Monday, November 25, 2013

I Love Distortion (a rock & roll novel in twelve chapters) - November

(I Love Distortion (a rock & roll novel in 12 chapters) appears monthly in
Growing Old With Rock & Roll; January to December, 2013)

I Love Distortion - chapter eleven

"You lead me to believe that you're the type of person
Who believes in full moons and my my ideas, diverse as they are;
The stupid majesty of electric guitars

I'm only funny in the comics / Reality is too tough"
- Nicole Page, 1978

November was the time when all the toy balloons that had kept The Twilight Kids aloft throughout the summer months began to pop, one by one.

We finally had to fire Jake the drummer.  Even more than not being able to meet the stylistic changes of the band (see I Love Distortion - October) he had started to turn up drunk for rehearsals and gigs.  I'm not contending I was any saint - I was certainly still drinking and smoking pot in 1978 - but I had band standards to maintain.  My bands weren't democracies, they were more like benevolent dictatorships.  I'd freely take suggestions from band members (and let's face facts: Nicole certainly had more input than Jake or Jeffrey Jay), but rules were rules.  There was no drinking or drugging at rehearsals and none before gigs.  Jake crossed that line about ten too many times, and he was out.

The same week Jake was cut loose, Billy Ray announced to the other members of Lovely & Sonic and to the road crew (which included me) that, as of January, the band would be changing its name to The Apartments and that he was taking over 100% of the lead vocals.  To that point, Billy Ray wrote 95% of the songs in Lovely & Sonic, but doled out lead vocal assignments to bass player Glen - who contributed the other 5% of originals, and sang maybe 30% of leads, with John the guitarist at about 10%.  Billy Ray sang the other two-thirds. 

Admittedly, The Great Lead Vocal Power-Grab made some musical sense.  The Sixties were certainly long- gone & over, and the idea of having one recognizable lead vocalist  held some commercial sway, but it also made Lovely & Sonic - who wore their lead-vocal diversity like a Badge Of Honor - impossibly more one-dimensional.  And by any standard, The Apartments was a pedestrian band name after the more lyrical Lovely & Sonic.      

"You were gonna be Carlene Carter
I was gonna be Nick Lowe
We reinvented ourselves
Our lives were gonna be the show"
- Sean Richter, 1990

At the same time we were scouting for a new drummer, the close-harmony country music family band that Nicole sang in with her parents and younger sister (see I Love Distortion - February) had a Thanksgiving weekend show scheduled  at the Southern Theater in downtown Columbus.  WMNI - Columbus' country station from the late 1950's through the 80's - broadcast from the penthouse of The Southern Hotel and the theater was situated just off the lobby.  The Southern Theater was renovated and restored to first-class venue status in 1998, but when Nicole and her family were booked there - opening for some long-forgotten mid-level nationally-known country act - it was a sadly dilapidated dump.  There were rats in the backstage hallways.  Nicole's dad and his bass player swear they killed one in the dressing room with some drum hardware, and I believed them.  Nicole, her mom and her sister changed into their stage outfits in the women's restroom in the lobby.  (It's very possible we played the last show in that theater before it was closed down by the city.)

The Thursday before the Saturday night gig, Nicole's dad's lead guitarist broke his hand during an altercation at The Little Nashville Club, a West Side country-music dive.  I guess I was a natural emergency substitute in the situation, but I certainly wasn't a natural fit with country music.  Willie Nelson was possibly the only country artist I had ever listened to.  Even Johnny Cash wasn't a contender in those long-ago 1970's pre-Rick Rubin resurgence days.

And Nicole's dad - Roger, by name - wasn't overly inclined to welcome the long-haired, rock & roll-playing, seven-years-older-than-his-daughter, married/fooling around guitarist into his rather sedate middle-aged combo, even for one night.  But he was in a bind, so I was in.  Roger and I got together an hour before the rest of the band convened on Friday night for the only rehearsal we would have before the show.  I had to learn an entire set of material in one night.  When I expressed my trepidation about that notion and about not being a country player, Roger said, "Well hell boy, it's country music.  It's just G to D, and D to G, and if you get lost, go to C and wait."  (Twelve years later, in 1990, I was stoned in my living room watching a Cleveland Browns game and used those three chords to write a country song about all of this stuff entitled "Are You Still Singing."  It still occasionally turns up in my live sets to this day.)

It turned our Roger and I bonded almost instantly over a shared love of Buddy Holly.  When we first pulled out our guitars to see if this musical pairing was even worth bothering with, I think we banged out seven Holly tunes in a row, while Nicole and her sister Beth stood in a corner, nervous smiles of relief on their faces.  Roger was taking little pulls off a glass of Jack Daniels that Nicole's mom, Jane, kept filled all through the hour as she bustled in and out of the basement rehearsal room.  I had met Jane only one time previously, months earlier, when she visited Nicole one day in the toy department at K-Mart and Nicole introduced us.  As I smiled and shook her hand that day it took her one long moment to place who I was - her engaged daughter's guitar-slinging married boyfriend.  She gave me a good long once-over, shook her head, looked at Nicole and said, "Oh, he is trouble, isn't he?"        

In that basement rehearsal room, over the next three hours we cobbled together a 45-minute set we could play the next night: songs that were standard to The Page Family set - Willie's "Mama, Don't Let Your Babies Grow Up to Be Cowboys," Cash's "Ring Of Fire" (a killer duet rendition between Nicole's mom & dad) and Merle Haggard's "White Line Fever," a song I actually already knew from an old Flying Burritto Brothers album I'd been listening to since 1971.  Beth & Nicole put together a stunning a capella version of Carlene Carter's "Appalachian Eyes" that Roger had learned by ear and memorized after hearing it once at a Johnny Cash/Carter Family Revue show at the Ohio State Fair the previous summer.  It was beautiful, gorgeous, and effortless by Beth & Nicole, easily the high-point and centerpiece of the set.        

We also worked up a set-ending cover of Buddy Holly's "Not Fade Away" that Roger and I had had a ball playing before the band got there.  It was the only song of the set that kicked off with my guitar leading the way, and every time I started the song, Roger's drummer would just say, "It's just too damn fast, hoss," and refuse to come in on the backbeat.  After years of playing rock & roll and then shading into punk I just COULD NOT adjust myself to the rather somnambulistic country tempos.  At one point, even as I tried to slow down to the drummer's standards, he just simply put his sticks down on the snare and walked out of the basement rehearsal room.  Roger said, "You've got to slow it down, son, we can't afford to lose the drummer, too."  I looked at Nicole.  She said simply, "Slow it down, Sean.  For me."  And I was done.  (I got the drummer back, though, at the actual show by kicking the song off even faster than I had at rehearsal because I could tell he was too much of a professional to walk off the stage in the middle of the show, and I was right.  Man, we BLAZED through that tune.  He could barely keep up.)

"It's right and it's good
It's wrong and it's bad
But times are happier now
Than other times I've had"
- Nicole Page, 1978

Midway through the show I was standing in the wings watching Nicole and her little sister Beth doing their solo/duet star-turn on "Appalachian Eyes."  It was a song I wouldn't hear again for two years, when it was released on Carlene Carter's Musical Shapes record.  It was November 25th, 1978.  It was Nicole's 19th birthday.  It was the last time I would ever hear Nicole sing.

I was lost in the beauty of the harmonies, in the sheer crystalline shimmer of those voices intertwining, and in the sight of Nicole & Beth in the stage lights when Nicole's mom put her hand on my shoulder and said quietly, "Don't look at her that way, son."  "Oh, no, no, no, ma'am, it isn't like that," I stammered out, thinking that Nicole's mom thought I was looking merely lustfully upon her daughter, "I just love her so much."  "I know you do, son, I know you do," she replied, touching my cheek, turning my eyes to hers, away from the stage, "I'm just not sure you should."  

But I didn't hear what she said.  I was deaf as a Deadhead.  I didn't know it yet, but I was hanging by a thread.

© 2013 Ricki C.

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