Monday, December 13, 2010
I Go to College and Learn a Ten Dollar Word

Everyone's familiar with the term confabulist (and I am thinking of the classical definition here used to describe a Baron Von Munchausen tale teller), or raconteur, the person whose natural ability to entertain and tell a story derails somewhat by his personal attachment to the narrative. Though often entertaining, these story tellers take elements of historic fact and weave them together in an ongoing ever growing skein that is knitted together and embroidered upon and decorated as a glorious new garment for them to wear to impress the listener. I've never been able to do that.

I have a very simple story. I heard about this group which eventually auditioned as the Commander Cody Band one night at Mandrake's. The person telling me about them seemed an unlikely person to know much about country & western music. She was the daughter of a diplomat who was stationed in Africa, where she had an elephant as her childhood pet and she was made a princess of an African tribe by the time she was eleven or twelve years old. She'd just informed me they played boogie woogie and what she described as country and western music, too. I didn't mind hearing about the boogie woogie part at all.

But just hearing that "country western" description made me uncomfortable, as I wasn't so certain "country" (i.e., "rednecks") let alone "western" (i.e., "cowboy" like from Texas) when combined into "country western" (i.e, "redneck cowboys") ... and because we served beer there (and because that is known to be the preferred beverage of choice of "rednecks") that likely meant "drunk rednecks" and "drunk cowboys" ... I just wasn't at all certain that society would fit easily into the landscape and culture of Mandrake's. I had been around rednecks and hicks and hillbillies and lint-heads and maybe crackers as I'd grown up albeit in a much less cosmopolitan geography than the Bay Area. And truthfully the Bay Area had Oakland, and even Berkeley had South Berkeley.

But in that more distant time and era, when I was growing up in a much less sophisticated locale, whenever such a white guy encountered a black guy especially in a bar (which outside of a casual pick-up basketball game was one of the few location with wavy social boundaries where they were even likely to meet) there were inevitably some "remarks" made and trouble waiting to happen. Sometimes the trouble didn't even wait for the remarks, and someone would end up with a dislocated jaw or worse. Or even for me, and I was just a small white girl, especially when I was a child, I was beaten over the head with a baseball bat and knocked unconscious by some little redneck kids who took a sudden inexplicable dislike to something about me, and I was just a ten-year old girl at the time. I mean, rednecks to me were unpredictable and usually violent, even as kids. And they usually grew up to be Alameda County Deputy Sheriffs, know what I mean?

And I wasn't so sure about this country and western group at that first instant, because I didn't want any trouble in Mandrake's, if only because there was trouble quite enough then in every other place in the world. And a "country western" star (a guy named Spade Cooley) who I'd watched on Town Hall Party as a kid (until he was thrown off the show as persona non grata for generating bad publicity by beating his wife up so bad that she testified in court against him as grounds for a divorce) had made a recent reappearance in the Bay Area, but now he was in San Quentin for murdering his second wife in front of his own children. Well, even country and western entertainers onstage could be weird, you see. But Jeanie, the African princess, went on to describe the boys in the band a bit, and had met some of them, and so on, so ... the band auditioned, then got the job and so stayed on.

The guitarist Billy K of the band started acting up and blowing it almost as soon as he walked through the front door, as I was nearly positive would be the case this being a "country western" band. This is probably the band's first job as a band, and by the second night this guy is acting up in a noticable way. He'd pass out on stage. He'd drink too much and get nasty, and brush past black male patrons, his eye flashing an angry hateful look ... like "how dare you bump into me, I'll beat your ass if I need to" (and this guitarist was skrawny and could be snapped in two like a twig, so it was all liquor talking). Billy was just off stage from a set and the band was stampeding to the bar to swill, and I mean those boys would race (just try to beat them, Daddy) straight to the bar). The patron was dressed in a nice dark suit and even a tie, out on a weekend date with his girl, and just on his way to the men's room. And this musician gives him a dirty stink-eye look for just no reason.

And there were a few more incidents like that, that seemed to show bad judgement on Billy's part, like his preferring to sit at a table during band breaks and hang with the guy the bartender brought in who nobody liked and who later pistolwhipped Mr. Buddy. And that guy was showing Billy his gun, which he had pulled from his pants pocket (and that was a no-no, an unspoken rule no guns allowed in the bar), and I because I was getting pissed at both of them, I wanted to say, "Oh, Billy, did he let you touch his gun?"

And I even said that very thing to Mary later, as I spelled it out for her, "He had a g-u-n."

So one night into their first week of performing anywhere as a band, Billy K was quite in his cups, I guess, drunk as could be, and he became verbally abusive and was quite rude to me, and like a loony he focused on me all evening with this crap. And because he was drunk or whatever and drunk and had already made a small alliance with the bartender and bouncer based on their common interests (the "whatever"), I knew those two wouldn't help me out in any way if anything else were to happen or the situation were to escalate. So he went on and on, becoming increasingly obnoxious all evening, until a patron at the bar noticed his behavior over the hub-bub, and said loudly, "What a creep!"

Then it all kind of simmered down for the evening. But the next night, I took George aside and I did this even though I didn't have a rapport with him at all. I told him what I'd noticed about his guitar player, that the guy was blowing it and needed to level out, and if he couldn't do that, George should fire him and find somebody else. To which George replied, "I can't do that - he's half the band!"

Mary and I discussed this matter, as well, and we decided the band should cut back on the beer onstage. Because George himself would drink beer by the pitcher and from the pitcher like a frat boy in a drinking contest, and would go through three, four pitchers in a single short set. At the end of a set, the top of his piano would often be lined with empty pitchers sliding through beer and foam. And sometimes it could be funny, like when he was pounding the piano and the pitchers would vibrate and skid as they danced their way to the end of the piano top to fall off with a "crash!" onto the floor.

But still. Thus when Billy K called out onstage to demand a pitcher of beer after a couple of rocking sweaty tunes, "Hey, we're thirsty up here" (like everyone is to drop whatever they're doing and fetch massa his sip of water, and usually I'd hang back and let the waitress in the leather cowboy hat fetch them their booze ('cos she the one who would yell "yew-hew" like she really meant it), and I'd be behind the bar watching, and singing, "Run grab a bucket fetch the baby some beer, run fetcha bucket get the baby some beer."

So next time they yelled, "Hey, waitress! We're thirsty up here" I carried up a pitcher of water drawn from the bar tap, and I suspect the band was most surprised and somewhat disappointed.

After Billy K's abusive, taunting, perfectly hideous behavior towards me on that one single evening, I never wanted to have anything to do with him again, and it didn't even matter that he had been drinking that night and probably couldn't even remember the evening, as I couldn't forgive the attitude and tone of his remarks. They played Mandrake's again many, many times. And they could be a lot of fun, and I would even encourage people to come catch their act. Their act became more polished, and early on Billy K could do that vocal trick with the microphone where he rocked back and forth and it sounded like loudspeakers were staticky and fading in and out at an auditorium or football stadium (like you can hear now on record on his "Rockabilly Funeral", and who knows maybe he even sang that, and kept it as his song when the band broke up).

Over a short period of time, I watched them get more club dates around the area, make a little more money, be disappointed in not getting a record contract, get a record contract, go on local television, make friends with young men who grew up to be music critics for Berkeley underground papers, make friends with guys who became music critics for more metropolitan publications, go on tour and on to make another record, and make a little more money and their stage costumes gradually changed from simple checkered gingham brown and white off the rack cowboy shirts with snap buttons to gabardine garments embroidered with bright roses and ropes and cow horns and pearly snap buttons for the fancier venues.

But that situation though defused was never really resolved, you see, and I did in my own way see it as a portent. If only because I was wise enough to know even as a young person that if he kept on acting that way and being that way, well, "One day he's gonna get in a lot of trouble he can't handle" as I told Mary, and she recognized that as a simple truth.

And I can hold a grudge, and perhaps many times rightfully so, that band should be thankful I wasn't in charge of the booking there. Not that Billy K even as far gone as he was would talk that way to Mary, or at least I hoped he wouldn't. Even years later, 1971 or 1972, I would see him walking wearing a fancy blue wool overcoat (the thick wooly kind you can only get back East for hundreds of dollars) walking down Telegraph and though I recognized him, I wouldn't acknowledge his presence in any way. I wouldn't give a casual wave, nor even say "hi", nor smile a bit nor catch his eye, nor even slightly raise my eyebrow in acknowledgment he was there, not that he noticed I wasn't saying hello to him in any way, but I did. And because he was on the bill, I wouldn't see any of their shows, not even the benefit for Charlie Musselwhite after his car accident at the Keystone. Mary and I were in touch about that long about then, and she shared details of the accident that were tragic, heartbreaking, and very very bad, the kind of details not reported in newspaper accounts but are known by intimate friends or family. Poor Charlie, we agreed.

Well, I could easily justify not going. I was far out of town at the time.

So in 1974, I was back in the area and stopped in to Mandrake's. Lee was there, tending bar, and no bands were onstage when I went in early around 5 pm. I tapped a quarter on the wooden bar, and shouted, "Bar keep, bar keep, I need a drink!" And Lee came over and we chatted a bit, and I learned the club wasn't doing so well, because he said the place was not so busy as it once was. He brought me my coca cola and refused to let me pay for it. "Your money's no good in here," he said.

And everybody knew, without even saying, that it was because in part of the great Satan Bill Graham and his clever-lawyer exclusivity contracts that our own little corner oasis of occasional happiness and sometimes great music and everybody trying to get along despite their differences went out of business. He had managed, probably without noticing our existence at all because our small venue could never have been regarded as any sort of real economic threat, to extinguish Mandrake's and forever suck whatever small joy there could be from many people's lives. But like a python squeezing the life out of its prey, that just seemed to be the nature of some people. But that's-ssss-ssss-sss an entirely different ssss-ssss-ort of ssss-ssss-ssstory. That and likely the landlord kept raising the rent, and bands kept raising their prices because they were getting used to the higher paychecks from some of the other more glittery club owners with deeper wallets.

There I was back in the area and rifling through the depository of memory and thinking about Mandrake's and my own history there.

As fortune twists and turns, events sometimes combine in singularly odd ways. On the kitchen table the daily local newspaper appeared, and I turned to the entertainment section where I read Joel Selvin's account of Billy K's latest adventure. Or I think it was him. Billy made the mistake of hanging with and partying with some Hell's Angels in Las Vegas. Billy apparently made a remark to one of the "mamas" to which the bikers took great affront and beat and kicked Billy K quite up and down and landed him in the hospital, maybe with a few broken bones, and the biker guys for some reason may have been arrested but were never charged or prosecuted so they got off scot free for kicking the crap out of him. Billy K was being interviewed from his hospital bed, and said, "What am I supposed to do, cry about it?"

"I told you so," I thought to myself as I finished the paragraph and I folded the newspaper. And then the goading imp arrived and stuck his pitchfork in me, as I soon thought "He kind of deserved it, didn't he," I asked myself. And the nasty imp gave the pitchfork a little twist, and "I think Commander Cody band has completely disbanded by now." Wow ... I realized that basically nothing really had changed, and certainly nothing really had ever resolved, but sorry to say I finally gained a slight understanding of the word Schadenfreude. And Schadenfreude really is a ten dollar word, isn't it?

In all those evenings at Mandrake's, I never once saw an actual fight there. There were the beginnings of scuffles, but things always simmered down. The closest thing I saw to a fight was when the twins who worked the door got into a tussle one night, a little push and a little shove, and a short lived wrestling match with one holding the other's neck in a hammerlock all in front of a wall. Because these guys were identical twins and looked exactly alike, someone later described as "It looked like a guy was fighting with himself."

That about summed it up, for some of the guys who were spoiling for a fight and for and some who drank too much too often that, somehow, they were still fighting with themselves.

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Compiling the best online articles about music so there will be more of both in the future. In periods of drought, the reader will be innundated by my own blogs on the matters.

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