So this post has nothing to do with live nude girls. In fact, it’s the complete opposite. It’s about live clothed guys. Pasty, Midwestern guys that for one year played a string of gigs in dive bars, basement pubs, rock clubs, and an Eagles Post. It’s also about how one of those guys, me, decided that a year was all he needed in the world of playing live shows and doing gigs. I was sick more in that year than I’ve ever been in my life(countless respiratory infections and ear infections.) We busted ass putting up and tearing down PA systems, amps, drum sets; and hit up bar owners that decided they didn’t want to pay what they said they’d pay. It was best of times, it was the worst of times. No, it was mostly just times.
Ever since I was a little kid I’d always dreamed of playing rock n’ roll on a stage somewhere. From being a 5 year old kid playing a beat up old acoustic guitar, to playing tennis racket guitar in my parent’s living room to the entirety of Van Halen II; to then finally becoming a full-fledged guitarist as a teenager I wanted to play rock n’ roll live and loud. Unfortunately, I wasn’t much for being the center of attention, so that put a wrench in the gears, so to speak. I quickly found out that I liked making music more than performing music. “John, play us a song?” my parents would say. “I have homework! You don’t want me to fail do you?” I’d reply and quickly slink back to my bedroom in shame. What was wrong with me? Hell, all my uncles were musicians and would gladly play a tune for anyone wanting to listen. Did that portion of the gene pool not make it to my chromosomal make up?
Regardless, I loved playing with other people. I loved that feeling when you clicked with another musician. I began experimenting on my uncle’s 4-track in high school and that gave me the itch to want to create with someone else. A couple buddies and I played together on and off a few times, and we even recorded a little ditty(with all of us on guitar) on an old boom box of mine in my parent’s basement, but nothing came of it. Then, my actual first “gig” was at the high school talent show when I was a Junior. My friend who’d begun playing bass the year before and I got together with a kid that was this hot shot drummer and we came up with an instrumental jam. It was fun, and harrowing. But we did good and it fueled the fire in me to do it more. It wasn’t until four years after high school that I played live again. In 1996 the same friend and I, along with my cousin Josh, formed a band called the Houdini Trio and put together a few originals to play. By this time I’d had a 4-track for a couple years and was writing songs myself, and my friend had started writing as well. So with my cousin on drums we played a concert in the park in the summer of 1996. It was, to put it mildly, a disaster. I forgot the lyrics to my song so I made shit up. About thirty seconds into the second song my amp cut out. The head had overheated and just shut off. My 60 watt Russian Sovtek head had ended our gig early, and in turn crushed my urge to play live.
The following year my cousin Josh, as well as my other cousin Tom and I had begun playing together in my basement. We started with covers of bands like Cream, Hendrix, The Doors, plus newer bands I can’t quite recall. We also began playing originals. We even recorded a 4-song demo and had CDs made up at an audio production company(this was before CD burners were readily available and cheap.) I made the artwork at work and we were set. For what? Hell if I knew. We decided to put an ad in the paper for a drummer as we thought we were ready to play some gigs. After a couple phone inquiries and one guy that showed up to audition that I thought might’ve been a serial killer(he offered up a hit from a one hitter that he “found” on the ground somewhere), we finally found our guy. Adam Guy, to be exact. He lived only about 15 minutes from my place and was pretty laid back. He’d played in plenty of other bands and was close in age to us(we were all with in a year or two of each other age-wise.) Most importantly, he was up for playing stuff we wrote. We were now officially a 4-piece band. What were we called? Yellow Matter Custard(goo goo goo’joob.)
It was April of 1998 and our first gig was at a little underground bar in an even littler lake town. The bar was like this: an enclosed gazebo in the center of town you walked into and took spiral stairs down into the innards of the earth itself. Once you reached the bottom you were in the bar. I think it was called the Down Under, or Under Down, or something slightly less clever than that. The stage was in the corner, while tables were set up through out the room. The bar was in back, with a massive stone wall behind it(the earth’s innards exposed for the drunks to see.) We set our sound board up in the center of the room. We’d gotten there early in the day and got everything wired and ready to go, but by the time we arrived that night for the gig one of our power amps blew and the only thing mic’d was the vocals. This wasn’t detrimental as the place was small and the ceiling was low(it was a basement, after all.) We had a reasonable crowd, as we all had lots of friends we could guilt into coming out and seeing our debut. Musically, we weren’t bad. My cousin Tom was the singer, and even when the lyrics would evade him(and they did often), he could pull some magical words from his ass and make it seem like he knew what he was doing. My other cousin Josh and myself would trade off between guitar and bass, depending on who’s originals were being played that set. For a first time out, it wasn’t bad.
We played in June of 1998 at a bar called the Downtown. It was in my hometown. I’m not sure how we got this gig as they mostly had jam bands and lousy cover bands play there, but our scrappy asses somehow scored a gig. For all intents and purposes it was a success. Kind of a weird place to play, as there’s no stage and the floors and walls are covered in tile. They moved some tables around and there you go, a space to play. By now are set was 60/40 split between originals and covers. This was still in the beginning stages of me figuring out what sort of songwriter I wanted to be, so I think if I heard those songs now I’d probably cringe. But I was doing it nonetheless. I was playing shows and feeling that comaraderie that you only get when you work with and rely on a small group of folks to make one great thing happen.
Later that summer we got a gig at a place called PJs Sports Bar in Nappanee, IN. It was a dumpy bar with a great stage. Huge stage. They also had a nice sized dance floor for when that local cover band struck up a hair metal version of “Mustang Sally” that drunk chick could get out there and pretend she’s Tawny Kitaen on the set of a Whitesnake video. I knew this was going to be interesting when two songs in this thin dude with stringy long hair walks up to the stage and asks me if we knew any Aerosmith in-between songs. “No, not yet. But we’re gonna try to fit a couple songs in our set” I said. He just looked at me and said “Don’t condescend me” and walked away, back to his table and his Miller Lite. Then, this guy that was supposedly the “security” at the bar began yelling “Play the Doors! Play the Doors!” Well, we’d already played the Doors, two song before. So we started playing our next song, with this guy screaming in the background “Well I’ve been down so goddamned long, that it looks like up to me!” He kept doing this through the next three songs, all the while no one that worked there would tell him to shut the hell up. Pretty soon he got tired and walked off. About two hours later during out last set this guy -a rather big guy- kept screaming for us to play some Slayer. He was drunk off his ass and seemed mildly dangerous. He singled me out as the person he thought he could get through to and talk into learning something off of Reign In Blood in about 5 minutes. I kept telling him no, we don’t know any and he’d just get louder and louder, screaming in my face. We ended the set early as this was the only guy left in the bar with the exception of our friends. I got down off the stage and this guy was getting in my face, yelling like a belligerent ape. Finally I lost it and starting barking at him to back off. Before I knew it some guys came up and carted him off.
This is where things just went downhill.
There was another gig at PJs that summer where we opened for our uncle’s band called Grand Army Highway. They were a popular country band in the area and had cut an album that got considerable airplay. They had guys in the band that were Nashville musicians. They were almost the real deal. We played the Friday night before by ourselves. The gigs were starting to get to me, health-wise. All that smoke was causing me to get bronchitis all the time. That gig I was feeling like shit. Head was plugged up and my chest was full of God knows what. All I wanted to do was crawl up and die, but the show must go on….for $100 split four ways. The Saturday gig was probably our best turn out; of course they were all there to hear Brooks n’ Dunn, not alternative rock. It didn’t matter, it was cool playing to a full house and for our families. But this was the weekend I realized I wasn’t a performer. I was the guy in his basement writing and recording. Collaborating and experimenting. I’ll leave the gigs to the hungrier guys. To the guys with more of a fire in them. My fire was a simple scented candle burning in the kitchen while I grabbed another cup of coffee in-between recording sessions.
After that gig opening for my uncle’s band I’d gotten more sick than I ever had. Upper respiratory infection and a double inner ear infection. I coudn’t breathe or hear. I was miserable for a whole week. I only went to work once, and had to come home because I was too dizzy. It was horrible. I knew I was ready to be done with playing out, but we had another show lined up. It was the Downtown again. This time it didn’t go so well. We were sloppy, there was no crowd, and our drummer got so drunk he couldn’t play the last part of the last set. It was pathetic. Almost as pathetic as the Nacho Bel Grande I ate on the way home after the gig.
In January of 1999 I’d gotten a new job. I was travelling, so my time to practice was limited. I had a friend that worked at the alternative rock station in Ft Wayne, IN. Extreme 96.3 had a local show and they played one of the songs I’d written and we recorded on our little 4-song ep the year before. He’d gotten us a gig to play on their morning show. We did a couple acoustic versions of our songs, and then the following Saturday night we playing a gig in my hometown at the Eagles with a Ft Wayne band opening the show. My friend at the radio station did what he could to promote it, but we had a lousy turnout. For me, it was the death knell of Yellow Matter Custard. I was wrong, though. The death knell was my cousin Tom calling to tell me he was moving to Florida. He needed a change, and I couldn’t blame him. Josh, Adam, and I decided we’d still give it a go, with me singing as well as playing guitar. For a couple months in the spring of ’99 we did all right. We set up a practice space at my cousin Josh’s place and started writing songs with no plans to play out. Well, by April of ’99 Adam said he was done. His love was with playing in shitty bars with drunks surrounding him. He liked originals. He liked covers. He just liked playing, period. We bid Adam a fond adieu. Josh and I kept on it for a couple years, even going so far as to record an album together called Selling A Dream, under the band name Squarewave. It was a lot of fun, and we learned a lot about writing songs and recording with just the two of us. But as kids arrived and family responsibilities got heavier we just couldn’t get together like we used to. I went from being in a duo to being solo. That’s the shakes, baby. That’s the shakes.
1998 was a year of gigs, strange drunks, stranger club owners(I never even told you guys about the coke-addled owner of Buster McNatstys…another post),learning to write and compromise, wheezes, blown ear drums, prescription meds, and most of all, rock n’ roll. I’m not putting down playing live. Hell, I love shows. I just prefer to be a listener and not the noisemaker. My hat’s off to those guys and gals that go up on stage two, three, four times a week and give it all they got for the love of music. They give us their hearts and souls, blood and sweat; they leave their essence on stage for us to revel in. And for what? A $5 cover charge and a two-drink minimum. Oh, and the satisfaction of making something real. Making something that comes from them. From them, to us.
So listen up Slayer fan and Aerosmith dude, when that band up on stage says they don’t play anything by this band or that, don’t take it personally. They’re not condescending you when they say they don’t play anything by your favorite band. What they’re really saying is shut the f**k up, sit the f**k down, and drink your f*****g Miller Lite. Oh, and enjoy the show and thanks for coming out.