Wednesday, June 12, 2013

THE LAST WAGON WHEEL GIG

[This is a semi-true (as per Hunter S. Thompson) story of a brief period in my life as a musician.]

All Rights Reserved © 1999 Thomas W. Day

I moved to northwestern Texas, in 1971, to avoid poverty. The attempt failed, completely. I was 21, a college and vocational school dropout, earning a dollar sixty-five an hour. I had a pregnant wife, and no prospects. I was too scared and too ignorant to figure a way out of a bad job in in the Texas desert. I had fallen, screaming all the way, into responsibility. I was poor as a stray cat and desperate. So desperate that I went looking for a gig as a Country and Western (C&W, to those who care) guitar player.

Since I was fourteen, I'd spent every spare moment copying Eric Clapton, Jeff Beck, and every other hot guitarist's solos. I could play the guitar parts for every rock and roll tune that had been on the Billboard charts since 1966. When I was fifteen, I played in a popular regional band that toured the Kansas and Oklahoma high schools and junior colleges, playing Top Forty soul hits and a few original tunes. A few years later, I was the lead guitarist in a fairly successful local power rock band that did nothing but original songs, many of them were mine. Between that group and when I arrived in west Texas, I was a tiny part of the late 60's folk music scene and was a sideman in every kind of rock group that existed; from blues to R&B to folk rock to hard rock. Music was my life. Music was the one true thing in my world.

West Texas changed all of that. There was only one kind of non-C&W music alive in west Texas in 1970, but I couldn't get up for being a sideman in a swing band. My ego was in the way. I liked being the band's center of attention. And I wasn't that good. In that place, at that time, my craving for regular solo minutes put me in a country band. But I didn't know what "country" meant in west Texas.

Lonny worked with me at the factory and he had a C&W band. Lonny was a welder, with three kids and a wife, and he needed the money even more than me. He needed me because his lead guitar player had moved to civilization, somewhere out of Texas. The band practiced at Lonny's house for a month, mostly for my benefit. Lonny had given up on the other guys ever giving a damn about C&W. He still had hope for me.

The drummer, Danny Lee, was a high school kid whose God was Led Zeppelin's hammer-thrower, John Bonham. Danny packed away every dollar he made playing C&W, swing, polkas, and anything that paid more than he could make as a convience store clerk. Danny was working his way into college as a music prostitute, but he would talk about the music he loved if it looked like there was a chance that you wouldn't beat him senseless for it. Staying out of those conversations was harder than avoiding an auctioneer's eyes when you're broke. Danny was a simple kid with simple desires: money for college with as little work as possible and all the Led Zeppelin vinyl ever recorded.

In another time and place, Danny and I would have been friends. We would have hungout and talked music until we were hoarse. But he was a high school kid. I was a married man with responsibilities that weighed more than a feedwagon full of corn. We just didn't seem to be able to find anything in common.

Dick, the bass player, was not a Texan. When I recall any memory of Dick, I smell well-cured hemp and incense. Bringing back those memories makes me tense. Very tense. The kind of feeling you might have if you were in a car with a guy who can get you sent to Leavenworth for the rest of your life. Dick owned a new burgundy and black Lincoln Continental with a wet bar in the back seat. The Lincoln had an ear-bashing 8-track stereo, a megawatt CB rig, and secret stashes in every crevice Ford Motor Company left available for Dick's dope. Dick was the most zonked-out, abused substance-using, drug-dealing, bass guitar player in our time zone. His eyes had space-and-time singularities where his corneas should have been. Dick's wardrobe never varied from black, western-style shirts and tight skinny-butt jeans cinched up by a Harley-Davidson belt buckle. His oily black, mid-backbone length ponytail made it clear he was no cowboy. He was 32 years old and supplied the town's cowboys and Mexicans and high school kids with all the drugs they could eat. And he ate what they didn't.

Our backwater village was a fraction of Amarillo or Lubbock's size. But that stinking, feedlot surrounded, hillbilly and redneck town sucked up twice as much dope as those cities combined. The local bible thumpers blamed the evil influence of television, but boredom was the real villain. People did dope to have something to do. The local cops were overwhelmed and mostly stoned themselves.

Once, somebody called in the feds. The FBI didn't know Dick and, usually, they were looking for drugs in all the wrong places. Only once, the bureau boys got close to where the eggs were hidden. An undercover agent stumbled into the Wagon Wheel Bar and all the commerce within. The FBI guy was prepared for a traditional 60s undercover assignment, but he wasn't ready for Hereford. The narc had the beard, the long hair, and the paisley. He needed a cowboy hat, work boots, and a wad in his cheek. The locals beat the shit out of him, cut his hair with sheep shears, and dumped him in an irrigation ditch. I suspect they hoped he would bleed to death or a rattler would bite him and something would gangrene up and have to be amputated.

He didn't die and he didn't lose any body parts and he took the cowboys to court. He took them to local court. He filed an assault and battery charge against five local boys. He brought pictures of his wounds and his sheep shearing. The cowboys described how he looked before they "prettied him up." The judge threw the fed and his case out, with a kick in the head, "When you come in here, all lookin' like a damn hippy, you get whachu got, boy."

The scalped undercover agent quit looking for trouble and Dick was safe to carry on with his business. Dick had found that the fast track to a cowboy's heart was through cowboy music. Dick's theory was clean and simple, once you have a man's heart you can sell him drugs til he croaks. Dick was a C&W bass player and a C&W drug supplier.

For me, the beat-up FBI guy was a watermark. I had been, more or less, undercover for the months I spent in tech school, with my hair cut shorter than I liked and my mustache neatly trimmed. But after I heard about that bit of Texas justice, I really went into disguise. I practically had my head shaved into a country boy cut. I shaved off the mustache. I even tossed out my paisley shirts and bell-bottom jeans. People who'd been close friends a year before wouldn't have recognized me. I just wanted to be a nondescript part-time country guitar player. I wanted to attract absolutely no attention at all.

Danny Lee, Dick, and I practiced Lonny's songs until we were sick of them. It usually took one pass through most of the tunes to set the three of us to begging for mercy, "Yeah, we can do that one, Lonny. You got any more beer?" When two weeks of practice didn't polish our act, we settled into a tradition: Lonny would announce a song, we'd ask what key it was in, Lonny would pick C or G, count to four, and off we went. I worked on my Buck Owens/Merle Travis licks. Danny Lee played with his brushes and ignored his bass drum. Dick stayed stoned and cool looking. We were ready.

Lonny booked our first gig at the Wagon Wheel. I cut my hair even shorter. Dick took inventory and got his pharmaceuticals stocked up. Danny Lee took the night off from homework. After our day jobs, we each packed our gear and met at the bar.

Danny Lee had the most junk to set up, so we let him go first while we drank beer. Drummers like to fool around with their stuff long past when any sensible person would realize that nobody cares what drums sound like. Anyway, since Danny was underage, he had to stay on the stage and away from the bartender, at least until the bar filled up. We did our part to keep the bartender busy.

Lonny was the only one of us who looked like he belonged. Lonny should have been paid something just for the way he looked. He really was a C&W-kinda-guy. Slicked back blond pompadour, a shirt that had gold plated snaps with a saddle embroidered on the pockets, reptile-skin pointy-toed boots with an etched longhorn skull on the sides, a cowboy hat with a pheasant feather and silver medallion hatband. He'd squeezed into the tightest fitting jeans I ever saw on a man. He had big diamond rings on at least four fingers of each hand. I had seen this kind of get-up on TV before. Buck Owens had almost the exact same outfit, but I had never seen Buck Owens in color.

Before that night, I never knew Lonny was that into it. He seemed like a normal guy at work, at least normal for a guy from Tennessee. Lonny played an un-miked acoustic guitar that you could hardly hear, even on stage standing right beside him. He wore it, more than played it. It was a Gibson Hummingbird with a hummingbird stenciled onto the pickguard. He was probably stylish, but I didn't know the fashion.

And the bar filled up. By seven, cowboys and Mexicans filled the booths and lined the bar. Their women sat in the booths, against the wall, with their hair stacked on their heads like an upside-down week-old bucket of fried chicken, without the bucket. The cowgirls lips were painted red as fire engines and their eyelids and lashes smeared as dark as a blackboard. Sexy, like you never saw. The crowd looked as modern and hip as any other dirt-floor barn filled with farm hands, waitresses, packing plant butchers, drugstore cashiers, feedlot cowboys and small town whores. I felt right at home.

Then we played. Today, I don't know the name of, or the words to, a single song that we played that night. I didn't know anymore then. I played a solo in the middle of every tune; and screwed off between solos. I probably missed out on an important cultural education. Compelling stuff about truck driving men crying in their beer over women running off with guys in Volkswagens. Big tough old boys from Okie Fanoggy who salute flags and beat up fags. Ladies who love fags from Okie Fanoggy in Volkswagens. Gimme a break. I got your endemic culture right here, you know what I mean? I admit it, I was so bored even my own playing couldn't keep me awake.

In the middle of our second set, Lonny drew a blank. He couldn't find a song in his repertoire to fit the mood of the moment. The mood grew ugly.

The cowboys had been stomping around, with one arm around their cow-woman's neck, doing a bowlegged chicken hop they called the "two step." I guess it's called that because every two steps someone's foot got stomped and the stomper had to stop two-stepping and shout at the foot's owner. Or fight the new-made cripple. The lack of "music" put the fights, that had been put off for two-stepping, back on the front burner. Lonny stood at his mike running through a pointless monologue about the plight of a country-singer-turned-welder in the dark heart of west Texas, while he searched his heart for our next song. It wouldn't come; and we were no help. Between the three of us, we might have been able to name one or two songs, but we had no way of knowing what tunes we had done earlier.

We each did what we could to pass the time. Dick stared into the crowd looking for any customers he had missed during our last break. At least, he focused as well as you'd expect for someone who had smoked up most of what he had intended to sell that night. Danny Lee practiced with his brushes and did quiet toe rolls on his bass drum. I dreamed of better days. Days when the "&" separated two "R's". Days when I knew the songs I played because I believed in, and loved, my music. I turned the volume on my guitar down and quietly played through licks of my favorite headbangers. The crowd got uglier. And Lonny was still stuck.

I walked over to Danny Lee and we made jokes about Lonny's predicament. To us, it was his predicament because this was solidly his band. We were mercenaries. It didn't matter all that much to us if Lonny was stuck for the rest of the night. Although, we might care if the bar owner decided that we shouldn't get paid for standing around in our drugstore cowboy clothes, taking up space on his stage for two out of the four hours we were supposed to be playing C&W.

While we waited, Danny Lee and I mused about the music we loved. I even listened to him rant about Zeppelin and Bonham. I even encouraged him. While we talked, I fiddled with the intro to the Zep's headbanger, "Communication Breakdown." A classic. A screamer. As far from C&W as R&R gets. I still get misty when I hear that song. Danny Lee picked up the tune while we talked. He brush stroked his snare and highhat and I picked and turned up a bit, just so Danny could hear me. We weren't being obnoxious, Lenny didn't even notice.

In a few seconds, Dick turned away from his customers and leered at us, "Hey, 'Communication Breakdown.' Ah right!" A full out Fender Bassman 100 with twin four-ten cabinets started pounding, "DUN, dun dun dun, DUN, dun dun dun, DUN, DAAA DA DA."

I thought, "All right and why not?" I cranked up and Danny Lee flipped his brushes over his shoulder and grabbed his sticks. And we were jammin'.

I used to be able to do Mr. Plant's voice fairly well. I could get up there, if the cigarettes didn't get to me first. That night, I was in good voice, not having sung a note in the first two hours. I walked up to the mike and screamed. I was inspired.

I did Mr. Page's finger-flicking, hammer-on solo pretty dammed well, too. The solo was especially satisfying because early in our first set the bartender had told me to cool it, because the cowboys were stumbling over my picking. I was playing too fast for two-stepping and I had to tone my Buck Owens licks down to nothing faster than quarter notes. So, my fingers had been itching all night. I scratched during "Communication Breakdown."

This might seem weird, but while we played I didn't notice a crowd reaction. I always get tranced when I am really into what I am playing. I don't see anyone away from the stage. I look out, smile, and gaze meaningfully at the shit in front of me, but I don't see anything. Stagefright compensation, I suppose. When we stopped, and I refocused, I realized that I might have made a mistake.

The crowd was arranged. They were neatly plastered against the walls of the bar. They looked like they had been blown there by a hurricane that was centered in the middle of the dance floor. If you have ever seen people riding a carnival Spinner, you get the picture. Nailed to the wall as far as they could get from the stage. Quiet and scared as field mice. I believe these people had missed all of the 60`s and my performance was their first audition of the current state of popular music. Good thing we didn't tell them about Japanese cars, too. That would have convinced them they had slept through Armageddon.

The Wagon Wheel's bartender measured five feet in any direction; tall, wide, and deep. He wore a slimy white-once-upon-a-time cook's apron and work boots. I don't remember if he wore anything else. His finger is what I remember the most. The back wall of cowboys and off-duty waitresses parted like bowling pins and he plowed through the dance floor and up to the front of the stage. He didn't look happy. His chubby face was red as a cowboy woman's lips. He was courting a heart attack and I worried for him. He took a steaming deep breath and said, "You!" And stuck his fat greasy finger in my face. "Out!" His lips kept moving like he had more to say, but he must have been out of the necessary wind to say it with.

The bar patrons barely made a sound while we packed up and loaded our cars with instruments and equipment. I didn't try to catch anyone's eye. I didn't talk to the band guys as we packed up. We moved fast and silently. We were all in introspective moods and, mainly, we wanted to get loaded up and away before someone decided to "educate us" on correct cowboy bar music etiquette. We escaped with our instruments and lives and hair and limbs. We didn't get paid and we didn't ask about the money.

Monday, I put my electric guitar and amp in the local wantads. I planned to put in a lot of overtime on my regular job to make up the loss of income.

Monday, Lonny didn't show up for work. He didn't call in sick. He didn't show up Tuesday, either. He worked for me, so it was my job to find him or fire him. I put the job off for most of Tuesday. I wasn't looking forward to facing Lonny. He was a good deal bigger than me and he had good reason to be pretty pissed.

I drove over to his house after work. I brought a six-pack peace offering, but there was no one to make peace with. He was gone. I parked in the part of the yard that passed for a driveway. The garage was empty and the garage door was open. The house looked like an empty skull with windows. The flowery curtains were gone. The front screen door was hanging open and swinging in the wind, banging against the side of the house and the door frame. I got out of my truck, hanging on to the six-pack, and looked into the picture window. There was no sign that anyone had ever lived there.

The wind and I moved to the back of the house. A screen door was waving and banging there, too. In the alley, unwanted kid's toys, worn out kitchen appliances, twisted and stained mattresses, broken furniture, and bags of trash were piled up for the garbage man to haul away. The wind was taking off with anything it could lift. Paper and unidentifiable flying stuff was decorating a dusty horizon.

I sat on the crumbling cement slab that passed for a back porch and opened a beer. I didn't know Lonny well enough to miss him, but something was there to miss. Lonny had packed up everything he owned and left town. Like most everyone who wasn't born in west Texas, Lonnie didn't have any ties there, outside of his job. He cut that loose knot and blew off his last paycheck. Without leaving a forwarding address, he, his family, and a U-Haul left for parts unknown. But he left some silly, damned fantasies in that house for me to wrestle with.

I sat on his porch, haunted by his dreams; and my dreams. Drinking cheap beer. Hassled by a dry, cow-dung saturated wind. Watching worthless paper float around a poor neighborhood. Listening to a screen door swinging and slamming.

The End

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Wirebender Audio Rants

Over the dozen years I taught audio engineering at Musictech College and McNally Smith College of Music, I accumulated a lot of material that might be useful to all sorts of budding audio techs and musicians. This site will include comments and questions about professional audio standards, practices, and equipment. I will add occasional product reviews with as many objective and irrational opinions as possible.