Rock and Roll Weary: 1979-80
The man behind the Unemployment counter made it clear to me that August in 1979: "Get a job, boy, or starve." I had spent a year on the unemployment line annoying this particular man, who didn't think it proper I should be reading while I waited to collect. The object of these checks, he informed me on a biweekly basis was to tide me over between jobs, not give me a vacation. The idea that I might want to improve my mind never occurred to the man or that I was then secretly plotting to go back to school.
The world had changed over the previous decade. Working class slobs like myself could no longer rely on finding one perfect job to last a life time. In ten years, I had worked six or seven jobs, one for as long as four years -- each job treating me with less and less dignity.
Unemployment had allowed me to feel human again, to take a break from the robotic mindset that had enslaved me previously and kept me searching for new and better jobs that just didn't exist. But unemployment -- despite my wishes otherwise -- was a temporary condition, and even though I had managed to milk it for the better part of a year, I was faced with the possibility of its ending.
Despite the man's dire warnings about possible starvation, I was not yet ready to slip back into the work stream and take my place as an industrial slave again.
That's when Garrick asked me if I wanted a job with a local rock band called "The Slaves," one of those accidental ironies I always took as a sign.
Despite the new name, "The Slaves" were merely a variation of a band with whom I'd had a long association, the roots of which went back to the summer of 1968 when my friend Hank and I stumbled into a dance where the founding members were performing at a church hall in Paterson.
In those days nearly every band imitated the Beatles or the Stones. This band -- then going by the name of Erik Lemon's Milk Band had taken up the Bealtes' Sergeant Pepper's phase, mingling it with a little L.A. touches from Buffalo Springfield to give them a slightly less dorky sound than most of the other cover bands currently playing the dance circuit throughout New Jersey.
Their sound stunned me. Before hearing them, I had had little experience with live performance, except for the California surf bands from my grammer school, playing Telstar and Wipeout when they couldn't remember the lyrics to Beach Boy songs.
I remembered how impressed I was with Hank's friend Pauly who climbed up onto the makeshift stage to jam with the band (none of whose members were actually named Eric or Lemon by the way.) I heard something incrediably honest in his singing, as if he had written each song rather than covered other people's music, and meant for us in the audience to appreciate every aspect of his performance.
Hank, of course, could trace the band back even before that to 1964 when founding member John M. teamed up with Pete and Nick, only because -- like the Beatles -- each one could produce an instrument and two could even play. Nick even had a basement where -- if they didn't play too loudly or too often -- they could practice. Though they later boasted of being a 1960s garage band, they seldom played anywhere but that basement, and mostly for an audience of already ardent supporters who believed they were the best band to ever emerge from New Jersey.
By 1969, they had convinced themselve that five years practice was enough and that they could finally make their way into public with their sound. They were right. They were frighteningly good. Although none were yet old enough to perform in a place that served alcohol, many snuck into such places to jam with local professionals, learning little tricks that made them awesome on the dance circuit.
One concert they played -- designed to draw 200 people -- drew nearly ten times that number and caused the organizers to call the police. Other concerts had similiar results, and the parents began to worry over the impact people like Pauly had on their children, especially when he clearly showed no respect or authority on or off the stage.
The moment they were old enough, the band ceased playing dances and started playing clubs, finding gigs in towns around the Paterson area, new clubs opening up in Orange, Montclair, Cedar Grove, West Orange, even Verona.
The membership had solidified as well with only John M. left of the original founding members, and Pauly. John R. and Richi G. played rhythm guitar and base. Nick, who was the Pete Best of this Little Falls Beatles, was never more than adequate on the drums. Typical of later moves, the band eventually ditched him in favor of the multi-talented Eddy, who not only could play drums, but a half dozen other instruments as well.
This remained the line up for the band -- despite several name changes -- until 1975 when after one of its usual pitched internal battles, Eddy and Pauly quit.
Although I missed the first few years of their club performances, I picked up with them again in early 1973, attending as many performances as I could get to, part of a clutch of friends who maintained the belief that this band would some day become as famous as the Beatles or the Stones. I took on the unofficial as roadie and often set up recording equipment at various gigs, that allowed them later to listen to their sound. A want-to-be writer at the time, I hung out with the band through most of its phases, a volunteer roadie, lightman and jack-of-all-trades who was fascinated by the people, and I believed numerous stories could be found in the clubs if only I could talk with enough people and remember enough of their tales later, after I sobered up.
In the early 1970s, Garrick did sound, and Lewis transported the equipment to and from gigs. Garrick, who fanatically saved his money, had lent the band capital to purchase the equipment, and Lewis owned the van. Later, when Lewis quit, Garrick bought a used van and continued on in both roles, with me helping out for a small stipend.
The concept of groupies dawned very slowly on the band members -- most of whom had girlfiends who followed the band so regularly, few had opportunty to cheat, though that did not stop the members from trying.
John R. spent most breaks between sets out in the car, getting "a quick something." He was a small man with a stock of bright blonde hair that glowed around his head like a halo when he performed. He had a mean look, too, that he could focus on the girls from the stage, nearly always guarenteeing him company in his car during the following break.
John M., the other guitarist, by contrast, looked painfully innocent on stage, the band's Paul McCartney, though he maintained his looks better than McCartney or John R., remaining a rock & roll heart-throb well into the 1990s.
The stories surrounding this band abound, though only a handful remained so memorable people recalled them many years later.
Battle of the Bands
On New Year's Eve, 1976-77, I got more intimately involved with the group as both John's talked Pauly into making a return engagement. They had hired a new base player named Bob, and a new drummer named Jack, and they wanted Pauly to replace the current pretty boy front man they had hired in their desperate attempt to clamour onto the emerging Punk movement. What you got depended upon the time of night you came. At times, people swore the club had five different bands a night.
For most of the years between 1969 and 1985 when the band -- in all its various incarnations -- broke up, it played most often at a place called The Red Baron in Cedar Grove. Some years later, I wrote about the place after I had learned some fool had gone and torn the place down to build condos on its property.
In my journal I wrote:
No one ever called the Red Baron club in Cedar Grove respectable.
Like many places of its kind around the state, it was a hold-over from the speak easy era, when perfectly respectable people snuck over from the jazz clubs elsewhere to take a nip or two between sets. The Red Baron saw many of the suit and tie people who attended the Meadowbrook just up Route 23 in Singac.
By the time Erik Lemon came to the place in 1970, the place had long become an eyesore of in a community that didn't even allow people to eat fast food in their cars, let alone make love, and the gravel parking lot outside the one time barn saw more cars rocking at night than partons to the bar bands it featured inside.
Though noise complaints plagued the place for years, no one actually took any action to close it down, despite the fact that local bikers used it as a hang out, and drugs frequently changed hands inside. Construction workers, girls from the local beauty school, kids of both sexes from the college, and many others came to cop some dope, pick up a girl, and take in a few tunes at the same time.
Of the hundred of more bands that played the place from 1970 when I first visited the place to 1985 when I ceased going, variations of the Erik Lemon Milk Band were the best, and the favorite of the cratchedy old man who in his hey day had served as a minor hoodlum for the local mob. When I came as the roadie for Erik Lemon, the old man had retired to a room above the bar, making his displeasure known to Tom, the bartender, via the telephone. We would see Tom wave his hand at us if the music was too loud, or we hit a particularly bad streak of sour notes over which the old man upstairs disapproved. Over time, however, the old man's complaints grew less as he grew deaf.
Transforming the bar into a rock club was not the old man's idea, but his son's, to whom the old man had left operations. In those early days, before the Capital Threater in Passaic began putting legal pressure on all local live music venues in an effort to eliminate competition, rock music seemed a guarantee to fortune. Even a place with beamed ceilings and rickety wooden floors seemed promising investments. The son never thought music would change and that the real money in the 1970s would go to those places which turned back the clock to 1950s disco.
The son was too cheap even to install lights, let alone make the serious investment of creating the kind of atmosphere to bring in the dancing crowd. The plenty of atomosphere, something our band seemed to bring out, a down-and-dirty kind of backwater feeling that drew those kind of people, horny men and horny women with snoots full of cocaine, lonely men and women, too, with nothing but desperation. Afterwork men and women who came here because they couldn't stand the artificial glitter the 1970s meant, seeing our band as a hold out to that old era, a kind of old style Rolling Stones who fit the place and people perfectly.
When I first went to the Red Baron, I was told to meet the band there.
"It's right behind the Friar Tuck," I was told, no one telling me what the Friar Tuck was or where I would find it, except to say I would see if I drove straight down Route 23 into Cedar Grove.
I was surprised to find one of those artifically eleoquent restaurants for which New Jersey is famous, part of the marriage/graduation circuit that gives families such a treat at appropriate, predictable points in their lives, complete with phony facade and vallet service.
"This can't be it," I thought. "Pauly wouldn't be caught dead in such a place as this."
I was right, and remembered then that John or Jack or Garrick had said "behind" the Friar Tuck, and thus, taking the first left after the restuarant, I came upon the road that swung back through the dark section of Little Falls, with the Red Baron tucked into a lowered section of land just invisible from Route 23. The first of its two driveways led to the building itself, though the whole barn-like structure looked still much like a barn, despite the flood lights and the gravel lot around it.
The front door faced Friar Tuck's rear, wooden, splintered, with a light above it and a sign at eye level warning people they had to be 21 years old and prove it to enter. Two years later, someone scratched out the 21 and replaced it with a scribbled 18. Then, still later, someone would scratch out the 18 and replace it with 21 again. Usually, a warm nights, the bouncer -- in a red shirt that said "Red Baron" over the left breast pocket stood outside, greeting everyone, picking out those people who looked too young to be getting in, making them sort through their wallets to produce some kind of identification that protected the bar from prosecution if spies from the Alcoholic Beverage Commission invaded. Some girls, who were obviously too young, got in despite lack of identification, offering something in the way of bribes, one door keeper calling out another to take his place as he escorted the girl to the back room to talk over the matter more closely, both returning to the main room later, faces flushed, clothing ruffled. Many more underage girls got in with much less, handing over their sister's or their older girlfriend's identification, against which an honest inspection would not fair favorably. But girls, old or young, were the heart of the business, part of the reason for Ladies night, for every girl who passed through these doors, two dozen men followed, dragging their tongues behind.
In cool or rainy weather, the door keeper stayed in the space between the two doors, where a similar sign posted said "ID required." Just passed this door was the bar proper, a place not much different from the combination barn and stable it had been before. You could almost picture the stalls, and almost smell the manure. The old man had never bothered to remove the original posts, and left one wall up separating the table area from the bar area. Standing at the door facing in, one bar with stools ran along the left wall. Another ran along the far wall perpendicular to this. The stall wall ran from near the door about three feet from the bar to the left, and ended about a dozen feet short of the other bar, or rather, turned abruptly right, and headed towards the right wall, stopping about three feet short of this, leaving a dance floor near the second bar, and a clutter of wooden tables and chairs in the area surrounded by the wall.
The Red Baron had two other smaller sections, a room directly left once in through the door which went through several alterations over the years, before disappearing entirely during the final rennovation in the early 1980s. This room, however, served the same general purpose, as a pool room, later an electronic game room, and then still later a pool room again.
The other room -- if you dare call it that -- was really another horse stall, left standing with an large open side facing towards the bar from the right wall. It opened immediately onto the table area and served the bands as stage. Bob, the base player from a later installment of the Erik Lemon, then called Sleeper, could not stand up straight, his six feet six inch height one inch too tall for the space. The beam across the top served the band as place for play lists and in Pauly's case, a place where he pinned the lyrics of songs since he had remarkable trouble remembering them. Another door opened into this wall on the dance floor side of the stage, through which we roadies dragged in and out the band's equipment.
The Red Baron became the unofficial home of Eric Lemon, who played here every Thursday night and two weekends a month. During the earliest days, the band played Beatles, Stones, Buffalo Springfield and Byrds music. This changed as the 1970s progressed, and the Red Baron soon drew audiences for one of the best David Bowie-Stones-Led Zepellin-Mott-the-hoople bands ever. During this phase, the band changed its name to Pynch, a named derived from the high quality English alcohol. Still later, after a break up and change of personnel, the band reemerged as Sleeper, playing a host of things from Jackson Browne to the Sex Pistols, and the whole time the Red Baron audience lapping it up.
In 1980, the former members of the original Erik Lemon split into two bands, one, a punk band called the Shayds, second, a pop band that changed personnel and names for a while going from Winter to the Stolen Rolls and finally ending up as the Sophisticatoes. While at first, both bands played the Red Baron -- as well as a place in Montclair called the Suburban, Shayds found a home here and the Sophisticatoes a home in the Suburban. Then, later, after the final rennovation, the Red Baron gave up on punk and brought in the Sophisticatoes as its permanant house band, the place having now taken on airs.
While the place looked exactly the same from the outside, the interior had undergone a remarkable change. Fortunately, they had avoided the whole disco mistake many of the other clubs had suffered during changeovers earlier in the 1970s. They had no flashing lights, huge mirrored ball or extensive dance floor. What they had was one huge circular bar in the room's center, with the former stage holding a game room. A few booths occupied the wall to the right of the door. A few more the area where the tables had formerly been. The band -- only the sophisticatos now, not the Shayds, played in the far corner where the second bar had once stood. The wooden floors were now tiled. The bar itself was like cool, grey marble, with bubbling kinds of lights behind it, highlighting the selection of higher quality drinks.
There were the high days, when the band changed names weekly in order to fool people into thinking they had a wider selection of music than they did. Tommy, the bartender, had gone on to become a semi-successful music agent. In the older version of the Red Baron, Tommy had suffered indignity after indignity with a quiet sense of good humor. Pauly picked on him from the stage, sometimes telling the girls he was a virgin, sometimes including him in various rock and roll tunes. When he wasn't there any more, the place seemed empty for me, as if it had lost its heart. Even though the music was better in the new version (at least to Pauly's thinking) I missed the old place. During one incarnation of the Erik Lemon, the band played a version of the Stones' Sympathy for the Devil" that was postively Santanic, people stomping until the building shook and the wooden floor threatened to collapse under them. At another time, our fans played games from the audience, shouting and laughing, teasing the band as the band teased back. Bikers loved us. Glitter kids came to hear our music. Even the disco mavens came if only out of jealousy.
The new place lost all those memories, turning itself into something that could no longer contain their magic. Even as Pauly continued to play there, making better and better music, the institution we knew was fading, just another memory of what once was. The last time I drove passed the property, I found the building gone and the site with parking lot filled with condos, something more condusive to the Friar Tuck restaurant, something which could hold no memories at all, just hollow people living hollow lives, listening to the inevidable countdown of their heart beats towards an ignoble end.
The last phase of the original band that played the local circuit in 1977 to 1978 was a kind of schizophrenic beast, as part of the band wanted to play punk, another part sought out the older more solid rock of Stones and Bowie, while still another wanted to play more popular music such as Jackson Brown. During this phase, I began to connect with many of the people and began to write about them, although most of what I wrote then stank, and much of it came out as critical poetry such as this:
The club air breathes cigarettes
as you sit alone
the mistaken victim of wire haired
dressed in harp notes and smiles,
playing dual tunes
and riding that edge that keeps
separate but equal
You smile and retreat,
leaving a trail of thin fragrance
that such men define as feminine
your flattered smile
your only reply,
amid the decaying echoes
and empty promises.
At the Red Baron 4/23/78
They could die tomorrow,
cast-iron barfly faces
cluttering the planks
of this Rock & Roll venue
with bared breasts
six bands weekly
spilling blood for sex,
lonely eyes hooked to them
as if they were stars;
rat-trap box office tickets
two free drinks with price
of admission, the fuck
is your game if lucky,
they supply the swaying hips
coughing fits, and
broken string delays;
It's a tight-rope walk
over net-less music canyon,
women falling into rocking
with drunken drummers,
tits pressing through
their groping fingers
they hop on the floor boards,
thumping feet to old `stones' tunes,
each note gift-wrapped in wine,
but they never die, wraiths
to the social fabric haunting
buildings like this,
their polaroid portraits
signed with their passing,
marking them the `Pancho Sanchez'
to every brand new band.
or even this:
The whole scene stinks, from garage band to glorious arena,
twisted minds of musicians playing for power, the wink at passing thighs, blanked, damaged eyes, girl-women left back stage with fist full of pills and noses caked in powder, looking for status among the bright guitars, or polished bars, drinks dulling their wits, making them accessories to the crime, the band stand, music man, consenting for a night to remedy pain, music-doctors with cold hands, laying among the rugs, bugs, ribs and bras, hip-digger jeans peeled off like layers of skin, and me, my fingers bleeding, insisting upon something I cannot believe.
In early 1979, the band split into two groups, Pauly and John M. hooking up with a wanna-be country singer named Mike, while John R., Bob, Jack and Bob's sister Marilyn (hired as the new lead singer) took up a new identity as the Shayds, and professed their sound would be punk.
For a time, Garrick floated between the two bands, since he owned most of the equipment both bands used. But he was growing weary, and clearly preferred the more pop sound John M. and Pauly had taken up with their new band called The Stolen Rolls. By having the Shayds hire me in Aug. 1979, Garrick hoped to be able to concentrate his attentions on the other band, while still collecting his percentage of this bands salary for use of the equipment.
It seemed like an ideal situation, a job that I could do at night while going to college during the day. Earlier that year, I had decided to go back to school to formally study writing, after having spent more than a decade a Joe Six Pack, working dead end jobs, spending all my spare time in bars, if not with the band, then in lonely neighborhood dives where other men like myself had grown old and grey and depressed. I didn't want to be like them when I was their age, looking back at some vital moment in the past (in their case World War Two -- in mine, the 1960s) as the most significant moment in their lives.
I even envisioned myself studying between rock and roll sets, one of the silly illusive plans that all people make when taking up a new job, yet that never quite pan out. I never even remotely imagined myself getting tied up in a social circuit I already largely despised, or how I would become very much the kind of man I most disliked.
Within a few months, I would be writing entries into my journal like this:
It is hard to say what day this is: early in the morning of one day or late in the night of another. All the ghosts have gone now, haunting other dreams, other souls, other heavy eyes. The Johns and those like him bear the brunt of their cause. For ghosts have causes, too. John is an ass, an animal with a guitar upon which he works black magic, with girls in the front rows leaning in, accepting the invitation in his eyes.
I feel like an ornament on the lawn of a haunted house, holding up the lantern the illuminates the walk, my stiff ritual allowing for his, aching from my inability to ease my pain, a poet of silence locked in stone dreams and hard self-deception, flicking stones against broken windows to draw attention to myself, they inside the house with him, mistaking the pebbles for product of wind.
In day light, I am a twenty-nine year old college student, stuck fast behind a desk, staring out at the mountain, the house, the life of ghosts as the teacher clamors for my attention.
Is there something wrong? Do you have a problem?
I could give it a name and a shape. A girl haunting me the way John haunts her, a subtle twist of lip in my mind that I seek to kiss in my dream, smearing myself with her odor, pressing myself against her flesh, her mocking voice laughing in the back of my head long after the dreams are over and daylight begun, twittling, chirping laughter destroying whatever illusions I might have had.
``She was with him again last night,'' I tell Tiny.
``Yeah, but he'll get sick of her,'' he tells me. ``Then you can pick up the pieces.''
``I don't want pieces,'' I said, recalling how he nearly accused me of stealing his jacket two night earlier, John's blond hair hanging down in his eyes. He swipes it away with his free hand as he other grips the neck of his guitar.
``Where is it? Are you trying to get even with me or what?'' he asks.
``Even with you? For what?''
I didn't know then about his entrapment, his stealing her from under my nose.
Is there something wrong? Do you have a problem?
I stare up into the teacher's face, her stern jaw twisting from side to side like a snake ready to devour a mouse.
``Just some trouble at home,'' I say, glancing around, wondering if John's ghost had heard, finding the blank faces of my class mates staring back like grave stones, each set of eyes carved with a date of birth, waiting for the second date to be filled in, pretending that it isn't part of their future.
At eighteen it is easy to believe oneself immortal. At twenty-nine less so.
``He'll get sick of her,'' Tiny says. ``Then you can pick up the pieces.''
``I don't want pieces,'' I say, seeing her in my head, her firm breasts pressing out through a thin leather top, a shimmering black whip in her hand as she vanishes into the house with John, her pink smeared lips smiling back at me on the lawn, telling me with her eyes this won't take long.
Is there something wrong? Do you have a problem?
I shake my head and open my book, and wait for the night again, and my post standing on the lawn of John's haunted mansion, pretending that my light does more than merely provides him with victims.
No one knew it at the time, but the band -- and my place in it -- was doomed, forming a necessary, yet temporary transition between one decade and another. This I think was foreshadowed even before the band hired me, when I was still freelancing with Garrick in June. We were traveling in the van to get the equipment when it broke down near the top of Great Notch in Little Falls. By this time, Garrick had sold the van to the band, long enough for them to abandon his strict maintenance practices leaving him more and more convinced that he wanted no more to do with the Shayds.
The fact was the group of us who had grown up together had reached the age of 30 or approached it, and had already begun to act old, older than we needed to, as if we all believed the Abbie Hoffman rhetoric about not being trustworthy after that age. Yet when I started working full time with the band, I found its members in total denial, struggling to act young even as they complained about aches and pains and the overly-long after affects of alcohol, drugs and lack of sleep, each needing to keep of the facade of youth so that stardom wouldn't slip by them and leave them, too, like the old men in a neighborhood bar, grumbling over past glories.
As recorded in my journal at the time:
They stand with the lights flicking off the chrome of their instruments, barflies and drunks in the audience squinting to make out the faces of the band, star‑fuckers grinning with their own sense of fame.
When the music starts they move with it, like the swaying branches of a tree caught in the ripping winds of a storm, sometimes furious, sometimes calm.
I think of the river along which I run each morning, of the gurgling brown water running between weed and litter encrusted banks, and the wind that rips at me as I run, bringing the smell of motor oil and fish instead of perfume and alcohol.
This bar is filled with fishermen tonight, men with their long lines stretching out into the pools and eddies, hooks loaded with free drinks and clever talk, each fisherman wishing he was on stage, too, from which the best fish get caught.
But this crew is getting old, all of them over thirty now.
Yesterday, Rick complained about his age, and now I understand him, the brief stint rock stars and go‑go girls share, and how hard it is to live a life living off each night's catch, relying more to lure in suckers on lies and promises than on performance.
They grow old! They grow old! They eat their fish cold.
John R., a short blonde-haired man, was a brilliant if somewhat arrogant guitarist, who had aged most, a pretty boy when younger, had grown wrinkled and crusty, due to excessive use of alcohol and drugs. He preferred speed when he could get it, but often got into fits of heroin use, so that by age 30, he looked 45, his face so ragged and rugged and pockmarked, he looked exactly like the old men I knew in the neighborhood bars. At a distance, partly disguised by the bar lights and the separation between audience and stage, he seemed younger and more vibrant than he was, a fact that kept a stream of women coming with him to his car between sets.
Bob, being older by five years, was worse. He had spent a great part of his youth as a party animal, someone who got so drunk he often didn't remember how he got home later. At one performance with the previous incarnation of the band, he staggered back and fell into the drums. Yet for all his drinking, Bob struck me as more stable than most musicians -- one of those deceptive appearances I would later learn to distrust. He was nearly as much a womanizer as the other members of the band.
Jack, the drummer, had no conscience when it came to women. He would fuck any woman anywhere under any conditions, while still maintaining the facade of a happily married man at home, living his dual life as rock and roller at night and volunteer fireman during the day as if there was no discrepancy.
Yet even he felt the imposition of age as reflected in this journal entry at the time:
Some people call him a lady killer, a slick dude with wide open collars and the scent of heavy cologne trailing behind him. I see him smile and stare around the club each time he comes in, as if trying to choose which woman will be his next victim.
Once decided, he doesn't give them a chance to tell him no, sweeping up on them from behind, encircling their shoulders with his arms, his limbs as thin as a snake's.
"Hello there, honey," he says. "That's a really nice blouse you have on."
His fingers twitch an inch from the tip of her hardening nipple, his gaze so intense he seems to look straight through at flesh. But tonight, I catch him with his usual face down, as if he had left the zipper undone so as to allow the general public a look behind the mask. He sits alone at the table, his expression so bland he seems like someone else, he staring off into space, scratching behind his ear from time to time with a forefinger, pulling on the tip of his nose as if it itched, sitting, staring, talking to no one, not even studying the room. In the dime bar lights, he looks like the lonely men I see slumped around the go-go bar after the beers have kicked in and the men have run out of cash for tips.
I ask what's going on, he looks at me, blinks, and takes a sip of his whisky.
"I turned 30 yesterday," he says.
"Don't you get it. I'm a fucking old man."
"Thirty is not old."
"Not to you, maybe," he says, giving me that down the nose look that he's always issued to me like me, who he thinks can't
compete in the same meat market, men like me who don't get laid every night, sometimes not even every week, who suffering not from lack of looks, but from too much conscience. He has not conscience, only an urge.
"I still don't see it," I say.
He lets out an exasperated sigh. "I'm old. I'm going to lose my looks next. I won't be able to keep up."
"Just because you turned 30?"
"No, well, not exactly. It's me and how I think about things. I sat all day yesterday staring at space, thinking of all the women I've had, and how none of them seem like much to me now, especially when I imagine them looking at me, and thinking me as an old man."
"That doesn't happen over night," I said.
"But it happens," he said and took another, deeper swing on his beer. "It happens."
Marilyn, who slid into the leadership slot with a lack of concern typical of the rock scene, though she proved a bit more ethical than most. Rock bands -- in their imaginary climb to the top -- frequently stabbed each other in the back, two or three members plotting against another, telling each other he or she just wasn't good enough or hip enough, or the right image the band wanted to portray. Personality conflicts tended to keep more bands from making it than lack of talent, or lack of ambition.
In splitting the band up, John R. had clearly decided that a female lead was needed to make it to the top, the way bands like Blondie or Fleetwood Mac had done. But Marilyn was no Debbie Harry. She was slightly overweight, marginally talented, though extremely caught up in the star role. And if stars were made by acting like stars, then she had all she needed to take the band over the top. She carried herself around with her head lifted and her sense of self-importance inflated. She wore clothing well-suited to the image of success, while not quite as flamboyant as Janis Joplin's, then in competition with Joplin's costumes.
Early on, The Shayds seemed to pull ahead of the other faction, who had still failed to find a competent third member. Pauly and John M. gave up on Mike as useless when they tried to play rock and roll one night in a Verona gig and Mike bailed out. By fall, 1979, they had become a duo calling themselves "Winter" and played smaller venues, including the Suburban Lounge in Montclair -- a club that had refused to rehire the Shayds after the mostly drunken, redneck cliental hooted us off the stage for our Punk material, calling for Stones, and Zeppelin, and other old stuff John R. refused to play and Marilyn could not sing. Eventually, Pauly and John M. would pick up a drummer and settle into the Red Baron as the house band, but not later in 1980 after Red Baron renovated. Until then, the Shayds acted as house band there, as well as doing gigs in other clubs throughout northern New Jersey.
Garrick's job as sound man was taken over by a dark-haired, broad shouldered man named Joe, who had some experience doing sound, but learned a lot as he went along. Joe -- who years later I could run into at a Signac Bar after he had taken up a career as an electrician -- looked a lot like a Native American Indian, especially when he wore his hair long, and drew the attention of many young ladies who clearly went for that type, despite the fact Joe had a long-term relationship going, often flirting with him right in front of his girlfriend. Unlike the moody Garrick, Joe liked the party aspect, though in some ways, Joe's moods were darker, and hinted at a violence in his private life I was never privy to.
Unfortunately, the Shayds lacked the financial common sense displayed by previous incarnations of the band, all of its members adopting Marilyn's star attitude. They presumed that with their line up of talent, they could not help but make it in the music business and that it was just a matter of time until some agent signed them and invited them into a recording studio or onto a major music tour. Thus instead of biting the bullet as most local bands did, sharing in the labor of setting up and breaking down equipment, this crew added onto their expenses by hiring more people to do the work than necessary. Not only did the band hire Joe as a sound man, but hired Rick as light man, me and a man named Tiny, as roadies. Over time, as rumors of actual success grew, so did the road crew, out numbering the band members. But for the first few months, we, the road crew arrived early, did 99 percent of the work, so that the members of the band could stroll in later like superstars, play, then stroll out again with their sexual conquests. They seemed unaware of the huge expense the road crew posed for them, or perhaps, they just didn't care.
As their road crew, we were often required to perform numerous duties beyond the clubs, such as when their instruments needed repair. Tiny and I would often drop off and pick up equipment from various music centers in the area. In my journal from the time, I recorded one of those moments:
Nothing's wrong with the Goddamn amp, only John seems to think so.
The sharp vibrations of repair man's guitar wind their way through the coils and tubes.
This is Washington Street, Belleville. This is the best repair place in the state, so the man should know what he's talking about it. But I don't want to go back to John and have him yell at me, too, telling me it cuts off at inconvenient times, like when he's ready to take a solo.
Just turn the damned amp off and I'll take it back to him, I tell the repairman, as he and the rest of the instrument junkies laugh me out the door, the little club of know-it-alls I've seen in every venue from Star Trek experts to Acid heads, each thinking they have the inside track on truth.
The salesman at Robbies in Little Falls laughed, too, when I told him what John told me to say, shaking his head saying he couldn't fix it even if the amp needed fixing.
"We don't do repairs here," he said, looking at me the way store keepers used to look at my crazy mother when she tried to buy out their stock of garlic to keep the witches out of our kitchen when I was five.
And here I was wheeling this amp from place to place, searching for the holy grail, rolling is from car trunk to store, then back, over the tiny square chunks of glass that result from colliding cars.
"How much do I owe you?" I ask the man in Belleville.
He shakes his head, "Nothing," he says.
I say "Thanks," and roll the amp out again.
"A girl got hit right on this spot," a man on the street tells me as the wheels of the amp kick up the bits of glass. "The car pushed her right into the doorway. You should have seen the guy trying to come out of the store when it all happened. Blood splattered all over the glass. I thought his jaw would fall off."
"That's nice," I said, and pushed the amp toward the car, wondering about the girl, and the clash of cars, and whether or not the amp would work when I got it back to John's.
Tiny and Rick made a fascinating pair, one so huge he could have lifted a voltswagon waist high off the ground, the other -- our light man-- so frail I often wondered if his tales of surviving Vietnam were real.
Because of his size, Tiny served as both bouncer and roadie, and loved both roles, and like the body guard for Howard Huges I once saw in Las Vegas, Tiny tended to stroll around with a couple of women under his arm, women he may or may not have slept with, or typical of roadies, women he promised to introduce to the band if they treated him right. Yet for all this, Tiny tended to be strangely superstitious, especially when it came to matters of faith. During one gig out at a religious girls college in Convent Station, New Jersey, he nearly killed me for telling dirty religious jokes, as related in this journal entry from the time:
Tiny doesn't like this catholic college stuff, grumbling ahead of me as we unload the equipment from the van.
"I don't understand why we got to play here," he said. "I mean, what do we get for our trouble?"
"I think we're getting double our usual pay," I said.
"But no sex," Tiny said. "What's a gig without a quick trip out to the van with one of the girls."
"I don't see what's to stop you," I said. "The girls all look pretty enough."
"Pretty, hell, they're all gorgeous," Tiny said. "But they're here. In a Goddamn catholic college."
"So they might be studying to become nuns," Tiny said.
"So do you think I want to go to hell because I let a future nun give me a blow job?"
"I don't think it matters if the girl isn't a nun yet," I said. "Maybe not to you, it doesn't. But I don't want to be struck dead or have live with the idea that I screwed some poor sister of mercy."
"Tiny," I said. "I think you're carrying all this a little too far. They're not all going to be nuns."
"But some of them might me and I do I know which one's which." "You could ask."
"And what if the girl says yes and still wants it anyway?" "Then, I suspect it would be her look out, not yours."
"So you say. You don't look like no priest to me."
"I thought about it once."
"You?" Tiny said, sounding very surprised.
"Yes, me. I went to Catholic grammar school."
"See! See! I told you some go into religious life. How would you have felt if some older woman came along and made you fuck her." "I would have welcomed it."
"You're a pervert," Tiny said.
"And you're being silly," I said. "Religious schools tend to be more sexual than public schools."
"No, I mean it," I said. "We were terrible for dirty jokes, many of which we got from the priests. Do you want to hear some. I'm sure I can remember a few."
"No way!" Tiny said, grunting as he put down the amp and rolled it across the floor to the stage.
"But the jokes are funny," I said. "Try this one: What do you get when you cross a penguin and a ruler."
"I told you!" Tiny wailed.
"Hey, I'd like to know," said Rick, the light man who was
apparently listening to part of our conversation. "What do you get when you cross a penguin with a ruler."
"A short nun."
"That doesn't sound dirty to me," Rick said, sounding
"Not all the jokes are dirty. I was trying to prove a point with Tiny."
"I don't want you to prove no points with me. I don't want you to tell me no more religious jokes either, cause I don't want no bolt of lightning coming down out of the sky to make a French Fry out of me."
Joe, the sound man, heard Tiny's wail and marched over, looking annoyed.
"Will you three stop gabbing and get to work. We got here late and those girls won't want to hear any excuses as to why the band can't go on."
"Then, you tell him to watch his mouth. He's going to get us struck by lightning."
Joe looked puzzled; Rick explained.
"Al's been telling him religious jokes."
"And God's gonna get pissed."
Joe moaned and rolled his eyes. "Just shut up, Tiny. We don't need the nuns thinking we have a dying buffalo over here."
"Did you hear the one about the..." I said.
"Joe! You shut Al up, too, okay?"
"But I think the jokes are funny," Rick said.
"Then wait until we're set up and then go outside where both of you can get fried without me."
"You should see the book I have in my bag," I told him. "It's called 'Beyond God the Father."
This time Tiny frowned.
"That doesn't sound funny"
"It isn't exactly," I said. "It's a book I'm studying in school, talking about Castrating God."
Tiny blinked, his whole pink mouth open as if it had lost a hinge.
"You'd better leave off him," Rick whispered to me. "Because he flips out. He might not mean to hurt you, but he's an emotional fool."
"Will you three quit gabbing and get to work!" Joe yelled, now beyond hearing near the sound board.
Just then, members of the band arrived, making their usual appearances as stars, each making a stop at the group of giggling girls who had been watching us set up, each frowning deeply as they approached us, clearly not getting the reaction they wanted from the girls.
"I don't understand it," John said.
"What's the matter?" Joe asked, moving back to the stage with a string of wires.
"None of those girls wanted to come out to the car with me." "I'll come," Rick said hurriedly.
"I don't want you, I want a girl."
"Maybe the girls were raised right," I suggested.
"Who the hell cares about politics. I just want one of them to suck my dick."
"Oh my God!" Tiny moaned. "We're all going to hell!"
"What's the matter with him?"
"He thinks the girls are protected," I said.
"I should hope so. I wouldn't want to get any of them pregnant." Tiny's moan grew louder.
"I mean by God," I said.
This time Joe moaned, then asked for a joint. "This talk is a little too thick for my blood."
"God?" John said, looking even more confused.
"I was telling him Nun jokes. Do you want to hear one."
"No, he doesn't!" Joe snapped. "None of us do."
"That's a good one."
Joe stopped, frowned, and then when he realized his
unintentional frown, grew even more annoyed.
"I don't care about the jokes," John said. "I just care about the girls. I usually get a little something before I go on stage. It helps me get ready to perform."
"And you usually get a little something during the breaks, too," Rick noted with a knowing wink at me.
"That's more involved," John said, missing Rick's joke. "I don't want any of them to pull down their pants just yet, just open their mouths."
By this time, Tiny's wails formed a solid, painful note, as if one of the amps was feeding back.
Bob, the bass player came over from the refreshment stand, wiping his mouth.
"They've got free beer over at that table," he said.
"It's free," I said. "But it isn't real."
"Of course it's real, I just had some."
"I mean it doesn't have any alcohol."
Bob blinked. "What would be the point in that?"
"So that no one gets drunk," I said.
"That's outrageous!" Bob growled. "That's sacrilegious, like cutting the balls off a bull."
"Look," Joe said. "I don't care if they've castrated the beer, just as long as someone has a joint. I can't get through the first set without something to smooth out my head."
But everyone shook their heads.
"No girls, no booze, no drugs?" Rick said, staring out at the hall and the parade of girls coming into it. "This isn't rock and roll."
"Did I ever tell you how I always wanted to get a nun when I was a kid, but I never got none."
All moaned this time. Tiny threw a screw driver at my head, but missed. One of the nuns waved at us, indicating it was time for the band to go on.
As I said earlier, the road crew situation grew even more absurd when Tiny, Rick and Joe took on the same star-mentality as the band and hired themselves assistants who would do the work we were supposed to do. At first, these poor fools volunteered their services on the erroneous assumption that the band was destined for the charts. Then, they demanded money and because everyone became no enamored with themselves -- especially after recording the demo record and filming a video to go with it -- the band caved in, and the staff supporting the four piece band tripled in size by the time I left, each member of the crew sucking away the limited pay the band received, making it so that almost no one made enough to pay the rent.
Yet even in the beginning, finances were tight. Garrick as owner of most of the sound equipment, the sound board, the stacks, and PA system, exacted his percentage off the top of what the club owners paid. The road crew got theirs next. The band divided what was left, and facing shrinking gigs, this was not a lot.
As hip as the Punk form of music was in those days, it was far from popular. Even though we were a stone's throw from Manhattan, most clubs reacted to our sound the way the Suburban crowd had, hooting us down, calling out for more classic rock and roll. It wasn't just the fact that this was New Jersey, a world of contractors and practical men who had no time for the frivolities of cutting edge music, but largely because trends tended to take a long time crossing the Hudson River, and an even longer time to make their way inland. Even David Bowie -- during his worst Glitter phase in the early 1970s -- hadn't caught on here until years after he had already peaked.
But Punk was different. Bowie, at least, paid homage to the fathers of rock, Punk tended to kick people in the teeth and mock them for their taste in previous kinds of music. In most places we played, the audience got angry when they took notice of us at all. Often, when we played a weekend gig, people would show up on Friday night, make rude remarks and not come back. Thus many clubs refused to hire us more than once, or later, as our reputation for killing off audiences, refused to hire us at all. Some of the hipper clubs, who tended to follow the trends, had hired punk band a year or two earlier when the movement first hit, but now no longer did, as their attention moved onto the newest trend: rap music.
Perhaps we would have done better if we had made the transition across the Hudson River and sought out New York City bars in which to play. But each member of the band seemed to put off that idea, as if they needed to work out the kinks of their act here in the suburbs before challenging the big time acts on the New York circuit. None of the members had ever played Manhattan, having emerged out of the New Jersey classic rock scene. In New Jersey, bands built up their following and then invaded Sin City -- the way the legendary band, Smile, did in the early 1970s. A band didn't crawl across the Hudson pleading for jobs.
It was a mistaken and out dated notion, and one that helped ruin the band's eventual shot at success. We played fewer and fewer gigs, for fewer and fewer people, often in remote, unheard of venues such as roller rinks and bowling allies. And while this made for an interesting success story later if we ever made it, the situation often put us on edge, and sometimes led us to play places where management was hideous or the crowds wanted to fight. In one place, documented in the following journal entry, we even nearly came to blows with a bastard manager from a club in central New Jersey who treated all bands like shit:
The other band warned us what to expect from the manager of the club.
"He's a real bastard," their sound man told us. "Likes to lord over people, telling you how to set up and when, and getting pissed off enough to beat the shit out of you if you don't do things his way."
Perhaps the warning set off something inside of me, that old 1960s sensibility, of not allowing anyone to treat anyone so badly as that.
The bastard started shooting orders at us the moment we walked through the door so I needed no introduction to know this was the man the other band meant.
He is exactly the kind of fellow I least get along with, with his slave-master mentality that grinds on me until I explode. I kept my tongue for most of the night, Tinny glaring at me as if he knew what I longed to do and warned me against it. But when he locked the back door and told us that we couldn't even start to pack up until every patron had left the parking lot, I went off.
We had lives to live beyond his rules, and a job to do that he seemed not to care about. So I went and kicked open the door, shattering the lock. He saw it. His face went red. I pretended I didn't notice and started loading equipment into the van. Then he charged across the club and leaped at me as I climbed into the van, with only Tiny holding him back.
"I'll kill you, you little mother fucker!" he shouted, but was unable to break Tiny's monstrous grip, the two of them seemingly locked in a love embrace, both faces red. Behind them, his bouncers crowded, trying to get their shot at Tiny and then their shot at me.
"You shouldn't have locked me in," I told him. "I don't like people locking me in when I haven't committed a crime."
"Lock you in, I'll bury you, if I ever get loose from this ape," he growled and tried to free himself from Tiny again, but Tiny tightened his grip.
"Who's an Ape?" Tiny asked. "You want me to break your chest for you?"
"I want you and your band to get the fuck out and never come back, that's what I want," the man shouted, "But leave your little friend, I want to take him apart myself."
"We ain't leaving without him," Tiny said. "And if you're going to take people apart, you'd better start with me."
Tiny gave another squeeze, and the man yelped. The bouncers stirred, but did not charge, with Joe and Rick standing behind tiny, holding microphone stands with the heavy ends up.
"Let him at me," I told Tiny. "The bastard scares me, but if he thinks he can take me apart without a fight, let him try. I'm not going to take shit from him."
"You'll take what I give you," the man said again, but losing his rage, as if he already knew he had lost this round, and was scratching around to find something else to get at me with, something that we couldn't fight.
Then, when the man was calm, Tiny let him loose. The man smoothed down his silk shirt, glaring at me and at Tiny.
"This band is through," he said. "I got influence on the circuit. You guys messed with the wrong fellow when you messed with me."
"Nobody would have messed with you if you had been reasonable," I said. "It's two o'clock. I have school in the morning. I don't need you fucking around and keeping me here all night, just because you've got a bug up your ass. You didn't have to lock the door. You could have let us pack up the van."
"I could have done a lot of things like hand you my wallet or send out invitations for people to walk out with half the stuff in my club, too," the man said, still glaring at me, looking as if he might try to leap again, but I had my hand on the lug iron for the spare tire and he wanted a piece of that, all he had to do was leap.
"You're a trusting bastard," I said, "thinking everybody's out to rip you off."
"They are," the man said.
"So you say."
"Are you calling me a thief?"
"If that's what you are."
"Well, I'm not," I said. "And I don't have to prove it to you or anybody. You locked the door, I kicked it down, and there's not a lot you can do about it."
"Not to you," the man said. "But to them." He pointed to the band gathered with shocked looks, staring at me, then at the door now flat on the ground as if they couldn't believe I actually did it, they knowing very little about the days when I was a violent man. "They won't work as long as you're working for them. They won't work anywhere, believe me."
And then, the son of a bitch, turned on his heals and walked back through the space where the door had been, turning to his bouncers. "Fix the fucking door as soon as these assholes are gone."
"You want us to take care of them, boss?" one of the bouncers asked.
"No," the man said, staring straight into the van at me. "I've already done that."
While the band did manage to develop a following of hard core fans, these never numbered enough to satisfy club owners, many of whom longed for the kinds of crowds the previous band, Sleeper, had drawn. Eventually, we settled down into a series of regular gigs that allowed us to travel less but make less money as well.
The belief that we were destined to make it big kept up the spirits of the others, as if they had memorized the footage of every rock and roll success story movie ever made and were convinced that this suffering was part of the dues we had to pay before being allowed into the wealthy club of super stardom. None seemed to realize that we were already way too old for the kind of music we chose to play, and that the older rockers on the circuit had made their reputations young, and now lived off the laurels of that previous time, releasing an album from time to time, or taking up a tour. We did not have the energy or the image to make it in the emerging MTV generation, only most of the band was too oblivious to the fact at the time.
The band also seemed to believe that the Punk movement would eventually move main stream the way glitter, heavy metal and other previous movements had. None saw the impending doom hanging over the movement, how only those on the very edge of Punk such as The Police, Elvis Costello, Debbie Harry and a handful of others would actually make it into the archives of rock and roll, bands whose music the other faction of the former Sleeper was playing, not us.
Punk music, I realized later, was part of a younger person's rebellion, something we were already too old to really feel in the soul. The band was trying to use the music because it was a trend, not because any of them wanted to upset the status quo or wanted to shake up the world. If anything, the members of the band wanted the world to be exactly the same as it was, with the same status structure. They simply wanted to elevate their status, and celebrate their own success, failing to realize that the music they played was originally intended to shock the audience and offend it, to make a statement by deliberately violating all the rules. It was a rebellion no one in the band understood or could believe it, so our performances became a kind of parody or joke that literally often fell on deaf ears and empty clubs. After a while, band members -- who clearly needed something to motivate themselves since no one was making any money -- began to focus more and more on sex. But there were always reminders of their early days. People -- who had followed previous and more exciting versions of the band -- would suddenly show up at the club, and sometimes to comic effect, as hinted at in this journal entry of the time when an old romantic figure showed up.
They stand tonight in competition, two aging rockers ready to re-engage, like rusted Arthurian knights looking to joust for the heart of their one-time lady, rivals forever, gauging each other with cold stares on the stage.
How she came to be here tonight after so many years away, I do not know. Rumor said she was married and living in Europe now. I last saw her in 1976, when she was already too old to be picking up strangers in bars, her hard breasts growing soft and flabby, her bottle-treated hair, brittle.
Perhaps she returned because no two other men on earth would duel each other for her attention like these two would, and now other two would choose to bleed as readily to win her heart.
But then, as aging rockers, they don't have much else to bleed for either.
Oddly enough, both versions of the bands wound up working club circuits that often left us a few doors away from each other. Pauly and John M. played the lighter music establishments, we played what was then called the heavier clubs. Our regular places were The Red Baron and Dodd's Orange. We also played a North Arlington go-go bar and a series of other place once or twice. We played the Chatter Box in Seaside Heights, the Dirt Club in Bloomfield, and a club up near the Bergen Mall once or twice as well. We even played a place called the Piast Lounge in Jersey City -- where the guitarist for Blondie sat in on a jam session during one slow night. I largely forgot about the place until many years later when as a reporter in Hudson County I stumbled upon it, and was struck by instant nostalgia.
For all the mixed feelings I had about the rock circuit, the human tragedies I would document in my journals, I also found myself greatly amused by the foolishness we allowed our selves to get involved in. Some of the more embarrassing moments came on Halloween night when we put on a special Rocky Horror Picture Show night, the unintended nice fight on New Year's Eve at Dodd's, or even the aborted attempt to learn to roller skate during those times when he were forced to play roller rinks.
But for the most part, I grew weary and less capable of maintaining my duel life as a student and a rock and roller. In taking on this job I made the dreadful mistake of believing I could stay above the emotional entanglements Rock & Roll entailed. I had modelled myself -- more or less -- after Pauly who had successfully managed to avoid the social scene for more than a decade, despite his role as lead singer of the band. He also managed to successfully avoid playing the star trip, never got involved with the women who gawked at him from the crowd, rarely got rip roaring drunk. It was not possible for me to imitate him, and I soon found myself embroiled in emotional situations, not of my creation. I soon found that the job was more than merely job, and that I lacked some necessary personal trait Pauly had to keep me free from getting involved. More and more often I was dragged into emotional situations I would have rather avoided, as related by this journal entry:
I didn't mean to hurt her, or even knew I did until someone told me. I guess I'm becoming just like the rest of the band, taking chicks to my car to fuck then leaving them, forgetting them, thinking they don't exist, that one night stand mentality that we think they like when they want more.
We were lucky the cops didn't see the steamed windshield and tap on the glass to find out what we were up to. Perhaps they passed and thought the temperature too cool to bother, or in passing the Gold Star in Orange, presumed no one would care since so many people do this here on weekends, rocking the shocks of their car without starting their engines.
This woman wanted more.
She wanted to come home with me and clean my house, have my children, bear my name.
I wanted no such thing, and thought I had made myself clear. But in the effort to make the windshield foggy, I might have said too much or things I hadn't meant, and now, people tell me the woman is hurt, and dangerous.
"You'd better stay out of the Gold Star," they told me. "She might go for your eyes."
Many years later, I ran into this woman again. She had found herself a no-future job at a seven/eleven where she had fully intended to spend the rest of her life, a place in the old neighborhood that seemed to fit her well, taking in newspaper in the morning, putting out trash at night. And then, because an Indian family had purchased the store and intended to fill her position with a family member, she didn't even that any more. I watched her walk way from the store on the last night. I wanted to say something to her, to comfort her in some way, but I knew from the way she kept looking at me that she had recalled that night long ago when I had sent her away, too.
The job changed as time went on.
Initially, all I had to do was setup and break down the band equipment, between which I had presumed I could sneak off and study.
Setting up the band largely involved unloading equipment from the van, putting the stack of speakers in place, attaching all the appropriate wires, from the stack to the board -- which gets set up someplace out in front of the band, towards the back of whatever room they intend to play in. The board controls nearly all the sounds coming out of the microphones and guitars -- but not totally. During the early 1970s, the band only put vocals and drums through the board, allowing the guitarist free reign. It was a disaster for Pauly, who was lead singer then, since both Johns like "cutting" each other, which meant raising the volume. By the end of the night, their amps were at full volume and Pauly had to try and sing over them. Even with the help of the amplified board, it was an impossible task, and he came very near to developing nodes. With the Shayds, John R. was the only guitarist, so he had no need to crank up the volume, and by running his guitar through the board, we got a more even sound.
Setting up also involved putting up microphone stands, stringing out the wires from those to the board, as well as setting up the drums and miking that. We also had a light show of sorts, which meant we had to install those in various strategic locations near the performing area, string those wires to another light board, and -- before the band went on -- we had to test the lights and the sound to make sure everything was as near to perfect as we could make it.
When the night was over, we reversed everything, undoing all the lines, taking down the stocks, folding up microphone stands and some how -- with us as weary and sometimes drunk as we were -- managed to get all this stuffed into the van. Garrick had figured out how to make it so it all did fit, a system that resembled a rubic's cube, allowing everything into the small space provided we did everything in the right order and placed it in the right way inside the van. After Garrick was gone, we simply copied everything he did over and over so that we could nearly do it in our sleep -- and often did.
Had things gone on as originally proposed, I might even have managed to study inbetween. But, of course, the growing ego of some of the band members dictated otherwise, and one of them at one point decided it might be nice to have a spot light so that the audience might know which one of the band members to look at during a particular part of the show. Since this was before the point where the road crew had a road crew, one of us had to be the one to actually point the thing at the people on the stage, and since everyone but me and Tiny had another function during the performance, we got the job.
It was clear that fate had already made up its mind to get me more deeply involved with the band's social life than I had intended, to allow me to observe the horrors of the rock scene for me to record and later document upon. After a while, I became consumed with it, if not by drugs and alcohol and sex, the way the others were, then by the passion and the pain of its victims. I found myself with the worst of both worlds, a man trapped into a social scene he despised, without the benefit of any of its pleasures.
Perhaps no journal entry expressed my mind frame better than the one written New Year's Eve:
The door to the club is always open, open for the strange and the stranger-- to walk in, sit down, order a drink. She smiles from the bar when she sees me at the door, not knowing that I've come with the bands, not knowing that I leave alone in the early hours of the morning.
There are dozens just like her around the bar and I gingerly avoid their eyes as I face the doorman. Behind me, there is a guy wearing a mask, holding a reel and fishing pole just for me. Who is he? I don't know.
I just shiver with the wind at my back, waiting like other men wait, their hands clutching the knob, fingering the keyhole "I'm with the band," I tell the bouncer and he laughs.
"That's what they all say!"
"But I AM with the band," I persist and perhaps it is the tone of voice that convinces him.
"What do you do?" he asks.
I laugh. "That's a good question. All the wrong things, I
suppose. Everything a good roadie shouldn't."
He grins and lets me pass. At the bar, the girl smiles again. Not for me in particular, but for the crowd of fresh men blowing through the door.
They come alone
tattered winged angels
in search of time,
love or cure,
and they leave in pain.
Their lipstick shimmers with the changing lights as I walk towards the stage. The band isn't here yet. They are rarely on time, coming when the lights go up and the crowd moans with impatience-- these angels moaning the loudest and with the most desperation.
Thorn infested paws
dripping red tears
to the cruel red carpet
whose edges have been lifted
to receive more sweepings.
I buy a drink at regular price because the bartender doesn't believe I'm with the band.
You bastard, I think. I saw you here yesterday, that girl
hovering over the bar at you. They found her this morning in a motel bathroom with an empty bottle of pills in her hand.
Oh, they come alone
and they leave
arm in arm
whose sparkling charms
and glistening tongue
promises the crust
but delivers the grave
It is almost time for the band to come. The lights are already up. The amps are on. The crowd shuffles up to the front of the stage like animals, eyes empty from booze. They are drunk and noisy and sway, lit like the fuse to a bomb.
Go home, Angel,
The feeling is pain. The relationship is one between planet and star. We, on the side lines, watch the angels dance, looking to attract the star's attention. Even their eyes sweat.
Like steamed clams. Waiting to be opened up and eaten.
I was extremely lonely on Christmas when the band played a club in Bergen County. So few people showed up, we all wondered why we had bothered. Even at Halloween at the North Arlington strip club, the night lacked a sense of fun for me, although many of others got off on the Rocky Horror aspect. The ice fight on New Years at Dodds told me pretty much that life could not go on with the band and I felt as bad after that as I had working straight jobs in warehouses during most of the 1970s.
I found myself in the odd role of acting as counselor to the women the band abused, while at the same time, struggling with my own need for company and sexual satisfaction. People around me, presumed the worst, thinking I had already fallen into the rock and role habits they took for granted. This was especially acute when I wound up home with one of the groupies. Although nothing happened, everyone I knew presumed something had, at which point, as the next journal entry reflects, I began to truly feel rock and roll weary:
The phone rings, but I refuse to answer.
I'm rock & roll weary, and the apartment's poor heat makes me shiver again and again.
I have to go back to work again tonight, and dread to face the wondering eyes of my friends, and the cold calculating stare of the woman who visited here only a day or so ago.
Joy, a groupie, got a glimpse into my life that few outsiders ever had, sticking her nose into my closed closets like a curious detective.
I fear the news she will report back to those who know me less well, about my overflowing laundry, or the dishes I've not yet washed, or the general sense of loneliness that pervades this world, cat and hamster aside.
The Superbowl roars behind me like white noise, the anxious announcers restrained only by the lowered volume control.
Someone stole John R's leather jacket two nights, one more rock & roll souvenir, or perhaps just a straight theft from someone who happens to play lead guitar. As it is, he eyes each of us as if we are all thieves, even me, when I was sitting right beside him on a bar stool when the theft occurred.
The theft dampened his excitement about the superbowl, for which he looked forward for over a week, talking about his previous Pittsburgh Steelers as if he owned the team, while I've busted his chops a little by saying I liked LA.
Perhaps Joy has tainted that, too, he, taking her home to bed after the last few gigs as if to say his team always wins, when mine can't.
Outside my apartment, the wind stir, making the cold feel worse. I have the heat up as high as it will go, but I'm never warm, and soon I'll have to make my way out into the wind, fighting my way to through the cold, thinking of Joy's laughing eyes when she made the same trip after her visit, me, trailing behind her in my embarrassment.
LA scores. And I see the black and yellow shirts of Pittsburgh mope around the sidelines, heads hanging down as the time ticks away, and I know, exactly how they feel.
By this time, we were the regular weekend band at Dodd's Orange, something that continued to highlight a strange dance through which the two versions of the original band performed during these years. We kept brushing against each other without knowing it, associating with many of the same people, proving once and for all how small the rock and roll world really was. We kept meeting the same people in a kind of comedy of errors straight from any Shakespeare play.
Dodd's proved to be one of the odder moments in this regard, since by the time we got there, the manager was Mike F., the man who Pauly and John M. had performed with just after breaking up the original band, and the man who they claimed couldn't play rock and roll.
Perhaps that explained why Mike insisted on hiring bands that were considered particular tough, hard-edged groups that may not have made the club money, but certainly proved his ability to recognize solid rock when he saw it.
Yet his hiring us may have had another motive, a kind of revenge against Pauly and John M. for firing him. By giving us a platform upon which to play, Mike apparently hoped we would take off and show up the other band, and prove to them that he had enough sense to recognize real talent in us, when Pauly and John M. could not recognize the real talent in him.
It was a flaw in his character. Had he really known anything about the punk movement (his taste more towards John Denver than Bob Seeger), he would have seen a movement in decline and known how little chance we had in making the transition from punk to main stream -- which was the only way punk bands later survived.
Mike's audience was horrified. We arrived on the stage as welcome as an invasion from mars, and as strange to a club that was known for bands that played straight ahead rock. Dodd's Orange was legendary for its discerning tastes as far back as I could remember, and indeed, several times Pauly and the other band members in the early 1970s came here to catch what other acts were doing. During on trip, I couldn't get in because I was not old enough to drink.
Dodd's, however, was really more of a pick up bar, with cubby holes designed to allow couples to slip away from the main stream of traffic to conduct negotiations for sleeping arrangements later in the evening. For most of the night, people huddled in the corners to make out, or whisper in each other's ears rather than listening to the music, though on busy weekends it was nearly impossible for them to find a place where music didn't permeate the landscape, whether it was caused by the main band upstairs, the second, light act downstairs, or the juke box in one of the small side bars.
She has to press her mouth to my ear to have me hear her over the sharp electric melodies of John's guitar, sentences broken into fragments as she speaks, talking non-stop about two men who have violated her, but in different ways. One had stolen her
birthright, the other her heart.
Both men were named John.
One John wanted her to be a quiet, retiring angel to greet him at the door each night, carrying slippers and pipe, an angel blind to the smudged red on his shirt collars that looked less like blood from shaving than lipstick. He had remarkably late
She smiles even now like a dreamer who eventually woke up to the truth, not sure how she feels about her previous foolishness. Now, she looks at the stage and her second John, a new dream vision which she has yet to wake from, a man, who seduces other women right in front of her every night from the stage, without her catching on.
She says she wants to marry him.
Her first John used to beat her for not being everything he wanted, this John ignores her when he's gotten from her all he wants.
She tells me she actually nearly had her first John's baby, but aborted it herself when she caught on about him.
"I'm not sure I can have another for this John," she tells me. "I sort of did damage to myself up there."
For the most part Dodd's was divided into two sections, the main room upstairs and the lounge on the lower flood. Loud acts like ours played the main space, while the soft acts played the lounge. Both spaces served as excused to get drunk, though the upstairs space seemed more honest about it, one huge room framed in bars and bar stools with the remaining wall reserved for the stage. The center of the room also had a huge square bar with dance floor all around it, a stand up facility to which the dancer's retreated between songs to cure their thirst.
It was at this bar that the ice fight began.
The club had emptied after the New Year's celebration had ceased, and both bar people and band people seemed dazed, as if not quite able to come to grips with the end of one decade and the beginning of the next. Where had the 1970s gone? What could any of us expect from the 1980s? Why the hell were any of us in this place at our ages when we all should have been somewhere else doing straight jobs, coming home to families with kids. As we looked at each other, we seemed to see a pack of aging hippies too stupid and stubborn to move on, each clinging to a 1960s mentality that claimed we could stay young forever.
To me, the band and its followers looked like little more than a pack of lounge lizards, with me as one, too.
Someone threw ice in the face of one of the bartenders, a joke that soon escalated into all out war, until we, the bards, the floor and the staged, dripped with melting ice. For me, it had a finality which I did not get over, the change of decade telling me this was not what I was meant to do for the rest of my life, though I clung to the job until after Easter at which point I resigned.
They go now, the bleary-eyed returning to their dens like
vampires, too frightened to face the dawn or the morning mirror, a gentle rain of dust falling over the trail of their retreat, marks on the ground where their weary heels have struck.
I sit and stare at the sound board, its metered eyes registering only background noise, one small blip of its weak needle
responding to the bartender's clattered gathering of bottles for the dumpster outside.
The rock and roll has ended, the dance floor sagging with the weight of feet that had pounded it. No tape recorder can remake the mood of the room at that moment, the primitive beat of people finding their savage roots. I can not flick a switch and make it all come back, so disbelieve it ever happened.
I am not the creator of the sound, but someone who helps shape it, one more tool in this larger instrument made of microphones, speakers and wires, turning a knob here or there to enhance what they do on the stage.
But few of those who come and go ever make the distinction, and most sound men take their toll on the drunk little girls who come to stare and drool over the rock and roll magic. Women, young and old, press their breasts into my back as I fine tune the sound, seeing me as a wizard in this insane Oz.
Sometimes, I struggle to keep myself from falling into that trap, of taking home to sample these foolish girls, my role their role lost in the haze of alcohol.
I am corruptible. I can seek to take as easily as the next man when offered so easily, becoming a creature who thinks with his crotch instead of his heart, and waking years later wondering why I cannot find love.
It is too easy to be like the other members of the band, testing each woman's ability in the back seat of my car, or testing how long it might take me to wrestle their shoulders flat.
I keep thinking of Michael at school who thinks to seduce women with a poem, and wondering why he isn't on a stage, too, with such a mentality, when all his words seem dedicated to making pain.
I struggle with my own conscience, understanding that his love of lust lacks fundamental ingredients, savagery making poetry meaningless. There is no love in a rock and roll hall, or in the streets of Paterson where the prostitutes stroll, only fear and desperation, and a music made of lies and deception, layers of an onion pealing down to nothing at its core.
Easter was significant because it represented the last, best hope the band had for making it. After a full night's performance in one of the Jersey bars, we packed up and made our way across the Hudson to the Mud Club, where members of the 20-20 TV newsmagazine waited for us to record video to go with the two songs the band had recorded just after New Year's Day.
Although few of the others in the band knew it, I had always secretly wanted to become a recording studio technician, and had fiddled with tape recorders and sound equipment from when I was very young. Oddly enough, I missed the one chance I had to actually see the inside of a recording studio, because I had to stay home and study for a test at school.
Had the opportunity come earlier, I might have skipped school entirely, falling into the scene as hard as the other had, thinking in the back of my mind that I wouldn't need school if the band made it big. But since the event came after New Year's and at a point when I realized I had not part in that world, the magically event seemed less important to me.
The real fascination for me was in observing the rest of the band and its staff, each of whom suddenly felt on the very bring of fame. Joey Ramone had arranged for them to cut their demo at Electric Ladyland in Greenwich Village. Each member of the band staff walked around stunned for days after the news reached them, their eyes full of the same glaze I had seen in the eyes of LSD trippers in the 1960s.
"This is our big break," they kept muttering, none remotely considering just how much too late that break came to do any of us any good.
Rock and Roll for the most part was a young person's game. They were the only people with enough energy to survive it. Each of us had reached the point where we lacked the energy and drive to see success through to its end. We wanted the money, but not the monotony. We wanted the fame, but not the fanfare. We wanted to rock and roll life, but not the bullshit.
Tiny told me about his day at the studio and how much each of them had felt like a star, all walking into the studio fully aware that Jimi Hendrix had cut records there. It was for each of them a religious moment, one of those bitter sweet almost-made-it moments each would carry with them for the rest of their lives, to have come so close only to get turned away.
Tiny went on and on about it later, leaving no detail out about the luxurious room in which he sat and waited and listened to the band go through its various takes -- all the donuts and coffee he wanted right there at his side.
Perhaps I knew how sad this situation would seem to me, and how out of touch with that dream I would feel, watching a ritual I once craved, knowing I had moved onto some new vision none of my companions could share.
Earlier versions of the band had craved this moment, and would have fared better than this one did.
As it was, this band's two songs were mediocre at best, and the performance, poor. Jack, the drummer, couldn't keep an even beat which drove the next drummer crazy when it came time for the video. But that was still months away, and the band returned to the New Jersey rock scene as if they had indeed already made it, trusting themselves even deeper into the social scene, taking even more advantage of its women.
They gather around, punk rockers swaying to the thunder of the band, bending and shaking as if in some epileptic fit.
One girl sits along, hovering over her drink with her hair like a curtain, guaranteeing her privacy, four dollars in assorted bills and change scattered in front of her on the bar.
From time to time, she glances up and stares at her reflection, imprisoned in the mirror behind the bottles, cringing each time as if in pain. From time to time, her head turns, staring at faces on either side of her along the bar, seeming to know them, seeming to cringe over them as well.
She seems old, but she is not, merely an appearance brought on by her weariness, as if she has put up with much, struggling through some great crisis or adventure unusual for someone her age.
A long scar stretches from her left ear to her throat, something only seen when she turns her head abruptly and lets her long blonde hair shift.
Like the rockers around her, she dresses down, jeans and loose t-shirt rather than the starchy or silky disco stuff usual for this bar.
I watch her the whole night, from when we first set up the band, to when the music stops and we move to break down the equipment again, she, hovering, drinking, cringing, talking to no one, looking up when the bar lights rise as if surprised at the last call for drinks, buying two more which she drinks quickly, before rising and staggering out, one more wraith lost in the dark night.
The Shayds had three sets of steady followers, those who came with Tiny, those who came with John, and a hand full of wannabe middle class punkettes from Bloomfield. I spent a great deal of time with the last grouping, from whose male members came the band's roadcrew interns.
Tiny's women were almost too aloof to approach, so beautiful they could hardly allow themselves to speak to ordinary people in the band, or even members of the roadcrew. Although they came with Tiny (and perhaps favored him with special attention for access to the band), it was the band they were interested in and the band with whom they left when they left with anyone. They were not typical barflies, and would not suffer the typical fate barflies faced, each would eventually move on to other lives, marrying professional husbands, hiding this aspect of their past from the men they married, raising their children in the hopes they never wandered into rock and roll the way they did. Both were so poised they might have been portraits, hanging on Tiny's arms as he moved through the club, each so silent one wondered if they could speak at all. Year's later, I would run into one at my dentist's office where she worked as an assistant, she looking remarkable disturbed by seeing me, the way someone might react at seeing a ghost. Her few mumbled words claimed she was soon to be married.
John's girls (as some people called them) were two of the usual barflies, each near enough 30 to need the Shayds to fulfill their pleasures, regular party animals who took two or more of the band members home after each performance, caring little about which two. Both women were pretty, but stained with the strains of extended drug and alcohol use, each with the vapid gaze that was initially caused by drugs, but soon grew to become more and more apart of their natural expressions. Both worked as secretaries during the day and were destined to grow in weight as they grew older, though since I never saw them again after my leaving the band, I could not verify if this came about.
The last group intrigued me. None were actually old enough to drink, yet all had managed to steal, buy or borrow identification that allowed them to follow the band from bar to bar. At first, only the three girls came, but soon were joined by boys clearly interested in girls and came because the girls came, and then became band fans themselves. I remember only the names of the girls.
Maria was one of the sweetest and apparently innocent women I ever met, sneaking out from the rule of her Italian family to get a peak at a band of which her family would not have approved, and with whom she eventually did things which she dared not tell the family about.
Dot could have played a lineman on the high school football team if her school had let her, so large she loomed over many of the men in the bar we played, the unofficial protector of the group, whose relative innocence made them continual targets of every male bar maggot. She was the one I ran into again years later, whose pained expression upon leaving the Seven-Eleven still haunts me, a being with no sense of future and a handful of memories from a failed band to take to her grave.
Joy (short for Joyce) was the target of every male's affection, her bright bottle blonde-hair like a billboard advertising her availability, and though she aimed that advertisement towards the band, others responded, continually causing trouble. Since I drove her home from time to time, I knew where she lived. She originally served Jack's needs, mistaking his attention for love, when he had a half dozen women like her who he used frequently. He even indulged in other groupies in front of Joy, including Maria, creating friction between the old friends that later left scars, and worse, left both women wounded.
I actually sat up one night with Maria after Jack had gone off with some other woman. She claimed he had done it to her deliberately in order to punish her for not doing everything he had wanted the night before. In truth, he simply wanted a fresh body. I should have been studying for exams. But Maria had become so depressed that she tried to swallow a whole bottle of sleeping pills in front of me. I grabbed them from her hand, and we talked about Jack and John and Bob the whole night while sitting in my car.
But it was Joy who was particularly upset when the band decided to fire Jack in favor of a drummer who could actually play drums.
It is not the end of the world. It is just one man passing out of the picture as new men make their way in, an endless stream of character actors taking their place on this stage.
Rock and Roll. The Shayds. Jack Shyway.
These are the three things written on three sides of a pen one of the groupies gave me tonight, she telling me I needed a pen since I write all the time.
She had brought 100 pens in an attempt to express her love for the drummer of the band, and now finds few people to whom she can give them.
Yesterday, the band fired him and she doesn't know what to do. Perhaps tomorrow I'll be writing with yet another new pen, once she has figured out which one of the other band members to love. Perhaps the new drummer will strike her fancy.
Maybe tomorrow I'll write with a pen bearing her name.
Jack, of course, had no time to look at the pen when she held it out to him today, brushing her aside as if she ceased to exist. I sat up with him late into the night, he drinking three drinks to everyone of mine, moaning about how much he'll miss the band, groaning over my telling him about the girl's love.
He doesn't want to hear about her, and growls at me before I can tell him the rest, she planning to give him something more next time, something crying and wet which he can hold in his arms.
By the time we got to the Mudd Club to tape the video, the band had a new drummer, a slick-haired dandy named Saul, who was supposed to do what Ringo did in replacing Pete Best. While he could play drums better than Jack, Saul had difficulty when it came to faking the record's performance. Jack had tended to lose the beat. Pauly had complained about it back when the band was called Sleeper, and because his lack of talent showed up on the demo recording, Saul struggled to fake the part when the camera turned his way.
Everyone associated with the band but me took the Mudd Club taping as another sign that the band was on the high road towards success. Each acted the part of a star during the production, all stoned on cocaine. I wandered out onto Broadway where I settled on the center aisle park bench to watch sunrise.
Notes on the scene: April 6, 1980
We came in at night, or early morning, the stragglers still seated around the place like the living dead, some of them hanging around to be cool, others with no place else to go.
This was the famous Mud Club I had heard so much talk about, so hip most people didn't get in without providing some service to the bouncers. They let us in because the film crew said we'd cut our video here.
Not me, so much, as the band I work for, a pack of aging rock & rollers for whom this was their last shot at success. We played too many cheap gigs with too sparse audiences. Money wasn't flowing in the way John predicted when he broke up the old band and headed on his own, and the road crew (me, Rich, Tiny and Joe) took a big chunk of the nightly cash. No band on this level had a road crew this large, and if anyone decided to count the trainees, we were all in trouble.
But coming to this club gave us a distinct our music did not deserve. Even our richer groupies followed us across the Hudson, eyeing us with such admiration I had to leave or bust. No one else in the club thought much of us: just one more band from New Jersey trying to make it in New York. That was the point of every rock & roll career these days. Those bands who didn't break into the New York market, perished.
Yet for months I'd already felt the shuddering spasms of death. And this was Holy Saturday. And we had wandered here to our grave.
People wandered out as we carried our equipment in. For the first time, I glimpsed the way New York City ran its clubs: thick carpet and dark lighting, a far cry from the overly lit former discos in which we regularly played. Hell, we even played roller rinks, if management could afford us. We'd even sunk as low as to play the wedding of some friend, out of tune for most of the traditional songs we did managed to get right, booed for those we didn't. Who wanted to hear music from The Rocky Horror Picture Show as the priest waited for the groom to say "I do?"
I felt lower than low, as if I could already see us sinking deeper and deeper, playing children's birthday parties next, or worse, finding ourselves back in the garage playing for anyone who cared to stop. We weren't seventeen any more. We didn't have the energy to climb back up, even if our faces could have competed with the sweet young faces of this eras new icons. We did not attract the young the way any healthy band should have, all our groupies nearly as old was we were, dying off through marriage so that even their numbers shrank. I just didn't want to be around to witness the bitter end, when John or Maryln realized this wouldn't work.
And I was so tired!
The rock and roll life just didn't fit in well with being a serious student, and after nearly seven months of book learning by day and doing lights by night, I had just about used up what energy I had in reserve. All I really wanted to do most nights was sleep. I certainly didn't write as much as I wanted.
Perhaps I was the only member of the band who saw the decline for what it was, and perhaps only I felt depressed when we came into the club, John, and Bob, Marilyn and our new drummer, Paul, looking and acting as if they had already made it, as if they had finally reached the top of their career, glowing at the people who slunk out at the end of the night. Even the rest of the road crew acted as if we had every right to be here, and that people should have stopped and stared (none did, except to shake their heads at our audacity).
Bob had a new lover. (His old lover a shattered wreck of a woman, who clutched my arm in the games aisle at Toys R Us when I worked there, begging me to tell her where she went wrong, as if I could). This new woman belonged her, a shark from the top of the New York jet set, who mistakenly assumed some truth to Bob's boasts, thinking perhaps a video (no matter how bad) was a sign of success. I knew she would vanish the moment the band faltered, when record producers refused to consider us for anything but a not-so-golden oldies rack.
I think maybe the slumming crew of ABC's 20/20 gave us more credibility than we deserved, doing somebody a favor with this one time gig, angling shots, playing the recording John hoped would climb the charts to number one when released.
"We've got to get this right in as few takes as possible," one of the crew members said. "We didn't bring a whole lot of film."
But almost from the start, the film crew had problems. The new drummer just couldn't play as badly as the old drummer had when making the recording. He just couldn't imitate the mistakes, and had to redo the video scene by scene whenever one of these mistakes showed up.
It wore on me.
One of the rich groupies noticed me yawning and took pity on me, and approached me with a snort of coke to keep me awake, her tiny silver spoon glittering in the film lights as she stuck it under my nose.
"Here," she said. "This'll keep you awake."
Her eyes laughed, and I felt humiliated. I was always a joke among these people, who saw me nightly clutching books in the breaks, attempting to finish reading for the morning class. They did not think my method would lead me to success. They did not think much of my seeking a career as writer. They just felt sorry for me, and on this occasion, the scene, the coke or their delusion, made me need escape. I had no part in the making of their dream, only setting it up, and tearing it down later when they were done. So I wandered out to the street into the dawn, only vaguely aware that this was Easter. I found a park bench on the center island on Broadway and sat there, watching traffic loll in, watching the mad race of hurried taxis making their way downtown.
I desired coffee and sleep and got neither. I suddenly wanted to spend the rest of my life sitting where I was, doing what I was doing, copying down the impression of the light. I did not want to go back into the Mud Club. I did not want to face the false hope of fools who thought themselves so superior.
"Oh well, it's Easter, and I sit here on Broadway and 62nd Street, wondering why I'm here. The band has yet to arrive, although, their tape plays in anticipation of their lip-singing later, they going through the motions for playing the song they think will make them famous, a weird partnership of dubious merit. I'd rather sit here on this hard bench, staring at strangers and the listening to the cooing of pigeons as they peck for Sunday breakfast from the cracks in the sidewalk.
The American Bible Society displays its Easter message from the ground floor window of their building. Somehow, I find the peace of the early morning as abstract as the sign, as if this isn't earth at all, but some alien planet to which I have been transported during our crossing of the George Washington Bridge, with the homeless around me more alien than any creature I could conceive of in Science Fiction. The sun, rising over the tips of the buildings, catches on the windows of the buildings and the cars.
As with everything they do lately, the band is late for its own film debut, only Wiggy and I came on time, we wrestling the doorman to allow us in. Then, we rolled the equipment straight through the front door, over the find crimson carpet upon which the patrons had puked, and over the polished wood floors upon which they had spilled their drinks, the wheels of our cart leaving permanent marks in both as we passed. We knew the band would hear the complaints later, and we didn't care. We were too tired to care.
Now as I write in the sun, the bass player and his new girlfriend arrive, squinting to make me out as I sit on the park bench writing, me squat in the middle of the island at the center of Broadway, looking every much like a candidate for a street person as they do rock stars, me in a wrinkled t-shirt and stained jeans, they in the high fashion of the local night club scene.
Some black guy with thick wrap-around shades gives me the thumbs up and wishes me a Happy Easter. I nod and laugh and lean back to let the sun warm my face, the silence of Broadway thrilling me, making me realize how much I love New York and wish I had never left it years ago when I worked her as a messenger. I am thrilled with a world with some many ledges, where pigeons can roost in peace, where a salty air swirls around at me from the river, where eventually, the flood of metal will consume me with their fumes.
Easter is rising above me and the night is passing, and I am alive to see both, perched on my park bench at 62nd and Broadway.
They say people get into Rock and Roll for the sex and the drugs, and that love of music comes later.
Not so with me.
So when I saw the band slowly evolving into little more than a pack of lounge lizards I thought of getting out, but I didn't make a move to leave until I realized that I was rapidly becoming just like them, catching a disease I had until then only observed in others.
I had thought myself so invisible that I could move between the actors of this vast farce and remain unmoved by the experience. But I kept finding elements of startling reality in the middle of the comic drama. In a club in Hillside, I found a poor artist who had become a local legend, growing very popular with the girls when he sought to draw them for the heroines of a comic book he was trying to sell. Yet I found him as lonely in his own right as I was in mine.
He's the image and portrait of me. Oh not so much a I am now, but how I was.
I watch him at the bar, a cool match scratching out in pencil what his eyes see.
The band is a playing a bar in Hillside.
"Sometimes," he says later to me after the barstool model is gone and the picture is locked away in his cardboard vault with the rest of his drawings, "I see better with my fingers than I do with my eyes."
This is, of course, an exaggeration, since he is constantly looking at things, gauging form and feature as people stumble in and out of the bar.
While beautiful girls tend to seek him out to have him draw them, most of the time he sits alone, scared like I'm scared, shivering inside with the impact of his own desire.
He lives with the same fantasy as I do.
"The less sex you have the more you think about it," he tells me.
A blonde bombshell barmaid streams up past the line of men at the bar, each man's head turning to take her in, each head but his.
"She doesn't pay attention to me," he whispers. "She thinks she's looking for a good man, but she wants some jerk who will tell her lies, and make her feel good tonight. She goes through them like candy, one jerk a night, complaining about them the next day as if somebody else was responsible. But all those men are ghosts. They're so two dimensional I can't even draw them, and yet when I'm home in bed, I think of what they're doing, and curse them. And the women I dream about them. I see them as museum statues coming to life to wrap their arms around me. Only in the dream, they never let me go. I find myself waking up in the morning, holding my own pillow over my face."
Then, while we're talking, another pretty girl comes over, stops before him at the bar, grins a little shyly and asks: "Are you really an artists?"
And when he says, "Yes," the girl asks, "Would you draw me?"
And with a glance at me and a deep sigh, he grabs his notebook again and his pens, and nods for the girl to take a seat.
I began to grow attracted to the women who hung around the band or the bars where the bands played, a dreadful mistake for someone with aspirations for higher art. I did not fit the Paris ideal of artist and writer who needed a steady stream of women to my bed in order to create. In fact, the women who came and went began to distract me from my writing and my studies at school. Early on, women mostly ignored me as a significant target of affection, something that I should have accepted as a good thing, instead I was crushed.
It doesn't take much, just a smile and a wink and it's all over, and the tattered stitches of my heart are left on the floor for the sweeper.
You step through the crowd, casting your smiles aside like confetti, ending up in his arms, not mine.
I am the frayed cuff that showed from under a new suit jacket, the tattered sleeve disguised, learning to bow out gracefully as your attention wanders elsewhere after days of making me promises. Outside, winter howls, the wind whipping at the windows like a beast.
I walk with an imaginary limp, a movie monster condemned to a bell tower, with affections unrealized, beating out my revenge at the sound board, as if I was creating the music with my fingers on the buttons, not the amplified musicians.
I want her to turn, to look at me, but I know I am history to her, a season passed, a place now thickly lost under ice, as she skates on, looking for new realities, and new men with whom she can make love.
I found myself envious of the men capable of action, the way T.S. Eliot was of the men in short sleeves, in his poem "Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." Only instead of counting my life out in tea spoons, I was counting them out in swizzle sticks as my drinking increased.
Only the drunks think a barroom pretty, or find any logic its mirrors and glass. To me, it is a place of mysterious reason and undefined action, where even noble causes find pause.
She stands at the phone and smiles, and we, like bowling pins at the bar, grin back, she seeming like such an innocent thing to us.
Tiny says hello, and she reaches out.
I make some dubiously clever remark and she slaps me lightly across my cheek. I mockingly fall off my stool.
And just as surprisingly, she suddenly falls into Tiny's arms. He does not struggle.
"It wasn't that kind of situation," he tells me later.
The barmaid leans over the drinks to whisper in my hear.
"She's a little underage," she says. "She's also a nymph."
Tiny grins like a hog dressed for a slaughter he is yet unaware of, having heard nothing of what the barmaid said.
"What is she doing here?" I ask the barmaid.
"The owner has a thing for her," the barmaid says, looking over her shoulder for some sign of that bearded face. "He takes her upstairs when no one else is around."
I watch the girl in Tiny's arms as she squiggles and squeals, slithering like a snake joyous in its mud. Tiny clearly intends to take her home.
I tap his shoulder, and he shakes me off, as if a fly. I tap again and tilt my head towards the men's room, mouthing off the words, "We have to talk."
"Okay," he says, "I'll meet you there."
I stagger off my stool, too many beers settling into my legs as I slosh my way towards the door marked men. I wait, and wait, and when he doesn't come, I empty my blatter and return to find him gone, his space empty of its glass, the bar already wiped clean, with only the ghostly rings to say he had been there.
The barmaid looks up, smiles sadly, shakes her head.
"Give me another beer," I say.
At times, when the noose of that life began to close around my neck, I still struggled against what was rapidly becoming the inevitable, my ethics still making me reject what most men saw as a perfect opportunities.
Even with the wedding band on her finger and the name of her husband fresh on her tongue, she called me her saving light. No one saw us in the corner of the bar, tucked behind the covered pool tables, me writing, she talking, and the band playing on and one.
I didn't know what she wanted. She didn't fit into my private reality. I wanted to be cold to her, yet maintaining some hope of warmth. I didn't want her to dislike me, just for her to find someone else to bed down with for the night.
She kept asking the same questions over and over again. I didn't know I had the answers inside of me. I couldn't see the
loneliness dripping from her eyes, me sparkling in each prepared tear, her hand rising and falling from the bared swell of her breasts, dragging my gaze with each movement. I didn't know until her arms hung around me like some wreath of pleasant smelling flowers that she saw me as the winner of some horse race I hadn't know I had entered.
"I'm sorry," I said, removing her arms from around me. "I'm not a player."
"But you're here in the club?"
I wanted to tell her that I only worked here, that I didn't want to get mixed up with the hard-on heart-breaks I'd seen all around me for months, men and women in a dance of doom and loneliness. "I'm trying to be an island," I said.
"You know, like what Donne said?"
Her frown deepened.
"Never mind," I said, knowing I could not explain without her getting confused or insulted.
She had showed me the picture of her son, the child's face looking up at me from the bar, his edges seeped in beer. How could I tell that kid that her mother had seduced me in a cheap bar in Wayne, a place the cops called slimy for the kind of characters that hung out here.
"Look," I said, and stood, and stared down at her. "I know you're lonely, and horny. So am I. But you're married, too." "But my husband understands," she said.
"I'm sure he does," I said. "But I'm the one I'm worried about here."
Then -- like the horny fool I've always been -- I walked away.
Later, it became less and less easy to remain outside the orbit of that social life, as people began to pressure me, both with jests and with anger. At times, I was seen as being superior. At other times, women claimed I had teased them. It was a weird reversal for a man who had spent most of the 1970s as a social recluse.
She came again tonight to sit and stare at me, drumming her fingers on the table while pretending I'm unimportant to her.
I told her several times I could never love her, but she doesn't believe me. She wants something from me I cannot give, images of house and home and family that are not in me.
Each time I meet her, I tell her less and less gently how I feel, but she persists, following me from club to club, calling me at home, leaving me notes on my car.
Tonight, I came to understand she will not give up, badgering me into accepting her when love won't work.
So I walked up to her table, stared down into her face and told her, "Go away."
And she, hurt more deeply than any I've hurt before, told me I led her on.
"How? By refusing to take you to bed?" I asked.
And then, she staring straight into my eyes said: "How big an ego you must have."
I had no answer for that, nor could calculate the new angle at which she came at me.
So the rest of the night, she still stared, but instead of gaze full of love, it is full of hate.
She doesn't understand my need to survive alone, free of distractions, of too easy attractions, of the temporary satisfactions, of something I will be sorry I got involved in later, the doors of a trap from which I will expend time and energy seeking to escape.
She never will understand.
I became haunted with desire, at school during the day, in the rock clubs at night, and yet, so screwed up had I become by conflicted ethics, I didn't know what do make of myself when the time came to actually perform. This was made most evident when one of the groupies, Joy, decided to kidnap me to Kennelworth, after the performance one night.
We were in the club, just after the second set with the usual weekend squabbles ongoing, groupies arguing among themselves as to which one of them would take which band member home after the show, and whether work the next morning was more important. Some wanted to go home, others wanted to stay, but those wishing to go home did not trust those who wanted to stay, so wanted everyone to go home, and those who opted to stay, refused to leave, seeing their chances of scoring increased by the reduction in competition.
Janet asked me for a favor, making me cringe. She was on the hunt for the drummer, and he didn't want her. Last week, she had come in decked out and ready to take him outside, when he conveniently said his wife wanted him home.
Normally, Jack's not so shy, but something about Janet disturbed him. Maybe she wanted more than the usual one-night stand. Usually, Jack promised to leave his wife as an edge to getting a girl in bed, with Janet, he said his wife would never let him go.
She wanted to stay until the last set, in order to spin yet another web in which to ensnare Jack, but most of her friends were leaving, and she needed me to drive her hope if her plans failed again.
I shrugged and told her I didn't care, as long as she didn't mind riding with the equipment.
Hours later, she stood alone as I packed the last of the band's equipment into the van and closed the door, motioning her to climb up into the passenger seat. When seated, she stared straight out the windshield. It had drizzled, leaving dots of moisture on the glass. The shadow of these showed on her face, making her look at if she had cried. But her jaw was set, telling me she was angry. I didn't want to disturb her except I needed to know where she lived, in order to drop her off before I took the van back to the garage.
"Head for the Parkway," she told me finally.
"North or south?"
She paused for a moment, took a deep breath, and then said, "South."
Four exits later, I began to suspect something.
"Where exactly do you live?" I asked.
"I'll tell you when we get there," she said.
"Look, I don't mind doing you a favor," I said. "But it is late, and I really don't have time for any kind of games..."
She looked at me for the first time, and for the first time I noticed the veil of indifference had lifted from her eyes. Her anger and pain shook me.
"All right," I said. "Let me know when you want me to get off the parkway."
Ten minutes later, she pointed me to an exit and we rolled off, the van struggling under the weight of its $25,000 worth of equipment.
"There," she said, suddenly, "pull in there."
I turned the van sharply into the driveway she'd indicated. It led to a Holiday Inn.
"You can't tell me you live here," I said, when the van had stopped.
"Get us a room," she said, her voice low, and cold.
Perhaps I was a little slow, but I was beginning to get the idea. "I can't just leave the equipment out here like this," I said.
"Get us a room," she said, this time more sharply.
The desk clerk asked no questions, just handed me a key, yawned and returned to reading his Time Magazine. Once inside the room, I turned to Janet and demanded she tell me what was going on.
She smiled -- still coldly -- then removed her jacket, letting it slide from her shoulders to the floor. She struggled a little to undo the zipper of her dress, then frowned when she saw me heading away from her to the bathroom. "Hey! Where are you going?"
"I'll be out in a little while," I said.
Two hours later, when I poked my nose out of the slightly opened door, I found her lying on the bed, still half dressed, quite asleep, clearly having cried, but not over me.
Then, the unfortunate occurred. I found myself taking home a cheap barfly, who clung to my arm at one of the dives the band had sunk to playing. I had been to the bar previously with my best friend Hank, and knew of the places notorious reputation. The Wayne police visited often, dragging out the bodies from the regular Friday night bar fights. It was a gathering place of red necks and white trash, bikers and bullies of all sorts.
The Mountainside Inn is full of horror stories for me, and now it has one more.
I went over the edge last night, too many bouts with the go‑go bar in Passaic, and dancers who liked to tease me.
When the bar fly here smiled, I smiled back.
Tiny thought I was crazy, telling me she's just another skanky girl from whom I'm going to catch something dreadful.
But I was tired of playing the role of priest, walking through a campus loaded with pretty women, diverting my gaze to keep from staring too hard at their breasts or their lips. I made a point of avoiding interaction on campus where some girls gave their hearts away too easily, and where some, not at all, and some like Sue Merchant or Teri Mates were positively dangerous.
And perhaps this girl on this night at Mountainside Inn was just as dangerous. At least here smile was, drawing me in, making me ache to my bones to have her.
I bought her a drink, and then, later, when the band finished, took her home to Passaic, she and I moaning and groaning until dawn, me releasing all I had saved from the previous months alone, uninspired, desperate.
I just wanted this one night stand and for the girl to go away, cringing in the morning when I drove her back to East Rutherford where she lived with her parents, cringing when she looked at me and said "I love you."
That morning, driving her home, I realized my mistake. While her loneliness was as acute as mine, she had tried to cure hers with many more partners and found only emptiness as a result. I decided never to see her again, and later learned, that she under the legal age, which made me feel even worse.
So I stopped at the nearest public telephone, dialed John's number and told him I quit the band. His sleepy voice seemed shocked, but in truth they no longer needed me. The band's roadies had roadies, and those roadies had roadies of their own. After months of weariness, I looked forward to going home to bed, alone, and not having to wake up in a panic to get to the next rock and roll club.
At long last, I saw an end to the rock and roll weariness.
Well, I quit the band.
That is until they come to me with their problems.
"You know we need someone to be there, Al," they'll said.
What they mean is that they need someone to care when the world crumbles beneath their feet, someone who will hold everything together for them so they can keep on acting as irresponsibily as they have been.
But what can a poor fool like me do when I get caught up in the fevor, too, when after all this time, after all those gigs, I lose control?
I've worked as sound man, light man, roadie and band psychologist for a decade or more and now need someone to tell my troubles, too, about the women I've met and gone off with, and how cheap I feel for the experience.
Lust doesn't last.