Opinion » The Rant

War Stories

In which the author recounts a lifetime’s worth of gigs from hell.

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Several months ago, the Flyer featured a cover story with local musicians recounting their "Worst Gigs Ever." I wish somebody would've asked me. I have so many horror stories, they have to be categorized by decade. I've been in other bands and played as an acoustic soloist, but most of my performing career has been with the Radiants, a "rock-and-soul" group that lasted from my teen years in the Sixties until our final show two years ago at Lafayette's.

In a 2011 Flyer, I wrote about being punched out by the bouncers at Club Clearpool, only to be vindicated by Sputnik Monroe. You could look that one up if you're curious, but first let me tell you about a gig that still gives me the creeps. I was in a band out of Knoxville called Rich Mountain Tower. We had a production deal and were on a mini-tour, opening for Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons. Our bass player — we'll call him Todd — was going through some serious psychological problems resulting from an LSD-fried brain. He had that 1,000-yard stare, even though he'd never been in combat. When we played Charleston, West Virginia, Todd paused and spoke to the audience. Backstage, I asked what he had said, and he told me that he "asked the audience's forgiveness for being a coward all my life."

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The next night's gig was at the Mid-South Coliseum. We set up shop at the old Downtowner Motel, across from the Peabody, where we returned after the concert. I was chatting with friends, when I heard shouting and screams for help coming from the next room. I ran next door to witness Todd standing on the edge of an open window on the 15th floor, with our guitarist bear-hugging Todd's mid-section to prevent him from jumping. We succeeded in pulling Todd back into the room, but he was on a bus at the crack of dawn, leaving for his home town and psychiatric help.

I had been playing at various joints around Knoxville when an agent booked me and my singing partner, Bob Simon, for a show in Middlesboro, Kentucky, at an Elk's Club gathering. Or it could have been the Lions Club, I forget. I was dressed in my hippie finery — bell bottoms, flowered shirt, boots, peace sign, and long hair — while we waited in the kitchen for their program to end. Bob looked  at the crowd of rural, middle-aged men in coats and ties and refused to go out. I was in the middle of berating him when we were introduced. He agreed to come out, only after I had sung the first song.

When I entered with my guitar, the room exploded with laughter. I don't mean snickers or giggles, these were howls and belly laughs at my appearance. I stood in front of the microphone, but the laughter went on and on. As I looked out at the rowdy crowd, waiting for their derision to subside, I felt like Edwin Booth taking the stage just months after his brother had killed Lincoln. I sang a song, introduced Bob, and the room erupted again. Bob's face turned beet red. We changed our entire set and sang one country song after the next until they finally gave us some begrudging applause. We cursed our agent all the way back to Knoxville and learned the benefits of knowing your audience in advance.

Many years ago, there was a motorbike dirt-track out near Lakeland on I-40. They occasionally staged races and competitions or whatever the hell dirt-bikers do, and I was booked to play an outdoor concert with a four-piece band cleverly named the Hired Hands. We assumed that we would play in a break in the action or after the race. I never imagined they wanted us to play while the race was taking place. We'd start a song and every 30 seconds the whine of a dirt bike would drown us out. It was not only a ridiculous situation, the bikes were kicking up so much dust that I was literally eating dirt while trying to sing. We were coughing and sneezing on our flatbed truck, parked hard against the track while the motorcycles whizzed by, covering the sky in particles of dust.

While wiping my tears when the gig was mercifully over, the track's owner gave me a check. It bounced. I contacted the owner later, and he assured me the account was solvent and wrote me a second check — which also bounced. When I drove out to the track, it had closed. It was the only time, in a lifetime of performing, that anyone ever stiffed me with a bad check.

The Radiants were playing a gig at an after-hours nightclub in North Little Rock called The Apartment Club. It was a seedy place filled with drunks with nowhere else to go. A scuffle broke out in the crowd and the band went on break. I've seen a lot of fistfights. I've seen brawls roil from one side of the room to the other while the band continued to play, but this felt different, maybe more menacing.

I was standing outside with the bass player when the front doors flew open and a gangly, drunken redneck tumbled onto the ground followed by two huge bouncers. The drunk staggered to his feet, lunged at the bouncers, and threw a punch. Suddenly, a handgun appeared and we dove for cover. While one bouncer held the gun in the air, the other pulled out a blackjack and started pounding the guy in the head shouting, "You done fucked up now, Bobby Gene!"

The intoxicated Bobby Gene refused to go down and received a Rodney King-like beating until he finally succumbed to the blows to his head and slumped to the sidewalk. He lay there bleeding for a while, but made it back to his feet. He stumbled toward a pickup truck, but the bouncer gave one last sweeping kick to his ribs that dropped him to the gravel.

The band had to regroup. The crowd was visibly shaken by the episode. Things seemed to be calming down a bit, when someone ran in, screaming, "Bobby Gene's back with a shotgun!" Everyone froze. We were instructed to continue playing, so we did, while an armed Bobby Gene was fighting with the police out in the parking lot. He lost, but all we heard was "Keep playing, boys; that's what we pay you for."

Show Biz ain't for sissies, folks. If you're unable to tolerate a constant barrage of bullshit and humiliation, there are probably too many singing guitar players out there anyway.

Randy Haspel writes the "Recycled Hippies" blog.

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