Shredding in '76.
Membership in a bar band that nobody minds, but about which nobody's that crazy.
Some framed Honorable Mentions from Billboard magazine songwriting contests, "the sort musicians from the Midwest enter."
The ability to say that you've warmed up audiences for lots of major acts and auditioned for several others.
Even though the other guys in every group you played in as a kid, and even most of their parents, agreed that you were the chosen one, the local rock 'n' roll boy with the best chance of making it, these, if you're John Masino, are what you have to show at 52 for four decades of being the jaw-droppingest guitar virtuoso in Madison.
Masino began playing both guitar and drums after his elder brother and dad taught him the lead guitar part to the Ventures' version of "Theme From Peter Gunn." Within a year, he and three chums were entertaining their Badger School classmates, John playing drums covered with blue fur on the Monkees and Tommy James favorites, his brother's big (to a small-for-his-age 10-year-old) white Gibson SG on the originals.
After his parents divorced two years later, and he moved with his mother and siblings to Middleton, Masino felt that "music was the only thing I had to be cool." Elfin as he was, he probably wasn't going to be captain of the football team, but his guitar seemed to make him much cuter. He took to falling asleep with the instrument in his hands after annoying his mom and siblings by playing implacably through their favorite TV shows. He'd walk around for hours playing scales of his own device, or blues riffs. He mastered key licks by all the usual suspects - the lapsed Yardbirds trinity (Clapton, Beck and Page) and Hendrix - and got good quick.
But he listened to, and learned to play, other stuff too. As a member of Cynthia and the Soul Asylum, he added funky ninth-chords and Steve Cropper rhythms to his palette, and by 18 was a member of Baby Fat, which some grizzled locals remember as sort of like Prince, years before His Purplosity's emergence, with Masino playing Hendrix-ish solos while Merritt Mapp cavorted flamboyantly stage-center.
What an adventure for a boy newly sprung from West High: The band lived communally, first in a big house on Gorham Street, and later on a farm in Middleton, where they ate for breakfast, lunch and dinner pancakes made with water rather than the buttermilk the box demanded. But who cared about food when there was funk on which to gorge?
People would stop by the farm at five in the morning and find them still jamming in various combinations. Audiences at outdoor festivals and at the Spectrum on East Washington loved them, and when they opened for Kool & the Gang in Milwaukee, putative record company talent scouts slimed them fervently. But then it emerged that Merritt lacked the nerve to seriously go for it, and the whole thing went to hell.
John Masino landed on his feet, securing a job playing Eagles, Steely Dan and other covers as a member of Chunky Pie. In response to their agent, Ken Adamany, importuning them to hire a front man, they obligingly drove up to Wisconsin Dells to see an unsightly duo performing Elton John favorites unimpressively. Masino and friends harrumphed as one in disdain. Not long thereafter, in the more stylish coiffure and designer suit mandated by Adamany, Robin Zander, one half of the duo, would enjoy some small success in Cheap Trick.
After Chunky Pie, Masino moved on to the Humble Pie-ish Punch, a big name in Madison rock history. All four of the group sang, and the guitarists played harmonized solos. Even with Adamany, who booked them both, making no bones about his belief that Trick were the horse to bet on, Punch acquired a fleet of motor vehicles of various shapes and sizes, a big road crew, and two big public address systems, and went on the road for up to eight weeks at a stretch. Back home in Madison, they thought nothing of filling clubs like the Shuffle Inn or Headliners, even on a Monday night. A Mercury Records talent scout recorded demos with them in Chicago.
There was no such thing as AIDS yet, and as many as 15 apple-cheeked but provocatively attired farmers' daughters would commonly be waiting for the band back at their motel after a gig. "I was always more into playing music," Masino says. "Partying never interested me as much as music. Others jumped on the Hell Express, but I just kept playing guitar. That's why I'm still playing today."
While the others did whatever they were doing, Masino, newly married, would walk around in motel parking lots making up new scales, devising riffs for songs.
Unhappy with the way the band's earnings were distributed, he eventually left and wound up a third-shift janitor at UW-Madison.
He formed a group he called Masino, Ike & Tina Turner already being taken. A singer named Greg Clemons wanted to hire it to back him in the studio. Nat Weiss, who'd promoted the Beatles for Brian Epstein in America, and who now ran the label to which Clemons was contracted, came to Lake Geneva to look the group over.
"In the middle of the day," Masino recalls, "we played a 90-minute set for these two guys with cigars. After we finished, somebody came out and told us, 'Nat wants to hear it again.' So we did the whole set a second time. He and the other guy got in their limo without saying a word."
Whatever elation Masino might have felt on learning that they had the gig was short-lived, as he hurt his back so badly while janitoring that he had to hurry back into traction between laying down guitar parts. His mother-in-law died of cancer, and Clemons' producer made the band sound effete.
Masino and another refugee from Punch joined the Rage, Milwaukee power-poppers who enjoyed the patronage of one of southern Wisconsin's most powerful concert promoters. Sitting in a motel room in Ottumwa, Iowa, though, he found himself thinking, "'I just can't do this any more.' The idea of Iowa and Illinois over and over and over - I was just sick of it. Everybody had been telling me, 'Go to L.A., or New York, or Nashville; nobody's going to hear you here.'"
Masino chose New York because former high school pal Mark Kaufman was drumming for Ian Hunter, and said he could help Masino get studio work. He did sessions for singers no one's ever heard of and cut a couple of singles with the daughter of the man who'd masterminded the Monkees' and Archies' early careers. He jammed in Greenwich Village and was drafted into a Brooklyn band of little note. His new big-city acquaintances were incredulous to hear of his long tenure with Punch. Were Midwesterners really that inclined to keep their wagons hitched to very dim stars?
But then the oddest thing happened - Masino began making money hand over fist assembling costume jewelry for Jay Feinberg, for whom his and his wife's roommate worked. His handiwork was displayed in the windows of Saks Fifth Avenue. He was earning three times as much in a day as he'd made with Punch in a week. New York, New York!
"One day a limo pulls up in front of our apartment. Jay Feinberg himself comes up and says, 'You are by far the best contractor I've ever had. How would you like to be my head of quality control?' I find myself working at the top of an all-glass skyscraper across from the Empire State Building."
Masino and his wife, Sue, missed simple things about Madison - the surrounding countryside, the openness, the dairy and produce sections at Woodman's - but would nonetheless walk down Broadway on a Sunday afternoon and promise one another never to go back.
And why should he when he was auditioning for groups of international repute, like Foghat, for which one of his bands had opened back in Madison? No less than Circus magazine revealed that the final choice had been among him and two others, one of whom actually got the job.
When Masino and Sue ran into Ian McDonald during one of their boogaloos down Broadway, the Foreigner saxophonist and keyboardist encouraged him to send the band a tape. In response to his doing so, they invited him to an audition. He hadn't understood that the group was looking for a singer rather than guitarist. He put his Stratocaster back in its case and sang his heart out for a couple of hours. Everyone seemed pleased. He later learned, though, that they'd been even more pleased with someone else, and had hired him, and then promptly broken up.
Masino auditioned unsuccessfully for Rick Derringer and the reconstituted Rascals. After bean-counters caused him to be laid off from Jay Feinberg, he found himself in the unemployment line in Spanish Harlem feeling sure he'd be stabbed to death within a couple blocks of the place. Sue needed a lot of expensive dental surgery, and they did what they'd sworn they wouldn't - returned to Madison.
"It was hilarious," Masino sighs, "to see the Capitol as a little pimple in a huge sky." He bit the bullet again and took a job with a north-side trucking and moving company for which he worked as a dispatcher and bookkeeper, and later as operations manager. He toiled 10-hour days and hated it.
For 12 years.
Offering guitar lessons in his spare time, Masino was disheartened to see that, as only befitted the Me Decade, "my students couldn't play chords, but boy, could they finger-tap, and boy, could they solo!" Earlier, he'd been disheartened by the growing popularity of drum machines in particular and mechanized music in general. The past decade, he says, "it's been all about tuning your guitar low enough to make people's ribcages vibrate. I think of it as the wounded-duck period."
And now we have Guitar Hero for the PlayStation. "Music is so glutted out now," Masino sighs again. "How is anybody supposed to rise through the maze?"
A new band he formed, Hi-Fi, opened for the Tubes. Another new group, Powerplay, sold four-song cassettes at their gigs. So many bands, so little impression made. And yet...and yet...didn't a local TV personality cite him as the greatest of all Madison rock guitarists?
And it isn't as though Masino refuses to acknowledge the possibility of having habitually shot himself in the foot musically. "I listen to old tapes and I'm just going crazy, overplaying on everything. The other guys would beg me not to solo over everything; now I know what they meant. I listen to that stuff and think, 'God, somebody throw a quilt over that guy!' At a certain point, other guitarists at multi-band shows would say to me, 'Dude, that's over.' It took me a long time to get out of my 'hey-look-at-me! period."
In 1999, having long since reverted to being a Midwesterner, and thus desperate for a little attention, Masino entered the national Jimi Hendrix Electric Guitar Competition. He was one of 20 finalists invited to pay his own way to Memphis to perform at B.B. King's for a panel of judges that included a Hendrix cousin.
A professional Hendrix imitator from Chicago who dressed exactly as Hendrix had circa 1967, and who even played his white Strat left-handed, won. Masino, who hadn't realized that looks were a consideration, was awarded some guitar strings, a commemorative T-shirt and a mention in the official Hendrix magazine. "All the way to Memphis," he sighs, "to play for three minutes."
In the meantime, though, Masino had secured a job doing product graphic design for ETC Connect in Middleton, and liked it.
"It's a great day job for a musician," he says, not wincing, not even slightly. "If I could be famous [making music], it would be great. If not, I'm going to keep doing it anyway. I promised myself long ago always to remember that just being able to play music is a gift."