Anyone who has visited the Birdsong workshop in the past few years, specifically “assembly”, might have heard me describe the décor in passing as “…early Caruso.” I don’t think anyone has EVER asked me to clarify, and really that’s the funniest part. It’s not an official style period like “Rococo” or “Baroque” though that’s how I verbally slipped it in and how I hoped it to be taken in passing. The reality of it is this - it is a reference to an old pizza parlor I used to go to as a kid, owned by a man named Caruso.
I was reminded of this searching through old picture files for the “Throwback Thursday” I post every week on Facebook (go find us – Scott Beckwith and/or Birdsong Guitars). In with folders of long gone guitars, basses in the larvae stage, helping hands in action and goofy shots of a much more bearded and brightly shirted me, I found a little group of scanned pictures of Don Michele Caruso (Don mi-KE-le ca-RU-so, Italian for “Michael” his name, “Don” a title of respect) and his corner of the new world.
Caruso’s Pizzeria on the corner of Main and E. Emerson was a red, white & green beacon of hope in my world where the best pizza on the planet was tossed right before your eyes to the sound of Italian voices; no matter how cold it was outside after school The library was first stop mainly because books were like kryptonite to jocks, but also hey – wow – there were shelves full of people and places and roadmaps for life different than the ones I knew as a kid. Those weren’t gonna work for me, but maybe something in this house of other knowledge would. If the library was where my dreams were hatched, Caruso’s was the incubator. It was my second stop on the walk home from school. I sat in front of a checkerboard tablecloth, watched customers come and go and old gentlemen in fedoras walk to the back room. I ate my pizza slices, looked out through frosted windows at the passing life outside and pondered my trajectory through it.
On cold afternoons (which is most of the school year in the northeast), opening the door to Caruso’s was a blast of warmth, every bit of it smelling like pizza. It was a magical place, walls completely full of faded photos and hanging memorabilia, swords, artwork of saints, written pieces in Italian with edges sepia and cracked framed up between Padre Pio and the gray & white photo of a young man standing uniformed in the old country, looking at some long forgotten lens and a new life yet to come in a distant land. I had no idea what a lot of it was or meant but I know if it was up on the wall at Caruso’s it meant something and belonged there. It was an incongruous museum strewn onto every vertical surface, but looking as if that “strewing” took 50 careful years. One of the many things I carry with me inside from this formative place, this sanctuary of my childhood, is this type of décor. You take the room and make it yours – you fill it with memories and talismans, the sacred and the seemingly arbitrary – you simmer the space in those powers like your aunt simmers down a pot full of ingredients into a half pot of dense, intense red sauce you can stand a wooden spoon up in. Is it a workspace? A museum? A Temple? Yes it is.
If you had been in either of my music shops, my guitar lesson rooms, or this Birdsong assembly room, you have seen my version of Caruso décor. It might not be an official style learned about in universities all over the globe, but it’s more real to me than any of those and in this little dusty corner of it the magic lives and the memories live and a little slice of Don Caruso lives on too.
Listening to: The Eddie Trunk podcast; Led Zeppelin disc III of an unknown box set (great collection, only have this disc, Kashmir, Quarter, Levee, In My Time Of Dying... some of my favorite stuff); R.L. Burnside Too Bad Jim (Raw electric delta blues).