Friday, May 24, 2013

Mike Flirts with Danger: The Riptide and Peroxide Incidents

By the time I was a teenager, I’d already known Mike for several years because he was the younger brother of my longtime friend, Kelly. In my mind, I sort of adopted Mike as my own little brother. Perhaps Mike wouldn’t care for that dubious honor, but I wouldn’t have felt that way about just anyone.

When you are a kid, a year makes a big difference in the social hierarchy, and Mike was “the little brother” among several of the guys in our circle. However, he deserved nothing less than equal standing among his slightly older friends. His wonderful sense of humor was more mature and sophisticated than the rest of us. He had a smooth, laid back personality, he was hilariously sarcastic, and his laugh came easily. Add to those attributes the title “exceptionally talented artist” and you have Mike. So talented, in fact, his artistic ability later earned him a highly respected career in Hollywood.

As boys get older, things change. The differences in age compress and younger friends gain equality among their peers. By the time I was a senior in high school, Mike was no longer relegated to my honarary little brother status. He became a full-fledged friend, and I hung out with him as much as I hung out with anyone. Mike and I became close enough that he would sometimes offer me his advice. One night, while we were in his garage looking at his brother Kelly’s newly acquired, begging-for-restoration 1938 Ford pickup truck, he counseled me on a girl he said I should not date.

“Why shouldn’t I go out with her?” I asked.
“She’s stuck-up,” he warned me.

Mike and his human hair safety helmet
I didn’t think she was stuck up, and if she was I didn’t care. There was more to the conversation, but that was the gist. The girl in question was Sally, and we’ve been officially hanging together since 1970. Mike was a great friend, but his advice in this matter wasn’t particularly spot on. I still get a kick out of that conversation. By the way, Mike now says he takes that statement back. I’ll give him that one.

One day, Mike and I hooked up for a trip to the beach. Gilbert was there too; it was a beautiful day. We went to Newport to check out conditions at the wedge. We flopped around in the water there for awhile, but it just wasn’t happening, so we headed up the beach a couple of miles. The wave and current conditions that day had set up riptides that were spaced about a quarter mile apart up and down the beach. They were easily noticeable, each one looking like a green, sandy river running back out to sea.

These riptides were an attractive nuisance to teen age boys looking for surfable waves. On the north side of each riptide were the best formed waves that day. Gilbert and I had come to the beach for business, so we ended up scoping out the waves right next to one of the riptides. We had our piapo boards and fins, and we wanted to ride waves. Mike showed up casual style, in his floral jams, a beach towel, and a pair of flip-flops. There was an economy of sparseness in his approach to clothing, equipment, and life situations.  That’s why I loved him; to me no one was more laid back than he was.

In short order we were in the water and heading out to the break. Gilbert and I were on our piapos and Mike was swimming out to body-surf “native” style (that has become my preferred method in recent years). Even though the surf was storm generated, and it was choppy inside, it was still an easy out. The waves weren’t very big, but they were good enough!

We were having a good time, catching a decent wave here and there. Then Mike body surfed right into the riptide we had been skirting for the last twenty minutes. The rip turned out to be pretty strong, and it had an undertow current that made it especially nasty. Mike started struggling immediately, getting swept out and pulled under simultaneously. In a panic, instinct tells us the shortest distance between two points is a straight line, and Mike started swimming a straight line to the shore. That was the wrong way to go; he was swimming against an impossible current. The way to get out of a riptide is to swim parallel to the shoreline, but instinct and intellect are often at odds when panic sets in.

Mike started yelling for help, and he was going down. We quickly headed over to help him out. Gilbert was closest to him, and got there first. He held Mike up with one arm and wrapped his other arm around his piapo board. I’m sure Gilbert was wishing his thin piapo, which had been built for speed, had had been built for buoyancy instead. Both of the guys barely had their heads above water when I got there.

“Get help!” Gilbert managed to choke out.
“You gonna be ok?” I asked, starting to panic myself.
“Just go… NOW!” Gilbert implored.

Now it was my turn to instinctively surrender to the “straight line” hypothesis. I started kicking my fins as hard as I could against the riptide to get back to shore. I could feel the current fighting against my progress, but unlike Mike, I had help from a good set of fins and the piapo board. I was able to overcome the current, and after a few minutes of intense effort I successfully struggled to shore. It seemed like it had taken an interminable length of time to get back to the beach. I was deeply winded and I struggled onto the sand with my fins on. From my knees I reached back and pulled them off. I was afraid to turn around to check on my friends, imagining I would only see empty water where Mike and Gilbert were supposed to be. I glanced up and there they were, but swiftly vanishing out to sea and really struggling to stay chin-above-water.

Without hesitation I started running up the beach toward a lifeguard tower. I was a fast runner when I was 17, but the sand, the panic, and the prior exertion made it feel like I was running in slow motion. My legs were wobbly and I was running against some unseen resisting force. It was about a hundred and fifty yards to the lifeguard tower. When I finally approached to within about twenty-five yards, the lifeguard saw me coming. I made eye contact with him and in an instant he recognized I was a messenger of trouble. He stood up, raised his binoculars, and looked past me in the direction I’d just come from. In just a couple of split seconds he grabbed his float and fins, jumped from his perch and ran past me. We never said a word to each other; action was automatic. I collapsed to my hands and knees, with my chest heaving and my lungs burning.

I rested for the shortest time I could before jogging back to my friends. When I got there the lifeguard had Mike almost out of the surf and into waist deep water. Gilbert had been left to fend for himself, which he was able to do with fins and a paipo board to float on. The life guard rolled the nylon line around his float and took off his fins.

“That green water right there is a riptide. You guys should stay out of it,” he said casually with a friendly smile.

I raised one hand halfway up in affirmation, too out of breath to speak. He trotted off to his tower. I noticed this guy wasn’t much older than we were. He was very handsome, with a square jaw, thick, blond hair cut short, a dark tan, and ripped abs. No doubt he was hired by a Hollywood casting director.

Mike and Gilbert both slogged onto the sand as far as the point where the waves rolled up and receded. They collapsed and rolled onto their backs looking at the blue sky.  Gilbert put his arm over his eyes to shield them from the sun. I was standing with my hands on my knees. No one talked for awhile. I broke the silence.

“Shit, Mike!”
“Yeah, I know.”

Half a minute passed and Mike, still looking at the sky from his back said “my life passed before my eyes.”

A few seconds later we all broke into laughter. We went back in for a few more rides that afternoon, but we stayed away from the riptide – mostly.


How can anything be better than skateboarding in leisurely circles around the driveway, on a beautiful southern California summer afternoon? That’s exactly what Mike, Gilbert, and I were doing until I suggested we go skate around in the Covina hills. I said it would be more exciting to play with gravity than skating on that flat, driveway. We piled into my dad’s barf green ’61 Corvair and headed for the hills.

We ended up in a brand new sub-division carved from the undulating hillsides. Everyone had brand new immaculate lawns and landscaping. The sidewalks were smooth, and the roads were steep. This was going to be fun!

We drove around a bit until we found what looked like a great hill to ride. It was pretty steep all the way down, and it had a nice serpentine curve to the left and then to the right. At that time of day there wasn’t any traffic to run us down. That was a bonus.

Today, skateboarders like my grandson, “bomb” hills on their longboards. It is a science and an established sport. The practice is known as "downhill." We casually called it “bombing down hills.” I guess it took forty some odd years to for the term to devolve down to one word. But the actual activity is different as well. What we did was try to slalom down a hill of moderate grade. The riders today go straight down steep hills acquiring great speed on the way. It’s fun and it’s dangerous. Their equipment makes it all possible. The state of the art for us was the Hobie Skateboard. It was much smaller and had a very narrow wheelbase compared to today’s longboards. The Hobie was too unstable at speed to bomb a hill. They would wobble and then you would lose control. So, as I mentioned, our approach was to slalom down the hill, picking up speed on the downhill turn, then slowing down on the cross-street run. By precisely executing this method, one could stay in control all the way to the bottom of the hill.

And that was the unspoken plan among the three of us that day, or so I thought.

With asphalt and concrete being hard and rough on the human body, one should wear the proper attire when participating in any street sport. Following this maxim, Gilbert and I were wearing tee-shirts, jeans, and canvas topped deck shoes (the precursor to today’s popular skateboarding shoes, Vans). That was the total of our safety gear. Owing to the warm summer weather, Mike had shunned any formal attire and showed up in casual dress: a pair of red Covina High School gym trunks and a suntan. That was it. No shirt. No shoes. He did have a great, bushy head of hair that might cushion his cranium, should a fall happen to occur. He was the consummate California kid.

I started my run first. I cut across the street and turned downhill for my first turn. “Whoa!” The acceleration was unexpected. The street was really steep! It freaked me out and I almost didn’t make it out of the bottom of the turn, but somehow I did. I was able to slow down and make my next cut across the street. I could hear Gilbert’s wheels grinding on the pavement above me; he was coming now. Starting the next turn, I was nervous from the previous one. The incline was a bit steeper now, and my speed increased so fast I just freaked out and lost control. I didn’t make it halfway through the turn before I hit the curb and wiped out on someone’s grass strip.

Gilbert was keeping it under control, making tighter turns, and making his tacks across the street at less of an incline. Smart! He made his second turn a few feet uphill above my failed attempt and headed across the street. The steepness got to Gilbert on the next turn. He got his board facing downhill and couldn’t control the wobble. He jumped off his board, ran a few steps on the pavement and rolled on to the grass as I had done. It was obvious the hill we chose was too steep.

No sooner did Gilbert recover and we heard Mike yelling in terror, “Ahhhhhhhh!” We looked up to see Mike, barefooted, bare-chested, gym shorts flapping, bombing the hill. He was coming straight down the grade and he was breaking all land speed records in the near-naked novice class. Before our eyes his speed continued to increase. I imagined smoke coming off his wheels, and pre-warp speed color shift as he accelerated beyond the speed of light. We could see that something awesome and unprecedented was about to happen!

Inevitably Mike’s board started to wobble. In less than a second he was fully out of control. His board shot out from under him in one direction and he went down on the hard asphalt in the other. He fell short of breaking the speed of light, or even the speed record, but he was commencing a great and wonderful, pavement-eating wipeout like we had never seen. He was bouncing, tumbling, and thumping. Sliding, grinding, and scraping. Every time his bare skin hit the pavement another patch of flesh was clawed off by the raspy tarmac. His cart-wheeling crash seemed to go on and on. We thought Mike might grind all the way down to a raw quarter-pound hamburger patty.

Mercifully, he hit the curb and bounced onto the grass. This quickly halted his careen down the endless asphalt skid-way. He promptly popped up and hopped around in obvious agony.

“Ouch, ooh, ow!”

He was holding his elbows up trying to keep his arms away from his body, and sort of standing on one bent leg with his other leg hanging in the air performing a cross between the Karate Kid “Crane” stance and spastic version of the chicken dance.

Despite Mike’s misfortune, Gilbert and I were cracking up laughing. We were rolling around on the ground in uproarious guffaws. Mike’s antics were hilarious. He was almost one solid pavement raspberry, and blood was starting to ooze from multiple deep scrapes. Poor guy, he was in fiery pain and all Gilbert and I could do was laugh. Through all the pain, Mike laughed a bit himself out of relief he wasn’t dead, or maybe because he had an unstoppable sense of humor.

Mike’s wipeout ended our outing. He got in the car and sat on the edge of his seat trying his best not to let any of the tender spots touch anything.  When we got to his house his mom immediately saw he was a mess.

“Michael, what did you do to yourself?” she said with concern.
“I skidded down an asphalt slip-n-slide. Or more like a long slip-n-grind!”
“I mean! It’s a good thing you didn’t kill yourself. Go put some peroxide on those scrapes.” She walked away shaking her head, concern turning to disbelief.

Gilbert and I squeezed into the bathroom with Mike to help administer the first aid. Mike got a brown bottle of hydrogen peroxide out of the medicine cabinet. Gilbert poured some on Mikes back wounds.

“Eeeeee! That’s cold!” Mike said, and he tensed up against the uncomfortable sensation.

Then he took the bottle and started pouring peroxide on all the raw patches he could reach. Where ever the peroxide ran over Mike’s raw flesh it bubbled and fizzed, and was accompanied by a disconcerting sizzling sound. The whole ordeal was bumming him out, but he was still clinging to what humor he could.

“I’m covered in foam. I look like a snail in a salt mine,” he quipped.
“That means it’s working,” I replied with confidence.

Mike looked at me cockeyed.

“Right,” he said, drawing the word out wryly.

And that was our queue to crack up. Laughter was good medicine.

Mike survived without heroic measures, but it did take him awhile to recover. He moved around a little stiff for a few days. It still makes me laugh. I’m sorry for the comic relief at Mike’s expense, but it’s not my fault; life can be cruel. Ha, ha. After all these years, it’s my turn to give Mike advice – put a shirt on!

Friday, May 10, 2013

The (Worst) Day of the Triffids

“Children have a different convention of the fearful until they have been taught the proper things to be shocked at.”
 John Wyndham, The Day of the Triffids

Dan and I started making music together when we were freshmen in high school. We were both learning to play guitar, and we both believed playing guitar carried with it the duty to play in a band. Each of us were confident, brash, and egotistical show offs, a perfect combination of attributes for a couple of kids seeking exposure and attention. Had anyone asked us, we would have described ourselves as handsome, smart, handsome, talented, and handsome. Did I mention we were egotistical?

Our early musical efforts were strongly influenced by The Byrds, Bob Dylan, The Lovin’ Spoonful, The Hollies, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and other bands that were popular at the time. We tried to learn their songs and their styles and with our limited equipment we tried to imitate their sounds. Our attempts were probably pathetic, but we were only challenged to try harder when the endeavor was difficult.

To say a little about these bands as influences; In the spring of 1966 there was one event that took place after Dan and I had come together musically, and it shaped our musical lives significantly. The event was a concert in our high school gym. The show started with The Dillards, followed by the Buffalo Springfield, and capped off with an amazing performance by the Byrds. The Dillards would later be inducted into the Bluegrass Hall of Fame, with The Buffalo Springfield and Byrds into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Here were three iconic bands, all playing in an intimate and up-close concert, in our own Covina High School gym.  It was epic. Dan and I were so blown away by the awesomeness of the performances that it was like we had been disassembled and required reassembly to function properly again. I think we functioned even better after the repair, but that procedure actually took many years. Perhaps it is still a work in process.

It wasn’t long after Dan and I began being musical together that we started making music together. The two of us were creative young souls and music was the perfect crucible in which to alloy our individual ideas into one metal. We were not yet skilled guitar players, but we were already experimenting with chords and lyrics and melodies. We were naive enough that nothing was off limits. We were innocently unconstrained by any notion of songwriting convention. Consequently, much of our early tune-craft resulted in awkward chord progressions and vague, hookless melodies. Because poetry came naturally to us, lyrics were probably our strongest element.

During our high school partnership, Dan and I appeared in several band configurations. We had a rotating cast to play the other instruments, but there was always one constant; Dan and I were the core, and everything was revolving around that.

“And I really got hot / when I saw Jeanette Scott / fight a triffid that spits poison and kills.”
 Usherette, The Rocky Horror Show

In the summer between our freshman and sophomore years, Dan and I spent a lot of time together. One night, while watching TV at my house, we came across a B-grade apocalyptic sci-fi movie: The Day of the Triffids. Movies like these were a staple on late night Los Angeles television programming, and we saw our share of it. But The Day of the Triffids stood out. We became fans of the film’s cheesy dialog and cheap visual effects. The movie was un-intentionally hilarious; being over loaded with author John Wyndham’s over-the-top moralistic sermons. The Day of the Triffids developed a cult following that still exists today. It has been remade and turned into a television series. At any rate, it was imperative we use the name Triffids and beat other bands to it.

Now that we had an awesome band name we needed an awesome band to go with it. That seemed like the logical progression of events to us. It’s probably the reverse from the way most bands do it, but I’ll bet we weren’t the first. To construct this awesome band, we recruited members mostly from our closest friends. Dan and I were playing guitar, he and I swapping lead and rhythm duties depending upon what the song called for. We also had Rich on drums, Steve on the Farfasia organ, and Kelly on bass.

Dan and I were teaching Steve to play the Farfasia, which was an Italian made, cheaply built compact organ. Farfasias were very popular at the time, and Steve was able to borrow one from his next door neighbor. To Dan and me, the fact we didn’t play organ didn’t matter, and it didn’t seem to matter to Steve. He was game to give it a go. We figured we could teach Steve how to play chords and simple riffs. After all, that’s how we were learning to play guitar. Ergo, if Steve learned the chords to the songs we were playing, he could play along with us. And after all, a little bit of keyboard goes a long way. So Steve was now a keyboardist, as much as we were guitar players.

In those early days of playing in a high school band, there was a severe shortage of drummers. Due to this habitual deficit, we were consistently in a state of perplexed bewilderment trying to figure out how to find a drummer. This regularly resulted in the same, seemingly idiotic, solution. Someone would say “we need a drummer.” The response would be “let’s look for one at the mall,” and off we went. Go to the mall to find a drummer? Why not? We thought we had a better chance casually meeting someone at the mall, who might turn out to be a drummer, than we did sitting around someone’s house waiting for a drummer to fall out of the sky. It was probably true, and maybe that strategy was as good as any. Drummers aside, the mall was a good place to meet girls during the summer; it was a “two-fer”.

Consider our dilemma. How would a couple of kids in the mid ‘60s find a drummer if they didn’t already have one as a cousin or a next door neighbor? Every drummer we knew of was already in a band and playing with musicians that were more legit than we were. So we scratched those drummers off the list. The competition between bands was so tough that other musicians wouldn’t share knowledge of known drummers because they wanted them for themselves. So we didn’t bother to ask other bands. There was no internet, Craigslist,, or Facebook to scour. So we couldn’t use a non-existent technology. We concluded the best bet for us was to go to the mall and walk around looking for a drummer, seriously! Utilizing this methodology, we actually once found an available drummer.

Fortunately for Dan and me we eventually hooked up with Rich. Rich had skills, and he came to us under the radar so other bands were unaware of him. We got a hold of him and kept him to ourselves. He became the one horse in our stable of drummers. It was a very small stable, but if we only had one drummer to call on, we were lucky that happened to be Rich. He had his own drum kit, and we could count on him to reliably and competently lay down a backbeat appropriate to our songs. He liked hanging around with us, and later Rich and I would become good friends. For now he was our drummer, and we didn’t share. That’s the way it was back then.

We still needed a bass player, but that problem was easy to solve. No one could have been tighter in our group of friends as Kelly was. In fact, our posse probably spent more time hanging out in Kelly’s garage slash bedroom than at anyone else’s house. Kelly had acquired a bass from somewhere I don’t remember. I seem to recall it was sort of a long term loan arrangement, but he may have bought it. It wasn’t very attractive. The body was a kind of worn out dull grey. I don’t recall what brand it was. That was all unimportant; it was a bass. And by virtue of the fact that Kelly had possession of a bass, he received automatic and instant membership in the band. Owning a bass overruled the liability that he didn’t actually know how to play a single note. That could be overlooked. Kelly would someday become a very accomplished guitar player, singer, songwriter, and performer, but at this point he didn’t even know how to tune a bass.  Dan didn’t know how to tune a bass either, but he thought he did.

None of us knew anything about bass guitar, but somewhere along the line Dan had gotten the notion that a bass guitar’s strings were tuned G, C, F, Bb, instead of the correct tuning of E, A, D, G. Being ignorant of all things bass, nobody questioned Dan’s certainty. Kelly tuned his bass according to Dan’s specifications, and he commenced to learn it that way. He sounded great to us. He had natural ability and picked it up fast. When we played a chord, he quickly learned where the root note was on the bass and played it confidently and right on the beat. Kelly was learning fast, unfortunately, he was learning wrong. Learning the bass in the wrong tuning was going to come back to bite us someday… someday soon.

“It must be, I thought, one of the race's most persistent and comforting hallucinations to trust that "it can't happen here" -- that one's own time and place is beyond cataclysm.”
― John Wyndham, The Day of the Triffids

A “battle of the bands” was a popular event in the sixties. Usually sponsored by music stores to grab attention and generate traffic to their business. The premise was to have a bunch of local bands perform for a prize, or more often, bragging rights. A battle of the bands, or, if you were good enough to pass and audition, a high school dance, was the most common way for teenage bands to find an opportunity to play. Fred’s Music Center, a local store at our favorite mall (the same mall where we “shopped” for drummers) was sponsoring a battle of the bands that summer of 1966. The timing was perfect. We had just formed The Triffids, and now we had about two weeks to rehearse before the event.

When putting our song list together we should have played it safe (and smart) and chosen enough easy tunes from the radio to learn and fill our half hour slot. But Dan and I were “songwriters.” We decided to write as many originals as we could. We wrote our originals at a couple of practice sessions at Allan’s house, and also at Rich’s. The weird thing about Allan’s house was that he wasn’t a member of the band, he wasn’t a close friend. He was just a guy we all knew going back to elementary school. And weirder yet, he wasn’t even around at the time. Maybe he was on vacation, I don’t remember, but he wasn’t there. He made his place available to us because he had some guitars and amps that were cool to play. I remember writing new songs during a session at Allan’s house, and I remember being productive; productive, but not necessarily good. I only mention the sessions at Allan’s house because it was strange to me at the time, and stranger to me now since the actual facts, like why were we there, have become foggy with the passage of time.

We also did some song writing over at Rich’s house, but mostly rehearsing there. For the life of me I don’t remember any serious, structured preparation for the show. Just sitting around with guitars, writing songs, and singing a few covers. I’ll never forget one of the covers was “Hang On Sloopy.” Why, oh why did we choose that song? I can’t stand hearing it to this day. More on that later.

With our new band, our new songs, and a handful of cover tunes, we prepared haphazardly for two weeks prior to the battle of the bands. We were proud of our originals. Dan and I did most of the composing, but everyone in the band had a creative role in the new songs. I’m giving the other members credit, but I’m not giving everyone in the band blame for the new songs. That was on Dan and I.

“When a day that you happen to know is Wednesday starts off by sounding like Sunday, there is something seriously wrong somewhere.”
― John Wyndham, The Day of the Triffids

Steve, Dan, Me, Rich - Gayle, Deb
As The Cold Knights (Post Triffids)
The battle of the bands was set up in the parking lot in front of Fred’s Music Center. When we got there, the event was in full swing, and music was broadcasting far and wide across the huge parking lot. There was a portable stage with a canvas back drop. “Fred’s Music Center” and “Vox Amplification” were plastered prominently across the front of the stage. The stage was set up with the latest Vox amps and guitars. The store was new at selling musical instruments. Their traditional product line was high-end Curtis-Mathis televisions and console stereos. Now they were selling high-end Vox equipment. They were also dealers for the expensive and short lived Jordan Amplifier. Jordan endorsed the band The Association, and that is probably what killed their sales. None of us shopped at Fred’s because they were too expensive. I bought some guitar picks from Fred’s once. That was it for me.

We arrived confident that there would be enthusiastic admiration for our original songs. It felt good to feel confident. And who couldn’t feel confident on a sunny, southern California day? It was beautiful and it belonged to The Triffids.

The band that was playing when we showed up was really good. We were impressed with their professionalism, even if we were unappreciative of their style. It was sort of a Detroit rock ‘n soul sound, and not the kind of music we listened to. The band’s front man was a big guy with greasy, slicked back hair. He had a deep, rich voice and his stage clothes were like a rhinestone costume. He was a showman. Their band had all the regular instruments: guitar, bass, and drums, but they also had a horn section. That was unusual to see at this kind of event. It was a little odd that a band with these kinds of resources and skills would be playing a local battle of the bands, but there they were.

They were in the middle of playing an instrumental number when we got there. It was loud and fast, and the band had a bit of choreography to go along with the song. Their rhythmic movements were shaking the portable stage back and forth. A friend of ours, Gayle, was holding the stage, along with a few other people associated with the event. They were trying their best to keep it from over undulating and going into total collapse. But even in the face of eminent stage failure the band was undeterred. Their show went on.

Gayle worked for Fred’s. It was her first job and she was proud of it. There she was, dressed up in a blue blazer, smiling nervously to her cohorts and doing her best to keep the stage from becoming a crumpled casualty. She was a hero for the moment.

The band played a couple more tunes, and though they played very well, their music didn’t appeal to us. Then a familiar song started up. It was the song they were playing when we arrived.

“Gayle, we’re going into our theme song,” the singer said. It was a signal to Gayle that the choreographed stage quaking was going about to erupt again.

Gayle and a couple of helpers grabbed hold and again did their best to keep the flimsy stage under control. This routine repeated itself once more at the end of the swinging band’s set. Though it was touch and go for awhile, the stage did not collapse, so the show would be able to continue as planned. Now it was our turn. They were a weird band for us to follow. I don’t know about my other band mates, but I didn’t even think about that. I was focused on what we had to do next.

“We all have our youthful follies, embarrassing to recall.”
― John Wyndham, The Day of the Triffids

We took the stage and donned the nice instruments provide by the good folks at Fred’s Music Center: the Vox guitars and amps, and a Ludwig drum kit. Playing these instruments that we ourselves couldn’t afford was one of the giant perks to being in a battle of the bands. There was a twelve-string guitar available, and I choose that one to get that jangly sound the Byrds had; “Tambourine Man” was in our set list. We proceeded to tune up and ran into trouble immediately.

Kelly strapped on the bass. It was out of tune, and it wasn’t even close to the tuning Dan had taught Kelly to use. The thing was, this bass was set to the standard tuning any bass player would be familiar with. Kelly didn’t know this until we got on stage and started our tune up. At first he thought there was something wrong with the bass, maybe a broken neck, then it dawned on us – all of us – the bass was tuned correctly! Kelly had learned to play bass in the wrong tuning. A feeling of terror passed through the band like a contagious fever. What was Kelly going to do? To make matters worse, I was having issues of my own trying to get the twelve-string tuned up. Twelve-strings are a lot of strings, and I didn’t have that much – or any - experience tuning one. It was probably already tuned close enough and I was no doubt just making it worse.

The clock was ticking; the twelve-string was out of tune, and worst of all we were perplexed about what to do with Kelly’s bass. Dan was trying to help Kelly and I was doing my best to ignore them. I didn’t want to assume any responsibility or blame for something being dreadfully wrong with the bass tuning. That wasn’t very helpful, but I subconsciously rationalized that if I didn’t look at them then they weren’t even there. My own nerves were becoming frazzled on the twelve-string and my coping skills were breaking down rapidly. I’m not sure what the solution to the bass ended up being. I think they originally started to try to tune it up to the pitch Kelly had learned on, but that wasn’t going well. So then they decided to put it back down where they started, and that didn’t go well either. There were no digital tuners in those days; we just tuned one instrument relative to another that we thought was in tune. It was past time to start, I wasn’t really in tune, and the bass was a total catastrophe.

Everything was already going to holy hell in a broken bucket! On stage was a scene of utter confusion, with five previously confident boys now suffering from something greater than the worst stage fright imaginable. It was stage terror! But, ready or not, we started our set anyway, with the twelve-string out of tune, Kelly struggling with the impossible bass tuning, and the band members shell shocked before we ever played a single note. The bass was now somewhere in between the weird tuning Kelly had learned all of our songs with, and standard bass tuning. But maybe that wasn’t even the worst part!

The worst part may have been our songs. We started out with one of our originals. As proud of our efforts as we were when we practiced them, for some reason our first original didn’t sound all that good now in front of an audience. From the corner of my eye I could see Kelly looking at his bass like “what the hell?” and Dan trying to point something out to him, maybe where to put his fingers in the “new” tuning. I don’t know. But at least we were playing now. Things had just had to get better. Or so I thought.

We slogged through the first song and lo and behold the next song was also an original. I was either not paying attention to the audience’s reaction or I was ignoring it (I was told about it later – people laughing – throwing pennies – yelling “get off the stage”). I don’t know how I could be oblivious to it when it was so blatant. Fortunately for my psyche, I had them blocked out and continued to focus on playing and singing. I suppose I thought it was going ok if not a little shaky. When the second song was over I heard mild applause from the audience. I didn’t hear the heckling and laughter.

Our day in the sun was quickly turning into a bad movie. In fact, it was turning into a very bad B-grade movie. Our day as The Triffids was turning into something worse than The Day of the Triffids, and it was a lot scarier.

Gayle, who was also a bass player, came on stage between songs and tuned Kelly’s bass, but of course she put it back to standard tuning. Kelly was understandably mortified having his instrument tuned for him in front of an audience. It was doubly hard on a teen age boy to have a girl do it for him. That was humiliating for Kelly! Now his bass, though “in tune”, was back in a tuning he didn’t know. Poor Kelly was totally lost and incapable of playing a correct note. And still, we trudged on, racing headlong into an inevitable train wreck.

Three songs into our list we came to “Hang On Sloopy.” This should have been a relief for the audience. It was a bonafied, popular cover tune. They must have heard it on the radio a thousand times. However, there would be no comfort in a familiar song this day. “Hang On Sloopy” is where the engine finally jumped the rails.

The song got underway, and I immediately was having trouble reaching the notes; they were all too high.  It was funny how this song had always been in my vocal range before, but now it was suddenly in a register too high for me to reach comfortably. Maybe the guitars were tuned higher than we tuned at home. Maybe our earlier stumbles had frazzled my nerves and caused a vocal-chord-spastic-contraction. Who knows? But I guess I didn’t have enough experience to let it bother me because I just sang on. It should have been a warning, because when we came to the chorus the notes got even higher. I’m talking really high. But I just clenched all my muscles and went for it. I began screeching out:

Hang on, Sloopy. Sloopy hang on!”

And, as if once isn’t enough, these remarkable lyrics repeat themselves.

Hang on, Sloopy. Sloopy hang on!”

Veins were popping out on my temples and sweat was squeezing out of every facial pore. I was stretching my neck to tense my vocal chords. I’m sure all the dog’s in a two mile radius were either howling or whelping in their painful death throws. The audience was tasting blood now and ramping up their insults, actually throwing pennies at us. Kelly’s cousins, Bill and Jean, were in the crowd really hurting for us. Bill put a paper cup on stage and made a show of stuffing a ten dollar bill into it to shame the throng of rude hooligans.

In the middle of the next squeally “HANG ON SLOOP…”, Dan kicked Bill’s cup off the stage, then reached up and turned off my microphone while I was in mid word – “SLOOP…” I was still playing my guitar but went into instant shock.

“What are you doing!” I said in a total freak out, my eyeballs flashing question marks.
“We’re getting out of here.”
“What?” I said in complete astonishment.
“We’re done.”

From the corner of my eye I saw the other guys already hustling down the stairs. The boys had been making their escape while I was still shrieking out the words “HANG ON SLOOPY.”

In that instant reality hit me like a sucker punch, and everything that followed seemed to happen all at once. The hot blood in my head quit flowing out, but it continued to flow in. Cranial pressure built up so fast I thought my head might blow up. My face was hot, and I’m sure it turned beet red. I was now seized in the full-on crushing grip of embarrassment and could not look at the audience. I just looked straight ahead at the back of Dan’s light blue shirt. I noticed his black tie sneaking out from under his collar (why was I looking at that?) Now Dan was blocking my way and I started pushing him from behind. I was in a sudden panic-stricken hurry and didn’t feel like I could get off the stage fast enough. I wanted to disappear. Poof! But I was the last one in line. It took an excruciatingly long time to get off the stage and I felt everyone in Los Angeles County was looking at me, pointing, and laughing. Everything was happening in super slow motion. It was the longest seven seconds of my life.

Finally the audience was applauding in earnest. Was it their final insult? Maybe it was a congratulatory atta-boy? Most likely they were just happy to see us go. The gruesome bloodletting was finally over.

We gathered by the edge of the stage to take off our borrowed guitars and give them back to Gayle. The catastrophe that just happened had left my brain in a fizzle.  I was embarrassed for leaving the performance in mid song.  I needed to be educated, since the real reason to be embarrassed was because we just did the most awful performance in music history. I knew we ran off stage, I just couldn’t get a grip on the concept why. I still felt weird about the abrupt exit. I was in a confused state, still thinking quitting was a mistake. In an emotional flush, I lashed out at the band for stopping the show in mid song!

“What are you guys doing?” I admonished.
“We were terrible,” came a reply from all the band members.
“We can’t leave in the middle of a song!” I scolded; feeling committed to the maxim “the show must go on.”
“We had to get off before they threw us off,” Dan said.
“Or before they killed us,” Kelly chimed in.
“They were laughing at us, Charlie! And throwing pennies at us!” Dan added seriously, looking into my eyes to make his point.

Wait a minute,” I thought, “isn’t throwing money at us a good thing?

Then I figured out the insult, and that was the key to understanding everything. Enlightenment came as a painful shock. All of a sudden it was important to be far, far away.

“Let’s get out of here.”

I didn’t have to say it twice. In a flash we were putting as much distance between us and the audience as quickly as we could, except for Kelly. Kelly stayed behind to hang out with his cousins and listen to the next band. The rest of us didn’t have cousins; we disappeared.

Dan’s mom was supposed to pick us up at a prearranged time, but things got kind of weird in a way only Dan could contrive. At the mall, we ran into some guys we knew: Mike, who was one of the kids from school, and a couple of other boys. I remembered seeing Dan talking to them before the show. Now, for some reason, Dan was leaving with them, apparently to fight Mike over some grudge the rest of us didn’t know anything about. Maybe Dan was frustrated and angry about our performance and was taking it out on Mike. Whatever the motive, Dan left in a car with the other guys, ostensibly for a bit of adolescent pugilism. About the time Dan left, Kelly showed up.

“Where’s Dan?”

We tried to tell Kelly about Dan and Mike and something vague about a fight, but it was pretty weird, and it was hard for Kelly to comprehend our explanation. Dan had left without revealing many details. We didn’t know exactly what Dan was up to, or where he went, and now he was gone. The other guys were probably going to kill him, or so we allowed ourselves to imagine.

Dan’s mom showed up and we explained the situation to her the best we could. She had us get into her car and we drove around looking for Dan. Frankly, I was thankful Dan had created the diversion – who wanted to think about what had just happened at the battle of the bands? We were driving down Citrus Avenue, a major street bordering the mall.

“There he is!” Kelly said loudly, pointing Dan out.

Dan was walking fast and with a purpose.

“And he’s not even dead,” I said, only half joking.

We pulled over to let him in.

“Dan! Get in!” I called out.
“I don’t want to get in,” he said sternly and he kept walking.
“Come on Dan,” “Get in, Dan,” “Danny, come on!” we were all encouraging.

He turned around and got in the car sullenly. He was ok and didn’t even look like he was beat up, although he was in a foul mood. We asked if he got in a fight. He said yes, and he said no. His story was vague and changing in a cloudy, in a Dan sort of way (he still has a talent for obfuscation – it’s his gift). I don’t think he ever said definitely whether he got in a fight or not, but he let on there was some unfinished business between him and Mike. We ended up at Dan’s house and focused our conversation on his escapades. We talked very little about the battle of the bands and The Triffids and the out of tune bass. Thanks to Dan’s timely distraction, the train wreck was behind us and our wounds were healing. We never performed as The Triffids again.

“And we danced, on the brink of an unknown future, to an echo from a vanished past.”
― John Wyndham, The Day of the Triffids

The next day I left for two weeks with my parents. We went on a family vacation to Texas. I joked about getting out of town while the memory of our failure dimmed. But it really didn’t matter, because actually, we got a lot of good laughs out of the experience, and I’ve had a story to tell, and retell, all my life. The other guys said there wasn’t any local fallout over the incident. They all had a good time while I was gone. They hooked up with Allan and made some music with him during my hiatus. Allan was the guy who let us use his house for rehearsals. Dan and Mike came together later with no hard feelings between them, and ended up on friendly terms. That was a great summer and a long story.

Not all the songs we wrote in those days were stinkers. One successful song Dan wrote was called “A Man with Limits.” I loved it. Every once in a while, “A Man with Limits” gets stuck in my head, and it sort of rambles around in there like an old friend come to visit. At least the chorus gets stuck in my head. Well, ok, four lines of “A Man with Limits” get stuck in my head. I wish I remembered the whole song, because it is one of the best songs ever born.

Sometimes, “Hang on Sloopy” gets stuck in my head. I don’t have anything good to say about


I contacted Gayle, Kelly, and Dan to help me out with this story. I wanted to make sure I was treating the memory of my old friends with respect. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t slanting the story or omitting important details.

Kelly and Me
I included many details I gleaned from our conversations, but in one respect my memory differs significantly from Kelly’s. I included my recollection in the story, because I want my kids and grandkids to know what I remembered. But below, I’ve included Kelly’s side of things, because his memories are his reality, and his version may be the way it actually went down.

Kelly getting a bass
We still needed a bass player, but that problem was easy to solve. No one could have been tighter in our group of friends as Kelly was. In fact, our posse probably spent more time hanging out in Kelly’s garage slash bedroom than at anyone else’s house. And by virtue of the fact that he just acquired a very nice Vox bass guitar, he received automatic and instant membership in the band. Owning a bass overruled the liability that he didn’t know how to play a single note. That could be overlooked. Kelly would someday become a very accomplished guitar player, singer, songwriter, and performer, but at this point he didn’t even know how to tune a bass.  Dan didn’t know how to tune a bass either, but he thought he did.

Kelly realizing his bass had been tuned wrong
Kelly’s bass was out of tune and it wasn’t even close to the tuning Dan had taught Kelly to use. It so happened Kelly had loaned his bass to Chris, a friend from school, the night before. Chris was an actual bass player, and he had re-tuned Kelly’s bass to the standard tuning all other basses were tuned to in order to play it at his gig. Kelly didn’t know this until we got on stage and started our tune up. At first he thought there was something wrong with his bass, maybe a broken neck, then it dawned on us – all of us – Kelly had learned to play bass in the wrong tuning. A feeling of terror passed through the band like a contagious fever. What was Kelly going to do? To make matters worse, I was having issues of my own trying to get the twelve-string tuned up. Twelve-strings are a lot of strings, and I didn’t have that much – or any - experience tuning one.

Thursday, May 2, 2013

A Barbecue Joint, a Barbershop, and Cowboy Art

When I was growing up in Dallas, in the 1950s, my dad used to take me to get my hair cut at a barbershop next to the A & P grocery store where he worked as a butcher. The barbershop and grocery store were housed in a brick building that faced directly onto a sidewalk. In front was head-in parking with parking meters my mom complained about every time we shopped there. The modest store where my dad worked, and my mom shopped, would be considered minuscule by today’s standards. However, it was still able to serve all of our grocery needs. I don’t remember ever going hungry because the grocery store was too small and didn't have everything on mom’s list. Even the shopping carts were smaller then, and so were our waistlines.

Barbershop, A&P, BBQ
There may have been another business or two in this building. Or it may have been separate buildings appearing as a single facade.  Owing to the uniformity of the brick architecture, it could have all blended together. But since other businesses didn't concern me, my young mind ignored them.  All I remember was the barbershop, the grocery store, and a barbecue joint.

When facing the A & P, the barbershop was on the left. On the right side was another brick building that housed a barbecue joint.  That building, although red brick like the others, was a different design and looked like it was of a different vintage. It sat back from the front of the other buildings, and its door faced the corner on a diagonal, as if the corner had been cut off and the door was installed on that facet of the building. I know my dad ate there often (probably everyday for lunch), but I can only remember going in there one time. The experience left me with a love for barbecue that is based ninety percent nostalgia, and ten percent on actual flavor. The smell of hickory smoke still takes me back to my first olfactory encounter with it in that very store.

Walking in through the front door, I recall the inside being dimly lit, and there was a snooker table setup in the middle of the dining space. A couple of men were drinking beer, smoking cigarettes, and pondering their next shot. I think there was counter seating. But the most memorable thing about the place was the aroma. The wonderful smell in that building was something akin to a spiritual experience. The building itself had become infused with the sweet smell of hickory smoke. Today, one whiff of a smoky pork sandwich and I remember the perfection in the sandwich I had that day. Thinking about it is making me hungry now. I blame that one time visit to that old barbecue shop for the fact I must own my own smoker today, so I can have barbecue on demand. I vow to fire it up at the next opportunity.

I must digress for a moment. Thinking back on the last paragraph makes me consider the barbecue joint may have actually been a beer joint. There are several queues in the description that I was too young to connect back then: the darkness and lack of windows, the counter bar, the snooker table… yes, this may have been a beer oriented establishment. A bar if you will; a bar with smoker! Back to the barbershop.

I remember the barbershop seemed like a huge, empty space inside. It was very plain, very stark, and mostly empty. However, if I were to travel back in time, I’ll bet it was not as big as I remember. I've found that to be true with a lot of places from my youth that I have gone back to visit. There were three or four barber chairs situated on the back wall. Those chairs faced the front of the building. This arrangement allowed the patrons who were getting their haircuts, and the barbers doing the cutting, to look out on the world through the front windows.  Chairs for customers waiting to get their hair cut were lined up with their backs to the windows, facing the barber chairs. Having everyone face each other encouraged conversation. There were a couple of small tables with newspapers and magazines to help customers pass the time while they waited. The floor was finished with asphalt tile in a checkerboard pattern. The ceiling was high, and voices echoed with a natural reverb, adding to the feeling that this was a huge, vacant space, bounded by nothing but hard, unfriendly surfaces. Friendliness was provided by the barbers.

Like the barbecue joint, the barbershop had its own scent. It did not compare to the aroma in the barbecue shop, but it cast its own semi-mystical spell on the psyche of a small boy. The smell was a combination of bay rum, witch hazel, and 3-in-1 oil. These sweet, yet manly, smells did not assault the senses. They actually caressed them gently and projected a feeling of comfort and cleanliness. The parting gift from the barbershop was the strong sent of these concoctions emanating from one’s hair, face, and neck. The barbers were generous with it.

Of everything about this barbershop, the thing I remember most was a large painting. More likely, it was a lithograph print of a painting. Framed in rough wood, it hung on the wall to the right of the barber chairs. In the picture was a cowboy bathing in a large stock tank full of water. The lean, wiry cowhand was stripped down to his cowboy hat and a cigarette. With face and neck darkly bronzed, his shoulders were pasty white. Denim work clothes were draped over the side of the tank, and his horse was standing nearby the stock tank - or possibly taking a drink of water from it, I can’t clearly remember. I don’t recall many other details from the painting – maybe some prairie grass and sage brush – but I do remember the emotion the painting evoked on my very young heart and mind.

Cowboys and western lore were a large part of 1950’s American popular culture in television, movies, clothing, and toys. Our play often revolved around cowboys and Indians, gun-play with cap guns, and sometimes riding stick horses. Amid all this romantic imagery, the painting in the barber shop was, for me, a window to another time and place. It could almost transport me to where this unknown cowboy was taking his bath, probably somewhere in my own state of Texas. Maybe I could have struck up a conversation with the cow poke. We could have talked about steers, horses, spurs, and guns. And we may have had beans and biscuits around a campfire that night. I could almost smell the sage brush (had I actually known what sage brush smelled like) and feel the early evening breeze pick up across the range as the sun settled down for the night. That was some painting.

I never did like getting haircuts, and I still don’t. I cut my own hair at home, at least what’s left of it. What I could to do, however, is get a print of that painting and hang it up to the right of my bathroom sink. I could cut my hair and douse myself with witch hazel. I would practically be with my dad again, back in the old barbershop next to the A & P where he worked.

I’ve searched the internet for hours looking for a digital image of that nostalgic old lithograph. I’ve used and reused every combination of search terms I can think of and have come up empty handed. If anyone knows something about this picture, or is able to locate a copy, post the link here and I will use it to illustrate the story.