The Drunkest Band In Town

Christopher Anderson

Christopher Anderson

We pull into Wichita early. The bar is already open, so we think, what the hell? A few other people are scattered about the dingy room, including two young women playing Asteroids in the corner, which is where Rhett heads as soon as he grabs himself a beer. These are local corn-fed girls with freckles and sunshine in their hair, one blonde and one redhead. Next thing I know we’re out in the van with both of them. The girls are smoking us out, sending blue pillows of sweet scented herb into the beams of light ricocheting across the interior of the Econoline. Rhett asks if the redhead is natural, so she says, “Wanna see?” She opens her fly and exposes a little snatch of bright red pubic hair. Rhett reaches over and pets it like a cat. Then he asks Cameron, Nick, and I to leave. So we do.

Four hours until sound check. Six hours until The Shagnastys take the stage. Two consecutive nights. Our manager back in Texas says we’re on the radio locally, so there should be a good crowd. This is a cornerstone gig on our 5-week tour. It’ll help pay for hotels and gas for the rest of the trip. The beer company has promised to pony up at least two cases of beer in every city we play, though the night before, in OKC, the red-eyed rep showed up with four.

Rhett is the guitar player, singer, and leader of the band. He’s tall and good looking in a James Dean kind of way. He has a natural charisma that reminds me of my father, a dental equipment salesman living in Florida. More important, Rhett is a rock star. He used to play guitar with another popular North Texas band until, one day at the bar where we both worked, I suggested he needed to quit and do his own thing. The demo tapes he’d made at home were equal measure Van Morrison and The Who, the Replacements covering The Waterboys. So he did—he quit—and then he asked me to start a band with him.

I had never played in a real band before. I could barely put three chords together. My musical history was littered with half-attempts, garage meanderings with lazy friends, high school years screaming along to my Cheap Trick records. So I joined up with Rhett, because if you heard those tapes, saw the charisma that came so easy, you’d jump at the opportunity to be part of something special too. Rhett called in Cameron and Nick to round out the band.  A year later, we’re in Wichita, touring to support a debut album aptly titled Young, Dumb, and Beautiful.

Cameron, our quiet and ridiculously handsome bass player (dark eyes, square jaw, lips like a woman), has been binging with Rhett on this trip. They’ve known each other for years and despite the fact that Cameron is screwing Rhett’s ex-girlfriend, our former manager, they’ve allowed the booze to take them to a place more like high school, a time before things became so complicated and strange. Nick, our drummer, another of Rhett’s friends from school, is the son of a career military man. Now that the tour is a week old and it’s become apparent no one else is mature enough to handle the bullshit work that needs to get done, Nick has taken the reigns. He’s managing the money, paying  per-diems, and handling drink tickets. Nick’s gay, but can’t come out because of his military father, and his anger is, at times, explosive.

Inside the club the bartender is watching TV. There’s something on CNN about Wichita’s drive-by shooting problem. “We’re second behind L.A.,” the bartender announces as we saddle up to the bar. His grin is infectious. We order another beer and wait until the rep shows up with more. The same story runs on the television every half hour for the remainder of the afternoon, occasionally drowned out when someone feeds the jukebox.

Eventually the beer rep arrives. It’s part of the deal Rhett struck with The Beer Company. They sponsor our tour—providing us with $5,000 cash (already spent on new gear), and 2 to 4 cases of their light beer in every town—and we’re supposed to play their crappy, can shaped guitar and say “Know when to say when” from the stage at least once during the set. A few months before the tour started, we were mentioned in the Dallas Observer as being “the drunkest band in town.” At our record release show in Dallas a few months earlier, the label guys—and most of the audience—walked out as we proceeded to earn the title.

The first night of our two-night stand sees a decent crowd. Rhett’s new friends brought in a lot of their friends, so we had an especially interested audience. Until they leave, that is, disappearing sometime during the encore. Rhett is pretty drunk by this point. We all are. A cloud forms over Rhett as we break down the gear. It could be my clumsy guitar playing, or almost anything, really. Rhett’s mood swings when drinking are legendary. We knock back the rest of the drink tickets and split.

On our way back to the motel, which is too far away, Rhett hisses “I should kill you” under his breath. No one is sure what set him off. Maybe because when Rhett sent Nick to get paid, the owner shrugged him off, saying we’d get our cash after the second night’s set. Or maybe because the girls left. Or because Cameron spent thirty minutes talking to Rhett’s ex on the sticker tacky payphone while we were trying to sound check. Or maybe he’s angry about the mistakes I made during our set.

To no one, Nick says, “Anderson needs lessons.” He’s driving, trying to keep his eyes straight ahead. Everyone knows what he’s talking about. I goofed. Bad. Especially on “Love Me Don’t,” our power pop single getting airplay in town. Nick resents playing with an amateur. He’s always asking me to turn down my amp. I usually oblige. Cameron says, “Dude, get off his back.” That sets it off. Nick, Cameron, and I explode into accusations and threats. A real drunken melee. Rhett doesn’t take the bait. Again he hisses, “Kill you.

Soon, on some dark road–a shortcut–Nick swerves to stop Rhett from climbing into the back seat to get at Cameron, which surprises us all. I retch, a reaction no one notices. Not a week into the tour, everything is already too much. The van moves again, near the edge of the road, and I swing the side door open and jump out, rolling in the darkness. I tumble to a stop in the tall grass.  I can smell cow shit somewhere nearby. A farm. The van comes to a stop twenty yards ahead. I hear bickering. Fighting. Like parents. Like my parents, who divorced when I was six. Nick screams, “He’s a pussy!” He’s talking about me. The rock star that can’t play his guitar for shit. I get up, brush off the grass, and begin my walk back to Texas.

Someone’s pulling on my shirt. It’s Rhett. “Back in,” he says, barely a whisper. I try to say something, but my voice fails me. Rhett walks behind me to the van. I can feel his anger, his judgment permeating the humid summer air. I’ve let him down. I expect a cold flow of beer over my head, just like my mother endured weeks before we moved away from my father. She stayed as long as she could, but the beer seemed to be the final straw. But it never happens. We get back in the van and Nick pulls away from the curb. Everyone is silent the rest of the drive. Back at the room, the television talks for us. Rhett disappears into the night. I can’t sleep until he returns, sometime just before the sun begins to rise.

* * *

The place is packed the second night. The Velvet Underground and Nico is playing too loudly over broken jukebox speakers. We’re counting heads, trying to guess at our share of the door. The beer rep shows up with four more cases of beer, which we feel obliged to drink. Before we hit the stage, Rhett asks to borrow a drink ticket because he’s already used his. We use those for shots. Cameron shrugs his shoulders, says, “What can you do?” We order tequilas all around.

On stage, Rhett barks wrong lyrics, sometimes plays wrong chords. His solos are pure wank. During a slower song, Rhett falls backwards into the drums. The clatter is jarring. Nick pushes him back to his feet, re-settles his kit. Rhett falls again. We miraculously finish the song. Nick yells “Talk while I fix this, asshole.”.

Rhett’s slurring horribly and nobody can make out what he’s saying. Finally, he points into the audience with an accusing finger. “Shut it off!” he shouts. He’s pointing at a large man wearing a Kansas City Chiefs jersey. The dude is holding a cell phone to his head. It’s huge, this phone, and the blue glow illuminates the man’s tight black afro in a cartoonish way. He’s got oversized, garish rings on every finger. The guy looks like he’s talking into a UFO. “I’m trying to sing, ash-hole,” Rhett shouts into the mic. He lurches forward, but somehow keeps his balance.

“Go ahead and sing,” the dude says. The crowd has gone silent. A cash register behind the bar goes kerr-ching. The dude says something else into the blue phone. The crowd begins to murmur.

I can barely breathe.

“I’m not your clown,” Rhett says. “We’ll wait till your finished, fucker.” Spit flies on that last word. Fucker.

The dude glares at Rhett. Someone comes out of the bathroom. The door creaks impossibly loud. The big dude says something else into the phone, stands, pushes a button that kills the eerie blue glow. Then, he walks to the door like he’s got all the time in the world. He stops and he says, “Gringo can’t hold his liquor. Somebody better watch their boy. C’mon.” A young woman with permed, blonde hair and a too tight yellow dress follows him out, shaking her head.

I want to leave with him, buy him a drink, see if he could explain to me what I am doing here.

We play a few more songs, or we try. Nick, Cameron, and I exchange glances the entire time. After our set, the soundman tells us that Rhett fucked up. “We know,” Nick says, slamming his drum cases against the wall. The soundman shakes his head, says, “Seriously. He just insulted the biggest drug dealer in town.”

Our buzzes vanish. We look for Rhett, but he’s gone. He’s taken off with a woman he’d been playing tongues with before the show.

The three of us want to get our money—cash for both nights—and hit the road. But the bartender says, “Manager left. Took my cash drawers and bailed ten minutes ago.” He shrugs his shoulders. “The cops will be here in a minute to escort you out. You’re going to need them.”

In that moment I decide I’m going home. I’ll sell my guitar. No more fucking rock and roll dreams. I’ll beg for my bartending job back. I’ll start over. Fresh. But first someone has to get the cash so we can get back to Texas.

Cameron and I elect Nick.

“You’re pussies,” he tells us. Cameron and I agree.

Nick confronts the bartender. Nick says we won’t leave until we get paid. The bartender shouts to no one, “This is bullshit!” Cameron and I look at each other, not sure whether to interject. The bartender goes back to stocking. We line up at his bar and nurse the last of our beers.

The bartender finally admits there might be fifty bucks in the safe in the office. “That’ll help,” Nick growls, and he follows the guy through a door in the back. Cameron and I sit on a bench outside the office.  Cameron leans into me and says, “If I die tonight, and you survive for some reason, tell Diane I love her.”

I think about it. We’re young, dumb, and perfectly beautiful in our ignorance. All of us. I say, “If I die tonight, tell everyone I went out taking guitar lessons.”

We both get a good laugh out of this.

That’s when we hear glass shattering inside the office. Cameron’s eyes go wide. We stare at each other, then back at the office door like a goddamn cartoon. After what seems like minutes we hear voices—Nick and the bartender, calmly speaking. The door opens, and Nick stands there with two twenty-dollar bills. “Let’s go,” he says.

We throw our gear into the van while Wichita’s finest look on—nearly a dozen police officers leaning on their squad cars, lights spiraling like a disco. Apparently this is just another Saturday night in the second drive-by-capital in America. They don’t offer an escort to the motel. They don’t say a single word to us as we leave, just stare at us from under their caps, silent witnesses to nothing much happening at all.

Rhett calls just before we leave the next morning. Just like that, all is forgiven or forgotten. We pick him up across town. He’s got a shit-eating grin on his face. Nick’s fingers grow white on the steering wheel. Cameron is silent in the back. Me? I plot, learn, and drink my share. Within a month, I’ll be back at my old job, signing up for classes at the community college downtown. But that is still a lifetime away. For now I’m a rock and roll housewife learning to play guitar while swimming in an ocean of beer.

Four more weeks to go. Next stop, Chicago.

2 Comments

  1. Good read and summary of life on the road with a noname band, especially without an enforcer in the group to get that money.

  2. Great story, Chris!

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