Tuesday, February 21, 2012

"So Andy, What's A Lipstick Lesbian?"

Every Thursday in San Diego was when the weekly Reader news and entertainment paper was published. Back around 1990 there were three sections in each edition but, as a musician, I was usually interested most in the classified ads. This was where pre-Internet musicians got their gossip and looked for deals. What drummer finally got caught dating the guitarist's girlfriend, forcing a band to advertise for a new member? What locally owned music store had lowered the price of that Mexican-made electric bass yet again? What saxophonist placed a "Reward" notice after he was too stoned to remember leaving his horn on the curb after a gig in the Gaslamp District?

My ad was there every week too. "Modern Keyboard Studies" was the headline. It went on to promise certain advancement at a fair rate: $30 for each hour-long lesson. I never had more than a dozen students at a time, but the ad always turned a profit so I just let it run.

Most the calls I received went like this:
Caller: Hi. Um, how many lessons until I'm good?

Me: Six months to a year. [I had learned long before that no one wanted the truth that it would be somewhere between years and never.]

Caller: Um, okay. Is the first lesson free?

Me: No. I provide a quality product and it has a value. [My main competitor in town had been doing the "Free First Lesson" thing for years so I embraced the tactic that I was above such a desperate plea for new business--it didn't always work, but at least I never wasted my time with one-lesson bargain hunters.]

Caller: Um, when can I start?
Ka-ching! But not all callers stayed on the script. There was the woman who said she had two-inch fingernails that she was not willing to trim and asked, "Will that be a problem when I play?" I referred her to the freebie guy.

And then there was the man who said he wanted to schedule two hours a week but would never actually show up. When I pushed for an explanation he said, "Well, I need a cover story so my wife doesn't know I'm seeing someone on the side." Classy. I passed and he mumbled something about not going to yoga instead.

But one of the calls that had a profound affect on my life came from one John Van Dyke. Unlike most of the inquiries I got from the ad, he wasn't calling about lessons; he was a singer in need of a keyboardist for a gig starting the very next week. John timidly asked, "Maybe you have a student who's ready to start gigging?" Always looking for more paying jobs, I replied, "Well, tell me more. Maybe I'd be interested myself."

John went on to describe a pretty sweet gig: four weeks work at a local club that paid $100 per night playing a combination of show tunes, jazz standards, pop ballads, and a smattering of R & B. I remember thinking, "I've played a lot around town and I can't think of any place that pays that well for that kind of setlist." And then it finally came out. It was a gay bar. "That explains why I've never heard of it," I told my under-enlightened and straight self. It only took a moment for me to reflect that as a full-time musician I was at all times subservient to one maxim: No Gig--No Eat. 

"I'll do it!" I declared.

Rehearsing with Andy, John, and Don in 1991

The band was typical for the regional cabarets of the day: I played all the accompaniment myself with left-hand bass lines, right-hand chords and solos, and a drum machine. We were joined by a second singer: the tall and dark Andy Anderson; and a saxophonist: the tall and light Don Bowman. It was thrown together pretty quick, but we came up with just enough music for the opening night, knowing we'd have to add more material in the following days.

So there I was, all dressed up in my hopelessly hetero clothes having a drink before the show, and looking around the room with wide-eyed wonder. I noticed some very rugged ladies at the end of the bar and Andy caught my stare.

"Straight guys crack me up!" he said. "You all just fantasize about lipstick lesbians." I had no flipping idea what he that meant, but he had my attention.

"Well, on behalf of straight guys everywhere, I'll bite."

I knocked back the rest of my tequila shot, sucked in some air between my teeth as the liquid hit the back of my throat, and tossed him a slow pitch right over the plate.

"Hey Andy! What's a lipstick lesbian?"

"Well, funny you ask Mister Gregg!" he said with a full-voice laugh at the new nickname just bestowed upon me.

"They're gorgeous Penthouse models that in all ways look totally hot for straight men in their high heels and makeup but have a thing for women at the same time."

"Ah yes, I see" I said as I surveyed the rest of the crowded club. "So, when do they get here?"

"Keep dreaming," said Andy. "Come on, show time. Let's give the people what they want."

"Impromptu" at a gig in Long Beach, CA

And we did--not only that night but many days and nights for the next several years. We added a soulful girl singer named Corliss Barbary and, calling ourselves "Impromptu," played what seemed like every gay bar in southern California: The Escape, The Loft, Briefs, The Brass Rail, Bourbon Street, Ripples, and a long-standing run at The Little Shrimp in Laguna Beach.

Private party at a home in La Jolla, CA

I must say, the gay-bar scene was a great education for me. I made some excellent friends, learned a lot of great songs, earned good money, picked up some private party gigs at beautiful homes, and even hooked up with a terrific girlfriend for awhile (the straight girls hanging out with their gay man-friends found me rather enigmatic as the only one in the room whose flirts had any bite).

And while out among the patrons of those many interesting places during those many interesting times, I witnessed extremes of sophistication, and debauchery, and humor, and tragedy, and love, and sadness, and hope: but lesbians with lipstick?--not so much.

[Check out the cover for my upcoming Johnny Hartman biography at www.johnnyhartmanbook.com. I also posted a couple extremely rare Hartman recordings that you won't hear anywhere else.]

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Gettin' Naked with the Chieftains

My Dad could talk to anybody. He was fearless when it came to shaking hands and chatting it up with new people. This made him the life of a party, or on one particular occasion, the cause of a party.

I didn't grow up with my old man, but he always lived within an hour or two. As a young kid of divorced folks, you don't have a lot of say in when you'll visit with one parent or the other. It's all pre-arranged and you just pack a couple favorite toys and off you go for the three-day weekend. But at the age of sixteen, a very odd transition occurred that I've never seen discussed on touchy-feely talk shows: as soon as I got a drivers license it was suddenly MY decision when or if I would get over to Dad's place. Nobody talked me through it or tried to help me understand the ramifications of making such an adult decision. I can't be the only teen to ever have faced that dilemma, but I sure felt alone at the time. Fortunately, Dad made one of those early self-motivated visits a no-brainer and eased my unanticipated burst of maturity.

"Gregg, come on over to Hemet this weekend, and bring your keyboard: you know, that big one you've got."

Dad knew my weakness. Ask me to bring my black-beauty "suitcase" Fender Rhodes to make some music and I'm there. He loved to jam on classic country (Hank Williams SENIOR), could strum a guitar just fine, and had a smooth, nearly pitch-perfect singing voice. The guy never took a lesson in his life, but I'm sure I never heard him sing one note off key. Some of the best music I've ever played was "Watermelon Wine" with Dad and his cohorts getting together for a potluck and hootenanny. Damn, those were good times.

"Sure man. What's the occasion?" I asked him.

"Oh, you never know," he said with a hint of gleeful evasion.

Loading up the car with my Fender Rhodes in the early 1980s

Sure enough, come Friday afternoon I packed up the four-door Chevy Citation hatchback with my keyboard gear, a brand new Night Ranger cassette, and a couple clean shirts. After putting a little bit of Interstate 10 and Lambs Canyon behind me, there I was at the horse-ranch home of Dad and my Step-Mom which they had built up from the dirt some years before. I let myself into the backyard and heard the familiar paternal voice:

"Hey there! Don't get too comfortable. We're going to over to the community college for a concert; I scored tickets for some band from Ireland that sound like fun." That was Dad: always on the lookout for some new people to meet.

At the time, I had never heard of "The Chieftains" and it would be years before I heard of them again and started to put it all together. They had already been together for nearly twenty years, were a major act in Europe, and within another year broke a cultural barrier by performing several concerts along the Great Wall in China. But that night, amid the chill of late-fall in small-town southern Cal, they were an unknown entity touring college campuses in a small van.

The Chieftains in the early 1980s

I recall the music as being exotic, playful, and even a little moody. As a teenage Tolkien loyalist, I could easily imagine the melodies and harmonies as a sonic backdrop to Hobbits and wanderlust elves (an association that would bare out decades later in the Lord of the Rings movies). As soon as their show ended was when my Dad's performance began. He promptly approached the musicians and crew:

"You fellas are terrific. So where are you staying in town? How about you come on back to my place? Cheaper than a motel and we'll have ourselves a little party 'round the pool."
By the backyard pool with Dad and my brothers, 1982

That last word sealed the deal. I grew up in Palm Springs, California where swimming pools were a boringly common backyard embellishment. If you had weeks every summer of 120-degree heat, you either had a pool or spent all your time with the neighbors who did. No big deal. But to these guys from Ireland, a private, southern California swimming pool was almost mythical, and they were not about to pass up the opportunity to check it out for themselves.

Flash forward a couple hours and there we all were in the backyard of Dad's ranch, instruments set up between the patio furniture, and I'm jammin' with the Chieftains who would go on to be nominated for eighteen Grammy awards and win six of them. Being from Europe, they were keenly interested in American music instruments, and the keyboardist in particular was fascinated by my electric piano. Suddenly, I had a new-found pride for what was moments before just a heavy, beat-up, cigarette-burned keyboard I had found in the classifieds of the Press-Enterprise newspaper. Turns out it wasn't old and tattered but "vintage" and "care-worn." The "oohs" and "ahhs" continued when my Dad brought out his classic, cherry-red Gibson ES-335 guitar (like Roy Orbison used) and a Fender speaker cabinet with the beige covering. Now it was the guitarist's turn to be awestruck.

"Oh my, you've got yourself a beige!" he said with a profound mix of wonder and envy. It turns out that when said by an Irish musician with a couple pints already behind him, the word "beige" actually has three syllables: "bay-ee-zha." That's when I knew I was completely in love with these guys. I wanted to load up my rig and two shirts and travel with them the rest of my life.

I remember making a lot of pretty good music that night, but since I didn't think they were more than an Irish garage band, it never ocurred to me to take any photos or make a recording. Whatever notes we put together were given up to the stars above and the cool breeze blowing down from San Jacinto Mountain.

As the evening progressed and the beverages had their intended affect, the magnetic attraction of the pool became too much for these wandering troubadours to withstand. The roadie for the band was the first to crack.

"I'm goin' in. Who's with me?"

Not waiting for a repsone, he took it to the next level and began shedding layers of clothes. It was cold enough that we were all wearing coats, but he was on a mission and would not be denied. Standing in only his droopy boxer shorts, he gave a whelp and flung himself into the deep end.

He splished and splashed, called everyone cowards, and proceeded to have a glorious time. It worked. Clothes began flying in multiple directions. Shoes here; socks there; coats, shirts, and pants everywhere, all to be sorted out much later. Soon, a pile of us were in the pool singing and carrying on as if all the troubles of the world could be set aside for a while and we could just enjoy the company of new friends and new songs.

I was sixteen, I was immortal, and I was gettin' naked with the Chieftains.

[for a teaser look at my upcoming book on singer Johnny Hartman, please visit www.johnnyhartmanbook.com ]