“And then it all went horribly wrong.”
~every VH1’s Behind the Music episode
One More for the Camel’s Back
The Velvets had one more member to add- a nomadic percussionist named Nery or “Nedy” as it became. Nedy introduced himself at a few gigs and immediately began to pitch himself as a player of the congas. He was very persistent and had no trouble singing his own praises. We were hesitant as that would make the band bursting at eight players, but once we heard him play, the deal was done. Now we had a Latino triumvirate and they forged a solid rhythm section. That was both a good thing and a bad thing.
What? Trouble in happy Velvet memories? Really? Get to the parts where things get fucked up.
It was a good thing because Tres Latinos gave us a distinctive sound. When they locked, the groove became light as air or a bone throbbing jet pulse. It was a joy to watch and exciting to be a part of on stage, but the bad part was that the balance began to shift. The Latino material became so dominant that it began to alienate certain members of the audience. Confidants would be blunt: “That’s not how you used to play! I hate all that endless Latin shit.” What do you do? I would try to write sets that were more balanced, but inevitably Nelson or Tito would call a hopping merengue and I for one couldn’t resist. Another thing is that some factions of the Latin three didn’t understand the lounge aspect anymore. I would get a look like, “What the hell are we doing? We’re better players than that.”
Success Doth Monsters of Us All Make
At first, Nery seemed like a dream. He was funny and so cool, but success brings out the monster in us all. The trouble with our new percussionist was that he was a super player and he knew it. He was a diva, in short. During our rock material, he would walk offstage like he didn’t want to be a part of something he didn’t respect. He referred to our lead guitarist at one point as “musical diarrhea.” If he had any bad comments about me, I never heard them, but negativity was not something we used to dealing with. Believe it or not, we had some issues, but mostly we got along famously.
Nobody liked the load-out at the end of the night and frequently Nery (and others) would blow it off. Can’t say I blame them as who wouldn’t want to linger and party in the afterglow of a gig? Or go home? Consequently, we began to fine people a small amount, like five bucks, if they didn’t help. Back then, what did we take home after 12 hours of labor at a bar gig? 40 bucks? 50? Big F-ing whoop. Still, it raised some issues.
At some point, Nery got into it with somebody. So much so that CR, a man who rarely ever raised his voice, stepped in with, “We don’t talk to each other like that.” I began to weigh the value of the Nedster in the group.
Who’s Da Boss? Do You Boys Write Your Own Songs?
My stepfather once told me that he liked the group because it didn’t appear that any one person was in charge. If only it were that simple.
Though we were fairly democratic, I always felt that Craig our de facto leader. He had no ego musically speaking. His on stage announcements were usually few and self-deprecating. Clearly, he had no agenda to be a star and so I think we all respected his opinion not only for those reasons, but because he was more than fair. Slow as hell, but no hidden agenda. Tito might snap us into shape, but it was Craig’s unwavering state of casualness that led the group through tough moments. The goofs never seemed to rouse him nor did the successes ever get more than subdued acknowledgement. He embodies lounge after all.
Being in a band has almost nothing to do with your favorite bands or songs, it’s what fits. Sounds obvious, but no so. One of the songs suggested was Behind Blue Eyes by The Who. Now that is a great song, but we couldn’t do that with any conviction. I smelled disaster. Case in point: one night we did Twist and Shout at the Levee and when we finished, there was silence. I remember looking down at a fellow musician who had a look of, “I’m afraid I can’t help you. It sucked.” I have never felt so embarrassed in my life. A fun song to play, but it wasn’t right for us. Any subsequent performances were felt with great trepidation; never wanting to repeat that terrible silence.
Originals came from the three founding members and a few from Tito’s father. Some songs got instant approval and others went nowhere. It’s the nature of a band. In order to get a song approved, it had to pass the suck test. A tepid reaction was a good sign that you might as well hang it up. Also, bringing an original song to a group is a tough thing because if rejected, you feel like it’s a personal rejection. Your songs are like your children: you love them equally.
My acid test for my songs was always a private session with CR first. I presented a tune called Wild Tonight (in hindsight not my best effort) and he broke out laughing. I pleaded my case that it was not funny, but had a good groove. Needless to say, that song never made the cut. If I could get him and Weg, then the battle was half over.
I was happy that some of my songs made it into the band’s repertoire. When a song is called out and makes the set list each time, you know it’s a keeper. More importantly, those songs reflected my real inner life at that time. I craved and loved my freedom. I was free from school obligations and the restrictions of classical music. As I have stated before, the classical guitar (Thanks, Segovia) was considered a legitimate classical instrument, but it has no place in an orchestra. I wasn’t interested in winning the hearts of blue hairs and snobs; I wanted a much wider audience to know my music. Besides, when you sing your own songs, there is an emotional catharsis that is unlike any other musical experience. Besides, it’s cheaper than therapy.
I never tried to come in with a tune completely prearranged. Mostly because I was lazy and “documenting a whim” as CR said one time. Better in most cases to let the band do the arranging. It’s smart on several levels: collective arranging can make a simple song a better song, plus everybody puts their individual stamp on it and therefore it becomes theirs in a sense. No longer just “my” song, but ours.
Songwriting can occur without any predetermination. There was one occasion where I was very late for a rehearsal with just CR and Greg. By the time I got there, they had written this ultra cool jam, but there were no lyrics. I told them I could write some lyrics. Sure enough, with a rough demo as a guide, I wrote some very stupid lyrics about what else? Getting wasted. The song, Trashed Again, while the lyrics were basically throwaway and I'd have a tough time singing them seriously today, had a great dance groove and became a Velvet standard. I thrive on collaboration.
Fishes Out of Water
At the Glass, the Levee and Rio Grande, we had a good time. Other places, not so much. Another problem with popularity is that you get hired for the wrong gigs. There was any number of times when another bar would hire us and the crowd would basically ignore us. I remember playing at Griff’s and the atmosphere was a dud from the minute we walked in. I’m not sure what they wanted, but it sure wasn’t us. I do remember a fabulous version of Ruben Blades’ Caina being performed. I was learning how to play salsa bass and it was the first time I felt the groove (which is on the offbeat the entire time). Again, when a crowd ignored us, I went into circle-the-wagons mode and concentrated on making the band happy. This also taught me that our appeal was not universal. For example, we would never please the average Bud drinking, work-a-day motherfucker who wanted to hear “Skinnerd” or “Hank.” As a guitarist, I always rebelled against the notion that that music was some kind of gold standard by which all musicianship was/is measured. The Velvets freed me from that dire prison as well.
Weddings are the kiss ass of gigs. I remember a wedding where grandpa wanted to hear nothing but swing. Jesus! Chart after chart of Satin Doll, Fly Me to the Moon and all the standards- that’s seemed like all we played. One, two, three swing tunes weren’t enough as he and grandma wanted to cut a rug. The annoying looks we got when we played anything else! Luckily we had Dave and a couple of guys who could read charts and at least make the tunes happen. We could have said a flat “no,” but weddings are a different animal. It’s not really about reaching an audience, but being a rather being a handy live jukebox. That’s why weddings pay so well. We are your whores for two hours. Let us entertain you, but you is gonna pay for that right.
Country clubs are about the same only people drink more quickly and at least try to have a decent time. An evening at Berry Hills Country Club may start out with everyone chatting in groups on the dance floor and basically ignoring us and it might well end with people doing a congo line. Regardless, we would do our thing and hope we seduced people with our rhythms. That evening turned out well and watching the VHS years later, I was pleased with our performance. Unfortunately, I let a schizophrenic (no joke) film much of the evening, so you can imagine some of the camera work is quite “guerilla.”
I once heard someone say, “We’re a bit intimidated by your music. We don’t know how to dance to it.” I told her, “No one is judging you. Just have a good time.” We could burn, we could crash and burn, but mostly we were all about the good time.
Next: Bound to Fall and Who is This Johnny Guy?