Thursday, April 21, 2011

This is a story that I've told on numerous occasions. As with many good stories, it changes a little with every telling. Details become exaggerated, memorable quotes get tweaked and details may emerge within the framework that are, to put it kindly, apocryphal. This story will likely be no exception. This is...The Worst Gig I Ever Saw.

It was the winter of could still smoke in bars, Oland's Export Ale was readily available and the Pop Tart Revolution had yet to announce its arrival. Heady days indeed. My regular bar had recently witnessed a change in management, with the result that many new bands, both local and imported, were starting to play there.  Acts like Mike O'Neill (late of The Inbreds), Joel Plaskett (Thrush Hermit) were starting new solo careers and we were amongst their first few island audiences. The clientele was also starting to change. What had previously been a very mixed age crowd was starting to coalesce into a more  alcoholic horny discerning collection of new music fans. Bands were still primarily weekend entertainment, although off-island touring schedules sometimes meant a Monday or Tuesday gig. The new manager was putting in a great deal of (unpaid) hours to call booking agencies around Canada to find bands that wouldn't mind playing a  bar (capacity 110) for a small but generally enthusiastic crowd...and to their credit, many acts came. American bands were then, as now, a bit more of a rarity, but, they were almost always guaranteed to sell the bar to SRO.

So it was that one afternoon I was sitting at the bar when the manager received a package from an American record label, with a band's touring schedule, some posters and a few 7" singles.

"Holy shit! This is from K Records...The Microphones are touring and they want to play here!", he exclaimed.

"Nice.", I remarked, "K is a pretty good label. "

"Yeah, if this goes well we could start adding more bands from the Pacific Northwest. That'd really open us up for more tours from the west..."

Indeed, it has been my experience that a few good recommendations from the road can seal a bar's fate, one way or another, for future bands and singers.

Word spread around town quickly, as it almost always does..."The Microphones are coming to the bar...they're from Washington....I checked out a couple of tracks, they sound awesome" etc. Posters were placed around town and by the night of the gig a very tangible sense of excitement could be felt in the bar. I got there a little earlier than usual, around 800, to grab one of the booths up front for my friends and I. Within forty minutes our booth was full, drinks were flowing and there was a general air of, "This could be quite a night". If there was an opening band that night, I have honestly forgotten who it might have been. It was the general custom for an opening act to start at 10:00, usually half an hour - 45 minutes, with two subsequent sets to play until 1:30, just before last call. By 11 o'clock, there was no sign of The Microphones and people were starting to worry.  I went to the bar for another round and spoke to the manager, who assured me that the band had just called to say that they would be a few minutes late, as they had decided to go see 'Titanic' at the local cinema. Only in hindsight did this seem portentous.

When they finally arrived about twenty minutes later, the mood in the bar had noticeably shifted from excited buzz to , "Really?...this late....this had better be fucking memorable". So it would prove to be. The duo who started bringing amps and guitars into the bar looked to  be, putting it generously, tired. He was a thin chap, medium height, with scraggly hair and a penchant for ugly polyester long-sleeve shirts. She looked like someone who would loudly correct you for using words like "history" and "twat".  They rattled around the stage for a few minutes hooking up guitars and mic's and then introduced themselves,
"Hello everyone, we're the Microphones, from Olympia, Washington in the U.S....." and with that they slightly launched into a short, atonal thing that apparently had words and music. A short something it was...maybe one minute and then silence. All eyes were locked onto the stage as we tried, collectively, to figure out if that was a song or a very poorly tuned sound-check. Then he walked up to the mic and said,
"grgheytf jifjfmmmmmnble  mmmbnbnnbmmle hrrhhrmmmle bbbnmmmmglelll" (I didn't write it down that night, but, I'm pretty sure this is exactly what he said)
Then another short atonal attempt at something loosely related to a song, after which she said, rather pointedly,
"Umm, hey...if you guys want to enjoy the "party" atmosphere here, maybe you could go out onto the smoking deck...because where we come from, which is Olympia, Washington in the U.S.,people come to listen to bands to hear the music. Oh...and if some of you got here before they started charging cover at the door, maybe you could go up and pay now...."
I'm not kidding or exaggerating about that. It's fucking verbatim (except that I'm leaving out the name of the bar).

As charmed as we weren't by her arrogant, pedantic demeanour, we politely golf-clapped...hoping to at least avoid another uncalled for lecture on bar protocol. We may be a small town, but we know how to listen to music in a bar....
This pattern continued for another twenty minutes, he mumbles, they strum, we look baffled, she lectures us....At midnight they appeared to take a break. Which was, frankly, a relief. I headed back to the bar for another beer and overheard the manager telling them,
"No. If you want to get paid for this gig you have to play at least one more set, preferably a full one."

At this point they both looked visibly confused and the male half of the band went to cry in the bathroom. She fumed and walked around for ten minutes. After this "intermission", he went up onstage first and went behind his guitar amp where he immediately nodded off. (...and I do mean "nodded". The dude was clearly strung out on smack...) She pulled a chair up onto the stage, sat down and said, rather huffily, "Well, I guess we hav to play some more, but, can I just say something? Where we come from, which is Olympia, Washington in the U.S., people like to listen to the band and they show their appreciation by clapping after..."
(I couldn't take it any more...) I yelled, "We know what we're doing. DO YOU?"
A good friend of mine at the table wondered aloud, "What? Do they only play libraries?"
 The mood in the seats had changed to a mixture of disbelief and quiet hostility. The next |set" proved to be a little more musical, as she was evidently playing her own songs. Twice. She apparently only knew five of them so we had to listen to them twice each.  She then stepped down from the stage area, strode over to the manager and demanded payment. I think he gave them exactly enough money to take the ferry off the island and not a penny more. It was worth it just to get them out of our province. The other singer was revived, they took their gear and their unwarranted prima donna attitudes and fucked right off, out into the night, out of the bar and into legend. As they took their final steps down the stairs to the street, a voice from the back of the bar cried out, "Play Freebird!".

The bar laughed, applauded and I made my way from the back of the bar to my seat up front.

In the years since this show, I must have told the story a hundred times. One particularly memorable occasion was at the Manx Pub in Ottawa, where my friend and I held the bar rapt for about twenty minutes as we told the tale, each adding little details and memories that wove themselves perfectly into an old fashioned story telling evening. To return to my opening point: How much of this story is accurate and how much my biased memory? Well, like any good story...the answer exists somewhere between the two.

This story also proves to be one of the exceptions to the rule that states, "You had to be there." didn't. You are lucky if you weren't. Most of us veterans of that night, speak about this gig as the night we got to watch a train wreck in gloriously slow motion. It was worth the bullshit and the lectures just for that.

Not every gig is golden. I've seen great bands fail miserably and I've seen terrible bands rise above their limitations...but I have never and, I feel confident in predicting, will never see a band as wretchedly horrid as The Microphones in 1998.

True story.

No comments: