tearing into the 2nd half of the solo.
This is the classic Norman Nardini moment: when he comes out into the crowd during the last solo of his biggest hit, "Smoke Two Joints." If you only watch one of these clips, watch this one. No one in the crowd knew who he was at the beginning. Now look at their faces at the end.
After the show, I hung out with Norm, Larry and the other label and band guys. It was a real kick, too, to bring Gary over and get him a signed picture. (Gary, a longhaired biker-dude, was definitely, “his people.”) I never even saw Pat Travers that night; I was having too much fun hanging out with the guys.
The following July, we were in Pittsburgh for a family reunion. I turned out that this was the same weekend that Norman was recording his live album. I had the invites to attend, with all the kin I could bring, but the timing just wasn’t there. We did settle on going to his usual Sunday night gig in Swissvale, at a bar called Frankie’s. This time I got to take Mom and Dad, along with Future Ex and my cousin Susan. We claimed some seats and then I went back out to the car to retrieve my videotape of Norman, and come to find him walking down the block to the bar. We went in together and I introduced him all around. Of course he sat down with us for a while and made nice with the folks. It was a very proud moment for me.
The set was a typical bar band set, with lots of oldie covers and a changing roster of players joining in. The last time I saw him, he was announcing for us that someone blocked our car in.
When the live album came out, it was the crowning achievement of my music biz career. I was listed (along with Future Ex) in the “thank you” section of the liner notes. For someone who has spent his life poring over such minutiae, being included there meant the world. If there were any justice in the world, Norman Nardini would get the break that would make him a household name. But regardless of fame or fortune, I’ll always be proud to call him my friend.
All concert photos and videos by bluzdude.