Road Stories: The Show for Nobody

As I’ve said extensively elsewhere, I used to play in a metal band called Black Spiral. When we first started playing together, we were about 16, in high school, and just doing covers of Metallica songs and such. Our first gig ever was at a Catholic church Spring fair, where we played two nights (my only holdover to date) of “For Whom the Bell Tolls,” “Back in Black” and “Cowboys from Hell” (yep) on a flatbed trailer. Years later, I was walking around our little suburb of Houston wearing a Black Spiral T-shirt, and a girl stopped me and said “Hey, I think I saw that band play at a church carnival one time. Did they ever get good?” To which I could only say, “Yes. They got awesome.” But that’s neither here nor there.

After we got awesome and wrote a bunch of our own music, we played fairly extensively in Houston for maybe 18 months or so. The high-water mark came when we opened for Acid Bath at The Abyss, my favorite ever (and now defunct, occupied by a home audio store) Houston music venue. The low point was most probably the night we got to play for nobody. And I mean frickin’ nobody.
Fitzgerald’s is a venue in Houston of decidedly mixed repute. They have hosted amazing shows, but the building has also gone through periods of utter disrepair.  They’ve got a big stage, which we always enjoyed, and a smaller stage downstairs, which I never particularly did. I was able to once play that stage like a bass drum, though, when my kit fell apart mid-song. Different story.
So we’d been playing at Fitzgerald’s off and on, and showed up for one of our gigs, playing with another band we’d played with before called Temper Scarlet. We liked them, because they usually drew a decent crowd, and after we walked off stage the first time they heard us, they called us “the heaviest thing they’d ever heard on six legs.” You take praise where you can get it.

At that time and place, all the bands got to the venue at the same time — ridiculously early, like 6 or 7 pm — to load in, and the show would start around 9:00. We were the first band to show up, and our guitarist, Ryan Dawe, who is from Canada and therefore plays hockey, had just had his toe stepped on by an ice skate. He gleefully watched as our bassist/vocalist Christopher Crowson and I did all of the loading in. Somebody was supposed to play before us, but they didn’t show up at a certain point, so the sound guy told us to go ahead and set up onstage. At the time, we were really taken with Sepurtura’s cover of Motorhead’s “Orgasmatron,” and knew how to play it, but not the words. So we went outside and got on a cell phone the size of a walrus, and called a friend who had the track on a bootleg CD. (I’m old) He listened to the song, and told us the words over the phone, which Chris scratched out on a sheet of paper. The Internet at this time was only a gleam in Al Gore’s eye, so this is how people did things back then.

This took a while, and when we went back inside, there were no fans, and none of the other bands showed up. But the sound guy told us to go on, so we got up and started playing. For the sound guy.

And that’s it. We played our set. Then we played “Orgasmatron,” with Chris propping the lyric sheet up on a floor monitor. But the bass rumble through the monitor kept knocking the lyrics off, so finally Chris stopped playing bass, and just held up the words, yelling them into the mic. What did it matter? Nobody was there. Nobody showed up. The other bands didn’t even show up, for God’s sake.

I am of the firm belief that if somebody offers you a stage, you take it, and you hold it for as long as you can. After we played pretty much everything we knew, nobody was going to run us off, and we’d seen a piano in the dressing room, so we went and grabbed it. Again, Dawe watched gleefully as Chris and I lugged this good-and-damn-heavy piano onstage. Dawe played piano pretty well, and had written a bunch of solo piano compositions. I don’t think I’d ever heard but maybe one of them. So he played those, and Chris and I improvised bass and drum parts for them. For nobody.

There is video of this somewhere, shot on grainy VHS, but I loaned it to Dawe when we were getting ready to record an EP of his piano material a couple of years later. And I have never again seen that tape. I’m looking at you, Dawe…

Incidentally, here’s Ryan’s EP, which is wonderful. I excavated and remastered it for the world to enjoy, so please do so. And also, come to the next Sci-Fi Romance show (CD release show — May 11, Pig ‘n Whistle, Hollywood), so I don’t have to play for nobody but the sound guy ever, ever again. That sucks.

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Road Stories: The Bombed-Out Whorehouse

Maybe the best sustained musical experience I’ve ever had was playing drums in the band Black Spiral from about 1995-1999.  I was in and just out of high school, and the band started as Chris Crowson, Ryan Dawe, and I were just starting to learn our instruments.  The first songs I was ever involved in writing, and the first lyrics I wrote all went into that band, and we ultimately felt like we were making compelling music that honestly brought something new to the table.

So of course it couldn’t last.  But it did give us the opportunity to shoot a music video in the ruins of a semi-famous brothel.  There is that.

A section of the ruins. Credit: Jayme Lynn Blaschke’s Chicken Ranch Central, http://www.jaymeblaschke.com/ChickenRanchImage15.html  


Crowson and I stayed in Texas after high school, but Dawe moved to Georgia for college, and that was the de facto end of the band, though we (still) never officially broke up.  We pooled our money the following summer to make our album Defeat (recorded in a single day) and, later, the music video for the last song on it, “Twilight.”  The multi-talented Don Swaynos and I began scouting locations for the shoot in the vast openness between Houston and Austin, Texas.  We knew of a place in Sealy, Texas, that looked like a bomb had been dropped on it.  About six buildings, real low, maybe two of them still had a roof on it.   Don and I had driven past this place a hundred times going between Houston and the University of Texas.  This time, we stopped in for a look.

Place was nuts.  We figured it had been a hotel, and we walked the buildings, which seemed to have once consisted of two or three tiny little rooms arranged around a single, shared toilet.  But who would build a hotel like this? It wasn’t just cramped, it was oppressive, even with no walls intact.  But the entire place was all crumbling, with lots of broken glass, and the biggest freaking corn spiders you ever want to see in your life.  Great for a death metal video.

There were a couple of mobile homes parked just on the other side of a cyclone fence, so we knocked on a door to ask about the place.  If the person living there knew what it had been or anything about it (no), or who owned it.  The answer was surprising — Omar, the owner/operator of two Mexican restaurants (named Omar’s, one in Sealy, one in Katy, Texas) — was thought to own the place.

So we drove to the Omar’s in Sealy, just hoping he’d be there.  He was.  This is my conversation with him, as best I can remember, and keep in mind, Omar has a super-heavy accent:

Me: Hi, we’re film school students from UT, and we were told you might own the old hotel or whatever it was out on I-10 outside of town.
Omar: Sure. The whorehouse.
Me: The…wha?
Omar: Yeah, yeah.
Me: The, did you say…”storehouse”?
Omar: No, whorehouse. With ladies. Girls.  The chicken ranch. (The eponymous “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas,” of Broadway, film, and ZZ Top song fame – vk.)
Me: The…I thought that was in La Grange.
Omar: Sure, but there was another. There in Sealy.
Me: And you own that?
Omar: Yeah, sure.
Me: Ok. We were wondering if it would be possible to shoot a music video. There. In the whorehouse.
Omar: Sure. What do you need?
Me: We would need a location release, saying it’s ok for us to shoot there.
Omar: Ok.

He then took an order pad off the hostess stand, and wrote out that it was ok for us to shoot there, and handed me the torn order ticket.  Um…Perfect?

Turns out, the place was called The Wagon Wheel, the little sister of the Chicken Ranch, which was in La Grange, until a huge scandal shut them both down and propelled a TV reporter named Marvin Zindler to a local stardom that would last until he died many, many years later.  I wound up in school with Marvin’s granddaughter, eventually.

We shot the video a few weeks later in some of the crumbling rooms and back behind the building, and it was a grueling-as-hell shoot in 110-degree heat, with no shade or cover.  There were one or two rooms that still had roofs on them, albeit sagging and threatening to collapse at any moment.  They since have.  But the big reason why we didn’t want to just kick it in one of those rooms was because they were utterly, utterly terrifying.

They smelled like trash and sex.  There was a big, torn up couch in one, with the words “KILL ME” scrawled above it in red paint or possibly animal blood.  And *so many* empty beer bottles and used condoms.  It had become a love nest, I guess, for local teenagers.

It’s interesting. In The Shining, the murder hotel just has murder in its soul, and that spirit infests Jack Torrance.  I have to wonder if sex is the same.  Nobody knew what this place was, apart from local history buffs, and Omar.  The people living next door to it didn’t know.  I wonder if sex was just in the building’s —  the land’s — aura, and it called to people.  It’s possible.

It’s also possible, though, that when you’re a teenager and horny, no place is too terrifying or too disgusting to distract from the magic of touching and being touched.  There is that.

Road Stories: The Film Screening Q&A

Several years ago, I made a Surrealist short film that people seemed to like — it won some awards at film festivals, etc., and led to a fair amount of paying work, so (locally, anyway), some people took me to be a successful independent filmmaker.  I was asked to screen the film and do a Q&A afterward for a non-profit that sponsored local, usually small-town, screenings and film education programs in various communities, and I agreed.

So I pack up the car, DVD screener in hand, and drive most of the way to Louisiana for the Q&A in Beaumont, Texas.  The local community college film/media program is co-sponsoring it in some way, and the screening takes place essentially in the back storage room of an art gallery or pottery studio of some kind located in this odd, dark part of town with maybe a single streetlight for several blocks around.

I meet the guy whose event it is, and he’s great, very passionate for helping local filmmakers, and it’s a really cool night.  There’s maybe 20 people there, including several local kids who had made their own movies (I remember a vampire short and a music video) and were getting to screen them in front of an audience for the first time.  Then they screen my film last, introduce me, and invite me up to the front to field questions…

…where I discover that a guy sitting in the front row has no face.  And I mean that literally.  He has no face.  Just eyes, and then a flat expanse of skin, and a small slit for a mouth.

George Carlin had a bit about going to shake a guy’s hand, and then realizing that the person doesn’t have a complete hand.  As much as you want to let go, you have to keep shaking hands and pretend like it feels great.  Very similar situation.  The guy at the screening was very nice and everything, and I remain completely impressed that despite whatever accident or anomaly had resulted in his condition he was still out and about and participating in community events.  But I remember that night most for the stunning moment when I walked up to the front of the room, and for a brief second, was utterly convinced that I was having some kind of very odd, very vivid dream.

Because when I went to go answer questions about my Surrealist short film, there was a guy sitting three feet away from me that had no face.