Back in, oh, it must have been 1985 or so, I played in a mostly-covers band called Remote Control. Based in metro Atlanta, we got a good bit of work. This was back in the day when venues and organizations would actually pay for, y’know, live music. I still have copies of many of the contracts, and more than twenty-seven years ago my band – a not-particularly-well-known one at that – routinely drew $800 for a night’s work. Even after paying the sound man (who tended to get something like a quarter of the total, seeing as he had control over the “suck knob”) we each still went home with more than $100 each. Not that I’m complaining, but in 2012 a cover band in my city is lucky to take home $100 total.
Anyway, even though we got lots of gigs, we were hungry: we simply loved to play. And being that we were relatively indestructible early-twenties types, some of us (decorum and various statues of limitations prohibit me from naming names) did it for what we’ll call the fringe benefits. The money wasn’t even the thing. We’d play anywhere, any time. So while a typical gig would be at a fraternity party on the campus of Georgia Tech, or maybe a week-long engagement at a suburban bar, we were pretty much open to any sort of gig.
The band circa 1985. Your mulleted host at center.
On at least one occasion, that level of earnestness got us into a bit of trouble. According to the story we were given, another band with whom we were all friendly had double-booked, and their booking agent (or, shall we say, “booking agent”) offered us the gig. The pay was supposed to be something like $500 for a 9pm to midnight gig; something like that. Not bad, we thought, and we said yes. The gig was only few days away, so we wouldn’t be able to promote it ourselves (kids, there was no internet in these days, and anybody who had email wasn’t the type to go see a rock’n’roll band on a Saturday night anyway). But that didn’t matter, since the venue had, we were assured, a loyal following.
Two pieces of information should have alerted us to potential trouble. One, the gig was in a town called Kennesaw, GA. While these days Kennesaw is part of the unchecked metropolitan Atlanta sprawl, in 1985 it was considered “out there.” It would eventually become (in)famous as the right-wing city that responded to the so-called Brady Bill by actually passing a law requiring its citizens to own a gun. No, really. But even back in ’85, you knew them folks was packin’.
Kennesaw was far out geographically. Not the suburbs, not the exurbs, but whatever one calls the land beyond those. So we might have asked ourselves how a band that played the college-rock hits of the day (Police, INXS, REM, etc.) would go over in Kennesaw. Me, I had a mullet (though the term hadn’t been coined yet, and comedian Jeff Foxworthy rocked one too) and wore parachute pants onstage. Trust me: it wasn’t as hilarious then as it seems in retrospect. At least I don’t think it was.
The second red flag was the name of the place: Frank’s Buckboard, Frank’s Wagonwheel, or something very much like that. That name should have answered the how-will-they-like-us question right up front. Alas, we didn’t pay much attention. We should have.
The day of the gig arrived, and we loaded up our gear into multiple vehicles, filled the gas tanks and headed out to Kennesaw. We actually used a map. We arrived and set up without incident. At one point I approached the establishment’s manager, introduced myself and did a quick rundown of the evening’s plan. Start at nine sharp, two quick fifteen-minute breaks, wrap up at midnight. He stared at me and said, “No, you play until 2am.”
Caught completely by surprise, I stammered, “No, that’s not what we agreed to. We’re supposed to play three sets.” He calmly – too calmly, I thought – replied that we would play until two. He added that should we not comply, he could not, in his words, guarantee our safe exit from Frank’s.
There were no cell phones in these days, so after I broke the news to the rest of the band, we raced to find a pay phone out of earshot of the manager. As luck would have it, the booking guy wasn’t answering his calls. I’m sure it was a coincidence. My fellow band members and I went into a huddle and made the decision that we’d go ahead and play the gig. We were pretty far from home, without any friends or other reinforcements, and we were in potentially hostile territory in a place where we could safely assume everyone had a gun. (We – nice boys all — however, had none, and wouldn’t have known how to use one anyway.) Even with the benefit of more than a quarter-century’s hindsight, I think we made the right call.
We took the stage, and launched into our standard set with as much gusto as a band slightly fearing for their well-being could manage. The place was pretty full, but they were not reacting positively to our song selections. Most of the men were in plaid work shirts; jeans and cowboy boots, and the women had big hair. They had one thing in common: they did not like us.
Pivoting, we tried some of our more country-oriented material. As a more or less new wave/classic rock covers band (with a number of originals in a similar style) there wasn’t a lot of c&w in our set. And by “not a lot” I mean: none. But we gamely attempted twanged-up versions of songs by Tom Petty and the Byrds, and thought they’d like REM‘s “So. Central Rain,” which is pretty countryish after all. They were decidedly unmoved. The sounds of smashing beer bottles could be heard with increasing frequency.
The band at a 2003 reunion. Your host at left.
The Dan Aykroyd
and John Belushi
film The Blues Brothers
had been released a few years earlier (1980). Its memorable scenes had been etched into the psyche of many viewers, especially musician types. We laughed at the improbable scenes. But here we were in a land not altogether removed from some of the movie’s settings: a place where people like “both kinds” of music: country and western. Memories of the famous chicken-wire gig scene filled my head, and I’m sure my bandmates thought of it as well. While no beer bottles actually made contact with us or our instruments, they were flying.
Since none of our material was going over, we made a tactical decision to play Lynyrd Skynyrd‘s “Free Bird.” In 1985 it was every bit the cliché it is today, but at this point we didn’t care. We figured they’d like it. We were wrong: they loved it. Men stood up and removed their cowboy hats as if we were playing the fucking national anthem of Dixie. Women danced. People whooped and hollered when we pandered by asking that musical question, “How ’bout chew?” We milked that long song, making it even longer. At this late date there’s no way to prove me wrong, so you’ll have to trust me when I say that we played it the rest of the evening, through all our breaks, right up until 2am on the dot.
And we made it out alive, never to return.