For reasons that only a psychoanalyst at the top of her game could divine, I awoke this morning thinking about the blue-haired lady who hired my bluegrass band for a gig at the San Mateo Elks Lodge back in 1979. She was the wife of the top Elk guy, the Supreme Bull, which would make her, I guess, the First Cow, and she was in charge of all logistics for the annual picnic held at a county park in the foothills above San Mateo. As such, she was responsible for hiring the entertainment and somehow she came across a Grass Menagerie card. I don’t remember a whole lot about the job; the pay was terrible and BBQ chicken was served and the band members were invited to partake, AFTER the guests had been served. But the one thing I remember explicitly, and the thing that popped into my head this morning lying in bed, was how Mrs. Cow rushed up to me immediately after our first set and how, with breathless agitation and impatience, informed me that the line for lunch would soon be forming and that ‘you four boys need to ‘police the area’ as quickly as possible. “’Police’” I asked? “Yes, you know, go around and pick up discarded paper cups, napkins, just anything you see on the ground or picnic tables. This entire area is a frightful mess. Now hurry along.” And then she was gone, off to give last minute instructions to the grillers of chicken parts or some such thing. Since the three other ‘young boys’ had been less than enthusiastic about playing the Elks gig in the first place, I decided I’d do the policing myself. Which I did, to the great amusement of my band mates. This show biz experience has stayed with me all these years, as have a few others that bubbled up during my Tuesday morning snoozing. (Yes, Tuesday morning snoozing. Ain’t retirement grand?)
There was the time up at a very nice winery in the Santa Cruz Mountains when, half way through the second verse of ‘There Ain’t Nobody Gonna Miss Me When I’m Gone’ a meat bee flew inside my Hawaiian shirt. I didn’t stop singing but I did completely lose the beat on the stand up bass while I tried, and ultimately succeeded, in squashing the bee by pounding Tarzan-like on my chest. Succeeded, that is, only after she/he stung me. Within moments I had a welt just below my right nipple the size of a golf ball. The owner of the winery gave me a wonderful bottle of Shiraz for bravery beyond the call of duty. (I think he was afraid I was going to sue him.)
In terms of actual physical endangerment the meat bee incident couldn’t hold a candle to the night the GM played a gig at the Wooden Nickel in Mountain View. The Nickel, as it was called, had a years-old, South Bay-wide reputation as a rough and tumble biker bar, but when I got a call from the new owner, a guy named Bobby Garcia, he said that had all changed. “I’m turning the place around,” he said, “want to make it a major new venue for acoustic music. No more rock. With a higher class music we’ll draw a higher class crowd.” Once again it was me coaxing the other three into playing the job. I repeated what the new owner said, with, granted, a few embellishments. “Let’s just give it a shot,” I urged, “how bad could it be?” The answer to my rhetorical question was, of course, much, much worse than we four could have imagined. What the new owner hadn’t told me was that: 1) the higher class crowd had not yet gotten word of the higher class music and 2) the current crowd, bikers every one, hadn’t been informed that bluegrass had replaced rock and roll. In fairness to Bobby, he’d absolutely guaranteed our safety and took the appropriate measures; a cyclone fence cage had been constructed around the stage; there was even a little trap door on one side for the waitress to pass us comped glasses of beer. Not a single bottle or shard of glass made it through the steel mesh, but we four smelled like a brewery by 2:00 a.m. from the bottom-of-bottle suds that did make it through.
(Okay, Ed, time for your coffee break.)
Undoubtedly the most life threatening gig I played was the annual wild boar roast held each summer, way, way, way back in the foothills along southeast San Jose. When I say way, way, way back I’m talking 12 miles of dirt road into some very wild terrain. They, a loosely organized group of wild boar hunters/rugby players and their wives/girlfriends, hired us two years in a row to provide the music for this crazy event. They hauled out a generator for the sound system, a crude stage on wheels and one porta pottie—that was IT in the way of ‘facilities’. As the night wore on massive amounts of pig and cold beer were consumed, there was dancing and more than a little hooting and hollering, all in the dark save for a half moon and a few creosol torches. Standing on stage I noticed that the line at the porta pottie was growing longer and longer, mostly with women. The men tended to just wander out into the forest. After a third set, one that lasted close to 90 minutes, I took one look at the line to the privy and, being in great need of relief, decided I’d head into the forest. Rather than wade through the crowd in front of the stage I decided to step off the back of the platform, not knowing of course that the rolling stage had been parked on the ledge of a canyon. My first foot down hit solid ground, my second, thin air, and I tumbled forward into the darkness and underbrush, head over heels. I rolled and I rolled and I rolled and nobody heard me screaming above the din of the crowd, and certainly nobody saw me in the darkness. When I reached the bottom of the canyon I lay silently for a moment. I was taking inventory. I could feel all my body parts and miraculously not of them were hurting much. I could feel some cuts and scratches but there was no serious blood. I stood up and shook myself off. No damage, I remember thinking. (Remembering back, I have to believe the beer I’d drunk leading up to the mishap must have helped with my relatively soft landing.) Overall I felt okay, but then, turning and looking up the hill toward the source of the dim lights and far away crowd noise, I realized how far I’d come down….and how far I’d have to climb back up. In the dark. The Grass Menagerie played half of our last set without me. I’m sure that by then no one noticed.
So now I’m about to gain full consciousness, awakened because the dogs, the younger two of the three (Alex, alas, is now too old to jump on the bed), are licking my face, when a final episode courses through my yawning neurons. It’s 1998 and I get a phone call from my friend, Brooks Judd. There’s a gig that’s come up and his regular band, the Fog Valley Drifters can’t play it. It’s a grand. A GRAND! $1,000. (For those of you who don’t do bluegrass gigs, this is like a lot of money.) Brooks’ idea is to put together a pick up band (he on bass, me on fiddle and vocals, Elena Corey, guitar and vocals and Ken Vander Kieft mandolin and vocals).
“No banjo”, I ask?
“No”, he says, “don’t need one. We’d be playing for a bunch of people who’ve never heard bluegrass music, who don’t even know what it is. Bigger cuts that way. But there’s one catch.” (How many times have I heard that phrase in connection with making decent money?)
“And what might that be,” I ask?
“Well,” he hems and haws, “Edgar, the man who’s hiring us, wants us to play a special song for the party. It’s his mother’s 90th birthday.”
“So, where’s the catch….doesn’t sound like a catch to me. Bands always get asked to play a special song or two at a birthday party.
“Well,’ says Brooks, “this is a little different. The song he wants isn’t really a bluegrass song. Or a folk song. Or even a country song. It’s Spanish Harlem.”
Now keep in mind that 1998, though not pre-Internet, was certainly infancy-Internet, and it took us two weeks of traipsing through record stores before we found a recording of the song. (Just now I googled them in less than five second.) In any event, we got the recording, transcribed the lyrics and spe