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Tales from the tour bus

Commenting on last night’s Junior Brown post, Skeptic said:

I’ve been fortunate enough to see Junior, the Reverend, and Big Sandy live (although not on the same bill). Great entertainers all.

Indeed they are, and excepting Brown, who I’ve never met, just really great guys as well. So I began my response to Skeptic thusly:

Man, Big Sandy (Robert Williams, actually, as you probably know), in addition to being enormously talented, is without doubt one of the sweetest, nicest human beings I’ve ever had the privilege of knowing. When my wife was killed, he was one of the very first to call me. He had been friends with both her and her mom since way before I’d met them myself, and you could easily tell he was just heartbroken over it. I’ve never forgotten that act of kindness and open-hearted generosity, and I never will.

First time I ever did a show with him was out in LA, at Ronnie Mack’s Barn Dance. There was just all kinds of big rockabilly names on the bill that night; hell, even Brian Setzer showed up to make a surprise appearance to close out the evening. While Brian was on, me, James Intveld, Sandy, and a handful of others were brought onstage with him as well.

I got that far in, and that’s when it hit me: this story is just too damned good to let it languish in comment-section obscurity, it really merits a main-page post of its own. So here’s the rest of it, blockquoted just becuz.

Brian called out for us to do Eddie Cochran’s “Summertime Blues” to end the set, which the backing band launched into. Setzer sang the first verse, then frantically waved all his fellow frontmen into a midstage huddle before going on with the song–he had forgotten the rest of the lyrics, and wanted to know if any of the rest of us knew ’em!

Naturally, being under pressure like that, smack in the middle of actually PLAYING the song in front of a packed house, the spots circling us like hungry sharks, every damned one of us immediately lapsed into a total brain fart, failing to come up with so much as a single syllable of the blood-simple lyrics to one of the hoariest old RaB chestnuts known to man.

I mean, really, now. “Summertime Blues”? Hell, plenty of people who wouldn’t know rockabilly from Adam’s housecat probably know the words to that song! KNEW them? Of course we knew them! We’d all played and sung the blasted thing a million and one times; every one of us was a professional player, with years of onstage experience under our belts, so stage fright couldn’t have been an issue.

But still—there we all were, drawing a total blank, as the backing musicians went right on endlessly repeating the lead-in to the second verse whilst darting looks of confusion, wonderment, and dismay at our little stage-front conference as we all went right on NOT stepping up to the center mic to take charge and get the stalled-out show moving again.

Finally, I did so myself, just repeating the first verse Brian had already sung in hopes that it might jar something loose in my bourbon-addled brain which would bring the rest back to me again. But it’s what happened right before then that still makes me laugh to this very day.

See, Big Sandy was absolutely high-school drunk at that point, drunk as a boiled owl—or, as my friend Joe used to say, fucked up as a nine-eyed nigger. The guy had this goofy, vacant grin smeared loosely all over his slaphappy mug, the look of a man totally at peace with the entire world, delighted to be where he was in that golden moment—wherethehellever THAT might have been.

One of the other players, can’t remember who, nodded me over to where he was struggling to hold Sandy more or less upright by his right arm, in an unmistakable plea for assistance—Sandy is a big, heavy dude, see, and whoever-it-was, well…wasn’t.

So I got myself over there straightaway, latched onto Sandy’s free left arm, and our two-man rescue squad proceeded to walk/stagger/drag our cheerfully-inebriated charge over to the area of the stage known amongst showbiz types as the backline—ie, the row of guitar/bass amps and drum kit prepositioned for all the night’s bands to use, standard practice when a big venue has an unusually large number of groups booked, so as to shorten the time needed to break down the stage and set up for the next act.

And the backline is where we dumped Sandy, gently lowering him to sit atop a tweed Fender Bassman amp, his back against the rear stage wall. He was a sight: that same smile on his face, tapping both feet to the music, his body precariously swaying, a bottle of Heineken clutched tightly in each hand. Years later, I asked him if he remembered that auspicious evening, to which he replied, “YES! Ummm, maybe. Well, okay, parts of it.”

Too, too funny. I told him if he ever needed help remembering any of the more lurid details, I’d be glad to remind him, because I was never gonna forget it. We both laughed, and then headed on back to the bar.

Big Sandy was by no means the only one deep in his cups that night, mind; it was also the night I hung out after the show with a cripplingly-blasted Janeane Garofalo, which I told all about here. An auspicious occasion indeed, all the way ‘round.

Update! Added a green-room pic from after the Horton’s Holiday Hayride show to the Junior Brown post, in case any of y’all might be interested in such piffling trivialities.

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6 thoughts on “Tales from the tour bus

  1. a bottle of Heineken clutched tightly in each hand

    Nice story, Mike, and I like the vision of a pair of green bottles…

    1. Oh, it was too funny, Barry. I thought for a sec that maybe I should write up some kind of disclaimer as an update concerning all the boozy debauchery of that particular evening, but hellthis is sex, drugs, and rock and roll we’re talking about here. The drinking is just part of the whole experience. One of my email signature quotes is from Friedrich Nietzche, saying:

      “For art to exist, for any sort of aesthetic activity to exist, a certain physiological precondition is indispensable—intoxication.”

      Truer words were never spoken. Although for the players that last, eventually a question presents itself: Are we here to play music, or are we here to get drunk? Give the wrong answer and you’ll wreck yourself, degrade or destroy your connection to the music, maybe even die.

      1. I’m familiar with the level of intoxication for “aesthetic activity to exist” 🙂

        Although, that level is way in the past. While I am unusually low in the musical skills department, I had friends that were high in that area. I always thought it all went together.

        1. There are exceptions of course, but as a general rule, it holds. I always felt like it had a lot to do with loosening the inhibitions, relaxing one’s self-doubt and tendency towards being too critical of one’s own work, etc. “Courting the muse,” they used to say way back into antiquity. Once I’d gotten serious about my career as a player and songwriter, I figured that was just a sly reference to getting bombed, myself.

          Louis Armstrong’s fabled cocaine-soaked hankies; the characteristic beer bottle sitting beside the guitar amp; bands getting banned from venues for skipping out on their tab the last time they played there–heck, even a lifelong teetotaller like Dean Martin pretended to be drunk onstage.

          It’s a very fine line to be walked here, this dynamic tension between too much and not enougha line that requires balance, grace, and self-awareness to successfully tread. Not all of us have those qualities in sufficient measure, so they end up falling downor, if they’re lucky, just wandering off into the woods until they realize they’ve lost their way and get themselves back on track again.

          And all too many just keep at it until they literally drop dead: Hendrix, Joplin, Morrison, Bon Scott, John Bonham, Keith Moonthe list is so damned long, Wiki had to break it down into deaths according to decade.

          1. It’s a different life than most people live, that’s for certain. I would be one of the dead ones had that path been mine. Of that I’m certain. Had I been born just a few years later there’s no telling what my path would have been.

            Once I’d gotten serious about my career as a player and songwriter, I figured that was just a sly reference to getting bombed, myself.

            Heh, that’s a fine line, Mike.

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