A Study In Contrasts, Part Two

Main Stage

The Crater Rally main stage after dark

Even you haven’t read Part One, start here.

The second half of the week:

Planning outdoor events in Texas requires choosing the lesser of two evils. Summer in Texas is almost always dry, almost to the point of drought, from mid June through early September; the trade-off for the dry weather is that it is hot. Damn hot. You have got to be kidding me HOT: June is traditionally in the upper 90’s, but it is not uncommon to have 100º days; July and August are routinely in triple digits. Add in the humidity and night not happening until about 9 pm, and summertime outdoor events in Texas get pretty miserable pretty quick.

Spring and Fall temperatures, however, are delicious: upper 70’s to low 80’s during the day, 60’s at night. The problem is there is always, ALWAYS the chance of rain; and not just rain, but Holy Freaking Hell Is This The End Times? thunder storms, softball-sized hail stones, and freak tornadoes. When it rains here in Spring or Fall, you count yourself lucky if all it did was drown your plants – a couple of months ago, my buddy opened up the closet door he’d thrown the family into after the alarms started blaring only to see the night sky – his ceiling, along with the rest of his house, was somewhere else.

So you either schedule your outdoor event in Summer and plan on having medics on hand to deal with the heat strokes and dehydration cases; or Spring or Fall and pray to all the gods new and old that it stays dry. The absolutely no one under 21 allowed Crater Rally in Mt. Enterprises opts for Curtain Number Two, which is why out of the seven times the band has been out there, it has rained four.

Paul

My band leader, Paul, doing what he does best…

Last Thursday was no exception. Ownership of the rally itself changed hands, as these events often do. The new owners didn’t know anything about us as a band, but had at least heard decent things; after months of hemming and hawing, they finally booked us to bookend the event: we would be the opening act on the opening Thursday, and we would be the closing act Saturday night, with vendors and guests leaving on Sunday. Mt. Enterprise is twenty minutes East of Henderson, which is twenty minutes South of Kilgore, which is just over two hours from Dallas – being the opening act on a weekday means taking the entire day off. Normally, it is a nice drive – East Texas is lovely, with tall, piny trees and lazy hills – this particular drive was a white-knuckler, however: the further East you went, the harder the rain came down. Texas highways are full of semi-trucks hauling anything you can think off East and West across the country; and there is nothing like the special terror of driving along side one of those behemoths with your windshield wipers on full boogie to deal with all the water the truck is kicking up off the pavement along with the thunder shower you’ve been dealing with for the last sixty miles. Your bootie puckers up enough to suck your underwear into your sphincter.

In Texas, the speed limit is the speed limit… unless everybody else on the road with you is either driving significantly faster or slower: in that case, you are required by law to match everybody else’s speed so you are not a hazard. In the summer when the weather is clear, this means hauling butt at 85 mph is not only allowed, it is mandatory; in the middle of a spring thunderstorm, however, when you are in a Mustang with a light tail, rear wheel drive, and a tendency to aim for the ditches when the road is slick, it means you stick to the speed limit even though you’d give a body part to be driving 10 mph slower.

It also means your normal 2.5 hour road trip is now closer to 3.5.

JC, our drummer, getting into the groove...

JC, our drummer, getting into the groove…

I’d been shooting to get out of town by noon, but after conversing with the lovely Lady Fair and stocking up on Red Bulls, it was coming up on 1 pm before I got firmly on the road. I spent the next three plus hours cursing Peterbuilts and trying not to end up in a ditch with the other poor souls who’d lost it on I-20, of which there were multiple instances. Nothing like seeing the barest hint of the top of the semi’s cab from the other side of a highway embankment to make you want to rethink your priorities… like just how bad do I want to get to the gig on time? That kind of thing. I kept up with the saner portion of traffic, stayed off my brake as much as possible, and made decent, though not great, time to the rally.

The first thing you do at a rally is check in at the front gate. I parked the Mustang, tossed my hat on to keep the rain off my coiffure, and ambled over to the gatehouse. I flashed the rally worker my band pass, signed the release form stating if I fell down and broke my leg it was my own damn fault, and got my wristband making me legal. After confirming that I did know my way to the main stage, I climbed back into the Mustang and slowly made my way back to the crater.

One of the reasons I like playing this gig is the main stage – it is awesome, as big as a pro outdoor event, with a large Texas flag-decorated wood wall behind you, and a roof about two stories or so above your head. Sound depends on the vendor, but the times we’ve played the main stage, sound has been great, with good monitors and decent stage volume. The main stage is open on three sides, though, so anything above a light rain shower and you are risking electrocution – forecast was the drizzle we were dealing with should be over by 5 pm. We were scheduled to take the stage at 5:30 pm. As band members arrived, we unloaded and set up best we could. Lo and behold, at around 4:45 pm, the drizzle came to a stop. Temperature topped out in the upper 60’s, it was gray skies as far as the eye could see, but the rain was over – we would be going on as planned.

Lil Devils

This was the cleanest photo I took…

Another one of the reasons I like playing this gig is bikers are not dainty. They don’t care about rain, mud, bugs, or anything else the outdoors may throw their way – bikers just want to have a good time. So even though it had been rainy all day, when we hit our first down beat, a crowd was there to listen and enjoy; the longer we played, the bigger the crowd became. The size of the stage threw the guys a bit – being spread out changed the way the guys sounded to each other – so the first couple of songs were good, but not as tight as we had rehearsed. Once the band got used to the stage sound, however, the boys nailed it, better than my birthday gig back in March and they were fantastic then. We played the first set, took a quick break, then decimated the second set. As it came time to close out our portion of the night, I looked over to the left: waiting for their turn on the stage was a small gaggle of young women in lingerie, all dressed in varying degrees of red, some with horns, some with spiked tails, and at least one with a small pitchfork. I didn’t know what was up next, but they were dressed perfectly. I grabbed the microphone and addressed the women:

“I see some lovely ladies off to my left. We have the perfect song for all of you, so come on up and join us on stage – this is the one you’ve been waiting for all afternoon.”

Tim started into Highway To Hell, the ladies all caught the clue at the same time, and as Paul growled out his vocals, the lovelies began to dirty dance on the front edge of the stage. It was amazing how fast the audience began crowding around. We ended our opening night on a fantastic high note, thanked the crowd, thanked the lovelies, and exited Stage Left.

Since all I had to personally load as my tambourin and cow bell, Paul sent me back to the front gate to get us paid. Easier said than done – the new venue owner had the envelopes to pay the band, and he was nowhere to be found; he was dealing with his wife, who had fallen down and more than likely broken her ankle. I spent the next half-hour reassuring the gate staff I had no problem standing around, doo-doo happens and I certainly didn’t expect the boss to drop everything to bring me my cash when his spouse was down for the count. Just as we cleared the half-hour mark, I got a phone call from Paul just as the staff heard from the boss – the boss was at the main stage, Paul had the cash. I thanked the front gate staff for their pleasant company, headed back to the main stage, got a hug from Paul and my cut of the night’s work, and I heading back home. After a blessedly uneventful drive home, I grabbed a shower, I filled in the lovely Lady Fair on the gig, and showed her the photos of the band and the hotties off my cell phone. I also took a pair of scissor and cut off my wrist band – I don’t sleep wearing jewelry, so if I was to get any rest the next two nights, my bona fides for the rally had to go.

Tim

Our other guitarist and vocalist, Tim, enjoying himself…

The rest of the weekend was forecasted to be bright and sunny. I spent most of Friday either filling in folks on how the last night went or running errands with the lovely Lady Fair. The initial question about Saturday night’s gig would be what time did I want to get there. Sitting around for hours on end waiting to go on stage is not a lot of fun, especially when you’re outside in the heat and bugs; driving three hours in the dark, trying to recognize landmarks with no light to go by is also not a lot of fun. I decided to compromise: I’d leave around 5 pm, hope to get there just as the sun was going down around 8 pm. I’d still need to sit around and wait on starting the gig for four plus hours, but at least I wouldn’t be driving after dark. Added bonus – Paul would know where the hell I was, have one less thing to worry about as band leader.

The drive back to Mt. Enterprise was a breeze. I stopped in Henderson to fill up the gas tank so I wouldn’t need to break for gas at 4 am on the way home. I pulled up to the shack at the front gate and motioned to the outside staff member I needed a new wrist band. I sauntered up to the gatehouse, slapped my band pass on the counter and grinned. “Hi! I’m with the band!”

The lady in the shack was not the same lady as my pleasant half-hour wait Thursday night. She looked at the band pass, then looked back down at her clipboard. “That means nothing to me, that is not one of ours, so I don’t care what it is. There’s no need to slap it down on the counter.”

My neck stiffened, but I kept smiling. “Okay.” I pulled my band pass off of the counter. She kept looking at her clipboard. “What band are you with?”

I raised my band pass with band’s name and logo displayed across the top. “The East Texas Garage Band.”

The lady eyed my badge, eyed me, then put her clipboard on the counter. “Sign in.” I printed, then signed my name on Saturday’s sheet. I held up my left arm so she could put on my new wrist band. “Can you lower your arm?”

I dropped my hand down in front of her. “Anything to help.” She got the clasp fashioned. “Thank you, ma’am.” She looked over at another staff member, thought better of it, and said. “Let me get you a guide.”

I frowned. “Do I really need one?” I asked. “I’ve been here about six times, I know my way to the Back Stage.”

She frowned, eyebrows furrowed. “Everybody gets a guide.” I decided not to mention I hadn’t needed a guide on Thursday.

“Okay. I would love a guide.”

“Hey, if you don’t think you need a guide, drive you own self down there.”

I held up my hands in the universal sign of surrender. “Ma’am, I am not trying to be difficult. I just didn’t want you to waste a resource on me if it wasn’t necessary. I’ll take the guide.”

Dave and Tim

Super Dave, our bassist, getting some love from Tim…

She didn’t reply to that. She pointed at a staff member, then pointed to me. I walked over and fired up the Mustang, watching my “guide” get into a nearby staff golf cart. He looked back to see me pull in behind him, and we slowly made our way up the hill and away from the front gatehouse. Now, at the Crater Rally, once you get up to the top of the main hill, there is a fork in the road. If you are coming from the front gate, the road forks to the Main Stage on the left and the Back Forty Stage on the right; if you’re coming from the Main Stage, the road forks to the left to the Back Forty Stage and to the right to go to the front gate; and if you are coming from the Back Forty Stage, the road forks on the left to the front gate, and to the right to the Main Stage. All the forks come together to form a triangle, and it is the closest thing to an intersection the Crater Rally has to worry about. I’m following my guide when my guide takes the left fork to the Main Stage. I stop the Mustang and wait for him to notice I’m no longer behind him – nothing. The dude had left me.

I waited a moment, Mustang running, parked just down the hill from the triangle intersection. I picked up my cell and called Paul.

“Me Bruddah.”

“Hey, Boss. We are at the Back Forty stage tonight, right?”

“That is correct.”

“And the Back Forty stage is where it’s always been, right?”

“That is also correct.”

I frowned. “Well, my guide just left my ass and headed down to the Main Stage.”

Paul didn’t miss a beat. “All righty then. Come on back.”

“Be there in a minute.”

I dropped my cell, put the Mustang in First Gear, and made my way to the right and the Back Forty Stage. I quickly spotted Paul’s truck hauling the band’s equipment trailer and pulled in beside him and the new stage. I bounced out of Mustang and joined the group. “What happened to the old Back Forty Stage?” I enquired.

Paul shrugged. “Old owner tried to sell it to the campsite, campsite wouldn’t pony up for it, so he hooked it up to a trailer and hauled it away.” Perfectly reasonable response, we all thought.

The new stage wasn’t as long as the old, but was much deeper, practically forming a square; with the right placement of the instruments, amps and speakers, there would be plenty of room for all the performers to move around. Halogens were mounted up front, with two pole lights illuminating the world behind the stage. Only real downside was no roof – there was nothing above the stage but empty air. Would have been a deal breaker had the weather been bad, but luckily for us, we had clear skies as far as the eye could see.

rear view

The view from the back of the Back Forty stage as the crew sets up… full moon… should have known…

I’d been there less than five minutes when a golf cart bearing the lady from the front gate and an extremely hairy biker came pulling up to the stage to apparently talk to a couple of regulars. My girlfriend had her foot elevated so I could her walking cast – I quickly added two and two together and realized she was the owner’s wife… which meant the grizzly bear sitting beside her was her husband, the owner of the event. As I was finishing my arithmetic, I saw the lady stop her conversation just long enough to point at her husband, and then point at me. She went back to conversing with her buddies as her husband left the golf cart and motioned me over to him as he walked a way from the group. I moseyed up beside him and raised my eyebrows.

“I don’t appreciate you disrespecting my wife.”

All the oxygen in my brain took a powder. The whole reason why the band agreed to do the opening night and closing night with nothing in between was because this guy owns two other rallies we’d like to play, this was our one opportunity to show him what we could do – he’s now pissed off at me because I have pissed off his wife. Brilliant. Yay Keith.

This was running through my head while he was still talking:

“We don’t know you. You weren’t on the list for today. That badge doesn’t mean anything to my wife….”

That would be the band pass our contract stipulates we wear when we show up at gigs, so the venue owners not only know we are who we say we are, but they don’t get ripped off my somebody claiming to be us sneaking in for free. That band pass.

“This is my event, and if I say everybody gets a guide, that means everybody gets a guide….”

That would be the event guide no one offered me on Thursday, the event guide that drove to the wrong stage and never noticed he had lost me. That event guide.

I was stunned, flustered, and upset that my nerd personality has turned off a potential employer. I didn’t argue, and I didn’t say the things that were running through my head. “It was not my intention to be disrespectful to your wife, I was not attempting to be disrespectful to your wife. I just have a sarcastic sounding voice. I apologize if she took me wrong.”

He gave me a hard stare, then walked back and climbed into the golf cart beside his wife and her broken ankle. I briefly entertained apologizing to her directly, replayed my stammering reply to the grizzly bear in my mind, decided I was too discombobulated to attempt such politeness with any chance of success, and went back to stand next to my friends. A few moments later, the owner and his wife drove off. I looked over at Paul’s wife, Margaret. “The owner of this event just chastised me for dissing his wife.”

Margaret did a double-take. “He did what?”

“Chastised me. For being disrespectful. To his wife.”

Margaret stared at me. “What happened?”

I relayed the events of barely ten minutes earlier, including the part where the guide had left me and I had called Paul for instructions. “Well, damn.” Margaret replied. She softened a little. “She did break her ankle. She’s probably hot and tired and needs to take much better pain meds.”

“Can’t argue with you, there.” I agreed. “Hey Paul,” I called. “If we don’t get asked to do the September rally, it’s probably my fault. The owner’s wife thinks I’m an asshole.” I relayed the story I had just told to Margaret to him. “I’m sorry, bro. My standing smart-ass voice fucked me again.” My band leader shrugged it off. He still had a midnight-thirty gig and a missing band mate to worry about, so my dry, sarcastic delivery wasn’t his problem at the moment. Kind of loved him for that. He spent the next four hours working out how to get the best show out of what we had to work with, while I tamped down my rising anger – me being me had probably blown a golden opportunity for the band, which was bad; but two people who had never met me had decided I needed to be talked down to as if I was still in junior high, which was not sitting well with me. I was finally getting past my annoyance when Tim arrived around 11 pm. With the crew finally all in attendance, Paul put the finishing touches on the equipment.

All night, we’d been telling people who pulled up we’d be starting sometime between midnight and 12:30, and no, we couldn’t start any sooner than that – contractually, we had to wait until the Main Stage had shut down before we could fire it up. Unless we got a heads up from the owner, we’d be starting at 12:30 and no later. We kept explaining that to the crowd that started to gather around midnight, who kept egging us on to get on with the show. At 12:15, Paul announced “We are now allowed to do a sound check.” We tore through Long Trains Running, getting a big response from the crowd. “More! MORE!” the crowd yelled. “Can’t do it. 12:30. Ten more minutes.” We started counting down.

“Eight.”

“Five.”

“Two.”

“Thirty seconds.”

Paul’s son, Aaron, raised his hand and counted down from ten. When he hit one, he dropped his hands and pulled up the fader on the sound board. Paul played the first chords of American Girl, and it was on. We tore through our first three songs, not missing a beat. “How ya doin’, Crater!” I yelled out to the crowd. “We are the East Texas Garage Band, it’s the closing party on the Back Forty Stage, and it is time to get WEIRD! Make some NOISE, CRATER!” And the crowd yelled and clapped as we made our way into White Room. Halfway through one of the early songs, a curvy lady in a shear body stocking and high heels jumped up on stage – I kept singing while I motioned for her to get back down. Once the song was over, I address the crowd. “We want you to get as wild as you want, just keep it off the stage. I don’t want anyone taking a header off the front of the stage and hurting yourself. I’m pretty sure I’m the most sober person here.” That earned me a couple of boos, but all was forgiven as we threw ourselves into the next song.

Every time we ended a song, if I didn’t hear enough applause, I’d say “I can’t see you, so if I can’t hear you anymore, it’s time for us to shut it down. So if you’re not ready to call it a night, make some noise.” Yelling, screaming, whistling, and clapping would then boom out of the darkness, and we’d kick into the next song.

Around 2 am or so, a tanned woman with huge breasts, a pair of high heels, and nothing else begged Paul to let her come dance up on stage. “One song, Darlin’.” And up she came, showing us and everybody else what her mama had given her while we jammed to Keep Your Hands To Yourself. She did her best to distract Paul and JC, our drummer, who wisely chose not make eye contact with her. When we were done, she asked if she could stay for a second song, but Paul nixed that, so tanned chick left the stage with a huge smile. The crowd was quick to show their appreciation, though whether it was her dancing skills or her lack of clothing they were cheering for was open to debate.

Keith Crater May 2016

The picture of a vocalist who is tired of being misunderstood… and tired of being rained on…

At 2:30, Paul yelled over at Aaron to pull the faders down. Paul exited the stage, so I started saying our goodnights. The crowd as having none of it. “One more song! One more song! Encore! Encore!”

I looked over at the guys. Tim was slinging his guitar back on. “Hell, let’s do TWO more,” he grinned. Paul had returned from the tree line – he needed a pause for the cause – and was slinging his guitar back on. “I don’t care what the second one is, but the first song I want Scary Snare.” Paul called over to JC. “Scary Snare!” and JC started into Surrender – we nailed it. Super Dave the bassist then called out “Beer Drinkers and Hell Raisers.” I addressed the crowd.

“Do we have any Beer Drinkers!” Screams.

“Do we have any HELL RAISERS!” Even more screams.

Super Dave counted it off and we roared into ZZ Top. At the start of the guitar solo, two very happy and very naked women jumped up on stage and started dancing next to me. I turned to the side so I could face the women on my left, the woman on my right got behind be, and the three of us started to dirty grind together, a poor man’s Lambada Ménage à Trois. The ladies were still grinding up on me when it came time for me to sing, so I just went with it, turning my head towards the front of the stage so I wouldn’t smack one of my new fans with my wireless microphone. We finished up our dance as we finished up our song. “Give it up for our Solid Gold Dancers!” I called out. Just as I was about to give our goodbyes yet again, JC went into the drum intro for Led Zeppilin’s Rock and Roll. I grabbed my tambourin, and off we went. JC beat his drums like he was trying to tear holes in them during his final drum solo, and Paul sang out, “YEAH! Rock and roll all night! We are The East Texas Garage Band! We love you! We will see you next time, Crater! GOOD NIGHT!”

We all hit the last beat, and Aaron dropped the volume on all the speakers and monitors. It was a quarter hour until 3 am – we’d played for two hours and fifteen minutes, the equivalent of three sets back to back. And the crowd was still calling out for more.

Over the applause, I yelled over at Paul, “Call 911! ‘Cause we KILLED IT!”

Paul grinned from ear to ear.

I jumped down from the stage, unlocked the Mustang, threw my tambourin and cow bell into the back seat and replace my sun shades with my everyday glasses. I went out into the crowd to thank folks for staying so late. One of our longtime Crater fans, Bunny, asked if I was going to stay and party with them, she hadn’t had her chance to corrupt me yet. I smiled and shrugged. “I would love to, but I am married to a very possessive woman who can’t sleep when I’m not home – I need to head back and keep her company.” Bunny made a pouty face. “I will do what I can to get her out here in September – if we’re asked back for September – and we’ll see about that corrupting.”

“You bring her!” Bunny shouted. “That’s our anniversary and we want you here!”

I hugged Tim before he headed off to DFW. Paul paid me, so I assumed The Boss had been down. I hoped that he’d made it while we were still killing it to see we were worth every penny we’d been paid. I hugged the guys, kissed Margaret’s cheek, promised Paul I’d text him as soon as I made it home safe and sound, and I made my exit. If I hurried, if I didn’t stop for a very late dinner, and if I could avoid the local constabulary, I could make it home before dawn – I ended up beating sunlight by about a half-hour.

I spent the drive home and most of Sunday thinking about the snafu at the front gate and my getting chastised, comparing my Saturday night experience with my Tuesday night experience. The band was tight all weekend; as great as we did on the Main Stage, we were even better on the Back Forty stage, and nothing compares to the feeling of being in a group that is firing on all cylinders, especially when the crowd is showing their appreciation. But the people who own the event talked to me for less than five minutes and came to the positive conclusion that I’m an asshole and a troublemaker; I talked to a young man for less than five minutes on Tuesday, and he hugged me for showing him kindness and compassion, for seeing him for who he is. Tuesday night, I never once felt I needed to check myself before I wrecked myself; Saturday, I forgot to keep my enthusiasm in check and immediately got on the last nerve of a woman already having a lousy weekend.

Saturday night, the only time I felt like I belonged was when I was singing. Tuesday night, I felt at home from the moment my lovely Lady Fair got in line to enter the club until I left for the rally Thursday afternoon.

If Paul wants to keep playing rallies, we may need to consider having him take over as the front man – I obviously don’t have the right personality for the crowd.

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A Study In Contrasts, Part One

Hank Green Dallas Poster

I wish I could get away with doing this kind of venue poster… ’cause this rocks!

I am still looking for a daytime gig. Lately, my search has been hampered by my schedule: I walk into a job interview, and good manners dictates that I warn my prospective employer that if they hire me, the first thing they have to do is give me a couple of days off. Without pay, of course – no entitlements here, I don’t expect to be paid if I don’t work – but the dates I need off have been on my calendar for weeks, and I can’t bail on contractual obligations. This is the kind of confession that makes for awkward interviews – I’m glad that last week is now last week and firmly in my rearview mirror.

Last Tuesday, my wife and I had a concert date in Dallas. Last Thursday, The East Texas Garage Band was the opening act for the now-named Crater Rally out in Mt. Enterprise. Last Saturday night/Sunday morning at 12:30 am, The East Texas Garage Band was the closing act for the now-named Crater Rally out in Mt. Enterprise. So last week was one extremely busy week.

The first half of the week:

My lovely Lady Fair and I are big fans of John and Hank Green, collectively known as The Vlog Brothers. Long story short, years ago they attempted a social experiment on a then unknown new media platform called YouTube: they would only communicate to each other through video chats (video blogs, or vlogs for short) for a year; no phone calls, no emails, no letters – just over YouTube. Vlogs had to be less than four minutes (unless explaining something academic) and messages had to occur everyday, or the offending brother had to perform a punishment, usually picked by the viewers. Back when nobody knew what YouTube could be used for, this concept was revolutionary; given the parameters, Hank and John were forced to be as original and creative as possible. Their experiment soon became one of the Must Watch channels of the fledgling media platform.

John went on to become a very successful writer of Young Adult novels, with two of my favorites (The Fault In Our Stars and Paper Towns) being adapted into fantastic movies. Hank took his knowledge of the World Wide Web and YouTube in particular and started producing new content, my favorite being the web series The Lizzie Bennett Diaries (a retelling of Pride and Prejudice using only vlogs to forward the story). Nearly a decade later, they still chat to each other via YouTube – still under four minutes, still can’t miss a day, but now only on Tuesdays and Fridays – and it is still Must Watch for me and the lovely Lady Fair.

Hank Green

Hank Green, photo courtesy of US News

During the initial run of The Vlog Brothers, John convinced Hank to give songwriting a try, which resulted in the wildly entertaining Accio, Deathly Hallows,” a song about how Hank wanted author JK Rowlings to hurry up and finish Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows so he could read it. That video of Hank singing his first song ended up being so popular it appeared on YouTube’s landing page, netting The Vlog Brothers thousands of new fans. Soon, John and Hank had dubbed this community The Nerdfighters, with a simple and glorious mission statement: we were here to stop world suck. To that end, they organized a charitable institution, challenged the Nerdfighters to make videos promoting their good cause of choice, and gave money to the charities with the most votes during the annual Project for Awesome. Last year, twenty charities collectively received over $1 Million in donations from Project for Awesome and The Nerdfighters.

It kind of goes without saying… my lovely Lady Fair and I are proud to be Nerdfighters.

Over the years, Hank’s songwriting has morphed into a singing career. He writes and sings delightfully goofy and rocking songs called The Universe Is Weird and I Love Science.” When he isn’t busy producing and starring in videos and running the Nerdfighters’ warehouse of swag (known has the DFTBA Warehouse, DFTBA being the initialism of The Nerdfighters’ motto, Don’t Forget To Be Awesome), Hank records songs, produces CDs, and every so often goes on a tour. Somehow, the stars aligned just so, and Hank and his merry band of musical cohorts decided to visit the middle of the country, with stops in Houston, Austin, and Dallas.

I saw that one of the stops was Dallas. I saw that the date was on a Tuesday night, before my lovely Lady Fair’s day off on Wednesday. I still didn’t have a job to wake up for. The tickets were stupid cheap. I told the lovely Lady Fair, “This is too good of an opportunity to pass up. I don’t care if we are broke as hell – we have to go. This might be our only chance.” Just so happened my Mother-in-Law felt bad she hadn’t taken me out for dinner on my Birthday, and wanted to make amends – she bought the tickets. The show would be in Deep Ellum, which meant we only needed to drive about twenty minutes to get to the club.

Deep Ellum is an amazingly eclectic area taking in Pacific Avenue, Main Street, Elm Street, Commerce Street, and Canton as they lay West of Exposition Avenue and East of the 1-75 overpass. Deep Ellum comes from the mispronunciation of “Deep Elm Street” by the early African-American and European immigrant residents in start of the 20th Century. Henry Ford’s first Model T factory was in Deep Ellum, stayed there until the 1930’s. Adams Hats housed their headquarters there for a time. In the 1920’s, Deep Ellum was the place to take in Jazz and Blues, with Robert Parker, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Blind Lemon Jefferson, Bessie Smith, and Leadbelly Ledbetter as frequent performers. From the 1980’s to its heyday in the 1990’s, Deep Ellum was the place for new music, with 57 bars and nightclubs hosting local and up-and-coming bands. The Toadies, Old 97s, Tripping Daisy, The Butthole Surfers, and The New Bohemians could all be found honing their craft in venues like Trees and Club Dada 20-25 years ago. A reputation for being crime-ridden and dangerous almost put the area out of business when the recession of the 2000’s hit; and by 2006, most of the bars and nightclubs had closed – here in the last few years, however, there’s been a small renaissance in Deep Ellum, with new music venues seemingly opening up every week. Storefronts, restaurants, coffee shops, tattoo parlors, art galleries… the area just has a groovy, arty vide that appeals to folks who prefer to be just a bit left of center. A musical buddy of mine took in the music scene in Los Angeles, Austin, and Deep Ellum, and decided to relocate to Dallas – out of the three destinations, Deep Ellum had the highest concentration of venues, thus more opportunities for a musician to make some cash.

Harry and The Potters

Harry and The Potters, photo courtesy of their website

I wasn’t surprised Hank Green and his tour landed in Deep Ellum. We got there about an hour before the venue, The Door, opened at 7 pm. Before long, my introvert wife was chiming in on the conversations around us, because one must always chime in when someone asks “Which house were you sorted into?” regardless if they were speaking to you or not – it is a moral imperative. One of our line mates, a Potterhead who may or may not have pre-loaded before heading to the gig, talked about how he and his cohorts had a couple of songs up in YouTube, songs they had shot at various location guerilla-style. Once we got inside and settled, I made it a point to catch the young man’s attention and ask him more about his side-project indy band, which he happily gushed about. Later in the night, after visiting the bar more than once, my new friend came and found me – after raving about how good all the bands were, not just the band he was here to see, he pulled me in close. “Can I ask you a question?”

I put my hand on his shoulder and leaned in so I could hear him. “Sure. What’s up?”

“Why haven’t you offered to take me home yet?”

I stared at him for a second, then gestured to my lovely Lady Fair with my chin. “Because my wife is sitting right there beside me.” His eyes didn’t register what I had said. “I just don’t swing that way.”

His eyes welled with disappointment. “That’s all you had to say.”

I kept my hand on his shoulder and leaned into his ear. “My oldest friend in the world was as queer as a three dollar bill. I went to my first gay bar at 18, didn’t make it to my first straight bar until I was 21. It’s all good.”

He looked miserable. “Then why can’t I find someone? I drive to Memphis just to have breakfast, I have seven brooms on my wall ready for Quidditch – where are my gay nerds?” He looked at the ground, swaying a little. “Why am I alone?”

I looked him in the eye. “I don’t know. I thought you were fascinating the minute I met you, and I would love to know you better. It will happen for you, but it will happen when you stop looking.” I put my free hand on his heart. “All I can tell you is, in the meantime, you’re gonna have to learn to love you.”

I kept his gaze as I watched to see if that sunk in. My new friend pulled me into a light hug and kissed my cheek before wandering back off into the crowd. My lovely wife looked at me with her patented WTF? look. I shrugged. “I was just hit on.”

Driftless Pony Club

Driftless Pony Club, photo courtesy of their website

She laughed and made a comment about only being seen as a beard for Gay Guys. I just smiled and said, “Watch your step – evidently, I have options.”

Other than Hank, the only other band I had heard of before was Harry and The Potters, Probably the best known band of the mostly unknown music genre of Wizard Rock (Wrock for short). Wrock is bands and songs based on the books and movies devoted to Harry Potter, pure and simple. Draco and The Malfoys, The Moaning Myrtles, The Whomping Willows – all Wrock Bands. Harry and The Potters are known for putting on amazingly fun shows, as videos of their gigs at LeakyCon can attest. Their mastery of the audience coupled with their surprising musical skills made for an incredible set.

Driftless Pony Club is Craig Benzine’s band. Craig is better known as Weezy Waiter on YouTube, another early pioneer of the platform. Back when you could count the number of original content creators on YouTube on one hand, those content creators often contacted each other, helping promote each other’s endeavors, and thus a core friendship developed. Craig is often on Mental Floss’s YouTube channel, substituting for John Green as host; he also hosts the Government addition to Hank’s educational web series Crash Course. Drifless Pony Club was new to me, but I enjoyed them immensely. Craig stated that Weezer was a big influence on his songwriting; listening to the band perform, though, I got the feel of more of a marriage between Kings of Leon and The Knack, and in the best of ways.

Rob Scallon Andrew Huang

Rob Scallon and Andrew Huang, photos courtesy of their YouTube channels

I’d never heard of Rob Scallon or Andrew Huang, two musicians with their own very popular YouTube channels. After hearing them perform, however, I am rectifying that, as they were both incredible. Scallon played an 8-string guitar with a heavy reverb and major delay, creating almost hypnotic instrumental melodies; Huang took a sampler and looped the sound he made from balloons, boxes of quinoa, and cans of chickpeas to create backing tracks for the songs he sang. Both blew me away.

Hank was surprisingly sweet and awkward. It still amazes him that the skinny kid who planned on growing up and going into ecology and web design is singing original tunes in front of screaming crowds, and it shows – he is extremely polite and almost embarrassingly humble. Watching him perform with his backing band, The Perfect Strangers, is to watch pure joy; he doesn’t just dance on stage – he POGOS to his infectious, ridiculously catchy songs tinged with the punk and ska influences of his high school days. With seemingly thousands of words crammed into every lyric, his songs can only be described as Nerd Rock, and honestly, I am now jealous as all get out he gets to perform Nerd Rock and I do not.

Hank Green and The Perfect Strangers

Hank Green and The Perfect Strangers, photo courtesy of Shelley Jones’ YouTube channel

The most amazing part of seeing Hank Green and The Perfect Strangers was how my lovely wife and I felt being in the crowd, standing in line, then finding our place in the club, and eventually joining the masses near the stage: we felt at home. Welcome. Wasn’t uncomfortable being in a crowded venue, didn’t feel out of place surrounded by kids half our age. Everywhere we looked, we say Harry Potter neckties and DFTBA t-shirts; quotes from The Fault In Our Stars and the Titansgrave web series; and most of all, we saw people being un-ironically enthusiastic about the fun they were experiencing watching their favorite bands. Nobody was trying to be too hip for the room, nobody was trying to be too cool for the proceedings: everybody was loud and dancing and just loving being in the moment. Everybody was nerding out.

This was the sensation that the lovely Lady Fair – and, to and certain degree, I, too – had been missing at my band’s shows. We’re not Bikers – we’re Nerds. We’re proud to be Nerds. For the first time in a very long time, we were with our people – this was our tribe, and we could be who we are with no worries. We left the club exhausted but invigorated… our feet were tired, but our hearts and souls were full.

25 Years

DSVpatch As far as my musical life is concerned, everything has been turned on its ear. The band lost our secret weapon to health issues; my solo work guitarist joined a band; my new piano player and singing partner got called away to work on a Broadway album; so musically, I was a dead man walking during the holidays. Good news is the band has a new guitarist and vocalist, and our first official show with the new line-up is in two weeks, which just happens to be my annual Birthday Bash – I will have a Rock Star post about the bash soon after; and as soon as I’ve cleared the air with my two musicians, I’m hoping to have another post or two.

In the meantime…

I wrote this over on Facebook, decided I needed to go ahead and share this here. Because even though this blog is supposed to be about me becoming a Rock Star, this is part of who I am, and a big reason I am who I am.

It is the 25th Anniversary of Desert Shield and Desert Storm. When I joined the Army, it was three weeks after the invasion of Kuwait. I did not join because I wanted to get shipped off to the Persian Gulf – I joined because my work life was going nowhere, I was in love with a wonderful woman I could not support, and I was desperate to feel that sense of belonging and purpose I had back when I’d been a kid in Boy Scouts and JROTC. I wanted to belong to something greater than myself… but I also didn’t want anyone asking me why I didn’t have the stones to go off and do my patriotic duty. So even though there was a very good chance I’d find myself in the middle of a desert in six months time, I signed the paperwork, took my oath, and headed off to Basic Training a month later, September 25th, 1990.

I got my orders to go to Desert Storm on February 1st, 1991; I got married on the 3rd, and then graduated on the 8th. I took a quick trip back to Texas so that everyone I cared about would have one last memory of me laughing and smiling; and then I flew back to Augusta, Georgia, where I would spend the next week doing… well, nothing. Somewhere deep inside the Pentagon, it was still being debated exactly how many troops would be necessary for the Persian Gulf; while the Generals and Admirals made up their minds, I spent a week picking up garbage, mowing grass, and trying to stay out from underfoot. Even after I was shipped down the road to Fort Benning to be outfitted, there was still scuttlebutt our particular group of soldiers wouldn’t be called on, more than enough boots were already on the ground. So while we took possession of our still-wet from gun oil M16A1’s and fresh, never-before-used protective masks complete with atropine injectors, the ones of us with something or someone to lose kept hoping and praying we’d get left behind.

February 19th all that hoping and praying were for nothing. We all loaded up onto a double-decker jumbo jet, wedging all our gear in around us, and took off. First for New York City for fueling and supplies; then to Belguim for more fuel and fresh pilots; and then finally to King Fahd International Airport in Dammam, Saudi Arabia. The trip took nearly twenty hours – even though we’d boarded around 6am, I stayed awake the entire flight. The last thing I wanted to do was rush this trip, so I did all I could to make the flight last as long as possible.

I’ve always had a high opinion of myself – I’m smart, talented, and semi-charming when I’m not trying too hard. I never thought I’d actually end up in a war zone – somehow, someway, the Universe would pull some strings at the last second, poke me in the ribs and exclaim “Psyche!” and put my butt somewhere else out of harm’s way. I was still holding on to that delusion five minutes before the jumbo jet landed – the pilot came over the loud speaker:

“This is your captain speaking. We’re coming up on King Fahd International Airport and are going to start our descent. Since we’re not sure what can of reception to expect, we’re going to corkscrew in so it’s harder to get a bead on us. If at any time I hear bullets bouncing off this aircraft, I will gun the engines and we will head back to Belgium. Attendants, prepare for final approach.”

Never before in my life had I ever prayed to be fired on – my prayers were not answered. Twenty minutes later, I was on the tarmac and carrying my gear towards an airplane hangar full of cots. And it hit me that I was not one of God’s favorites – I wasn’t going to get a last-second reprieve; I was going to war. Worse, I was no longer a person – I was just a thumbtack on a map signifying unit strength and placement. While I could say that I was truly a part of something bigger than myself for the first time in years, I’d done so by sacrificing my individuality. I was just a service number on someone’s clipboard somewhere, a faceless, nameless cog in the military machine. If I died, no one I cared about would know for months, maybe years.

(Maybe not at all. The Army had sent me overseas in such a rush, my records had become lost. I would be stateside six months before my records would catch up with me in Colorado.)

Since the 8th, every time I stepped onto a vehicle, some of the soldiers I knew and had trained with had been pealed away and sent somewhere else. Graduation had sent all the Reservists and Guardsman back to their homes, including my best friend and Best Man; the trip to Fort Benning had separated more of my old company; and after a night at the airport, the replacement detachment people divided up even more of my old squad. By the time I loaded up onto the old, rickety double-decker bus, I was by myself. No one I’d met in Basic Training was still with me. My support system was now the Army. I’d have to depend on the fact we were all in the same uniform to prompt my brothers and sisters to watch my back… just as they’d depend on their uniform to prompt me to watch theirs. Which is how my particular experiences differs from my contemporaries, my other friends around my age with military experience like my band leader – when they were sent into hairy situations, they were with the people they knew, soldiers they had trained with. They knew how each squad member would react in given situations, had some indication as to how their NCO’s and officers would lead them. I had none of that – all my friends, squad members, NCO’s and officers were gone. I was surrounded by hundreds of people wearing my uniform, and yet I was completely alone.

(Well… sort of wearing my uniform. While I had gotten a new rifle, bayonet, helmet, and protective mask, I had not been issued a Desert Camouflage Battle Dress Uniform – I was still wearing the Woodland Green BDU’s I gotten in AIT, the replacements for the set I’d been issued in Basic Training that no longer fit after I’d dropped forty pounds. The other soldiers that had been snatched up directly out of AIT were also in green BDU’s – the joke soon became if some sort of enemy aircraft came in for a strafing run, we should all huddle together and try to camouflage ourselves as an oasis.)

There is scared, and then there is scared… and then there is what I was experiencing. I was numb. It was as if someone had injected novocaine into my emotional core – I was thinking clearly, I knew exactly what was going on, I understood what was being explained to me and I followed orders to the letter… there was just no emotional response to any of it. I was scared past the point my system could process it, so it had stopped processing anything: no fear, no joy, no skepticism, no anger, no longing, no nothing. As far as emotions were concerned, I was a functioning corpse.

(While I was awake – asleep, I had nightmares of being chased by something horrible trying to kill me. One night it was Jason from the “Friday the 13th” series; the next night, it was the Alien aboard The Nostromo; zombies shambled after me one night; and one extra special night, it was the giant spider I’d first dreamed of when I was four years old, the jet-black horror the size of a VW Beetle that had haunted me ever since. Every night, I sat up, jolted awake by whatever it was pursuing me, trying to catch my breath and hoping I didn’t cry out in my sleep… only to realize I was in the Army, sleeping in the dirt with my field jacket as a pillow, in the middle of a war zone. And then I would wish I was still asleep – as terrible as the nightmare had been, it was less terrifying than the reality I was living.)

DesertStorm I was supposed to join an artillery unit that was laying down suppressing fire for the 101st, but my convoy got stuck waiting for a tank division to cross the one and only highway going our direction for four hours; by the time we reached the halfway station, it was after dark. Since it was pitch black and a wrong turn meant finding yourself inside the wrong end of Iraq, our bus driver refused to go any further – we’d carry on at first light. That night, February 22nd, the ground assault officially started; and by first light, the unit I was supposed to be joining was one hundred miles in country. The decision was made that I and the rest of the replacements would stay at the halfway station until our receiving units found a place to park.

(Replacements. The military estimated that there would be 30,000 casualties the first wave of the ground assault, so all of the units had the number of their personnel increased to 125% capacity. I and the rest of the soldiers I was holed up with were to replace those unit members injured or killed during the first wave, which is why a communications graduate was being sent to an artillery unit.)

I don’t pray often. Not because I don’t think it works, but because of the exact opposite – I do think prayer works, and if a prayer of mine is to be answered, I want to make sure it’s a situation completely out of my realm of control, as close to a miracle as possible. It’s rare when I pray, but I found myself gazing into the heavens that night. That far out in the middle of nowhere, there are no ambient city lights to interfere, so stars are visible all across the sky. In all my years of Scouting and volunteering with The Order of The Arrow, I had never seen some many stars. I had listened to everything my drill sergeants had been telling me since late September, I knew what was expected and what had been planned for, and I knew what my chances were expected to be. I wasn’t scared of dying – when you’re dead, you’re dead, nothing left to worry about – but I couldn’t shake something one of our drill sergeants had said weeks earlier:

“It’s not the bullet that has your name on it you have to worry about – it’s going to find you no matter what – it’s the one labeled ‘To Whom It May Concern” you gotta look out for. ‘Cause it don’t care who or what it hits.”

I didn’t want to lose my legs. I didn’t want to end up blind. I didn’t want to be maimed. I didn’t know how strong I could be, and I didn’t want to put my wife of less than a month through a lifetime of nursing me. So I prayed. I asked whoever or whatever it was that had me convinced there was a higher power at work to not let me be crippled; if going home whole was not to be, then please, just go ahead and kill me.

I then told the Universe I’d make it easy. I had every intention of going home. I had a new wife I’d never been on a honeymoon with, never lived with as a married couple with, and I’d be damned if I didn’t get the chance of experiencing the simple joys with her. I was going home, so whatever and whoever got in-between me and her had to go. I’d kill whoever I needed to, I’d destroy whatever I needed to, I’d become whatever monster I needed to be to make that goal. I wasn’t asking forgiveness – I was just stating fact. If I wasn’t to go home, then kill me now, because there would be no middle ground.

Four days later, the cease-fire was called. The middle ground wouldn’t be necessary – I’d be going home. And well sooner than expected: mine had been one of the last planes to land before the ground assault, so I was with stationed with a bunch of Independent Ready Reservists who’d been called up with just days left on their contracts. The IRR’s had careers and families back in the States, and their wives were hard at work, calling their Congresspeople to get their husbands sent back home ricky-tick. Their combined pestering worked, so instead of the six months I’d expected to spend in the Persian Gulf, I spent just under six weeks, long enough to earn a couple of medals and the right to wear a combat patch.

After that, life happened so fast, I didn’t have a lot of time to process what I’d been through… other than to notice my head suddenly sparkled. Where once I’d had a stray silver hair here or there, I now had hundreds of stark white strands all over. I moved my wife to Colorado Springs for two years of active duty; then to Arlington, TX for three years of Reserves while I want to art school at night, holding down a full-time job during the day. It wasn’t until after I got my orders moving my status to the IRR and I graduated that the war began to seep in. Not showering enough love and praise on my deserving wife was the first indication something wasn’t completely up to snuff; a lingering dissatisfaction with my day job and it’s lack of social significance another. But it was after the invasion of Iraq that everything came bursting out.

9-11 had been traumatic, but no more so for me than it was for any other American; the invasion of Afghanistan didn’t bother me, really – if anything, I was disappointed it had taken weeks to get to doing what I thought would be undertaken the week after the Twin Towers came down; but when the military went into Iraq, something inside me snapped. Iraq had been my war, and my war had been over for a decade. I had gotten accustomed to my participation being overlooked or even forgotten… and yet, here it was: boots in Iraq, fighting my war all over again, restarting what I had been led to believe had been finished. As I watched the news, as I saw the troops land inside my war zone, I began to sniffle. Slow tears began to slide down my cheeks. I wiped my eyes and went back to getting ready for my day job, making pretty pictures to sell couches to the Middle class… only the tears kept coming. Not a sobbing fit… just slowly tearing up, clearing my throat and wiping me eyes, over and over and over again, for the next three days.

For three days, the only time I wasn’t crying was when I was asleep. I stayed home from work. The counselor I’d started seeing after my marriage had started to crumble was sympathetic, but not much help. If I wanted the tears to stop, I’d need to confront all the stuff I’d buried a decade earlier.

There’s an unspoken truth to being a soldier: you’re only truly a soldier when you’ve done your job during a war. Whatever you’re particular job specialty, part of what you train for, part of what you prepare for, is doing that job in the field during a combat operation. And while the training and preparation is vitally important, it is still not the real thing; soldiers with combat patches – sometimes consciously, sometimes unconsciously – get afforded a higher level of respect than soldiers without. I had a combat patch; I had felt that respect while I served; but I also felt like a fraud – I’d only done half my job. I knew what it was like to stand up and be counted, I knew what it was like to be ready to lay down my life, and I knew what it was like to be in a war zone surrounded by not just enemies, but FEAR… but I didn’t know what it was to be under fire; I didn’t know what it was like to be counted on to protect my brothers and sisters; I didn’t know what it was like to take another life in defense of everything I hold dear; and I especially didn’t know if my courage would hold true in the face of hopeless odds.

During the war, I’d been prepared to do terrible things – now, years later, part of me was thankful I’d never had to do those terrible things; but just as large a part of me was wracked with guilt I hadn’t done those terrible things. Thankful I hadn’t had to do a terrible job, but left feeling like a fake because I hadn’t had to do a terrible job. And now that ground forces were back in Iraq, I was thankful I wasn’t there with them, yet feeling guilty that I wasn’t still serving my country; and worse, even more guilty for feeling thankful it wasn’t me overseas a second time.

For years, my wife and I would see and read reports of people who’d never finished their military contracts finding themselves called back into uniform years later. People a hundred pounds overweight, grandmothers in their 50’s, high-paid executives who had forgotten to resign their commissions, all being backdoor-drafted back into serving. And even though I knew my contract was over, I’d received my letter saying I’d been removed from IRR roll, I still went to the mailbox every day with dread, half-expecting to find the letter commanding me to go to my nearest recruitment center, half-hoping to find that same letter so the dread and the guilt would finally be over.

I was at home, in-between freelance assignments, when the troops officially left Iraq a few years ago. I cried as I watched the convoy cross over the border. Since that day, I haven’t had a nightmare about being reenlisted in the Army – while there were still troops in Iraq, I had that nightmare every six to eight weeks or so.

It is the 25th Anniversary of Desert Shield and Desert Storm. It’s the middle of an election season, so the anniversary of the ground assault has been overlooked and ignored by the media except for the military magazines and newspapers. It originally took about two years for me to go from being an American hero to a footnote. Back in 1993-94, the economy was starting to improve, unemployment was dropping, and the stock market was beginning a meteoric rise. The Persian Gulf had been the former President’s war, and he was gone, replaced by charismatic Southerner who had never served in uniform. No one was still itching to shake the hand of a veteran any more – they all had important things to do.

After the caskets started coming back week after week, month after month, after “Mission Accomplished” had been declared, suddenly the same folks who’d had important things to do ten years earlier were crying as they hugged me, thanking me for my service. by 2006, I was back to being an American hero again.

Another ten years have passed, and I’m back to being a footnote. The veterans of Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom are probably starting to experience that sensation, as well. No one is talking about the “advisors” that are still in Iraq and Afghanistan, no one is talking about the backlogs in the VA hospitals, and no one is talking about the suicide rate among the recently discharged veterans.

It is the 25th Anniversary of Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Since mid-January, when I haven’t thought about my 50th birthday party bash in March, I’ve looked at the calendar and remembered where I was 25 years ago. This isn’t just my 25th Wedding Anniversary, and this isn’t just my 50th birthday… this is the 25th anniversary of my becoming a Desert Storm veteran, and like it or not, that is just as important as the other two events. I’d be lying if I said there were never times I wished that wasn’t the case… but it is what it is. And I am who I am.

Nothing to Prove

Cosplayer

Cosplayer at the 2013 San Diego Con. Photo courtesy of http://www.mtv.com/geek

I’m a Geek. Even though I stopped collecting, I still call myself a comic book geek – I have Steranko‘s autograph, I have Stan Lee‘s autograph, I have Julie Schwartz‘s autograph, I have Martin Nodell‘s autograph; I’ve seen every episode of Star Trek: TOS and Star Trek: TNG; I was standing in line at the butt-crack of dawn for Return of the Jedi and at midnight for Phantom Menace both opening days; I have every Harry Potter book in hardback; I watched Firefly on Friday nights, then gave copies of the DVD to my friends; I’ve seen every Highlander movie, including the bootleg Director’s Cut of the first sequel; I have a copy of the translated Crying Freeman manga in trade paperback; I can tell the difference between a Ditko Spider-Man and a Romita Spider-Man; and I have original artwork from Stangers in Paradise framed and hanging in my dining room. No one doubts my Geek Cred.

Spending whatever meager allowance I could muster up for comic books when I was 8 or 9 was cool; making weekly treks to the comic book shop when I was 16 or 17 was not. I caught a lot of grief for my passion, up to and including losing a letter-grade off of a paper when my English teacher didn’t consider X-Men #137 a viable source material, and being tossed over a table by a football player who didn’t appreciate my wrecking the Bell Curve in Art VI with anatomy studies of Colossus. Now that The Avengers is the biggest movie in the world, Harry Potter is the biggest movie franchise in the world, Game of Thrones has been nominated for an Emmy for Best Drama three years in a row, and Lord of the Rings: Return of the King won the Oscar for Best Picture, being a Geek is suddenly cool. Very cool. So cool even the hipsters are wearing their Justice League t-shirts ironically with their hoodies and black rimmed glasses. I was never un-cool – I was just thirty years ahead of my time.

Now that is finally mainstream to love comics and manga, animation and anime, Neil Gaiman and Joss Whedon however, there’s a bit of a backlash from the Geeks who withstood the stares, the name-calling and the bullying for so many years – they’re not ready to be amongst the normals, they still maintain their self-image through exclusivity. Suddenly, it’s all about the True Geek versus the Johnny-Come-Lately’s: you’re not a true Whovian unless you were watching the Tom Baker years on Saturdays at midnight on PBS; you’re not a true Avengers fan unless you knew who the purple alien was at the end of the film without Googling Ain’t It Cool News; you’re not a Potterhead if you don’t know which of the Marauders was Harry’s father; you’re not a true Geek if you’re a girl into Cosplay; you’re not a true Geek if you’re a girl at the Con just for the Twilight panel; you’re not a true Geek if you’re a girl, period.

Again and again, boys, young men and adults; amateurs and professionals alike, are complaining that the press shows up and spends too much time filming the Cosplay hotties, the Booth Babes, and the Geek Girls in their Team Jacob t-shirts and over-sized glasses. And because there are a small number of attractive model-types showing up at events in revealing costumes and bikini-ready bodies, the True Geeks have labeled all females Un-True, only there to garner attention to themselves, attention they couldn’t get somewhere else. Girls aren’t real Geeks.

Bullshit.

25 years ago, I started dating a beautiful, amazing young woman. Since I wanted to spend every waking hour with her, I introduced her to comic books – I started her off with my original run of Elf*Quest. When that didn’t run her off, I took her to my comic book shop and asked the clerk for a suggestion: needed a comic book for a girl who wasn’t into long-underwear characters. The clerk said a new series had just started a couple of months earlier, was dark, gothic, more fantasy-based and was getting amazing reviews, might just be what she was after – soon, my Lady Fair was dragging me to the comic shop every month to pick up the next issue of The Sandman.

My wife is a Geek – a bright, talented, friendly, lovely Geek. My wife took to being a Geek like a fish takes to water. The Sandman statues in the house belong to her. She introduced me to Harry Potter. She introduced me to The Guild. It’s her Strangers in Paradise original artwork framed in the office. She stood in line seven hours to buy tickets for the opening night of the new Star Wars movie. She’s read every Sookie Stackhouse book. She’s read every Anita Blake book. She’s read Mists of Avalon. She owns every season of Buffy on DVD. She wrote Mobile Suit Gundam Wing slash fiction. We stood in line at midnight together to get our copies of Order of the Phoenix, Half-Blood Prince, and Deathly Hallows. We stood in line together to see the final Harry Potter movie in 3-D at midnight.

Does she know who Lamont Cranston is? No. Has she ever played Skyrim? No. Does she know the difference between Jor-L and Jor-El? No. Does my wife know who Spider Jerusalem is? Yes. Has my Lady Fair beaten every level of Portal and Portal 2? Yes. Does the love of my life read Joe Hill and John Scalzi? YES.

My Lady Fair has nothing to prove. The PFC from my reserve unit who introduced me to Ender’s Game has nothing to prove. My ex-girlfriend who introduced me to Robert Aspirin and Myth Adventures has nothing to prove. The high school marching band member who introduced me to Elf*Quest has nothing to prove. All the intelligent, warm, amazing girls and women I know who are unapologetically enthusiastic about the comics, novels, movies, games, music, and television shows they love have NOTHING. TO. PROVE.

And as for that meager handful of hotties that show up and steal all the thunder, two things:

1. Remember the old adage “All publicity is good publicity.” If that amazon with the belly so tight you could bounce a quarter off of it in the almost-perfect Witchblade costume means the Con gets that much more time on the evening news, then that’s a Win-Win for her AND the Con. Quit yer bitchin’.

2. Remember what it felt like when the Cool Kids wouldn’t let you in their club. Then grow the fuck up.

Because here’s the thing: if you spend your time excluding people from your “club” because of their gender, no one will think of you as a  GEEK – they’ll be thinking of you as a DICK.

The Doubleclicks, who said it better than I. And the stuff I didn’t link to? Go look it up.

Dancing for the Desperate and the Broken-Hearted

I heard something over the weekend that broke my heart.

For a guy who took voice lessons and sings a little Italian to sound impressive, I’m not that big on opera. I like certain songs, mainly the biggies everybody’s heard – O Solo Mio, Nessum Dorma, etc. – but overall, not my cup of tea. Given the choice between going to a dive bar to listen to a little three-piece blues combo or heading to the Dallas Opera to sit through La Boheme, I’ll take the dive bar.

(Downtown to watch a rap crew or the Dallas Opera? Opera, every time. I am so very, very caucasian.)

For a dude not all that down on opera, I do love me some big, over-blown operatic rock tunes, though. Paradise by Dashboard Light, I Would Do Anything For Love (But I Won’t Do That), It’s All Coming Back To Me Now, Making Love Out of Nothing At All, and my all-time favorite, Total Eclipse of the Heart – total rock opera, baby, and I LOVE THEM. The melodic, almost music-box beginnings; the build up in thematic intensity; the choral back-up singers; the big crescendo – I mean, DAMN, what is not to love?

Jim Steinman

Looks like the guy who’d write “On a hot summer night, would you offer your throat to the wolf with the red rose?”

Those with a serious musical background will notice more than just a theme running through those songs I picked: they were all written by the great Jim Steinman. Steinman was the composer, lyricist and/or producer on the epic Bat Out of Hell and Bat Out of Hell II/Back into Hell albums with Meat Loaf, which would be enough to guarantee his inclusion into the Songwriters Hall of Fame, but he’s also worked with artists as diverse as Billy Squire, Barbra Streisand, Barry Manillow, The Sisters of Mercy, and The Everly Brothers in his storied four-decade long career. If the song has that epic rock opera feel to it, chances are it was written and/or produced by Steinman.

Two of my favorite songs by Steinman appeared in a movie nobody but I and about three other people saw when it came out in theaters, Streets of Fire. Streets of Fire, directed by Walter Hill, is touted as a “Rock and Roll Fable,” and it tries really hard to deliver on that regard: the sets and wardrobe are all straight out of the 1950’s, but the music is all 1980’s pop and bar rock. The story is ridiculous: the leader of the outlaw bikers from across the way, Raven (played deliciously by a young Willem Dafoe) decides to kidnap the home town girl does good, rocker Ellen Aim (a barely legal Diane Lane, looking ever so rock n roll) for his own nefarious delights; Ellen’s ex-boyfriend, bad boy Tom Cody (Michael Paré, hot off of Eddie and The Cruisers), gets called in to rescue her; and along the way meets up with a tomboy ex-soldier McCoy (Amy Madigan playing against type), manager with little-man syndrome Billy Fish (the perfectly cast Rick Moranis), and doo-wop quartet The Sorels (featuring the then-unknown Robert Townsend); Elizabeth Daily and Ed Begley, Jr. also show up in the film because it’s the 80’s and they were in everything else back then. The film ends with a showdown between Cody and Raven featuring pickaxes, and Cody leaving Ellen to pursue her music career Bogie-style, driving off into the night with new best friend, McCoy.

Streets of Fire movie poster

I miss the days when movie posters looked like this…

You don’t watch Streets of Fire for the movie – you watch Streets of Fire for the music. The soundtrack is awesome – incidental music composed and performed by Ry Cooder, and features songs written or performed by Cooder, Dan Hartman, Stevie Nicks, The Fixx, and Jim Steinman. The two Steinman songs are the two tunes Ellen’s band, The Attackers, perform at the start and the end of the film: Nowhere Fast and Tonight Is What It Means To Be Young. Both songs are performed by session musicians under the name of Fire Inc., with lead vocals handled by a blending of the voices of vocalists Laurie Sargent and Holly Sherwood. Nowhere Fast is a hard-driving rock anthem with a great beat, but Tonight Is What It Means To Be Young, with The Sorels joining The Attackers on stage to fill in all the choral parts, is pure unadulterated Wagnerian rock opera.

I found the song on YouTube and played it for my Lady Fair, who immediately added it to her list of tunes to add to her mp3 player. We were driving out to my parents’ house for a day of poker and smack talk, when the tune came on – my lovely wife was piping her mp3’s through the SUV’s stereo – and the Lady Fair commented that while she adored the chorus, she kinda hated the verses.

“Hate the verses?” I responded. “How can you hate the verses? The verses are great! The verses are cheesy and sugary and over-emotional and completely overblown – I LOVE the verses!”

“I’ve got a dream ’bout a boy in a castle
And he’s dancing like a cat on the stairs.
He’s got the fire of a prince in his eyes
And the thunder of a drum in his ears.”

“But it’s only a dream and tonight is for real
You’ll never know what it means
But you’ll know how it feels
It’s gonna be over (over)
Before you know it’s begun
(Before you know it’s begun).”

“It’s all we really got tonight
Stop your cryin’ hold on (tonight)
Before you know it it’s gone (tonight)
Tonight is what it means to be young.”

My wife kept looking at me like I was speaking Klingon. “Sweetie, the song is about being 19, 20, 21 yrs old; old enough to start making a mark in the world, but still young enough not to have given in to cynicism, to still believe you can conquer all as long as you keep your faith. It’s about feeling your blood flow and your heart race, too inexperienced to know why, but just mature enough to realize you have to act on that emotion now before you lose the momentum. And it’s about sharing that momentum with someone else, some other young maverick, if only for one night, in that one perfect moment. ‘You never know what it means, but you know how it feels – it’s gonna be over before you know it’s begun, Tonight is what it means to be young.’ DAMN. That’s EXACTLY how I felt at 21.”

I got serious, and pointed at the radio. “When I’m on stage with the band, and everything is gelling – the guitars are in synch, everybody is feeling the beat, the crowd has joined in and the entire band feeding off that energy, and I hit that one note strong and true, and it soars, and the crowd responds – THAT is what it feels like. THAT is why I’m trying so hard to make this band work: so I can keep feeling THAT.”

For a long moment, she didn’t say anything. Then my Lady Fair, the love of my life, my soul and inspiration, looked at me with tears in her eyes and admitted, “I’ve never felt that way in my life.”

And my heart broke.

I never met my father-in-law, he died of cancer my wife’s senior year. The sickness had been slow and ugly, and as much as it pained everyone involved, his passing had also been a relief since it meant the suffering was over – it also meant my wife’s childhood was over. I’ve spoken before about my Lady Fair’s ongoing struggle with Depression, but I haven’t mentioned her struggle with dyslexia and its lesser-known cousin, dyscalculia (just like her letters, my lovely bride gets her numbers out of order, making it almost impossible to do long-division or algebra). Back in the 70’s and early 80’s, back before everybody and their dog admitted they have learning disabilities, my wife’s pretty freakin’ obvious problems were just dismissed by her teachers and administrators. My mother-in-law, bless her heart, didn’t know how to respond, so she just went along with the school’s assessment – as a result, one of the smartest women I’ve ever met grew up thinking she was dumb; and not just dumb, but unteachable. My wife – who can take apart and reassemble the VCR, wired the living room for surround sound, and installed the battery and battery cables in my Mustang – was flat-out told she’d never be able to attend college. “You don’t have the capacity, dear, but don’t worry – not every little girl is meant to get a higher education. You’ll just need to find yourself a husband, be a good housewife.” Because she wasn’t part of the norm, my Kristi was ignored; worse, because she was a girl, my Kristi was written off.

And I knew all of this, knew about the blow she took from losing her dad, knew about the learning issues, knew most of her teachers never gave her the attention she needed or deserved, knew it all contributed to decimating her self-esteem – it just never occurred to me it all contributed to my beautiful Kristi growing up without inspiration, without passion.

I still think it’s counter-productive to give out awards to kids for just showing up on game day, but I also think it’s vitally important that kids feel supported in whatever they feel passionately about, that they be given all the help and tools they need to be successful. No one deserves to be ignored or written off, everyone deserves to feel the passion and inspiration I get to enjoy as a band member, writer and artist. I am very, very lucky, but right now I’d give anything to give any and all of that luck to Kristi.

Go hug your kids.

Adding Insult to Injury; or When You Find That You’re Digging Yourself Into a Hole, Step One to Solving the Problem is to STOP DIGGING!

The fanciest promotion for the band in the entire venue… wonder whose fault that is… ?

When I tell people I’m happily married to a beautiful, intelligent woman, it’s not because I’m trying to earn brownie points with the little missus (even though I’ll take ‘em if I do earn some) – it’s because it’s the truth. My Lady Fair is awesome and I’m a damn lucky man to have her in my life. All this love doesn’t mean we didn’t have our ups and downs – just like clockwork, seven years in everything came to a head, and it didn’t look like we’d make it. Took a lot of work – took a lot of apologies, a lot of pride-swallowing, and a lot of compromising – but we made it through, and we’re better people and a happier couple for it.

Back in those dark days, one of the first things I had to learn as a loving, supportive husband was there would never be a time to rest on my laurels – just because you married her, just because she married you, didn’t mean she didn’t need reassuring everyday the man in her life still found her beautiful, intelligent, competent, alluring, and desirable. And it wasn’t enough to say it – you had to show it, with gestures both big and small. The most independent, capable woman in the world still wants to be wooed, pure and simple – just thinking, “She knows how I feel” would never cut it. Ever.

It’s a good lesson to learn. If more people learned it, the world would be a better place. Just so happens, it applies to aspects of life other than just marriage.

I felt like hammered doggy-doo. The Pigsty gig was over, I’d missed sound check and the last set, and I was depressed: add that to the seasonal changes and the vicious crap flying around the north Texas air, and I was sick: sore throat, cough, fever, aches, the whole nine yards. I cancelled a date with my new graphics client (my old boss from eight years ago), dropped Airborne into my orange juice and spent the next couple of days in bed. Friday, I made up the lost time at my client’s pad, then spent almost three hours on the road fighting rush hour traffic to get across town for a wine event just as another cold front came through. By the time I got home, I was sick again, pretty much ruining my first Saturday night off in nearly a month.

Pauly called Sunday:

“Did you drop off promo flyers to Chasers?”

No, I hadn’t – I’d completely forgotten about our Chasers Lounge gig, I’d been busy worrying about three weeks spent on the road up to three hours from home base at venues the band had never played before, waiting to hear if it was going to turn into four weeks and four hours on the road (that gig fell through, either thankfully or unfortunately, depending on your point of view). I’d had the flyer made for almost a month, made it the same day I found out about the gig so I’d have a graphic for the Facebook page – all that had to happen to make that happen was print up the flyers and drive maybe ten minutes to East Dallas.

“No problem, I’ll handle it.”

“Okie-dokey. Handle it.”

Teresa

Yeah, that’s Teresa, and anytime you can motivate the owner to dance on the pole, that’s a venue you keep re-booking.

I got off the cell with Pauly, looked at the clock – mid-afternoon – looked at the calendar – Sunday – and concluded there was no need to rush: I was still feeling a little raw about my clusterscrew in Wills Point and wasn’t ready to think band stuff, the bar was probably empty right then anyway, I’d go back to taking it easy on the couch and deal with the flyers Monday.

Monday, I was still sick. Decided that the bar was probably closed or half-empty, there was still plenty of time to drop off the flyers before the gig.

Tuesday, I still felt like crap but I was trying to get stuff done for my old boss. I’d go to the bar Wednesday.

Wednesday, I was busy all day, half-dead come nighttime. Thursday.

Thursday, I put out fires all freakin’ day while trying to get my fever back down yet again. Went to bed before 10 pm.

I got halfway through my day Friday when I realized I had got a wine event to teach that night just as soon as I met the final graphic deadline – there’s no way I could make it to Chasers even if I got the flyers printed. I’d put off until tomorrow for an entire week.

I half-thought about just not saying anything and then acting surprised when the guys showed up for the gig and didn’t see our flyers anywhere; then my Boy Scout upbringing and Army training finally decided to show up after two weeks of not cowboy-ing up.

“Dudes, I screwed the pooch – I’ve been sick all week, kept putting off taking promo flyers to Chasers until I felt better, and never did. Now it’s Friday and I’m working a double-shift, so no flyers are getting delivered. Do what you can to promote the gig at work and on Facebook. And I am so sorry, this was my bad.”

I did the wine gig, which went surprisingly well considering I still had a cough. I’m actually kind of charming – who knew?

I showed up at Chasers right on schedule with a sore throat and scratchy voice, Paul and the crew were setting up the new, smaller ninja PA he’d picked up for the smaller venues. I apologized to the guys for screwing up the flyers, which everyone shrugged off except Dave:

“Dude… you’re not that far away, neither is Chasers – call next time, I’ll deliver the flyers for you. We’re a BAND… you don’t have to do this by yourself.”

Normally laid-back Dave had just dressed me down without raising his voice once. I felt my face burn.

I put Dave’s disappointment behind and concentrated on the gig – on top of my throat being tore up, I was on OTC drugs for my sinuses: every time I sang I was not only straining to make the note, but my face was vibrating, as well. My upper register was all but shot, every song had a growl, every verse took more and more air support to reach the notes and end the phrase – by the end of the night, I opened my mouth to sing a harmony with Pauly and literally nothing came out, not even a squeak. I gargled a shot of whiskey to get through the last of the gig, completely exhausted by the time I got home.

Chasers never completely filled that night. Our hardcore people showed up, a few new fans came specifically to hear us, but that was it – the Chasers regulars that could usually be counted on to show up for a decent band never came back from the biker run earlier that day. They didn’t know we were coming – there were no flyers advertising our event. When Paul brought me over to the explain to Teresa, the lovely proprietor of Chasers Lounge, as to the absence of promotional material, I knew then Dave wasn’t the only person who hadn’t shrugged off my apology.

Keith singing

See that soulful look? That me feeling my vocal cords turn into shredded wheat. Good times.

He was right to be disappointed, just as Dave had been right to chastise me for not calling him – if I needed to chill at the house and get my health back, I should have made the executive decision to delegate the responsibility of dropping off flyers to any one of half-dozen folks either in the band, related to a member of the band, or just a flat-out friend of the band to do it for me; better yet, I could have just taken care of the deed the minute I got off the phone with Pauly and been covered. That’s what a grown-up would’ve done.

Just like there’s never a day when you’re off the hook letting the woman you love know you love her, when you’re in a band as much as it is your job to know your part, it is just as much your job to be an ambassador for the band. There’s never a time when you can afford to blow off promoting – every show needs to be announced online; every venue needs flyers and posters for your event; invitations need to be sent out to all your fans, new and old alike; emails need to include links to your calendar and videos; and every person who mentions the band needs to hand out a business card right then and there. When you’re in a band, there are no days when you are not promoting the band.

Being down about my mistakes had contributed to making me sick; which contributed to my being a moody, flaky punk while sick; which led to me making yet another mistake. Only this mistake was bigger and costlier than the last two.

This was the gut check I knew was coming from the Pigsty snafu, and I blew it. To add insult to injury, I went right back to being sick the next morning – I’m only just now feeling better, with a tickle in my throat refusing to go away.

The band is on hiatus at the moment – Pauly’s exhausted and owes his lovely bride some well-deserved quality time; plus hunting season is starting, so half the band and crew are heading into the sticks to kill something. I mostly gotten over being sick – can’t see to shake this last tickle in my throat, the resulting cough is keeping my high notes off-kilter. I’m working two, sometimes three jobs a week at this point, trying to get something to come together monetarily. The only for-certains at this point are Paul wants the crew to come to his place for a get-together early next month – not a rehearsal, but a little face-time among the band and crew just to remember why we like each other – and a New Year’s Eve gig at Chasers we’ll need to promote hard and heavy throughout November and December. Pauly’s already contacting biker rallies for next year and learning new songs for the band to perform once rehearsals do start back up; more importantly, Pauly’s ready to dig out his old notes and begin writing some original material. I’ve got a few weeks to get the sand out of my pussy, get back on track to becoming a full-fledged rock star.

Heading East Tour, Stop Three: The Pigsty Pasture Party

Pauly and Margaret, takin’ care of business at The Pigsty…

When I first began blogging years back, I gave everyone I wrote about a pseudonym. At first, this was to provide my friends and family who might not appreciate being discussed in a public forum a layer of anonymity; later, it was just simple vanity – I thought I was being clever, so I stuck with the nicknames. Lady Fair, Best Bud, Burner, Other Brother, The Ex – all real people with real names I just don’t always use.

When writing, I refer to my ex-girlfriend as “The Ex” because I am simply not creative enough to come up with a better term that fits. She’s warm, friendly, outgoing, adventurous, loves hard, laughs easily, sexy when she wants to be, and fierce when she needs to be. As a girlfriend, she was perfect in every way save one: as much as I loved her, I wasn’t in love with her. Which means she was the perfect girlfriend, I was just a lousy boyfriend. The Ex is now with a great guy, and together they are raising a beautiful, intelligent daughter – that we’re still friends is more a testament to her generosity than my charm, and if it sounds like I’ve got a soft spot for my ex-girlfriend, that’s an understatement: I adore The Ex.

She does deserve a better nickname, though. I’ll work on it.

The Ex, her great guy and their beautiful, intelligent daughter made the long drive out to Eddie’s visitation Tuesday night. After my goddaughters turned them loose, The Ex was regaling me on Coco’s show (it was fabulous). The Best Bud decided this was the opportune moment to be, well, basically The Best Bud:

“So, yeah – why did the Other Brother ditch the Lady Fair and my boy here, anyway?”

I stared at the Best Bud; the Best Bud stared back.

“What? Oh, like I wasn’t going to ask?”

I looked at the ceiling while The Ex chuckled. She then explained the Other Brother had been confused when we hadn’t shown up at the Rose Room; between the hard drugs and the insomnia, she figured he just flat out forgot he was supposed to call. After a week of disappointments, this was a relief; I no longer needed to worry about being an unknowing participant in a passive-aggressive conspiracy. I wondered how long it would take him to realize the communication snafu, and then put that thought aside to concentrate on not blowing my two hymns in front of an intense family.

The memorial was beautiful. I didn’t screw up the hymns. The Ex admitted when she heard me talk about “the spirit of Christ,” she half-expected me to burst into flames right there in the chapel. I told her my black dress shirt had been baby blue when I left the house that morning. She smiled and patted my shoulder. The Ex followed us back to Nan’s and stayed with us and the family the rest of the night, talking with folks she’d just met as if they were old friends.

Did I mention The Ex is awesome?

The Lady Fair and I spent the next day out at Nan’s, keeping Matthew, Tammy and the girls company as the cared for Nan, making sure she ate, making sure the oxygen tanks were up to date, and any other various odds and ends they could think of. My goddaughters, Grace and Emma, were completely stir crazy after a week of being cooped up at Grandma’s, so sitting around Nan’s wasn’t anywhere near as easy as it sounds.

Our friends flew home Friday morning; I had a wine event to teach Friday evening; by late Friday night, my shoulders were up around my ears – a week worth of grieving families, speed-learning songs, and living on West Coast time had taken its toll on me. I needed a good cry, a bad drunk, or both. Come to find out, the Lady Fair was just as tore up – by the time she got home from work Saturday, she was a physical and emotional wreck: her head hurt, her stomach hurt, her eyes hurt, her body hurt, and fatigued from top to bottom. She didn’t feel up to driving to Wills Point, but didn’t want to admit she didn’t feel up to driving to Wills Point – she didn’t want to let the band down. I told her she had a few hours to see if she felt better, we’d make a call then; she curled up on the couch and went promptly to sleep. I headed into the office to make up a set list and download directions to the gig.

At 3 pm, it was clear there would be no cowboy-ing up – the Lady Fair was down for the count. Couldn’t blame her, so I didn’t blame her – I was reassuring her it was okay to stay home and recuperate when my little brother, Kelly, called.

“Hey, Dude! Ya’ll are playin’ the Pigsty! Damn! I wanna go!”

The little missus was staying put, so I had room in the Mustang. “So come on! You can ride in with me.”

Kelly needed to talk that over with HIS little missus, my sister-in-law, Dionne, who was busy at work – he’d have to call me back. Twenty minutes and a text from Pauly asking if I was on the way later, I kissed my sick wife good-bye and took off to my little brother’s house five minutes down the road. Kelly lives in what used to be my late grandmother’s house, which is always a little disconcerting, as I keep expecting to hear her voice and her yip-yip dog when I approach the front door. What was her front library is Kelly’s practice room, and wood paneling has replaced those creepy-ass needlepoint clown portraits in the living area. I didn’t see my niece, but Kelly and my nephew, Kevin, were lounging on the couch when I strolled in.

“Dude! I was just texting you – I don’t think I can go.”

Well, crap.

Rough life, waiting for the band…

We debated the merits of making the trip, how much I could cover versus how much he’d need to spend to really enjoy himself; how much recuperating his lovely lady would need from the gig he’d played Friday night after a long day dealing with the public. I mentioned to Kevin his own considerable musical skills had gotten him good reviews from the lead singer of Postpone the Nightmare, which surprised and delighted my nephew. Kelly double-checked with Dionne their monetary status, then doubled-down on staying put. I pointed to Kevin and told him to keep practicing, promised Kelly I’d give him a bigger head’s up on next year’s Pigsty date, then headed back to the Mustang to head to Wills Point. I’d originally intended on being there around 4 pm – it was now 4 pm and I was just hitting the highway. Best laid plans and all that.

The Pigsty Pasture Party is exactly that; it’s a freakin’ party in a pasture, a big, wide-open, dusty pasture. For 17 years now, the one-percenters have been gathering out in the middle of nowhere just outside of downtown Wills Point to compare scooters, buy patches, get tattooed, play biker games, drink, carouse, and listen to loud music. My bass player, Super Dave, has been attending the event for-freakin-ever, the last few years providing the PA and lights for the stage activities – once he joined the East Texas Garage Band, he corralled Pauly into helping him last year; and when last year’s entertainment did a less than stellar job (not their fault, their namesake had a heart attack the night before, was in ICU during the gig), the two of them gave the Pigsty’s founders a package deal that included my giving them a webpage and the band playing Saturday night. I’d been at last year’s Saturday events – been unimpressed with the entertainment, got roped into being a judge at the wet t-shirt contest, and had been pulled over for speeding/given a breathalyzer trying to get my late butt back to the Lady Fair – I was looking forward to improving my experience this year.

Only missed one turn getting out to the Pigsty, so it was just a little after 5 pm when I showed my band pass to the front gate. I parked the Mustang on the far end, awkwardly grabbed the set lists, my cowbell, my tambourine, my lyric books, and the band’s postcard leave-behinds, and headed towards the stage, figuring the crew was waiting on my ass to do the night’s sound check – I ran into Paul’s lovely bride first.

“Where the hell have you been? You’re an hour late. You missed the sound check.”

What?

“Yeah, sound check was at 4 pm – everybody else was here in plenty of time. Where were you?”

Still in Mesquite, getting my ducks in a row. I’d assumed since the gig started at 7 pm, sound check would be an hour earlier at 6 pm, so getting there at 5 pm would be plenty early – I assumed wrong. Paul had told the rest of the crew sound check would be much earlier, no later than 4 pm, a good call on his part seeing how the band was an hour away from anything resembling a music store or Radio Shack. Somehow, I hadn’t got the message. The band teased me for being late, the wives teased me for being late, the girlfriends and the crew all teased me for being late – basically, the only people who didn’t give me a hard time about being late were the sponsors of the Pigsty, who had no idea when I was supposed to be there.

I’d love to call her something other than “Hooker,” but that’s all I ever heard her called. The Rev. John is hiding behind the support pole.

No Lady Fair, No Little Brother, and no sound check. My Pigsty 2012 experience was off to a fantastic start.

The crowd had started assembling and was pestering us to play by the time Reverend John came moseying up. I don’t know if he has any official standing with the event, but it was very evident Rev. John was the face and voice of the Pigsty. He made a couple of quick announcements, introduced the band and away we went. The outdoor stage is built in a T, with a wide back and a runway out in front – the band was in the crossbeam of the T with plenty of room to maneuver, a pleasant surprise; what wasn’t so pleasant was Pauly’s amps were pointed directly at my right ear, and Pauly was ready to play – first couple of power chords and I swear my right ear drum was bleeding. We finished American Girl and started into Can’t Get Enough – I grabbed the mic stand and started singing, growling “Come on, come on, do what you do,’ nailed the refrain, and then repeated the first verse for no reason whatsoever – missing the sound check had put me off my game. If the crowd noticed, they didn’t show it; Super Dave heard it, though; he grinned at me and just shrugged – live music, brah; dookie happens. By the time we got into Hard to Handle, the band had found the groove.

At least, we had found the groove until the power went out a third of the way into White Room. I went for the high note and all the lights and sound evaporated. Pauly strode out to the far end of the run way, leaned over his guitar, outstretched his arms and screamed into the crowd “HOW DO YOU LIKE THAT FOR ROCK AND ROLL! LET ME HEAR YOU!” And all the bikers, biker babes, and biker rug-rats screamed back at Paul in exuberance. We’d blown a fuse – can’t get more hard-core than that. The crew fiddled, the lights, then the sound came back up, and we started White Room over again, sounding better the second time.

Five more songs, and we blew the fuses again.

Once the electricity came back on, we played one more tune, then I announced a break so Pauly, Dave and the crew could suss out the power situation. Twenty minutes later, we retook the stage, house lights up, chaser lights off. We kicked off our second set.

Our peeps…

Or what should have been our second set – I’d printed a set list out, but we hadn’t followed it after the third song, we’d been bouncing around all over the three sets picking songs willy-nilly. In theory, this had seemed like a good idea – this was a fast and loose crowd, Pauly wanted to play it fast and loose with the music selection, keeping it light, keeping it fun; the practical application was proving the opposite, though – not following the set list was throwing the band off their game, and no one more so than Paul: songs he’d played for thirty years he suddenly couldn’t remember, not the key, not the melody, not the words (the fifteen seconds of sleep he’d gotten the night before in his tent at the Pigsty wasn’t helping none). I’d call a song, Paul couldn’t remember the key; Paul would call a song, Gary couldn’t remember the melody; Dave would call a song, I’d repeat verses when I knew what the next verse should’ve been, the words just didn’t form right. What should have been a cakewalk was turning into a struggle for no good reason at all, though you wouldn’t know that listening to our crowd – the bikers were loving us, warts and all. On our worst day, we were still far and away the best band the Pigsty had ever booked.

We played a blistering version of Zeppilin’s Rock and Roll loud enough to be heard from downtown Wills Point, took a bow, then started breaking down the stage for the adult biker contests to come, the Ugly Ass contest and the Wet T-Shirt contest. I’d been roped into being a judge last time around, an experience I didn’t want to repeat with a sick Lady Fair waiting at the house – I grabbed my instruments and song books, then booked off the stage. I chatted with our hard-core fans who’d made the trip east, answered a couple of questions, kissed Margaret on the cheek, then stumbled out into the darkness to locate my Mustang. Show was over, I needed the love of an ill wife and major amounts of beer – time to head home.

Epilog One:

After my last Pigsty experience, I promised the Lady Fair that I wouldn’t be drinking and I certainly wouldn’t be speeding – neither she nor I both wanted a repeat of my 1 am trooper stop, sobriety test and speeding ticket from the year before. I made my way out of Wills Point and into Kaufman County as if I were driving through a school zone, so imagine my complete freakin’ surprise when I saw rollers in my rear view mirror in downtown freakin’ Terrell.

One of the bulbs on my back license plate was out. I got a written warning. Must’ve been one slow Saturday night for law enforcement. I’d failed to keep my promise not to get pulled over. My desire for large amounts of cheap beer increased.

Epilog Two:

Around 5 pm and well after the Cowboy’s ugly win Sunday, Pauly called. I asked if he got any sleep, did he make it home okay – he answered he kind of slept, he’d been home since 11 am. Then he told me I’d missed the third set.

What third set?

“Yeah, Rev. John and Hooker came up, asked if we play some more – looked around and you were nowhere to be found. Margaret told us you’d left. The band had to do the last set without the lead singer.”

I’d been told we were done when the boobie show started, so when the crew pulled back the monitors, I boogied – didn’t check with Paul, didn’t check with Dave, didn’t tell anyone in the band good-bye, nothing. Just grabbed my stuff and left – evidently, I’d also left the band high-and-dry.

“We did half-dozen songs, managed without you… though we’ll never attempt Sweet Emotion when you’re not around again – that was a mess.”

“Damn, Paul. I’m sorry. I swear I thought we were done.”

“It’s all good.”

It may have been all good for Paul, but it wasn’t all good for me. Over an hour late for the show, missed the sound check, forgot the lyrics on more than one song, left before the show was over… if you didn’t know any better, if you were just keeping score on paper, it would be easy to assume I was the asshole passive-aggressive prima donna Lead Singer of the crew. And the last person I want to be in this band is that guy.

The Pigsty wants us back for next year’s event, so for the East Texas Garage Band the weekend was firmly in the Win column; for me personally, 17th Annual Pigsty Pasture Party had been an epic bust. And while a lot of it could be explained away by the memorial, the hymns, the sick wife, even the week of long nights, it doesn’t matter – I want to be a professional singer, and a professional singer is professional no matter what the circumstances.

Gut check time.