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...

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