Monday, July 24, 2006

Weird Gigs: Part 1

I'm going to interrupt the story of my family's move to California in order to pull a few examples out of the "weird gigs" bag. A gig qualifies as weird if something out of the ordinary occurs, surrounds or pervades the natural course of events. Now, gigs in general are by definition already pre-loaded with circumstances that can tend toward weirdness so I try to cull the ones that offer something more than just "there was a big fat chick in the front row" as a qualification.

I was Musical Director for Gary Puckett (yes, that Gary Puckett) and, as we were out on a string of one-nighters, the office had booked a few "fill-in" dates to cover expenses. You never really knew what to expect on these dates. Usually they were rock clubs in smaller towns and could be quite well attended. But every once in a while it could be the type of show that made us look at each other as if to tacitly promise that what just happened would never be mentioned again.

On this occasion, we found ourselves in San Leandro, California. The theater was one of those mission-like auditoriums that work really well for chamber music, barbershop quartets, or SAT testing. This type of theater, and there's one in every town in california, puts the saying "you can hear a pin drop" into extreme focus. My first shudder came as we neared the back entrance for sound check and I saw two guys in salmon jumpsuits setting up what looked like a circular chain-link dog pen. I don't remember the exact name on the truck but let's just say it said something like "Acme Trained Dog Company". We were opening for a dog act fer chrissakes! This was going to be a long frigging day!

One look inside and our sound man turned to us and said, "Look, fuck it, it's not going to sound good...period, no matter what you do, no matter what I do, no matter what those goddamn poodles do. So let's not piss these people off until we hit the stage." Agreed all around. Incidentally, there were three poodles, they were the big boingy kind and all of them white. Of the three, two were always trying to hump and one was always shitting in that hump-back, shaky-legged way that only a smart-ass white poodle with two guys in salmon jumpsuits cleaning up after him can do.they all looked exactly the same so I hope that they were trading off between the humping and shitting.

Backstage, I got the details. This was a variety show for some sort of charity and our office had decided that it would be fun for us to spend the day in this circus rather that take a day off in San Francisco. Yeah! We decided to hang out in the dressing room and drink until we either had to play or the governor called the backstage telephone with a stay. The call never came.

Our part of the show was dismal but we had invoked road rule 1a, namely, "It never happened." The acoustics in that barn were such that i'm certain that the snare drum is still reverberating in some corner of that room twenty years later. The dogs were a big hit though. It was, after all, a variety show and there were a ton of kids in the audience. I had thought that they would have humped and shitted themselves into some sort of civilized state before they hit the stage but I have an abiding respect for the stamina...and capacity of crazy white poodles as a result of what I saw on stage that evening. Between the hind-leg walking with a beach ball on the nose and the fire hoop jumping and the shaky-legged shitting at the stage apron and the crazed squeal of the kids as the poodles humped their way about the stage...Ah, I was actually glad to be there.

But then came he weird part. Yep, it got even better, at least for me. On the bill that night was a ventriloquist. I recognized him from having seen his act on TV. After his act (which was the usual talking while pretending to drink water, and the dummy making a dummy out of the ventriloquist), some kids in wheelchairs were brought backstage to meet him and probably to get the dummy's autogragh. And then happened a truly extraordinary thing. A thing so unexpected and with such delicious results that I'll never forget it. As the kids were wheeled around the ventriloquist, he did a little impromptu act for them and pretended to argue with the dummy. Just as the argument became heated, he twisted the head right off of the body, tossed it into an open bowling bag and threw the limp body into his briefcase, slamming it shut. As he zipped up the bowling bag the kids were horrified to hear the now disembodied head plead for air as the ventriloquist seethed, "Who's the dummy now, dummy!" The kids were very quickly wheeled out of the dressing room emotionally scarred for the rest of their lives.

I'll never know if he snapped or if he was just a naturally sick bastard, but that moment, the look on those kids faces when the head was begging for air...that made the whole day worth while.

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