New Friends, New Culture
Keith and I were in his Buick Regal winding toward the coast and blaring Y&T. His JVC stereo was the loudest in Sonoma County. There were cows and goats grazing on both sides of the narrow road that reminded me of Tennessee, except the landscape was treeless, green and balding like an Ireland countryside. We dipped and crested for several miles until the horizon opened up to nothing but sky and ocean, high above sea level. The view was unexpected and breath taking. You got the feeling God was showing off. The coast was only 30 minutes from Rohnert Park. I’d been once but it was at night. We made our descent down the side of the bluff and headed up the coastal highway towards Salmon Creek State Park. Waves crashed against massive rock formations jutting from the coastline. Stuff I’d only seen in the movies. This was nothing like the flat southern beaches back home, edged with motels and gear shops. Behind a row of twenty-foot sand dunes was a cluster of houses of weather worn pastels on stilts. The one of pinkish hue was the ill-fated band house Jeff and Uwe rented the summer before I arrived. I tried to imagine living there and couldn’t see it; not without a vehicle.
Keith was usually hanging at the barn gawking at my guitar playing. It was quite the confidence builder. He was the quintessential Californian. He wore self-tailored football jerseys with the sleeves and necks cut out and the bottom clipped above the waistline like a girls’ halter top. His brown hair was parted in the middle, perfectly feathered, early 80’s style. Keith was like Jeff Spicoli on speed, and took colloquialism to new level. He’d show up on Fridays, flabbergasted that we rehearsed on the weekends.
“You guys are practicing on Friday night? That’s boodah! I got a twelver and some rude Indica buds in the Regal. We need to blow this pop sickle stand, like yesterday, and find some choice babes who wanna go action!”
He was also flabbergasted that I hadn’t been sightseeing yet and wanted to take me on a tour of his homeland. I declined several times because I didn’t want to be distracted from the band. He took me to lots of parties, too, where he got a kick out of introducing me as a bad-ass guitar player from the southland. His girlfriend Melissa would sit in between us on the console of the Buick Regal as we cruised around. She was a cute brunette, petite with long straight Marsha Brady hair. She kissed on Keith’s cheek and giggled at his wit, then she’d look at me with fuck me eyes, and mouth “I want you now,” while her left hand was on Keith’s thigh. I turned to my window, uncomfortable and thinking, is this really happening? Am I in some kind of Porky’s movie? Time after time I tried to sit in the back seat but they’d insist I sit up front. And, here we’d go again.
We left Salmon Creek and headed down Highway 1 toward the Peninsula at Point Reyes. The rocky cliffs of the pacific coastline made me feel small and insignificant, like the speck of humanity that I was. My little world of rock and roll dreams, the band, and my past as an Appalachian boy was blown out to sea. Fog and mist engulfed the cape as we pulled in the parking lot of the historic light house. Metal guitar licks and pot smoke poured from the car windows in violation of peace and nature. It was the rowdy arrival of the disrespectful youth. My hair was growing down my back and I was loosing my southern accent, getting comfortable with my new locality. I knew the phone was ringing at Jeff mom’s house with concerned and loving parents on the other end, hoping someone would pick up. But, more calls were unanswered than received. I’d only spoken to them a couple of times in the months I had been gone.
Standing there on the tip of civilization, 3000 miles from home, I felt like a new and different person. I’d have to swim to get any further away from East Tennessee. I felt free and detached of a life back there, and thought of it without any longing or sentimentality.
As I looked out over the Pacific, there was a tinge of something in my chest. I realized it must’ve been guilt, ‘cause … I didn’t miss anyone.
It wasn’t long before we crossed the Golden Gate and into the Presidio Military base where the town of San Francisco began in the 18th century under the flag of Spain. From there, we drove to the Cliff House at Point Lobos and walked the ruins of the Sutro Baths; then headed over to Haight-Ashbury on the south side of Golden Gate Park where the hippies lingered in Purple Hazed flashbacks. We stopped for beer at a corner market in the Castro. There were droves of mustachioed men in bright plaid shirts and hairy chested leather bears cruising the sidewalks. I was in awe of the rollercoaster streets of Steve McQueen and Clint Eastwood, and the hundreds of pedestrians in the business district who walked like robots, programmed to the traffic lights as they boarded street cars in mute workaday perfunctory. Small inner city school boys weaved their skateboards and bikes through traffic, like it was second nature. China Town smelled of sushi and seasoned woks as Asian kids pilfered through dumpsters in the alleyways. We drove by two premier rock clubs on Broadway; A punk bar called the Mabuhay Gardens, and The Stone, where Metallica was making their Bay Area debut, was just up the street. San Francisco (“the city” as everyone referred to it) was amazing, and I couldn’t wait to play there.
Outside the band, Keith was my best buddy. He was also my roadie and later became the band photographer. He carried my gear and tuned up my guitars for almost every gig. But I didn’t know how to tell him about Melissa’s flirtatious ways. I hoped that her and I would never wind up alone.
Jeff’s mom, Kei, was old school, all about work and education. She didn’t believe in art as an adult endeavor, or understand Jeff’s interest in music. To her it was a pipe dream. She was small, and spoke English with a Japanese accent, leaving out conjunctions and prepositions. “I was dreamer too.” She’d say. “I wanted to be swimmer, but then I grow up.” She was a great cook, and my uncultured southern taste buds became educated in a short time. She’d make Tempura Shrimp, and vegetables, Sukiyaki and lots of white rice. We washed it down with Saki and beer. Well, they did; I hadn’t developed a taste for alcohol with food, yet. Although I enjoyed the meals and looked forward to her cooking, she would preface every meal with:
“I no southern cook, Kevin. If you want fried chicken, go back to Tennessee.” She’d say, laughing.
Jeff’s sister, Sandra and her boyfriend Clyde would come to dinner a few times a week. I watched their chop stick skills and tried my best to copy. Clyde doused his rice with soy sauce so I followed. Something I still do today. After dinner, they’d coax Kei into going to the tool shed to smoke some weed. She’d say no, but then end up hitting the pipe a couple times. Jeff would grab the acoustic guitar and we’d entertain the best we could. We didn’t know many classics, but they got a kick out of my Bluegrass skills. Kei would say, “Play Deliverance, Kevin! Play Deliverance!” I played deliverance … for my supper.
These were fun times, but I never could relax at Kei’s house and my clothes were always in the suitcase. There’s was a constant tension beneath the surface. I tried to keep to myself, usually slipping into my bedroom.
She had two sides: the perfect Saki buzzed friendly Kei … and the drunk vodka unhappy with Jeff, Kei.
When we got home from practice, she was usually watching TV in her night gown, smoke curling around her head and a glass of Saki on the side table. She had several cats, but a Russian Blue feline named Louie owned most of the lap real estate. Her eyes glued to the TV she’d say, “Cookie in Jar.” If she was in her bedroom and the house was dark when we got home and the cookie jar was empty, she’d start in on Jeff.
“You work in morning, Jeff?”
“No, I’m off.”
“You need more hour. Part-time is not enough.”
“They won’t give me any more hours right now, mom”
“No good. I work 40 hour, you work 40 hour.” She said slamming the door.
I offered her the money my parents sent but she refused it.
“You need to enroll in college and get education, Kevin. Santa Rosa Junior College is good school. Don’t waste your life, like Jeff. He quit school.” She said.
It was about a 10-minute walk through B-park to Cindy’s house on Bernice Court. When things got ugly with Jeff and Kei, I’d call her up to see if I could come over. Her parents were nice, but like everyone else, asked a lot of questions about the mysterious southern boy. I liked being mysterious, and wasn’t very forthcoming about my past; even while I was eating their food and sleeping with their daughter. Turned out they were Baptists and attended a church near by. They were surprised when I asked to go with them one Sunday night. I knew it was a suck-up move, but once we started singing the old time hymnals I enjoyed it, and was reminded of home.
Ringing Ears, Guitar Heroes, and Girlfriends
Not long after our victorious win at the battle of the bands, Nick came to practice complaining that his ear was ringing. He stopped playing mid-song and put his finger in his ear and made weird faces. He was so stressed out that he unplugged and left the barn. Later that week, he asked if we could practice less and cut our volume in half. At the same time, I had been complaining to Jeff that we weren’t practicing enough. “I didn’t come 3000 miles to just live out here!” I was selfish and unsympathetic towards Nick, which would backfire on me years later when MY ears started ringing. (They ‘re ringing as I type). To make matters worse, Jeff started going to Stacy’s more and more, and because they were a one car family, he’d get stranded there. Uwe or Nick would pick him up sometimes but only if Jeff had money to help with gas, which he usually didn’t.
Uwe and I had already been jamming on occasion without Nick and Jeff, kicking out a tune or two every time we got together. The four of us definitely had a connection, but mine and Uwe’s was highly flammable. We began picking up the slack and then some. In him I had found my musical soul mate. Our rock and roll destiny’s collided at the perfect time, and we had tapped into an endless source of inspiration in that drafty barn on Old Redwood Highway. Now we had more songs than we could handle. I began writing lyrics, too (albeit, shitty ones) just so we could play the songs live, but, because half the band was absent, many of them became instrumentals. Uwe dubbed us as the “driving force” of the band. Nick and Jeff had a lot of catching up to do.
Our next show was at the Cotati Am-vets with a band named Crimson Steel. They had a Judas Priest and Iron Maiden vibe going, and it was a good contrast to our Who and Van Halen style rock. After a few weeks Nick was feeling little better and we managed to put together a kick ass one-hour set. Uwe and I had written a song that Nick named Open Ending. I suggested a strumming bass intro that Nick did high on the neck. In order to play it, he precariously propped his leg on a guitar stand so his bass was closer to his chin like a mandolin player. Towards the end of the intro he’d begin to teeter and the stand would fall over as he stumbled away without missing a note. It was hilarious, and became a comical routine in our set.
The music was flowing again, and everything seemed to be on the upswing. Then, the proverbial needle scratched across the record when Uwe got a girlfriend; his first. Her name was Shelly and she was in her 30’s … and bit on the kooky side. The first time we met her, she came to the barn wearing a medieval style dress with cheap home-made jewelry and glitter on her face. When she walked in, Jeff laughed out loud and said, “hey, it’s Lady Macbeth!” Shelly had a fascination with Dave Maniketti of Y&T. She told us he had written the song Barroom Boogie about her. We thought it was funny that she’d make such a claim. The lyrics were about a one-night stand and very unflattering. “I woke up with a trash-can head, Frankenstein’s daughter in my bed.”. But,Uwe had might as well been deaf and blind. He was totally smitten by Shelly’s weirdness. I was annoyed. His new love interest put the brakes on our song writing.
Meanwhile, Cindy was getting annoyed with me, because all I wanted to do was play guitar and have sex. Aside from that, our time together was mostly spent walking through B-park between her house and Kei’s. One day she made it clear that she was bored and wanted to “go out” and “do things” … or else. She asked me to go the Cotati Cabaret, where she worked part-time, to see some bands and dance. I told her I don’t dance and I don’t have any money. She said her ex-boyfriend could sneak us in threw the kitchen and I could watch her dance. I liked Cindy but I was getting fed up with all the girlfriends. It was just another distraction from the music. But, when nights were volatile at Kei’s, I would grab my guitar and trek through the park to stay at Cindy’s. So … I went out.
We stood outside the back door of the Cabaret while Cindy tried to get her Ex’s attention. He came to the window and stared me down while he was drying his hands with a white kitchen towel. I was hoping he didn’t want to beat me up. He opened the door with an unlit cigarette in his mouth and we walked on through, unharmed.
Bonnie Hays and her Wild Combo was playing. It was packed with 20 and 30 something’s. It wasn’t my scene and I was quietly just hanging in the corner with my hands in my pockets. Cindy brought me a beer, then took me by the arm and introduced me to her friends. Bonnie Hayes had a song called Girls Like Me that was on the soundtrack of the new movie Valley Girls. She was the sister of Huey Lewis’s guitar player Chris Hayes. The whole place was bopping to her New Wave dance sound. I remember thinking, our band isn’t hip enough for the Cabaret. It’s a keyboard and horns joint. Another thing I remember about that night is that alcohol equals a calm confidence. I put on my perpetual guitar hero smile, and after a couple more beers began flirting and stumbling like an amateur.
Bonnie Hayes went on to become a career songwriter. Years later I would get to open for Huey Lewis in Knoxville. Afterwards in the hotel bar, we talked about Bonnie and Chris. I told him about seeing her in Cotati, and he talked fondly of the Cabaret. He said Bonnie was teaching songwriting at the Boston school of Music. His band was playing up there the following night and she was sitting in with them. (I also mentioned that I saw him play at the Knoxville coliseum when I was 16 in 1980. What I didn’t mention was that my hometown friend Huey, was drunk and giving the News the finger their entire set. Good times).
Around this time, there were inklings of a new movement coming up from L.A. Some kind of hardcore punk and British heavy metal hybrid called thrash metal. A band called Metallica played their first bay area show that March at The Stone on Broadway and relocated to San Francisco. I can still see the poster in my minds eye. The black t-shirt brigade had begun and soon this new sound would dominate Northern Cal. Guitar shredders like Yngwie Malmsteen and Marty Friedman were moving in by the numbers via Mike Varney who started Shrapnel Records in nearby Novato. It was a good opportunity for me and the band. But, we were going the other direction, carrying on Van Halen’s good time hard rock and roll party band tradition. There were hundreds of bands doing the same down in L.A. It was the beginning of Hair Metal, but up North, Speed and Thrash Metal was pervasive by the end of ‘83. Aside from Uwe’s leather jacket, none of us wore black. It was white parachute pants and lavender jump suits. We weren’t glam … but we were colorful. We had the hair and sometimes applied some eyeliner Mick Jagger style. “Rocker Babe” was a new cross-gender expression that applied to long haired pretty boy musician types. We were Rocker Babes.
I wanted to be the guitar hero; the guy the band was built around like Eddie and Randy; the quiet songwriter and riff master who kept to himself but came alive as a performer. I adapted a perpetual smile like Eddie’s. I said things he said; things I’d read in interviews. If he said Jimmy Page was a great songwriter and producer but live played like he had broken fingers … I said it too, (well, that was kind of true). If he said the Allman Brothers sound was too cluttered … of course it was. If Joe Perry lacked feeling …. He sure did. To put it mildly, I was obsessed. I began living vicariously through Eddie. It was a character study of sorts. I’m not sure I was really all that shy, because I was always acting. I imagined what he was like and ran with it. It was all theatre to me. Rock and Roll theatre.
But if my older self could’ve spoken to my younger self, it would’ve gone something like this: Dude, go the other direction. The good time party band thing is so 5 years ago. Don’t buy into that Jack Daniels myth. Van Halen worked their asses off to perfect that image; worked their asses off to make it look easy; that perfect combination of sloppiness and tightness was planned. Don’t act like you’re above the speed metal movement, embrace it, be flexible. Research this Mike Varney guy, and don’t miss out on any opportunity. Get a day job and rent a room so you’ll have stability and be your own man. Call a band meeting and make week night practices mandatory. And you know your days are numbered at Jeff’s moms house. What are you going to do, follow Jeff around? Soon it’ll be every man for himself.
None of our songs were dark. I didn’t write in the minor keys. I was ditching the neo-classical influenced metal I had grown up on, and began tapping (using my right hand on the fret board) like Eddie, more and more. Rather than playing on one string, I formed chords with my right hand, and felt like I was bringing something new to the technique. Little did I know hundreds of other dudes were doing the same thing. I came up with a bouncy piece that sounded like Calliope music that became part of my guitar solo in our set. But, I couldn’t escape my southern roots; there was a little bit of a country and blues in everything I did, which set me apart from the shredders.
Our manager and sound man was a guy named Bob, and he wasn’t particularly good at neither one. He would somehow cobble a PA system together and pretend to know what he was doing. Bob was known for jumping things, like fences, garbage cans, and small cars, without using his hands. He was short and wiry and of middle eastern decent. He looked like John Oats, and his voice sounded like sandpaper. Once he got our sound dialed in, he would get up on stage and jump around behind our amps playing air guitar. It was annoying but I liked Bob. But he and Jeff didn’t get along. Apparently, Jeff had stolen Bob’s slot as the guitar player in the band as well as his girlfriend back in their high school days, so there was always tension between the two. When Jeff came back to Tennessee, Bob started jamming with Nick and Uwe again, only to be axed a second time when I arrived. He had a guitar (a miniature white explorer) custom built specifically for the gig … which he ended up giving to me after he was demoted to sound guy. When I wasn’t practicing or hanging with Keith, Bob and I were out on the town talking music and distributing flyers. He was outgoing and really good at band promotion. ONE was stenciled in big white letters on both sides of his black Ford Econo-line. I’m sure most people didn’t know what the hell it meant.
We joked around that our battle of the bands final score of 666 put a curse on us. Jeff was still trying to pay off the $125 microphone he busted that night. Nick’s ear was ringing, and we blew it with the financial backer. Then a few days before the next show Jeff developed a severe cough. He lost his voice and couldn’t talk, much less sing. And when things couldn’t get any worse, Jeff’s mom finally booted us out for good. We were literally on the streets.
On the night of the show at the Cotati Am-vets, we were standing outside the stage door when the opening band, Crimson Steele, rolled up in a limo. We chuckled, and thought it was a real cocky maneuver. They didn’t even have a demo tape out yet! Everyone was smoking and drinking. Keith handed me his pipe and said, “Hit this Kev, it’ll relax you. Even though I still wasn’t big on partying, I said what the hell. Someone suggested to Jeff to drink some Rock and Rye whiskey that it would fix his throat. He bought a fifth of it and started drinking at noon. When it was show time we pulled our own rock star move. Right before our set, Keith wanted to cut the lights and lead us through the crowd by flashlight from the lobby. Although the place was packed to capacity and seemed to warrant such an entrance, I thought it was stupid and refused to do it. But everyone started toward the stage so I followed. Once I got on stage, I was so stoned and self-conscience that I couldn’t look up from my guitar. I would’ve been better off hitting the Rock and Rye which worked gloriously for Jeff’s voice. I thought I was playing terribly, and said to myself, I will never smoke pot before playing again. Nick played his new intro and stumbled off his guitar stand and into his amp. In the middle of his drum solo, Uwe’s head disappeared behind his snare and he puked while still playing. Like our stumbling bass player, our puking drummer would become a standard thing. At the end of the set I finally looked up from my guitar. Then on the last note of the last song I did the scissor splits. Thank you, and good night!
The night Kei kicked us out, I grabbed some things and walked across B-park towards Cindy’s house. She was waiting for me under the street light, wearing a faded jean jacket and cream colored scarf. She sighed an, “oh Kevin,” … and instead of slipping her arm through mine, her hands stayed in her pockets, and for the last time we walked quietly through the park and down the dead end-street of Bernice Court. Jeff went to Stacy’s.