Somewhere amid the guitars, amplifiers and drums in Norm's Music store on Kings Highway, Paul Bento can be found. Bento has traveled the world with the crossover thrash metal band Carnivore and played sitar on multi-platinum-selling albums for Brooklyn gothic doom metallers Type O Negative. At 50 years old, he is currently a part time guitar teacher at Norm's, a recording engineer and producer at his home studio, and a reiki practitioner. The small, quiet, long haired fellow in the leather jacket keeps to himself, but is happy to share his stories if anyone is curious enough to ask.
“I don’t have that big of an ego,” he says. “My ego is for what I do and where I feel safe. I don't like to step on other people's toes. It's something I've learned from my father.”
“My father showed me my first guitar schematic,” Bento says upon the memory of his first of many guitars, which he bought from a schoolmate while attending LaSalle Academy, the oldest private school in New York. A guitar schematic is a diagram of the way electric guitars are to be wired for the instruments to work.
“He had a locker full of stolen goods because his father was in the mob,” says Bento, who went to school with “a lot of mob guys.” Bento claims that their fathers used to drop them off in limousines a block away from LaSalle Academy because they “didn't want to be seen.”
One day Bento asked his schoolmate if he had a guitar in his locker. At first the boy pulled out a National SG for Bento, but it was out of his price range. The next guitar given to Bento was a Kimberly guitar with only two of its four pickups working; he purchased it for 75 cents. Later that night, Bento's father showed him how to fix the broken pickups in their home on the lower east side of Manhattan.
“I gave him a dollar and said 'Keep the change,' recalls Bento of that day. “I took the guitar home and showed it to my father. My father worked all day in a factory and had two jobs at night. He said, 'Only two pickups work.' He looked at the diagram, wrote it out and said, 'This is the schematic - tone control, volume control, pickups.' And it worked. He built me my first guitar amp. My room was the shop where he fixed old TV's and radios. I followed that diagram for years. I do everything myself because when someone else does it, it never comes out the way I want it.”
Bento has been playing sitar for over 20 years. “Eleven years intensely,” he says. However, Bento did not choose the instrument. In a way, it chose him. “I am a practitioner of reiki, which I'm not going to get into, but certain things come to me,” he says. Reiki is an ancient Tibetan philosophy redefined in Japan that deals with the spiritual link between nature and the human spirit. “One day a little voice comes to me and says 'close the shop, go into the train station and pick up the Bylines Press-- which was like E-bay but in print. I buy it, something says “Just open it up.” I open it up, looked down, saw a left-handed sitar for sale. I called the guy up, we hit it off. When I looked at the instrument, I felt like I knew it. It was weird. When I brought it home I didn't know anything about it. A few weeks later, I met Dr. Shiam Yoad, who played at President Carter's Inauguration and was one of the pioneering brain surgeons in the '60s at Harvard and MIT. He was my first sitar teacher.”
Bento's sitar work eventually led him to playing on Type O Negative's iconic 1993 album “Bloody Kisses,” (an album that became both Type O Negative's and Roadrunner Records first record to go platinum, or sell over one million copies) when the group's late hulking front man Peter Steele came into the hardware store Bento was working at and heard a recording of Bento playing sitar. “One day I told Pete to come into the shop. I liked to listen to my own recordings. He said, 'That's you playing'? Nobody will believe an American guy like you plays sitar. How would you like to be on my new band's album?'
This led Bento to many more sessions on Type O's future works.
“I played on four or five Type O albums. Two guitar solos, rhythm guitar tracks, several sitar tracks, a lot of drones,” Bento says.
Enter Norm's Music, where Bento began teaching in 1999.
The original building was around the corner from where it is now. The shop was known as “Big Barry's Music” until “Big” Barry died in 1981. Shortly after, employee Norman Good opened his own business. At one time the spot consisted of three smaller stores before Good purchased the larger store in 1984. If people look closely they can see autographed pictures of the stores current owner, Jason Tanzer with famous musicians such as Marky Ramone and concert tickets hung by the staff, who pay homage to the stores father with the phrase “Norm's Music, we're the Good Guys.”
Before teaching at Norm's, Bento was a lifelong customer. “I've known Norm since I was a kid. Even though I grew up in the projects on the Lower East Side in Manhattan, I used to come here to buy because I knew people who came here,” says Bento. “I've been buying form Norm's Music for 30 years since it was around the corner.”
Bento is a part-time teacher at Norm's and also records and produces bands at his home recording studio. He got the gig almost by accident when drummer Normie Wayne discovered him playing sitar for the first time after knowing him only as a guitarist.
“Normie Wayne, who was a top, top drummer and a great teacher, saw me playing sitar and said 'You're a guitar player. You're playing this instrument?' He called Norm up and said 'Hire this guy.' Norm called me up and I started teaching in 1999. ”
Bento's session magic eventually led to Steele, a longtime friend, asking Bento to join the new lineup of the reactivated thrash metal band Carnivore in the early 2000's, which has since become synonymous with Bento's legacy.
“Pete said to me, 'Of all my guitar player friends, you're one of the better ones. I know you 20 years and nobody really knows you. I want you in Carnivore,” says Bento. “ At that time I wasn't listening to much metal. I grew up listening to metal/classic rock. At the time I got into Mahavishnu Orchestra, (two mostly instrumental jazz-fusion groups that were a project of guitarist John McLaughlin from 1971-1976 and 1984-1987 that boasted classical Indian, European, and funk influences) fusion jazz-rock, their techniques – stuff that nobody was listening to at the time. So I was a total oddball. The great part about Carnivore was that the performance art meant that every show was going to be different. From the chicks we had onstage, to the crowd, to the how much stage blood we had, to the condoms we had filled up with mayonnaise.”
Perhaps one of his fondest memories is Bento's warm-up gig with Carnivore at Fontana's in 2006, where they played to a fully packed room under the moniker “The Bensonhoist Lesbian Choir.”
“I remember hanging in the dressing room hours before the show so I didn't know what was going on outside. It was showtime and we were brought downstairs and I'm hearing a lot of people. The place was so packed.” Bento says. “During the performance I see a disruption with the lights. I looked up and three guys jumped up on the ceiling and they held themselves on the light fixtures and the pipes and they were crawling towards the stage. It was amazing. Right after they sat us down with the blood all over us and just started taking pictures and I said “This is what Carnivore's going to be like.”
Two and a half months later, Carnivore embarked on its European tour, hitting 15 countries in three and a half weeks with only two days off. Besides playing The Markthalle in Hamburg, Germany (where The Beatles had famously played in the '60's), Carnivore played at the annual “Wacken Open Air” festival in Germany, where they were told they played to 60,000 metal maniacs from all over the world. “It was great,” Bento says, beaming. “When I walked out to the stage I walked out behind Pete and they had too much fog. When the fog dissipated there were thousands of people. It was like looking at a giant movie screen. I was so far from them that it didn't seem real.”
After knowing the man for years, the staff at Norm's also considers Bento to be the right person for the job. “He's been a customer forever and an opportunity came for a teacher,” says Tanzer. “I always knew him as a great teacher and a great player. We gave him an opportunity and he's been here ever since. We recommend him as a teacher if a certain customer is into that type of music. I let them know and we talk them up.”
Despite Bento's success in the music industry, he isn't bothered when the average customer doesn't know of his achievements; in fact he is humbled by it. “One of the things my father said was 'Put yourself in other peoples shoes and then reevaluate.' You can bump into anyone you don't know and pass them by. That's normal. I'm used to being the underground guy who never gets credit. I'm just like everyone else, trying to get through this tough economy and the political climate – and don't get me started on that.” Weather he is at home putting an up and coming band to work, getting in touch with his spirituality or giving a lesson to an eager student, Bento remains a down to earth guy and a cornerstone of the Brooklyn music scene.