Good gigs, Bad gigs
Not all, but several of my early performances were nerve racking. It was a mixture of stage fright, which is normal, and self-consciousness. And I learned the hard way that, for me, smoking pot beforehand resulted in an unnatural amount of both. If things weren’t sounding right, or if I was playing sloppy, negative thoughts would loop in my head and I would forget to breathe and freeze up. Bob said I needed to loosen up. He tried to help me with my stage presence. He showed me some kicks, jumps, and gestures; Pete Townsend style moves. I wanted to come across as impulsive; a natural born performer, and believed you didn’t work on such things. Jeff called me “the perfectionist.” It pissed me off because deep down I knew he was right. I generally concentrated on playing precise. I wish I had known that perfection is rock and roll’s enemy, and that thinking about what you’re doing is the worst thing you can do. Of course, we were still a little green, and by early summer our number of performances were not yet in the double digits.
Meanwhile, Jeff was ripening into a killer singer and front man. He had the looks and the moves, and was learning how to work a crowd. Mike had a knack for utilizing every square inch of his space. He danced around, banged his head and pumped his fist. Uwe was part Keith Moon and part slapstick. Arms flailing, blonde hair flying. Instead of tossing one drumstick in the air, he tossed both at the same time. If the sticks didn’t come down right he’d fall off his drum seat trying to catch them. But, if we were locked-in as a band, and I was unencumbered with the psychological, we were completely unstoppable.
I had been working part-time repairing window speakers and picking up trash at the Sonoma/Marin Drive-in. My girlfriend, Kendra, got me the job. She managed the concession stand. Did I mention it was a triple X porno drive-in? Kendra thought it was hilarious to work there. I found it kind of disgusting. A bunch of hard-ons ordering hotdogs and cokes at intermission. Girls looking flush with disheveled hair freshening up in the ladies’ room. The concept of people gathering in public to watch other people fornicate was completely stupid to me. Matters got worse when Kendra handed me a stack of menus to hand out during the movie.
“No way I’m doing that.”
“Sorry, boss’s orders.” she said, holding back laughter.
It was tricky. You had to approach the car slowly from a certain angle, and try to make initial eye contact or else no telling what you’d happen upon. Sometimes I faked it and just walked around trying to be invisible. I could feel the boss man’s watchful eye. He’d stand in the dark between the concession stand door and the flickering light of the projector rooms camera hole. He was a beer gutted balding man with a mustache on a round face. Just like you’d expect an owner of a porno drive-in to look. I only lasted a week.
Kendra was a punk-rock girl. She wore band buttons on her leather jacket, with studded arm bracelets. Her hair was half platinum blonde and half black. She was always laughing or making you laugh. That July, when Reagan sent troops down to Honduras to threaten the Sandinistas, she showed up for a date in head to toe military fatigues, ready for battle, shouldering a toy machine gun.
I met Kendra through a girl named Robyn who was a fan and sometimes roadie for the band. Robyn worked at the Drive-in too. She lived with her mom in A-section and I rented the spare bedroom for $125 a month. Robyn was tall and sported an early version of a long blonde rat tail. She was tomboyish and articulate, like a pretty Jane Hathaway in a t-shirt and jeans. After I quit the drive-in, I couldn’t pay the first months rent. But Robyn and her mom said not to worry about it until I found work.
My dad found me a used 1977 two-tone green Dodge Aspen. Uwe called it, “the grandma car.” All I had to do was pay the insurance. But when the first payment came I didn’t have the money. I was still living day to day, shirking any kind of responsibility. My 19th birthday was 2 months away, and I was completely heedless. The work ethic my parents instilled in me was lost along a roadside somewhere. I felt that working half a week would be like wasting half my time. I don’t know if it was a conscious decision or not, but I needed to stay hungry, literally and figuratively. I never grew tired, never yawned, or slept the days away. I didn’t lounge in loose clothes watching TV. The comfort of a soft pillow was the enemy. I was a freewheeling artist, running on fumes.
We got invited back to the River Theatre to open for a band named White Light. They were a few years older than us and a throwback to the mid-70’s sound of Styx and Kansas. Their singer was Harry Blackstone III, son of the magician Harry Blackstone Jr. That’s right, the guy in the Jiffy Pop commercials. Harry was the consummate singer and showman, very theatrical. He danced around on big ramps placed on each side of the drummer, and performed magic during their set. Their keyboard player was like Rik Wakeman of Yes. They were pro and very tight.
After load-in, Keith loaded his pipe, and since show time was an hour away, and against my better judgment, I hit it. You’d think with my history of paranoia and freak-outs I’d know better. I didn’t. I just wasn’t very good at smoking pot, and I didn’t practice enough. A beer or two would’ve loosened me up and was probably the better pre-show drug for me, but alcohol slowed me down when I was playing. Made me feel like I was wearing an extra layer of heavy skin. That would all change in a few months.
When we hit the stage, I was still really high and self-aware. But at least this time I was able to look up from my guitar. I was feeling a little giddy and everything was rockin’ along. Then about halfway into our set, I couldn’t remember the intro to a song, and then another. Jeff looked at me and said, “What the fuck?!” I walked over to him, while strumming the same chord over and over, and said, “I don’t remember how to play it.” We both laughed, while Mike and Uwe waited. I made a couple more attempts until it came to me. It was also at the River Theatre that Mike fell off the stage for the first time. It was his thing. He was quite the showman. He’d walk to the edge to high-five and shake hands with fans and inevitably lose his balance and fall into the crowd. So we traded a stumbling bass player, in Nick, for a falling off the stage bass player.
Despite the fuck-ups, White Light liked our set and invited us to open up their next River Theatre show. It was definitely the last time I smoked pot before going on stage. After the show, Harry Blackstone gave me a cassette with two albums worth of their music on it. Style-wise, the songs were nothing new and sounded somewhat dated, but they were well written. I studied those songs for weeks. I wanted to be as good as White Light.
Since our Rancho Cotati lunchtime gig went well, we decided it would be wise to play all the high schools in Sonoma County. Our plan was to win the school kids over and build our local fan base right before summer vacation. Jeff called and set up meetings with the assistant principal at each school. We got Keith to drive us (minus Mike, he was still in school) to the meetings. Imagine 4 long haired boys in their late teens sitting in the principal’s office, red eyed, trying to convinced them that the student body needed a dose of rock and roll during lunch break. Surprisingly, a few said yes.
We didn’t have any money to rent sound equipment for the shows, so Bob cobbled together another third-rate PA system. We played at Petaluma High on a small concrete slab with a basketball goal behind football field bleachers. There were about 5 kids watching, while the rest of the student body was walking to and fro, uninterested. Nick had agreed to let us practice at the barn for a few hours the day before, but instead of working on a proper set, we wasted the whole practice learning Def Leppard’s new song, “Photograph” … and we butchered it. My mind began swirling with negative thoughts; we suck; these people hate us; will we ever have another good show? To this day, I maintain that Petaluma High was the worst gig I’ve ever played.
Not long after, we played at Mike’s school in Santa Rosa. There were a lot more kids watching, but they were gathered 100 feet away across the quadrangle on a covered sidewalk. Their arms were folded, and their heads were tilted. You could just feel the attitude. It was if they were saying … go ahead, make us like you. Jeff was singing through one speaker main. Bob was trying to push the volume and it was completely distorted. We played maybe 3 songs before the thing blew up. Jeff said, “fuck it man, we’re done,” dropped his mic and walked away. Mike took off with some girls to get high in the parking lot. Uwe looked at me and shrugged.
“Should we do an instrumental?” he asked
I started a song called *Tennessee Whiskey and California Wine. A super fast cow punk tune that Jeff hadn’t written the lyrics for yet. It was like bluegrass on nitro. The students started walking toward us, and when we ended the song they erupted in applause. Jeff came back to the stage area pissed off. “When I say we’re done, we’re done!” He scolded. The high school students were a tougher crowd than we expected.
When we played Petaluma Am-vets, I was backstage freaking out that my hair was flat. It was prone to greasy-ness so I washed it everyday. Sometimes 2 or 3 times a day. I was obsessed with it. It had to be fluffy and shiny. I was picky about shampoo too; had to be the clear kind. And no matter how tangled my hair got, I refused to use conditioner because it had the consistency of lotion and made it feel greasier. My vanity wasn’t so much narcissism, but rather a bad case of body dysmorphia. I didn’t like my appearance and I was always trying to be someone else. Maybe I should’ve gone into acting.
Robin suggested I wash my hair with beer.
“Beer? Will that make it fluffy?” I asked.
“Yeah. Lots of people do it.”
I put my head in the sink and she poured a bottle of Michelob over it. We rinsed it over and over because I didn’t want a stinky head. While I waited for my hair to dry, Kendra handed me a pair of electric blue spandex.
“You should wear these, tonight.”
“No, no, no. I don’t wear spandex.” I said, walking way.
“Just try them on and see what they look like.” She said following me.
“Please, just for me?” She begged
We covered a song at the time called “Take It Off “ by Jerry Riggs who was originally from East Tennessee. It went something like, “Hot and sweaty, sticky sweet, she’s a dancer on Bourbon Street.” Jeff thought it’d be cool if we could get a girl to do a striptease during the song. “The guys in the crowd would love it!” He said, excitedly. I wasn’t too keen on the idea, but was swayed after everyone else got on board.
“Hey, do you think Kendra would do a striptease?” Jeff asked.
“I don’t know. Why can’t your girlfriend do it?” I replied.
“She’s only 17. And her mom would be pissed at me.” He said.
“I don’t know. I could ask her.” I said.
Kendra agreed to strip if I was okay with it. I wasn’t sure how I felt about it, but agreed that it might be fun and an added attraction for the male attendees. She made her debut that night in Petaluma. At 750 seating capacity, it was the biggest venue we’d played so far. Although, there was only about 100 people there.
So I hit the Petaluma stage feeling awkward and self conscious again. But, this time it had nothing to do with being high. It was my pants and my flat hair. I wore the blue spandex, and the beer only made my hair look worse. Then Kendra came strutting out to do her striptease and I could feel my face redden. She was wearing a jean skirt, 3 inch heels, and black leather jacket. She used a scarf as an accessory to wrap around Jeff’s neck as they danced flirtatiously. The whole thing was pretty benign, and she did a great job. She only stripped down to short shorts and a bathing suit top. And Jeff was right: the guys in the audience went nuts. I acted like it didn’t bother me.
The next morning, I was lying in bed staring at paper and wood airplanes on the ceiling. There were 20 or so World War I biplanes of primary colors dangling on fishing line, slowly turning when the air kicked on. I was fretting over my sloppy guitar playing and how terrible the last couple of shows had been. I could hear Kendra and Robyn in the kitchen talking and making breakfast. The door opened and Robyn’s head poked in.
“Good. You’re awake.”
She returned a few seconds later with a bed-tray of pancakes, bacon, orange juice and coffee.
“No, I don’t want it.” I said, blocking the tray.
“Oh come on. You got to be hungry.” Robyn said.
“Nope. Leave me alone.”
Her face reddened and she turned to leave with the tray of food as Kendra walked in with syrup and napkins.
“He doesn’t want it.”
I didn’t feel like I deserved breakfast in bed. I wasn’t a rock star … yet. But I sure as hell was acting like one. If my older self could’ve given my younger self advice, it would’ve gone something like: Kevin, Kevin, Kevin, don’t be an asshole, and don’t bite the hand that feeds you! You’re staying at Robyn’s rent free and she’s been nothing but kind and helpful to you AND the band. You should be thanking her at every turn. Hey, if you’re going to be a successful musician, you’re going to have to let go and have fun on stage … every time! Don’t be a such a worry wart, just play your damn guitar! When things are going wrong and you’re thinking negative thoughts, or you’re having a bad show … remember, the crowd has no idea. It still sounds good to them. It’s not half as bad as you think it is. Oh, and I’ll let the vanity thing slide. You’ll get over yourself in time. But, don’t ever, under any circumstances, wear fucking spandex again!
On a hot day that July, I headed out in “the grandma car” to pick-up Jeff and Uwe. The Cal-Skate in Rohnert Park was hosting a battle of the bands and asked us to compete. We drove to Santa Rosa to get Mike and then headed back to Cal-Skate for a meeting to talk rules and logistics. They asked that each band send one member to represent, but the four of us decided to go. We made an afternoon of it. When we got to Mikes house, I made an abrupt stop and a can of Old English 800 rolled out from under the passenger seat, symbolizing how the rest of the day would go.
“Hot can of malt liquor, anyone?” Jeff said, holding it up.
“Ummm, Jeff, let me take a look at that.” Uwe said, from the back seat.
He cracked it open and took a gulp as if it had just come from a cooler of ice. Then exhaled a sigh of relief like a guy in a beer commercial.
“Fucking Germans will drink anything.” Jeff said, lighting a cigarette.
Mike came walking out adorned in wrist bandanas and puka shells. His athletic build busting out of his self-tailored t-shirt with the neck and sleeves cut out; pegged Levi’s were stuffed inside a pair of white string-less Reeboks. A few months later everybody would be stuffing their Reeboks. He climbed in and as we drove away he lifted his hair and pulled a joint from behind his ear. Uwe’s malted hors ‘d oeuvre got him talking about the main course, so when we got back to Rohnert Park our first stop was Ernie’s Package Store to get more beer. It was one of two places Uwe was able to purchase alcohol underage. He had recently shaved the mustache that added a couple of superficial years to his 20-year-old face. This would be a test. We sat in the car and watched through the plate glass as Uwe confidently sat the beer on the counter to pay. As the money was exchanged we let out a big “score!”
An hour later we stumbled into Cal-Skate properly hammered, with a severe case of the giggles. The manager’s office was small and cramped, standing room only. Jeff, saluted the host and said, “reporting for battle, sir!” Then lit up a cigarette. Uwe sat on a small side table and pulled his legs to his chest like a crested monkey, and promptly fell over crashing into a floor lamp. We burst out in laughter while everyone else seemed annoyed. Geoff Thorpe was there to represent his band Vicious Rumors. He was short with a tall blonde afro that made him appear taller than he was. Vicious Rumors had been around a few years and were one of the premier metal bands in Sonoma County. They’d be tough competition. But this day we were unfazed. The seriousness of the meeting made our highness and snickering even more obnoxious. The manager was visibly displeased with our antics. And just when I thought we might get disqualified, our 16 -year bass player pulled it together and asked red-eyed and earnestly, who was providing sound and are there flyers to hand out.
They were judging the bands on crowd response. Whoever got the loudest applause wins the door. We plastered the town with flyers and hit all the parties to rally the troops. The one thing looming was the fact Vicious Rumors was playing. They were well established and had songs on metal compilations like KMEL’s New Oasis. We knew they could easily take the prize, so we wanted to bring our A game. We got in a couple of practices at Robyn’s house, which was hardly enough, but we made up for the lack thereof with attitude and confidence. Leading up to the show, word spread about our wasted appearance at the Cal-Skate meeting. We heard that a member from one of the other bands said, “ONE showed up acting like a bunch of drunk punks.” We loved it!
A few weeks later Cal-Skate was packed with kids. The stage was on the far end of the rink with a huge light rig and PA system. Before sound check I drank a couple beers then laced up a pair of skates. I was rolling pretty fast when I spotted Jeff walking in. When I turned to call his name I skated over some cables taped to the floor and crashed hard. Jeff burst out in laughter, then ran over to see if I was okay. My arm began hurting, so after sound check I drank a few more beers to try and dull the pain.
We hit the stage with fire and swagger. It was my first show with a beer buzz, and I didn’t have a care in the world. I was feeling cocky and my adrenaline was pumping from roller skating. As usual, Bob came up the steps on my side of the stage to do his air guitar dance behind the backline while we played. I blocked him with my guitar and said no, and pushed him back down the stairs. I turned and started our fastest and heaviest song, “Don’t Stop Me Now.” When the rest of the band kicked in, the crowd went nuts. Jeff was in white overalls without a shirt. He and Mike were sporting dark summer tans from a recent trip to the lake. We were the good time California party band in full form. Looking sharp, having fun and playing hard. Kendra strutted out in a sequined fedora and scarf. Her slapdash dancing making a mockery of the striptease. It was more burlesque than seductive. At the end of his drum solo, Uwe tossed both sticks in the air. The sticks stayed together, slowly turning, as everyone’s eyes following up and back down, as they landed perfectly in his hand.
Afterward, someone came up to me and asked,
“Hey Kev, what’s with all the dancing around?”
I didn’t remember dancing around. The beer loosened me up. I was uninhibited and lost in the music. All my working parts were lubricated and moving automatically. I had just experienced spontaneity on stage. I was glowing.
But the high spirits we had after our set vanished like caught wind as we watched Vicious Rumors roll out 4 Marshall stacks and a 3-foot drum riser. When the lights went out, dark and heavy intro music played over the PA as dry ice began to engulf the stage. Then the lights came up to reveal the sinister looking leather clad quartet. They delivered the goods with a seriousness that was in marked contrast to the rest of the bands. Geoff Thorpe was like a metal god, playing his Gibson Flying V with the confidence of a lion. They were loud and tight as expected.
After the show I was outside pacing. I could hear the emcee ask the crowd for one last round of applause for each band. When he said our name, the applause sounded louder than the rest. But I knew there was no way we’d win after seeing the face melting Vicious Rumors set. I was flying home to Tennessee in a week. My first visit since I’d left. I wanted so badly to leave on a high note. I stood at the back door as the winners were announced. “Coming in 2nd place, is …… ONE!” My shoulders dropped. Then, 2 seconds later, the emcee said, “wait a minute … sorry, no … the 2nd place winner is Vicious Rumors. 1st place goes to ONE!”
That night was all aces for me either way. I needed to play a good show, and I did. The win made it twice as great … a royal flush! My dad had asked if I wanted a one-way or round-trip ticket home. As poorly as things were going, I can’t say that I ever thought twice about coming back. I was dedicated. It felt like I was in love for the first time.
A few days later, Kendra and Robyn threw a small birthday party for me. Jeff stopped by, but Uwe and Mike didn’t show. We sat in a congenial circle on the floor and raised a few Budweiser’s. My friends tried to console me as I brooded about getting older. Adulthood was terrifying. The heaviest numbers were always the last year of the decade for me … 19, 29, 39. I wanted to stay green and superficial. My cheeks were getting pudgy and patches of wild hairs were sprouting on my chest, face and shoulders. It had been a year since I decided to head west, join a band, write songs and lose my southern accent. In 10 months, I was at my 4th residence and had couch surfed the entire town of Rohnert Park. We ended that summer on a high note, but it wouldn’t sustain. The low notes of frustration dragged on. But I still believed in the band and our songs. During my visit to Tennessee, I talked up the ups and lied about the downs. I was jobless; my new digs had the same ole feeling of impermanence; and we still didn’t have a place to gather as a band and hone our craft. I slipped away to my bedroom and tapped on my guitar neck into the wee hours of the night. Tapped away the final hours of my 18th year. Tapped out a melancholy instrumental that wouldn’t be recorded until 2010 when I was 46. “3am Pacific Time” … in the key of F. F for frustration, I suppose.
*On the Whammy Bar Diaries album, Tennessee Whisky and California Wine is now called Stuck in Sonoma. The music is the same but the words have been change.