Rock and roll band first club gig at a private Italian bar in the woods of New York state.
|I was out of High School a whole six months and had recently turned 18 when we got the call from Gerry. Saint Christopher, the band named after my brother Chris, was now playing together (alright, not so together) since the famous Battle of the Bands at Maywood NJ Elementary School. My older brother Stephan was in a real band named “Sun” that played five nights a week at big name clubs. We wanted more gigs and he wanted to help.
We were the little brothers that he and his band adopted. They named us St. Christopher and the Irritations and we supplied the fuel for an endless set of sarcastic jokes. I think they were jealous that we did whatever we wanted and didn’t care where we played. Looking back Stephan was the ‘Chosen One,’ at least according to our father. He was a badminton playing President of the Honor Society in High School and now he was the ringleader of his band. He needed the attention and he knew helping us would get him that from both his band and Chris and me.
Stephan had a booking agent named Gerry who put Sun into some really famous big clubs. What I didn’t know was Gerry would book any club he could make money from. Behind the scenes Gerry had appealed to Stephan for a band that he could book into venues no one else would take. As a favor to Gerry, Stephan volunteered St. Christopher knowing that we would play anywhere.
Stephan called us. “Gerry is going to call you with a club for you to play. Don’t mess this up. You have to show up on time or he won’t see you. If he asks you to get pizza then he likes you.” He went on and on.
“Alright, alright.” I wanted to get off the phone so I could go tell Chris and everybody that we might have a real booking agent.
The next night Gerry called.
“Milton!” screamed Freddy. “Some guy named Gerry is on the phone”.
I ran downstairs to the pale green rotary dial phone. Slowly it hit me that Gerry was the agent Stephan had told me about. It was really going to happen. “Hello”, I answered meekly into the phone. I didn’t want to mess this up. I was on best behavior.
“This is Gerry and your brother Stephan said you had a good band. I book bands into clubs in New York State. I have a really good gig for a great band. I want to meet you first. Come up to see me at my house?” He talked fast and without any breaks.
I was stunned. Thoughts of Stephan’s band ‘Sun’ playing at huge clubs with young dressy people dancing were going through my head. Stephan had told me to be cool. Stephan’s band always made fun of us and called us St. Christopher and the Irritations. And now they were helping? A booking agent and maybe we would get steady jobs. Say the right thing!
“Sure – Uh, I think we can come up.” I answered. “When are you thinking?”
“Come Monday at 7:30 sharp. I might have a job for you next weekend. And bring the whole band.” He hung up. His orders were clear and firm, a little intimidating to a young guy new in the business like me.
I called Stephan right away. “Gerry called us and wants to meet us.”
“He needs bands all the time because he books a lot of places. Show up on time and don’t say anything stupid.” And that was Stephan’s inside tip. I was really thankful he had gone to bat for us.
I ran across the street to find Harold and tell him the news about Gerry. I caught him looking in his bedroom mirror practicing his Mick Jagger lips as he turned with his practiced head flip swinging his bangs out of his eyes. I have to admit that his Mick Jagger imitation was really good and he held nothing back. Harold was sure it was because of his singing and dancing even though Gerry had never seen us perform.
I called Mark and he was practicing his piano at home. I told him and he wanted to know if we could play our music or did we have to do ‘Top 40’. Mark was a Rod Stewart look-a-like who dressed like a British rock and roller. His father, also a musician, had given him a Gremlin with a hatchback so he could carry his electric piano around. Mark rocked side to side swinging his Stewart-esque peacock hair while he played. His singing, while below average, was really enthusiastic. He knew or could fake almost any song ever written. He was always ready to get high and chase girls who thought his extreme English rocker style was cute.
When I called Russ he didn’t say anything. Then again, he never said anything. He was the only drummer who would even show up to play with us. As long as he could keep a beat, he was in. I was fine with him but Harold thought he was creepy. And maybe he was. I just thought he was sheltered.
And of course Chris was certain he ‘was the greatest and fastest guitar player alive’ as he put it.
I had pictured Gerry for a well-dressed hip agent with long hair and a foreign car, a real rock and roller. We had imagined a lot about him and all of us were really excited about this chance to have a professional agent. And then we met Gerry and I could feel a million dreams disappear. A short, fat whining Jewish man in a cheap suit met us at the door. At first I thought he was cross-eyed because Gerry never looked you in the eye. It was quickly apparent that he would only dislike a band that didn’t show up. Gerry probably would have approved us even if we were fresh out of prison. All he wanted was a band that would show up and be good enough to get him paid. He told us he got 10% and asked if we wanted to go out for pizza. Pizza was good.
Over pizza, Gerry told us about this great place called Little Joe’s where we could play this weekend and probably play every Friday and Saturday night if the club owners liked us. Smiles wrapped around all of our faces. We had our first real club gig and this was going to be so much fun.
The next Friday afternoon we packed the cars with equipment and headed up 9W along the Hudson River to Little Joe’s. I drove the Austin Mini Moke. It is one of those cars that you see the Caribbean islanders driving around in at resorts. It had no sides and no heater and we were driving through the New York winter, but it had a big enough back to hold all of my bass amplifiers and Chris’ amplifier. Mark had his Gremlin hatchback packed full with his Acetone organ and Fender amplifier. Russ and Harold both had old Chevys. Russ’ was full of drums and Harold’s was full of girls.
A little under an hour later our caravan arrived. Little Joe’s sat on Highway 9W less than a mile over the New York state line with just enough room for head-in parking out front. There was a lake behind the bar and a small sign outside that said “Little Joe’s” and underneath that “Topless Dancing.” A topless club? That was the first omission from Gerry’s sales pitch.
We walked in and met the surly bartender who immediately explained that the lake was used for people who didn’t make Little Joe’s Italian owners happy. He also told us that we had to play “I Got the Whole World in My Hands” while their star attraction, Patsy, sang. We would meet Patsy later. We had no idea how to play ”I Got the Whole World in my Hands”. The stage was so small we couldn’t set up the drums and fit all of us on it at one time. Harold and I decided to stand on the dance floor while we played. We were to start at 8:00 PM and do five sets of forty minutes on and twenty off.
About quarter to eight a rotund woman of generous proportions came up to the stage and introduced herself as Patsy. She was wearing all chartreuse from her thong and sheer cover-up to the prominent tassels dangling from the top of her mountains. I hoped my cheeks weren’t really red.
“Hi, I’m Patsy. I’m going to sing ‘I Got the Whole World in my Hands’ at the beginning of your second set and maybe later too. You know that song right?” I turned away while Harold leaned over Mark to get a good look. We all nodded yes.
Mark turned on what he thought of as his business side. “That will be great and we can do it.” He ended up sounding sarcastic and he never looked at her face.
I figured Mark must know it and how hard could it be. Patsy jiggled away as the row rough Italians at the bar stared at us with what could only be described as disgust. They wanted Patsy, not Mick Jagger.
We opened with a song by Traffic and were greeted with hundreds of four letter words, beer bottles and glasses. We settled down and finished our first set not knowing if we would live through the night. We discussed sneaking out right away but couldn’t figure out how without leaving the equipment behind.
Patsy began our second set with her ‘I Got the Whole World in My Hands’ song and, boy, was it a treat! I didn’t know how to play it so I turned my volume off and pretended. Patsy managed to make the tassels attached to each mammoth water balloon breasts do perfect circles in opposite directions as she belted out ”I Got The Whole World In My Hands” over and over again. On top of this, Patsy smelled so bad your eyes would water when she came near. The audience loved it and Patsy introduced us as “good boys” so they stopped throwing so much stuff at us.
The rest of the night we drank up all our pay right along with the crowd. Usually I would have still had a couple dollars more than the rest of them because I never really liked alcohol. Not tonight though. Little Joe’s charged $1 for every coke whether it had rum in it or not. Soda had been free everywhere else we played.
1:00am came and we had a quick meeting to decide if we should come back for Saturday night. If we quit we had to pack up everything. After some deliberation we left our equipment because we decided to play Saturday night so we would get paid. We headed for our usual after show eatery, Charcoal Corners. It was a New Jersey twenty-four hour Greek diner and the band and our friends always met up there around 2:00 AM after a gig or a night out. All we could talk about was Patsy and Little Joe’s and whether or not we should ever go back. Sitting there, eating breakfast and laughing about the insane adventure we just shared, it didn’t seem so bad. Our friends decided they wanted to see it for themselves so we agreed to one more night.
Our friends thought it was cool and invited themselves up. Ritchie wanted to know if he could play congas with us and I wholeheartedly said yes. Ritchie was three years older than me but we graduated together because he dropped out so many times. He also happened to be 6’3”, 220 pounds of Polish rock, and loved live music. This was getting good.
Saturday night was a repeat of Friday except that we knew what we were getting into and now we looked at Little Joe’s as a crazy adventure for us and our friends. We also felt good about having a gig where our friends could come and see us, and they did. Having our friends there made it more fun sharing this scary bar and smelly Patsy.
Ritchie had played cowbell and congas with us and everyone had a great time. I don’t think we played any music that the regulars liked but Patsy seemed OK with us. When we left Little Joes early Sunday morning we figured that we would never see that place again.
On Monday, to our surprise, Gerry called and told us that Little Joe’s wanted us back. We were shocked because all the regulars screamed at us and acted like they wanted to drown us in the dark misty lake out back. It seems Patsy thought we were cute and we played “I Got the Whole World in My Hands” to her liking. And what Patsy wanted Patsy got.
The following Friday and Saturday were more of the same and I even got a nickname from the crowd: “Porcupine.” I guess my really long, puffed up strawberry blond curly hair reminded them of quills. They decided to scream at me at every opportunity: “Porcupine, you suck! Porcupine, play Misty for me.” Oh, well.
We went back again for the third weekend in a row, I think that we were really cheap and no other band would play there. A real band wouldn’t like having bottles thrown at the stage and then having to step on the broken glass. I imagined the Italians at the bar coming there to share stories of who they had murdered or beat up earlier that night and drink it off.
It wasn’t really a public place in the sense that there only seemed to be one type of guy there and the only women were night walkers. Occasionally the front door would open and a normal looking couple would take a quick look and turn around and walk back out.
The next Friday night brought Shotzy, a new topless dancer. She was a bleached blond who displayed her sunny-side up eggs with pride. To comply with state law, nipples had to be covered and tassels kept her a law abiding citizen. She actually had each tassel spinning in opposite directions and then reversed both of them. I was transfixed and sometimes screwed up my playing.
That Saturday night, Stephan’s band wasn’t working and decided to come see us. “Texas Tito”, the organ player, joined us on stage and seemed to be in his element. Texas Tito had been in a band that had a top ten single and had played at every dive bar in Texas and Louisiana. He hit on Shotzy and then Patsy. The rest of the band shouted insults just like the regulars. I was embarrassed. Harold loved it. Mark wanted to be taken seriously while Chris and Russ barely noticed.
We weathered a snowstorm on the fourth week. A big crowd of friends was supposed to come. The group always moved in unison and this Saturday we were the move. When it started snowing Saturday evening and the weather report predicted up to a foot of snow the group stayed home in unison. Only our diehard friends would come. There were four inches of snow on the ground by midnight and the bar closed early. Being Saturday and our last day playing we had to take our equipment out so we packed up and headed down 9W. It took our caravan, the band and all our friends, over three hours to go the thirty miles home but we finally made it.
The next week we skipped because we just couldn’t face Little Joe’s again. The following week was our undoing. Gerry had convinced us to go back but Russ refused so we got a different drummer, Tommy. He was a better drummer than Russ but he was also much more straight-laced. When he saw Little Joe’s ‘Topless Dancing’ sign and what a dive it was, he turned around and went home. We only had a bongo drum for Harold to play. If that wasn’t bad enough, Mark forgot the power cord for his piano so we only had bongos, bass and a guitar for instruments. We made it through two songs before they told us to get the hell out and never come back again.
We thanked Little Joe’s for our entrance into the Upstate New York club scene. We had had a taste and we wanted more. This was only the beginning of many more years of being an outlandish club band. The crazier things got with St. Christopher’s the more fans would show up just to find out what was going to happen next. There was nothing that we wouldn’t do to make a fun night and as word got out more and more fans joined us.