I'm not an innocent when it comes to this. The very first time I stepped onto a stage with a guitar in my hands, at Bloomington's Second Story back in '86, the primary goal was to send a few shock waves through the crowd. We had two poets shout poetry over the top of each for a few minutes, then Tony, Matt, and I slunk out behind them, turned on the amps, and laid down brittle screeching sheets of noise for about ten minutes. Cognitive dissonance + sonic dissonance. Of course, we did this at a performance art showcase, so it went over like gangbusters.
Not so much at the next show, which was a rock show. Or an ALTERNATIVE ROCK show, as it was known at the time. People thought they got the joke the first time, but they didn't. The joke was not that we were destroying music, being specifically anti-musical; the joke was that music was already dead, and we were just playing with the pieces. The joke was not that we were making ourselves musical sacrificial lambs, inviting the hate of our audiences with noise specifically designed to incite said hate; the joke is that we loved these broken shards we were tossing out at our audiences, and if we didn't necessarily think we were a great band, we thought at least, for small discrete moments in time, we made great sound.
So, we soldiered on with Casio keyboard beats, primitive driving basslines, and incoherent dual guitar hooliganism. After a short time, we picked up a drummer who loved jazz, and built his own drum kit out of a combination of discarded drum parts, steel barrels, and PVC drain debris. The band got bigger, the band got smaller. Around 1990, we joined forces with the only other people as forceful and knuckleheaded as we were, the Sick City Trio (first just Dan Willems and Heather Floyd . . . Chris Willems strayed along soon enough). Sometime around 1995, the band ended up in Louisville. Then, in May of 2006, the band stopped playing together.
It's not directly germane to the discussion, but that band was The Belgian Waffles!. I mention it mainly because 1) it's a little context for today's discussion; and 2) because the band involves three of the Sick City 4 in addition to your (not so) humble author.
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I don't get out as much as I would like to anymore, but what the fuck? I'm fifty years old, and twenty-five-year-old me would have expected much less out of the fifty-year-old me. In any case, I do my best to see Sick City 4 whenever possible, and not just because they are my friends. They are, to my mind, not only one of the best bands around, but one of the few that will surprise you with each and every show . . . hell, each and every note. So, when the word of the last minute booking came my way via what the kids are calling SOCIAL MEDIA these days, I cleared the calender. It was a Friday, and I was off work at six, and back in on Saturday at eleven, and my new lower-stress job was making me feel a little bit more social, so I headed out for the gig.
I finished eating dinner around eight, and started killing time before the gig by flipping through the channels. At a couple minutes after nine, I was delighted to find a U of L game on ESPN. Five minutes later, I realized that it was a home game, and that there was no way in hell I was going to find parking anywhere close to Harley's Main Street Tavern, which is less than a block away from the annoyingly-named KFC Yum! Center, a.k.a. the arena in which U of L plays basketball. So, I got out, and after running a grid between Brook and Fifth Streets, from Main to Muhammad Ali, I finally just parked in the YMCA parking garage about six blocks away. When I strolled into Harley's and ordered a High Life, it was about ten.
The game was going on still, and it was a tight one. Not a good game, mind you, but an exciting game: low on basketball beauty and execution, high on drama. Unlike a lot of out musical junkies, I am a huge basketball fan, so I was enjoying the game, waiting for the SC4 to start tearing it up after the game was over.
Now, what I should have realized but didn't is just how much game traffic would end up inside the bar after the game. Like I said, it was an exciting game, and it took the Cards one overtime to dispense of Vanderbilt. As soon as the game was over, the sidewalks were immediately flooded with fans, and the streets were flooded with cars . . . horns were honking, people decked primarily in red were choking the sidewalks and screaming "C - A - R - D - S CARDS!" or some such nonsense. I was chatting out in front of Harley's with Dan and Heather while they were having a cigarette, just killing a couple of minutes before they went on. Bart was out there too, spelling out shit at the top of his lungs in a faux-euphoric sporting bonhomie.
At that point, I was starting to get an idea of what would be going down very soon. When I first showed up, the majority of Harley's current patrons were killing time, watching the game, waiting for the music to start. After the game let out, the straights (for lack of a better term - you know what I mean) started flooding in, ordering buckets of Miller Lite, and generally enjoying the hilarity of Louisville's one point OT win. Out on the sidewalk, Dan, Heather, and Bart were chuckling over the chaos streaming out of the Yum! Center (hereafter to be referred to as "the arena"), and it wasn't clear to me if they had any inkling as to the scene that was getting set up. Dan mentioned it was too bad I didn't bring my guitar to sit in for the set; at that point, one of the Opposable Thumbs very kindly offered me the use of his rig. I thought about it, I really did: but I also had a feeling that there could well be some audience issues, and I tend not to respond kindly to audience heckling (I generally turn up the amp to the point that I am the only one able to stand the volume), so I thought it best I didn't participate.
I've talked to Dan since the show, but I'm not sure to this day if he had the same premonitions about the crowd that I did.
So anyway, after a fair amount of time, SC4 stepped in and started their set, and almost immediately, the basketball revelers stage left started showing signs of consternation. First it was the mugging "wtf is this shit" kind of lampooning, then visible mocking of the band, then outright hostility. They were yelling at the band, gesticulating, plugging their ears, the whole routine. At a certain point, one woman who appeared to be in her mid-40's approached Dan's recording microphone, apparently thinking it was a PA mic. As she started to grab it, I moved toward her to shoo her away, and whether she saw me or realized that the mic was plugged into a recorder right underneath it instead of a PA, she quickly moved away*.
Now, as far as SC4 sets go, this was a somewhat tame affair . . . or, as Dan put it to me the next day, "we were lobbing softballs at them all night". Dan was playing the baritone sax, Heather was on trumpet, and Bart was on drums. Without Chris on guitar, the volume was reasonably low (not that he tends to play loud anyway), and a lot of the surface atonality of the set was gone: after all, two horns (two single tones) can be resolved by the average human ear, but getting that third (and fourth, fifth, sixth, etc.) tone is what really drives dissonance home. So while some of the horn lines may have been aggressive and ragged to more mainstream ears, there wasn't a lot of actual dissonance going on.
It is also important to note that the instruments were not amplified in any way. Not that you really need to amplify anything in that space; but again, I'm just making the point that it wasn't particularly loud.
As you were facing the front of Harley's, the band was set on the left side, with the front door to the right. Dan was on the left, the Bart in the middle, and Heather by the door on the right . . . which turned out to be an unfortunate place for her.
As is their wont, the band was playing mostly long, sprawling improvs. Even beyond their disgust with the music, the crowd was frustrated with the lack of song breaks during which they could register said disgust. As it became clear the band wasn't leaving the stage anytime soon, different things started happening. A couple people took it upon themselves to walk up to Heather during the set (while Dan was dueting with Bart) to tell her how much the band sucked. From what Dan told me, they went into detail with her about exactly how each member of the band were deficient on their instruments. Other people walked out with their fingers in their ears. Somebody behind me was tearing up a paper tablecloth and lofting spitballs at the band. Some guy thought he would lampoon the band by coming up to the stage and doing a really silly dance . . . though how his making an ass of himself dissed the band I don't know. One of the regulars walked up to Bart between songs and requested "Mony Mony" or "Bonie Maronie" or some such shit. And then, there was the lady who tried to grab the mic earlier: she decided to post herself right in front of the band on Heather's side, and make a slashing gesture across her throat to try to get them to stop. And, when I say "making a slashing gesture", I don't mean giving the high sign; I mean she was jumping up and down, stomping her feet, whipping her hand across her throat, and twisting her face into a writhing mask of rage. By that time, it was pretty clear all this was starting to get on Heather's nerves, so I walked over to her side of the stage and stood in front of the crazy lady so Heather didn't have to deal with her anymore. At about that point, crazy lady decided to join some of her friends outside, where she could continue to express her displeasure by radiating ugliness through the front window.
By this point, the bar was emptied of a fair number of people. Apparently, the owner's son came in, saw what was going on, and got pissed off that he was losing paying customers by the boatload on what should have been one of his busiest nights. He collared the bartender who booked the show, who valiantly held the owner's son off for as long as he could, trying to let the SC4 finish their set. Meanwhile, Heather was looking more and more stressed, Bart was looking more and more amused, and Dan was COMPLETELY OBLIVIOUS. He just kept pounding along, focusing on his horn. Between songs, he would huddle with Heather and Bart, discussing what to play next, while both of them increasingly looked at him like "you really want to keep after these people?" . . . he told me the next day that he heard a lot of noise between the songs, but that he mainly heard people clapping (and yes, there were a handful of people who were there to enjoy the bands), so he just kept going on as originally planned.
About thirty five minutes into the set, the SC4 had chased a whole bunch of people out, the bartender was struggling to keep them from being booted off stage, angry lady was out front being angry with other patrons less than pleased with the night's musical entertainment, and a few of us left were immensely enjoying the carnival surrounding the set. At about that time, the band kicked into "Chad's Organ", which was much less of a softball than most of what had gone down previously. It was at that point that angry lady decided to make one more entry: I laughed out loud as she walked in the door and Dan, almost as if he sensed her there, let rip with an aggressive, growling, Ayleresque line punctuated with barking squeals. Angry lady froze, petrified by her fury - I was reminded of that old David Lynch comic strip, "Angriest Dog in the World" - before stomping back out. As great as that solo was (and it was quite a solo), it was angry lady who made "Chad's Organ" for me.
A couple minutes into the set closer, "The Burrito Song", the bartender couldn't hold off his boss any longer. He came up to Heather and Bart and sheepishly told them that the SC4 would have to give up the stage for the evening. Heather, who by this point seemed frazzled by the whole scene, said "It's our last song, why don't you just let us finish?", while Dan, still oblivious, had no idea what had been going on. By the time the SC4 had left the stage, Harley's had been subjected to a 45 minute long circus. The bartender (very) apologetically explained the situation, Dan realized for the first time that the band had emptied a good chunk of the bar, a couple Opposable Thumbs came up to apologize as well, and Heather and Bart were just packing their crap to get the hell out of there. For my part, I finished my beer, said my goodnights, and hiked the six blocks back to my car to head home and get some sleep so I could work the next day. I found out the next day that the Opposable Thumbs ran their way through a raucously satisfying set a little later, after things had time to calm down a bit.
A good account of the evening, complete with some nice pictures, can be found at American Gloam.
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As I alluded to, I've had my share of confrontational situations like this, and have been shut down by everyone from the police to angry bar owners**. I used to have a little fun with it back in the day . . . it gave us a bit of a rep.
Nowadays, however, I don't have time for petty confrontation. I want to play in front of a crowd that at least wants to be there. And while I certainly don't mind a bit of heckling, I've got no interest in tearing down a room like we used to occasionally do. And, in that regard, I'm probably no different than Dan, Heather, and Bart.
I've also got a fair amount of sympathy for the bar manager who shut the SC4 down. I would be frustrated too if I saw the amount of money walking out the door on what should have been a very profitable night for me. In his place, I would have shut the band down inside ten minutes, bought everybody in the band drinks for the rest of the night, and promised to bring them back on a Sunday or weekday night when U of L was playing out of town and the arena was dormant. And then I would have made very sure that the bartenders who booked the place realized that the primary purpose of a business is to make money, and that, like it or not, we have to cater to arena crowds. If you want to bring the freak scene on an off night, by all means do so. Just don't mess with my pocketbook.
As for the bartender, he probably didn't see that there would be a problem. We all tend to believe that if we like something, it should at least be tolerable to everyone else . . . of course, we can now see that's not the case. And, it should be said, he did his absolute best to buy the SC4 enough time to finish their set, and was very apologetic when they didn't. For that matter, the Opposable Thumbs folk were very nice too. I hope to see them soon when they aren't playing past my bedtime.
As for the people like angry lady, I have no sympathy. If I'm out, and I stop by my favorite watering hole to get a drink and a karaoke sing-along breaks out, I don't bitch: I move along. I hate karaoke with a passion, and I will leave any place that is doing karaoke, but I don't try to stop it, or bitch about it to the bartender or manager, and I certainly don't stand at the front of the stage making throat-slash gestures to the fake singers. Singer songwriters generally annoy the hell out of me, but I don't walk up onstage and tell them how lame their navel-staring is; I move along. If a Hank Jr. wannabe is rocking it out from the stage when I walk through the front door, I don't fret; I leave.
At the end of the day, I've got to thank angry lady for a whole new level of entertainment. Seeing you make an ass of yourself was a blast. Your crippling consternation was a great show, and it's nice to know it's still possible to offend people like you.
To the rest of you: see you at the next Sick City 4 show.
Sick City 4 can be heard here. If you're all very good, maybe Dan will put up a tape of the show under discussion.
* Ironically, something very similar happened to The Belgian Waffles! at a club called Sparks that was just a couple blocks east of the current Harley's location. It was in the late 90's, we were on stage, and some coked-up young miss grabbed the recording mic, yelled into it semi-coherently until she realized it wasn't going through the PA; whereupon she decided to get on stage and start yelling into the vocal mic which was temporarily abandoned. I'm not clear what she was yelling about, but it was kinda like Abby Hoffman at Woodstock during The Who's set, except nobody in our band whacked the cokehead diva off the stage with a guitar (we just turned up and kept rolling). The big difference between Sparks and Harley's is that Harley's was full of "straights", while Sparks was a dreadful "cutting edge" hipster joint. Just goes to show our ability to alienate does not discriminate. And yes, a recording does exist.
** Let's see: shut down more than once at Second Story, very pointedly told we would never play again at Flashbacks (a short-term incarnation of Uncle Pleasants in the late 90's), Twice Told Coffeehouse, Butchertown Pub, shut down by the police at almost every house party we played in Bloomington . . .