The Lunch Break

Back in the seventies, shortly after Sidney Gelb sold his music store we three, Kevin Jarvis, Henry White and myself were caught up in the hirsuteness of the day. Kevin had longish hair and a mustache, I had long hair and a trimmed beard and Henry, he of the red locks, had a trimmed beard and longish hair too.
Kevin and I went to hair stylists which were legion back in those days but Henry used one of the razor combs you can get that allow you to trim your own hair.
We were truckin,’ as they say… up to date….in Style!

On this particular day, both Henry and Kevin decided to take lunch at the same time. Kevin had an errand to run and Henry wanted to go home and eat and had it in mind to give himself a trim while he was there. It was a quiet day so I didn’t mind.

I guess I was looking at a catalog or something when Henry came back from lunch and breezed through the door. I remember I didn’t even glance up and didn’t give a thought to him going behind the counter to stand behind me.
But his silence was off putting so I looked up…

He looked like a Parris Island boot! All of his beautifully maintained hair was Gone!

He stood there with an abashed grin on his face. I was momentarily speechless. But only momentarily…

“Don’t say a word,” I said, “Kevin will be back shortly and you can tell us both at once.”

Almost on cue, Kevin came in and he too was momentarily speechless. So then we heard the tale, which is now legend.

It turns out, what had happened was that when Henry went home he had decided to take a shower. While in the shower he decided to put his razor comb to use. This was something he normally did when his hair was dry.

Welllll…. instead of a trim the razor comb took a chunk of hair and, panicking, Henry tried to even it up by eye to no avail. Finally he went to a rescue barber he knew who took one look at him and shook his head. “Abandon all hope.” said he… And he gave Henry a burrcut that would have made any drill instructor proud.

All three of us taught guitar so poor Henry got the dubious pleasure of having to relate his tale of woe to maybe twenty wide eyed little guitar pickers…
He got his story down pat and stuck to it.

After that incident it was years before he let anything sharp touch a hair on his head.

Book My Band II~Da Blooze Bands

Another segment of a project The Rise and Fall of a Saloon In The Latter Part off The Twentieth Century. These excerpts are not chronological. In fact very little logic prevails…

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As I said in other missives, it got so blues bands just didn’t cut it at The Bar.

There were, of course, certain blues bands The Mark Ford Band, for one that did do well, or Mark’s second band The Blue Meanies. But that was largely due to Mark’s charm and his ability to make people get up and move.  He played good harmonica and perhaps his voice might have been a bit easier to listen to… his was more of a tenor but I’m not really sure that was it.
 Some bands, like Stu Blank and His Nasty Habits depended heavily on the blues format although Stu did not feature a harmonica in his ever changing band lineup.  But he, too, got people to get up and dance.  Stu’s music was almost perfect as an example of a great saloon band with his earthy delivery. 

 Here are things we all know.  Blues is an art form.  A genre.  It is stylized, rooted in the music of slaves developed and refined over the years and is largely done in a twelve bar format.   We know all that.

I don’t want to get into a deep discussion of blues music here because I really don’t know that much about it and it would serve no purpose in this narrative.  I had a mild dislike for blues because so many blues bands strove for ‘authenticity’ and in so doing tended to sound a lot alike.  Some seemed to go on forever in the heavily accented “BUNK-ka BUNK-ka two-four beat while a singer rehashed how bad it was to get up in the morning or complain because he’s on drugs or his woman left him etc. etc.

One of my friends, K.J., was a legendary local guitarist and owner of a successful music store.  He liked playing blues occasionally in a mixed set list but refused to let his bands play slow blues.
 I found out why when I recently overheard him talking to another guitar playing friend at a local club as they listened to the band play.  The leader called for a slow blues and K.J. turned to his friend and said:
“They really shouldn’t do a slow blues because, first of all the song’s tempo will be so slow that musicians like to do musical masturbation over it…………show off.
 It takes so long to finish the 12 bars anyway but then soloists will often be so taken by their own playing they’ll want to go again and perhaps even again.
 Simple math dictates that what should be a five minute song will now obviously stretch to about 10 minutes, which is too long to listen to…I mean Jeeze, enough already.”
K.J. went on.   “Look.  These guys are playin’ a little amped so I’ll say nine minutes…  They’ll finish in nine minutes.”
So the two friends bet the next round on it.
The band finished the song at 8:55.  Close enough for KJ to get his drink bought on that issue.
 

Even that would be tolerable except for the main thing and that was that blues bands just flat did not draw a crowd at The Bar.
No crowd, no money.  Simple.  It’s a business…

Still, you had to find a way to sort it all out.
In the modern world, with computers social sites and websites, most bands with any self-respect have a URL address that will take you to pictures, biographies and often have music clips or even video clips of the band in action.  A smart live music saloon has a website in today’s world featuring a constantly updating band calendar.
 In the seventies and eighties this magic was not available or widespread as today’s web is…
 
Some blues bands had demo tapes. 
Most did not. 
Some blues bands had promo pictures. 
Most did not. 
Some blues bands had mailing lists. 
Most did not. 
It sometimes seemed that they thought that just getting onstage would bring in the bucks and the babes through osmosis or some other magical voodoo. Or because they were more ‘authentic’…

I keep going back to the core reason for booking bands. 
You play to the women!

Women like to dance.  They want groove and they want some tempo and they want some variety.  Get the ladies having a good time in a saloon and the male money will follow shortly. 

The boys and girls want to engage in The Mating Dance and that is more fun with more people.  More short songs are better for the Party Hearties than a few long ones because they can catch a break.  Rest up.  Schmooze a little..

But please… Make ‘em Dance.

 

When I did the band booking I had to be like Solomon and somehow be able to judge a band on the enthusiastic pitch of the Band Mouth (that being the talker for the band) as he or she yanked my sleeve begging me to ‘book my band’.
Eventually the word got out that I did not care for blues bands and avoided booking them.
I finally hit on a screening formula.

 
Let me digress a moment…

Some years later, after The Bar had gone away, I was in a bar watching a “jam” and was approached by a guy that I knew to be an exceptionally fine harmonica player.  He got right to the point.  “What do you have against harmonica players?” he asked.
“Nothing at all,” I said, “I like to hear a well played harp.  In fact I think you’re one of the best I’ve heard in a long time!”
“Then how come you wouldn’t hire harmonica players?”
So I told him about how blues bands didn’t do well at The Bar and described my screening ploy.  It was quite simple and went like this:

“Book my band” the Band Mouth would say.
“I don’t hire blues bands.  Are you a blues band?”
“No, man, we’re not a blues band!”
“Do you have a harmonica player?” I would ask putting an interested inflection in my voice.
“Yeah!  Yeah man, we do as a matter of fact!”
“You’re a blues band.  No dice.  Sorry!”

So there it was.  It is one thing to have a band that possibly features a harmonica solo once or twice a night.  It’s quite another to have the harmonica player be a Featured Instrument.

 

But lest you think I was a total wedgeass I could be talked into giving a band a try. 
Some Band Mouths were very persistent and would relentlessly pressure me to hire their bands even if it was a blues band. 

 

One guy sticks out in my mind.  I had known him for a few years. I had had no real idea he had a band in all the time I knew him.   He was a sack of a guy, going toward being fat and didn’t have any particular charisma that I could see.  He claimed to be a singer and his band “packed them in…packed them in” everywhere they played according to him.  He followed me around and nagged “Hire us and I guarantee we’ll pack ‘em in like sardines in this joint!”
“Based on what?” I asked.
“I’m a great singer!” he said. 
This was news to me because as long as I had known him I never was aware he had any musical abilities at all, certainly not as a singer.
“Do you have a demo tape?”
“Uh, no… we’re working on one but we don’t have one yet.”

So, against my better judgment, I booked them for one night the next month.
Then I had to put up with this guy stopping by every other night or so telling me “Pack ‘em in!  Like sardines!” until I was ready to throttle the bum. 

Finally the Great Night arrived. 
I had booked him on a Friday which is always the primo night for booking a group.  Friday is the Primary Hunt night for those looking to hook up with the opposite sex.  You tend to get a better house on a Friday than on a Saturday because of this.

Well, they bombed. 

The guy was unattractive to begin with and didn’t try to improve his visual by maybe dressing up a bit.  I can still see it…an old looking green tee shirt and faded blue jeans.  The band, as well as his singing voice was really unremarkable and worse of all, only twenty five or thirty people showed up.  At last call there were only ten people sitting at tables and six or seven people at the bar proper.
The next day I got a call from the guy with a list of reasons why he had no house.
It was a fairly impressive list but none of the reasons cited made much sense.  He even tried to tell me he was coming down with a cold although he hadn’t mentioned it the night before.
He asked for a rebook to show me he and his band could really pack them in.
“I think not.” said I.  “Let me give you a word of advice.”
‘What’s that?”
“Next time you go to ‘pack them in like sardines’ ..Use a smaller can.”

 
Then there was the blues guy we shall call Johnny Norbert (not his real name).  Another one of those guys who was relentless in his efforts to book his blues band.  He had played The Bar once before to a mediocre house but he claimed his following had improved.
So, after much pressure and nagging,  I booked him.
He wanted me to book him as Johnny “Harmonica” Norbert but I refused on the basis that I had heard him play and I had heard others play harmonica and to my ear his skill level did not strike me as befitting such a billing.
So we booked him as the Johnny Norbert Blues Band.

We not only got a lame house but the guy’s singing was off.
The next day he called and wondered what I thought.  I told him.  “You need singing lessons.”
Remarkably I saw this guy some ten years after The Bar closed.  He told me that was the best advice he’d ever gotten and he had acted on it.  Big improvement.
Still, I don’t think anyone ever booked him as “Harmonica Johnny Norbert” though.

 
Did I miss some good opportunities?  Probably.  But sometimes even seasoned performers bringing in some of the hottest hired guns of the local music scene couldn’t get a house as a blues band. 

The late Vala Cupp and some of her bandmates come to mind… She was a beautiful lady with great legs and a great blues voice.  She brought in some mighty fine musicians with her but the crowds were up and down even with her great combinations. 
She was the first person I called if a band cancelled on me.  She would get on the phone and bring in the best musicians she could find and she would deliver for me but book a night under her own name and we’d seldom get even half a house most times.

 

It’s a tough life, particularly for the bands on the circuit reaching for the brass ring….

 

“If you have to tell people how cool you is…
  You ain’t…”
The Write Down Book

From The Bar ~ Book My Band

Another segment of a project The Rise and Fall of a Saloon In The Latter Part off The Twentieth Century. These excerpts are not chronological. In fact very little logic prevails…

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Book My Band Part One  ~ Conception and Birth

Most bands start out as a bunch of friends gathering at each other’s houses and learning (hopefully) how to play their instruments.  Sometimes this is done via music lessons but that is the rarity.  A large percentage of these formative bands are started by groups of friends with just a marginal understanding of their instrument.

This level of band is called the ‘garage band’, a name gained by the fact that most of the gatherings were banned to the garage by the parents who owned the garage.
Most garage bands and their musicians are inspired by some current popular group.  The classic example of this is how so many young men had no idea they even wanted to play guitar until they saw The Beatles on the Ed Sullivan Show.  Suddenly millions of hormonally stoked youth saw themselves as being on the receiving end of money fame and, most importantly, groupies.

They also found soon enough that you don’t get much fame, money or groupies in a garage.
It was thought that they must make The Record

And to make The Record they needed to become, if not Famous, at least very well known.  And one of the ways they gain notoriety is to “Play Out” and hopefully get paid.  And get groupies so they might get laid in the process…
Critical decisions had to be made.   A band name must be chosen and it must be a name that evoked some kind of imagery.  Only then could they have cards printed and when they had cards printed they were officially a band.  Cards trump musicianship.  Cards gave Identity.

They played parties, usually for free.  They played any event that would have them.  In the latter part of the twentieth century there were even things called “Battle Of The Bands” often sponsored by musical instrument manufacturers and were usually well attended, if noisesome, events where bands competed usually for the prize of a “record contract”.  It is uncertain whether these contracts ever produced a record  however…
For the most part the settings they played for didn’t pay at all.
To get paid they needed to build a repertoire, a list of songs that everyone in the band could play reasonably well for four hours.

Why?

So they could Play Out in local Saloons and Make Money and get Famous.

In the latter part of the twentieth century there were indeed local saloons that would pay bands to play for their patrons.
There was something like a multi leveled circuit of bars and saloons that depended on and, in some cases, exploited the small musical groups looking to get ahead.

The entry level bars had the bands playing in a corner, usually cramped, with no visible stage and no in-house sound system.  These joints usually cited ‘experience’ as the best pay they offered with some vague hint at ‘maybe later on’ paying something.   There never seemed to be an end to bands who would sign on to such venues.  This was exploitation of course because the “maybe later on”  promise of more money never materializes in that kind of venue.

But it served to winnow out some of the worse bands.  Quickly, too!

As time went on and the surviving bands gained some following they would graduate to venues like The Bar that actually paid money.  A good band could do fairly well playing the local circuit of saloons like The Bar that actually had a stage and a real dance floor.  They played saloons like The Bar as more or less bread and butter as they set their sights on the next level, the large stage and road shows.  Those venues often had them again playing for free (or close to it) as ‘opening acts’ for the ‘headliners’ and eventually being a ‘headliner’ themselves.
Getting to this level increased the Fame factor and usually made getting The Record more attainable.
But that’s not what this is about.  This is about one of the bars on the circiut…

The Bar was a very good room for music.   They had overhead stage lights, a fourteen channel sound system, good microphones, monitors, a rock steady stage and a parquet dance floor.  The Bar was better suited for live music than most of its competitors.  The Bar charged a cover on weekends and if a band was a good draw everyone made money.

There were some bands that seemed to have been around forever and saw frequent bookings… bands like Stu Blank and His Nasty Habits, Back In The Saddle, Mark Ford Band, Merlin, Uncle Rainbow, Daddy-O,  Chuck Wagon and The Wheels… most of those bands are just dusty names now but there was a time when those bands would just fill The Bar with happy folks on the strength of their name alone.

However the bands  starting out did not have the name impact.   Nor does a new band have a real  following. 

To build up a following what some of them would do was to create a mailing list where they would take the name and address of their ‘fans’ and send monthly notices of where they were playing.  Saloons did this too and sending such notices by US Post Office could be an expensive proposition.

Nowadays, of course a band will have a website with pictures of the musicians (still looking sullen and unhappy).  They will have audio clips and some will also have links to YouTube usually showing the band at a live venue sounding terrible along with being badly photographed.  Perhaps this is why many of the bands look so sullen.  They just don’t sound good and they know it.   A little smoke here… a mirror or two there.

So we have our former garage band with cards, repertoire and mailing list ready to go big time and hit the local club circuit…

Now all they needed to do was to get hired by the paying venues.

Book My Band Part Two ~ Sparkle

The section “From the Bar ~ Make ‘Em Dance” makes the following claims:

 A successful live music saloon is successful only if they can attract women.
 Women, when they go out to saloons, fully intend to be entertained and I think it’s safe to say the majority of them go because they want to Dance.

If a band could not deliver the Dancers, as a rule they were not booked more than once.

From the Saloon’s standpoint there was no shortage of new bands to choose from.  All of them had freshly printed business cards with clever names.  Some had 8 x 10 glossy photos of the band members all in a row looking stylishly sullen.  Why bands think a photo of a line of sullen, largely unhandsome men is attractive to the public deserves further study but I’ll leave that to others.
Some bands even had a demo cassette.

Ideally the best way to audition a band would be to see it at a competing venue.  This was not always possible and sometimes  all The Bar had to go on was word of mouth or a demo cassette and an occasional 8 x 10 photo.  A pursuasive “manager” or band spokesperson could be valuable too.  As indicated, a demo cassette was of value.

The Rule for a band is if you make any kind of demo tape is to lead off with your best song.  This is because the person booking the bands is not going to listen to the whole tape.  Some bands were clever enough to blend a series of partial songs to give the booking person an idea of what they had to offer but long demo tapes seldom got a full hearing.

What the band booker finds is that unknown bands tend to have a sameness in their sound and this works against them.  This sameness is usually because, when they built their repertoire, they didn’t strive for Sparkle… the indefinable thing that makes a band stand out.

The bands that got a lot of work were distinctly different.  Sometimes it is one or two members who were really superb musicians.  Sometimes it was a person of uncommon beauty or voice.  Sometimes it was the simple but effective method called “rehearsal” where the bands would get together and focus on Really Sounding Good.  Rehearsals are not fun and a lot of work which may be why many bands withered and died.  But a well rehearsed band had a bit more polish, more Sparkle than the bands constantly ‘winging it’. 

What we have established is that to get steady club work you have to have a band that made people move on that dance floor.

But to get multiple bookings the band had to have Sparkle either in their music or their presentation or both.

The Bar booked primarily rock and roll because that’s what the customers (read ‘women’) wanted.  There were some country flavored bands that did remarkably well but those country bands that did well were definitely closer to the infinitely more danceable Western Swing than they were to the Johnny Cash/Merle Haggard format.

Even the tried and true bands did not hit big at every booking.  It was discovered that you could not book the same band on a Friday and Saturday back to back and expect good revenues on both nights.  Also booking a band more than once a month was risky largely because the bands were only locally famous.  Not even the most loyal fan could afford to attend every venue their favorite band played.  There are only so many times anyone would pay money to hear the same local band play the same set list they did last time.  Having to listen to “Proud Mary” done more than once a month by someone not Creedence Clearwater Revival could be a strain.

Another factor was that a band that did very well at other venues, particularly the Other Place, did not always do well at The Bar .

So they had to try new bands from time to time to fill in the gaps and hope to stumble on the Next New Hot Band.   This was a risky business because a band that did not draw was a liability and few bands were a sure thing.
 
T.O. once said it took $700.00 in the register to cover the expenses on any given Band Night.  This was in the day when a premium drink sold for 1.85 and the cover charge averaged 3.00.
So the pressure was on to make the new bands bring in a house… have their following come to The Bar and make enough of an impression at the register and at the door to get at least one more booking.
The Bar needed to make money and it was up to the bands to bring in the crowds…

Book My Band Part 3 ~ Payday

There is a long tradition that is a never ending point of contention between musical acts or bands and saloons.  And of course it involved money.

Most saloons and most bands at that level in the circiut were non-union.  Had they been unionized things would have been pretty straightforward.  The house would pay (and the band would accept) whatever prevailing union scale was with the rare exception of the band being a guaranteed high draw which would allow them to demand more.
Since The Bar was a saloon that did not subscribe to union hire the two factions, Band vs. House (“House” in this case being The Bar) would be at odds, each faction trying to get the best deal for themselves.
The house usually charged a ‘cover’ of one to three dollars a head.  There were rare bands that warranted a four dollar a head cover.  There just weren’t that many bands that could get it.

There were three different ways the house paid for musical services:

      1.  The house pays a flat rate for the band.  House keeps the cover charge fees.
      2.  The band takes no money from the house instead they take the Gate, all of the cover charge fees.
      3.  The house pays a certain amount to the band (usually about twenty dollars per member) plus a percentage (usually about thirty or forty per cent) of the door receipts.

There was an understanding that the house would provide “drink tickets” comping band members a certain number of drinks.  This could really add up figuring the rate of four tickets per bandsman if the band had any size to it.
The above listed pay rates are always decided when the booking is made, before the band comes to the club.  It is never a thing decided after the end of festivities.

All bands were expected to commence playing at 8 and stop at 12:45.  They scheduled their breaks so they either played four moderate sets or three long sets.  Breaks were up to the bands.

The Bar usually provided the sound tech and the person collecting the door charge.  Sometimes the band brought their own sound tech but if they did this The Bar did not pay for him or her.
The cover collector was usually the bouncer or what passed for a bouncer at The Bar.  Being we had so little in the way of truly problem customers the bouncers were generally pretty genial people.

Ideally, from the house standpoint, the door fees would be such as to cover the doorman, sound engineer and the band.  On a really good night the door could actually cover all of these expenses.

This seldom happened of course, but it was a nice idea.

Very important was the factor of “draw.” ‘Draw’ is the band’s ability to attract a house on name alone.
The other factor was, of course, advertising.

Bands were expected to have a following.  The bigger the following the more negotiating power the band had, they were expected to notify their fan base when and where they were to be playing

The saloons were expected to put the world on notice who they had upcoming also.
The Bar had a ‘band board’ that had an easy to read list of who was playing that week.    This board was visible from any point of the room and had the weekly band roster there for all to see.  In fact, it was posted at the hallway that held the rest rooms.  If you had to go pee you saw the band listings.
They also saw to it that The Bar’s musical offerings were listed in what free local print media and newspaper listings that were available.  The Bar had a good sized mailing list and printed flyers to put on the tables and available at the door.

Neither faction, house nor band, ever thought the other did as much as they could or should to bring in a good house.

There is one ongoing argument between bar owners and band leaders that contiues to this day…

“You don’t advertise enough…”

The music business at the saloon level was a hard, hungry life…

That’s the way it was…

And I’m sure that’s the way it still is…

A musical interlude~ ‘Last Thing On My Mind’

I hate recording because it is never what I want it to be.  So damn many clams!  It’s because I don’t practice enough.

Having said that, I have friends that want to hear what I do with my spare time besides have demented fantasies filled with beautiful women and Ben and Jerry’s ice cream…

This is an old song from the sixties by Tom Paxton, I think, called “Last Thing On My Mind“.  

First time I ever heard it was by way of Doc Watson.  I looked up the lyrics about a year ago…I don’t always hear lyrics perfectly when sung, you know… and was struck by the poignancy of the refrain…

I should have loved you better

Didn’t mean to be unkind

You know that was the last thing on my mind…”

It puts me in mind of a certain lovely girl I knew, all too briefly, a long time ago.  I certainly didn’t mistreat her but I should have treated her better…

                        didn’t mean to be unkind…

                                                          that was the last thing on my mind…

I think we all have past loves that fit that train of thought…

So here’s the song, warts and all…

All mistakes are intentional….

No real musicians were harmed in the creation of this noisemaker.  Band In a Box was used with the exception of the soloist. 

We try to keep him chained up in the yard but he keeps gnawing his leg off and escaping…

last-thing

photo by http://www.sewellphotos.com/