Hello, I Must Be Going
Hello, I Must Be Going
I have long considered myself a "recovering Catholic", but upon reading this I have decided that tonight, before I lay my head down to sleep, I will return to the faith and work the shine off a set of rosary beads in the hope of providing my poor, dear friend with the holy eternal reward he so richly deserves for enduring such extremes of humanity. I know I will need to re-read this at least two more times to fully process this. Holy fuck, man!
I just got back from Bluegrass in the Catskills, or as it should have been called, Bluegrass in a Weird David Lynch Movie. The event was sort of sparsely attended; it took place at the Nevele Grande hotel in the Catskills, once the premier Jewish resort, taken over by the mob in the 70s and now a low-level money laundering operation. The whole event drew maybe 200 people tops, and most were twice my age.
The food: disgusting. As a 60-year old man in an oversized baseball cap put it to me (in a deep Texas drawl that was nearly unintelligible) after a disgusting piece of fish was served, "That fish tasted like they took it out of the freezer, thawed it out till it was room tem-ture through n through, then re-froze it and re-thawed it 'fore servin it. Ah though ah's gonna get sick I et that." The prime rib was not prime at all; a mere 1/4" thick, it was more brown than pink and was definitely not tender enough to cut with a fork. It was probably British beef too; mobsters are always good about saving a buck even if it DOES mean giving their guests a healthy dose of Mad Cow Disease. In some ways I was lucky; I'm vegetarian by choice but can eat
meat if I have to (like this weekend). My bandmate Jennie Benford, who can't digest any form of meat, was forced tolive on the "vegetable of the day," which was invariably canned peas/carrots/green beans mixture.
The staff: frightening low-level mobsters. The maitre d' stood about 6' 5" at least and looked like a lowland gorilla dressed up like a 50-year old man: same posture, same gait as Mighty Joe Young. I watched two waiters come to the blody verge of a fistfight when another ran out yelling in heavily accented English, "Nut in frrront of zee guests, nut in frrront of zee guests!" I'm convinced the entire waitstaff had served time at Rikers at one point or another; for all I know that prime rib was really someone they wacked. Surely at least one was carrying a shiv, probably the guy that looked like the bastard offspring of Ricardo Montablan and Scarface.
Our debut show at the Nevele began around 8 PM for a crowd of maybe 10 geriatrics who acted as if death were a step away. the room was the "Harlequin Lounge," done up in deep synthetic maroon velvet that hadn't been updated since probably the late 60s. The tables in the lounge were a deep pink, and on each table there was a print of a court jester sitting Ghandhi-style playing with festive candy-striped ribbons. Each court jester print had a face remarkably similar to that of Richard Nixon. The walls of the room were lined with decaying harlequin statues ranging in size from 2' tall to about my height, 5' 7". Made of plaster of paris, most were missing noses or fingers, and the finger that seemed most like to remain was the middle finger. Everywhere I looked, I was being flipped the bird by court jesters with chalky white faces and painted-on eyes that were chipping off. I couldn't help but fantasize that they came to life late at night and quietly murdered guests.
The rest of the time, we played in the Fantasy Nightclub, which would have been more aptly titled the "Addressing a U. N. Committee Nightclub" since that seemed to be the architect's vision for the seating layout.
The pool was filled with a mix of 90% chlorine bleach, 10% water, and after a lap across, thought I had permanently damaged my eyes because all the liquid under my corneas had dried up. At one point I looked at the kid who was the lifeguard (of sorts, although I doubt he was certified by anyone other than his Uncle Tony) and said "Jesus, is the pool chlorinated enough," to which he responded by getting out of the pool, pointing at his brown shorts and saying "I'm not exagerating. These were black YESTERDAY."
The overall decor at the Nevele was cheesy 60's nouveau riche; once luxurious shag carpets with stains all over them, ugly brass and fake crystal chandeliers, bad impresionisst paintings of the great outdoors that would have made Bob Ross (the late pot-smoking afro-ed PBS painter who would say things like "Here's a happy little tree") cringe with embarassment. The room numbering was completely INSANE: 101, 102, 103, 405, 769, 8. It all seemed so random, until one of the other performers told me that when the place was an active mob hangout, the room numbers were deliberately disordered so the police would be hard pressed to break up gambling parties or find illegally gotten goods stashed away. And the rooms themselves were also tweaked: for instance, the hot and cold water were on the wrong sides of the faucet. The heat had been off for so long that when the room finally warmed up, long dormant flies and ladybugs began buzzing around.
We met a truly great band: if you hear they are playing in your area, go see The Karl Shiflett and Big Country Show (sorry, no link yet). They are probably the best bluegrass band I have ever seen in the past 5 years. In comparison to Jim and Jennie and the Pinetops, who I was playing with at the time, Shifflett and co outdressed us, outplayed us, and put on the best show ever. They're the kind of band that makes abluegrass fan go f-ing nuts and makes a nonbluegrass fan into a bluegrass fan. And they are even bigger bluegrass nazis than I am, if you can believe that.
A man of about 50 cornered me at our sales table; he hadn't yet bought new clothes to fit his pudgy middle-aged frame, and his buttons were about to burst. The conversation that ensued began with bluegrass, and then he made an abrupt exit onto the "Doesn't Have Anything to Do with Anything Highway."
"Y'know, this coffee is terrible. It wasn't hard for me to quit coffee because the Chockful of Nuts store downstairs from my office closed years ago and that's where i used to get all my coffee because they were the only ones who didn't make it too strong or too light but just right and they knew how much cream and sugar I liked and everyone used to go down there at least 3 times a day but not me, I'd only go down once a day because they knew how to make my coffee right, not too dark or too heavy but then when they closed it was easy to quit because I really didn't drink too much to begin with." At first I thought he was just lonely, but during another band's set, I watched him talking to his wife incessantly while she actively ignored him.
Then there were the Grillbillies, a unique Northeast phenomenon. The Grillbillies are basically 40s-ish hippies, and their kids. they go to bluegrass festivals year round, and seem to spend most of their time going to bluegrass festivals, getting drunk and eating. [In the interest of disclosure: I am counted as a Grillbilly myself, and regardless of the insanity, they are wonderful people. My first experience with them was actually at a festival 2 years before, when I wandered into their campsite at 3:00 AM as drunk as I have ever been. I heard a voice from the darkness that said, "Buddy, you look drunk. Some food'll sober you up. If you look in that pot on the table, you'll find fresh crab legs." "Crvaaaaabbbb," I gurgled and shuffled over and began gorging on crustacean.] The head Grillbilly at the Nevele was a stocky and gregarious guy named Matty, who had a beautifully cared for jet black mullet and was getting by on about 3 hours of sleep a night. "I'm one of those 'crazy partiers'," he told us (which made us all cringe initially; there is nothing worse than someone who titles themselves "kooky" or "crazy." To Matty's credit, his self-proclaimed kookiness is an accurate description. Matty knows how to party). "I've been getting by on so little sleep by taking a cold shower every 3-4 hours and constantly changing my clothes."
At one point, I watched the Grillbillies host a thong-race in the Nevelle's abandoned gymnasium which was also unheated. There were 4 contestants: a morbidly obese woman, her very-hot 19 year old daughter, her very-hot 34 year old daughter, and a man about the size and weight of Hulk Hogan, also sporting a beautiful mullet. The general idea was to race across the gym with your pants around your ankles in a thong. As Hulk Hogan dropped trou (yes he was wearing a thong), the 19 year old pointed out that
you couldn't see the bit of underwear, and tried to tuck in his shirt. "Fuck that," grumbled the Hulkster, and removed his shirt. That's when one of the onlookers (not me, unfortunately) shouted out "Hey, even-stevens. If he's gonna take off his shirt you ladies should too," at which point the 34-year-old let out a whoop and then she was naked, and racing across the gym, boobies jiggling in the frigid air. At som point during the weekend, the Grillbillies have decided we were their new best friends, which is actually a good thing; they may be insane but they're really loyal fans. And they get you really drunk.
Yes, there was something for everyone, from milquetoasty New England bands that would put a speed freak in the middle of a week-long Dexedrine binge to sleep, to super traditional bands that kicked ass, to The Carters, a family band made up of a Dad and his 5 children, who ranged in age from 9 to 19. Ever since we had seen their flyers at a festival Kentucky the previous November, we'd wanted to play with them, mainly because as you can see, in their photo one band member is of indeterminate gender sporting the most beautiful mullet haircut i have EVER seen in my life, waving nobly like a lion's mane in a brisk desert scirocco. We had taped their photo to the wall of our RV and labeled the kid "It Carter". The photo was hypnotic; I traveled many miles silently staring at the promo shot. For a while I though it was just me, until I noticed both Jim and Jennie at various times, staring silently, rapt by the curious face of It Carter.
The 9 year old was like a little Jon Benet Ramsey, running around the stage, dancing, singing, playing fiddle and piano. The
fiddle playing was actually really good, but I couldn't watch-- the idea of trained performing children disturbs me in the same way trained chimps riding bicycles disturb me. Jim told me late they dragged out an electric piano so she could play "The Entertainer" (you know, the theme from The Sting), which she did badly.
The 11 year old daughter looked like Jabba the Hutt, clad in tight leggings, a leather jacket and a hairstyle straight out of 1987. Think Big Hair, then multiply by powers of 10. The photo doesn't do her justice. Her mother later told me her daughter's nickname is "The Pitbull" because of her difficult temperament. They did a bluegrass version of the Smokey Robinson hit "Something Tells Me I'm Into
Something Good." My ears told me I was hearing something bad.
IT turned out to be a 13 year old boy named Frank, and he'd apparently been offered a 2 million dollar deal (I can't remember the exact amount) because of his guitar playing, and he'd turned it down because "he didn't want to go that
route." By the time we met him, he'd gotten a much better haircut.
Nonetheless, i made friends with the 19-year-old and the 17 year-old daughters who were obviously bored and itching to get away from their old man (also they were nice to look at, but that's gettng into scary pedo-territory, so I'll leave that be. They're of age now, so i don't ned to feel like a "Barely Legal" reader anymore). Their music was terrible; their sense of fashion was awesome. The daughters wore matching scarlet bellbottom jeans, leather jackets, and chunk heel boots. If you have seen my former band, than you probably know the all-purpose "fuck you" pout Jennie gets on her face on stage sometimes when she's playing mandolin. The mando-playing daughter wore that expression THE WHOLE SET. She actually turned out to be really cool for a teenager, and her facial expression really did kinda sum up her whole attitude.
The Shifletts wanted to kill them for being so lame. So I brought them up to the Shiflett's room to pick with the rest of us. The result was not pretty, but was very funny; let's just say the Shiflett's mandolin player was less than impressed with a 13 year old guitar player who felt he he had to play EVERY SINGLE NOTE HE KNEW AS FAST AS HE COULD PLAY 'EM. Bluegrass fans, think Tony Rice on amphetamines with the attendant bad taste. Eventually the Carters packed up their instruments and left the Shifflett's suiter for bed, and no sooner had the door shut when the Shifflett's mandolin player piped up "Mah God, Ah'm glad they left when they did. Ah don't think I coulda stood another second of that awful TONY RICE BULLSHIT.
I could go on, and probably will sometime in the future; these paragraphs
simply can't do justice to the freakshow that took up 5 days of my life.
Despite all the weirdness (or perhaps because of it) I had a simply
wonderful, if exhausting, time. A few of you all have experienced the
unique subculture of the bluegrass festival before (Claiborne); for the rest
of you, I hope I have provided a little window into a hitherto unexplored