Wednesday, April 13, 2011

The Velvet Papers, Pt. 2

Somewhere in a warehouse is the sacred
faux wood Zodiacal plaque, but this is close enough.
The Cantina in Kanawha City is pretty much today what it was back in the 80's: tired, seedy, and generally quite depressing, but the food was decent. Tony offered all-you-can-eat snow crab legs (One night I ate sixteen orders.), a decent if not small filet mignon accompanied by a tired potato and a burger that was so huge that cardiologists would shudder. Specials included Tacos on Wednesday or $5 pitchers on Tuesday and any other scheme he could use to get customers in the door. For us locals, it was a casual place to get stuffed or hammered in an environment that was mostly free of fist fights and the usual rough trade brought by the redneck fringe.

 But, Uncle Tony, Craig's dad, at least had a regular customer base and despite this being a West Virginia working class bar/steak house, there were were signs, literally, of lounge.

The grandest and most inspirational to us was a huge Zodiac wheel, made of some synthetic material, that hung high above one of the booths. However ridiculous this was, this no more appeared out of place than any of the other decorations as the interior was a mishmash of junk. The Ton-ster was a regular at estate sales, state auction and going out of business blowouts. All ended up in storage somewhere or as decorations.

This motherlicker was heavy.
 Back then, Craig played a Rhodes 88. This now classic keyboard has become the keyboard to sample or emulate in the digital world. Trouble is, in the real world, it was heavy as as a mother. And then some. I remember having to avoid having my fingers crushed or clipped neatly off while loading this beast into the back of the CR mobile. 

My equipment was a 1977 Kramer electric guitar complete with aluminum neck (I paid $200 for this back in the day. I see one listed at $1299.99.) This is one heavy guitar. I had a 50 watt Peavey amp.

We must have looked ridiculous. At some point, Craig found a black velvet smoking jacket with gold trim collar and sleeves. I can't remember which one of us wore it first, but we dressed up lounge style for the gig. Plus whole black pants, shoes and white shirts kinda "professional" look. The jacket went out of style at least 20 to 30 years ago, but nevertheless, it was essential. At least to our serious notion that smoking jackets, bossa nova and drinks with parasols should not be merely relegated to the golden era of the Rat Pack, but should be a lifestyle to be fully embraced, wardrobe included. (Note to readers: this belief has not changed.)

We must have sounded ridiculous. I remember that songs included Mister Magic by Grover Washington Jr., How Long by Ace, The Big Country by Talking Heads and selections from Vince Guaraldi-the composer behind the Peanuts cartoons. A wire music stand held the small yellow tablet on which I had scrawled chord changes. This stand also served as a mic stand; the mic being plugged into my amp. As I stated, ridiculous.

My singing voice has always been a source of self-ridicule. It has gone from being dismal in high school with practically no sense of pitch, developed a tremendous "wobble" of a vibrato during college with a propensity to wander, and pretty much was a hit-or-miss during the early Velvet days. Mostly miss. Still, nothing can come between a fool and his dream. Mine was to sing and with more guts than talent, I plowed through.

Craig insisted we do The Eagle's Tequila Sunrise and I would most likely count this as the worst of my singing. I never felt like I could do the job adequately anyway, but he insisted. So, with mic dangling from a cheap wire music stand, I groaned out the tune.

The Dynamic Duo

I cannot say how many gigs Craig and I did as a duet at the Cantina, but there are some highlights.

I remember one where a family sat close to the "stage." There sat a little girl who just keep looking up at these strange men, one in a smoking jacket, while they played their music which may have fit some pine paneled diner of yesteryear, not the Cantina. Part of me felt like she was interested in the music and part of me wondered if she thought us from another planet.

There was also the first time I experienced hecklers. At a table sat a group of men who all wore RC Cola logos on their shirts. The RC Cola plant has long since shut down, but these yahoos were pretty vocal at their displeasure at what they no doubt considered horrible music. It was during the Talking Heads' Big Country that I heard them repeat the lyrics I was singing. Their nasal tone spoke volumes. Still, even though I was a very green public performer at this point, I ignored them, although I was furious and hurt inside.

Craig never ever seemed to be hurt by anyone's criticism. At his core, he really believes that he is not a good player and his modesty is not false. He is a rare musician that has no ego. (This fundamental difference between us has never been divisive, but has served as a form of yin and yang: "CR Smoothie"- the smooth and calm one and "Johnny"- the ego driven front guy. While Craig would never be the guy who would set the room on fire, without him, Jim wouldn't have the badly needed support to have the confidence to try. Even if I failed to light a spark, Craig's there as a bedrock.)

There was one occasion that changed my musical life forever. It can only be described as a
peak experience. On a tune called Super Strut, when it was my turn to take a lead, I turned on the reverb and distortion on my amp and let my fingers fly. I went into a mental and physical state which, if talked about in ordinary terms, sounds unconvincing and if talked about in flowery, metaphysical terms sounds far fetched. Let's just say that music decided at that point to show me another world of experience.

One other thing came out of these very humble gigs: original music. We found a great deal of joy in the little ditties that we wrote and this was the first sign that maybe, just maybe, there was a little more to this than two losers in polyester.

Next: Evolution - Let's Add More Guys?

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