Finding a dilapidated, old accordion in a junk store in Jamaica Plain, Massachusetts, turned Susan Dietrich’s life around. At the time, back in the early seventies when Richard Nixon was embroiled in the Watergate fiasco and the Vietnam war was still raging on, she and her husband, Joel, and their tiny daughter, were political exiles living like refugees in their own country, terrified that Joel would be imprisoned for having gone underground to avoid being drafted. For nine years they had subsisted on spare change and meager sales of their artwork on the streets of Boston.
The discovery and purchase of that little squeeze-box inspired Susan to take it into battle, the war on their own poverty. Down into dark, noisy Park Street Station she went, where she slowly learned to pick out simple, familiar tunes like “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” and “When Irish Eyes Are Smiling.” There must have been something quaintly charming about this emaciated street waif literally singing for her supper, for in the very first hour she made twenty dollars in change, plus a twenty dollar bill from an elderly couple wishing her well. She soon discovered that by playing from early morning rush hour through the entire day, she could pull in over eighty dollars, an impressive amount for the times and on the street, while Joel stayed home caring for the baby.
The accordion was eventually retired in favor of the very first battery keyboard released on the American market, a Casiotone MT-40, a toy by today’s standards. But with Joel’s previous experience playing in rock bands, they enhanced the Casio’s sound by plugging it into a phase-shifter. They also mic-ed Susan’s voice through an echo unit, created a light show by wiring her tip box with twinkling lights, and finally, crowned her with a winged helmet complete with a blinking red ball on top. She worked out arrangements for songs with other-worldy themes, such as “Fly Me to the Moon,” “Somewhere Over the Rainbow,” “Ghost Riders in the Sky,” and “Major Tom.”
The response from the public was overwhelming. Soon she was being referred to as “The Space Lady,” and pictures of her began appearing the the papers and on TV. With all the special effects, the cash flow became phenomenal. A cassette of space music soon followed (as did another baby), and the small family was finally able to return to San Francisco where Joel and Susan had met back in the glory days of the Haight-Ashbury. Her music was received even more enthusiastically there, and she was flocked by people asking for interviews or requesting to make videos.
To this day, 30-some years later, she still receives letters and emails from fans from coast to coast and around the world. But she says the most valuable and treasured aspects of her career were those of personal growth: acquiring street smarts, becoming humble and compassionate, appreciating people from all walks of life, and discovering her talents and inner strengths, such as her lovely voice, her creativity, her originality, courage, tenacity, and her ability to find humor in the most difficult of situations. And she owes it all to that little Stomach Steinway found in a junk store back in Beantown, Massachusetts.