Friday, May 31, 2013

Call Me Pigtail 20/20

Okay folks, this here is number 20 out of 20. That means that we've come to the end of the first part, which was going to be the only part, but now I have a bunch more stories and kind-of true events to talk about, so now we need a second part. I guess that'll start with 21/40 at some point.

Before we start the second part, I intend to put all of the first 20 bits together, along with some extra weirdness like lyrics and secret bits, and make it into a book you can read on your Kindle and Kindle-type luxury reading device. So the next time I post will be to tell you more about that.

For now, though, here's the last bit of the first part: Motel 666!

We’re home, still covered in New York grime and glitter, not even unpacked, and already our sick brains are boiling with a new obsession — we absolutely, no question, right now need a video for our hit song “Motel 666.” This is the 1990’s, and people still watch videos of bands doing songs, and we’re excited to get the sparkling, sputtering, rip-roaring NDI madness forever committed to whatever it is you record videos on. So where do you start?
Fortunately, right about this time we get a call from a group of sharp young video people who had seen the NDI in full effect at a gig at Lounge Axe and were already chomping at the bit. They want us to make a video with them for free! This is for purposes of promotion of their video business. As usual, the NDI had fallen face-first into a sweet situation.
We put together a sophisticated high-concept plan for the video: since the song is about us sneaking our entire band and crew into one motel room, the video will be about sneaking our entire band and crew into one motel room. Only we’ll take it a step or two further: we’ll sneak an entire gig into one motel room. Gear, crowd, mayhem — everything into one cramped trashy little room. And then at the end, when the cranky manager comes to bust down the door and kick us out, all he’ll find is Skipper, chilling on the bed and watching TV. Ok? Ok! Let’s record our video!
First, though, we need a good place to film this monster. Being good Chicago boys, we immediately think of the strip of amazing tacky motels along Lincoln Avenue. This road, also known as highway 41, used to be the main route from Chicago to Milwaukee, and all kinds of little funky-butt businesses popped up to cater to the traveling salesmen and families in Ramblers. Then the big ugly Edens expressway opened up, and this slice of Americana withered on the vine. There are only a few of the cool old places left, but one of them, the Spa Motel, is still in business, and still as tacky as one of Goodtime’s suitcoats. We scout out the location, as the movie-types say, talk to the cooperative desk girl, and set up a day to shoot our video.
To fully re-create the NDI live experience, we start by calling various fans and freaks to crawl in through a window into the room and join the party. Ultimately we get about thirty people to commit. But we still need a grumpy old guy to be the front-desk dude. Where will we find a patient, funny, yet age-appropriate actor? The answer: Skipper’s dad! He’s perfect for the role, a born actor, and funny as hell. Once Mr. Zwakinov is on board, the project shifts into high gear.
What do the good people staying at the Spa Motel on the night of the NDI “Motel 666” video shoot think is going on in room 144? We don’t know, but no one complains. As the filming picks up steam we add more and more people to the chaos. They’re jumping on the bed, pounding the floor and the ceiling, shouting, wrestling. Monk the Wand’Ring Wizard, a genuinely strange cat who has begun opening shows for us, is dressed up as the devil and is producing flames from his fingertips, so the place is smoky and smells like burning sulfur. We also have a gorilla, a girl from the “Addicted to Love” video, a clown, a witch, an old lady, and lots of other people even we don’t know who they are. The ending, when Skipper’s dad comes to investigate the noisy guests at his hotel and bursts in, expecting to find a party, is my favorite moment in our existence so far. The song ends, ka-pow!, and he unlocks the door, and there’s Skipper (his kid, remember), lounging peacefully on the bed in tux coat and snazzy shoes, watching “I Dream of Jeannie.” Skipper’s dad backs out of the room and rubs his chin, “hmm, that’s strange, I coulda sworn there was a party in there,” he’s thinking. He cruises, and then the camera moves into the room to show me and GT hiding behind the wall. It’s funny because it’s true! Plenty of times we had to hide from hotel managers coming to try to bust us for having too many people in one room. “Defrauding an Innkeeper,” it’s called, and it’s a misdemeanor, and we’re guilty of that crime in pretty much every state in union. 
The video-maker people intercut, all of this motel mayhem with scenes from a recent show we did at Metro, one of the best places in Chicago to play. We sold it out, 1200 people, and this time we didn’t need the googoo dolls to help us. Between the mess in motel room and the rock scene at Metro, we have a pretty sharp little video, and we proudly send it everywhere we can think of, along with a few broken TV’s and handfuls of confetti. It gets pretty decent airplay, including late-night MTV and other outlets. To this day the “Motel 666” video will put a smile on your face.

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Call Me Pigtail 19/20

CBGBs with The New York (googoo) Dolls

Clanky loud stairs and harsh sun wake us up in the cruddy New Jersey motel room where the three of us are crashed out on the single bed mattress, box spring, and chair cushions. The NDI delivered the magic to a club called Rocky’s in Patterson, NJ last night — another strange gig, this one opening for a hair-metal cover band called Roxx, and oh my did their crowd not know what to make of us. On the one hand, we rock in a most serious and heavy way, but on the other hand we look like a fucking Vegas lounge act. Also we handed out raw chicken feet that we bought at the Centrella before the gig. We would later agree that not everyone in the crowd understood where we were coming from, and that getting nailed in the face with a thrown chicken foot hurt more than you would expect, and that we needed something softer to hand out — that’s why we decided in the future to go with marshmallows, which don’t hurt. They are also delicious, easy to throw, and cheap. 
On the road, high-level decision such as these are typically made over breakfast, which in Patterson is at the “FOOD” restaurant next to the gas station where we stop to fill up the Zebra. We’ve been out for over a week now, and the sense of unreality is only getting deeper. Out here no one knows us, no one cares about or as even heard of our previous band, and yet we still ALWAYS call each other by our new names. Why not? Our real selves are of no use to us here. We are who we say we are, so last night when an earnest heavy metal squid came up to me after the show and said, “Dude, I thought you guys rocked,” and asked me where we’re from, I leaned in and said, “Bucksnort, Tennessee! You ever been there?” Getting paid our measly $50 at the end of the night, Skipper agreed with the owner that it was ridiculous to put our band on stage with Roxx, and told him that Kenn, the fucker who booked the show, was “a total weasel.” The only time we actually do use a real name is when Goodtime signs the register at whatever dumpy motel we’re checking into: John Smith.
Gobble up the pancakes and fake syrup, drain the coffee cup, tip the ass-dragging waitress, and haul our sore corpses back into the van. Jesus we spend a lot of time in this van. For whatever reason we no longer call anything by its real name: the map is called a crab, and the squeeze-toy crab that announces each new state is “the map;” the radio is the heater, the heater is the dome light, and so on.  We are also accumulating random souvenirs. Hopelessly lost in Albany, we had to turn around in the parking lot of a recycling center, so our front dashboard now sports a big sign that says “Please Crush Jugs.” This is our universe, our clubhouse, our R-and-D control center. Sometimes we play a song on a messed up acoustic guitar that we found in the garbage behind the club in Cleveland, but most of our time is spent sleeping or laughing.
The last stop on the tour before we arrive in NY to play at the legendary CBGB’s is at another great venue, Maxwell's in Hoboken, NJ. It’s Wednesday night and we’re opening for a cool band for once, the first time on this tour that it seems like the other band is even from the same planet as we are, although we’re from Bucksnort, so go figure. But the NDI’s brutal trash-fest mixes real well with this bunch of rock kids called the Spinning Wighats, and the night turns into a meeting of the Mutual Admiration Society. It turns out one thing we have in common with the Wighats is that neither of us draw. But we rock hard for the handful of bystanders, shower them with marshmallows and breakfast cereal, and make ourselves another little passel of fans. That’s how it’s been this whole trip — in every town a few people come up to us wide-eyed after the show, asking for a guitar pick or an autograph, or just looking to tell us how hard we rocked. It’s lovely, it gets us through the night. 
The Wighats are kind enough to let us crash at their band apartment in Hoboken, and the next day we hang out for a while and then say our goodbyes and pile into the Zebra and head for NYC. We’re pretty amped. For once our hick schtick isn’t totally schtick — we’ve never played here before, and to be landing at CBGBs the first time out is a real kick for the NDI, who are after all really just a bunch of midwestern punks who grew up listening to the Ramones. Goodtime steers us into the Holland Tunnel, pretty amazing in itself, and then we pop out the other end and and boom — it’s New York City. We feel the immediate need to own this place. It is our destiny! Take us straight to CBGBs!
So we get lost for about an hour and a half, thanks to our hard-to-understand New York city crab. Traffic is a mess of course, although it is pretty cool to watch the reflection of our un-missable Zebra van in the swanky store-front windows. GT is driving and he’s keeping it together pretty well, and then he finds a street we need, and then he wheels the Zebra over to the curb, and there, framed in the windshield, is the big black-and-white sign that graces the front of the greatest punk club in the world. It’s a real holy moment, and then honest to god this happens: a bum walking by in front of the club stops to rummage through one of those big steel wire trash cans by the street, and comes up empty handed. Then he turns around, drops his filthy trousers, hoists his pale white ass over the edge, and starts to shit into the can. Directly in front of us, in the middle of the afternoon. To this day I don’t know if it’s horrifying or awesome, but it is surely a sign of some kind. It takes forever, long enough for Skipper to find his little camera and take a bunch of pictures. At one point it seems like an obvious cover for our next album, but that weasel Kenn talks us out of it.
Anyway fuck that, let’s move the show into the club, in through the pitch-black front doors, picturing how many other bands, how many of our idols, have rolled through here. This place is as narrow as a bowling lane and dark as a cave, and the stage at the far end is small and high, and there are drums sets and random gear on a big shelf/loft behind the stage, and beer bottles underfoot, and of course graffiti of the gods all over everything. We get our own little closet dressing room behind the stage. We’re playing with the Googoo Dolls, who have recently changed from being a thrashy punk-pop band to a strummy FM radio hits band, and although it doesn’t really make sense to put us on the bill with them, at least it’s better than opening for Roxx. Hilly, the booker and a rock god himself whose vision for the club made it what is was, tells us the place will be packed. Fuck yeah! The NDI is truly sprinkled with fairy dust. 
There’s no free beer but there’s also no shortage of liquor stores on Bowery Street, so our smuggled fifth of vodka has us pretty well lubed up by show time. The place is packed to the rafters, thanks entirely to the Googoo Dolls and not at all to us, but forever after the NDI will tell interviewers, and anyone else who cares to listen, all about the time the New Duncan Imperials sold out CBGBs. We’re second on the three-band bill, and the first band plays, and our world is swirling a little, and then the first band finishes, fine, fine, can we get up there now? We have two amps and two drums and a truckload of random yard-sale shit to get on the stage. So what’s the hold up? And then the bass player dude from Googoo Dolls comes strolling up in his choo-choo Charlie overalls and bare feet, and tells us that actually no, we’re not on next. There’s this other band that has been touring with the Googoo Dolls, and they’re on next. The NDI will not be opening for the Googoo Dolls, but instead will actually be playing AFTER the Googoo Dolls. He’s being a lot nicer than he has to be, and I can tell he feels bad, but ultimately it’s just “sorry dudes.” And away he goes.
This news does not go down well with approximately 100% of the membership of the New Duncan Imperials, and if our CBGBs dressing room hadn’t already spent the last two decades being trashed by everyone from the Deadboys to Devo, at that moment we would have done the job ourselves. We’re nice, dumb hicks from Bucksnort, but there’s a limit. But barefoot dude is gone and that’s it — there’s no discussion. The crystal wave of blessed stardom we have been riding sets us down with a thump on the scabby floor of the most famous rock club in the world, and we sit there in our fucked-up little dressing room, gloomy and drunk, without a friend in the world, and wait for the Googoo Dolls to finish their third encore and finally take down their gear. Then we rush like madmen to get our shit up on the stage, but by the time they clear out and we set up, CBGBs is completely, thoroughly, historically, empty.
Time to rock!
And rock we do. The intro tape blasts “No Business Like Show Business,” and we leap onto the stage in our snazzy tux and hat ensembles with the exact same energy and power and joy that we have radiated at every stop on this tour. The first song, “Jackson, MS,” sounds amazing up here on this loud little stage, and it’s just too bad there’s no one here to hear it. The song ends and Skipper and I strike a heroic rock pose, guitars high, heads thrown back.  The echoes fade, and then instead of a dead silence we hear wild cheering! A little crowd, just a few people, loud and proud, are going bonkers and shouting our name! Who’s here? Peering into the darkness, we see our crowd: it’s the Spinning Wighats. They drove in from Hoboken to see us, and now here they are, going bananas, rocking with the NDI. We love them, each and every one of them, and we still do. Rock moments don’t have to be big to be epic.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Call Me Pigtail 18/20

On the Road Again, Again, Part 2

Youngstown is next, not so far away, and we pull into town about 5, before the club is open. Sitting in the van, looking at the grimy little closed bar, we realize we have some time on our hands. What to do, what to do... There's a hard-drinking little dive bar across the street, and it’s open, so that was easy. The last time we walked into a random across-the-street-bar we wound up, open-mouthed, in front of the Country Rockers. This time we wind up in a regular dim beer-light smokey bar with a juke box and a dozen John Deer hats drinking Budweiser bottles. No band, no stage, just a cruddy-looking Rockola in the corner playing country music, the sanitized kind, miles away from the weird, off-key yodeling of the Country Rockers, or the demented mess kicked up by Jon Wayne. So we kind of stand there a minute, wondering.  Do we want to hang out here and put up with the mainstream country and the John Deer hats staring at the Hawaiian Punch hats? The answer is of course YES, let’s have a cocktail and settle in with our soon-to-be best friends!
We order some drinks and see what can be done with the juke box. Well, it's all country, mostly the cheesy stuff, but lookie here, they have "You Never Called Me By My Name" by David Allen Coe, and some George Jones, he always gets it right, and a few one-off random or local items, placed here either by a local radio station or by the bands themselves -- this one here, "Walleye" by a bunch of up-and-comers called the Hula Poppers, this one could be good.  All told the NDI invests close to three dollars in quarters and retires to the bar for a well-deserved round of Rusty Nails, the official cocktail of the East Coast Trip.
Of course the bartender, a wiry old dude with a one of those long braided Vietnam veteran beards, of course he says "So what's with the hats?" and we tell him we're a band, being truthful for no good reason, and he goes "What kind of music do y'all play?" and we all go "Woo!"  Another running joke, the best way so far to describe our act, always shouted in unison. Half of the words out of our mouths lately are in unison, or a lie, or a lie in unison. Bartender dude takes that at face value, he’s a little hyper, but we are free to hang out at this increasingly comfortable bar, bullshitting with the locals. 
We learn that Youngstown, Ohio, is "Murder City, USA." The bartender tells us this with pride. This neighborhood looks pretty calm, but according to him it's a war zone. “Wanna see my insurance policy?” he asks us. He seems a bit mental. Then suddenly he’s got a fucking Uzi in his hand. He’s waving it around the bar. “Motherfuckers come in here, Murder City motherfuckers, we’ll see who lives in Murder City!” Not making sense. “Cool gun,” we say, and eventually he calms down and puts it away. 
We order another round of Rusty Nails and listen to some too-smooth country, and then the Hula Poppers song comes on, "Walleye."  It's actually "Rawhide," only with new lyrics about fishing: "Trollin' trollin trollin', walleye!"  "Don't try to understand 'em, just reel em in and land em," and so on.  Pretty funny, at least to us, but then in the middle of a verse the song begins to die.  The Rockola has lost power and the turntable is stopping, but for unknown reasons the speakers still work. The song slows down comically, trollin  trollinn trollllinnnnn... and stops. An odd silence descends upon the bar. "Goddammit" says the bartender. He lurches out from behind the bar to the jukebox, and exactly like the Fonz on Happy Days he smacks the jukebox on the side, and it starts playing again, revving up from zero, woarwoarwoar… and now it's playing the "Walleye" song again, only backwards. It sounds like Satan’s jug band. Everyone stops talking for a moment, and then the room kind of shrugs and goes back to its drinking. So we sit there in Murder City USA, Skipper, Pigtail, Goodtime, sipping our Rusty Nails while everyone else drinks beer, listening to "Walleye" by the Hula Poppers playing backwards, and it doesn't even feel all that strange. Everything was already strange enough. 
Presently it grows dark. We watch the club across the street for signs of life, for a light going on or a car in the parking lot, but evidently this is a late-minded place. When the boogers finally do show up we have to hurry to get the entire NDI stage extravaganza loaded in and set up and ready to go, and we blast through a pretty pyroclastic set for 35 people, knock ‘em back on their heels, overpowered by the NDI tidal wave of entertainment. They're here for the headlining band, but the headlining band is an all-cover deal called The Dive Kings and oh my lord, they're old, but not in a good Country Rockers kind of way, just five balding dudes with big bellies, wearing jeans and t-shirts, playing “Mustang Sally” and “Can’t Get No Satisfaction” and assorted other tired old shit. When the show is over people wander out into the night, clutching the plastic skeleton hand necklaces GT handed them during the set, or an NDI record they just bought, or wearing a "Pigtail's Pig Parts" t-shirt. We make $75, most of which we immediately give back for the bar tab, but it feels like success. There's a nice live feeling in the place. We steam away, laughing and full of power.  
The next day, before we are on the road for even an hour, a deer hits our van. GT is driving, and in the misty morning, in the endless hills of Pennsylvania, a doe emerges from the brush, ignores the warning signs, and bolts into the 70-mph highway traffic. It runs full force into the side of our vehicle. It's disturbing and violent and not at all funny: the cars behind us trample the doomed animal and we cruise on, sober and reflective. The highway is no joke.  

Monday, May 20, 2013

Call Me Pigtail 17/20

On the Road Again,  Again 

That old rambling feeling is creeping around again, poking its pokey nose into our business, telling us to take it on the road, to go show people in other lands exactly what we are up to.  Our local gigs have been getting pretty hot and heavy, the crowd jammed against the stage every night, the new CD selling like hotcakes, and us not even a year old yet.  So Let's Go!  It sounds so simple: pack up our minimal gear and our Maximus Circus, coerce Tiggr into dropping everything he's doing so he can come with, check out of our own real-world obligations (rent and relationship upkeep), throw a few basics into a bag, and go.  Ok — where?  We did the South, and we did the West with our other band, and North is cold and far away (later we’ll discover Winnipeg, and then look out), so as far as we can tell the only direction left is East. Time to bring New York City under our power.  
Skipper/Kenn gets on the phone and works that old magic, and hey-ho here we go, NDI has got a show — Thursday night at fucking CBGB’s. Is this really how it works? Maybe, maybe not, but the NDI don’t ask questions. Score a few gigs out and back, Cleveland-Youngstown-Buffalo-Albany-Toledo-Dayton. Load the van, stock up on Aquavelva and MD 20/20 (the same stuff, basically), and boogie on out of town. Our future just keeps getting brighter.
But there’s a small problem — our van.  It's a shambly little Ford with blue and white side panels and round googly headlights and although it has always gotten us where we needed to be, lately there is something in its eyes, a rattle in its breath, something that whispers, "I am dying."  Like some people know horses, we have come to know vans, and this one is about to go down.  It will be awhile before other people can tell, though.  It is still possible to sell it, for maybe another month or two.  We have another few hundred miles before the fatal grinding begins to seize the transmission.  What can we get, maybe $500?  Skipper reckons twice that, and he's pretty much always right about this kind of thing, and sure enough we collect $950 from a couple of tough-looking south side dudes, their check clears, and now we need a new vehicle for the East Coast Trip.  
There's a string of used car lots down Irving Park Road, not far from GT's apartment, and driving past them one day he notices a zebra sitting in a lot among the cars.  It's a beautiful black and white striped Dodge Ram van, and it still has the name of the pet store painted on the side: Bernie Hoffman's Animal Kingdom.  This van was the official limo of the legendary Garfield Goose, the WGN superstar from the Ray Raynor show!  We need this un-ignorable van. 
But unfortunately this van is good.  It was built in the past ten years, and has fewer than 100,000 miles on it, so it's going to cost us.   The foam is still in the seat cushions.  But we arrived sold on it, and we stay that way even when the sketchy salesman tells us the price: $3,500, waaaaay more than we have.  It's time to talk financing.  It's time for Skipper to turn into Kenn.
After an hour of serious negotiations, we walk out of the place with a little booklet of payment slips -- $135 a month for years to come -- and the keys to The Zebra.  The NDI now has a vehicle worthy of its growing legend.

Pack and shave and withdraw funds and buy strings and picks and lock the door and get in the zebra van and head down 90/94, past the projects, past Comisky, to where the highway splits, right goes to Memphis, we've been down that road before, stay left this time, onto the Bishop Ford cruising due east, and then we're in another state, and after a long fucking drive we are in Toledo.  Toledo, Ohio.  No-one knows us.  The opening band is called Pornflakes, a crazed punk rock outfit fronted by twin Native American brothers, big dudes with wild hair, they don't draw and neither do we, a dim empty bar, but we rock and do all the bits anyway, just as if there were people clawing at our feet.  We collect $200 from the grumpy owner, $200 for passing Go, and little else; make it to the hotel, crash, and wake up the next day in the harsh cold December sunlight.  This is the grind that took the old band apart piece by piece, but now it's just background noise, a dull moment in an otherwise wild ride, a pause at the top of the roller coaster.  We're going to NY to play CBGB's!
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