Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Portrait of the Guitarist Part II

Part 2 of a series by Shaun Cronin about his adventures in LA. Part One is here.

Episode 2: In which Shaun joins another country band and moves one rung higher in the local scene, experiences the wondrous mysteries of an Elks lodge, is asked by cops whether he is carrying drugs or guns, sees one way to diffuse a fight and gains revenge by kicking the drummer out of the band.

I linked up with a singer-songwriter who recently had one of his songs on a George Strait album. The mists of time have shrouded his pen name and the name of the song but I assure you it was true. Again Gary was an ex-serviceman who wanted to be a country singer. And he wasn’t a bad songwriter or singer. We got along well, found a drummer and snagged whatever bass player we could find at a moments notice and started gigging.

Given that Gary was a member of some sort of lodge in Santa Clarita (North of LA) that is where we started to play a lot. A residence so to speak. And it was good fun. Warm, friendly crowd is not a bad place to test material and get some good feedback. The drummer in this band was very good. It was a pleasure to play with him as the beat was strong and true and he provided the push when needed and could lay back nicely at other times. The only trouble was occasionally he would get all polyrhythmic during the guitar solo. Now personally I don’t mind that. Gives me something to feed off and can be fun. However as you all know country bands only exist to serve line dancers. There was more than one gig where we would have to placate angry line dancers after a song who did not appreciate the rhythmic possibilities of deviating from standard 4/4 time.

With a revolving bass chair gigs could often be interesting. For example you have a bassist that doesn’t know quite where the song is going. It is not so much a problem during the vocals as a decent bassist will be able to anticipate where to go from the melody. But during the all important solo (Hey, I am a guitar player) things could get interesting. Atonal country excursions would result as the stand in bass player would play his own esoteric lines in another key. It was a tad frustrating. But eventually we did settle on a regular bassist and even engaged in the quant practice of rehearsal.

I do recall one pick up gig well. A local singer basically hired the drummer and myself to back him up at an Elks lodge. It was a ‘Key of G and 1,2,3 and 4’ sort of gig. All in good fun and no-one was hurt by erratic chord changes. At around 11:00pm though the gig stopped. And we then all stood in a circle holding hands some sort of Elk elder recited a toast (I think this was the one). And by no means do I mean to disparage the Elks but it was slightly surreal. Though standing for the Ode of Remembrance at the local RSL would seem perfectly normal.

We also had a regular gig at a small bar up in Palmdale which was always interesting. The regulars at the Palmdale gig were your typical salt of the earth, beer drinking, hell raising, knives openly carried in back pockets type of crowd. Quite a friendly folk actually and I enjoyed playing there. We didn’t need chicken wire, the locals liked us and there was never any trouble. Except for one night.

I’m not sure how it all started. But two of the regulars were starting to direct strongly worded sentiments at each other. It escalated to the point where physical violence was the next obvious course of escalation. This all occurred just before we were due to start a set As a band we had our instruments ready but were awaiting the outcome of the argy bargy before continuing. Also we also didn’t have any good country fighting music in our set at the time so it was best to remain silent. The atmosphere was tense with anticipated violence. You could cut it with a knife (of which there were many). The two protagonists were sizing each other up. It was going to be on. And then.........

One guy leaned over and planted a huge kiss on the other guy’s lips. He then bolted out of the bar. The other guy spluttered, wiped his mouth with is hand and desperately grasped for a can of Bud to wash away his embarrassment. Meanwhile the rest of the bar created that perfect moment of stunned silence that was broken by waves of laughter.

Being a poor and impoverished musician in LA I drove a wreck of a car. It got me from point A to point B (most of the time – there was one spectacular failure on the freeway and had constant issues with the radiator). It also had a faulty taillight, guaranteed to attract attention from cops driving behind you. This happened to me one night driving home from a Palmdale gig. To compound the matter I also had a broken headlight and a few weeks expired California driver’s license. I wasn’t feeling too good about things. One cop came to my window and had a look at my license and registration (which by some fluke was still valid – I’ll only explain why if you buy me a beer). His partner was walking around the car inspecting the faulty lights. He seems to have some arcane knowledge of electronics as well. This was revealed to me by his action of banging on the broken headlight with his flashlight. The thinking was that he could intimidate said headlight back into glowing goodness. Alas the headlight was not so easily intimidated.

I really though that I was gone. I expected to be in trouble for the license and faulty lights. I even suspected I may have to spend a night in the local lockup or something (yes I was a bit paranoid). At the critical moment the cop said to me “Did you know you license is expired?” I mumble some vague acknowledgement. “Well I suggest you get it renewed. Also get those lights fixed.”

I’d dodged a metaphorical, traffic rules bullet. I was free until the cop decided to ask me one more question. “Are you carrying any drugs or guns?”

A little surprised I truthfully said no and was then on my way. I have always thought it was a curious question. I wonder if anyone has actually answered along the lines of “Funny you should ask. I have a kilo of blow under the seat and an AK-47 in the trunk.

The Palmdale bar also was the site of an incident that led to the demise of the band. Now as I mentioned the drummer was freakishly talented. But what I didn’t mention was that he was teetotaler when I met him. In the normal course of a gig Gary, me and whoever was playing would nurse the odd beer over during a set. We never got drunk and made sure that we were able to play and drive home.

After a few months we noticed that drummer would occasionally appear with a beer in his hand. After the initial surprise we thought nothing of it. He was still playing well and seemed to be in control. Until one night in Palmdale. There were no obvious problems first set. However things seemed a little amiss second set. Nothing major but it was noticeable. I asked the drummer if he was ok and ‘no problem’ was the reply. By the third set things were becoming quite non- rhythmical. This prompted an intervention before the fourth set. ‘I’m sorry. Had a few vodkas. I’ll be right.”

The fourth set was a disaster. Especially when the drummer left his chair in mid-song to go to the toilet. That was unusual. And the song sounded a little empty without the drums. Later we found out that compounding the alcohol was marijuana that was most definitely not being used for medicinal purposes. While only another case of musician having trouble with the bottle it was sad and disappointing. I’m not sure exactly what lead our drummer down this path but it fell on me to kick him out of the band. I did call it revenge in my episode preview it wasn’t something I relished but it had to be done.

After than the band meandered around with another drummer but then went on a hiatus. This was pretty much the end. Gary and I collaborated on a few songs which were interesting and I played on a few demos for him (gutted when a beautiful R&B style guitar hook I came up with got buried in the mix –damn ignorant producers).

The one thing I really enjoyed around this period was starting to write songs. I hadn’t done much of that before. Gary helped to flesh out a few ideas I had and we collaborated well. Nothing came of it but it was good fun. Also, playing gigs only helps to build the skills and repertoire. And we were getting paid for the gigs which is always a good thing.

But it was over and I was wondering what would happen next.

Episode 3: In which Shaun finds a new band, starts gracing the same stages in Hollywood and the Valley as his heroes, meets one of his guitar playing heroes, writes the drinking song to end all drinking songs and finds himself on a plane back to Australia.

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