Quite an auspicious beginning, to be sure. My mom might understand how it got to this point, but she would certainly not be happy with my choice. As if it really were my choice. I didn’t poke the cigar in my own mouth. I didn’t light the cigar. I didn’t even ask for the cigar.
But here I sat; my fifteen-year-old ass wedged between an upper class high school dude and a car door that looked very flimsy, just puffing away by order of Bill, the keyboard player. The moon kept poking through the ghostlike clouds as the night crept toward the haunting hour.
The ’68 Chrysler Town En Country wagon that hauled most of the gear and pulled the overburdened U-Haul trailer behind us was unusually cramped for a car of this size. Rex, the drummer, had been entertaining himself in the back seat with a rapid succession of horrific farts that sounded more like exploding water balloons than anything at all human. As a result, Bruce, the singer/bass player (for tonight’s gig…Tom, the regular bassist, had been put on a short geographical leash by his mom) was trying to get as far away from him as possible, which put him mostly on my lap, head hanging out the open window. The farts, as pungent as they were artistic, almost created enough of a screen to kill the smell of the skunk that Mike, driver and guitarist, had hit about five miles back. It was the combination of all of these toxic potions that convinced Bill somebody was going to smoke the cigar. Such was the start to my brief stint as a local rock n’ roll star.
It was late October and still warm enough that having the windows down late at night on our trip back home wasn’t lethal or even foolish. Do away with the skunk’s odor, Rex’s air biscuits, and that cheap assed cigar I was smoking, and windows down would have been a fine choice anyway. It was just another night on the road for The Heavy Experience…local rock heroes. Our band…and I use the term OUR very loosely, had just entertained what must have been tens of, dozens of kids just waiting for us to stop playing so they could grab their dates and go in search of warm beer and cold stabs at teen romance on the dusty back roads of rural Iowa.
But, for me, the night was magical. I had been invited to climb that stairway to the heaven of stardom. I had become the personification of all things righteous in the deviant world of rock n’ roll. I had lived out the dream of being on stage and performing in a real rock band…one that got actually got paid in cash, not just all-you-can eat chili at the local legion hall. Elvis, Dylan, The Beatles, The Monkees…we all now shared a common bond. Rock Gods! As such, the temptations of this kind of power can be overwhelming. So, truth be told, it was with little, if any protest, that I accepted the cigar that Bill demanded we light up to combat the stench that had now nearly asphyxiated us all. Really, I didn’t care. I was a rock n’ roll star.
The Heavy Experience was a pretty typical little band for our little patch of the world. A little Hendrix, Spirit, Cream, some Free, toss in the occasional Guess Who and you had half of the set list. In it’s usual configuration, it was a five piece band with an under aged roadie. Mike played a pretty good rhythm guitar with enough chops to slap together the occasional solo that sounded as authentic as he needed to fool the locals. Bill played keyboards with a restrained darkness that should have signaled to us what would later play out to be a tragic ending in a troubled life. Rex, the left-handed drummer, kept a good beat and was all-in on being the best version of Keith Moon that he could muster. He was the jester in a court already too full of goofballs. Tom, the Boy Scout of the group (with a sneaky penchant for streaking) was a steady hand on the faux-McCartney bass that he prized so much. Bruce, the lead singer (by virtue of the fact that he was the only one that knew all the words) was the front man. He was the one closest to me in age. Two years older than me, I more or less put him on a pedestal that he never asked for. Bruce was the devil in blue suede Adidas. He became the architect for most of my bad choices. Drinking that…smoking this…don’t even get me started on the he took me to the only Grateful Dead concert that I would get to see…or more like, hear…or mostly neither. Who knew Boone’s Farm and Panama Red were not on friendly terms?
But on this trip, Tom couldn’t go and the contract called for a five-piece band. I had been travelling with the group all summer as the roadie / lighting dude and was preparing to be same for the stop that night in Seymour. When the boys pulled up to get me at my home, I was sent back in to grab a dress shirt and a tie. It seems the closer we got to Missouri on our road trips the more the school administrators expected in terms of formal wear. I just figured that applied to the light dude as well as the boys in the band. It was, however, explained to me, in short order, that on this night, I was going to be on stage, and that under no circumstances should I do anything stupid. Too late for them…they’d already given me a license to kill.
Once we arrived and got set up, it didn’t take long to slide into the part of tambourine playing, background singing, acne-faced rock god. I had already been playing drums and percussion since sixth grade so I was no threat to screwing up their rhythm section. However, it didn’t take long to realize that there was a reason I’d been asked to stop attending mixed chorus in eighth grade. I had always assumed it was because I was an incurable smart ass. Turns out I couldn’t hold a note to save my life. Problem? Maybe… Too bad for the boys that I knew how to turn my microphone back up every time they tried to turn it down. I knew the words as well as Bruce did and by god, I was going to be a genuine back up singer…so sing I did. Loud and loose!
It was nirvana, before Kurt Cobain had even heard of the word. There I was, on stage with a button down collar and a shitty tie and a flippin’ tambourine in my hand wailing like the day I was born. All of those years of standing on the floor of the gym looking up at those cool guys on the stage playing their instruments…The Soul Purpose…Sound Alliance…and now, I was one of them. I was in The Heavy Experience. I was Mr. Tambourine Man playing songs for my own fans on the floor. So what if they wanted to be out getting drunk? It was my fantasy, not theirs.
And before I could soak it all in, it was over and I was getting sick from not knowing that cigars don’t necessarily have to be inhaled fully to be enjoyed. But for that moment…for that one golden, fleeting moment, I was a rock n’ roll star. And damn…it was good!