Friday, January 29, 2016

My Happiest Moment In The Subway

[Truth in advertising notice: This piece has been published here before, but in two parts. I'm giving it to you now in one, so there's at least that. Since my postings of late - at least, those not telling you to go someplace else and read something for which I was actually paid - have all been about jobs I've held during my checkered career, this fits in with those. It's about my time in the band World's End, despite the title. That's all I'll tell you for now and if you haven't read it before, where have you been?]


(Note to aspiring writers: The first sentence of this piece is what is known as a "compelling lead". It promises excitement and adventure. It entices the reader to begin, assuring a superb return for his or her investment of time. You should always use something similar in your own stories.)


This may turn out to be the most dreadfully boring thing ever written, but I'm going to write it anyway.

When I was 17, I was in a band. The name of the band was World's End, which should give you some idea of the type of music we played. Think Black Sabbath, but not quite as cheery. And when I say "music we played", that's a bit of poetic license. You might want to read that as "re-creation of the sound of a burlap bag full of cats being hit with a baseball bat which we inflicted upon the general public while calling it music".

The band had five members, two of whom were drummers. That's right - five guys and we had two drummers. Make that a burlap bag full of cats being hit with two baseball bats. The only guy in the band who could really play was one of these drummers. I'm not going to say which one, since the other drummer might be reading this and I wouldn't want to hurt his feelings. However, the good drummer died many years ago, so that sort of gives it away.

We thought we were THE NEXT BIG THING!, but we sucked harder than a Hoover factory. The guitarist had one asset - a wonderful cherry-red Gibson Les Paul. However, never in the history of music has such a beautiful instrument been made to produce such god-awful noise. This guitarist sometimes played with both a slide and a wah-wah pedal. When he did so, the result was... well, imagine a fire engine whose siren has had a potato jammed into it. The band included four different bass players during its run, and they encompassed the full range from competent to uninspired. And then there was me. I was the singer/keyboardist and I was the worst of the lot.

I'll give you some idea of how dedicated I was to my craft. We practiced once a week - if everybody wasn't doing something else important like going to a movie. Since I lived in Dorchester, and rehearsals were in Malden, and my keyboard weighed about 60 pounds, between rehearsals I usually left my keyboard at the house of the two guys who lived in Everett. This is why I am now a bass player.

The two guys who lived in Everett went to Malden Catholic High School, which was actually just a couple of blocks from their house. Somehow, they convinced the school to let us use one of the classrooms as our rehearsal space. We'd go there on Saturday morning, set up, and proceed to annoy the hell out of the neighbors for two or three hours. Then came the highlight of our rehearsals. That was the break, when we would smoke a bone and go to Papa Gino's to gorge ourselves on pizza.

(I am still amazed at how much food I was able to put away in those days, stoned or not. I'd order a large pizza for myself and accompany it with a plate of pasta with meat sauce. And bread and butter. And a couple of large Sprites. I weighed about 145 then. And I stayed that way well into my 20's. Now I weigh 190 or so and two slices makes me feel like I swallowed a small anvil. Whuhthefuh?!? However, I digress.)

After pizza, we'd go back to the school and listen to the tapes of what we'd practiced during the first part of rehearsal. This was so we could all yell at Duane, who was the guitarist. "For God's sakes, Duane, we've got two drummers but you can't hear anything except the guitar. You've got to turn it down a bit." To which Duane would reply, "Huh?"

We actually played quite a few gigs - high school dances and whatnot. How we got these gigs is still a mystery to me. I was never one for the business end of things. I was too busy believing I was a rock star. After all, I was the singer and I wrote the lyrics to our original tunes. Here's the first stanza of "World's End", from which we cleverly took the name of the band:

Now the time has come
World's become undone
Fire rains down and there is hell all around
Powers above black out the sun
Split into trillions of crystals
Heat rising from the core
Man is burning - Burnt away!
The Earth is no more!

I was full of all kinds of bright sunshiny thoughts in those days.

I can only recall two or three gigs where we didn't either get stuff thrown at us or otherwise hear the (righteous) wrath of the crowd. One was our first show ever, at Brookline High, April 26th, 1974. I've still got a ticket from that dance at home somewhere. It says, "Come Dance To The World's End!", which was also on the posters advertising our appearance. Amazingly enough, this blurb drew a crowd of 400 or so. This was the early 70's, though, and anybody heavy enough to contemplate death in their music was, like, profound, man!.

I know how we got that job. I was sleeping with the girl who booked the bands for dances. She fancied herself a singer. In exchange for booking us, she got to sing on one of our songs. That was fine. We were both using each other for our mutual benefit. I think the band got paid something like $60, split 5 ways. And four of us had to pitch in for Duane's gasoline, since we hauled all the equipment in his dad's station wagon.

We opened with an original tune called "Feed Your Head". Can you guess what that one was about? I bet you can! Aside from the originals, we did whole bunches of really bad covers. Mostly Clapton and Allman Brothers, for some reason. It didn't really matter who the songs were by, though, as they never sounded anything like the originals when we finished with them. If we didn't announce beforehand which song was coming up, for all anyone knew it was another one of our own compositions.

Despite the execrable nature of our performances, I truly believed that we'd get a recording contract. How we were going to get it, I don't know. Looking back, I think we would have had to have mugged a real band.

I vividly recall another night when we played at a high school in Malden. After the first band finished their set (yes, we were the headliners...) we took the stage. About halfway into our second song, a lit cigarette flew past my head. Then another one. Then a beer bottle hit Chuck's bass drum. I calmly took charge of the situation. I made motions to the guys to stop playing. I grabbed the mic and said, "Alright, you cocksuckers, that's enough. You want to fuck with me? I'll kick all your asses!"

That's what being (or thinking you are) a rock star will do to you. You weigh 150 or so soaking wet, but you truly insanely believe that you are the center of the universe and you can fight an auditorium full of drunken football players and gang members. Thankfully, there was a police detail on duty. As soon as the word "cocksuckers" was out of my mouth, the two officers had stepped in front of the stage and they then literally stopped the crowd from charging and killing us. They dispersed the angry mob and made us wait for close to three hours inside the auditorium before they thought it was safe enough for us to pack up our equipment into Duane's dad's car. Meanwhile, I fumed the whole time because my genius wasn't appreciated. I don't think I even said "Thanks!" to the cops. What a friggin' dope I was.

We played some other gigs. Most of them were unmemorable except for their utter crapitude musically. I'll tell you about one more.

We had another high school dance to play. This one was at St. Francis's, which I think was in Everett. Now, Duane, whom you may remember as our "guitarist", was employed at Stuart's, which was a department store in Malden. It so happened that he was scheduled to work at Stuart's on the same evening as this dance. Naturally, one would assume (at least the rest of us in the band did) that Duane would ask for the night off so that he could play the dance. If you assumed that, then you don't know Duane. He decided that the money was better for working a four-hour shift as a stockboy than it would be for performing at this dance. Either that or his father told him to buckle the fuck down and do some real work instead of wasting his time seeing how many different ways he could make a Les Paul sound like an animal undergoing unneeded radical surgery. In any case, he wasn't going to make the gig. What to do? What to do?

Well, it was too late to cancel and it was too late to teach another guitarist our arrangements (such as they were) so the rest of us did what we figured was the best we could do under the circumstances. Our bass player at the time, Sean, was taking six-string guitar lessons, so he borrowed Duane's gear and became our guitar player for the night. Since we had two drummers, one of them was more-or-less expendable, so Mark, who had taken about three weeks of piano, moved out from behind his kit and took over on keyboards. Chuck, being the good drummer, stayed where he was. This left me.

If you recall, I was the vocalist and keyboards player. Since Mark was taking over the keyboards, that freed me up to be the bass player. It's important at this point to know something about me. I had never played the bass before in my life. Some folks might have seen that as an insurmountable obstacle to the success of this endeavor, but not me! I was the guy who called entire auditoriums full of drunken louts "cocksuckers" and figured I could get away with it. What was this compared to that? I assumed I could fake it enough to get by. And, if I couldn't play, I could certainly chew on the scenery.

Which is what I did. After a few hurried lessons from Sean, I played on just the E string for most of the night and I climbed all over the furniture, making an ass of myself and distracting a goodly portion of the crowd from my abysmal failings as a musician. At one point, providence stepped in and gave me a hand. Well, actually, providence stepped in and gave me a bloody nose.

I was standing on top of a cafeteria table, jumping up and down to the beat, when my nose started bleeding. I don't know why it did, but I made the most of it. Blood was steadily pouring from one nostril onto my shirt and onto Sean's bass. I kept on playing, knowing that this was about as cool as it could get. These were the days of Alice Cooper and Kiss and other practitioners of "glam" stage shows, a goodly part of which consisted of the use of stage blood. Hey, I just discovered I had a supply of the real thing at my disposal and I wasn't going to let it go to waste. I wiped my nose with one hand and smeared the blood all over my face and wiped the rest on my pants. The girls in the audience mostly gagged, but all of the guys were nodding their heads and mouthing, "Far out, man!"

(It helps if you read that as though either Cheech or Chong is saying it.)

The song ended and I had sense enough to sit down and throw my head back for a minute. Sean played a few power chords and leaned into the amp to produce some feedback, so that bought me some time while I snuffled up the yucky stuff in my nose. The bleeding stopped almost as quickly as it had begun. I probably popped a polyp or something; who knows? It was the highlight of the show, though.

As a coda to this episode (Notice how I slipped in an actual musical term here? Clever!) Duane finally showed up about 30 minutes from the end of our last set. Like a musical god from Olympus deigning to associate with some mere mortals, he strode in, grabbed the guitar from Sean, and assumed his rightful place as ***THE GUITAR PLAYER***. The rest of us mere crustaceans scuttled back to our respective support positions while he assaulted the audience with his own particular brand of aural defoliant. Some of them probably never had kids as a result. I wanted to make my nose bleed again, but I couldn't quite will it to happen.


I should mention here that a couple of us did go on to become decent musicians.

Soon after the nosebleed gig, I took up the bass seriously and played in another 4 or 5 bands over the course of the late 70's and early 80's. Since the bass is much easier to transport than keyboards, I actually practiced daily. I still play, but just for fun. I haven't played an actual gig since 1989 or so.

Sean continued taking guitar lessons and today he is an extremely accomplished jazz player. He plays in Boston-based ensembles and occasionally tries to get the hard-core jazz guys to understand why he likes heavy rock.

Bruce, who replaced Sean and was our bass player at the time of the "cocksuckers" incident, lives in New Hampshire and still plays. He is quite good.

Duane and Mark both became things other than musicians. I totally lost touch with them long ago. Or they totally lost touch with me on purpose, which is always a possibility. In any event, I don't know if they still play. And, Mark, if you're reading this? It's all in fun - you weren't a bad drummer. You just weren't the better of the two.

[Update: I found Mark on Facebook recently. He's a good guy, always was, and after reading this he told me how much he fondly remembers those days. His brother, Duane, is a lawyer. I tried to open communications with him, but never heard from him. Maybe he's considering suing me for defamation of character. If so, he'll lose. I still have tapes from those rehearsals.]

As I mentioned near the beginning of this story, the other drummer, Chuck, has been dead for many years. He was a backseat passenger in a car that was totaled when a drunk driver ran a red light. He was 17. I know I speak for every member of World's End when I say we still miss him.


So, what in the name of the Amazing Kreskin does any of the foregoing have to do with the subway? Well, not one hell of a lot, but now I'm going to tell you the subway story and you'll see that it's not much and I really had to pad things out, so I did.

Mark and Duane, as I may have mentioned, lived in Everett. We were good friends outside of the band, so I occasionally hung out at their house. On Saturday or Sunday, I sometimes watched TV with them and their dad until 10 or 10:30, and then I'd start heading home.

Well, one Sunday evening in early 1975, it was as bitter cold as I ever remember it being and it was snowing. In order to get home to Dorchester, I had to catch a bus from near their house and take it to the Sullivan Square station on the Orange Line of the T, which at that time was an elevated line. I then would make a connection with the Red Line to Ashmont and, finally, take the trolley from there. It was a fairly long trip, especially on Sunday evening when trains and busses ran about once every hour.

I stood outside in the vicious cold and snow, with winds blowing at 20 or 25 mph, waiting for the bus to Sullivan Square. I waited and waited and waited some more. I was out there for a good 30 minutes and I was not dressed warmly. I was chilled to the marrow by the time the bus came, shivering and shaking and with wet feet. My nose was frozen and my eyes were watering. My ears hurt like hell, even with my long hair of the time covering them somewhat.

The bus came and I got on, but I discovered to my dismay that it wasn't much warmer. There was no wind or snow inside the bus, of course, but the heater wasn't working, either. I didn't warm up much on the 15-minute ride to Sullivan Square.

The bus pulled into the station, which was basically a huge wood-and-cement barn open on both ends, so the wind whipped through it making me entirely as miserable as I had been at the bus stop before. I heard a train. I reached into my pocket with frozen fingers to get some coins, paid my fare, and ran upstairs to the elevated platform just as my train pulled out towards downtown.

This was even worse than the bus stop. The elevated platform was completely open and perhaps 20 feet in the air. It stood alongside a section of I-93, so while you waited for the train, cars would go by at eye level. It also was very close to the Mystic River and there wasn't much of anything near that platform to cut the wind. It was perhaps the coldest spot in the entire city that night.

I stood there on the platform with the wind whipping and the snow blowing and my nose frozen and my feet wet and feeling very sorry for myself. Then, something caught my attention.

If you're a veteran of public transit, and perhaps subways in particular, you know that, at one time, many subway and elevated railway stations had waiting rooms. These were places where someone could get out of the elements for at least a short while while they waited for a train. At the time of this story, these waiting rooms were already pretty much a thing of the past. Too many winos used them as urinals or bedrooms, and the liability risks had become such that the T always kept the doors to them locked. This night, though, out of the corner of my eye, I saw that the lights were on in the waiting room at Sullivan Square.

Could it be? Might the doors actually be unlocked? Would I be able to go inside and get out of the bitter cold wind? I pretty much ran over there to check it out.

YES! YES! YES!!! Not only were the doors unlocked, but when I stepped inside the room it was as warm as Miami in July. Some wonderful, blessed angel employed by the T had turned the heater on full blast. My face began to melt. My nose, as it defrosted, dripped both inside and out, but snot was a small price to pay for such relief.

I should mention that, in those days when dinosaurs roamed the earth, it was perfectly legal to smoke in train stations. As a matter of fact, some people were still pissed about not being allowed to smoke in the cars themselves, as had been legal up until recently. So, to make my circle of happiness complete, I plopped down on a wooden bench and lit up a Kool, inhaling the menthol deeply. I had never been, nor have I ever been, more happy in the subway than I was at that moment. It smelled like piss, there were a few spiders crawling around, my clothes were still wet, and I had a post-nasal drip that wouldn't quit, but I was pretty much in heaven.

And that was my happiest moment in the subway. The End.


(Note to aspiring writers: If you don't know what "allegory" is, you should. The weather and the bus and the subway are life, while that smelly dirty waiting room was the band. To an outsider, that waiting room was just a piss-ridden bug-infested pit. And the band was a catastrophe. But my happiness was immense, and very real, in both situations.)

Soon, with more better stuff.


joeh said...

Calling the audience C*ck suckers? I guess i'm not the only one who used to be stupid.

messymimi said...

Sometimes you find bliss in the most unlikely of places.

Suldog said...

Joe - When did I ever say I wasn't still stupid?

Mimi - True. Very true.

OldAFSarge said...

Ah, but you can spin a tale my lad.

I have to admire your chutzpah regarding the c*ck suckers incident, though I think your choice of tactic was somewhat flawed.

Truly a great story, worthy of Dickens.

Or something...

Craig said...

Nice lead, Jim. Very compelling. . .

And wow. . . the allegory. . . didn't see that at all. Thanks for pointing it out. . .

Shammickite said...

Them wuz the dayz, eh?
And you have an actual Square named after you? Wahhh that's impressive. You were more infamous than I give you credit for.

Hilary said...

So I've read it before.. and I'm still entertained. My younger son of today reminds me of the you of decades gone by. I'm both worried and reassured at the same time. ;)

Joanna Jenkins said...

All that AND a noise bleed! Sounds like you had a pretty, um, lively, youth. Thank gawd you lived to tell the story!