Features & Columns

Silicon Alleys: Author's Old Lowrey Genie Organ Recalls Noteworthy Music Store in Willow Glen

This Lowrey Genie home organ helped this columnist develop his campy humor. Photo by Gary Singh

There comes a time when one needs to downsize. In this case, the first musical instrument on which I ever played a campy version of "One Tin Soldier" is now headed for the great cheesemaster graveyard in the sky. The Lowrey Genie home organ my parents bought for me at Stevens Music in Willow Glen when I was 9 years old—a machine that has long since fallen into permanent disrepair—will now soon be hauled away and put out to pasture.

My entire camp humor identity began on that machine, so its demise calls for a twisted eulogy of sorts. But first, some history. Stevens Music, which existed from 1951 to 1984 at 1202 Lincoln Ave., was an institution in Willow Glen, selling and repairing instruments, plus sheet music and related products for thousands of people throughout the valley. Entire generations got their chops inside that building, operated by Tom Stevens and his son Gordon. After the main retail business closed, Reik's music eventually moved into the ground floor, with the upstairs then converting into more lesson rooms and other independent music businesses, including Stevens Violin Shop. Up until Gordon sold the building in 2013, he claimed the oldest continuously operating business license on Lincoln Avenue.

The stories from 1202 Lincoln are legendary. In the 1960s, members of rock bands like The Chocolate Watchband and Syndicate of Sound purchased gear at Stevens Music. Patrick Simmons of the Doobie Brothers bought his first guitar there. Synthesizer pioneer Don Buchla showed up and worked on equipment in the back room. And years later it was the building where I first took music lessons. At age 9 I was already walking in the footsteps of giants. Nowadays, if you walk into Black Sheep Brasserie and observe the upmarket nuclear families nibbling at their duck liver mousse, you can say that's where I first played "Love is Blue" on a Lowrey Genie.

The Genie was basically a mini descendent of larger cheesemaster-style home organs that became popular starting in the Great Depression era as people's dollars went more toward home entertainment. After the Beatles exploded in the '60s, followed by the mainstreaming of synthesizers in the '70s, nobody was buying cheesy home organs anymore. The technology was old hat, so Stevens needed to unload their inventory.

I subsequently grew up on that Lowrey Genie and then a Schafer & Sons piano, playing sappy pop tunes, easy listening schmaltz and TV themes, or simply just butchering AM radio hits, reading off the sheet music and not even learning to gig with other people, develop my ear or play in time with additional musicians. I played everything rubato, as classical musicians would say. Some of these tunes I enjoyed, while others were awful and I just played them for camp humor purposes. Over time, though, this distinction began to fade, those polar opposites began to fuse, leaving me with a strange yet integrated taste for awful-on-purpose humor. If I fumbled through that ridiculous "Music Box Dancer" abomination, who's to say I couldn't enjoy it for its awfulness? From a Zen perspective, I took humor very seriously and I took seriousness very humorously. To me, the world was clearly not black and white, as Western thinkers wanted to believe. As a result, I can draw a direct line from those moments of easy-listening schmaltz at the Lowrey Genie right to the current day, each time I write a column glorifying some crumbling old building or if I perceive beauty in the drabness of suburbia. This is what artists do: We see beauty in the ugliness and vice versa.

I've written this before, but it's true: Music kept me away from potentially criminal paths in life. Had I not started playing keyboards, I would never have studied music in college and then come into jobs that led me to travel and become a more worldly person, which, in turn, led me to start writing. If not for arts and music education from age 9 until 29, I'd be dead.

So the old Lowrey is about to die a natural death. Like that one tin soldier riding away, my first musical instrument is off to the great perhaps and I am at peace. Fare thee well, old Genie!