The Fabulous Surf Aces play a gig on Long Island, but it doesn't pan out as expected.
The Gig at The End of The World
Presley E. Acuna
"We're driving, we're driving through the Valley of Malls", I sang.
"What the fuck is that?" asked Merc, turning to look at me.
"Band I like, Fountains of Wayne. And this."
"Look out the window, man."
Suburban homes winked by, their windows flashing blue from the glow of television sets. The road stretched into the distance, illuminated by the headlights of an endless caravan of cars, coming from and racing to somewhere, anywhere, nowhere. White lights, red lights. A green sign floated by, announcing the arrival of Exit 37 and several anonymous towns. All Greek to me. Ahead, the silvery glow of another shopping mall beckoned.
It might as well be Pluto.
The gig had come out of nowhere. Well, not nowhere. Mike had gotten the call. An old promoter friend, Ralphy. To be perfectly honest, I wondered about any promoter named Ralphy, but I kept quiet about that. Ralphy had told Mike we would be televised. Some Long Island cable station. That's all I knew. Strangely, that's all anybody knew. But it was enough to get us interested. And so, here we were on a Saturday night, surf-o-nauts adventuring in the great, suburban beyond, boldly cruising through the nowhere.
"Gib's right, man", said Thaddeus from the front seat. He had his shoes off and feet propped up on the dashboard. "Just exit signs and shopping malls as far as the eye can see."
"Are we lost?" asked Merc, suddenly looking panicked.
"Almost there", answered Mike casually, as he flicked the turn signal and maneuvered the van into the right lane. "That's the exit up ahead."
"But it doesn't say Farmingdale." worried Merc.
"Don't worry.", answered Mike vaguely, as he tried to make out the road signs.
"Now we just gotta find The World", I said. The World. That's what it was called. On Main Street.
We drove into what was supposed to be the town of Farmingdale, but looked more like a ghetto of gas stations, 7-11's, and car dealerships. Very dead.
"Which one's Main Street?" wondered Thaddeus. "There's no fucking street signs."
"Guess everyone just knows", answered Mike.
"Since no one from the outside world ever comes here", sniped Merc, with a chuckle.
After getting lost a couple of times, we finally found the joint along a deserted stretch of what used to be the center of town. It was easy to see what had happened. Once a thriving commercial district, now a forgotten relic in the shadow of the low slung, hard edged, environmentally controlled and food courted contours of the valley of malls. The town was trying to revive the stretch, with quaint street lamps and colorful banners hung along the curving road, but it was all in vain.
And there it was. The World. A big, fat bar. We pulled into the back.
"Oh man, fuck me! There's cowboys painted on the wall", said Merc.
"Relax, dude. It is what it is and that's all there is to it. Let's just get inside and find out what the deal is." I said authoritatively. Merc seemed content with my circular advice.
As soon as Mike parked the van, several individuals approached us.
"Here comes the posse." said Thaddeus with a sarcastic grin.
We spilled out, hitching our jeans.
"We're the Surf Aces", said Mike, simply, to the dude in the lead.
"Cool. You wanna bring your gear through here", answered the pug-like stranger. "I'm Doug. I work with Ralphy."
A little more small talk and then we started to unload into the back entrance. Another band was doing the same. The drummer from the other band, a tall, black dude with acres of dreadlocks, was wrestling with a huge stack of Pearl shells. There must've been ten of'em. I nodded to him, as all fellow drummers must do, and lugged my three piece cocktail set through the doors. He nodded back and raised an eyebrow at my kit. For the first time in the Surf Aces adventure, I felt embarrassment at the size of my gear. Out here, size mattered, it seemed.
The inside of the club was cool and dry. And vast. After all, size matters. All the walls were painted black. A huge stage. A substantial dance floor made of polished wood, with disco lights flickering away on the reflective surface. Rock-n-roll, and I'm talking tail-finned, Chevy thunder, pounded in the air. High up above the dance floor, the DJ, skinny and snide, face illuminated by cue lights, considered his next musical selection from the vantage of his booth.
About 20 people, max, were draped along the football field sized bar.
"Put your gear in the corner, over there.", said Doug. There was a room for equipment, I could see, but it was already filled to the rafters with the other band's gear.
From out of the shadows, a goateed, long haired, beret wearing patron of The World approached us. "Hey, are you the Surf Aces?"
"Looks that way", answered Merc with barely a glance at the guy, as he laid down an amp and went back outside to get more of our gear.
I was suddenly left holding a floor tom and standing alone with our new admirer. He extended his hand. "Caleb."
"How do. Gib."
"Hey man, it's great to meet you guys! I really love your music. I saw you guys play in Jersey last year. Drove all the way from Freeport to see you guys tonight."
You can't be serious. "Hey, that's great. Hope you like the set."
"Do you guys need any help?" he asked. He bounced on his heels with eagerness. Clearly, this cat was unhinged.
"No, that's OK." I answered, putting down the floor tom in the designated corner. I walked away quickly, trying to be rude as politely as I could.
Back outside, Mike was hovering at the van. He smiled and handed me some tom-toms. "So what's the sitch in there?"
"The sitch, old pal, is oh so fucking strange." I answered. Mike laughed.
"Tell me something, have we ever played in Jersey?"
Mike shrugged. "I dunno. Maybe."
I was about to tell Mike about our fan, when a voice interrupted us.
"Can I bring this in?" It was Caleb. Before I could make my mouth move again, he was on his way back inside carrying one of our amps.
Mike watched him go with an expression of bemusement. "Who the hell is that?"
"A fan. Maybe the fan. The place is empty, man. Hope he doesn't walk out the front door with your amp."
Mike waved the thought away. "Nah. He's a believer."
"He was wearing a crucifix."
So with Caleb's unsolicited assistance, we piled our three amps, guitars and the cocktail kit in the assigned corner.
"Is that all your stuff?" asked Doug, who had re-appeared. He seemed disappointed.
"When's the first band on?" asked Mike, ignoring Doug's question.
"About an hour."
Ralphy had instructed us to arrive by 10 PM and that we would be on at 11 but plainly that was not going to be the way it played out.
"Guess we're early." said Merc. "Where's the bar?"
Doug handed us some drink tickets and we ambled off. I ordered a tequila.
As I turned to survey the room again, Caleb was there, now accompanied by another crucifix wearing cohort. I tried to travel my eyes past them but they extended their hands and came closer.
"Gib, this is Greg."
"Great to meet you!"
"Thanks." I necked the tequila.
A few seconds of silence. Well, aside from the dinosaur poundings from the DJ booth.
"We're in a band too." announced Greg.
"Yeah? What's the name?"
"Cool name. What's it mean?"
"It comes from the 40th psalm, you know, 'He made firm my steps and put a new song into my mouth'" Greg looked proud of himself.
"Uh, yeah, I know." The room suddenly pressed in.
"We play Christian Alternative Rock." added Caleb. Both he and Greg looked at me with shining, doe-like eyes.
I swiveled to face the bar again.
The bartendress, a sharp looking babe, wearing a wry, amused grin at my predicament, was at the ready.
The first band was a Swedish Psychobilly trio, sporting Mohawks and biceps and one huge wall of noise. The bass player played an upright, which was a bit of a twist. Merc had one too and from time to time would cart it out, but it wasn't our main thing. We liked portability. They smiled, they joked, they slapped the strings and pounded the skins. They played "Smoke on the Water." Psychobilly style. Got me there. That was a new one.
I looked over at my band-mates. Caleb and co. had migrated over to Thaddeus and Mike. Mike was conversing with them, friendly as usual. Mike was good at that. He had one of our CD's out and was evidently autographing it for Caleb. Thaddeus sipped at his Rum and Coke and looked on. He caught my eye. He shook his head in disdain at the music. For him, it was just a long wait until his moment on the stage. It occurred to me that his whole life might be defined that way. No, not just that. He liked to surf too.
Finally that was over. Now we had to wait out the change of equipment, sound checks and song lists of the second act, The Ghost Writhers in the Sky. As I necked down a bottle of beer, someone plopped down on the stool beside me and gave me a friendly shove. I looked over. A beefy countenance smiled dopily at me. He was covered in light plaster dust.
"I never been here before." he declared.
"And...?" I tried.
He slugged back a draught of beer and banged the bottle on the bar. I thought he might be preparing to hurt me. Instead he changed the subject.
"How long this place been open?"
Jeezus. I looked the guy straight in the eye. "I don't fuckin' know."
It got worse. I decided to keep moving along the bar. Another local wanted to talk about how great Steve Ray Vaughn was. I stifled a yawn.
"What kinda music do you play?" he asked eagerly.
"Surf? What's that?"
I pondered hi-tailing it out of there and forgetting about the fifty bucks I was due for this night of deep and witty conversation. Strangely, my thoughts of lost earnings were echoed by some angry talk not far from where I was sidling.
"I want my fucking money back!" shouted someone. It was Caleb. He was yelling at Ralphy, who looked like he was about to pile drive Caleb's head into his neck.
"These are NOT The Surfaces!" He raised the CD Mike had signed and given him to Ralphy's face. "This CD is a SURF band, The Surf ACES! You swindled us. The Surfaces are a Christian SKA band."
Ralphy growled back, "Never heard of'em. These guys are the Surf Aces right here. If you don't like it, leave."
"I want a refund."
"Don't hold your breath, buddy. No refunds."
"God will see to your justice."
"Yeah? How about if I see to my own justice and stick that crucifix up your ass right now in front of your friends?"
Caleb glared and jutted his jaw at Ralphy's large frame. Ralphy glared back, eyes atwinkle with a certain eagerness. Eventually Caleb backed down, muttering all manner of curses on Ralphy and his progeny. He and his Christian cohorts wandered away, but not without casting a disparaging glance at me, who happened to be the only Surf Ace in sight at the moment. I wondered if I should fear for my soul.
Ralphy shook his head and laughed. Spying me at the bar, he ambled over to say hello.
"So you're the drummer." It was a statement. I decided not to argue.
"You must be Ralph."
"Call me Ralphy."
Ralph, a.k.a, Ralphy, I realized, was the flesh and blood spitting image of Fred Flintstone in his younger, greasier days. The dude had the face and the build, plus a thick pair of mutton chops, a T-shirt, a Hawaiian shirt hanging open over the T-shirt, chains (more of an 80's thing but, whatever), a tattoo, and a cigarette slung behind his ear. But most of all, F.F.'s face. Perfect. From there I sprang to Ralph Kramden. Ralphy was that Ralph too, in a pompadourish, chain smoking kinda way. The eyes were right. They gave it all away. He was actually a very sweet guy, I knew with sudden certainty, like Ralph the Kramden-meister. A nice guy trying to be tough. Trying to get ahead. Getting tangled in one bad deal after another. The World was just the latest one. I felt like hugging Ralphy, now that I had guessed the whole, sad game. Instead I lit a cigarette.
"Nice to meet ya."
Ralph cocked his head at the Christians. "Did you get a load of that?"
"He's an idiot." I agreed. I changed the subject and asked about the video thing, and got a circumspect reply. Ralphy's eyes wandered the bar. Mike came over to join us. He and Ralphy talked about the Swedish Mohawk boys for awhile. Eventually the twelve piece second act was ready, all of them clad in dark shirts, black ties, chino suits, goatees and dark glasses. Ralphy eventually excused himself and melted into the shadows.
Thaddeus sat in the corner with Merc, both looking glum. The 20 patrons we had counted when we first arrived had become 15.
"Should we just leave?" I asked Mike, who laughed at my question. He didn't seem fazed by the evening's escapades at all.
The 12 piece was a Ska band, as it turned out. Now that's what you call synchronicity. Perhaps that was Caleb's mistake. His enraptured mind must have blurred the two acts together when he encountered the ad. Too much holy water, I decided.
The Writhers weren't too bad. Very loud, very professional. Lots of coordinated jumping around to the choppy beats, a certain cleverness in the lyrics and song choices. A cut above the Mohawk brothers.
I ordered another tequila.
I had been talking with a garlic breathed pal of Ralphy's, discussing his divorce -- he seemed to consider this to be a very interesting subject - when it was finally our time. By now the place was a ghost town. Or should I say, a cemetery.
It didn't take us long to set up. Ralphy and his sound man twiddled knobs and ran cables. The video camera was there too. It was Ralphy's home camcorder.
Thaddeus put on his sunglasses and fez, a sure sign that he fully planned to be in his own world for this one. Merc looked back at me and smiled a sinister smile. He loved to play and he shared my enthusiasm for coordinating bass and drums into a true rhythm section. I had to admit that, despite the distinct lack of an audience, just the fact that we were going to have a chance to play loudly was a boost to the spirits.
I tried out my skins. The tequilas made me bold and I was feeling snappy. A couple of paradiddles and a syncopated flam on the snare. A bouncy roll along the toms. A solid back beat on the bass drum. I danced along the cymbals, trying various rhythms and voicings. I was on and it sounded good. Mike and Thaddeus gave me approving looks.
Ralphy's sound man came to the stage and announced us. The handful of people who remained were either real surf music fans or Ralphy's friends. The applause, although sparse, was enthusiastic. One guy with a bleached blond 'do, looked exactly like one of those super-marionation puppets from the old British program, The Thunderbirds. He even had the dimpled chin and square jaw. A very pretty woman in a white dress beamed at us and bounced in anticipation of our first number.
We started with "Exodus", an old anthem from the movie of the same name, rendered to a bouncy Ska-like beat. It was a punchy opening which set the tone and even provided a little transition from the last act.
The audience loved it. Girl-in-white-dress was propelled onto the dance floor and whirled around alone. Eye candy.
We moved right into "Pipeline", a danger-surf number with an irresistible, plucked mystery-motif on the guitar accompanied by cymbals and bass line, which after two bars, broke into a straight 4 beat and high ringing melody. It was pure cool. The Thunderbird and the White Dress were totally in touch with it. Everyone else just sat there and glumly drank their Budweisers.
And so it went. We blasted out one song after another, in smooth succession. We were sounding good, despite hours of loitering around. I guess it was the pent up energy and frustration of not being able to play all night, and probably the fact we were all a little tipsy by now.
I became lost in the swirl of sound and rhythm. We were just about to break into "The Rise and Fall of Flingel Bunt", a real swingin' sixties, andy-warhol-happening kinda tune when Ralphy waved us down from our performance trance and sliced a finger across his neck.
"That's enough, guys."
We stopped and realized that, except for the bartenders and Ralphy's contingent, there was no one in the club. Our surf fans had left somewhere along the way. The Christians were long gone. The place was dead.
"Well, I guess that's it." said Mike matter of factly, not wasting any time in collecting his pedals and gear.
"We better fucking get paid." answered Merc under his breath.
"Wouldn't be surprised if we don't. I've seen it all, man." replied Thaddeus.
I felt premature. We were just getting to that sublime next level of performance Zen, where everyone is connected, band and audience alike, and the place would have normally started to groove as one multi-headed life form. But there was no audience. And with a gesture, Ralphy had evicted us.
"The drummer's life for me." I said, and began to pack my things.
We got paid. Mike had to search for Ralphy, who had been hiding, but he found him and Ralphy came clean. He found the ergs to put on a promoter face and glad-handed us all the way to the van. He promised bigger and better and stuck his head into the van to make eye contact with each of us.
I shut my eyes. I was too tired.
"That place is Chapter 11 for sure." drawled Merc as soon as Ralphy slammed the van door shut.
"No shit." answered Mike, putting the van into gear.
And so, we, the Fabulous Surf Aces, drove off, in search of Manhattan.