Tuesday, May 17, 2011

The Velvet Papers, Pt. 9


Ok, so I was a bit overboard on the flyers.
Are there coincidences or is there destiny? I have asked myself this a few times in my life. Things literally fell into place in the fall of 1987.

If I hadn’t moved in with my old high school chum, then our musical relationship wouldn't have been as steady. I also wouldn’t have gotten a call from another friend who just happened to be working at Pied Piper then who said, “You better get down here and look at this guitar.” It was one of the first electro-acoustic nylon sting guitars by Takamine. It had the hell beat out of it by some redneck and looked kind of sad, but the tone was rich and its playability was great. Besides, I wasn’t ready to jump into being a full-time electric guitarist. That's never been my forte anyway.

In 1988, Beetlejuice came and I heard Harry Belafonte sing Day-o and Jump in the Line. I had never heard such cool music in my life. The deal was sealed. Let the velvet games begin. Bring on the Caribe, baby! 

The Velvet Theater

Always having been a Genesis-Gabriel fan, I liked how music performance could include theatrical elements. Why not push the absurd envelope a little further with some antics? We were already a "joke" anyway.

Get off the floor, you idiot.

It was at the Charleston Playhouse (a former Mexican restaurant) where we implemented our first theatrical stupidities. The place was owned and operated by local actors who decided Charleston was hip enough to need a place for local music and plays. Throw in a bar and you’ve got a very cool place (By the way, this is where I learned of the horrors of Pikeman (sp?) rum. A ghastly, strictly bottom shelf rum that was good for one obvious purpose: oblivion and memory loss).

We had these silly ideas that lounge was born from primordial ooze and so the band played Also Sprach Zarathustra while I was narrating the birth of lounge. I was “hidden” from the audience by lying on the floor behind a wall. Needless to say that while the rush of trying something new was exciting, it’s when you’re doing these stupid things that you realize how damn dumb they are, but stupidity has never stopped me from being stupid. After the big setup, I emerged in complete Johnny Velvet regalia: smoking jacket, ascot, sunglasses, a monster size cocktail glass and the fervent hope that I wasn’t making a complete ass of myself. Or worse, no one would laugh. That’s the real stinger, isn’t it?

My friends laughed and that was enough encouragement to continue down this most ridiculous of paths. That gave rise to the most outrageous of incarnations: Velvis. But first, let’s get a few more things in order here.

Al, Dave, Greg, CR, Tito, Nery, JV and Nelson
Hide your daughters and lock your liquor cabinet.
The Velvet Horns

At some point, I realized that Dave, a master of the trumpet, might make a great addition to the band. I remember playing him All I Know at the university and him making a recording. The horn lines he composed were the perfect compliment to that song. It gave it a lift and emphasized the intended fun. I don’t recall when we brought on Al, trombone-meister, singer and percussionist, but the two of them became The Velvet Horns. Their long-time friendship and playing level brought musical solidarity from the first moment they played with us. I thought that this couldn’t get any better. They added a rich, creamy layer to the Velvet cake. The humor and the grooves were not lost on them either. They quickly joined the brotherhood (I still enjoy playing with Al and Dave. Some things remain.)

Meanwhile, word was getting out and we had regular gigs at the Empty Glass and the Levee. I remember CR, Weg and I having a meeting where we all agreed that we wouldn’t play more than two weekends a month.

That didn’t last long.

 We were booked virtually every weekend and we were getting calls from people who wanted us for their weddings, social events, etc. but it was the Levee where some said we sounded the best. I take that as gospel.

The Levee and the Land of Herb Hollywood (1990-93)

The Levee, a dark and dingy bar-cave, was a place my brother frequented long before the band was formed. It was known for having a keg night (inside an old bathtub if I recall), a pool table and plenty of rednecks. When Jon took it over, it still was a shithole, but it was a shithole run by cool people. The main character in the form of barman of this madcap place was Herb Hollywood. Herb was a supporter of the band from the beginning and he was a vital part of the scene. Herb is one of those guys that have a dynamic personality and an easy winning way with people that I envy. He was hilarious and made a mean cocktail - strictly not for amateurs.

When the owner and the bartenders like your music, it is a tremendous amount of support. The band has to win over the crowd ultimately, but with the support of the house, you are going to feel pretty confident. Maybe that’s why people said it was their favorite place to hear us.

There were times when I felt that we certainly didn’t deserve the applause we would get and others I felt like we were nailing the tunes, but the response was tepid. You can never predict how a crowd is going to react, so you dig in your heels and plow forward; even though inside you might feel otherwise. There were times when I felt like, “OK, you’re not with us, so we’re going to have a good time playing in spite of you.” Sometimes that was authentic and sometimes I was just kidding myself- the crowd has to give energy to the musicians or the music never comes to life.

The Levee Follies

Pre-show ritual

Because CR and I were roommates, our pre-show ritual would involve a cocktail to get in the right mood. One evening, we overindulged, oh yes. What was to get us in the mood to play turned out to be a really quick road to being hammered. As we went about our respective rituals of getting dressed, etc., we kept making more rum and cokes. So many, that I told him, “Craig, if I have another drink, I am going to be blitzed.”  Off we went in my car together to play the gig.

When we arrived, the lads were in high spirits, but eagle-eyed Greg True saw something was amiss with two of his hombres. He came up to us and said, “You guys have been drinking, haven’t you?” We didn’t lie, but tried to downplay the amount. It didn’t work. I remember nearly falling over backwards over a monitor. When Easy Street, an oldie from Edgar Winter, started I must have been on the moon pitch-wise. I always had trouble finding the starting note anyway and being sloshed only made it worse. At one point, Greg yelled in a quasi-joking way, “Come on, Johnny!” It’s bad when your fellow V Bro calls you out. I felt like I had let the team down. But in velvet world, it wasn’t a biggie and eventually you sober up enough to get your head together.

Herb Goes Hollywood

We had the idea that Herb should do a few numbers with us. He came over to velvet central and we did a mash-up lounge of about three or four songs. Sort of a bad Bob Goulet meets Bowie-Simple Minds-and others. All seemed cool and the evening came. Evidently, Herb had been talking about his velvet d├ębut all week to the patrons and “friends” (The guy had a different girlfriend every week.) because the place was packed. I had never seen the Levee filled to the brim like that.

We played a set and then Herb was to open with us the second. I found out a little thing about Herb that I didn’t know: he was a very nervous performer. To see him week after week behind the bar conducting a show like a Vegas pro you wouldn’t believe it, but being up in front of people playing music struck a deep fear in him. It was a fear that needed to be pushed down by drinking.

A nervous Herb grabbed me on the break and said, “Let’s go next door.” OK, what the hell? We went to the bar next-door where we promptly jumped ahead of every thirsty yuppie because, of course, Herb knew the bartender. There we had a wee nip of courage. That is to say, at least three large shots of Jagermeister. I don’t know about you, but I considered three Jagers to be my evening LIMIT, let alone a pre-show sedative. Again, what the hell. This is the velvets and not jazz fusion.

When Hollywood joined us, the crowd all turned to us with their undivided attention. Maybe in that moment, I knew what it felt like to be a rock star because the energy was tremendous- like a wave washing over us. All eyes on us, we slipped into our sunglasses personas: Johnny Velvet and Herb Hollywood. Herb had planned for a cocktail to be brought to him by a buxom waitress while we did our shtick. At the end, the crowd was very generous and Herb gave me a hug. You can’t beat the support of the house. They can turn everything to your advantage.

We had many wonderful nights at Le Levee, but it would be untruthful to say that every night was magical. Some nights we stayed off the goofy path and laid into to some Latin music like our lives were on the line. After all, no joke lasts very long and a band have to work to get the crowd going.

Next: Velvis and a new percussionist

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