Friday, March 27, 2009
TALES OF TOURING TERROR 1980'S STYLE
As a professional dancer who tours constantly, I've basically been living out of a suitcase for the past decade and a half, but I've actually been on the road for nearly thirty years. Before I was a dancer, I was in an all-girl band and we spent most of the 1980's and 1990's on tour, and boy... the stories I could tell.... so, here's one now!
I think it was 1987, and my crazy, liquor-soaked, thrashin' all-girl "cowpunk” band The Screaming Sirens were on tour promoting our albums, "Fiesta" and "Voodoo". yep, that's me, second from the right in the photo- and yes, indeed I was a blonde cowgirl for most of the '80's! Anyway, The Screaming Sirens were gigging at a roadhouse called Rooster’s in Nashville, Tennessee when this entire chain of events occurred.
Living like full-on "Spinal Tap" style road-pigs, we were in the midst of a self-booked tour, playing every night and, if we were lucky, sleeping on stranger's floors. We traveled in an unheated old Winnebago-conversion van, whose ceiling was festooned with fishnet stockings, crepe paper streamers, bumper stickers, and our own lipstick graffiti. The windows on one side of the van were blocked off with torn-apart Tampax boxes, to block out the sun. This story unfolds on the eve of Sirens’ bassist Laura's birthday, on a chilly November night.
As twilight fell, I stepped outside the stage door of Rooster's, and as my eyes became accustomed to the dark, I couldn’t believe what I was seeing… a mossy Victorian-era gravestone, leaning up against the building in the weeds. There was new dirt and clumps of grass stuck to the bottom of the monument, and it looked to be freshly dug up. Even more amazing, the headstone was for a girl who had died at age twenty-four: the same age Laura was turning that very night. Not only that, the girl had died on Laura's birthday! Going inside to club to report my find, I asked if there was a graveyard anywhere in the nearby vicinity. Everyone I questioned assured me there was not.
Thinking that the headstone would make the ultimate birthday present, I borrowed a hand-truck from the club and cajoled some boys to help get the headstone to our dressing room, then blindfolded Laura and dragged her into the dressing room to see her present. Laura was a tough, hard-drinking, wisecracking punk chick, who, before joining the Sirens, had been in a band called Hard As Nails, Cheap As Dirt. She had a macabre sense of humor, and like the rest of us always appreciated a low-budget splatter flick, so the whole band assumed she’d be delighted with her present, especially since we were too broke to be able to afford anything else.
As her blindfold was removed, instead of the anticipated reaction of laughter, Laura turned white as a ghost (pun intended!) and whispered, her voice trembling audibly,
"Get that fucking thing out of here right now!"
Disappointed that our gift didn’t go over well, we scrambled to get the gravestone back outside, crashing into amps and drum-sets in the narrow hallway on the way outside.
The headstone seemed to put a curse on everything that happened after that.
Our gig that night was terrible- maybe the worst of the tour, plagued with more than our usual share of technical difficulties. The boys we were flirting with didn’t respond the way they usually did, the audience was a bunch of dullard cowboys, and we didn’t sell any merch.
As we loaded up the van in a dense fog, it began to drizzle. Laura's purse somehow disappeared from the parking lot. The whole band searched for ages both inside and outside the club (as well as in our van) but her purse had vanished without a trace. Then, dead tired and with no speed or even coffee, because it was so late even rural convenience marts and truck-stops weren’t open, Laura and I drove the van through pouring torrential rain for three and a half hours before discovering we'd gone in the wrong direction. Usually we chattered endlessly on our late-night drives, but tonight we were both quiet and grimly introspective. Practically crying, we finally figured out the right way to go.
Back on course, we were speeding through Kentucky at daybreak, desperately trying to get to St. Louis on time for our gig that night, and of course we got pulled over.
Laura was driving, and since her purse was missing, she had no license. We both looked completely terrifying- in our previous night’s sweat- caked stage make-up, remnants of glitter crusted around our eyes, we looked like carnival corpses from a cheap funhouse. Laura was wearing a decomposing vintage beaver fur coat over long-johns and I looked like a dead clown; orange hair with rags tied into it, a man's 1950’s pajama shirt, huge torn-up net petticoat, boxer shorts, striped stockings and turquoise Converse high-tops. Everyone else was passed out cold, and we were hoping the van wouldn't get searched, because if it did, we'd probably wind up on a rural chain gang!
The cop didn't even have to say, "Y' ain't from 'round heeere, are ya?"- You could see the diabolical in-bred glint in his eyes. But miraculously he didn’t seem to notice the scores of empty Budweiser cans that littered the floor, along with stray fishnet stockings, crumpled cigarette packs, No-Doz, rolling papers, battered cowboy boots and an empty bottle of Everclear.
He screwed us up pretty good, anyway: we not only got a seventy-five dollar ticket (an astronomical amount in those days, especially for us) he held us up for almost forty minutes as he made a huge deal of having his dispatcher call LA to make sure Laura didn't have any arrest warrants. The fact that it was confirmed to be her birthday held no sway with him, and even though we explained our predicament- her stolen purse, being late for a gig, and the fact that the road we were speeding on was completely deserted, he still almost gleefully wrote us the ticket.
Finally arriving in St. Louis, we sent our entire band-fund back to LA by money order. Our reasoning was that because of the way things had been going, we were scared to keep a big amount of cash with us, in case it got lost or stolen. Plus, our gig that night had the largest guarantee of the tour, so we’d be flush in a matter of hours.
When we got to the club, the booking agent who’d hired us had apparently been fired recently and the new manager was like, "Screaming WHO?"
We sat in the parking lot forlornly, with grim reality setting in. We had only sixty-odd dollars left to share between seven people- counting our personal monetary stashes- and no gig for three days. As it began to snow, we made repeated attempts to contact the promoter of the next show, in Kansas City, by pay phone, but no dice. Boy, were we bummed.
Pretty soon, the guys in the Top Forty house band showed up for their gig that night. Somehow, they found out that we were a stranded all-girl band from LA, and, interest piqued, they smuggled beer and popcorn out to us. We shared our last shreds of pot and told them our tale of woe.
They excitedly told us that Supertramp was playing the coliseum down the street and that the after-party was being held here at the club...LIKE WE CARED! Supertramp? You must be kidding! We were so “alternative” that we had no idea what Supertramp’s hits were, and didn’t give a shit anyway.
But those Top Forty guys were being nice to us, so we were nice right back, acting suitably, charmingly impressed with this “amazing” news.
We borrowed a couple of bucks from them, promising sincerely to send it back from our next gig, and went out to a dismal Italian birthday dinner at The Spaghetti Factory, all of us sharing plates of food, drinking communally from the decanter of hellish cheap red wine. Laura blew out her one candle and we split a stale chocolate cup cake as though it was manna from heaven. We barely had enough to pay the bill, and left someone’s keychain and a punk rock badge as a tip.
We drove back to the club's parking lot (where else were we gonna go, after all?) and figured since it was really starting to blizzard by now, and we didn’t want to risk driving or running out of gas, in a snow storm, that we’d spend the night there in our unheated van.
On cue, Top Forty guys came out again with more beer and we joked around. Even though they were "normal" and we were punk rock scum, we were still chicks, and chick musicians, no less… which really was a novelty in those days. They were intrigued with us, because even though we were broke and stranded, we were living out a rock 'n' roll dream, and besides, we were from HOLLYWOOD!
The guys went inside and convinced the manager to let us play a set on their equipment, and were insanely delighted when we emerged from the bathroom, looking all fresh and newly made-up with our garish Ronnettes-style eyeliner and Wet ‘N’ Wild ninety-nine cent lipstick. I have to say that we always cleaned up very well, even on tour, with hangovers and no showers. The Top Forty guys kept bringing us pitchers of beer before we went on, and while they played, they announced to the entire club that it was Laura's birthday, and told our whole sad, crazy whole story onstage.
Pretty soon the entire club was singing "Happy Birthday" to Laura. We played a wild set, with audience members sending trays of shots up onto the stage. Construction workers in plaid shirts were jumping right up onto the stage to shake our hands, steal a kiss or do a shot with us. The audience was going crazy, they'd apparently never seen five girls in torn-up lingerie and biker jackets jumping around, sweating, cursing and playing well!
Right when we finished, the guys from Supertramp started congratulating us, buying us rounds of cocktails and giving us tons of blow in the dressing room, yelling in English accents about how “FAKKING GREHT!” we were… then they played, and in between songs, took up a collection from the audience so we could have gas money. We’d played with a wild assortment of bands in our career, from The Ramones to Roseanne Cash, but never thought we’d ever open for Supertramp!
By the end of the night, our roadie had gotten in touch with the promoter in Kansas City and he arranged a place for us to stay that night, which turned out to be his mom's house (soft beds, home-cooked meals, cable television, yeee-haw!) so our luck had completely turned around.
It’s been over twenty years, but to this day, if you mention the word "birthday" to Laura, she winces and pain and changes the subject right away.