the limits of respectability
chapter seventeen - buddy bob’s
Journal entry- Day 22- Can I tell you? I’m nervous as hell about tonight. Not about the music. It will sound all right. It’s the unpredictability of what is before us. It almost feels like my first time on stage . . . ever!
The real fear, the true adrenalin rush, comes from performing for the first time. Singing, jumping, flailing about, in front of total strangers with their undivided attention addressed to you can be unnerving. You might as well be naked for all the world to see, it can have such an effect on you. You can dismiss standing in front of a class apprehensively spouting Shakespeare to your peers. That’s nothing! By lunch your classmates have already forgotten, you stuttered your way through a soliloquy. Even the anticipation of asking Carolyn Irmington to the prom could not compare to the amount your skin crawls as you climb the stage steps for the first time. With experience and confidence, the feeling becomes less overwhelming— the butterflies smaller and easier to digest . . . but the first time out of the gate? There is nothing in my life to equal it in my opinion. I didn’t have much time to contemplate it either. Perhaps in retrospect a good thing? Otherwise, I might have just scampered away to hide under the biggest rock.
When I was starting out in my first band, we organized a concert to combat the boredom of a small town that closed-up shop not a minute past six every night. It was, likewise, a podium to showcase our abilities to the expansive world outside our garage garrison. The band I was in would headline. There were two opening acts. Initially there had only been one, but the first act, a band named Rough House, had fired their bass player two weeks before the gig. The jettisoned member had quickly assembled a new collection of minstrels and demanded satisfaction by being a part of the show. Against my better judgement, I relented, and he and his band Free Spirit, were inserted into the lineup in the opening slot. I felt if they sucked badly enough, an unruly crowd would make sure they didn’t overstay their welcome. Perhaps having at least one act that blew, would detract attention from my rookie status? Besides, I had to contend with the larger picture, promoting, and arranging the finer details of a concert.
Eventually the night came and the people began to arrive, and arrive, and arrive. Christ, there really is nothing to do in this town after six. Although I’d surrounded myself with the best musicians, I still felt vulnerable, stripped even of my sensibilities.
Free Spirit were a bunch of first timers too and I felt a certain empathy for them. The keyboard player, a young girl barely into her teens, was the most unsettled of the bunch. She was inconsolable once she spied the packed house awaiting her. She demanded that we set up her electric piano behind the amps so she would be hidden from view. We assured her we would comply to her demands, but proceeded to put her front and center once she was out of sight. I have witnessed true terror on only a hand full of occasions. It was the way chiseled war veterans looked when they spoke of the horrors of battle. How they watched a buddy die right in front of them and were powerless to do anything about it. The look of repugnance on her face when she discovered she would be seen by all was similar. Courageously, she was pushed, and poked onto the stage by her fellow band-mates. They all took up their instruments for the opening cords of Castle Walls, by Styx. To this day I can’t recall ever seeing someone in live performance hold lyrics in one shaky hand, as they sang and played their keyboard with the other. Nor to this day, have I ever witnessed a band restart the same song three times, before they got in chorus deep. The first stoppage, was to give the stunned girl a chance to actually play in unison with her band and try singing in key. There was silence from the audience in a, pin-could-drop, sort-of-way. The second halt was to tune the instruments.— Cue the crowd unrest in a fidgety murmur. The third failed attempt, was when someone tried to put them out of their misery by pulling the plug. Now I could hear increased grumbling from the mob with a few cat calls. They plugged back in, and set out to start the same song, for a fourth time. Immediately there was all-out hostility from the riotous throng as they heckled and booed. The girl in her panic and humiliation, ran from the stage in tears still clutching her lyric sheet. The rest of the band with a, “Thank you very much. We love you. Good night,” soon followed her. My god this is horrible. This can’t be happening? All my planning, all my hard work, it’s going down the drain right before my eyes. There won’t be an audience left to perform for, if I don’t do something quickly.
Rapidly I rushed to Rough House’s dressing room to alert them. They were needed ASAP to soothe the savages. Out they ran in single file, in matching T-shirts, with the stenciled image of the band’s name, emerging in a puff of smoke out of a dragon’s mouth. I swear the ink was still wet. I let my head fall into my hands in disbelief as Huey, Dewy and Louie, took the stage. This would be the worse night of my life and I hadn’t even made it up to perform myself. Visions of the uproar danced through my brain with the lifeless corpses of Rough House strewn about in a bloody mess, their dragon logo ripped to shreds, or worse, an empty echoing hall. No one left to play to. But disaster did not come. The little band that could, with a tenor sax player doubling the missing bass line, started into Wipe-out, by The Safari’s, and the crowd went wild. All this went through my mind, in Buddy Bob’s as I stood looking at our stage from a distance. I was a million memories away from my first performance, on the precipice of oblivion. Now it was a shadow, a ghostly haze of a triumph over fear long ago, barely remembered, like the smoke drifting from our fog machine and dissipating into nothingness.
The stage looked spectacular. Bronson had done a magnificent job putting all the elements together. Our trip to the army surplus had not been in vain. The parachute now hung directly above the instruments. The stage had various forms of tank netting and ripped green and black fabric draped across the amps and drums like bracken— all overgrown and weed-like. It cloaked anything remotely musical, transforming it into a pop-culture battleground. Most of the effect was achieved by various back-lighting Bronson had strategically placed to cast eerie shadows. Currently, only a soft white light shone above the chute in a slow chase sequence, and the episodic blink of a strobe gave the appearance of far off lightning through brooding clouds. At least the crowd had something cool to look at if the music sucked.
We convened by the bar for a head count. We were all wearing our new army flight suits. I was in beige, Wally, Space in forest green, and Doc meandering about in an olive motif with a red tie tucked into his shirt giving him a scout master ambiance. Spike wore his leather jacket over baggy, black, zippered pants and Jackboots, his face still framed in his dark shades. Does this guy ever take them off? For the first time . . . well ever . . . we actually looked synchronized. Not to the extent of Rough House and their dragon logo T-shirts, but I would say we looked in unison with one another. The zipper on Wally’s flight-suit was pulled down well below the navel, exposing a hairy rug of chest hair and a hint of what lay lower.
“Je-sus Wally, are you wearing any underwear?”
“Bare as the day I entered this world Doc.”
“We said look commando, not go commando you ass. We don’t want to scare off our audience.”
“Come on guys. It’s just a little honey for the Chubs. I have to catch up. Space is still beating me.”
Defiant as ever, Space said, “Chubs, Wally? I haven’t seen a decent Chub since we blew into this town. What if the guy Walden’s sending out to see us shows up tonight? I want him to see the band not your shlong! You’ll ruin all my hard work!”
With a huff and a moan Wally relented, and tugged his zipper upward a couple of inches. Wires started the intro-tape. With Bronson guiding us by flashlight, we all made our way to the now darkened stage. Everyone had an aura of nervous energy. It wasn’t like we were playing for a packed house, it was only Monday. However, Walden’s emissary could show up at any time to check us out, and would probably do so on a slower night, when his own club was well below capacity.
The first set went off without a hitch. Spike was tight with the band even as he performed with us for only the first time. Bronson was right on the mark with the lighting, and the sound was crisp, and clear with the right amount of bottom end. We were energetic, animated, and even playful. Casey danced by herself in front of the stage, and soon others joined her, spinning, and grooving effortlessly, as we deftly navigated from song to song, to the set conclusion. Even Space was more rhythmically laid back, and the songs sounded pleasantly paced.
Wally had pulled his zipper back below the navel as he left the stage, and was sitting with a rather heavy girl dressed in a frock with a brocade vest, chatting her up. Spike sat with Casey, and the rest of us were standing at the bar wondering aloud, whether Walden’s mystery man had seen and heard the masterfully painted aural canvass of set number one.
Doc was anxious. “Was he out there Space? Did he see us?”
“No Barlow. As far as I know he wasn’t here. I can spot those guys from miles away.”
“Shit! That set kicked ass.”
“We’ll just have to sustain the momentum Sparky.”
Someone touched my arm. “You guys are really good. Best band we’ve had in here in some time. Bob’s very happy.”
Bob’s very happy at the money he’ll save, having us here two weeks. I turned to look into the eyes of one of the waitresses. She was standing next to the bar awaiting her next order. She was tall. My height. “Thanks for the compliment.”
“Actually I’ve only worked here for a couple of weeks, but you’re the best band so far.”
“Oh? Great! My ego is through the roof,” I said.
“My name is Megan.”
Hmm . . . not an ‘L’. Perhaps I can forgive her comments?
“Sparky,” I said. We shook. Her eyes were a dark, deep pool matched by her hair which fell in folds around her face. There was a hint of a devious smile, and a more than ample bosom fighting for my attention.
“Is Sparky your real name, or were your parents just hard up for a pet?”
“John. John Malveen. It’s the band that’s hard up for a pet since Thumper left.”
“It’s a long story.”
“So what’s it like, being in front of an audience?” She turned to the bartender. “Charlie come on, number four’s waiting for their drinks.”
“When everything clicks. It’s the best feeling there is. There’s nothing like it.”
This girl definitely doesn’t mince words. She’s very forward. I like that. Charlie the bartender placed the drinks on Megan’s tray.
“Even fucking,” I responded. I looked at Charlie. “You know— as opposed to odd fucking.” Charlie gave me a scowl to let me know he was not amused. He left to serve his patrons at the opposite end of the bar.
“I’d love to be able to do what you do. Just to be a part of it all.” She nodded toward the tray. “My order. We’ll have to pick up our fucking talk, later John.”
“Just try and stop me.”
She thrust the tray up on her left hand and gave me the old, touch and squeeze, with her right before wading through a throng of customers by the bar. Oh yeah! She’s interested.
When the time came to take the stage for the second set, it didn’t run as smooth. Spike knew the material, but his attention seemed to be wandering. He was blasting power cords when he should have been strumming, and doing outrageously long solos. A guy had sauntered in with two friends between our performances, and sat with his buddies to our right, as he ordered pitchers of beer from Megan. He wore a straw cowboy hat, and farmer-john’s undone on the left side, exposing a busting white T-shirt trying to contain his chest. The guy was a brute, a real shit-kicker and his friends were no slouches either. Shit-kicker began eyeing Casey as she danced and twirled in front of the stage. She seemed oblivious to his wagging tongue and greedy eyes. Spike, on the other hand, was well aware of his intent, and was on a vigilant slow simmer of hack guitar noises.
Somehow we made it through the set and found ourselves in a group at the side of the stage. Wires, Spike, Bronson and I.
“Did you see that fuck! Eye ballin’ my Casey?”
“It really didn’t look bad from where I stood,” Wires offered.
“That cowboy’s lucky I don’t go over there and break his nose right now.”
Oh god, I thought. I hope someone’s hid his killing boot? “Have you seen the size of that guy Spike?” I looked at Bronson. “– You don’t feel like fighting tonight do you?” Bronson shrugged. “— He could squeeze you on toast and pick his teeth with your bones.”
“I don’t give a rat’s ass. A man should know better than to . . . to shit in another man’s backyard.”
“Eloquently spoken,” Wires mumbled. He brought a match up to kiss the end of a fresh cigarette.
“Spike calm down man. Hold it together. One more set that’s all,” I pleaded.
Space approached us, a little on edge. “Spike what the hell are you doing up there?”
“He’s ok Space. We’re talking with him. Just a momentary meltdown.”
“Momentary meltdown? It lasted all freakin’ set. We can’t have that. I had to tell Bob it was a sound problem.”
Wires blew out a gust of smoke and uttered. “Thanks for the vote of confidence.”
Space turned his attention to our guitarist and peered into his dark orbs. “I know, you know the songs better than that Spike. You have to be on this set. Do you understand? Walden’s guy could show at anytime.”
“I’ll take that as a yes.”
“There’s a guy checking Spike’s wife out, Space.”
“So fuckin’ what. Deal with it. I need Spike to focus on playing. Get your ass kicked after the show.”
Wally joined our gaggle. “You might as well give me a point now Space.”
Space continued with his verbal sandpaper. “For what? That thing you’re sitting with Wally? Be thankful I don’t deduct points. That’s not Chub-stock, that’s livestock. Anyway, do you mind? We’re having a serious conversation here. Something beyond your comprehension.”
“You don’t have to be so con-den-sending.”
“Apparently I do Wally. I do have to be con-den-sending— Remember what I said Spike. Get it together.” Space turned back to Wally before walking away. “Oh, and by the way? FYI. The line you sing in Girls on Film, is two minutes later, not, scuba-de-be-bop.” Space spun around and stomped off.
Wally slumped himself down into a chair and blew out some air making a, phewwt, sound. Spike walked over, grabbed Casey by the hand, and angrily paced to the bar.
“It appears guys, the asshole is back from his brief vacation,” I said.
“Ah . . . Space’s under a lot of stress.”
“Don’t defend him Wires. He didn’t defend you to Bob, when he blamed the sound, and there’s no need for him to lay into Wally like that.”
“I agree . . .”
“So do I,” Wally added.
“— but Spike is a little . . . twitchy.”
“And he seems somewhat unpredictable,” Bronson attested.
“Everything surrounding this band is erratic Bronson,” I said. “So Spike’s outlandish. We’ll get used to it— ”
“— Or die trying.”
“After all, we got used to you Wally.”
Doc Barlow swaggered over to us and stopped, a beer in his hand, “Gentlemen!—
Discussin’ our newest member Stevie Blunder, are we?”
“Eccentricities Doc, that’s all. We all have them.”
Wally spoke as he took in a deep breath. “Spike certainly has been blessed with his fair share it seems.”
Doc responded. “Yeah, but we don’t go around burdening each other with them,
especially in the middle of a Billy Idol song, Wally. Like when Sparky thought the world was going to end, he was a true professional about it. It didn’t affect his performance one iota. Remember that?” Doc needled me with his elbow.
Bronson had a hard time swallowing the information. “Sparky thought the world was ending?”
“Doc’s right,” I laughed. “I remember, for years, preparing anyone who’d listen for that day. And when it came, there I was, sitting on a bus in traffic, sixth minute, of the sixth day, of the sixth month, 1984.”
“Is that in homage to George Orwell or Iron Maiden?” Bronson asked.
“A little of both with a touch of revelations thrown in there.”
“I thought you didn’t believe in religion,” Wires stated.
“I don’t, but there’s some fine readin’ at the end of the bible when shit’s blowin’ up real good.”
Wally listened intently with gapping mouth, “How’d it turn out Sparky?”
“The end of the world?”
“We’re still here, aren’t we? Shit Wally.”
Space came running over to us. “He’s here!”
“Walden’s guy? Where?”
“Walked in five minutes ago. There! Second table from the front on the left side. NO! No don’t look at him.”
A droll Doc responded. “Oh, we certainly don’t want him to know we’re here. Do we?” He rolled his eyes. Wally had dropped to the floor and was hiding behind one of the tables. “Wally get up! There’s no need to hide. The man’s not a bounty hunter.”
“What the big burley biker dude. Are you sure Doc?”
“Beeje said he was a big guy with a beard and he looked like a biker,” Space informed. “That man, is a big guy with a beard who looks like a biker, wouldn’t you agree? Someone get Spike. We’re going up now.”
I protested. “It’s only been twenty minutes.”
“I say we go now and that’s all you need to know Sparky. Got a problem? Take it up with your union representative. — Ok let’s do it.”
We took the stage for the last set of the night. Although musically we were tighter, despite our hope, Spike was again elsewhere and began hurling insults at the grinning Shit-kicker during songs. Casey had not heeded her husband’s warnings, (or her attention span being what it is . . . forgot), and was up dancing again. The cowboy and his posse had moved their seats closer to the dance floor and were trying to get Casey’s attention between downed glasses of draft. The Shit-kicker was making mock humping gestures to his friends who egged him on.
I could hear Spike even through the music, yelling at the buffoon. “Don’t you look at my wife!” He was now walking to stage-right for every solo, and glaring maliciously at his nemesis.
I grabbed him by the shoulder between songs and hissed in his ear. “Spike for Christ’s sake calm down! Is it any wonder you’re going to die from the curse of the J’s? You’ll bring it on yourself!”
The big guy with the beard sat staring at us with arms folded, looking unimpressed, as Spike continued his belligerent ways and butchering the songs. I began to panic. So much was riding on this set, on every song, on every cord played. The big guy with the beard had to like us and report favorably back to Walden, or we were screwed— stranded miles from home with no agent to book us. With one song to go, we had to get through it. My god, we’re going to be chased from the stage. Humiliated like the poor girl all those years ago. I bet to this day she still can’t hear Styx without crying? I ran over to Doc who stood behind his keyboards on Spike’s side of the stage as Wally M.C.’d the last song of the night, Golden Earing’s, Twilight Zone. It was the big blow off, flash pots, strobes, fog machine the whole shootin’ match. We just had to get through this one number
and we were home free. “Doc, you have to watch Spike. I don’t know if he’s going to make it man. Grab him if he looks like he’s going to go ape-shit and leave the stage. Wally’s gotta sing this one, and I can’t grab him with the bass on.” Doc gave me his standard, thumbs up rocker pout.
The Shit-kicker was so into Casey he didn’t pay any attention to Spike’s tirade and began trying to lift up her skirt as she whirled by him. We started into the beginning cords of Twilight Zone. Doc began his voice-over. “Somewhere in a lonely hotel room, there’s a guy starting to realize that eternal fate has turned its back on him . . .”
I looked at Spike warily. He was unmoving, his eyes fixed solely on his potential target, but at least playing in time with us....for now.
Wally sang. “It’s 2:00 A.M., the fear is gone . . . I’m sittin’ here waitin’ . . . the gun still warm . . .”
The flash pots didn’t go off at the beginning of the song like they were supposed to. The smoke machine was running low and gave off a steamy, powdery burning odor, as it spat out the last of its liquid in a slippery goo to the right of the stage. A corner of the parachute had come undone above Doc, and hung partially obscuring the big guy with the beard’s vision. Great the whole nights unraveling right before our eyes. Where the hell’s Rough House when you need them?
I could see Wires from stage and the unmistakable embers of a cigarette bouncing up and down in the darkness as he approached the front of the club. He pulled out a pen-light flashlight and began adjusting something on the flash-pot in front of Wally. On we played. On Wally sang.
“Help I’m steppin’ into the twilight zone. This place is a mad house. It feels like being cloned . . .”
The big guy with the beard was leaning to one side trying to see what was going on; his arms were still crossed; his expression still devoid of excitement.
The obnoxious Shit-kicker was now licking between two fingers while Casey smiled, and his friends laughed.
“Don’t you fuckin’ be rude to my wife!”
Wires apparently fixed what he was looking for and turned back to the sound console.
“My beacon’s been moved under moon and star . . . where am I to go once I have gone too far”. . .
The parachute ascended lower. Doc was holding part of it up with one hand while playing his synthesizer and still managed to sing his back-up. “Woah- ohhh”. . .
Wires had returned to the sound board and was busy flicking toggle switches. He disappeared beneath the console and began inspecting cables and plugs.
The Shit-kicker stood up and approached Casey with an outstretched hand.
“Don’t you fuckin’ . . . touch . . . my . . . wife!”
Wally sang. “Soon you will come to know when the bullet hits the bone.”
The big guy with the beard got up to leave.
The Shit-kicker now had his hands on Casey’s hips. He pressed his body tight to hers and began to grind with her. His lips inches from her neck caused sudden panic in her eyes. His hands began moving slowly upwards toward her breasts.
“Get your fuckin’ hands off my wife!”
“When the bullet hits the bone!”
Wires jiggled a plug. The flash pot went off right underneath Wally. A puff of smoke enveloped him and he disappeared from sight.
The big guy with the beard stopped and turned toward the stage.
That was it. Spike had seen enough. He screeched— an animalistic howl really— and leapt forward. There was a horrible discord as Doc’s chest hit the keyboard in an attempt to hold Spike back. Spike’s shirt ripped in two as he sprang from the stage, directly onto the drunk dotard knocking him back into his table, and sending his two friends flipping backward over their chairs. The table collapsed under their weight, splintering into a hundred pieces, and Casey fell to the floor.
The parachute gently cascaded downward as it lost its grasp of the ceiling. It covered us and Wally as he waved and coughed through a haze of smoke and sparks.
Doc and I clawed our way to the edge of the stage as Space continued to play and Wally continued to hack up a lung into the microphone. “Help I’m huch! Huch! Twilight Huch’”. . .
We were in time to see Bronson as he fought his way through a small circular crowd to Spike’s position. Our guitarist still had his instrument, plugged in, and around his waist, as he continued to pummel the huge behemoth. Both of his hands were flailing and in between punches his guitar came across like a third fist. TWANG! Right into the Shit-kicker’s head. The cowboy raised his arms in a useless attempt at defense.
The Shit-kicker screamed. “Get this Jackass off me!”
Spike growled. “What did you call me?!”
“Shit Doc, the curse of the J’s!”
Wally was still waving his hand frantically through the smoke somewhere beneath the chute, as his lungs tried to expel smoky debris.
Space’s voice could be heard through the P.A. as Bronson and the Shit-kicker’s buddies tried to separate Spike from his victim. “Thanks for coming out. We’re Bitter Romance, here all week and next.....hopefully..... Goodnight.” This was followed by a lone cymbal crash, Wally’s weak attempt to pluck a cord in unison, and the Twang! of Spike’s guitar striking the head of his victim yet again. It resonated through the club.
The Shit-kicker cried helplessly, “Get this jealous jerk away from me...Fuck!”
Spike growled louder and kept swinging, drunk with rage.
Wally tried to make his way blindly from the stage and slipped on the gooey mess from the fog machine, landing flat on his back with his guitar sticking straight up. Underneath the parachute he looked like a mummified body with a huge hard-on.
With a little help we managed to separate everyone, although Spike was still raving on at his foe. “Don’t you ever touch my wife again! I’ll kill you. I’ll kill you!”
The Shit-kicker was stumbling around taking errant swings at an invisible boxing partner. His forehead had been opened by Spike’s guitar and a gash had produced a substantial amount of blood running down his face into his eyes.
I looked around, but the big guy with the beard was gone.
Slowly the chaos subsided and everyone was adequately separated and calmed down. The Shit-kicker was escorted from the club by his buddies with a dish towel pressed to his wound and Space ran damage control with Bob the club owner.
Doc stated emphatically,“Well, that could have gone better.” We helped Wally from under the canopy. He was all black faced, his hair slightly puffy in the front. He looked like the dupe of a forth grade science experiment gone awry.
“I nearly got killed up there,” he blurted out.
Doc looked at me and shook his head. “I think I’m developing a phobia now Sparky. Liticaphobia.”
“What’s that Doc? Fear of hiring the wrong guitarist?”
“No. Fear of a lawsuit.”