Tuesday, May 24, 2011

CB Part III - The Final Act

If you're wondering what this entry is about, check out part one here.  If the lack of direct Alaskapade relevance bothers you, skip this and check back here in a few days.

After weighing our options and reviewing our set list, we decided to just do the Denton biker bar gig as a foursome.  Ken and Stu were good singers and we could adjust the key of any tune to meet their vocal range.  We could always add more guitar and keyboard solos to fill in time if needed.  We rehearsed almost every night before the gig and hammered out three good sets.  The show went off without a hitch; or at least none that our audience noticed.

Deb - Get the Reviewer's Point?
I ran another Craigslist ad, only this time we decided to look for a female singer.  A good-looking woman up front with a wider vocal range would add a whole new dynamic to our show.  It would also prove to add a whole new level of drama.  We ran through a dozen prospective singers and settled in on one named Debbie.  Deb had a great voice, a strong stage presence, and she could belt out the Janis Joplin tunes like Pearl herself.  Best of all, she showed up knowing every tune we sent her before the audition.  I never found Deb attractive, but apparently the guys in our audiences did.  She was once described in a performance review as having "just the right mix of femininity mixed with slutty skankitude". She was actually proud of that description.  The rest of us were just happy to get press.

Deb's voice and Ken's were dynamite together.  With those two singing most of the lead vocals and Stu's harmonies, there wasn't much we couldn't do in terms of tunes that were live performance worthy.  We started working as the house band at a little dive called The Boxcar south of Dallas.  This was a great gig because we played Friday and Saturday nights and could leave our gear on the stage between shows.  We started playing local town festivals and events, weddings, and private parties and our reputation around town was growing.  The private parties paid well, but the crowds were pretty cold until they got liquored up.  We had to play enough popular tunes to keep the crowd engaged until they warmed (boozed) up, but save some for the later sets when they actually paid attention to us.  On the other hand, bar gigs didn't pay too well, but all our friends could come and they dug us from the very first note to the last tune of the night.  We could pull friends up on stage to sing with us, play the cowbell, maracas, whatever.  Our bar gigs were more like parties.

As time went by, we had become friendly with many other bands and would often refer them to booking agents or others seeking to book a band for a gig we couldn’t fill.  That courtesy was often extended back to us and we always appreciated it.  One of those bands was called Mosaic Minds.  The Minds had a very talented lineup of multi-instrument capable players, which yielded a very diverse sound.  The leader of the band was a guitarist/drummer who was basically a hippie throwback from the 60’s. All of his tunes had a "save the planet" and "love your brother" feel, but the riffs were infectious and the lyrics were catchy.  The Minds were fun to hang out with and we always enjoyed playing with them. If they weren't playing a gig and we were, we would see them in our audience.  Their singer was a twiggy thin Asian girl named Julie who was a trained vocalist and was seriously looking to “make it” in the music business.  Julie was so skinny that one of our fans once commented that somebody should put a cheeseburger in their tip jar.  The consummate professional, Julie would hide out backstage and warm her throat by singing through the scales before every gig.  This was in stark contrast to all of us, who basically just showed up and played.

In a show of support for the hippie mindset that the Mosaic Minds perpetuated, we were asked to play a gig with them that benefited the North Dallas Food Bank.  This was an all day event that would wrap up that evening with the headline act closing the show.  If I remember correctly, we flipped a coin to see who would close and Code Blue won the toss.  The closing band was considered the ‘headline act’ and there were some acts around Dallas that refused to play any other slot.  We just wanted to play and were happy with not going on stage at 3:00pm.  The members of the Minds shared a common feeling that music could cure the ills of the planet and that all we needed to do was reach out to others and let the healing begin.  This was real Kum Bay Ya stuff that usually made my skin crawl.  Still, they were such nice people; I always just smiled and held my tongue around them.  At the Food Bank benefit, Julie had the brainchild idea to launch helium filled balloons with the Mosaic Minds email address written on a piece of paper inside them along with a message of hope and compassion for whomever might find them.  Excuse me while I stick my finger down my throat.

After their set on stage, they all went outside and ceremoniously released the balloons.  It was a calm summer day and all the balloons rose quickly and drifted out of sight.  Everyone looked at me as if they expected me to make a mockery of it.  I remember looking around at everyone with my hands out and a facial expression that said "what?"  I was very respectful of their intentions and just smiled and nodded as the scene played out.  A few days later, I was reading a review of the gig in a local Dallas entertainment paper and the balloon incident was mentioned.  I had done my part and was respectful.  Now it was time to have some fun with it.

I Googled marine sanctuaries in Europe and found one in Finland that specialized in rehabilitating whales and other endangered sea mammals.  The sanctuary web site listed names of the prominent research PhDs on its staff.  I picked a name, went to the Finnish Yahoo site and created an email address for it, and then added his photo from the sanctuary web site to the email address profile.  Then, I wrote a short letter saying that the sanctuary was attempting to rehabilitate a female dolphin named Gracie who had been previously tagged and was being tracked by the Institute.  I wrote that Gracie had been pregnant with a near full-term calf before ingesting a Mosaic Minds balloon in her blow hole and I added that although the calf was stillborn from a lack of oxygen in the womb, Gracie still held on to a 50/50 chance of survival.  I ended the letter saying that all of Finland was holding its breath (pun intended) and that if time permitted, I would keep them informed of Gracie’s progress.  I copied and pasted the text of the letter into a Google language translation site to render it in Finnish and then after a couple of weeks, emailed it to the address in the balloon using the PhD’s account I had created.

It was a few weeks before we saw any of the Mosaic Minds again and I had pretty much forgotten about the letter.  One of the Minds' members named Ruben worked in the library at the University of Texas at Dallas.  He and Julie had been a couple in the past and she confided in him that she received an email that she couldn’t read, but that clearly had the words “Mosaic Minds” in the text.  She was ecstatic at the possibility that one of their balloons actually made it overseas.  Julie forwarded the email to Ruben and he being a research tool expert in the library, quickly found a way to translate it back to English.  Imagine her horror when she learned what the email said after translation.  The UTD library also afforded Ruben a means researching the “facts” and he verified not only the existence of he Institute sanctuary, but also that of the PhD whose name I used on the email.  My practical joke had grown legs of credibility.

A couple of months passed and nobody from the Minds ever mentioned a word of the email.  The next time we saw them; I prodded a bit and while talking to Stu in Julie’s presence, asked him if he had heard about "that bunch of tree huggers that were throwing a tantrum in Finland because some dolphin died".  He knew what I had done and like most of the bullshit pranks I concocted, just went along with it.  I thought Julie was going to burst.  Ruben was no longer in their band and Julie had no one else to confide in.  Seeing her obvious distress and knowing how seriously she took her performances, I decided to let her off the hook and tell her what I had done.  I could barely contain my laughter as I spilled my guts and I honestly thought she would be relieved and grateful to me.  Not so much.  She wouldn’t even look at me the rest of the night and she never spoke to me again.  Ruben sat in with us at a later gig and told me that she was seriously distraught over poor Gracie's calf and was terrified that the band would somehow be held responsible for her death.

We once played an event for the City of Dallas as part of their Friday afternoon Out to Lunch Concert Series. They paid us $1,500 for a one-hour show, and offered an extra $500 if we brought our own PA so they wouldn't have to hire someone.  I agreed to bring the PA and spent the extra $500 on a new amp to drive my sub woofers.  I arrived early and did all the PA setup and then set up my drums.  Stu was right behind me. By the time the rest of the band showed, Stu and I were pretty much ready, so we started goofing off.  Each drum in my kit had a microphone, I mic'd all the stage amps as well.  My sub woofers were powered by a 4,000 watt amp and Stu and I had a blast playing around.  I would hit my kick drum as Stu would hit a deep bass note and the resulting thump would rumble and echo off the downtown buildings like an explosion.  Apparently, it was too much like an explosion because after a few minutes, the Dallas Police showed up and ordered us to stop.  Turns out, people were calling 911 fearing the noise was a result of terrorist actions.

We knew this could be a great exposure gig that would lead us to other opportunities and we were stoked.  We made it a point to dress a little nicer since most of the crowd would be professionals out on their lunch.  Everyone got the memo except Deb who showed up looking like some sort of homeless biker gypsy chick.  Deb's appearance notwithstanding, we played a great set and held a large crowd for the entire hour.  We actually spent less time playing than we did setting up and tearing down.  The quality of venues and the pay improved sharply after that gig.  That performance landed us a private show at the new Dallas World Aquarium, we played for the Dallas Margarita Society, the Dallas International Blues Festival, and a few other local town festivals.  Still, we loved the clubs and we were starting to feel the urge to record a new CD.  Maintaining our family life, jobs, and the band became a delicate balancing act.

The CD was going to be Entitled "Too Far From Home" after a tune Stu wrote.  It was jazzy, upbeat swing kinda tune with a solid hook and an infectious groove.  People couldn't stop themselves from dancing or singing along, which was humorous because it was about someone addicted beyond control and it described how their life was spiraling beyond help and hope - too far from home.  We had several really good tunes, some of which we recorded live, but had yet to get  into a studio to record them properly.  We wanted the second CD to have a full studio sound. the quality of the tunes demanded it.  Any band's sophomore release is a tough one because it's so difficult to measure up to their first release.  The members of a band have a lifetime of experiences and emotions to encapsulate into their first release.  The second release calls upon the experiences and emotions occurring after the first release.  In our case, those included Jim being a dick and Deb falling apart at the seams.

In time, the new CD title would prove to be more than just a cool song as Deb was becoming the personification of its subject matter.  We all drank a little, but she was always getting hammered and doing God knows what out in the parking lot between sets.  We usually loaded up our third set with tunes Ken and Stu could sing because Deb was too blotto.  The crowds were never as particular as we were; as I was.  I was harder on us than our worst critic and Deb's behavior made me want to shove my drum sticks up her ass and shake her straight.  The rest of the guys saw it, but didn't let it get to them like I let it get to me.  At a really nice gig in a Dallas venue we had been trying to get into for months, Deb was belting it out onstage at 110% and we were killing.  We opened up for a Tom Petty cover band called Petty Theft.  Petty Theft's founder was a local Dallas radio station DJ and they had a huge following.  We were stoked to expose our music to such a large crowd.  One of the guys up front at the stage was rocking out in right front of Deb, dancing, fist pumps, the whole nine yards. We were accustomed to this stuff because guys seemed to always dig her, so none of us thought much about it.  During a guitar solo, this guy extended a beer out to Deb and when she went to take it, he yelled something into her ear.  She nodded and yelled "Yeah!" and he handed her some folded papers and then turned and walked away.  I watched all this go down from my drum perch and realized she was just served by a Constable - while on stage - at a gig.  She opened the papers and glanced briefly, then rolled her eyes, tossed them onto the stage, and started belting out the next verse, never missing a note.  We decided to just live and let live.  After all, we were all having a great time and it was supposed to be fun.  Our mindset was as long as her personal life didn't interfere with our working, we would stay out of it.  Then one day the phone rang.  The caller asked if this was the number to reach Code Blue.  Only this call wasn't for a gig.  It was Dallas County Child Protective Services and they had questions about Deb.  In the big picture, a sloppy tune or two was easy to overlook.  But none of us could have lived with ourselves if something tragic happened to one of her kids while she was with us.  She needed to get straight and we needed a singer...again.

Looking back, I think we were at a crossroads.  Did we really want to go through the aggravation and hassle of finding another singer?  Did we want another female?  When we were auditioning singers for what would ultimately be Deb’s spot, we were told that a female front will lead the rest of the band to heaven or to hell.  I’m pretty sure that at this point, we were in Purgatory. We had momentum, we had loyal fans, we still had a desire to play, and most importantly, we had gigs booked.  There’s something about making music that makes a person tolerate a great deal more than he might in other pursuits.  When a group of musicians gets together and it works, the musical synergy is more addictive than any fan adulation or even the money (at least at our level).  We wanted to carry on.

We decided to just play and had several of our female singer friends sit in with us.  We figured if one particular singer clicked and it felt right, we would just make that person a band member an press on.  There was a great deal of talent in the Dallas area and we had no shortage of people to front the band.  We played several shows with Angie who we had met in our earliest days at the Swiss Avenue gig.  Angie had a great voice and I thought she was hot.  I would just stare at her when we played and picture her singing naked.  She and the band had an understanding that she wanted to do more pop material and that if something came along, she would take it and work with us when possible.  Angie did professional voice over work and had parts in animated movies, theatrical productions in Dallas, and was even the voice of a few children’s toys.  She eventually landed a gig with a well-known party band in Dallas and took her exit.  We were happy for her and still wish her well.  I never did see her sing naked.

Big Mike on Sax
We had added a sax player to our lineup, which expanded our set list greatly.  Everything is better with a sax.  Mike was a tall, bald guy who could wail on a saxophone and sometimes played two saxes at once. He would step to the edge of the stage for his solos and then captivate our audiences as he belted them out.  He projected a cool image and made a great sound.

Frances on Vocals
Eventually, we came upon a talented singer named Frances who was raised in a musical family and had photos of herself as a child sitting in the laps of Willie Nelson, Steve Miller, and many others.  Frances also had a terrific look and could command the stage as well as Deb, only without leaving behind the skanky residue.  Frances ran off to meet some guy on the Internet and we never heard from her again.

The revolving door was growing tiresome.  We were always teaching new singers our stuff and working out the performance dynamics with them.  Because of that, we had little time to write and produce new material or even to learn new cover tunes.  The band was becoming job-like and speaking of jobs, I took the one I have now with IBM and hit the road five days a week.  I was generally available to play gigs, but practically never around to rehearse for them.  Without rehearsals, dynamics grow stale and the stage presence suffers.  Any musician will tell you that there’s little worse than playing a bad gig.

Code Blue at the end (L to R): Jeff, Ken, Stu, Francis, Scott, & Mike
We added another new singer named Lisa, who was really talented and came from a band with a sizable following.  I stuck it out as long as I could, but quickly realized my travel for work was holding the guys back.  I told them they should seek a new drummer and carry on with the band.  They agreed (almost too easily) and had a new guy in place a few weeks later.  I saw them play and honestly, I kind of felt like I was betrayed.  It wasn’t their fault and the feeling of betrayal on my part wasn’t even deserved.  It's just that Code Blue was Stu's and my baby and I was kinda  bummed to see them play without me.  The new drummer was good, he just wasn’t the right guy.  It's a feel thing and the right feel generates a groove that forms the foundation for the band's attitude on stage, and that attitude translates directly to the audience.  After a few months, the guys contacted me and asked me to come back with the understanding that we would rehearse when we didn’t have a gig and that they would assume the booking and management duties.  I reluctantly agreed, but was secretly very happy.  The other drummer wanted to get back to his previous band, so it was all good.  Being allowed to just show up and play without all the management and logistical homework was great…at first.  I noticed that we had plenty of time to rehearse because we never had any gigs.  I wasn’t doing the booking, so we weren’t working.  I wasn't spending hours a week on our website and writing newsletters, so our name wasn't out there.  MySpace.com had arrived (remember them?) and if you didn't have a place there, you didn't exist as a band.  We finally called it quits a few years ago and parted ways as friends.  Code Blue was over.

Recently, Stu, Ken, and Lisa found a drummer and put together a band they call "508 Park" and they play many of the venues Code Blue used to play.  My only involvement is in the fact that they use my PA gear, but I'm really happy for them.

I miss playing terribly and I still have two drumkits in my office where we used to rehearse.  I’m most disappointed by the fact that “Too Far From Home” was never released. We recorded a few tracks, but never put them together to create a product we felt was worthy of producing.  It's not like we planned on making millions, thousands, or really anything from our CDs.  We just wanted something to show for our efforts and our talents; something to keep.  I want something to hand my granddaughter someday and say, "once upon a time, your PopPop was cool".

Looking back as I write this, when I consider all the band members who came and went, all the gigs, all the broken drumsticks, torn drum heads, empty venues, and arguments on and offstage, I wouldn't trade it for anything.  If I ever get off the road in a job that offers some home life stability, you can bet your ass that my ass will be sitting behind a drum kit.  And when that happens, I hope my friend Stu is in the mix somewhere.