The music life is harder than the average, I suppose. The hours are longer. Sometimes it hurts that evanescent sound waves are the only thing you leave behind. The people you get musically entangled with usually turn out to be the ones you know least. Include yourself in that group.
Psychedelic music was a logical progression from the jazz stuff I started out with. Free-time bebop’s hard. Psychedelic music’s harder than it sounds. Anyone who gets on-stage to play whatever garbage he feels like spewing will have harder garbage flung his way in zero time. Tunes played in zero/zero time means find another job. Become technically proficient to the point of being avant-garde, you’re only asking for trouble in terms of audience tolerance and finding people who’ll play with you.
The psychedelic band I drifted into felt and sounded right. We did OK, which means steady gigs at venues where people showed up because we were on the bill. Some of these places pulled double duty as restaurants, r at least had hamburger griddles, so we got enough grub to survive and even put on a pound or two. Steady gigs mean a stream of temporary pothead girlfriends and sufficient possibilities for a musical invention to keep things interesting without LSD.
Acid holds abundant terror for many people, including guys I knew who had no trouble booting powders purchased from shadowy creeps into their veins. Acid never did me wrong. I prefer the taste of crawling walls and the subdued mutter of neon dialogues to watching friends puke and occasionally die. Some people trip and never return, or not quite the same as they were at departure, but any kind of travel supposedly expands the mind. Especially to Berlin, where junk used to dirt-cheap and strong.
We got firm offers for tempting Berlin gigs. Heavy date with a German lady led me to believe I wanted more. But right at the wrong moment, the quarrel began.
Those who sing and those who press strings tend towards highly strung, temperamental. Music types follow along with the lines of racial characteristics. In other words, unreliable. Patient guitar players actually exist. Some drummers possess musical genius.
Because of a careless remark, probably not intended to offend, a good band exploded. The guitar players wouldn’t speak, didn’t want to even look at each other. Diplomacy was attempted. Differences proved irreconcilable in a depressing rehearsal and subsequent disaster gig. No chance of keeping the trippy minstrel show moving between roadhouses in Jersey, Upstate New York, backwoods Pennsylvania, Long Island and East Village home base.
Times got tough. Due less to no more nightclub money than heartache. Missed the sound. The mind is a lonely traveler.
Landed a few high-dollar session-man recording dates. Gave lessons, sold pot, learned how to create and transport traveling art exhibitions. First time I ever went on the road as far as Texas, but my heart wasn’t in it. My drums weren’t in the truck. No amps, no label-clotted guitar cases or alleged fellow human beings. Only paintings and sculptures, dead freight and not my taste, coffined in clear pine, muted with Styrofoam. Dallas was OK. An uneasy moment when I drove through the square where JFK got his head shot off. Then I was out of town. Cruised a mansion boulevard lined with white 4-digit mailboxes: 1957 on the right, 1958 on the left, 1959, 1960 and so inevitably onward at 35 mph until I dropped the load at 2050. Felt ominous. Split Texas as soon as I got the cash.
Former bandmate Lucky Joe drifted back into focus in the EV. He mentioned a possible slot in his new outfit, The Louten Brothers. Threw me for a blank loop when he said they played Texas Swing. The concepts didn’t jibe.
“These louts are from Texas? What are they doing in New York? They’ll get killed.”
The bravest, most pathetic show I ever saw was a hick from Dog Dick, or maybe Dog Taint, Alabama, who somehow got on the bill at an absurdly high hipster-quotient death rock joint. Cynical club managers threw the guy to the wolves like chopped chuck.
Chubby redneck up there all alone, had to sit down to play his destroyed acoustic guitar, chest-washboard and ankle-tambourines, belted out what sounded like hog calls or a railroaded convict straining on the hi-amp electric pot. He went by Washo, Scrubbo, or some other detergent-y Marx Bros. kind of name. Kids still spat on performers then, even the ones they liked. Maybe especially the ones they liked.
After his set, the poor guy ambled up to the urinal next to the one where I was rendering complimentary suds. He looked like he slid out of an oyster-shucking contest.
“I tried,” he said. “I really done tried an’ did my best.”
Maybe he honestly thought his cornpone gut-bucket white trash blues would go over up yonder Nawth in the big bitch city that never sleeps. He and his cardboard guitar case and scuffed shitkicker boots would be on a Greyhound back to the haystacks the next afternoon. He’d be satisfied his best shot didn’t hit, so he could go back to dirt-farming or whatever redneck gig he had with a clean conscience. ‘This is the best I’ll ever do. Not cut out for the big time, nuh-uh.’ I kind of envied old Bleacho.
“One of them’s from the Appalachians, I think,” Lucky Joe said. “Or maybe Pittsburgh.” He said the hillbilly’s name and I nearly slid off the ratty rehearsal studio sofa. Former premier noise/funk bassist returns to his hayseed roots. “Plays guitar now. And sings. Not too bad. With the other guitar player. Style called close harmony…it’s hard.”
Never heard of the other guys Lucky Joe mentioned. Never played with any of them, or not that I could remember. “Got me a double bass,” he said. “Old one. From Austria.”
“Don’t tell me you hocked your Fender…”
“Had to. But it’s all right. String bass is where I started out. Mostly ‘cause I was tall and stringy.”
We’re all tall and stringy. Might be the diet. Or something they slip in comp beer.
“Felt like I went back home,” Lucky Joe said. “Felt good.”
Marching Band uniform perhaps still in mothballs under cellophane wraps in the back of a basement closet at my parents’ place, in case I ever want it again for some reason. Maybe my sister’s kids will have the sense to run away from the monster Public High School their loser uncle dropped out of. One in a million shot they’ll get stuck pounding the same bass drum I lugged instead of blowing sax, trombone, trumpet, tuba. But bass drum’s the stealthy surging force behind any successful marching band. Ask anybody.
Maybe there’s something in the world more ridiculous than a marching band. The Army uses bandsmen as Judas goats. Get the boys in uniform, get them marching and they’ll go anywhere, do any bloody deed desired. Always some star-eyed, shave-headed saffron-robed freak bompin’ the double-head drum in the Hare Krishna parade. Usually the gonest goner of all. The rhythmic chant steals your brain, then your soul. The drum propels you forward at the zombie march pace that was yours all along.
Forced myself to breathe and get my heart going in a livelier beat to audition with The Louten Brothers. If you want the gig, better internalize the beat while you’re walking down the street, Jasper. Lucky Joe said they played dance music, so I conjured ghosts in smokestack cowboy hats, bolo ties, calico skirts, pointy-toe boots all around, twirling the Texas Two-Step in an aircraft hangar strung with plastic jalapeno jack-o-lanterns to a fiddle and pedal-steel guitar while Washo, Starcho & Laundro whooped and warbled. Caricature hallucination faded into spectral Patsy Cline, Spade Cooley and Hank Williams.
My cheatin’ heartbeat the double-head Krishna drum. I played minimal, subtle, with feeling, kept the phantom clodhoppers bopping in my head. A sound you never thought could possibly belong to or come out of you turns out to be the natural one.
The instrument humbles you. The metronome humiliates you. Play the drums right and the metronome disappears. But the humiliation lingers. Relentless click that says you’re all wrong is the sound you never want to hear again. Then you disappear. Into the songs, the music. Be a robot, but keep your soul. No one dances to dead machine sounds. Not in a world I want to live in.
The Louten Brothers said I was their man. They weren’t really brothers. Just four guys who spent a lot of time rehearsing together and separately in cold rooms and basements around town.
The cowboy hat part of my Louten look started out as a joke. Skeevy lid purchased for $2.99 at the worst, dirtiest, ghostliest depression-soaked Salvation Army store in Brooklyn. Near a tavern that featured dollar pints on Saturday afternoons. A place where I used to sit at the upright piano, pretend I was a bowler-hatted, garter-belted alcoholic ex-gunfighter in a High Plains whorehouse and spend the measly tips on cheap beer.
Piano’s my only good parlor trick. A drummer who can play a legit instrument is like a waltzing orangutan. People aren’t surprised the ape can dance like Fred Astaire, but that the hairy freak can dance at all.
Pianos don’t feature in marching bands.
LSD tabs were furtively passed down the line before march practice, sucked fearfully until it became clear that the trip wasn’t such a big bad deal, but something that came from within, stored among half-forgotten, half-remembered dreams.
Fungal gray rabbit-felt sombrero sat on the radiator for a week to take care of possible resident lice and death dandruff. Had to wonder whether ghoulish garbagemen bury street dead in the clothes they wore at the time of discovery, or do urban refuse corpses go nude into Potter’s Field, their sour infested rags donated to charity to clothe the next doomed derelict, or an acid-head tub-thumper cast by circumstances into a formerly inconceivable swinging cowpoke role.
Shucks n’ howdy, fellers. Where’s the gig? What’s the bread?
Louten Brothers shot uncertain looks, let the moldy Stetson pass. Let the freak wear what he likes. Nobody looks at the drummer anyway. Nods when I said go ahead and introduce me as Blackie, if’n you introduce me at all. Touch the brim like Gentleman Jim.
Get a load of Lucky Joe. Gangly junkie loser turned hillbilly Mozart. Unsuspected strength in those extenuated black-tipped fingers. Low notes pop the sound of heartstrings pulled.
People danced who probably wouldn’t have, ordinarily. Couples came together for a light touch and slow turns in the blue-red light. Oat Louten, not his real name, slid wistful longing from fiddle and pedal-steel.
The band moved people. We made them move, which is a tenuous, humble power. Better gigs materialized, unbidden. We recorded a demo, gave a kid at the recording studio a hundred bucks to ship it around for us on the studio’s nickel.
Rob Louten, the former Dead Willie Peter of the Catawampus Demon, said the owner of Fort Worth’s biggest honky-tonk called him to offer a solid week, two shows a night. The guy said shit I’ll double it when transportation expenses were tactfully mentioned.
Not a word as we sucked down the first comp round at the EV rodeo lounge where we’d become the unofficial house band.
The cowboy trip was suddenly a shade too real.
Broadway Barber College turned me and Lucky Joe into reasonable facsimiles of anonymous Country and Western sidemen for five bucks apiece. Hollowed-out Puerto Rican or 2nd generation Wop sheared away any possibility of hippie Black Sabbath poses.
We looked at ourselves in the barbershop window, stared down at our mottled suede Beatle boots, got a banal little conversation going about the imminent Texas tour as a footwear metamorphosis opportunity.
“Cowboy boots aren’t totally ridiculous, right?”
“Leather from anything not on the endangered list is probably karma-free, I guess.”
The harsh truth is, drummers wear sneakers. Tight-laced uppers, adhesive soles on the crucial kick-drum pedal, or the dufuses don’t dance. Nobody can see what the drummer’s got on his feet till after the show. Discreetly slip back into the hipster boots prior to exiting the stage. Make it look like you’re taking care of highly technical professional secret jazzbo drummer business before you go among the civilians to guzzle free beer, pretend to socialize while scrounging for free dope and poon.
Van rental bureaucracy is more complicated for music biz types than ordinary citizens. Most of us don’t have valid licenses, for instance. Elmer Louten, the guy who played Telecaster, had a warrant outstanding in Arkansas, and Arkansas was one of the states we had to drive through. We eschewed legal business formalities, arranged a complicated lend-lease deal with the Soft Kennedys. We got their van for 2 weeks, they got a promise of $200 gig bread upon our return and an up-front eyedropper bottle of no-nonsense LSD. The deal was heavily in their favor. They were on the verge of a massive splitsville scenario, with zero out-of-state gigs, drummer AWOL and obviously I couldn’t step in, at that point. The rotting van was racking up tickets, prime confiscation meat for brown-shirted traffic cops, Lot 49 at some dismal State Auction warehouse in The Bronx’s outer reaches.
We dropped directly sub-lingual to celebrate a successfully transacted deal. Stuff was even stronger than I thought, and I was leery in the first place. Already had one permanent freakout, not my own, on my conscience. ‘Not like these mooks are old friends,’ I thought. ‘They’d dose us just as heavy.’
We took off under cover of big city brownout nightglow. I guess I was driving. Vaguely recall white light-maggots inching along a tunnel, like life in light-years passing us by. Past the stainless steel booth n’ trolley module where some pathetic traffic warden has to sit, choking on exhaust, watching inane non-stop tunnel action on B+W closed-circuit TV, secure in the knowledge he has the worst job in the world. The guys who take your change on turnpikes enjoy a minimal degree of human contact.
We leave microscopic quantities of ourselves on everyone and everything we touch. Sloughed particles may one day reconstitute, Frankenstein themselves into an inexpressive but personable doppelganger not associated with music in any way.
The trip wore off before we hit Fort Worth.
Thought the blue flicker and banshee wail UFO visuals were LSD flashback, not necessarily real. Cops in cowboy hats seemed a cosmic joke.
“Shucks, what seems to be the problem, officer?”
Texas pork chewed tobacco, leaned a watermelon-rustler gut against the higher-than-usual van door and tried to hook his scuffed cowboy boot on the near-nonexistent fender. “You boys been drinking?”
“We sure haven’t been, sir. But we’re getting thirsty. Maybe that’s why we were doing a tad over the legal 55. Soon as we stop, beer city.”
“This here’s a 75 mph zone. The meat of the issue is driving on the left side of the road. You boys from England?”
“Not at all, guv’nor.”
“Suppose I were to call the Nooooo Yaaaawwwk Police Department and read them your vehicle’s plates…think the good ol’ boy on the other end of the line’d tell me there’s one missing?”
“Couldn’t be sure of that, officer.”
Snoozy, semi-conscious Louten Boys pretended to be awake and aware of the situation’s gravity. I was pissed they let a brother operate a motor vehicle in a state of drug-daze dehabilitation. My license was OK. The main problem was locating the registration. Explain the acid-for-wheels agreement we had with the Soft Kennedys to a fat redneck cop who probably wasn’t as dumb as he looked or acted.
“…Sure I left in here somewhere…shoot.”
The situation could’ve been temporarily remedied by a brief gun battle, but we had zero guns, and roadside gunplay leads to high-speed chase scenarios in which runaway cop-killer outlaws wind up dead at the wheel or in the electric chair. Lucky Joe plucked a speed-retard rendition of Turkey in the Straw while I scratched, poked, prodded the van’s dumpsterized glove compartment.
“Where you boys headed, anyway?”
“We’re supposed to play Buffa’s in Fort Worth tomorrow night…or maybe it’s tonight since it’s already tomorrow.”
“You plumb fuckin’ obviously tuckered out from driving…don’t tell no one about this.” The sheriff or deputy, or whatever he was, frisked himself and fished out a prescription bottle fitted with a snort-straw. He took the first hit to instill trust, let out a soulful cowpoke yodel. “Keep ‘er around 80 and stay on the right,” he said.
Music appreciation levels, like speed limits and highway patrolmen, run higher than average in Texas.
Buffa’s was like a city within the cow town. The line of urinals in the men’s room conjured visions of New York in the Art Deco Dreamtime.
House band in a hot joint is an enviable slot, not unlike first fiddle at the New York Philharmonic, except there’s more than one of you. Other outfits will gun for your gig, do what they can to undermine and eliminate you. The Louten Brothers had the advantage of being dispassionate. The gig was to back up headline vocalists, warm up for bands on tour, fill in for last-minute no-shows. We slept in the attached bunkhouse, ate three squares a day in the attached steak place. Basically, no reason to stick our noses outside the behemoth honky-tonk unless we wore out a pair of pointy boots from tapping our toes.
Latent out-of-state aura garnered bunk-time with a genuine Country and Western legend.
Without dropping names, she took off her Big Sky Country wig, popped out the biggest, warmest tits of my life and made me feel Fort Worth was named after me. She said get on the bus with me. I’ll explain it to Raybon somehow and you’ll feel right at home in my cartoonish cowgirl mansion theme-park home just outside Memphis.
Beatnik goddess played a shock-value, confound-the-hipsters-and-the-squares gig to keep her spirit alive. Her music was odd. The Loutens were the only Texas combo who could nail her stuff since East Village ghosts haunted us still. She wanted me to take off with her too.
She was headed to Los Angeles, only stopped in Austin along the way to produce a friend’s album. Country swing ricocheted off a pea-green Chet Atkins guitar and threw her off-course. Spooky sounds of rodeo clown ghosts laughing, the rustle of tumbleweeds clumped around powdery wampum-encrusted Indian skeletons, white-eyed dead horses roaring like bulls.
The night she played Buffa’s, some stringy-haired mysticism made her take my hand and pull me from behind the tubs to the honky-tonk piano stuck stageside so I could play her siren song “Leave Me Broken”. Even though I never heard it before.
“You know it,” she said, and dedicated the number to a man she wished she never met. And she was right. I knew it, or played it anyway. The trip feeling overtook me. I nearly ditched Buffa’s courtesy limo so I could fly to LA with her when I dropped her off at the airport the next afternoon. You could still get on a plane if you shoved cash at whichever fat lady was selling tickets, then. But the way she held onto me at the gate said better let this one go.
Hadn’t seen daylight in a while. Drove past cow pastures, stopped at a non-Buffa’s steak place for sirloin n’ chili in a movie-set Western Village ghost town. Thought about the one who got away. Could’ve hitched my heart, soul and music career to a star.
Stars are distant, cold. They burn at impossible distances. Better not approach too near, fragile flesh cosmonaut.
Freak-out from frazzled nerves, steak n’ beer diet, musical slavery in the form of two shows a night. Easy life, otherwise. No need to hunt gigs, poon, drugs.
The cute waitress asked what’s wrong. Left me alone when I slobbered I’d be OK in 10 minutes.
The booth was near a window. On the wall near the window frame was a yellowed Daguerreotype of a skinny cowboy, nothing to him but cheekbones and timidity. Kid rode or hitched a ride into town for new boots and a blanket-lined jacket. Got his picture taken, something to send his Maw, only he never came by the store again to pick up his portrait. Shot by a gunfighter. Gored by a runaway steer. Rotted out by quick-fire syphilis after his first trip to the whorehouse.
Someone snorted snot up his nose. Looked over at the hollow geezer snoozing over a cow-auction newspaper at the cash register. He was the kid in the picture. Him, and 50 years and 150 lbs. Then I saw my own reflective ghost reflected in the bubble-blown fly-specked window and I was the young cowboy too and I knew I’d done wrong and better get out of Texas fast unless I wanted to get stuck like a marijuana tumbleweed that drifted over the wrong Krazy Glue cow-pie.
Hank Williams floated phantomatically from the glowing jukebox. The dance machine started up automatically every 15 minutes if no one dropped dance-money coins in the slot. Dead drug-addicted skeletal crooner sang about a cigar store Indian who never got kissed and didn’t know what he missed.
Poor old Kaw-Liga.
The TV showed a string-tied loser whomping tubs in black-and-white footage from country swing’s brief pre-Space Age heyday. Galoots dancing for the Grand Old Opry’s TV camera were all dead. Just because something’s recorded doesn’t make it real or permanent.
Nearly asked the rangy haunted-looking cowboys in the window and the picture-frame what I was supposed to do. Get out of showbiz, get married, buy a house, have kids, get a job selling used cars?
Coldest bad-trip sweat ever trickled down my back, down my nose into a bowl of chili.