Tonight was the big night. Sunday, December 28, 1986. It was going to be a huge night on two fronts.
The evening would kick off with my band’s first gig at Williams’ Uptown Bar on Hennepin in Minneapolis.
Then, after load-out, I’d race out to KSTP to do my show. I was going to interview a childhood idol of mine.
When you play in a dinky garage band, it’s easy to dream big. Sitting in your home studio writing music, or standing around in the basement listening to your band’s progress, and especially standing on stage in front of an appreciative crowd (or “crowd”), it was easy to think “next stop, the big time”. The optimism that accompanies the sort of muted arrogance that makes one think that anyone actually cares to hear what you write makes it easy to think, on reading one’s lyrics, hearing one’s practices, and seeing people watching you play, that you’ve got it going on.
But loading-in usually levels that out nicely.
Turns out I was the only driver in my band. The other three guys bused everywhere. And while we didn’t have a lot of equipment by the standards of the bands I’d played in high school (where we had to haul a PA system along with our instruments), there was enough – two guitars and a bass, their amps, a drum kit, and a Crumar T1 organ – and it didn’t haul itself, and it wasn’t going to fit into the back of my Jeep. I’d managed to borrow a van from one of my roommate’s parents, though. I got to the band’s house, and we started hauling our gear out of the stinky basement into the frigid late afternoon.
The good part – it was only about five blocks to the bar. The bad part – we were early.
The headliner that night was a group called “Bathyscope”. The name meant nothing to us – yet. What we did know was that they had a ton of gear – guitars, bass, two keyboard players (whose equipment is always heavy and bulky) and a drummer with a huge kit, and a box packed solid with other percussion instruments and stage props – and bigger pretensions, it seemed, in getting it set up and soundchecked. It took them a solid ninety minutes to get their gear up on stage, soundchecked, and ready to go.
Then it was our turn. As the opener, we were supposed to put our gear in front of the headliners, plug in, and grab a sound-check – if we had the time. By the time Bathyscope got off stage, it was 8:25. We were supposed to go on at nine.
We pulled, hauled and plugged, and got our stuff set up and more or less ready by about ten ’til, and started our soundcheck – a few bars of one of our songs. People were filing into the joint. The Bathyscope people – who looked, except for the drummer, to be distinctly “uptown” by the standards of Minneapolis in the day – were not visibly impressed with our Iron City Houserockers-Via-Lou Reed vibe.
But it didn’t last long. Will, our drummer, stopped in mid-song. I turned – he was frantically fiddling with something under his snare drum. I walked over.
“My hi-hat’s broken”.
Five minutes until we’re supposed to start. Crap.
Our options were two: Borrow a couple of pan lids from the kitchen, or hope someone would come through for us.
Bathyscope’s drummer – a big guy who looked to be in his late teens or early twenties, the only black guy in the room – came up on stage. He and Will conferred back behind the drum kit – and then he reached back to his own rig and grabbed his hi-hat. They turned to moving Will’s broken ‘hat out of the way, and putting his in place.
And we were on. Larry Sahagian, sitting at the sound board, went on the crackly, on-its-last-legs PA system and announced “Ladies and Gentlemen – Tenant’s Union”.
The gig itself – well, it was rough.
Turns out that excitement does make people go a lot faster than they think they are. The tapes we heard after the gig were shocking; it sounded like we were playing 50% faster than we were supposed to. The sound was garbled, my voice sounded like a fractured, out of breath yelp, and we sounded more like four guys playing at the same time than a band of four guys playing together.
The crowd was worse. There was a decent house, about 3/4 full…
…that seemed pretty uninterested in us. The clapping between songs was muted and wan. We weren’t dying – just gravely injured.
Still, I had fun; to me, there’s never been a feeling quite like working a room, even if it’s not perfect. We played ten songs, eight of them mine. And, rough as we were, by about the sixth or seventh song we started finding whatever groove we had; we were loud, (too) fast, and even though things were rough, we had a certain power to our delivery that felt like climbing on a big motorcycle, one that may need a tuneup but still makes the air crackle with power just a little bit.
During the third to the last song – “Five Short Words” – one guy back at the bar stood up with a look of recognition and a broad smile on his face, and started clapping along. I played the whole song directly to him – might as well reinforce success – and filed the guy’s face away for later.
After the tenth song, we were done. There was scatted clapping as we unplugged and started hauling our gear out of the way and Bathyscope started moving theirsinto place.
We hauled our gear out to the van, and sat down to watch.
And figured out quickly why the crowd hadn’t really dug us. “Bathyscope” was a jazz-pop band with very arty aspirations. The lead singer, a (how do we say this in our politically-correct age) aggressively gay guy dressed in an untucked tunic with laurel wreath (!) on his head, danced about the stage like an oversized dwarf from Spinal Tap’s “Stonehenge” scene. They set their amps and keyboards (and their stage props) on – I’m not kidding – doric half-columns. The band was modestly tight – the drummer was amazing, and the rest of the band was not great, not bad – and extremely ornate in that music-major-y kind of way. It was very unlike our thrashy din.
As they finished their set, the singer announced “Come see our art next Saturday at the Riflesport Gallery!”
Before we left, I walked back to the bar. The guy who’d been clapping walked up to me.
“That song you did – that was a reference to One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, wasn’t it?”
Six weeks work, and our fan base is a fellow English major and Russian Lit geek.
I also saw Larry Sahagian, who paid us our twenty bucks. “You guys did all right, but you were totally the wrong band to open for these guys”.
Anyway. At least none of our friends had seen us.
We went back to the basement and loaded our gear downstairs. By the time we were done, it was 12:30AM. I had to race out to the station to get on the air. I got there at 1AM – a little late, given the obsessiveness I put into show prep at that point in my “career” – but I got down to it.
Among my various geekinesses as a child and teenager was a fascination with fighter planes and aerial combat. I knew a little bit about many of the world’s classic dogfights. The protagonist of one of my favorite dogfights – a Navy F-4 ace from the Vietnam War that I’d been reading about for years – had just written a book. I had booked him for a phone interview from his home in LA.
After five months of doing the show, I was starting to settle into a bit of a groove. The awkard halting of my first couple attempts at guest interviews had been replaced by a little confidence and a tad of polish – which is damning by faint praise, but whatever – and at least I knew the subject matter for this interview pretty intimately.
The interview went…very well. It clicked as well as the gig had not. I knew the material in the book, and the guest appreciated it. I knew things about his story that, clearly, he wasn’t used to radio interviewers knowing. And the callers surprised me; one of the callers had even served on the carrier, the Constellation, with the guest during the Vietnam war, and added a lot to the commentary.
I wasn’t the only one who thought it went well – I heard the following week from the PR agent that the guest had had more fun on my little show than with any other interview he’d given.
I could have told her that.
I drove home that night – exhausted, cold, and giddy. The music career needed some work, but was off and running. And for the first time since July, I was starting to feel genuinely confident as a talk show host. I felt, for the first time, like I could fill in for any of the daytime hosts, and not embarass anyone in the process.
I could see the top of the world from where I sat in my Jeep.
Postlude: It’s interesting to me, twenty years later, to note that I had one degree of separation with both fame and infamy that night (three, if you count Larry Sahagian, whose band the Urban Guerillas was about to release their proto-grunge classic Attack of the Pink, Heat-Seeking Moisture Missiles. But for the benefit of those who weren’t marinating in Twin Cities underground music twenty years ago, I won’t count that).
The personable, friendly, good-samaritan drummer for Bathyscope went on to much bigger and much better things. He turned out to be Mike Bland – at the time an Augsburg student, who was gigging for a few bucks on his way to a career as one of the most sought-after session drummers in the business, as well as stints with Prince and the New Power Generation and Soul Asylum.
The author and fighter pilot? Well, he was Duke Cunningham – still a hero, in those days, known for shooting down five North Vietnamese jets, including three on one climactic day, long before his political career and eventual status as poster-boy for Congressional corruption.
I knew ’em both when.