Friday, April 29, 2011

White Dope on Punk: Chapter 18. You Are the Hot Animal Machine

Tom was driving, Mel was shotgun and George and I were in the back, but crammed near the front as we pulled into the parking lot of the show. No matter how tired we were from the endless driving on tour, the anticipation of seeing where we were playing always perked us up. Upon seeing the venue, it was met with one of two reactions: “It doesn’t look so bad” or the more common “This is gonna suck.” There wasn’t a lot of middle ground in our snap evaluations.

“Pull over there…by the van with the trailer,” Mel said, pointing to a lone van in the parking lot. The trailer and out of state license plate was a dead giveaway that it was a band van. We were playing with The Rollins Band, All and The Dough Boys, so it had to be one of their vans.

As we pulled up, we could see that someone was in the passenger seat with their feet up on the dashboard. George and I moved closer to the front to get a glimpse. Tom put the car in park and Mel abruptly pressed her head tightly against the bucket seat. “Dude, it’s fuckin Rollins,” she excitedly announced. George and I scrambled to the side back window to get glimpse and Tom peeked out the passenger side window. It was definitely him. He was intently reading a small, hardcover book. I guessed Henry Miller or Gore Vidal.

I had seen Rollins many times in his band Black Flag—cutting his stomach with a torn-in-half coke can during “Life is Pain” and generally acting like a caged animal on stage. Just recently I walked by him on Houston Street in New York City. It was the dead of winter and he was wearing short-shorts, a T-shirt, and wispy Adidas Gazelle sneakers and he moved in a determined, bad-attitude way. He wasn’t someone you wanted to fuck with, so we stayed within the confines of the van.

A father and his young teenaged son approached the van. We saw them crossing the empty parking lot and immediately knew that someone had tipped them off about Rollins. Leading the way with his father trailing behind, the teenager had what looked like a journal in his hand and was making a beeline for the passenger door of the van. When they got near, the teenager fell back and let his dad do the talking. George and I rushed to the front of the van and peeked out the side window, blocking Tom’s view from the driver’s seat. It was obvious that this kid wanted an autograph and God only knew how the brooding Rollins would react to such a request. It definitely wasn’t punk rock to ask for an autograph but he was a kid, so he had that going for him.

Rollins had to notice the looming figure next to him. The window was open and the dad was standing there, dreading having to ask for his autograph. Rollins held tight, even more intent on what he was reading. Finally, the dad must’ve coughed or said “excuse me” because Rollins looked up, reaching for the journal and the pen in the dad’s hand. He signed the journal, gave it back and returned to reading. No chit chat or pleasantries, just a forced smile.

We unloaded the equipment, going out of our way to act like it was no big deal that Rollins was in the adjacent van. All and The Doughboys were already there, and the Rollins Band was on stage setting up. We dumped everything in the front of the stage and waited for them (and Rollins) to sound check. We were first on the bill, and would set up our equipment in front of theirs when they finished.

The venue and the stage were unlike any others we had played. It wasn’t a club, but an old beachfront hotel that was in disrepair from the sand, wind and the elements. It loomed large against the ocean and at one time was probably the place to be, in the hip part of town. Things had obviously changed. It was perfect for us.

The show was in the basement, a low-ceilinged, expansive room with a stage in the corner built of plywood and two-by-fours. The carpet was dark, which didn’t help with the cavernous underground feeling. When the doors opened and the room filled with people this gloom would dissipate.

Rollins joined the band on stage for sound check and they ran through a few songs to get levels. As they struggled to get the right stage volume, workers from the hotel were using a staple gun to attach chicken wire to an internal frame of two-by-fours that enclosed the stage like a cage. It was straight out of a Texas Honky Tonk in The Blues Brothers, except you got the feeling that it wasn’t there to protect the band from the audience but to protect the audience from Rollins. It was a first for us and we were looking forward to taunting the audience to throw things at us!

By the time Rollins and Co. finished their sound check, a good size crowd had gathered out front. We quickly set up and hastily flew through one song, making sure the monitors were loud and that we could hear ourselves. It was a big bill—four bands—and we were scheduled to go on once the doors opened. As the crowd filtered in, we ran backstage and grabbed as many beers as we could carry.

As we played our first song, half the audience approached the stage. The Rollins devotees, in their tribal tattoos and Black Flag T-shirts, hung around the back with their arms crossed, tolerating us.

The chicken wire was disconcerting, creating a barrier between us and the audience, but we trudged along and played our brand of post-punk California rock. A half hour later, we moved our equipment to the side of the stage and went back for more beers. The show was ok, but our dream of beer bottles smashing against the chicken wire didn’t happen. The audience needed some time to get liquored up before the first bottle flew.

Tom and I grabbed more beers—two to a hand—and flitted about the club, talking to girls and generally acting like asses, things we would never do on our home turf. Everything appeared sparkly, amplified and bright from our early drinking. As with all shows, we ended up backstage, occasionally peeking outside to listen to a song that we liked.

Backstage was a like a house party, bands and friends on the guest list huddled together, drinking beer and earnestly talking. We made friends with the guys in Rollins’ band and were razzing them about having to hide their drinks from Rollins, who was straight edge. As we talked, I noticed they incessantly looked over our shoulders, eyeballing the door leading to the stage. Rollins walked in and his band hid their beers, stashing them on a ledge.

Rollins told them to get ready and they moved toward the door, leaving their full beers on the ledge. Once they were gone, we grabbed their beers.

Rollins walked over to the nearest wall, next to the door. He was wearing short black shorts and a tight T-shirt, showing off his iconic tattoos from Black Flag. He crouched down in a fetal position with his back against the wall, squeezing his legs with his arms. His body was taught and his fists were clenched, periodically flexing his whole body and grimacing. It was obvious that he was preparing the show, working himself into a physical frenzy. Conversely, we prepared for the show by drinking beer and laughing.

Everybody in the room did their best to simultaneously watch, while appearing to ignore him. His head was usually buried in his knees so this was pretty easy. If the room could talk, the general consensus would be, “What an idiot.” It was way overboard and reeked of dysfunction and drama.

Rollins went on and, despite our eye-rolling over his dramatic behavior, we crowded the side of the stage (behind the chicken wire) to get a look at the spectacle. He didn’t disappoint.

Like an orangutan, he climbed the chicken wire and perched on a cross board of the internal frame. Looking back to his band and then at the audience, his eyes were wild and he seemed non-human, in the moment. He looked back again at the band and yelled, “Come on, let’s go!” The band launched into the first song. He would repeat this phrase to his band after every song.

Not content with just climbing the chicken wire, Rollins pulled back a triangle of the wire from the frame, sticking his head outside and them pulling it back quickly, usually in rhythm with the song. When he wanted to emphasize a lyric, he would pop his head out and then retract it. It was like the old arcade game where a gopher popped his head out of a hole and you tried to bop it on the head with a mallet.

Tom and I eventually grew tired of the theatrics and went backstage to drink more beer and gather our equipment. The rumblings coming from the wall dividing the stage from backstage stopped and shortly thereafter The Rollins Band walked through the door, sweaty and with their guitars in their hands. The room paused and most people said the obligatory “good show” and "good set,” even though many of them had never left the room. Rollins was nowhere to be seen.

Mel and George joined us backstage and we talked about the show. I grew more and more manic and obsessed with Rollins’ behavior. From the fetal position before the show to popping his head out of the chicken wire, I tried to wrap my drunken mind around this tense little man. The band egged me on. Something had to give.

I caught the eye of one of Rollins’ band members. Stepping away from Tom, George and Mel, I pointed directly at him and yelled, “You are the hot animal machine, not him,” gesturing in the vicinity of the stage where Rollins might be. (Hot Animal Machine is the name of a Rollins Band record). I continued, “You are, not him.” The room again paused, not knowing if Rollins was going to walk in and kick my ass. Feeling pretty good about myself, I yelled, “You, you and you," pointing to the other members, “are the hot fuckin’ animal fuckin' machine, not him! Hot fuckin’ animal machine!” I was on fire. I grabbed my guitar and planned to exit in a blaze of glory. On cue, Rollins walked through the door. As I moved to go past him, I dramatically threw up my hands, as if to say, “See, he ain’t so special.” My guitar cased opened, the guitar spilled onto the floor, and I tripped, landing face down on the case. Everybody laughed; Rollins had no idea what was going on. Tom and Mel quickly helped me up, put my guitar back in the case, while I gave a victory wave to the room. Rollins moved passed me, suspicious of my cockiness.

In the parking lot, Tom said, “Jesus Christ, Foot, you could have got your ass kicked.” Feeling giddy, I sluggishly smiled, my eyes slow to focus and said, “Yeah, but how cool would that have been top get my ass kicked by Rollins.” Tom looked at me like I had a point. In our drunken state it almost made sense.

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