by William Matthew McCarter
I could feel the rear end of the old van lock into place as John shifted into park and turned off the ignition. The first thing I remembered after waking up was that the U-joint that connects to the rear end might be going out. I made a mental note to myself that I needed to get it fixed pretty soon or else we would all be sitting on the side of the road – minus a drive shaft. When I got out of the make shift bed that I created out of speaker cabinets and what we affectionately called “the pecker track blanket,” I noticed that we were in the alley near the stage door of Annie Batiste’s New Orleans Nights in Cape Girardeau. I felt refreshed after taking a power nap between Fredericksburg and Cape, however, I had just woke up and my tongue was still stuck to the roof of my mouth like I had been licking stamps in my sleep.
“We’re running a little bit behind,” John said, “so we better hustle if we want to get this stuff set up before happy hour.”
You know, a lot of people think that playing music in a band is like living in a penthouse but I have come to realize that a lot of the time, it’s a whole lot more shithouse than penthouse. Nobody is around when you have to lug all of the equipment in through a loading dock, set it up, make sure all the patch cords work, do a sound check, and all that shit. They only see you walking up on the stage and playing music. They see the glitz and glamour of the penthouse and then leave before the shit house comes around and you have to tear all of your shit down. Most of the time, they walk away thinking that they could buy a pawn shop guitar for a couple hundred bucks and in ten easy lessons be standing right there beside you. And the club owners – well, they don’t care that you’ve to make a living and pay the rent. They only know that there are ten garage bands that would love to have your spot if given the opportunity.
By the time we had finished setting up our stuff and doing a sound check to an old blues song called, “The Hunter,” the bar was already full. It was kind of a tight fit for a four piece band, but we made it work for us. Space is the one thing that we never get enough of. Live music must be an afterthought for the club owners who build these stages. None of the club owners know how or where to build a stage. In spite of Batiste’s being the premiere blues bar in Cape, it was really no different than the ole roadhouses we had been playing in when it came to the stage. John had to set his drums up in the back corner in order for all of our gear to fit and as a consequence, we were set up in a triangle that was aimed away from the bar and right toward the far wall of the lounge. The room was set up like a shotgun house – long and narrow – and the stage was about half of the narrowest spot in the room. One of these days, we were going to walk into a club and they will have a huge stage with all of the room we could possibly need. Until then, we would just be crammed into the corner of whatever bar we were playing in like the bastard stepchild of the Brand X Bar and Grill.
After we finished setting up, we settled into a table in the dining room of Annie Batiste’s. The rich smell of Creole seasoning and Cajun spices filled the air. I couldn’t remember the last time that I had eaten dinner in a real restaurant. I ordered red beans and rice and a bowl of gumbo. Roscoe had a pound of crawfish and AJ ordered blackened chicken. John wasn’t feeling quite as New Orleans as the rest of us, so he ordered a cheeseburger and fries. Although John was far from conservative about most things, he was straight as an arrow when it came to food. The only thing that I had ever seen him eat besides your run of the mill American cuisine was Chinese food. Other than that, according to John, “If it ain’t fried, it ain’t right.”
When our food came, the Creole and Cajun spices seemed to overwhelm our table. I would be willing to bet that they even used a little cayenne pepper on John’s cheeseburger. The gumbo was top notch. It reminded me of the stuff that my Aunt Jean used to cook up – recipes that she got from Marie, Uncle Fred’s Cajun cousin. I looked across the table at Roscoe. He was sucking noisily on a crawdad head. In that moment, I came to understand that perfection in us human beings is a quality that we are to seek and never attain. Roscoe served as a consistent reminder that our old civilization is doomed. The old world is filling new forms with a worn out content that can no longer satisfy anyone. If anything, it is the absence of content and Roscoe was one of those folks caught in between the old world and the new one – a man without content – a whatever being that served as our faithful sidekick and occasionally provide a little comic relief. If any of us or all of us were Don Quixotes on a fool’s errand chasing windmills, he was Sancho Roscoe – right there beside us, come hell or high water.
“What the fuck are you lookin’ at,” Roscoe said as he sucked another crawdad head.
“Nothin,” I said, smiling as I finished my gumbo.
After dinner, the four of walked down by the waterfront and through downtown. The shadows of the late afternoon fell across the tired old bricks of the historic streets of Old Town Cape Girardeau. Just like any other city block along the parade route of life’s little charade, the waterfront was commercially developed and for the most part, Main Street, was composed mostly of small nightclubs in a small world where small twists of fate made all the difference between starving and stardom and mostly populated with bands like us on shitty little stages in the corner of the room.
“Maybe Helen could get us booked in some of these clubs, too,” I thought, as I continued walking along the riverfront. Parts of this town have the near perfect combination of preservation and decay. Just ahead of us, with its paddlewheel turning, was The Delta Queen, an old rehabbed steamboat. The reality that we were playing here in Cape Girardeau set in and I began to get pumped up for our performance – the sweat beads popped out, the butterflies began hatching in my stomach, and I began having visions of two hundred people shouting “you suck” in unison.
When we got back to Annie Batiste’s, we still had about an hour before we went on the stage. Since the butterflies were starting to come out, I bought a pitcher of beer for the four of us. It cost me seven fuckin’ dollars. Annie Batiste’s was a pretty high falootin’ place and the drinks cost a lot (at least by our poverty standards). When I ordered a shot of whiskey just after Happy Hour, it cost me almost five bucks. Being there briefly reminded me of my brief tenure as a Wal-Mart employee. When I worked at Wally World, I got paid so little that I couldn’t even afford to shop there. Now, there ought to be a law against paying somebody so little that they can’t afford to buy the things that they have to sell to other people.
Now, I could understand not being able to buy the stuff you sold if you worked at a Mercedes dealership, but this is fuckin’ Wal-Mart – home of the everyday low price Zorro looking Pac Man motherfucker. Do you know how humiliating it is to be too broken to buy the shit that Pac Man marks down at Wal-Mart? That’s why I quit – I figured, “Fuck it, if I’m going to be broke all the time, I might as well be broke and have a good time doing it.” At least Annie Batiste’s wasn’t as bad as Wal-Mart – after all, they had draft beer on the clearance rack and we got our drinks comped after the first set. And… Zorro Pac Man Motherfucker wasn’t around to piss you off. It only takes a shift at Wal-Mart to see that there is no such thing as innocent wealth. As I looked around the room at Annie Batiste’s, I wondered whose blood was spilled and how much it took to build a place like that.
John clicked us of and we broke into the opening notes of “Wild Night” by Van Morrison. Our opening number went well, but I had a difficult time adjusting to the way we were set up in the room. No one was in their usual place and the mix seemed a little off at first. By the time we finished “Roadhouse Blues,” everyone had adjusted to the changing circumstances and everything started to jell. It was about that time that I started to feel just a little bit cocky – those butterflies were wearing off. We were a pretty damn good band – Johnny, my oldest friend back there on the drums – Cousin Roscoe on the bass playing a down and dirty roadhouse groove – And A.J. ripping it to shreds on the guitar. I just hung on for dear life and hoped that each song took me where I wanted to go. Our entire first set was scripted from beginning to end and the hour just seemed to slip away as we drug out the final crescendo of the first set and the lingering notes from the guitars and drums were eclipsed by the singing of an electronic cash register.
Usually, the band went outside and smoked dope after the first set, but tonight we weren’t out at some backwoods country roadhouse – we were in the big city at Annie Batiste’s and didn’t want to risk getting caught by 5-O. Imagine, getting busted smoking pot in the alleyway by some fucking cop walking his beat on drunk control duty and being hauled off to jail in the middle of a gig. Instead of smoking pot, we sat the corner of the bar and sucked down some free alcohol. I looked up from an empty shot of whiskey and saw Larry Pingle and Aaron Trower walk into Annie Batiste’s just as we were walking back toward the stage for our second set. Larry was one of our old band mates. He played bass in a band with Johnny and me about five years back. After moving to Cape to go to college, Larry and Aaron put together an alternative band called Johnny Wholesome. It was comforting to see a couple of Piankashaw alumni in the room. After Larry and Aaron showed up, I didn’t feel like I was so far from home anymore and time just seemed to fly by.
“So what brings you out here tonight,” Johnny said as he shook hands with Larry.
“You guys,” Larry said, “I missed the show you guys did in Piankashaw because we were playing that night. Aaron said you were playing here tonight, so I told him that we had to come out and see you guys play.”
“It’s good to see some of the hometown crew out here,” Johnny said.
“Yeah,” Aaron said, “Amy Lanford and Vicki Massey will be down here later on and Scott Wetzel said he was coming down after he got off of work.”
“What’s Scott been up to,” John asked.
“He’s going to college and playing guitar in our band,” Aaron said.
At first, it felt like it was Old Home Week at Annie Batiste’s, but it became increasingly clear to me that our entourage wasn’t just a group of Piankashaw natives, they were also musicians. I hated the musician crowd, they were never any fun. In contrast, Johnny loved it when other musicians showed up to watch him play, but the musician crowd is a lot like the crowd that goes to Joe Satriani concerts – they are looking for virtuoso. I preferred drunk chicks that come out to the bar and want to drink, dance, and fuck. Like Johnny, I was sometimes flattered when other musicians came out to see the band, but for the most part, it was a losing proposition. They were the worst critics – partly because they heard mistakes that no one else picked up on and partly because they were often envious that it was you up on the stage and not them. The encounter usually involved some kind of backhanded comment about your band – “I can’t believe you pulled off that song.” Not only did Johnny revel in other musicians showing up at our gigs, but he would often take whatever they said to heart and it would wind up being a hot topic in the coming days.
As we took the stage for our last set at ten after eleven, the rest of the Piankashaw crowd showed up. Our last set was amazing. There were little sharp blows in the music, and waves of quick, fine notes that burst and rolled like the thin, clear ringing of broken glass. There were slow notes, as if the guitar chords trembled in hesitation, tense with the fullness of sound, taking a few measured steps before the leap and then exploding into the room. And then, quick, fine notes erupted, as if the trembling chords could not hold them. For some reason, we seemed like we were living on a higher plane of existence during that last set. I was sure that John would attribute it to the other musicians being in the crowd, but I would like to think that it had to do with a whole lot of fear. Our adrenaline kicked in so that we could rise to the occasion. It was like one of those cases where a guy lifts up an entire crashed car to save a little kid’s life.
It was fear and adrenaline and rising to the occasion – it was the same premise that suggests if something doesn’t kill you, it will make you stronger. I really don’t know how or why we were performing so well, but by the time we jumped headlong into a ten plus minute version of “Crossroads” by Cream, the crowd was going crazy. Johnny went nuts on the outro to the song and for a moment, it sounded like Alex Van Halen playing “Hot For Teacher.” The next to last note of the last song rippled through the air and then – “boom” – one last power chord faded into the nothingness of the hum of a heat sink on the back of a power amp with a fan that was still spinning – for what seemed to be no apparent reason – like the projector of a freshly spent film.
Musical Contribution: “Some Sunday Morning”
In Their Own Words
One night a buddy of mine (who really likes to smoke pot… and I mean REALLY) ran out of pot during a jam session and couldn’t get a hold of his source. When he finally did, the source told him that he wouldn’t be back until until the next day (Sunday). My buddy has always felt that laughter is the best way to handle bad news (and according to him, it was very bad news that he would have to wait until Sunday to meet up with his source). All night long, throughout the jam session, he would randomly strum some chords and sing “Some Sunday Morning, We’ll All Get High.” He was just being silly but I was psychologically scarred. That was all I could think about for days. Later that week, I decided that the melody to the chorus was infectious because I couldn’t stop singing “Some Sunday Morning, We’ll All Get High.” I decided that I would turn it into a love song – one of those unrequited love songs – about all those Saturday night girls that just seem to slip away. All musicians have that experience at some time or other: you like the girl, she likes you, but you never seem to hook up because she is otherwise engaged or can’t wait around long enough for you to load the gear into the band truck.
William Matthew McCarter is a writer and a college professor from Southeast Missouri. After completing his PhD at The University of Texas-Arlington, he began focusing his writing on work that brings attention to his native rural America. His work has been published in The Sociological Imagination, The Taj Mahal Review, Fastcapitalism, A Few Good Lines, and in American History through American Sports. His frist book, Homo Redneckus: On Being Not Qwhite in America will be published in 2012. In addition to being a writer, McCarter also regularly performs with his band, “Blackberry Jam.”