August 3, 2007
€ ♣ Dueling Guitars
warning: drug references, alcohol, and 1st-base necking are among the objectionable content in the following account
"Every band is the greatest in the world for at least one night"--Keith Richard, who oughtta know.
And I was there when it was Sleepless Night's turn. I never much cared for biker bars, and I never liked Sleepless Nights, a local legend in their own minds. These guys were just full of themselves, could not stop talking about their music, their gigs, their hair. The evening in question, they had a gig at The Den, whose parking lot looked like a photo-shoot for Chopper magazine.
One night, years before, Rodney and Roger, the two founders, came into the pool hall where I liked to shoot a few games on Friday night. The band had paid to have a "45" made of what I would guess was their best song, and paid god-knows-how-much to put the damn ditty on jukeboxes all over town, including at the Pasttime, where I was putting rack after rack in the pockets. Rodney went over to the Wurlitzer with a handful of quarters, fed them to the machine, and walked back to the table where Roger was sitting with a pitcher and two glasses. Of course their song came on, and I figured great, at least they got it out of the way quick. The song ended, and the song started again. Roger and Rodney clinked their glasses in a toast to themselves. I missed an easy bank shot. The song ended, the song began again! That moron had punched up the same song a dozen times. They toasted, I scratched. I finished the rack and left during the fifth playing. I was not the first to leave.
Flash forward a few years. I was dating a gal, who I had realized by then was not a good fit with me. But she invited me over to meet her brother, who was visiting from Seattle, where he taught Karate. He was a pretty cool guy, told a story about stealing some students from another karate school.
"They came in to spar, some airmen from the base nearby", Mike said. And I and my students made short work of them. The next week they came back to sign up, even though I told them that they hadn't earned the belts they wore from the other school, and knocked each of them down a grade or two." Nice guy, big ego, I thought. We had a good laugh, and a few adult beverages, during which time it came out that he played guitar. "I've been sitting in with a local band . I may join, move down here. Come by and check us out". Yep, the band was "Sleepless Nights".
I got there during their first set, alone, as Leslie had to work. The Den was situated close to the airport. The parking lot was an ode to chrome and metal-flake. I parked my Corolla as far from any "Hey! Who scratched my tank?" incidents as possible. Inside, I ordered a beer, shouting my request over a rousing "Feels Like The 1st Time", by Foreigner. They had gotten better, I thought. I said so to the pretty gal perched on next stool, and she nodded assent as she turned the other way. Long black hair, tight dress, legs to beg for, but my beer was not as cold as that shoulder. Oh well, I was there for the music. Yeah, right. The boys segued into a Foghat tune, and I forgot about her. Mike was ripping up the fretboard. He was damn good, arm pinwheeling, legs splayed, had all the moves down. A real showman. The band was as tight as a towline; you could have set an atomic clock to that groove.
During the break, Mike came over and sat where the ice angel had been sitting. She had gone over to hug on the drummer. "She came on to me the other night", he told me, "and I played a little too hard to get, and the drummer picked up my slack, or she would hugging me right now". "There's other girls", I opined, but really, there wasn't. There was a biker chick hanging close to her crowd, some large fellows wearing their colors, from Alabama. That was it, no other chicks. So we went out to burn a joint I had brought. We sat in the bed of Mike's truck, inhaling and talking. Mike figured he was hired.
Out walked the biker girl, followed by three or four mountains, over to our truck, and threw a bag of weed in my lap. "I see you can roll, do you mind?" It wasn't really a question. At least they were passing it to us after I finished, and she started being friendly, sort of. "Are you from here". "What do you do", that sort of friendly. Her friends were talking about their bikes, ignoring us lil folks down in their humongous shadows. Then she says, a few decibels louder, "How do I know you aren't a narc? Are you a narc?" at which point Mount Everest, K2, and Pike's Peak all swiveled their heads down to look at me. I tried to laugh it off, but it came out a sort of Pee-wee Herman giggle. I heard Mike chuckling next to me, Karate Mike. Some courage came back and I said "I'm smoking with you, aren't I? And the local cops don't have cuffs big enough, anyway." Grunts all around, and I was forgotten once again. Mike said it was time to head back in. I agreed.
The band was digging into their repertoire, and even the horrid single sounded good. A bright flash to my left caught my eye, and I looked towards the door. Silhouetted in yellow light was a guy with a guitar case. He surveyed the scene, and stepped in. I thought of a gunfighter, in some Italian western, but this outlaw was clean shaven, short-haired, and dressed like a clerk at an auto parts store. Which he was, it turned out. That's Danny, I heard someone say when the band finished the song. "He used to be in the group. And he wants back in." Apparently the band had invited him to jam that night. It looked like maybe Mike didn't have a lock on the job yet.
Mike was conceding nothing. I took him a beer, and he told me they were gonna have a tough choice to make. Danny was strapping on his Gibson, Mike joined in the confab. Song agreed upon, the drummer slapped his sticks together, and "Cat Scratch Fever" poured out of the amps.
Martin Mull famously said that writing about music is like dancing about architecture. I cannot begin to describe the joyful noise that ensued. Mike and Danny were taking turns blowing away the crowd. Danny had the advantage of knowing the band; taking the changes of tempo in stride. Mike was, to me, the better guitarist, and more showy. But everyone in the band was on their game. The crowd was electric; even the bikers were paying attention, throwing tables in time to the music. Everyone in the joint knew something special was happening. The biker-moll even asked me to dance. And we did.
From Nugent, they went into, of all songs, "Inna-Gadda-Da-Vida". Iron Butterfly never played the song like this, keyboard de-emphasized, twin guitars angling off into separate but equally soaring solos. Sometimes both soloing at once, landing blows like latin fighters in the ring. Fast, furious, savoring each other's attack as much as their own. I cannot remember what else was played, some of it was just guit-jousting jams above a solid beat. After two more sets, the house lights came on. Mike was soaked in sweat, and Danny, though drier, looked like he had just stepped off a dizzying carnival ride. I left the place while Mike was talking to the band, and never saw him again. Within a week or two, Leslie and I had broken up. I think more about that night with her brother these days than I do her.
During the drum solo, Mike had come over to me. "He's back, I'm out", and drained a beer. But he wasn't down; he knew it had been a magical night. So did we all.