Page 5 of 7
"I went to basic training and studied how to take blood pressure, deliver babies, administer morphine and all that." A Jehovah's Witness played harmonica constantly, which drove everyone crazy, but Iceberg liked the way it sounded in the echoey barracks. When he got out of the Army and went back to school, he got his first harmonica, for 25 cents from a pawnshop. "It probably wasn't the cleanest harmonica in the world."
He hung out with the folkies and blues players at the old Foolkiller. He bought a dulcimer and a rack for the harmonica and started learning old Carter Family songs.
"Within a month, my own songs started popping out. They were really goofy, funny, I guess, and simple at first."
He made cassette tapes and gave them to his friends, and when people heard his songs, they liked them. Slowly, he started performing with other musicians at coffeehouses and parties.
Some Kansas City Art Institute kids who played in a band called the Splinters — Iceberg thought they were cool — heard one of his tapes and offered to back him up, but they also wanted to know if he played accordion. He didn't but told them that he did and that he'd get back to them in three weeks. "I ran around town to find an accordion. I opened for them. Then they would back me up on my songs. I would play my dulcimer, then I'd play accordion for them — just wheeze some chords. It wasn't anything fancy, but at least it fit in with their music."
He began taking his own music more seriously — and barreling toward rock and roll.
"I needed a bigger sound to play with other people. The first thing I did was electrified my dulcimer."
With help from Jim Baggett, the founder and owner of Mass Street Music in Lawrence, he began modifying guitars to be played flat, like a dulcimer. This produced the sound he wanted, but it created problems if he wanted to change keys — dulcimers don't have fretboards like guitars.
"I sat down with a guitar chart book and a dulcimer chart book and wrote my own charts for this hybrid instrument. That's what I play today. I don't recommend it for anyone."
He says he tried to learn the guitar but never had the discipline. "I've stubbornly stuck with this. It's a somewhat different sound, and it enables me to switch keys very easily without learning a bunch of different hand formations."
All of which helps him keep up with new songs as they come to him.
He credited his cassettes (and later his CDs) to Howard Iceberg and the Titanics, with "the Titanics" referring to whoever was in the room playing with him. By now, there have been so many Titanics that he can't remember them all. "People come up to me and say, 'Hey, my dad was a Titanic.' I'd say, 'Who?' And I won't recognize the name."
His legal practice is still busy, though now, because immigration laws are more restrictive, he mostly works on cases for universities and high-level professors and researchers. And he has started giving much of his work to Judy Bordeau, his younger partner at Eisberg & Bordeau.
Since going part-time as a lawyer, he says, "I've really tried to turn myself into a musician."
Iceberg has put out highly produced, commercial-sounding CDs, including 1998's Hindu Equations. But he found that the process took too long. He'd spend a year recording a dozen songs, and by the time he was finished, he would have written dozens more.