Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Skull & Crossbones

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Nate pounds the particle board door plastered with paint and stickers.  He has a lean build, crooked teeth, and wears a skintight black shirt with leather pants.  The door pops open quickly and shuts again.  Rick, looking like a fullback in skater clothes, knocks on the door and this time it flies open with Mike leaping out of the darkness.  He has a board with a nail in it.  Mike is insane.  “WHO ARE YOU!  HAVE YOU BEEN FUCKIN’ WITH MY CAR!”  All of us run for cover behind dumpsters and around corners.  “MIKE!  IT’S US!  JUSTICE FIRE!  WE’RE SUPPOSE TA PLAY TONIGHT!”  We are a band and this is our gig.

“I don’t have shows on Wednesdays,” as Mike stalks around the alley giving us the stink eye and swinging his homemade weapon menacingly.

“”Mike!  It’s Friday.  Look at da flyer.  We’re at da top.  Justice Fire.”  Bill, the drummer, turns the ignition of his hatchback ready to ditch us.  He looks much older than he is.  The preppy clothes and worn out demeanor only makes it worse.

“Friday?” Mike throws his wooden weapon into the abyss of the Skull & Crossbones, “Com’ on in guys.  Got drinks?”  All of us look at each other with raised eyebrows.  We know Mike’s crazy as he’s done this before, but we follow him into the shadows anyway.

Mike bought this building in the 80s for nothing.  It used to be a corner grocery store, but it became vacant around 1968.  For all those years, it rotted and was broken into by squatters.  It’s unclear (even to Mike, which isn’t strange if you know him) how he became the owner of the building.  Maybe he isn’t.  But, he built a stage and ran a few electrical outlets to create a music venue dubbed the Skull & Crossbones.  All are welcome and no one cares what you do.  There have been thousands of acts that have taken this stage and a few of them went on to fame/infamy.

We find the stairs to the apartment in this black hole.  There’s a smell of various kinds of smoke and cheap beer.  It’s hard to believe anyone could live here.  The floor is knee deep in pizza boxes, newspapers, and unwashed clothes.  Mike knocks a bunch of garbage off a table and demands, “All of ya line up.”  He lifts up an old Polaroid camera and takes a shot, “Now, I have a picture of every band that’s played here.” 

“Um… ya took our picture da last few times we played,” smirks Rick the bassist, “see, we’re right there,” and he points to our pictures on the wall covered in photos of countless other bands.  The rest of the walls are blanketed in marker drawings of dragons, faces, and scribbled dirty jokes:

            “Want a joke about my cock? Nevermind, it is too long.            
            Here’s a joke about my pussy. Forget about it, you won't get it.”

He drops the newest image on the table and snorts something.  I say “something” not because I don’t necessarily know what it is, but because he has a lot of different things to snort.  “Want some?” Mike asks and we shake our heads.  “There’s some stuff in da fridge if ya want.”  On one side of the kitchen is a row of door-less cabinets containing only a few cleaning supplies.  The sink looks like it could double as a bathtub and has a plate, a medium-sized pan, one spoon, and a Bush/Quayle mug, which is all his cookware.  An extension cord runs over the sink, around the window covered with blankets and duct tape, to the toaster, coffee pot, and fridge.  I open the fridge and it’s packed with 40s and cans of “The Beast.”  The only other things in there is a half-eaten package of bologna and the largest tub of butter I’ve ever seen.  I grab a sampling of five beers and pass them around.

There’s a knock at the door and Mike sees the two other bands from the flyer outside: Exploding Turtle and The Biggs Project.  All of us head downstairs so we can start to set up.  “The closin’ band puts their stuff in da back and da openin’ act has their stuff in front ready ta go.  Middle band in da middle.  Once you’re done, put your shit in da car,” Mike explains with surprising soberness.  “Who’s closin’?” asks Erik Biggs of The Biggs Project.

“Uh…  You are,” replies Mike back to his stupor.

“What?  We’re suppose ta headline.  Look at da flyer.  We’ve been playin’ longer.  We’ll have da most fans,” blurts Nate, which leads to an argument that Justice Fire loses because of a personal friendship between Mike and Erik.  “Fuck this.  I say we leave,” says Nate feeling disrespected. 

“Hey, the cut at the door is the same.  We’re here.  And, all we’ll do is piss off our friends if we go.  Who cares who headlines as long as we don’t open,” I say trying to make sure we still cover our expenses.  Bill is still nervous and doesn’t say anything.

“Fuck Biggs.  But, lets play,” Rick says with some contemplation.  All of the gear is staged and Exploding Turtle and Justice Fire head outside.  We sit on the curb to drink and wait for people to show up.  A couple of the guys head over to a nearby gas station to buy and microwave canned ravioli for dinner.  I hand them a couple of bucks to pick me up a mixer for the show.

The lead singer of Exploding Turtle asks me, “How long have ya been playin’?”

“Not very,” I reply shyly, “I’ve been playing fer ‘bout a year now and I’m not very good.  Justice Fire was formed about six months before me.  I was asked to join ‘cause I’m good at promotin.’  I offered to manage, but they asked me ta play fer some reason.  How ‘bout yerself?”

“This is our third show.  I think we’re pretty good, but it’s hard ta book shows.  What’s it like playin’ here?”

“It’s terrible if they like ya and da worst if they don’t.  Either way, they throw beer bottles at ya like that hick bar in Blues Brothers,” which was probably not the right thing to say to a rookie of this place. 

People start to arrive.  Many of our friends hang out on the street with us while others pay their $5 cover to pre-game inside before the show.  All the guys return from the gas station and Rick throws me a 2-liter of fruit punch.  I dump out a bunch of it and replace it with some whiskey.  I take a couple shots, let it sink in, and all of us make our way to the entrance when we hear the tuning of guitars.

Mike’s at the door with a fist full of cash and a bowl.  We push through and there’s a mob of people that cram into a dimly lit room of smoke and graffiti.  Exploding Turtle is making their final adjustments on stage.  All three members look exactly alike with the same mop haircuts and hipster glasses, except the lead is fat.

“THIS SONG’S ‘BOUT A GIRL! 1-2-3!” and Exploding Turtle bursts with high octane songs in contrast to their lethargic movements.  While a few people are jumping around, they suffer from being an opening act where most circle around in their cliques or focus on getting a buzz.  A few cans and bottles are thrown in their direction, but no concussions.  “THANKS FER COMING OUT!  WE’RE EXPLODIN’ TURTLE!” and with that they unplug their equipment and take it to their vehicles.

There’s the strange silence between sets.  Just the hum of people that hang around.  Many head outside to get some fresh air in the filthy alley.  It doesn’t take much for us to set up.  Just a couple of plugs, a few more shots, and Nate pulls us together and yells, “LET’S SHOW ‘EM SOMETHIN’ THEY’VE NEVER SEEN BEFORE!”  The lights go out and the sound of an air raid siren blasts letting everyone know it’s time to come back in.  The room fills up and our cheap stage lights focus on Nate.  He has a maniacal look in his eyes as stares at the crowd.  He waves his arms inviting everyone in and the drum rolls.  I stroke the guitar as a thumping bass riff kicks in…  Then silence…  Nate crouches down into the faces closest to the stage and screams, “LET’S START A RIOT!!!”

The music is awful, but the energy is infectious.  One song after another without interruption.  Beer cans are flying through the air and Rick seems to be picking a fight with a Skinhead in the pit.  Bill is wearing his polo shirt like a Muslim headdress and gradually pours a gallon of water onto it to keep from overheating.  I mercilessly torture my guitar and have the backing vocals of a drill sergeant barking insults to a new recruit.  Nate, has his moments of brilliance and agony as he caricatures a rock star.  He struts on his tiny spot on stage hitting every note with a strange whiny accent. 

Nate steps back and picks up his guitar as I take center stage for my solo.  I lean into the mic and the power goes out...  “FUCK YOU PIGS!  YOU CAN’T DO ANYTHING!  FUCK YOU!” screams Mike from the back of the void.  A few underaged kids drinking and smoking outside ran in earlier and alerted Mike to the police. Mike killed the power with a switch by the door and placed his medieval lock system in place.  He’s done this before.  He taunts the officers screaming, “YOU CAN’T DO ANYTHING!  YOU CAN’T DO ANYTHING,” as he pauses only to take hits.  After a while, the knocks and commands outside stop and Mike sends someone upstairs to see if the cops have left.  When the guy returns so does the power and lights.

“Um…  okay…  I guess we’re still doin’ a show…” Nate says into the mic while sitting on an amp.  Mike gives a thumbs up and seems to be rocking out to music no one else hears.  We try to recollect ourselves and decide to move on to the next song on our playlist.  The restart feels like a drag until some dopey kid climbs on stage.  Everyone rushes forward when he starts to put something on people’s tongues.  Each communion is followed with the sign of the cross and shouts of, “Today’s a gift from God. That's why it's called ‘the present.’”

Nate, the showman, drops back behind Bill and a drum solo rumbles as the lights create silhouettes.  A pulsating, tribal, hypnotic beat reverberates through our chests.  A primal scream as a red glow appears on stage.  Nate emerges with a bad black wig and a torn shirt exposing a poor marker drawing of a coiled snake on his chest.  The repetitive words from his mouth are unintelligible with his faux gravel and distortion that drives the crowd mad.  Fists pumping.  Half full beer cans and bottles fill the air with aluminum, glass, and liquid that hits everything and everyone.  Stage diving into a smoky cloud of hands and faces.  It is raw emotion seething just below the skin of an angst driven people.  A one-liner song about metal bands turned into a true outlet of rage.  A barbarian mob ready to scorch earth.

The wigs come off and we mix cover songs with some of our catchier early stuff.  And, to close, Nate pulls out the acoustic “for the girls,” he half jokes before his ballad.  As he sings, the rest of us take down the gear and start to thank everyone for coming out to see us, “Hey man, thanks fer comin’ out.  ‘Preciate it.”

The lights come on and many make their way back to the alley.  Nate, amped up after the performance irately walks up to Mike, “We’ll take our money and leave now.”

“Huh?  Uh, no…  Ya have ta wait ‘til I close.  That’s when ya get da money,” replied Mike.

“Fuck that!  I wanna leave now…” and so on as Rick drags Nate’s passion outside and I try to smooth things over.  Bill still remains at a safe distance.  We can’t afford to piss off one of the few venues in town.  It’s unlikely we’ll be asked to play at a coffee shop or a wedding anytime soon.

My attention turns to the stage.  The only constant in The Biggs Project is Erik Biggs.  Every show has a different cast of musicians (or other form of actors) performing different music (or other sounds) in bizarre ways.  I “performed” with them once and we never even practiced.  That show lasted less than five minutes when the music store owner kicked us out.  Tonight, Erik took the stage by manning a child’s keyboard with a dirty hippie sitting on a brown metal folding chair.  The hippie tests the mic briefly and Erik called out “1-2-1-2-3-4!”  The keyboard squeals random notes ignoring the most basic tenants of music theory.  The hippie presses a distortion and wah-wah petals, holds the mic close to his face, and then quickly removes and blows into a harmonica generating a sound that clears the room.  Only Exploding Turtle and Justice Fire are forced to watch if we wanted our money.  Mike stood in the back near the door jamming to whatever he thought he was hearing.  The rest of us were as far from the amps as possible with earplugs or hands over our ears.  One of the Exploding Turtles is dry heaving in the bathroom and blames the noise.  No one goes into that bathroom. It is just two graffitied plywood boards in the corner creating minimal privacy for a toilet that has never been cleaned.  Seriously, Mike proudly stated, “That toilet was disgustin’ when I bought da place and I’ve never touched it.  I go ta da gas station before using that.  If someone wants ta use it that bad, let ‘em clean it.”  And, you don’t want to know what’s in the sink. 

The show ends when Mike locks the doors.  At least we don’t have to push people out afterwards.  We all head upstairs to his living quarters.  Some grab drinks as Mike counts the cash and takes hits on his coffee table.  His night is just starting.  We get our cut of about $300 (a pretty good haul) and all of us take off except Erik Biggs, who’s earning his next headliner status on that coffee table.  

Bill has all the equipment and our safe in the car.  Our safe is an old metal toolbox with a slit on top and four hinged padlock hasps.  Anyone could put money in the slit, but each member has a key to vote on all funds being removed.  We stole the idea from another band and it works well for us.  We deposit tonight’s cash that we’ll use to record an album.  Bill takes off in his tightly packed hatchback.  He’s done for the night and just wants to go home.

“Hey guys, ya wanna get somethin’ ta eat at Fiesta?” inquires Rick who’s always hungry.

“I could go fer a Burrito,” Nate says grabbing his concave stomach.

“Not me.  I’m headin’ home.” I say still a bit asthmatic from all the smoke inside. 

“Com’ on.  Don’t cha wanna have some cheap tacos ta absorb that fruit punch and whiskey?” teases Nate.  Rick was ready to go with his keys out.  They still had to drive to their houses, which is quite a drive east of here.

“Okay, see ya at practice on Tuesday,” Rick says over his shoulder walking away.  I take a seat on the curb with the last of my beer.  The street is empty, but I can hear a few guys laughing down Hobbie Avenue.  A freight train is barreling though the plains.  It was a pretty good show tonight.  There’s nothing like putting on a show.  The look in the crowd’s eye as the energy reaches the highest high and the lowest lows.  The dancing.  The chanting.  A pit and the screaming.  The release of all that is built up inside.

I brush myself off as I make my way across the street.  Somehow a cool breeze makes malt liquor taste better.  All that’s left is the backwash at the bottom.  I take one last look at the Skull & Crossbones and chuck my bottle at the building.  In an instant, it turns from a solid form into a million twinkling stars of glittering shrapnel under the streetlights.  A fitting tribute to the night.

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