Wednesday, May 2, 2012

Call Me Pigtail 16/20

Props Dept, Part 2

Tiggr's true genius is revealed when he produces his masterpiece, the Velourabeast, inspired by our "song" "Velour." A prop inspired by a novelty song -- why hadn't anyone thought of that before? Two essential elements of rock and roll in one nutritionally worthless package, like a Reese's cup of pop culture. Like many of our songs, "Velour" is becoming a focus of frenzy and fanaticism among some of the less-stable members of our crowd. A song about those brutally ugly shirts we wore in high school? Yes! The idea that when you feel your sexiest you are also at your most ridiculous is one of our more meaningful discoveries. It doesn't appear to us to be a contradiction at all. Sexy, like rock and roll, is stupid. The three of them, in fact, Sexy, Stupid, and Rock, are just different sides of the same big phallus-shaped monument.

So our song, "Velour," just a riff and a word, basically a less-literate version of "Tequila," if that's possible, is a big hit. One of our sicker fans sends us a genuine velour shirt from his closet. Later in time velour, like everything else, will be revived and mined for cash by the mainstream fashion industry, but at the time this gift is a real oddity, a real find. A treasure. So we give it away at our next show. It inspires an on-stage dance contest, the kids trying to mimic Skipper's spastic squirming as he shows the crowd how velour made him feel as a horny adolescent. That was fun, right? Let's do it again!

We need a new shirt, though, so GT hits the thrifts and buys up a dozen or so atrocious unwanted velour shirts, a smelly pile of tacky garments with zipper fronts and wide elastic cuffs, in noxious shades of orange and green. The pile is so old and jizzed-on that it makes the inside of our van smell like a mushroom cellar. No one in their right mind would ever want one of these, unless there was a story to go along with it. So that's what we give them, the story of the great herds of wild Velourabeasts that in days past roamed the American West, huge animals, "like a buffalo, only in worse taste," their valuable pelts the texture and color of the velour shirts they inspired. the whole ridiculous tale takes several minutes to deliver, with the band vamping ineptly in the background, and only about half of the maniacs packing the clubs know what the hell the singer's talking about up there. But a bit's a bit, and THEE NDI never let the music get in the way of the props and the jokes.

Then one night, as we are loading in to a club in Chicago, Tiggr walks in carrying something draped in red velvet. It's BIG, he can barely walk with it, and he sets it down in front of the stage with a thump and gives us a shit-eating grin. He pulls an extension cord out from under the drape and plugs it in. By now we know what this dude is capable of, but nothing prepares us for the unveiling, a dramatic swoop of the cover that reveals... what. What is it? A giant plush head, a kind of a bull-like thing, with googly glass eyes and a wide mouth full of nasty teeth. It's mounted like a trophy on a hunk of 3/4'' plywood, and Tiggr props it up, and hits a foot switch, and the thing comes alive -- holy fuck, look at this! The eyes light up and push in and out of the sockets, insane and glowing red, and the jaw drops open, revealing rows of sharp teeth, gleaming fangs. Tiggr hits another switch and there's a rasping sound and fog comes rolling out of the thing's gaping mouth. All three of us look up at Tiggr, who is so happy he can barely stand up straight. "It's a Velourabeast!" he says. "I made it in shop!"

That night we have the monster on the wall behind us, draped until the crucial moment when I get to a point in the story and the band grinds to a halt and I say, "and the Velourabeast... Came! Back! To! LIIIIIFE!" And GT pulls off the cover and Skipper stomps the switches and the monster springs into action and I'm watching the crowd's faces and it's that look we will soon learn to expect, that slack-jawed hillbilly look, simple life-forms confronted with the unexplainable, baffled brains stopped for a moment in their tracks. Fog pours from the beast onto the stage and in the relative quiet you can hear the gears grinding and the hinges creaking as the big jaw raises and lowers. It's not like the crowd thinks it's real, at least not most of them, but there's a kind of drunken, hushed appreciation for our effort. Who on earth puts this much effort into something this pointless? Thee NDI, that's who. The monster wheezes and thumps, the fog billows out with a hiss, and and we have never been prouder to be in a fucking prop band.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Call Me Pigtail 15/20

Props Dept.

We are coming to a critical juncture in the evolution of our art, and the question demands to be answered: Is it enough to just dump a trunk-load of stuffed animals and used toxic waste containers onto the floor and wade through it for an hour and a half, pounding out rock power genius? Yes, absolutely, but looking at things from a cock-eyed and probably slightly drunk point of view, we see how it could be better. For one thing, why do bands always have their amps and speakers in neat little stacks? We take nothing for granted. I have a nice set-up, a battered Fender Bassman 50 through a 4 x 10 Marshall stack, with a Ratt pedal supplying the distortion (but don't ask me about it, because Pigtail has no idea what any of those brand names mean or what those knobs do). It sounds pretty heavy, but it looks stupid and obvious, sitting there on the stage like everyone else's gear. So we start tilting. A small working television goes under one corner of the speaker cabinet, lifting it at roughly a 45 degree angle. Great! But now the amp head is sliding off. So we attach a good-sized mars light, a twirly red deal like they have on the police cars in The Andy Griffith Show, to the downhill end of the top, and prop the amp head on that. Cool, but now the top of the amp head is on an angle in the opposite direction. We could leave it like that, but I want to add a big old hollowed-out TV on top. So a life-sized Barbie head, put sideways, brings things more or less level. The big empty TV is filled with rotating lights and other odds and ends -- pretty distracting! On top of that goes a beer case box, sturdy cardboard, with the word "CLAP" cut out of the front and a blinking colored light inside. The entire mess is well over six feet tall, bright as a Christmas tree, and murderously unstable. It tends to collapse during moments of high excitement. Kind of like Skipper. Speaking of Skipper, his rig gets more or less the same treatment, only his beer box sign says "FUN."

Goodtime's kit is another story. He can fix or improve anything, and he gets it into his head that his kick drum should light up every time he hits it. I can't begin to comprehend the mechanics and electronics behind this arrangement, even though he explains it to me at length on several occasions, but I do know that the effect is pretty cool and definitely NDI, low rent and entertaining at the same time. But GT is just getting started! At some point he sees on TV some circus act, a clown, who inspires him. We already proudly steal songs and riffs -- why not steal props, too? So he sequesters himself in the basement of his apartment building, working feverishly through the night, through several nights, no sleep, showers of sparks flying around his shoulders, wiping sweat away from his red-rimmed eyes, until he emerges, holding high his crowning achievement: a leaf-blower with a toilet paper holder duct-taped to the end. It's a toilet-paper cannon, and yes, it works. And yes, we are a "prop band." Like everything else dubious and corrupt about this new venture, we embrace it whole-heartedly. Stick a fresh roll on the holder, flip the switch, and a jet of TP shoots about twenty feet into the atmosphere. A double roll just about covers the entire crowd at our next gig. Quite a spectacle. Just keep it away from the ceiling fans.

Soon GT returns to the laboratory, this time with our new roadie, a tall, long-haired young man we call Tiggr, a stage-design lunatic who is far and away the most talented person we have ever met, waaaaay more talented than we are. For unknown reasons he decides to throw in with us, and he and GT set out to build a confetti cannon, which is much more dangerous than it sounds. They use converted industrial air tanks, each about the size of a pony keg, heavy steel, with touchy valves that Tiggr actually welds in such a way as to work with a foot switch. He also uses some kind of serious construction-guy tool to put threads on a couple of 5-inch-wide steel pipes, each about three feet long. These screw onto the tanks and work with the valves in some official way. Each tube holds about a cubic yard of confetti. Take the tanks to gas station, use the air hose and a gauge to get them up to about 50 psi, toss them very carefully into the back of the van, set them up at the edge of the stage, give Skipper the foot switch, and at a critical and/or random part of the show he stomps on that switch and PHLEH!!! A cubic yard of confetti shoots about twenty feet into the air, coming down to coat fans, float in open beers, infiltrate the monitor wedges, and work into our shoes. Confetti starts turning up in every arena of our lives, from bathroom to bedroom. GT swears he poops confetti.

Tiggr soon shows us this confetti shooter thingie was no fluke. He re-jiggers a cheap, nasty looking guitar I buy at a garage sale to do, kind, of, what Ace Frehley's does during his solo with Kiss: light up and smoke. It involves a block of LED lights jammed in where one of the pick-ups used to be, and he also fits a little smoke bomb with a spark-fired fuse in the back of the body. The guitar sounds atrocious, unplayable even by Pigtail's standards, but for a solo I make a bunch of noise sawing across the strings for a few seconds and then I hold my breath and close my eyes and flip the switch. Blinding light blinds me, and a foul billowing cloud of sulphury smoke pours out, so thick I can't breathe for at least a minute. An awesome spectacle.

His next idea is to cast our faces in resin, and use the molds to make plastic Halloween masks, complete with strings and painted features. At our first ever show at the Avalon nightclub, by now a pretty hot ticket, we gather a dozen or so friends and girlfriends backstage and put these cool NDI plastic masks on them. We dress them up in surplus tux coats and hats and give them a guitar or two, some extra drumsticks, party horns to hand out, and when it's time to go on all twenty of us pour out onto the stage, milling and jumping around, a totally surreal swarm of Pigtails, Skippers, and Goodtimes. It's pretty fucking freaky, even from our point of view, but not as freaky as it was to a bunch of our die-hard fans in the front row, who had chosen that night to do mushrooms before the show.

But Tiggr's true genius is revealed when he produces his masterpiece, the Velourabeast...

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Call Me Pigtail 14/20

The Words of the Dumbshits Were Written on the Studio Walls --

Back home after our first real-life road trip, we realize it's time to get some of our genius onto wax. Most bands who are trying to succeed at this point in time are recording cd's, still a new technology, and everyone is all excited about how it's the digital wave of the future, blah blah blah, and how many songs a CD could hold, and on and on. Following our instincts, we decide to record a 7-inch, 33 and 1/3 rpm, limited-edition single on regular black vinyl.

The old band had recorded out in Hoffman Estates at a studio called Solid Sound, which was a pretty average not-cool suburban office-park studio that recorded bands with names like "Stryke Force" and "Rockerz." The reason the old band wound up at this place wasn't the slick sound board or the tasteful low lighting, or even the surprisingly low rates. It was because of a kindred spirit we found there, a truly sweet and twisted young man named Phil Bonnet (RIP, old friend). So THEE NDI return from our first ever tour, physically ill but creatively on fire, and the first thing we do -- maybe the second -- is call up old Phil, give him a new name, Christian Shoulders (Why? Really? Is anyone still asking that?) and book five hours of studio time.

We arrive at Solid Sound in our finest stage outfits, tux and hat ensembles, greet our new/old friend Christian Shoulders, and begin to load in. Gear? Yes. Stuffed animals? Yes. The string of used-car-lot flags we kind of found at a Chevy dealership next to the hotel at four in the morning in Slidell, Louisiana? Yes. We spend our first precious hour of time, $35 worth, setting up the recording room to look more or less exactly like our stage. After that we manage to actually record four songs, complete with twisted spoken intros, and stagger out with a pretty good representation of our artistic corruption. This becomes the "Feelin' Sexy"/"Pensacola 99"/"Hamhocks"/ whutta whutta EP. We cut-and-paste a few random images from our stack of girly magazines, hand-letter the thing, and start selling it at shows. To our surprise and delight, people line up to buy it. Did they listen to it? Hmm.

That first little recording experience primes us for a much more ambitious attempt. A few months later we return with 25 new "songs;" a little more cash; assorted sound-effect cd's, transistor radios, toy instruments, Skipper's dog, an economy-sized bottle of trucker speed, assorted Little Debbies, and enough liquid refreshments for several weeks. The "lock in," as we call it, is for 24 hours. Time to get busy with the real work of recording an album! So we immediately focus: Decorate the studio, get the car-lot flags up, get the good tuxes on, have a cocktail, and start telling jokes with Christian Shoulders. After awhile we turn on the amps and just start playing.

Recording with NDI, like everything else, means forgetting everything we used to know. Forget "separating" the sounds, and don't worry too much about the ragged solos and approximated cues. In fact, forget everything except maybe the lyrics, which anyway are basically just titles and a few improvised bits that have stuck over time. The main thing: turn the guitar way the fuck up, give Goodtime room to bash the shit out of his tiny little set, and try not to laugh. It's too easy. The only hard thing is remembering not to think. If we stop to consider re-doing a ludicrously botched backing vocal or lyric, the whole thing will fall apart like the house of cards it is. The hard part is remembering how easy it is. We basically play our set list, more or less in order, with the songs linked together by snatches of radio preachers and sound effects. There are too many in-jokes to count, or remember, but the bowling alley behind Skipper's "solo" is pretty choice, and I like the soap opera interludes. One bit that even our most obsessive fans will probably never catch is the big piano chord crash at the end of one song, can't remember which one, that we carefully time to be exactly one second longer than the previous world-record piano crash fade out, at the end of "A Day in the Life" on Abbey Road. We spend way more time on this single joke, including stop-watch timing and adding the barely-audible cows mooing in the background, than we do on any one of the actual songs on the album. Way more. It Don't Matter.

The result of our cheerful assault on recording integrity is the first NDI full-length album, Hanky Panky Parley Voo, which title is lifted, right, from a weird story in one of our more obscure and dog-eared men's magazine -- something about a con artist/spy/big game hunter who bangs a harem of chicks in Paris. It's 23 songs worth of concentrated trash-rock glory, and we are proud of it, and there we are on the cover, in tuxes and hats, holding junk food and fake cigars, and the main thing you see is not how good these guys must be, or how bad-ass, or even how attractive and creatively dressed they are. What you notice is how fucking happy these guys are. Whatever else this album has going for it, the cover is just a big sloppy wet kiss from your old best pal, a drunken wrestling match on the lawn of the party house, a full-out singalong to stupid old rock songs. Don't know us? It Don't Matter! We're coming over to your house, or your table, handing you a piece of broccoli and a sparkler, and singing you a song about whacking off and driving at the same time.

So. Now what. Do we release it on Edison cylinder? Eight-track tape? Many theories are discussed, but in the end we decide to put it out on cassette tape and, yes, compact disk. Modern and marketable. Hmm. Why, if It Don't Matter, are we doing that? Ah. In the Rock and Roll Eden of our innocent naked newborn bliss, we have nibbled on the chocolate-frosted Ding Dong of knowledge. How many more days in the Garden do we have?

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Call Me Pigtail 13/20

Whoa -- I had this weird dream where I was trying to tell these people what it was like to be in The New Duncan Imperials. Then I realized, holy shit, it's APRIL, and I was asleep for almost two whole months! And MAN did I have to pee!

So anyway let's get this puppy up and running again. You-all may want to go back and read some of the previous bits. You don't want to forget any of the intricate plot points and minor characters. I think we're just finishing up our first-ever road trip as NDI, right? Okay, here's a little post-script to our utter and uncontested triumph over Tipitina's. True story:

The next night we are still in New Orleans, having found a groovy bunch of young fans to crash with, their messy apartment actually overlooks the noisy French Quarter (harsh morning light streams in through the ancient white-washed horizontal slats on the shutters, but it's meaningful to be seeing them from the inside), and that night we hear about an event at Tipitina's, a movie opening party or some such official closed event with popular people and free food and drink, and somehow the idea of crashing this party gets stuck in our minds.

So we get seriously tricked out in our finest white tuxes and green pants, adorn our strong young bodies with trinkets, beads, and other swag from the Quarter, get a little liquid courage on board, pull our Hawaiian punch brims low over our eyes, and follow the searchlights over to Tipitina's. In a purposeful single file the three of us walk in past the velvet ropes and black-clad bouncers like we own the place. Which, in a sense, we do. If anyone shouts at us to stop, I certainly never hear it. Inside we mingle and drink and eat, entirely at home among the celebrities we do not recognize. High class. Right where we belong.

But here's the punch-line: at the bar, we overhear the manager-type, who never bothered to show up the night before when we played, bitching about something. Apparently the assholes in one of the bands last night threw fucking marshmallows all over the place. They got ground into the fucking carpet, and there was no way to get that shit out before the party. They almost had to move the whole thing to the fucking DoubleTree hotel! If he could just get his hands on those sonsabitches...

Next: Let's Record an Album!

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Call Me Pigtail 12/20

...and this dude next to me turns on his barstool and looks me in the eye and says, "Honestly, and I really mean this, you guys are the worst band I have ever seen in my life."

Mission accomplished!

Here's a little post-script to our utter and uncontested triumph over Tipitina's: the next night we are still in New Orleans, having found a groovy bunch of young fans to crash with, their messy apartment actually overlooks the noisy French Quarter (harsh morning light streams in through the ancient white-washed horizontal slats on the shutters; somehow it's meaningful to be seeing them from the inside, instead of gazing up like all the tourists), and that night we hear about an event at Tipitina's, a movie opening party or some such official closed event with popular people and free food and drink, and somehow the idea of crashing this party gets stuck in our minds. So we get seriously tricked out in our finest white tuxes and green pants, adorn our strong young bodies with trinkets, beads, and other swag from the Quarter, get a little liquid courage on board, pull our Hawaiian punch brims low over our eyes, and follow the searchlights over to Tipitina's. In a purposeful single file the three of us walk in past the velvet ropes and black-clad bouncers like we own the place. Which, in a sense, we do. If anyone shouts at us to stop, I certainly never hear it. Inside we mingle and drink and eat, entirely at home among the celebrities we do not recognize. High class. Right where we belong.

But here's the punch-line: at the bar, we overhear the manager-type, who never bothered to show up the night before when we played, bitching about something. Apparently the assholes in one of the bands last night threw fucking marshmallows all over the place. They got ground into the fucking carpet, and there was no way to get that shit out before the party. They almost had to move the whole thing to the fucking DoubleTree hotel! If he could just get his hands on those guys...

Tipitina's: outpunked!

Jackson, MS was pretty wicked cool as well. Here's the story, recorded in our tour diary that some of you may have seen, but most of you have not, I'm guessing:

We were in the van on tour, hurtling down the road in probably Georgia or Mississippi. We were on our way to a gig at a club in Jackson called W. C. Don's, which was nothing more or less than two decrepit trailer homes nailed together to form a "T." The nailing together of the two homes had been done in a very half-hearted and probably illegal manner. You could see the sky from anywhere in the club and when it rained it basically rained right on your amps and your drummer.

We were playing there for what they called "Teen Night," an event that drew about 300 hot-looking youngsters to this nasty dive bar. It was a huge social event for the entire southern area! Since everyone was between the ages of twelve and seventeen, the bar couldn't serve any alcohol. So all of these young people were out of their minds on Extacy. The owner of W. C. Don's was no dummy -- he realized that this unpleasant drug actually sucks the fluid out of your brain and makes you ferociously thirsty, so the bar sold little plastic cups of tap water for $1 apiece. When he was paying us our $125 at the end of the night he told us that the bar had made $1,500 on tap water alone.

Later we learned that there was no one actually called Don, or even W. C., involved with this skanky place in any way. It was called that because the owner and his friends were sitting around trying to think of a name, and the best they could manage was "We Couldn't Decide On a Name." W. C. D. O. N.' s.

But we rocked W. C. Don's! The drug-addled teens hugged and shouted, especially when GT tossed florets of raw broccoli to them. We couldn't fail, because the drugs they had taken forced them to fall in love with anything anyone did. They loved us passionately. It really didn't matter that we were scorching the hell out the place. But we were anyway -- NDI doesn't know how to NOT rock!

The last few days of the tour were fuzzy with fever and face gruffle. But we did make it home! And when we did, it was time to record our first album...

Saturday, February 11, 2012

Call Me Pigtail 11/20

It's hard to leave the Country Rockers in the middle of their second set and go across the street to the dark and nasty confines of the Antenna Club, but we're due on stage in a half an hour and we need to put on our stage tuxes and get our voices limbered up. There are a few people there, not many, it's a Wednesday night and we're pretty unknown, but there's a good rock feeling in the air. We hit the stage and people stop what they're doing to stare at us, always a good sign, and afterward we collect quite a few names for the mailing list, a few more sick and twisted fans.

After the people are gone and the gear is more or less packed up we're sitting at the bar having a post-gig cocktail, watching a flickery image on the black and white TV behind the bar. It's hooked up to a VCR and they are showing a video of last night's show here, some slimy motherfucker rolling around on the ground, and I'm watching, and I realize it's gg allin, a true madman, a bad person, a performance artist really, who strips naked and shits on stage and throws his poo into the crowd, and generally goes one big step farther than any other "punk" act in existence. His music is without any merit whatsoever but I guess you have to give him some kind of credit. We're watching, transfixed, and gg is rolling on the stage in broken glass from a bottle he smashed on himself, there's shit and blood all over -- how did they clean this up? The club does smell like bleach, come to think of it. This is really disturbing. Then gg rolls over and there's something coming out of his ass, a tube of some kind, a thin black cord. A microphone cord. "Whoa," I say. "Does he have that mic completely up his ass?" The bartender dude looks up at the screen and laughs. "Yeah," he says. "It took us forever to clean that fucker off."

“To clean off what – the mic?”

“Yeah,” says the bartender. “Nasty.”

I have to put two and two together, though God knows I don't want to: the mic I had spent all night singing into had spent much of the previous evening up the ass of one of the most unclean humans alive. What place on earth could be more toxic than gg allin's colon?

Bartender, another drink!

The Antenna club out-punked us, maybe, but a couple of nights later we get our revenge by out-punking Tipitina's, apparently a legendary club in New Orleans. Already over a week into our first NDI tour, we're submerging into our new identities with alarming ease. We are basically always in character, at breakfast, in truck stops, at the hotel, and of course at the shows, and our first glimpse of the moss-heavy trees and wrought-iron balconies of the old town feels like coming home. We can be our new selves here without thinking twice, since everyone else seems to be engaged in their own inside joke, their own bit. Some folks are wearing hats just like ours. Fans? Not yet...

We pull up and hike on into Tipitina's, a classy joint that is gorgeous and big and by far the nicest club we have played on this tour, or ever. How the fuck did we get this gig? Apparently Kenn, the suddenly motivated booking agent for the New Duncan Imperials, had convinced them that the band would be perfect for their weekly "Live from Tip's" radio broadcast on WTUL, the Tulane University college radio station. So we are in the middle of a triple bill of bands playing what would these days be called "alternative rock," and the entire performance will be broadcast live on the radio. Can you see snazzy tux coats and flying chicken claws on the radio? No, but who cares? All we have to do is be exactly on-time to the stage. And no swearing.

The old band would have taken this shit seriously. The new band doesn't take anything seriously, and so ninety seconds before we're supposed to take our positions on stage Skipper decides that our matching green pants, purchased the day before at a Salvation Army store in a town somewhere around Birmingham, would look slick with our white tux coats. He's right -- we absolutely need to change. So the NDI start pulling off their pants in the dressing room while the dead-voiced college radio deejay girl begins introducing the band. "Next we have The New Duncan Imperials, from Bucksnort, that's in Tennessee... and we've been promised a highly visual show... The New Duncan Imperials... from Bucksnort..." It's a long and wonderfully awkward moment, the empty air and this helpless college mouse with nothing behind her voice, no power, even when she intones in disgust, "amazing...", and then finally, five minutes late, the band bursts onto the stage, banging drums and throwing handfuls of breakfast cereal at the crowd, and we strap on and the first shot of power knocks them back, it has this entire tour, and after everyone gets their feet back under them it's off to the races, forty minutes of prehistoric riffs mixed with Klassic Kountry, including a song we picked up from our Country Rockers cassette, "Rockin Daddy from Ding Dong Tennessee," and then GT is out in the crowd handing out our free-shit gift of choice these days, Sta-Puft marshmallows, and he shows the crowd how to whip them at us, and now we're playing in a hail of the harmless things, they patter against us while our power riffs push the crowd around like drunken sailors on a sinking ship, and this is what it is, why we are what we are. “Aw,” says Skipper after a brutal take on “Jimi Page Loves Country,” “you fuckers are the best!” He really means it, and it's true, but he forgot we're not supposed to swear, and soon a stage manager dude, the kind of person we have come to refer to as a "squid," is at the side of the stage waving his arms around, trying to get us to stop. But Skipper says it again: “No, really. I mean it. You guys are the fucking BEST!” The squid is losing his mind, they shut off our vocal mics, and we do “Velour” and just yell the title at the crowd, and we're done, we leave the stage, we rule. The lecture from the squid is a foregone conclusion, and as it turns out pretty entertaining in its own right. The deejay girl will not speak to us. We wander out into the crowd and people are smiling and laughing, we entertained them, mission accomplished, and I am high on life and a fair amount of Jagermeister and I lean up on the bar to get another drink and this random dude next to me turns on his barstool and looks me in the eye and says, "Honestly, and I really mean this, you guys are the worst band I have ever seen in my life."

Mission accomplished!

Sunday, February 5, 2012

Call Me Pigtail 10/20

The day comes, it's Leaving Day, and the van rolls up to get me, and right away it's clear that touring NDI-style is a new game. GT and Skipper are wearing thrift-store suit coats and garish ties; they both reek of Hai Karate, and Skipper appears to be growing a fu manchu. It's five hours to Iowa City, and with every passing mile we sink deeper into the hermetically sealed hyper-reality of our new selves. A stop at a travel plaza for gas and Little Debbies and MD 20/20 wine; by the time we pull into the featureless outskirts of Iowa City the show has basically already started.
Loading into the club, trucking our gear and props up the slippery iron stairs in our thrifted old-man shoes, we pass each other and giggle. And on-stage, heads swimming, the band is sloppy and uncontrollable, rolling through a set that is dangerously close to falling apart, a hurtling train; there are some kids there, fans of the opening band, along with a few weirdos who go to clubs without knowing who's playing, and that new magic, the rock and roll fairy dust with which we are now somehow frosted, is in full effect. The crowd is jumping and thrashing and laughing, just plain bonkers, and we are all in love and it is so loud and nothing matters, after so long when everything mattered, now nothing matters; and now the show is over and we load out down the slippery metal stairs in our old man shoes and straw hats and sweat-sodden tux coats, pile everything and ourselves into the van; and then we are at the Motel 6 in Coralville Iowa, poured into bed; and the room is a swirling black and sparkly universe of noise, and the noise is in your head, and then it's five hours later, and the sun is burning through the ugly motel curtains and the phone rings and the front desk wants you to know that check-out was half an hour ago, and even then, even when you are miserable and subhuman, even then, you still feel the rock and roll angels hovering over you, lifting you up, whispering in your ear: "Get up, motherfucker. You are Pigtail."
Into the van and on to St. Louis. We load in, we play, the people clap, we load out, we go to the hotel. So okay, we don't see God every night. This is still rock and roll at the very lowest level, and we can forgive the world for not rolling over to have its belly scratched every night. So it's on to Louisville. And at this gig, God does show up. On stage in Louisville, pounding through the third song, "Hamhocks," it's time for my guitar solo, and I hoist my Les Paul strings-side-up, and I site down the neck at the crowd like I'm aiming a gun, get my slick-as-shit two-tone loafer on the old Crybaby wah wah pedal, and here's my solo: a frantic back-and-forth across the strings, open and unfretted because I'm holding the heavy guitar up with my other hand, just six open strings at full vibration, full volume, and the wah wah glissandos up and down the tonal range, and it sounds like shit, noise, a harsh wall of shitty noise, but with GT pounding that tribal beat and Skipper doing his best to keep up, it sounds right. And look here, in front of the stage: almost a hundred people crammed up front, rocking, blissed-out faces upturned. We can do no wrong, because the more wrong we are, the more they love us. This is how it works, after all: people tell people tell people tell people, and next thing you know you're a rock star, people reaching arms up to you, laughing and singing and dancing and falling down and getting back up and shaking their hair and laughing and singing and dancing – three encores, we are out of songs, so we start making them up, some we will remember and play for the rest of the tour. I wake up the next morning still wearing my hat. Actually, no -- Pigtail wakes up the next morning still wearing Pigtail's hat.
Memphis. We load in and set up. The Antenna Club is big and dark, black spray-painted plywood inside and out, top to bottom -- a real punk rock crypt. Sound check, fine, no mysteries there, except the microphone smells atrocious and the monitors sound like shit, and here we are, it's nine o'clock and the bar isn't even open yet, we don't go on for hours, and sitting around here isn't really our style, so what else is there? Skipper pokes his nose out the door and comes back with a report: "Fellas, there's a real swank bar across the street. We need to go get a cocktail."
Walking together into bars, or truck-stop diners, or small-town thrift stores, has become a source of amusement for the NDI, and this little dive bar proves no exception. It's that scene from a movie: people stop in mid-sentence, swivel in their seats, eyes on the new dudes in town, three swinging dicks flashing through the door in matching tuxes and ties, raggedy Hawaiian Punch hats low over their eyes, looking for space at the bar, teeth smiling at the strangers around them. We're friendly and we drink interesting drinks and GT can play pool, so these scenes pretty much always turn out fine. In this case we order three black russians and light up cigarettes, smile at the world. And looky here -- there's a stage, orange and red lights and a tinsel backdrop and drums and amps, but no band, they might be on break, and we give each other a nod or two, people resume talking, and we drink our drinks and soak up life and enjoy the mind-meld, no talking necessary, and then there's a sound, the band is taking the stage, and we make our way up front to check them out, and oh my goodness.
A three-piece band, bass, guitar and drums. Matching jackets. Hats. They start playing, a simple, powerful riff, "Rockin Daddy from Ding-Dong, Tennessee." It's all so familiar, but check it – the drummer is so old he can hardly stay on the throne. His eyes are puffy and squinty and he's totally bald, maybe five feet tall, barely mobile. His arms and hands and fingers are weirdly short, stubby, like a cartoon -- he might have only four fingers on each hand. How does he hold the sticks? The guitar player/singer dude is no spring chicken either -- at least in his sixties. The bass player is the youngest of the three, and he looks drunk, wobbly. But oooh, listen, Skipper. Listen GT. These cats have got something. "My Happiness," -- "whether skies are gray or blue/any place on earth will do"... crooned by the drummer in a cracked, croaky voice, then "Pistol Packin' Mama," "Bucket's Got a Hole" -- the drummer swinging behind his kit, little stubby arms pounding the beat. Who are these motherfuckers? How do they manage to be so great, so right, when they're so messed up and strange? We're not so drunk or stupid that we don't immediately see the connection: it's us, us in some future decade, here at this Memphis dive bar, slinging the shit for a half-wit room, running down the old songs, the old standards, not for the people at the bar but for ourselves, for the love of music, even if it long since stopped loving us back. After the set we rush the stage, bring them drinks, babbling. They tell us the drummer's name is Ringo. It's all so perfect.
Now Skipper's doing it again -- the band wad is out. He's talking to the singer, Gene, the cat most likely to be capable of carrying on a sensible conversation. But I repeat -- the band wad is out. Skipper is buying something -- a cassette! He's actually buying another's band merch. But we approve -- of course we do. We now have a precious artifact, a bone for the reliquary, a memento of our future. This cassette will stay in the van tape player for weeks and months, and we will cover nearly every song on it, from those already mentioned to "There Stands the Glass," "Barrooms to Bedrooms," and "Yearnin Burnin Heart." Everything we do in the country vein from here on out will be either a cover or a direct rip of the songs on this album.
Back inside the Antenna Club...

Saturday, February 4, 2012

Call Me Pigtail 9/20

On The Road Again 
The wanderlust is building, the countryside is calling. Time to wake up and go outside, back out to where we were, the clubs and college towns. Let's get in the van and drive and drive and drive and fill foreign stages with our glorious tacky debris, blast their brains out with our new-found power, make them hate us, make them love us. It will be hard at first, there will be some empty clubs, just like in Chicago. But we don't care. We've seen worse.
Somehow the old band always managed to get gigs in towns from San Francisco to Winnipeg, from Memphis to NYC. We never drew crowds or made any money, yet they booked us again and again. Why? Well, that band looked good on paper. We had four albums and a decent press kit, and we know how to manage time and distance and money and promotion. But now, who is "we"? Does Skipper Zwakinov know how to pick up a phone, dial a number, and deliver a coherent pitch to a busy club owner? Does Pigtail Dick know how to package and address a stack of fliers with the correct date on them? Can Goodtime Dammitt read a map and tell the band how to find the club? No, no, and no. The solution is obvious, at least to us: Let Kenn, Rick and John book, promote, and plan the tour. But in that process always, always, refer to Skipper, Pigtail and GT in the third person. Deny any association. Put our logistical expertise and experience to work on behalf of these three idiots who are incapable of wiping their own noses and who, of course, are also us. Only they aren't. It can get a little confusing. Only it's not.
So in the little office from which he books our old band along with a few other local semi-losers, Kenn picks up the phone and dials a club in Iowa City and asks to speak to Dan, the booker. Kenn has booked our other band there many times, the two dudes are friends, and Kenn says "Yeah, Dan, listen. We got a new band over here. I'm pretty sure you're gonna like these guys." And then he goes into some detail about this hot new property, but never mentions he's in the band, or that it is in fact made up of three guys Dan knows well, we've even done a few short tours together with his side band, so when NDI finally does pull up in front of the Iowa City club and climb out and wander into the club, in our matching hats and matching snazzy coats and encounter Dan at the bar, he'll give us a "what the fuck?" look and Skipper will walk up to him and stick out his hand and say, with the most unruffled straight face in the business, "Skipper Zwakinov. Nice to meet you." There are a lot of Dans out there, a lot of clubs our old band played, and Kenn spends a lot of time on the phone talking up the new rock ensemble.
Those clubs where we have never played, have never been invited/allowed to play, are a little tougher to crack. So how does NDI approach a club for the first time? For most bands at this time, the standard promo pack includes an 8x10 black and white glossy photo with the band's name, a poorly executed bio with dubious claims and outrageous spelling, and a stapled-together packet of photocopied clippings from local papers and zines. Bands with recordings to flaunt, like our old band, toss those in as well. It's a conformist and awkward little exercise.
NDI has no recordings, no reviews or press clippings, no photos to speak of. We're unknown and stupid. But what the fuck -- it don't matter. We put one together in the same spirit that we set up the stage and make up our songs. So here's what's in the official New Duncan Imperials promo pack that we mail to clubs::
* a thrift store TV with the guts removed and a photo copy of Skipper's grinning face taped to the screen
* a hand-written plea from Goodtime to book our band "because we are nice."
* a copy of "Sir!" magazine
* a double handful of confetti
* two or three packages of pork rinds and moon pies
* condoms
* noisemakers and party horns
* an assortment of class-C fireworks
* a genuine custom-wrecked NDI straw hat
* random items on hand from constant foraging; stuffed animals, dolls with parts missing, Mexican candy, mismatched socks, pomade, off-brand cologne, trucker speed, old sunglasses, a handful of change, 8-track tapes, and so on.
No mention of our music, our sound, our history; no press clippings, no recordings. But we're pretty sure it's going to get us noticed. We start sending these love bombs out to clubs, plotting our first ever real road trip as NDI.
But where are we going? Ah. Yes. Iowa City, for a start. Dan will give us $200 for a Friday, that's gas and food for a few days. Then St. Louis, get an opening spot at Cicero's Basement Bar, a place the old band played, a weird and cramped little cellar with a support pillar smack in the middle of the stage, but they pay okay thanks to the restaurant upstairs. Maybe then keep going south -- can we get back to Louisville? Fuck yeah, pretty sure that'll be a good night, after the lunacy that transpired last time, probably enough money to coast for awhile. There's no place in Lexington that'll hire us, but the Antenna Club in Memphis does a lot of punk bands, too hardcore and cool for the old band to get a gig but the owner will probably like the TV we send him, so let's pursue that. Keep heading south! LaFayette, Louisiana! Send 'em a TV and a thrift-store hairpiece and see what happens. And since we're in the neighborhood, howabout New Orleans? We've never even tried to get a gig there, but clearly Skipper, Pigtail and Goodtime understand the concept of bars without doors and free shit giveaways. Send 'em a TV and a filthy Barbie Styling Head and see what happens. That's over a week out, almost two including travel days, and now we need to get back before we starve, die, or completely lose sight of reality. So let's drive north, and pick up a gig or two on the way back -- Jackson Mississippi is routed right, send 'em a TV and a Don Ho album and see what happens. Then maybe Carbondale, or Springfield. Some cheap-ass weeknight gimme gig on the last leg so we don't have to drive too far from Jackson. DONE. Get Kenn on the phone, get those packages sent out. The world wobbles a little farther off-axis. Invasion USA starts NOW.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Call Me Pigtail 8/20

Engines to Power; Turbines to Speed
Back in Chicago, home again after the Louisville jaunt, we start to pursue more gigs. Full speed ahead. Songs pour out, riffs and titles -- don't look to close, don't stop to figure anything out, don't think. Just do. Somewhere in here Sue at Lounge Axe buys us our first set of matching tux coats, powder blue, prom-date tacky, a little tight in the shoulders, but MAN they go nice with our helmets. Or do they? Skipper finds a fucked-up straw hat in a thrift store, and as much as we love our spelunker look, we love the hayseed look more. Soon we each have one, three matching "hows-about-a-nice-Hawaiian-Punch?" dandies. Those and a few ruffly shirts, a bow-tie apiece, and suddenly we look -- good, sure, but it's more than that, we now look -- alike. The NDI tux-and-hat combo is an unmissable visual symptom of our mutual mind-meld, our shared dementia. We look the same because we are all three clinging to the back of the same rampaging, tacky, loud, irresponsible rodeo bull. We begin giving the same misleading answer to the same dumb question.
A few more gigs, Cubby Bear, the random party, a suburban basement or two, back to Cubby Bear, and sometimes people come and sometimes they don't, but we are having such a surreal good time that we barely notice. It Don't Matter. The second or third time we play Cubby Bear, though, there are maybe fifty people there, loosely gathered on the dance floor, watching us closely. It feels like a lot of people, but maybe that's just because they're all paying attention.
The white trash spectacular, the stage littered with an increasingly bizarre collection of toys and found objects, relics of our childhood obsessions, songs about our love of the awkward and the pretentious and the tacky, it's strumming a chord. Plus we're all more accomplished musicians than we need to be for these songs, and we've played together for years and years, so the blunt force we began with is evolving, without our conscious involvement or guidance, into something that is basically impossible to ignore. The band is coincidentally becoming a force to be reckoned with, heavy in an off-hand way, cycling through regressive riffing and twangy country rips. We're still writing songs without really thinking about it.
And some people, okay plenty of people, absolutely HATE us. But it's part of the deal! What else did we expect? Some of the things a few disgruntled people have said to my face would have sent me into a weeks-long tailspin in a previous life, when peoples' appreciation of my art and my own self-image were basically equivalent. Now? I LOVE it. In the glorious regression that is NDI, this is infancy: for a baby, attention is attention, whether mommy is screaming in anger or playing kissy-poo. Being in the old band was like being invisible. It was one reason we cashed it in: nothing could be worse than being ignored for another show, another album, another minute. TELL ME how much you fucking hate my band, how stupid I look, how you want your money back. Ha haaa! Yes! You get it! We are TRYING to make you mad. The fact that so many people love us is a surprising and unexpected side-effect.
Then Sue Miller leaves Cubby Bear for Lounge Ax, on Lincoln Avenue. So we play there. Sue loves us and she gives us a headline spot on a Friday night. The club has an anarchic air, and Sue and us the people who work there, we all find the same things funny, we're already friends for the most part. Before we even play there it feels like home. So it's Friday, we have the stage set just how we like it, a barely-navigable mess, and we're getting ready to go on, hanging out in the nasty cluttered rooms up on the second floor that used to be someone's apartment and is now the band dressing room, and we are writing the set list and adjusting each other's ties and drinking shots of Jagermeister, bottles of beer, and GT goes down to get another round and he comes back up and there's this look on his face and he says something I've never heard anyone in any other band I've ever been in say, ever:
"Boys," says GT, "There's a line of people out front."
What does that even mean?
The second-floor apartment/dressing room has a big dirty window with no blinds overlooking Lincoln Avenue, and together we look out, the snaggly brims of our straw hats scrabbling against the glass, and yes, it's true. There are at least two dozen people standing along the sidewalk, waiting to get into the club. One of them has on a fucked-up straw hat, so we know they're not lined up for the ATM next door. They're here to see us. Am I nervous? No! I'm Pigtail! I am a loud, strutting, talentless hillbilly with a big heavy Gibson Les Paul and two bandmates who look like my inbred brothers. Together, like He-Man, We Have The Power. Plus, and this is the part that doesn't make sense, the GOOD part: So What? There's a line of people out front? Okay, cool, great, but nothing will change, because nothing matters. We got this far by not giving a shit -- if we start giving a shit now just because we appear to be getting a little bit popular, then we will screw it all up. We tried and tried for ten years and never got popular and finally we woke up to a new world, a new directive -- stop trying -- and now look. Look out the window. See those people?
Try and fail; stop trying and succeed. The American Dream in reverse.
Showtime, bitches, strap on and let's hit the stage. We have begun a policy of coming from the back of the club, handing out toys and food and horns and sparklers and whatever, and we come down the stairs, the door opens out to the bar near the front door, and we're trying to get to the stage in the back, and holy god where did all these people come from? We don't know how to even think about it -- we lack the language. Like Eskimos and their 200 words for "snow," the old band knew a hundred ways to describe empty rooms, flat crowds, pointless shows. But the idea of a packed room is so novel that it might as well be meaningless. We wind through the narrow front room, it's hot and smelly, they take our little gifts, they seem to know us; some faces are familiar, and we squeeze between the bodies and up onto the stage, GT begins the jackhammer intro to "Jackson, Mississippi," and this place has a good P.A. and we are amped and jumping and loud and confident and careless and me and Skip come in together, the stolen riff is beyond simple, and I look down in front of me and something is weird. What is it? Something not right, or inexplicable. One of our old-band buddies, a funny and wise cat in a band a little like ours, once called the empty space in front of the stage at every single gig the "moat of indifference." We had become so used to it that we didn't even mind it anymore. It was just what was. Part of our existence. Sometimes some people ventured into the moat, stood for a while drinking a beer and kind of watching us, and once in a long while some kids got up to dance for a song or two. So this here, this scene before me, not three feet from the toes of my two-toned patent leather slip-ons, this is something that in many years of rock life I have literally never seen before. These people here at Lounge Ax are bouncing, happy, excited. Some of them are even singing along. Dammit! This is how it should have been all along!
Next: Gearing Up.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Call Me Pigtail 7/20

What could be more ridiculous than a bass solo? It sums up everything stupid and self-important about rock bands. So let's have a bass solo! From Skipper, who literally can't play bass! Let's have him just stand there on stage and hit one or two spastic notes, lots of dead air, that ever-present gnarly hum of corroded wires, and here's the thing -- let's act like it's awesome. Because compared to any other rock and roll bass solo ever played by anyone, it is. All bass solos are stupid, and Skipper's is no more or less stupid than the most artistic, studied, accomplished, serious bass solo by any other rock band in this or any other century. We know it, and soon the crowds know it. It's funny because it's true.
What could be more ridiculous than a drum solo? Pretty much nothing. We absolutely love Led Zeppelin, but our love encompasses their stupidity, so we fully appreciate John Bonham playing a drum solo with his hands. So let's get GT up there, and give him not drums but our heads, our mammoth-cave-helmet-wearing heads, to bang on. Listen to the sharp rat-a-tat of wood on safety plastic! It cuts through the smoky club, impossible to ignore. And now that we have your attention, you can't miss GT's true virtuosity -- he's playing the other dudes' heads, good bit, pretty funny, but check it -- he's fucking wailing! Seriously.
What could be more ridiculous than a guitar solo? A fancy, twiddly, spot-lit guitar solo from a wealthy and famous rock god? A long one, too -- so long the other dudes leave the stage for a smoke backstage. A guitar solo that, I don't know, also includes a theremin, or a violin bow, or another guitar you play with your foot, or all three. Glorious! I want in on it! So without thinking it through too much we combine the most blockheaded, and therefore most important, rock riff ever -- the intro to "Smoke on the Water" -- with a feat no rock cretin has ever tried: we'll see your theremin and raise you an oven mitt. Can it be done? Can I play the riff with, as Skipper announces, "a fully functional oven mitt" on my left hand? I don't know. But I do know this: It Don't Matter. Pretty soon it's a regular part of The Show.
Over time our sick and bubbling brains cough up variations on the ridiculosity of the Official Rock Solo. Here are a few:
* Squeaky Balloon. Skipper produces a balloon, blows it up, and does that squeaky air-release thing into the mic, while I instruct the sound man in the correct way to make the innocent little squeal sound like a Concorde jet landing an a sperm whale: "Soundman, please apply 50 dB's of backward reverb and 3 grams of double-sideways echo to the microphone!" Some sound men get it, some don't -- the sound man at Little Brother's, in Columbus Ohio, who is actually a sound woman, is one of the best ever. When it works it's a frightening tempest of feedback and escalating screechy echoes. One of my favorite parts of the show. And even though it's a balloon solo, it's still a bass solo. It's a bass solo.
* Liberal Art. Once the NDI starts blowing minds in college towns, we begin providing the kids with object lessons in what we think of as liberal art -- art we take liberties with. We're getting a little ways away from our bone-headed trailer-trash roots, but a solo is a solo, so I bring out a big thing of orange or green tempura paint; I get a big old mouthful of that salty/nasty/wrong tasting shit, and GT and Skipper unroll a big thing of shiny white paper and I SPIT that shit, the paint and drool and beer and maybe a little vomit, across the virgin white gleaming surface. And then we tear it off and reward it to a random/cute member of the crowd. It slows things down a bit, but we're up for anything. And remember, it's a guitar solo.
* Goodtime Plays the Harmonica and Sings. The NDI begins with a few assumptions, among them that drummers should never sing. Ever. Or write lyrics (see "Rush"). But that doesn't stop GT from bellowing/singing random children's songs and bleating out two notes on a toy harmonica. For money! It's a strange and wonderful world.
* A few more: The raw pig's head I banged on my strings. Skipper singing show tunes in a cracked Bette Davis voice. Goodtime blowing stuff up. Playing the saxophone theme to "My Three Sons." Ummm... There other solos I can't fully remember or have blocked out. If any of you people remember a solo I have forgotten, feel free to share!
That's all for now! The narrative arc returns for part 8. See you soon you big baboons!

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Call Me Pigtail 6/20

It's like Christmas, literally like Christmas. We can't wait...

At the club: Load in. One bass amp, one guitar amp. A guitar, a bass, a "drum set," really only enough for one or two trips. That's it. Bare bones. Then comes two big fat garbage bags of yard-sale plunder, hauled in and dumped smack in the middle of the dance floor in front of the stage. Except for the vodka-cranberries in our hands, we could be children on Christmas morning, laughing and playing with our new toys. Who cares if they're all used or broken or stained with something? To us these things are now valuable possessions. How is it that the useless refuse of a road-side Kentucky family can be so precious to us? Well, who's us?

The best part is putting everything up on the stage. Everything, more or less, fits somewhere: The Twister board we tape up behind GT as a kind of a backdrop; the grimy stuffed animals we lovingly array around the amps and drums. Christmas lights, the half that actually work, we drape all over everything. The Halloween masks, broken and too-small, will be worn by GT at random moments behind the kit. The Fashion Barbie head, the one that some child made-up with markers before sawing off the synthetic blond hair with a kitchen knife, is propped up in a place of honor on Skipper's amp. The torn Farrah poster, the big ugly wall clock, the light-up Pabst sign, the scummy blow-up pool toys, the spinning table-top disco light that keeps getting stuck -- it all goes on stage, and holy fuck it all looks SO amazing. Happy in its new home. When we hit the stage, exhausted from spelunking, wobbly from vodka, snazzy in sport coats and helmets, when we start the set amid this debris, somewhere the Rock Gods smile. The thundering rock and the blazing stupidity of the band and its music, the trailer-park-after-the-tornado stage set up; it's senseless, it makes perfect sense. The twenty people there are going bananas. We are beyond thinking; we know. This is it. The Rock Gods have cracked open the door, and we have shoved in a big white patent leather slip-on.

The first set is over, and the room is vibrating, and then one of us, who knows who, has an idea that pretty much guarantees that this show, if it didn't already, will go down in history, or at least our history. "OK!" shouts Skipper, unsteady in the middle of the dance floor. "We're taking you fuckers out for White Castles. Everyone in the van!" Seriously? The crowd wavers. All of us? Yes, all of you. Into the van. We have to get back in time for the next set. Five minutes later and I am heels-over-ass in the back of the van, packed in with over a dozen drunk strangers, laughing, rolling with the turns, GT driving I think, on our way to the White Castle three blocks down the street and around the corner. Now we're there, stop the van, everyone spills out, and Skipper leads us into the ungodly bright fluorescent interior of the restaurant, and at the counter the hopeless dude in the paper hat says "may I help you?" and Skipper says, and I will always love him for this, and it fits him so perfectly: "One slider, please." "One slider?" says the dude. "Yep," says Skipper, and three minutes later we are all back in the van, all of us, the band and its audience, rolling with the turns and passing around that one single slider, that tiny hot package, and everyone takes a little bite and hands it on, all of us brothers, all of us sisters, and the love we have been holding in for years flows between us.
The second set, if indeed we played one, is lost in the fog...

Next: Solos...

Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Call Me Pigtail 5/20

And now it's time to take our show on the road...


Kenn/Skipper books us a gig at Uncle Pleasant's, a cool little bar run by Uncle Mark, a twisted and friendly southern gentleman who agrees to pay us $100 for an actual headlining gig on a Wednesday night. Pretty much guarantees zero crowd, although the old band did have a good show or two at this place, so why not?
We still have our terminally ill van, so transportation isn't a problem. The problem is more vague than that. How will this trip not feel like just another old-band journey to a familiar town? How do we keep this strange and freaked-out feeling alive? Soon enough we have our answer, found in a crumpled brochure on the floor of our van: we'll go spelunking. Cave exploring! It makes so little sense that it makes perfect sense. The Mammoth Cave "Wild Tour" will take us for six hours through the deepest darkest heart of the earth under central Kentucky, crawling through muck and slime, dangling from ledges. GT is claustrophobic, Skip and I are out-of-shape smokers, we've never done anything remotely like this, ever. We'll have to drive down the night before, spend extra money on a motel, get up, when? Six o-fucking-clock in the morning? Seriously? Yes. Get up and get to the cave and spelunk our brains out, and then afterward drive straight to the club, set up, and play. It's pointless, it's stupid, it's dangerous. It's NDI.

In the cave, half a mile underground, crawling on my belly for two hundred yards through an 18-inch-high crack, getting kicked in the face by GT's big muddy boots, I feel this wave of unreality, an existential loss of control. The fake is overcoming the real. Has the bit gone too far? Down here in the cave for no other reason than "why not?," I wonder if someone shouldn't be watching us, keeping an eye on our stranger impulses. Protecting us from our new selves, our alter egos who are, after all, 100% id. We climb and crawl and slither and finally emerge into reality through a crack in the ground, like demons from hell, the old ladies creeping along the nice paved easy-cave-tour path watching us with slack jaws. A smack on the ass, a big first breath of fresh air and soon we are blinking in the bright sun, covered with mud and muck. We're exhausted but happy, and there's an added bonus: they let you keep the helmet! And guess what, we're wearing our new helmets for the rest of the night. We have already established a group policy of hats-on-stage. Our tacky/classy sport coats and old man shoes will go beautifully with our new matching protective headgear. We climb into the van and set off for Louisville and our first-ever road show.

Drive to the club? Sounds pretty straightforward. The old band has been there before. But NDI, we are learning, never does things the easy way, and so instead of the fast highway we are compelled to follow the twisty blue one that runs through oddly named towns, across rivers. We're trying to find something, not sure what, but it has to do with all the little lives and small worlds that we bypassed for so many years with the other band. Back then we zipped from club to hotel to gas station to club. Now we pull over at the slightest provocation. An American Legion weenie roast in the parking lot of the Bardstown Tru-Value? Sure! A sparsely attended back-country carnival? Ok! A go-cart track, at any place, at any time? Absolutely! A permanent-looking yard sale in front of an abandoned-looking farmhouse that will surely make us late to the gig? YES!

So we pull over and climb out and hike up the steep little embankment to this yard full of -- what. Crap. Beauty. An American history lesson. An archaeological dig. The fossil record of a family, of child-rearing, school projects, momentary passions, spent appliances. Bowling nights, bad novels, outgrown shoes. Twister. Too much to swallow. First, there is a lesson here: pull over, and good things happen. The old band never pulled over. NDI, from this point on, will ALWAYS pull over.

So with our van ticking by the side of this blue highway, we stroll among the offerings in our nice sport coats and matching spelunking helmets, picking out the precious plunder from this road-side museum with a new and wonderful shared sense of what is priceless. And then, wonder of wonders! Skipper/Kenn does the unthinkable: he pulls out the band wad. Skipper/Kenn, the keeper of the cash, the retainer of resources, the doler-outer of per diems! Skipper/Kenn, of all people! Holy fuck but yes, he's taking out the band wad, the motel money, the gas money, and it's like a dream, an underwater dream -- he is actually paying the fat old lady in the print dress, I see a ten dollar bill, and then a five, and then at least two singles, maybe three.... Am I going to faint? Faint and roll down the embankment and into the road?

When I come to, we are in the van again, GT behind the wheel, and next to me on the back seat is not one but two big-ass garbage bags just stuffed with stuff. What's in there? I don't know. It's like Christmas, literally like Christmas. We can't wait.

At the club: Load in...

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Call Me Pigtail 4/20

Call Me Pigtail

Repeat after me: stupidity is entertaining, and entertaining is stupid. We are finally ready to do what it takes to be entertaining, to be fun to watch, to make people happy. We're ready because we are now, finally, stupid...

But we are not stupid. Not quite. We are, and have always been, a few steps up the idiot ladder from the dudes in the other bands that we encounter on the road or at local shows. There's proof: somehow we have managed to stay alive for years with virtually no other income than the proceeds from the gigs, albums, and merch sales of a band that nobody truly gives a crap about. We get the shows, hustle promotion, show up on time, leave the club intact. Our press kit is organized and well-written. We can keep a calendar. We understand things. We are not losers. Plus we absolutely love music.
This new thing, THEE New Duncan Imperials, these dudes also love music -- just not the same music as the old band. A side-effect of becoming Skipper and Pigtail and Goodtime appears to be an entirely new idea of what good music is, and what it should be. Our old band listened to and referenced REM, the Smiths, The Replacements, worthy and acceptable artists. But now we are not that band. Not only that -- We have never been that band. We have always been NDI, and we have always loved a very short list of similarly fucked-up artists. We steal blatantly and liberally. No apologies! From the start we refer to our songs as "riffs we stole," and from the start we turned to three, and only three, bands to steal from. So write this down: we steal from Jon Wayne, we steal from The Country Rockers, and we steal from The Mentors. That's the list. That's all. Go look 'em up on-line. As far as contemporary influences on The New Duncan Imperials go, that's them.
So much for the present. But the past? Our non-contemporary influences? Oooh yeah. Foghat, Pablo Cruise, George Jones, Black Sabbath, Chuck Berry, Kool and the Gang, the Sex Pistols, The Action, Motorhead, Blue Oyster Cult, KC and the Sunshine Band, The Osmonds, and on and on. Also: Saturday morning cartoons, go-cart tracks, space food sticks, Which Witch, sibling rivalry, front yards with cars in them, garage sales, grits, the Brady Bunch, Yogi Bear, Spectre Man, NASCAR, camping, minibikes, girly magazines. Lots of girly magazines. But not that newfangled airbrushed Playboy bullshit -- we're mainlining vintage smut. Somewhere along the line we steal/are given a big stack of old 50's and 60's naughty zines with titles like "Men" and "Sir!" and "Rogue." Not sexy at all, really, but flip past the awkward black and white photo spreads of ladies in big ugly underpants and you get to page after page of sleazy, sketchy advertisements, beautiful, nasty, primitive ads for hairpieces, 8mm dirty movie reels and projectors to watch them with, correspondence courses to become a plumber or a private eye, shoes that make you taller, something called "French Ticklers" that they evidently aren't allowed to illustrate, offers to set your poems to music, five adult novels for the price of three, spy kits, x-ray glasses, pinkie rings, on and on. And always at least one full-page thing for Frederick's of Hollywood, with some actually hot ladies in racy brassieres. Somehow this parade of desperation and bad taste nails the NDI state of mind. The fleshing-out of the NDI acquires a layer of slime.
Another bit that we start almost right away is a policy of giving free shit to whoever is standing in front of us. At our first show at the Cubby Bear, a Chicago club booked by Sue Miller, a tolerator of our old band and a true fan of our new one, GT decides to put out little cups of cereal and milk on the tables in front of the stage before the gig. Why not? Like a little reward for our friends. But he puts the cereal in surplus urine sample containers that he found in a corner of his basement. Are they clean? Sure! But there's something about the gesture that fits our new personalities: we're nice and outgoing, but we're also kind of dumb and assholic. We'll give the audience free shit from here on out, even play a variety of "giving out shit theme songs," but the giveaways will almost always be something odd, like raw broccoli, or dangerous, like a lit sparkler. We'll send GT running out from behind his drum kit to hand out whatever he's got -- raw pig ears or chicken feet, handfuls of unwrapped candy, toy soldiers. Sometimes they throw the gifts back at us. Fair enough. The chicken feet hurt, though, so soon we gravitate toward softer items. Marshmallows are popular. But that's still to come.
So we've done a few more Chicago club shows and sometimes twenty people come and sometimes fifty, but no matter what there's a new feeling, a tinge of the manic, people singing along, laughing, sometimes screaming. Also in spite of ourselves we're getting better, or at least better at being NDI. We're benefiting from a kind of hybrid vigor: as stupid and dumb as we now are, there's still the awareness and something like shrewdness that kind of bubbles up through our characters. We're a new and maybe dangerous species: fake hillbillies with real ambition. And now it's time to take our show on the road.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Call Me Pigtail 3/20

We still do not give a shit about anything...

Our first-ever gig is at someone's backyard birthday kegger. We wear our nicest thrift-store sports coats and hats, baseball caps or whatever, pulled low over our eyes. The sound is atrocious and hardly anyone we know is there, but It Don't Matter. The songs are easy and we're hitting the tap. Somehow these alternative identities we have accidentally invented, these entirely new people, have blown up inside us and become almost real, and it's like they're playing and singing and talking between songs while we watch. Also there's this weird contradiction: We're a joke, but we're not a joke band. The difference will forever escape some people, but as time goes by it is maybe the only thing that actually does matter to us: we're a joke, but we're not a joke band, because these songs, funny and stupid though they may be, are not necessarily funny or stupid to the guys playing them. Skipper and Goodtime and Pigtail take this shit seriously, or they might. They would if they were real, put it that way. And are they real? Not yet but soon we will have to wrestle with that idea. Who are we? Where are we? Is it more fun being them than it is being us? Oooh, heavy. And deep. Way too deep for the NDI to take time to figure out.

Call me Pigtail! I am up on the non-stage at this kegger, this non-gig, and we are making a hell of a racket, crude and crass, an insult to our talent and our art, to all talent and art. Booooorrrrrrn, born to be hit! The crowd is not really a crowd, it's a party, assorted types milling around a back yard, but they are tolerating us, and a few are actually curious, that stock-still tilted-head look that we will soon be seeing a lot more of. They drink cold draft beer from big shiny red plastic cups and watch us, then wander away, then come back and watch a little more. Pensacola 99 -- yeeaaah, right! The sound we have unearthed in the basement has been dragged out into the sunshine, but it still sounds dark and heavy. GT hammers that poor snare and Skipper's blister-encrusted fingers are actually starting to find the right string, if not always the right fret. We are very close to sucking, to being bad, but it's like a game of chicken -- the closer to truly bad we get, to real awfulness, the more we rule. It's like a game of chicken. If we actually did hit bad head-on, it would immediately be over. We would be dead, and since this is already our second life, our newborn reincarnation, dead would be truly dead. If we were to miscalculate and hit bad head-on, there would be no second second chance. We would be home with Mom and Dad. Our one golden summer would be over. So we keep veering away at the last minute, blowing right past bad, feeling the hot wind, letting it wash over us. How do we do it? No way to know. How does someone win a game of chicken? We are gambling with our futures, and It Don't Matter.

The first gig shows us that yes, we can play this stuff for other humans. Now load the van and get back in the basement. Another two weeks, another 15 songs created, or stolen -- we don't care: we have another show, this one inside an actual club, Phyllis's Musical Inn on Division Street. Phyllis's is generally known as the easiest gig to get in the entire city, way below our status in the rapidly receding real world, the one where we have a well-known band with five albums out and reviews in the paper and all of that meaningless bullshit. God bless Phyllis's for taking a chance on us! We never tell them our real names or mention our other band, and we wind up with a Wednesday night, opening for some out-of-town band, the poor suckers. The club is echoing and empty, the home of the hands-down worst P.A. in town, an old hang out for hard-drinking laborers from the first Polish immigrant neighborhood in Chicago. But when we climb on stage and strap on and peer out into the gloom, instead of a completely empty bar we see... a not-quite empty bar! There are a few people here, inexplicably. I recognize some close friends, people we kind of had to tell what we were up to, and some faces from the backyard party, fewer than twenty people total, but it's Wednesday, it's 9:30, it's Phyllis's, and they're here. We rip into the set, and it's louder than god in this echoey little dive bar, we're rattling the old joints, overdriving the muffled and distorted sound system. And I know they are our friends, and I know they kind of have to like us, but these kids seem to be having an actual blast, laughing at the funny bits, shouting back at us, singing along here and there. Our stone-ages riffs, choruses, verses, stops, starts, are increasingly looking and sounding like actual songs. Or something. Our little bunch of people whoop it up, holler, laugh. It's hard to miss: why is it that our other band, the one we worried and sweated over for ten years, NEVER got ANYONE to make these noises?
After Phyllis's we are hot to trot baby, thinking more and more about the new band, rolling out ideas, charting courses. The dangling, googly-eyed skeletons, Skipper and GT and Pigtail, start gaining flesh and blood. Are they becoming more real? The confused but competent humans behind the white trash puppets, Kenn and John and Rick, are learning how to stay behind the scenes, how to make their characters dance, sing, talk. In our shared office room in Kenn's Devon-Avenue apartment, I am standing by the desk, Kenn on the phone. He's booking the next NDI gig, at Misfits, and he's referring to the band, of course, in the third person. "Yeah, they'll be there by seven." Soon enough we have the title of what might be the truest NDI song: "I'm Schizophrenic (No I'm Not)," inspiration courtesy of GT but true of all of us.
The Misfits show is a repeat of Phyllis's -- shitty club, shitty P.A., shitty week-night opening slot -- with the same little bunch of people. Maybe a few more, maybe not. But they are here. They came out again. We know better than to ask too many questions. So we play another show, draw a few more people, and after a few weeks a new truth is dawning, a truth built on a lie, maybe, but a truth nonetheless. The idea is so simple that it takes awhile to sink in -- stupidity is entertaining. And entertaining is stupid! Repeat after me: stupidity is entertaining, and entertaining is stupid. We are finally ready to do what it takes to be entertaining, to be fun to watch, to make people happy. We're ready because we are now, finally, stupid!
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