by Tim Boomer, author of The Bassist’s Bible: How to Play Every Bass Style from Afro-Cuban to Zydeco
Back in my youth, heavy drinking wasn’t a big part of my scene, musically or personally. People did other things for fun. (We were on a Spiritual Quest,you know? If something you ingested messed up your body or spirit it was not OK.)
So, my experience with out-of-control audiences was altogether different from that of musicians who played the bars–that bar experience could be summed up as “jump on stage, grab the mic, sing horribly off key, and fall on the band’s equipment.”
The weirdness I dealt with consisted of spacey, sometimes creepy, eyes watching you move across the stage, and people twirling, twirling, twirling, walking around naked or in costume, or just jerking their bodies around mindlessly–sometimes when the music wasn’t even playing. It wasn’t frightening, just a little weirder than I appreciated at the time. And I was mostly in the audience in those days.
But things weren’t weird and blissful all the time. (Altamont — the Rolling Stones free Bay Area Rock show and a possible subject of a future post — is a good example of bad craziness.)
The first bar gig I played was in the 1970s with my first performing band, “Taxi, which played Latin Jazz Rock Fusion. We loved Latin Rock, but we were all deep into Electric Jazz . We had an awesome Afro-Cuban percussionist, Robert Rios, Charlie de la Casa on crazy jazz guitar, and Dennis Seacrest, an eclectic drummer.
We were very experimental, but our music was very structured. We played nothing but original material, and all of us were writing. We had synthesizers (a big deal then) and effects on bass and guitar, and even a sax and vocals on some of the paid gigs. (You remember us, right?)
We could play almost anywhere — art galleries, parks, private parties–because we had our own PA system. So, we did not have to deal much with drunks. Then we got a gig on a rooftop bar in the Embarcadero Center in San Francisco, opening for a cover band one Friday night.
We played our set and watched the the audience–business types–loosen their ties and drink cocktails in these huge fishbowl-like glasses. A few of them tried to dance to our compositions (in 7/8 or 13/8) and were wondering why their moves weren’t quite working. (Instead of dancing to a beat of 1-2-3-4, think of dancing while counting to 7 or 13.) After our set, the bar manager told us that the other band hadn’t shown up, and asked if we would play two more sets.
This was very cool except for 1) My pants. The pair I had on were so old and tight that I split them completely up the back and I was hanging out big time back there. I honestly can’t remember if I was wearing underwear. I often didn’t. And 2) The songs. We did not know a second or third set.
Details details. We went for it anyway (of course). Immediately. We were getting paid.
We had practiced a few funk tunes, so we just stretched them out and played endless grooves, improvising on vocals, while I stood strategically in front of my amp as the sun went down into the cool night behind me, hoping no one would notice my costume malfunction. It was glorious.
We watched our audience get more and more loose and we suddenly had a dance crowd! Happy drunks! What fun! I stayed on stage the entire time, happy though a bit drafty in the rear, not moving a muscle except my fingers, and with a grin on my face a mile wide. New territory.
Decades later I was playing with “Who Tube” (my Who cover band — band name changed to protect the guilty) at an Irish bar in SF, that tolerated us and our crazy volume because we were so good (as long as we didn’t display a Union Jack). A few songs into our first set a guy, well into his pints, grabbed a waitress and began really whirling her around. At first she seemed OK, trying to just go with it, but when he picked her up and flipped her upside down, she retreated behind the bar. My wife was in the crowd, and I was a bit worried until she wedged herself up on a seat between two guys at the bar, one of them her friend, Javier. Ah. Relief. Next song.
Our protagonist’s next available partner was a bar stool which he whipped around, looping and twirling joyfully while the entire room gave him a lot of space on the suddenly empty dance floor. A few songs (and probably a few IPAs) later he grabbed a guy as big as he was and started spinning him around. Just as they moved in on the stage in front of me he lost control and crashed across my mic stand, through the floor monitors and onto our dinky one foot tall stage. Nowhere to go. Beer and glass and guys flying everywhere. I saw it coming and literally stepped backwards into a field of cymbals and drums, rotated my bass skyward, and just kept playing.
My mantra: “Nothing to see here, folks. Move along now. These are not the droids you are looking for.” -Obi Wan Boomer)
More immediately, “Shit! Background vocal coming up! Shit! No mic! Mic stand on the ground. Fuck! Never mind. No problem. Lucky to be alive. Keep playing.”
Our dancer got up, bloody, yelling “I’m OK!” despite being so obviously not OK, and crawled back to the bar. My hunch was that this was not his first time in this position. Nor had it been mine.
The weirdest / creepiest drunk-related incident happened while I was playing with my originals band Offbeats in Hayward. Just before our second set, a large drunk woman in Raiders gear asked Jay, my guitarist, if she could see his guitar just as we went on stage. He leaned over to show it to her and she tried to grab it. He pulled back and we started the set.
I walked up to the mic to do a vocal and when I moved back to my amp she was behind me on her hands and knees, on stage and going for Jay’s other guitar. I started yelling at her above the music. “Hey! Get the Fuck out of here! This is NOT going to happen! Get off the fucking stage!” She grabbed my beer, took a huge slug, spilled it on my amp and slunk off. We watched the police take her away as we loaded our gear at the end of the night, as she was too zonked to walk or talk.
My mantra then: “Sorry. Bad choice on your part. Please examine your life. This is not working.”
My friend Kirk reminded me of a Who Tube gig that he saw on the same stage in Hayward where Offbeats met the “on-stage Guitar Strangler.”
Our lead singer, Mr. Z — in his Roger Daltrey persona — was doing his “rope trick,” which consisted of swinging the mic around on its cable in a carefully controlled loop that could normally only wound or maim one of the musicians on stage, and not harm anyone in the audience. But we were on a very small stage.
Anyway, someone in the audience messed with our singer, so he let fly the rope trick to end all rope tricks and let the mic swing free, but somehow managed to miss the drunk. I think.
A few weeks prior, another drunk at another gig wasn’t so lucky. He’d hassled the band enough that Mr. Z actually clocked the guy in the head with the mic in the head and he went down, out cold.
My mantra: “Shit! Lawsuits! Black list! End of Career! Death!”
But the drunk got up and said, “I’m OK!” (Thank you Buddha and Jerry Garcia! ) At the end of the set, I clearly remember saying, “Mr. Z, this is not such a good idea.” His response: “He deserved it.”
You can chose who you play with. You can’t always choose your audience. You hope to get gigs where the stage is at least tall enough that they can’t get too “up close and personal” with you and your expensive and fragile gear and irreplaceable self when they get excited. (Alternatively, hope for a chicken-wire barrier between you and the audience.)
No matter what, though — drunks, fights, bras or dead chickens thrown on stage, or shredded trousers — keep on playing or things will get even weirder.
(Tim Boomer is the author of The Bassist’s Bible: How to Play Every Bass Style from Afro-Cuban to Zydeco. For a free e-book copy of the original edition of The Bassist’s Bible, go to http://www.ipgbook.com/the-bassist-s-bible-products-9781937276072.php?page_id=21and type in the coupon code FREEBassist13 when you check out. Good through August 14, 2013.)