As I saw it, in my view from the side of the stage, The League Bowlers were never a band that was built to last: First because the band was largely a lark for leader Colin Gawel when Watershed was not recording or touring and secondly because the band was built on a generational fault line. When the last lineup of The League Bowlers – Colin on lead vocals & second lead guitar, Mike Parks on primary lead guitar, Dan Cochran on bass, and Jim Johnson on drums – solidified there was a marked rock & roll age schism. Colin and Dan were still in their 30’s and had largely come out of an existence in former major label bands (Watershed, Big Back 40) that played shows rather than gigs. Mike and Jim were in their 50’s and had come up (as had I) in those long-lost rock & roll dark ages when bands routinely played three 45-minute sets per night in clubs full of drunks. Throw in Colin’s general lack of interest in actually rehearsing any of the songs they played and it was essentially a recipe for disaster. But given all of that even I never imagined the band would break up onstage.
Nevertheless there we were at the now-defunct Thirsty Ear on Friday, August 1st, 2008. Sometime close to 8 pm the band started the first set late (has a Colin Gawel-led band EVER started a set on time?) to a typically lifeless early evening after-work drinking crowd. After about a half-hour, 35 minutes tops, Colin called a close to the first set, figuring to save the musical good stuff for later in the evening when there would be a bigger (and potentially, hopefully, more receptive) crowd. Colin wandered over to Guitar World where I was tuning guitars for the second set and we were shooting the shit about baseball or something when the club owner came over and started berating Colin about the length of the first set, professionalism, and how Colin had to get his ass back on the stage, NOW.
I was stunned, Colin was stunned. At first we thought club owner guy was kidding, then we realized he was deadly serious and we just looked at each other, silently thinking that we had never run into that kind of behavior at the Thirsty Ear EVER. And the guy just kept it up; getting right in Colin’s face, bitching at him like he was 12 years old playing his first gig in somebody's basement rec room. In an attempt to lighten the mood I interjected with, “We’ve been to high-school, Mr. Teacher, we know how to run a rock show, we’ll try to do better,” but that just pissed the guy off more, sent him into a further tirade. Colin finally said, “There’s nobody here, nobody is listening, do you want me to go back onstage right now and play to no one?” The guy replied that we were supposed to play three 45 minute sets, that he wanted three 45 minute sets and he wanted them RIGHT THEN.
The band shakily reassembled onstage, club owner guy was waiting at the side to make announcements about future gigs & such, but Colin completely ignored his presence and launched into the first song of the second set. Club owner guy was pissed but finally just had to slink away when it became painfully obvious Colin was not going to relinquish the stage to him. About three songs into the set Colin took the mike and launched into a rambling speech about how “The League Bowlers are not really a bar band, we’re not a punch-the-clock, three sets a night kinda band and that’s how The Thirsty Ear operates, so this is the last time we’ll be playing the club.” There was a general murmur of discontent behind Colin about this unilateral onstage resignation, glances shot back and forth between Mike and Jim. This was no longer a happy rock & roll band. In fact, as time went on, the set devolved into a full scale musical battle between the Colin & Dan and Mike & Jim factions within the band.
Tensions were running so obviously high onstage that my wife Debbie walked over to where I was hunkered down in my little guitar bunker at the side of the stage and said, wide-eyed, “Are they going to break up ONSTAGE?” I replied, “Oh yeah, they are, right now it’s just a matter of when.” “Do you think they’ll finish out the night?” she asked. “I can’t tell," I said, "They’re all pros so they might get three sets in, but this band is DONE.” Through the whole conversation neither of us took our eyes off the stage so we wouldn't miss a minute of the drama. It was like witnessing a bad car wreck: you didn't really want to watch but you also really couldn't look away.
After the second set lurched to a close (nowhere near 45 minutes after it started, by the way) the entire band decamped to the benches outside the Thirsty Ear and just SCREAMED at each other for about twenty minutes. I (and everybody else in the bar) could see and hear them through the big plate glass windows from inside the club as I dutifully tuned the guitars that Colin and Mike had all but thrown at me as they came offstage. I wasn’t going to get involved but figured it was too good to miss out on, so I eventually wandered outside. Sure enough, every little thing that had ever gone wrong in the band – every perceived slight, every missed practice, every time somebody was too drunk to play competently, every pay dispute, every missed opportunity – got trotted out and rehashed. I’ve had long-term romantic relationship break-ups that weren’t as brutal as that August summer night.
After that bloodletting the band actually went back onstage and played the requisite third set. It was kinda heartening, kinda unbelievable and, for all that had transpired, they really didn’t play badly. It was certainly spirited. I think the last song they played that night was Elvis Presley’s “Suspicious Minds” (though I can’t swear to that). During the rave-up ending to the tune Mike Parks took off his official League Bowlers shirt (which he never liked wearing anyway), dropped it on the stage, and pointedly stepped on it before walking off. (In a neat bit of revisionist history Mike has conveniently forgotten that incident and now maintains it never happened. Mike, I have witnesses. Easily a hundred witnesses.)
That was all four years ago tonight. I’ve gone on to road-manage Colin’s new spin-off band, Colin Gawel & The Lonely Bones, and still roadie for Watershed. Do I ever miss The League Bowlers? Yeah, I do. There was something about watching Colin and Mike lean into the intro of The Georgia Satellites’ classic “Battleship Chains,” right before Dan and Jim would swoop in to anchor those guitars pounding that riff that was rock & roll prime. And nobody has ever played “Pretty In A Slutty Way” better than The League Bowlers.
© 2012 Ricki C.