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.