The Perfect Gig
This story was first posted on slaid.com in 1998.
We were tired. Charles “King” Arthur and I had just done a quick sound check for an afternoon show at the Greenwich Odeum in East Greenwich, Rhode Island. The rooms we had requested didn’t come through, so we just sat in the car on Main Street, staring through the windshield. It was our default location.
This would be our tenth show in the past eleven days. We had left Austin, Texas, in my ’74 Dodge Dart Sport, driving straight over to Florida, then up the coast to Vermont before heading south that morning for RI. We had seen our share of bland, sterile chain motels in the last two weeks, and the thought of driving around to find one more was not agreeing with me. We were so used to hurrying along on this tour that we didn’t know what to with this moment of inaction, so we just sat in the car and stared ahead.
“So, where are we going to crash tonight?” Charles was always asking questions like that. We could drive up to Portsmouth after the show, only two more hours, to stay with friends. I even had a friend in Providence I could call up, but it was kind of late notice. Besides, I just didn’t want to drive another mile that day. I was sick of being in that old car. I was really sick of making decisions (I still can’t afford a road manager).
And then I saw it. About a block away there hung a huge, boxy, old iron sign over the sidewalk. “HOTEL” was spelled out vertically. Not “Motel.” The building was dull red brick, not white cement. Black iron fire escapes perched onto the sides. The sign was black and rusty and the neon was long gone. “I’m gonna go up and see if that really is still a hotel,” I said to Charles, who thought I was nuts.
I walked up the chilly sidewalk on this gray spring day in this small town of about 5000. Past a diner, some restaurants, a ladies clothes store. When I was just about under the mammoth sign, a doorway opened up to my left, and I stepped in. This was no hotel. It was a bar. But I knew right away that this was a special bar. It had the look of a bar you might see in an old black and white boxing movie from the 1940s. But it had this post-apocalyptic feel about it. Paint was peeling, the light fixtures were ancient, tiles were missing from the floor. It smelled like old wood, like an antique store. It had the accouterments of any modern blue-collar bar: the cardboard Budweiser posters, loud with color and pretty girls, the video poker game. But, though it was run down, the dinginess could not totally hide its elegant past. There were tiny mirrors in art deco patterns on the ceiling, which was painted aqua. Some of the doors were padded with faded dry leather. The bar itself was a solid piece of mahogany which curved around in a semi-circle. I sat on a naugahyde barstool and my elbows rested naturally, perfectly into the counter of this beautiful piece of wood. Even though I was a stranger, eyed by the half-dozen regulars smoking there, I felt totally comfortable at that bar.
The gal bending over into the coolers of Bud and Miller was young and pretty, but tough looking. A girl from a factory town. She approached me with a friendly smile, which dropped when I asked her about the hotel. She looked at me suspiciously, and I couldn’t quite tell if the hotel was open or not. I had to ask again, “So, can I get a room?” Maybe she thought I was kidding, but eventually she realized I was serious, and said rooms were $30. That’s damn cheap for New England.
I went back to the car, got in, closed the door. “It’s perfect. We can get drunk at the bar, maybe play a couple of tunes for the locals, then stumble up to our room at the end of the night. European style.” Charles still thought I was crazy, but the tour, his first, had left him too weak to argue. He had trusted me all the way from Texas in this 24-year-old car with 260,000 miles on it. And he could see my enthusiasm now. “This is going to be an adventure, I guarantee. It might suck, or it might be the best night of the tour, but I guarantee we will remember this night.” He laughed nervously as I started the car and began to drive that last 200 yards to our home for the evening.
The gal behind the bar was even more suspicious when I walked in with Charles and said we wanted to register. Maybe she had seen the jack-booted Rhode Island State Trooper pull us over (not a rare occurrence in a ’74 Dodge with out of state plates) in front of the hotel and thought we were outlaws. I think she actually said, “You sure you want to stay here?”, as she hefted up the old registration book from below the bar. The book seemed oddly normal considering her unorthodox sales technique. We got our key and directions and headed through a high-ceilinged, bare wood hallway around the corner to a grand staircase. Holes in the walls showed studs and insulation. Dim, bare bulbs lit the way. Our footsteps clunked and echoed down the 2nd floor hallway as we came upon our door, directly across from the men’s room.
The lock took some convincing before the door opened, and the first thing I saw was that big old sign hanging like a dead man outside our window. Perfect. If the neon had been intact it would have been blinking red light into the room all night, just like in the movies. The first thing Charles noted was that there was just one bed. There was no carpeting, no TV, no phone, no bathroom, no sink even. Just a metal bed, bedside table with ashtray and lamp, dresser, and a hissing radiator. The shade on the huge window was yellowed and cracked, and there was a shower curtain nailed to the chipping ceiling, to divert a drip away from the bed, I suppose.
We set down our bags, laughing proudly at our adventurous spirit, then went down to the bar for an afternoon beer. I don’t remember how it started, but we found ourselves talking to a couple of locals right away. We told them we were playing at the Odeum down the street, and a guy named Paul started telling us that he played bass in some bands a few years ago. But his wife made him quit. Now she was gone. Some story like that. He said he liked to listen to the radio and play along for a couple hours every day, just for fun. I remember catching myself thinking, “What a loser. Got to get away from this guy. Imagine playing just for fun . . . wait a minute . . .” He was your typical talkative bar room drunk, full of stories that were at least slightly true, but he wasn’t obnoxious, and I started to warm up to him. We asked him about the hotel, and a few of the patrons gathered around to tell us, with pride, that this was the Grand Dame of the Northeast back in the ’30s and ’40s. Frank Sinatra stayed here. Babe Ruth got laid here. That’s not much of a distinction, someone said, ’cause the Babe got laid just about everywhere, but he did hang out at this bar. The pretty bar girl told us how the owners were trying to revive the place. Sure enough, there were signs of construction here and there, but it looked like the modest attempts had been abandoned a few years back. And I pitied her for actually believing the place could be saved. It was obviously not able to make money in this area anymore, and if someone tried to fix it up, they’d have to modernize, and that would take all the charm away.
Before leaving for our show I asked the bar gal what was the name the locals liked to call themselves here, in Rhode Island. She said “quahoggers,” a nod to the rugged folks who dig clams, year-round, out of the mud and sand of the New England shore. I used that little bit of local color in our short set at the Odeum, along with a big thank you to Rhode Island’s finest for the nice welcome to town. And I told the audience that we were staying at the Greenwich Hotel, and that we might break out the guitars and do some picking in the bar after dinner. There were chuckles, and, did I just imagine it, gasps.
The set went well and the other bands were great and Charles and I stood in the lobby after the show and signed CDs and chatted with folks. A couple of folks wanted to know if I was serious about the Greenwich. One couple invited us to a different bar, where they were sure we could play a couple of tunes. After the show, we drove a couple miles down to this bar, but it just wasn’t right. It was a new building, shaped like a McDonald’s. There were acoustical tiles on the ceiling. It was set up to look like an Irish pub. It was trying too hard to be something it was not. That’s what I loved about the Greenwich. No pretensions; it just was what it was.
We went back to the Greenwich for a beer with a couple of folks from the show. I worked up the courage to ask the lady at the bar, an older lady this time, if it would be okay if Charles and I could play a few tunes, since we were staying here, and had to bring all our stuff in anyway. She was very suspicious. I grew up in New England, but I’ve been living in Texas for 7 years now. I guess I forgot how cautious Yankees can be. Especially about music. In New England, music is left to the musicians. Regular people don’t sing or play instruments, or even allow music in their homes. I remember being shut down by the cops every single time my high school garage band tried to play an outside show. People would complain. That never happens in Austin. In Texas, it seems almost everyone can strum a few tunes, and every back porch is liable to be graced with some picking once in a while. This bartender had me call up the owner of the place, whom I had to convince that we wouldn’t be loud, we didn’t have a whole lot of equipment to load in, we weren’t going to play heavy metal, we didn’t want any money, we’d be gone in the morning, etc. She finally said, “Well, okay.”
Though we tried to be discreet, Paul was onto us from the start, and was asking if he could play bass with us before we even got permission from the bar. “I can run home and get my rig I’ll be back in 10 minutes I live right up the street . . .” We went with the flow. That’s what it was all about that night. We shrugged and said, “Sure.” Paul was back before we set up our stuff by the window. We got beers and I looked around to see if we were ready. “We’re the Quahoggers,” I announced, and we started playing. I did feel a little that we were intruding on the regulars, and I worried they would be annoyed at our presence. But everyone turned around and greeted us with smiles. They liked the name. Plus, because Paul, the “Norm” of this bar, was in the band, we were ok.
Well, I’ll tell you, that night we played for the fun of it for the first time in ages. I’ve been playing as a job for nearly ten years now, and it’s a sad fact that many nights I’m not there solely for the music. Either I’m trying to win people over so they’ll buy a CD, wondering if I suck or not, or wondering if there’s anyone important in the audience. Or if it’s a bar gig, sometimes I’m just going through the motions, working, watching the clock, relieved when it’s over. But on this night in Rhode Island there were no expectations, no agendas, no goals. I played for the pure joy of playing. We played my own songs, we played my favorite Hank songs and Johnny Cash. Charles did Chuck Berry and Elvis songs. We did requests, we did songs we didn’t know. Paul was not a good bass player, but he was good enough. Having Paul in the band brought a sense of danger that kept us on our toes. It brought a newness to our tired old set. Because there were no expectations, there was no fear of failure, so we played with great risk and it was exciting. Plus, Paul kept the locals involved. We stayed connected to the crowd partly through him. He was the hero of the night, and I smiled to myself as I thought of all the people who would have to listen to him tell the story of this night for God knows how long. We knew this was a special night. It was enfolding just exactly as I had envisioned it. People danced, bought us drinks, filled our tip jar, kept calling for more. It was the perfect gig.
All through the night I kept thinking, “I wish I could remember every bit of this night, but I know it will fade like all the smoky, hectic nights always do.” I’ve tried hard to recall details in the ensuing months, but I know most have faded forever. One bit I do remember, and I will forever, was for a moment, in the middle of a Chuck Berry song that Charles was singing, I found myself playing with abandon. I’d never felt that before while playing. I don’t think I’ve ever used that word to describe myself before. But it’s the perfect word for that feeling. I was wrapped up in the music. I had relinquished control (or attempt at control, I should say). Isensed being a part of something bigger than myself. I think the really successful musicians probably feel this way every night. I know Bruce used to talk about playing each show like it was his last. I played that night in East Greenwich, Rhode Island like it was the end of the world.
Towards the end of the night, a gal came in out of the cold and joined us with a washboard. Her percussion propelled the end of our set with an extra jolt of energy that we couldn’t have come up with on our own. We had finally loosened these Yankees up.
We played til closing time, past closing time. Encores, etc. Finally it was time to quit. We were like a big family in that bar. The bartender was our kindly aunt. Paul was our long-lost brother. We had a last beer and packed up our gear. I felt so self-satisfied, knowing that I could just saunter upstairs and crash, just as I had planned. No loading the car, no driving.
We were telling Paul about how there was only one bed, and how we thought we’d just throw the mattress on the floor and one of us could sleep on the box spring. I had a sleeping bag in the car, and frankly, I had no intention of slipping under that worn and frayed bed spread, stained and poked with cigarette burns, so I volunteered for the box spring. But Paul, who was that sort of lonely, unpopular guy who will go out of his way to do anything for anyone who pays attention to him, insisted on going home and getting his self-inflating Marlboro air mattress, which he got in the mail for sending in so many thousand cigarette box tops. We said, no, no. He was drunk, he shouldn’t have been driving. “It’s ok. I know where the cops hang out. I’ve got a shortcut over to my place, I’ve done it a million times.” I knew he was not making that up. But we said no thanks.
We navigated the twists of the back hallway, past a dozing, ancient night watchman, clomped up the steps to our room, and started settling in, laughing about how fun the night had been, how perfect. The box spring wasn’t bad at all. We got into bed and after a few minutes there was a knock at the door. Who the hell? “It’s Paul! I got that air mattress for ya.” He comes in, reeking drunk and a butt in his mouth. “You bettah move y’ cah. I heard the cops sayin’ they’re gonna tow it.” I’d forgotten that in most New England towns, you can’t park on the street at night. Another puritan Yankee trait you never see in Texas. In Texas you can legally shoot someone who is trying to move your car. That Paul: not only does he evade a phalanx of drunk-seeking cops to do a favor for us, but he somehow knows the same cops are about to tow me. I ran down to move my car to the parking lot, and when I got back, there was a sense of defeat in the room. The big wrinkled red and white vinyl Marlboro package on the floor was useless. Apparently, the self-inflator wasn’t working.
This is how Charles described what I missed when I was moving my car: ‘I was already laying down on the mattress on the floor pretty comfortably when Paul showed up. We were telling him, “Don’t worry about it Paul – we’ll sleep fine,” but he was dying to break out the Marlboro mattress and kept saying, “You’re gonna love this,” as he was preparing to inflate it. “No, really Paul, it’s Ok.” “Oh no, you’re gonna love this.” After saying it about 3 more times then you hear, “Shit, the fuckin’ thing doesn’t work.” Anyway, it’s funny to me as I think about it. But the thing that gets me is when we said good-bye. I said something like, “See you later Paul,” and he said, “Shit, I’ll never see you guys again.” Profound comment. I know that he realized that we had all just shared a magic night and that shit like this doesn’t happen very often, if ever. It made me realize it too, and I felt like crying.’
Next morning, we began to stir around nine or ten, but then something jolted us into full waking. There was a noise in the hall. The big clomp of a boot, followed by a dragging sound. It repeated slowly and was getting louder – coming towards us. Clump. Thhhhh. Clump. Thhhhh. Was it Quasimodo? Was is Igor form “Young Frankenstein?” We waited in suspense as it approached our door. We opened our eyes wide. Then it began to fade and recede down the hall, and we burst out in stifled laughter. It was the one sign during our entire stay at the hotel that anyone else was staying there. Perfect.