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.]

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