Ten years ago today, your Texas Mod Crushers played in public for the first time. This is how I remember it. (Photo by Carolyn White)
Crashing the Blues Jam
As I sat in my truck waiting in front of Dan Electro’s Guitar Bar, I tried to think of anything I might have forgotten to bring. I had my guitar, amp head, speaker cabinet, and my backpack full of cords and notebooks. My suit jacket hung in the back of the truck cab. I hoped the others remembered all their gear. I hadn’t played in front of strangers for over 10 years, but they had never done it, at least not in a non-school band, rock and roll context.
I was ridiculously early. They weren’t even open yet. But I was determined to be the first on the list, so I had been sure to get there ridiculously early. I had a vague idea about how these open mic nights worked. A warm-up “house” band would play a few tunes to get things going, and then those on the list would get called to come up on stage and play. Well, I had promised my bandmates that we would play in public by the end of the year, and here it was the middle of December already.
Our friend Marvin had told us about this recurring event, and it was my understanding that he ran it. I called him the day before just to confirm that it was still happening. He assured me that it was and advised me to ask for Terry. So Marvin was not in charge. Okay. Noted.
After about 20 minutes, a car pulled in and crunched across the gravel parking lot. A tall, tired looking guy got out and ambled up to the entrance, jangling a set of keys. I met him there, since I was parked within arm’s reach of the door.
“Hi! Are you Terry?” I asked, a little too cheerfully.
“Ha! No.” Was his reply.
He unlocked the door, and went inside, never making eye contact.
Our band was off to a great start, making friends in the Music Industry. There would be no stopping us.
I grabbed my guitar and my bag and took them into the bar. I knew we would be first, so I started a gear pile on the edge of the stage, trying to be out of the way, but still stake my claim on that precious territory. I brought in my second load consisting of amp and cabinet, and found the sign-up sheet on a little counter attached to a pillar next to the bar. I wrote “TEXAS MOD CRUSHERS” on the top line in my best 11th-grade drafting shop lettering.
And then there was nothing left to do except wait and worry. I worried that I would break a string, or forget the lyrics, or forget how to solo, or die of a heart attack in the middle of the downstroke of the first chord.
Eventually the other band members trickled in. Andrew was the first person I had recruited. I had known him from our local motorcycle group for a couple years. He loved to tell stories of his days as first trombone in his high school jazz band, so I thought he would have some musical acumen. He had picked up bass playing well enough for our punk rock repertoire, and we got along well enough to keep things progressing. Sam self-recruited into our band, volunteering to be the drummer before Andrew had a chance to accept the invitation to play bass. Sam also had some school experience playing music, but he never let that get in the way of his punk rock drumming. Matt was my new post-divorce roommate, who also happened to own an electric guitar. I invited him to join us because two guitars are better than one, especially if your intention is to build a wall of it.
There were some bar employees appearing by this time, too. I asked everyone I didn’t know if they were Terry, eventually getting a “Yes” from a smallish older man with big, gray, curly Rock hair.
I asked him if our gear was okay where it was, and he said, “Sure, if y’all are the house band.”
I laughed nervously and said, “No, I just didn’t know where to put everything.”
He directed me to the far side of the room, between the stage and some tables. I waved my bandmates over, and we moved our pile.
Terry told me the tall dude with the keys was Bob, the owner of the bar. Bob was also the only one who could operate the sound board and was definitely In Charge of the open mic events. So Terry was not In Charge. Okay. Noted.
As I talked more with Terry, my anxiety only increased. I told him we had four songs that we could do. He said that would be no problem, as long as they were blues songs.
“Uh… No, they’re… they’re… punk rock… songs,” I stammered.
“Hmmm… can you play some blues? This is an open blues jam.”
“Really? Marvin didn’t tell us that.”
“Well, don’t tell Bob. Are you sure you can’t just play some blues?”
“These guys are just learning their instruments. These are the only songs we can play.”
This was mostly true, except for Matt. He could play all the usual “Cowboy” and barre chords. But I was pretty sure he wouldn’t know a I-IV-V progression from a mojo hand.
“Wow. Definitely don’t tell Bob that.”
Just then, Bob walked past us into the kitchen. Terry spun and followed quickly behind him. I’m 100% sure that he promptly told Bob everything I was just told not to tell him. Because the night got progressively weirder from that point.
The four of us went to the outdoor garden area of the bar to chat and get some fresh air. I grilled them about their gear, and everyone assured me that they had everything they needed. Sam had even brought along the circular saw blade he had been using as a crash cymbal. I was not impressed with this, but the others thought it was hilarious. Sam had found a used (possibly stolen) drum kit on Craig’s List for $200, but he didn’t have any cymbals – only the 7-inch saw blade screwed to a stand. It looked fun in photos, but it sounded like a saw blade and had a voracious appetite for drumsticks.
When we returned to the inside of the bar, we were greeted by our friend Jack – also from our motorcycle group. Jack’s regular way of paying the rent was video production. Mostly Oil and Gas “Industrial” projects. He had a big professional-looking camera set up on a big professional-looking tripod at stage left, and another one on his shoulder. He had also brought in lights on stands and set them up on either side. I have no idea how he got this all done in the ten minutes we were outside, but he had accomplished all of that and also managed to further anger Bob by asking him to turn off some of the normal stage lights. We didn’t know Jack was planning this, but at least he had ramped up the tension for us.
To be fair, Jack does great work, and we could never have afforded to hire him, but none of us had any idea about how to do what we were trying to do. Our first public outing at an unfriendly location playing unwelcome music was probably not the best time to film us.
Word about our show had spread through our circle of friends, so scooterists and motorcyclists were starting to accumulate. Our band was easy to spot in our suits, so friends and acquaintances came smirking up to us, asking when “The Band” was “Going On,” because that’s what you’re supposed to ask The Band.
The suits were my idea, and I was a little surprised that everyone else went along with it so readily. I wanted a look that was unified; that would get us some attention; but still not be too painfully expensive to maintain (10-inch-heeled, thigh-high, sequined disco boots would have been beyond our meager budgets). The suits were not just any suits, either. They were the iconic 1960s badass suits (readily available mix-and-match at any thrift store), worn by the Blues Brothers, Men in Black, Matrix agents, and, of course, Tarantino gangsters. I think we looked great. We had an anti-uniform.
One unexpected issue with the suits, though, and especially with a group of men in matching black suits standing at the back of a dive bar, is that we were sometimes viewed with a bit of suspicion. We looked like The Man to some people. We did not fit the usual jeans-and-black-t-shirts profile of the regular punk rock music crowd. I think this was just one more thing added to the many things that Bob did not like about us.
We watched Terry and Marvin’s house band go through a few blues classics. And then a few more. And then a few more. Marvin had a great touch on guitar. I had never heard him play before. I was impressed. But I started to suspect that Bob was not going to let us play.
Suspicion eventually gave way to conviction. We were not going to be allowed to play. This thought was spreading through the band, and through our group of friends. At the time, I estimated our crowd to be about fifty people, which was probably double the usual Wednesday open mic night crowd. We were all handling the situation with varying degrees of tact and grace. Matt was going from group to group, angrily telling them to close out their tabs, because they weren’t going to let us play. Our friend Jamie (who had had a few pints of Lone Star) was haranguing the bartenders, telling them to let her friends play, or we would all go to some other fucking place, God damn it!
The smartest thing I did that night was to enlist Andrew’s help in negotiations with Bob. Andrew is a licensed lawyer – a member of the State Bar of Texas – so I figured he would be the best person to argue our case.
Andrew and I made our way to the sound board, and I asked Bob, “Hey, so are we going to be able to play tonight?”
Bob answered with a list of grievances. “You all come in here… as a full band, with all this video equipment,” waving his hand in the general direction of Jack, ”asking me to turn off the stage lights, with all this gear,” waving his other hand at our pile, “and you’re not even playing blues!”
I interrupted at this point, “If you aren’t going to let us play, we’ll take our…” (looking around) “fifty… beer-drinking friends somewhere else!” I left out the expletives. But I was thinking them.
Before Bob had a chance to pronounce a verdict, Andrew took the opportunity to calmly, and concisely state our position. “Oh, hey. We aren’t trying to take over your night. We just want to play three songs. That’s all. Jack is fine with the stage lights on. We just want to play three songs.” Of course, we actually had four songs, but we had agreed that playing our better three would still count as a success.
After a second of consideration, Bob grumpily gave us his decision. “Fine. Go ahead. Play your three songs,” waving a hand like he was shooing two mosquitos away.
Bob and Terry exchanged further gestures, after which Terry turned, switched his amp off, and told Marvin and the others to take a break and let these “suit guys” play.
Finally! We were going to play in Public. It never occurred to me that we would have to go through such a hassle just to play some music at a dive bar on a Wednesday night.
We expanded our pile of gear across the stage and tuned our guitars. After making a brief speech to the bar patrons, apologizing for not playing blues, and explaining that we all loved the blues, and how all Rock and Roll comes from the blues, we blitzed through the three songs we were officially allowed to play. But then the night took an unexpected turn. After the end of our third song, I noticed Bob standing in front of the stage, motioning me to come closer. I bent down, and he said into my ear, “Do you have one more?”
I was shocked, but I replied that we did.
Bob nodded. “Okay. You can play one more,” he said, holding up his index finger, and making deliberate, sustained eye contact with me over the top of his glasses. I got the feeling that I was on open mic probation, and that I better not screw it up.
Our bonus song was The Living End by The Jesus and Mary Chain. I started in the wrong key, but the rest of the boys came in as they always did, and I corrected my part mid-course. We all ended the song together, which, as everyone knows, is the mark of a professional band.
We had succeeded in doing what we set out to do that night. We played the four songs we had been rehearsing for three months in Sam’s garage, but we played them in public, at a real bar. Our friends danced and applauded, and we felt like heroes.
And I had succeeded in doing what I had set out to do that year. I had guided my friends into becoming a Rock and Roll band – one of the greatest things any group of people could hope to be.