RosevilleJune 26, 2012
Roseville resident makes musical instruments from old wood, junk
By Sara Kandel
C & G Staff Writer
He’s a peddler, in a way.
He bikes around town visiting with friends and selling his wooden wares.
Most of his friends are homeless. They’re from the streets, he says. He visits with them on street corners and in alleyways. He knows all of their stories, and they know all of his.
Life hasn’t always been easy, and reminders of past struggles line his face. He says he doesn’t care that he’s not rich or famous, because he’s doing what he loves.
“They say you have to learn when you’re a kid to be good, but I think you cans still learn your whole life,” he says. “You just practice. Repeat. Repeat.”
Wielding a pocketknife, a tin of tobacco and a bottle of carpenter’s glue, Pauly Commisso gets to work on his latest creation.
Man of the streets
“I’ve always wanted to make music,” he says.
Next to him a homeless man called Too Tall nods. He quips that that’s what they are doing and goes back to watching as Commisso mixes a handful of tobacco into the glue.
“There are more uses for tobacco than smoking it,” he says. “You can make a good solid wood out of tobacco and carpenter’s glue. I discovered that smoking so much. I said maybe if I put this in the glue, it would look like wood. And it does. It’s as hard as rock, too.”
He’s making a guitar.
The body is a discarded wooden fruit bowl. The neck and headstock were formed from tree branches. The frets are toothpicks.
When it’s done, he and Too Tall will perform at a nearby open mic night. Too Tall will ad-lib lyrics while Commisso plays guitar and sings chorus.
He plays blues, jazz, country and folk. Together their sound is reminiscent of Boxcar Willie, complete with just a dash of the hobo look. Commisso, 63, isn’t homeless — he stays at his sister’s house in Roseville — but he spends most of his time on the streets.
“I get up every morning, put on my clothes, have some coffee, a couple of cigarettes, and I listen to the radio,” he says. “Then I go around town to look up my friends. I drive around on my bike, and I bring my backpack with me.”
Like Too Tall, most of his friends live on the street. He spends his days with them. He’ll stop and visit for a while, setting out the contents of his backpack when weather permits.
He pulls out flutes, maracas, coconut guitars and wooden pipes. He sells them to people he meets on the street and in a handful of bars and coffee shops where he’s a regular. His flutes go for about $5-$10. A full-size guitar like the one he is working on today could sell for up to $200, if he gets it tuned just right.
He doesn’t stay long.
‘I’d like to feel a little something’
He wants to check in with his friends down the street at Liberties South Drop-in Center.
Liberties is a community mental health center offering food, clothing, treatment maintenance, socialization assistance and a variety of other support services to adults with mental illnesses.
“They know me at Liberties,” he says. “I have friends there. I was having trouble for a while taking care of myself. They diagnosed me with the same thing they do everybody else, a paranoid schizophrenic.”
He says it started when he was a kid with depression and anxiety.
“I have depression. Paranoia. I’m afraid of certain things in the environment, but everybody has their fears. Everybody suffers a little bit from paranoia. There is medicine that stops you from feeling those bad emotions.”
He hates the medicine, says it makes him feel drunk all the time. He misses the way it feels to be clear-headed, but if he skips a dose, he gets sick from withdrawals, he says, so he takes it every day anyway.
“It’s something like dope, I think. It makes it so you don’t feel anything. I would like to feel a little something.”
He’s been on the anti-psychotics for almost four decades, and while he doesn’t like them, he says they’re much better than the “old therapy.”
In and out of psychiatric institutions since he was an adolescent, Commisso began receiving electroconvulsive therapy at age 13.
“That doctor, he burned my brains out,” he says. “I was like the Frankenstein monster. I couldn’t remember my name. But I guess after you have your brains burned out, you can grow a new one.”
Commisso was released from the last state institution where he spent his teenage years in time to be drafted near the tail end of the Vietnam War. He was stationed as a mess cook at a base in Texas for the last two years of the war. By the time he came home, he had taken to self-medicating with alcohol.
It’s a chapter of life he’s happy to have behind him.
“I was in downtown Detroit living in hotel rooms, staying drunk all day. I stopped doing that every day though. I don’t drink every day anymore. Instead, I work on things. My music. My instruments. I like to keep working on things and see if I can make them work.”
‘It makes me feel like singing’
Sitting inside Gonzo Art Studio at Gratiot and Utica, Commisso is getting ready to add strings to his fruit-bowl guitar. He adds one and strums it a few times. While he does, he sings a little.
“It makes me feel like singing, the guitar,” he says.
It’s his art therapy, Gonzo owner Edward Stross explains. “Pauly has overcome his disability by choosing to use music and his instruments as his medicine. He’s a great singer, and his instruments are one of a kind. The style is primitive, I would say, but that’s not a knock on their ability to play. It’s a very desirable quality to be primitive.”
Commisso says it will take him awhile to get it tuned just right though. And even after he does, he’ll probably play it awhile before selling it.
“I take my time on them, so I take my time selling them,” he says. “I have baskets; I can carry it around and show it to people. I might want to keep it awhile until I get it playing real good; then, I make another one and sell this one. I like to always have one that I make. I get attached to them. I’ve always wanted to make music, and they’re part of my music.”
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