Monday, June 20, 2011

The Velvet Papers, Part 12

The Regatta 1988-Al, Dave, Bryan, Nelson and a long haired dude

"Until you've seen this trash can dream come true.
You stand at the edge while people run you through. "

"Old men forget: yet all shall be forgot"

I need to write all this down so that I don't forget it or when I do, I have some record of it all. Also, there is something very satisfying and healing about coming to terms with your past.


Saturday night, late, the phone rings. It’s CR, of course. We stay in touch every week or two weeks. After discussions of things of a domestic nature, the topic goes to the old band.

“That was a strange band. We had an identity crisis. We didn’t know it, but the audience did.”

Huh? Of what doth he speake?

Rarely doth fellow Veeb "CR" Romeo wax nostalgic about the old days (he of the self-imposed "15 year musical exile" after the breakup), but this conversation was filled with velvety reminiscences. The value of these conversations is two-fold: his perspective on this stuff differs radically from mine (often shockingly) and we laugh like two drunken teenagers.

The Bacardi Limon cocktails kicked in when when this question came: “Could you be Johnny Velvet for an entire evening?” Well, knock me over with a parasol, why don't you?

He’s talking about having a party at his home in NC with specially invited guests with music provided by a small gathering of V’s dressed in full regalia and in full character. I said that it would be tough because the audience would have to be right. No teenagers or kids running around wondering why daddy and his strange friends are making fools of themselves. That would be a lounge buzzkill. Plus, doing Johnny all night might feel weird, fake and a just a little more than crazy.

He was not aware that I had been committing to blog a history of the band, nor that now I was getting towards the parts that were more Johnny related. “It’s one thing to do parody and another to become it.” He nailed it again. How does CR know so much about any Velvet activity when he lives four hours away? I swear it’s uncanny. I have lost count of how many times he’s called shortly after a rehearsal. “He’s almost psychic,” said one V bro. Yep. I have no explanation for it. He is plugged in still.

Who Are You?

Back to our tale: I was Johnny for a while. Yep. Hard to imagine now, but just as the band took over everything, being JV became a full-time job. Nice work if you can get it, right?

To define JV for the uninitiated, imagine every stereotypical lounge lizard and add some Elvis and Vegas, plus a radiant narcissism. There’s your basic Johnny Velvet. This was all played for a gag. Like all characters, he was a combination of people, real and imaginary. Take CR’s loungey keyboard playing, a splash of Bill Murray, one of our friend’s divorced dad’s overtly hound dog lifestyle and Johnny V was born.

It got to a point where people called me Johnny everywhere I went. It didn’t help that I was living a reckless life, one maybe typical of a young nocturnal bar musician, of staying out practically until dawn, ignoring all sensible diet choices and drinking way too much and too frequently. The attention I loved. Who wouldn’t? I played it out full-tilt like the rock star I believed I was and it was a blast. I was lost in a caricature of my own creation.

It just got to be too much.

I hit a low point one summer when the constant gigging and resultant partying was just too much. I remember this depression coming over me and I just wanted to hide from it all. I hid as much as I could in the basement, lost in composing music. I wrote a lot of strange pieces that were a reflection of my total burnout. I needed an emotional outlet and anchor far away from band-bar world. I remember listening to Brian Eno and George Crumb-worlds away from what I was doing.

Bars can be loads of fun when you don't have to be in them all the time. Otherwise, you see them as the loud, chaotic, shallow shitholes that they truly are. There were times when it took a great effort to get up on stage and act out the part. The only saving grace was the music. Music can survive and get through even to the burned out musician. It can be the lifeline to something meaningful and not just danceable wallpaper to hookups and overindulging in alcohol.

It Ran Its Course, OK?

The mighty, but soft spoken drummer Richie Stewart
A couple of things happened that began the VH1-Behind-the-music-like breakup of the group. Tito left because Dow Chemical bought out Carbide and his job was no more. As I said, Tito was someone everyone respected. A friend of mine said recently, "He was a man and you all were just boys. You respected him like a father figure." Richie Stewart was an excellent replacement. A sweet, sweet guy and a drummer of reserve, taste and chops when needed.

We all used to pass around the bass, but Bryan was added as full-time bass player. He had to be a quick study and put up with the oh-so-casual Velvet way of rehearsal. He recalled that at a gig, he inquired as to the key of the song and was told, "Don't worry. By the time the sound reaches the back wall and comes back, it will probably be in key." Interesting theory of acoustics, n'est-ce pas?

Then CR met his future wife and just like the Lennon-Yoko-McCartney story, the center of the band began to fall out. The first warning sign was when CR arrived late (nothing unusual there) to a wedding reception at Edgewood Country Club. He had an after work party to go to and we agreed to set up his keyboard so that all he had to do was roll in and play. He was so late that one of us said something, probably me, and he plainly stated that he didn't want to do this and would have rather stayed at the party (where no doubt time would have been spent with his newly found love).

It's a normal process. It's called growing up, but I couldn't accept that from CR. If he wasn't interested, then the bottom was falling out.

I cannot say that I wasn't difficult either. I was headed down the wedding aisle as well and my thoughts were  often elsewhere, but I am not here to accuse, incriminate, throw stones or any other such thing. The band breaking up was not easy for me. The worst result was that CR and me didn't speak to each other for quite a while. There was tension in other relationships as well.

The band played at my wedding, sans CR of course, but nonetheless, I sensed things were falling apart.

The Next Gig Please

You have to realize at a certain point that musicians are mercenary beings. We have to be because loyalty doesn't sign the check and the world always assumes that we are happy woodland creatures who just so love to play that we do it all for free. Adding to that, we undervalue our "product" and the people who hire us often try to get us on the cheap.

I was a feeling a diva-like when I realized that the group of musicians known collectively as the VBs would not stop playing, but rather reform as another group. There was some underhandedness that came to my attention that really made a clear line in the divide for me. That was a hard,sharp slap to me. "Brother" was in name only, then. Fine. Players gotta play. I get that.

After being adrift for a while, I joined a quartet with Kai (a super bass player and musician), Greg from the Veebs and a drummer named Chris. We called ourselves the Wine Consultants. We were the house band at The Blue Parrot. It was good group and we did some cool music, but after the VBs, but after a while, it fell short on the fun factor. Plus, the owner was a guy who tried to micro-manage us. He wasn't all there mentally either. We ended up with a bunch of Jimmy Buffet songs that felt like a chore to do. I hated "Fins," "Cheeseburger," and all those fake-ass white Caribbean tunes of the Parrot Head catalog.

After being totally free, I felt like I was in prison sometimes in that band. I was told not to say certain things on the mic and in general, all the wild unpredictability that was the Velvets was suppressed. I felt like there were two bosses in the group and I was in between. I have never been a good soldier, following orders and accepting a place in the rear. It goes against my nature. If the music is happening, I'll stand behind a screen in the back, but if not, then we got troubles.

 I never want to be in a group where I am just a run-of-the-mill competent guitar player playing the standard rock stuff with the supposed look and decorum of a "professional." Many professionals play with such predictable restraint that I find my attention drifting. I want to see something real, not just rehearsed chops.

The Wine Consultants ran their course. Our house band gig came to an abrupt halt when Greg booked us at another bar. The Blue Parrot owner thought were exclusive to him and we thought otherwise. A nasty call from the bar owner's wife sealed the deal. The WC's were officially freelance and after a gig or two, were out of a steady job. That was one smooth move on our part.

I got into another group and the same deal. This time I played "guitarist in the hot seat" and learned an endless list of original tunes by the band leader. He and the singer had dreams of writing songs for Nashville-the mythical place where the golden road to stardom is paved with conformity. With this group, it felt like we rehearsed far more than we ever played.

The last memory I had of this band was at Cheers (now Bar 101) during the Regatta. I was in the corner, by the window, and I would catch myself staring out of it. I wanted out of the band, out of the business and out of public performance. I wanted out of music.

I got my wish. I dropped out.

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