For most of high school, at least since I’d picked up a guitar during my sophomore year, I’d been telling people I was going to start a band. There were a couple false starts. Lots of talk about a band with my friend Carlos that we were going to call Social Disaster… until we heard about Social Distortion.
Then my friend Dave and I were going to start a band called Nude Tuba that was, in fact, going to have a tuba player and girl named Marina playing upright bass. Fortunately for the world, none of us would actually be nude. Dave and I had made some goofy recordings together. (As if that’s ever changed…)
“Waltz of the Deranged Mongrel Baboons” was one of my favorites. The concept was “three instruments play in waltz time, all in different keys.” The instrumentation was me on guitar, my brother Ryan on piano, and Dave on bass clarinet. Seriously avant-garde shit, my friend. Amazing how it’s such a thin line between “avant-garde” and “three teenagers making horrible noise.”
By the way, somewhere there are recordings of all this stuff and if I ever find them I’ll post them.
Then, in 1991, that old black magic struck. I was going to Mission Community College and my girlfriend introduced me to the other guy she was dating. Yeah, it went down like that. Brandon and I hit it off and decided we should start a band. He was a bass player.
This is the conversation the defined our musical direction.
Me: What kind of band are we?
Brandon: What do you mean?
Me: Well, are we this kind? (I play a kind of 80’s hair metal riff)… or this kind? (I play a heavier speed metal riff)
Brandon: Uh… The first one.
And done. That’s as much thought as was put into it. We gathered some other guys… Bill on vocals, Brad on guitar, and… Who the hell played drums? Avery, I think? Drummers were the bane of my existence for years and I’ve forgotten most of them. I had to or I’d wake up screaming every night, “Dude! PLEASE get stoned AFTER the show!” (Derek was a real person…)
And we got started jamming, rehearsing, writing. It was a..maz…ing. I’m quite sure we sounded like two week old dog manure. But finally being in a band and getting to make that glorious noise… My heart still beats faster at the thought of it.
We decided to learn a cover song we all knew just to get started. “Highway To Hell” by AC/DC was simple enough for even us to handle. And we played that song so many times it’s still ingrained in my fingertips. And then it was on to writing original music. We NEVER even thought of becoming a cover band. After all Motley Crue was never a cover band. Yes, that was our level of influence at the time.
We practiced for about a year before playing in front of people. We did an afternoon show at the local continuation high school where Brandon had been valedictorian. Who knew continuation schools even had valedictorians? Long story short, about 20 people in a gym with horrible acoustics. And unlike now, I think I remembered all my parts.
Then another year later… We were still rehearsing every weekend and taking full advantage of Wienerschnitzel’s 25 cent hot dog Saturdays. We’d order 30 and then get back to playing. In 1993 Brandon came in and said he’d gotten us a gig. At The Cabaret in San Jose. It’s not there anymore, but this was the place where we’d see our heroes play. On their way down, but nonetheless.
We figured we’d be opening slot on a Tuesday or something. But no…. Friday night…. Headlining slot. What? We had no business being in that slot! We weren’t even ready! Yes, after two years of rehearsing, we still didn’t think we were ready to be on a stage. Let alone THAT stage. Brandon said he’d simply called up to see who to talk to about booking there and the guy just offered him the slot. Couldn’t say no to that, right?
If there’s one thing you learn quickly in the music business, a lot of club owners are rather disorganized. This guy always booked things at the last minute. And as long as we could sell tickets, it didn’t matter what we sounded like. There’s the other thing you learn quickly in this business. It doesn’t matter what you sound like if you can sell tickets. Hence Justin Bieber.
And we did. 80 tickets for that first show. We showed up at the club and everything was an exclamation point for me. Soundcheck! A real soundcheck! Look, monitors! Real monitors! A crusty bitter sound guy! A real crusty bitter sound guy!
It felt like “The Music Business”. And that was the greatest thrill of all. To feel like we were part of that great chain that’s yielded all the heroes we looked up to. To finally have a chance to load gear into a club, do a soundcheck, wait in the green room, watch bands opening for us, tickets, posters, pay outs, club managers, and that inimitable night club smell of old booze, sweat, and cigarette smoke. It was obviously a short climb from this show to Madison Square Garden. Yeah, right. It’s one of those ladders that keeps getting longer as you climb it.
We knew we had to make a big splash for our first show. All our favorite bands had big dramatic intro tracks. Not just a song, but sound effects, dialogue….drama! And so we made our own by the rudimentary taping and then retaping multiple tracks onto multiple takes with a two-deck home stereo system. And it was phenomenal.
We also didn’t know that we could give it to the sound guy. So we brought a boom box on stage during soundcheck and tried to mic it up. After a few minutes of messing with it we heard “What hell are you doing?!” from the back of the room. We explained that it was our intro track. The sound guy walked up to the stage, ripped the tape out of my hand and walked back to the sound board. He played it through that glorious, huge sound system. It rumbled the walls. It filled the room with more sound than I’d ever heard in one place.
And when it was over, the sound guy said, “That is the longest, most boring intro track I’ve ever heard.”
Needless to say, we didn’t use it during the show.
At 8pm, our crowd started to arrive. The place held probably 250 people, but we put about 100 in there, so a good showing. I was only 20, so I had to stay in the green room. The rest of the band was at the bar. I don’t recollect anything about the opening bands except the neck ache I got craning my head around the doorway of the green room to watch them on stage. The first time we played there after I turned 21 was the first time I got on stage without a headache.
But right then, I was just itching for that stage. It’s really not a lot different now. I just know how to channel the energy better. At that point my legs were shaking so bad I could barely stand up. Had I dramatically fallen to my knees James Brown-style during the show, I’m sure it would have looked cool, but it would not have been on purpose.
We rocked, we rolled, we jumped around like the rock stars we assumed we were. Decked out in leather, studs, bandanas, and pointy guitars. And that’s about all I remember of it. To this day, if I can remember a show (and I’m talking mere minutes after exiting the stage), it probably wasn’t that great a show. If that show is a lost hour of my life? Awesome show. You get so in the moment that time really does stand still. Your senses are on high alert for everything. Then it’s “thank you, good night!” and it’s gone. The most ephemeral thing in the world.
The only thing I knew is that I needed to do it again. And again. And again. I’ve done literally thousands of shows since then. And now that stage, whatever stage, feels like home. Any place you’ve been to that many times feels like the most comfortable place in the world. And my home is a foot or two off the ground, brightly lit, and covered in spilled beer and old gum.
But I don’t get to live in that home without you. You’re the reason I get to stand up there and make an ass of myself on a nightly basis. And for that I appreciate you. Because without you that ladder stops growing. The home feels empty. And I would just have to sit in my house and be really cranky.
And I look forward to every mile driven, every dopey sound guy, and every trial and triumph along the way. And here’s hoping that you’ll be part of that journey with me.
Fortunately, I’ve been bright enough to document some of those forgotten shows along the way. Like little music and comedy rabbit poops left around my cage. If you’d like to hear the most recently milestone on that journey, click here to listen to my most recent album “Pretty From The Back”
Thanks for being a listener, a watcher, a laugher, and making it all worthwhile.
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