Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Playing for the King

[All of this happened exactly as described...sort of]
“Good news guys, you got the gig opening for B.B.” We’d been hoping to hear that announcement for weeks and congratulated ourselves for beating out the other San Diego-based bands. It seemed the management at the Bacchanal nightclub finally realized we could outplay the competition. And why not? The drummer, Don, was always solid. A bit too easy to piss off but it never kept him from playing a strong backbeat. The bassist, also named Don, had great rhythm and the audiences always seemed amused by how he played with his mouth half open and jaw shoved off to the side like he was perpetually prepared to catch rain water. Our sax player was an ace mercenary in the local blues scene and wore the nickname “Johnny Fucking View” like a precious scar. He eventually left the group when he couldn’t put up with the bandleader anymore. That leader, Willie, was our guitarist/vocalist out of Texas which gave him instant credibility as a more authentic bluesman than the rest of us could ever be. He didn’t sing so great which, unfortunately, matched his guitar chops, but he had a certain style and charm about him; he could win over hearts with a wink and a smile before we laid down the first twelve bars. And then there was the keyboardist—me. I willingly fulfilled the stereotype as the trained musician who over thought most things and threw a snit if rehearsals started ten minutes late. That was us in 1989, the Willie Jaye Blues Band, and we were opening up for the greatest bluesman alive.
Me with the Willie Jaye Blues Band at Winston's in Ocean Beach, 1989
When word first spread that the Bacchanal would be booking the opening act for the B.B. King show all the local blues bands took note. We had yet to play that room so our manager quickly pulled some strings to get us the opening slot for a popular regional act, Coco Montoya. We did well enough that the club’s booking manager gave us our own headliner gig on an off night. For that show we worked our asses off to pull in all our regular crowd from the small bars we usually played: Winston’s, Patrick’s II, the Sunset Grill, McDougal’s Pub, Blind Melons, the Catamaran, Tuba Man’s, Ingrid’s Cantina, the Stadium Bar, and a few others that time has mercifully allowed me to forget. Besides our regulars were the girlfriends. There was the sugar-mama divorcee who took care of Willie and always brought a crowd of she-friends to admire her “special young man.” The bass player had his steady lady that dressed like a Stevie Nicks yard sale. I once seriously asked her if she and Don were witches and her response was, “Pretty much, yea, but Don prefers the term warlock.” Then, taking a hit off the reefer being passed around, casually added, “Let me know if you ever want a threesome.” Drummer-Don’s girlfriend was a lock to come. She made all our shows, got drunk and yelled at no one in particular how we were “so mush bedder ‘an Canned Heat.” With no steady girlfriend at the time, I did my best to encourage a crew of rowdies from my recent stay at San Diego State to make the show. They could usually be counted on to ring up an impressive bar tab. Through our combined efforts we managed to bring in a good-sized crowd that night and from the moment we were introduced as “kickin’ ass and takin’ names,” we swung hard for the fences. When the set was over and the crowd called out for more Willie turned to us with that sweet grin and said, “The gig with B.B. is ours, boys. Now let’s send ‘em home wet.” Then, loud enough for all to hear, “CHICAGO SHUFFLE, FAST FOUR, HOUSE KEY,  a ONE, TWO, THREE, FOUR…” and man, we hit an A7 like we were the first ones to ever think of it. Loud and proud, baby.
At the Bacchanal around the time of the B.B. King gig, 1989

A couple days later our manager told us it was a done deal, the gig was ours. “Not much money,” he added, “but the house sound man will set us up with his best gear and we can even use the Hammond B-3 being brought in special for B.B.’s keyboardist.” For a broke, just-out-of-college kid like me this was huge. The B-3 organ is legendary and to that point I had only ever seen a couple and never gotten to play one. The thought of sitting in front of those dual manuals, foot pedals, and a console full of knobs and switches was comparable in my mind to flying a bomber loaded for action—devastating power at your fingertips. “Congrats,” said Johnny, “you’re gonna play the crap out of that thing, my brother.” I gave it a shot to cover up my thoughts of “damn right” with a twitchy smile. He knew.
            We refined our set over the next couple weeks at our regular gig in Ocean Beach. The bar owner was a complete junkie drunk who had long ago lost the ability to distinguish the scent of thin beer from the piss stains in the bathrooms he never cleaned but God, how he loved live music. If we caught him early in the night he often gave good advice on how to improve our show and keep the crowd excited enough to stick around and order more drinks. We’d thank him for taking an interest and then a few hours later see a disheveled waitress run crying from his office and be reminded of what a son-of-a-bitch he became by last call. For bands like ours that was our school. That was where we honed our trade. That gig and the hundreds before it were where we earned the right to play in front of the man named Blues Boy King.
B.B. with his guitar Lucille

            The night arrived—a sold out show. In our dressing room just before taking the stage, drummer-Don, already a six-pack in, got annoyed by something forgettable and told our manager to screw himself—everything seemed right on schedule. We came out to bright lights and a steamy, cheering crowd. I saw hundreds of unknown faces mixed with a handful of familiar ones: crossed-armed guitarists in the front row with their “you ain’t so hot” stares; the girlfriends at the tables just off to the side trying not to look too obvious in their new black boots; dudes I knew from the beach bars grudgingly handing over cash for overpriced beer; single chicks in spaghetti-stringed halter tops I’d have zero chances to lay, and one or two I never should have laid in the first place. A great crowd, an absolutely perfect crowd, and we set out to dominate every soul in the room or sweat to death trying.
            Some of the night is forever lost to me but amid memories of avid yells and piercing whistles I have a misty sense that I never played better. In the daze of light and sound I became drenched in each brief embrace of the music as its storming pulse tore through me before casting itself over the room. For a brief moment I rose above the stage to look down on my svelte, long-haired and not-yet bald self as I slayed the beast in front of me one conquering riff at a time. With an arsenal of tremolos, flatted fifths, crushed thirds, and rotating Leslie horns I plunged into the great musical abyss to be ultimately rewarded by the sweetest of all gifts offered by the blues gods—a moment of pure bliss, purpose, and power. I lingered as long as I could—and then it was over. I blinked—and was mortal again.
Playing the blues in 1989

            The evening continued with uncounted free beers, congratulatory back slaps, and suggestive cheek kisses. And later, the grandest handshake of them all—“Good job,” B.B. told me as he engulfed my hand in his sausage-sized fingers. As I stood attempting to mutter some form of appreciation he moved on towards the tour bus where his beloved Lucille patiently waited to be driven to the next town. I finished out the night with friends and booze, enjoying the company of both and yet occasionally slipping off to ponder what that singular and slightly terrifying moment of clarity had done to me. Would I ever know that feeling again? Should I ever try? Did I truly play so beyond my earthly abilities?
In good company after the show, 1989

            Weeks later I took a day away from my usual scene and went to lie on the sand at Mission Beach. I spread out my towel and soaked in the sun while pink-skinned tourists carefully worked their way along the crowded boardwalk behind me. I found myself watching a pair of cops on mountain bikes hassle some shirtless locals about their open containers when a voice next to me said, “Hey, buddy.” I squinted in the brightness to see a scrappy-haired man with cobra tats up his freckled arms and smoking a cheap-smelling cigarette. I prepared myself for the usual variation on “Could you spot me some change so I can catch the bus back to where my car broke down?” but instead heard a very different question.
The boardwalk at Mission Beach, CA
“Didn’t you play keyboards for the B.B. King show?” Before I could respond he continued, “Yea, I thought so. I’m the sound man who ran the mixing board that night.” Starting to recognize him I said, “Right. You did a great job making us sound good. Thanks.” He took a final, deep drag off his smoke before flicking the butt away, nodded his head and said, “Well, it was pretty clever the way you guys landed that gig. By the way, did anyone give you a recording of your set?” This was before the days of cell phones and hand-held digital recorders so having a decent recording of a live gig was a sought-after rarity but I ignored the question. I was much more aroused by the flippant way he seemed to think I was in on some sort of deception. “What do you mean?” I asked. “We fought hard to earn that gig just like everyone else and came out on top.” “Well I suppose,” he replied, “but your manager offering to rent the Hammond, pay for its delivery and everything…saved the club a bundle. None of the other bands thought of that. So listen,” he continued, “I ran a mix of the whole show onto my personal recording deck. Would you like a copy so you can hear for yourself how you sounded that night?” I turned towards the surf line and noticed a young boy scrambling after a ball only to stumble to the sand as the gray-blue water eased up around his legs. His face looked perplexed as if he hadn’t decided yet how to feel about the fall. A woman rushed to pick him up, and seeing her he quickly made up his mind to cry. I sucked in the brittle air and put my sunglasses on. “No thanks,” I said.

1 comment:

  1. A good read. I focused on all the anecdotes about girls.