Chapter Twenty: “Rat House”

THE TOUR

Arranging a tour is not easy, you need to be sure you can arrive at each destination on time and ready to play. You need a vehicle that will hold your equipment and the band. You need money and you need free time. One Hand Clapping only had one of those things, the free time. Our band fund held about $500. We had Howard’s station wagon and my Mustang, but I couldn’t see us hauling gear in the station wagon and paying gas for two vehicles.

After searching in vain for a van that would be reliable and hold our equipment and the band Ritchie solved our problem by borrowing a van from someone. He never said whose largesse it was and I suspected something not quite legal, but there it was a full-sized van that could seat five and hold all our equipment, once the last row of seats was removed. Howard said he would go over it with a fine toothed comb and fix anything that needed fixing.

I started making calls all over the Pacific Northwest and sending out demo tapes and press kits (a one sheet photocopy of our reviews and a brief blurb about who we were and who we sounded like). Surprised by the positive reaction from club bookers I charted a tour that would take us north to Bellingham and south to Olympia, Portland, Eugene and Corvallis. The soonest it could happen was January, when the students were back in town from Christmas break. I was again surprised that these clubs had openings so early in the year.

Our first show would be at Speedy O’Tubbs in Bellingham. It wasn’t really part of the tour since Bellingham is a ninety minute drive from Seattle and we would be returning to the Rat House after the show, but an out of town gig counted as part of the tour.

On the drive to Bellingham I turned on KCMU in the van and we listened to the usual blend of grunge, noise, world music, and guitar pop. Just as the station was dying into static “Megaphone of Death” came on and we all started cheering. It was a great send-off for our first out-of-town gig.

The club, Speedy O’Tubbs, looked like every other bar we’d ever played in Seattle. There was the wooden bar, wood columns holding up the roof, wooden tables and wooden chairs, and a wooden stage constructed at the end of the room. I was filled with excitement, knowing we were expanding our fan base to places outside of Seattle.

There was no carpet on stage and Howard didn’t bring one so his drums were sliding all over the stage. Every kick on the bass drum made the kit slide. Finally I took Clark’s bass amplifier head and planted it in front of the bass drum so that all forward movement was stopped. It wasn’t convenient for Clark, but once he set his levels he was done for the night. The bass drum mic was then placed on top of the amp, pointing toward the hole in the drum head. The sound guy taped the mic to the amp with gaffer’s tape just to make sure it stayed in place.

Our sound check went off without a hitch, an amazing first. The sound guy was all business and knew what he was doing, even with all the squealing feedback from the guitar and fuzzy wheezing of the keyboards. Howard’s drums came through like thunder and Clark’s bass had lots of treble and bottom, as he preferred. Ritchie’s screaming was also clear and well-mixed.

We were playing with the Vortex Genies. They were a local funk band and I didn’t think they were a good match for us. They were a good band, but funk and noise don’t go together. I hoped their fans were open-minded and enjoyed our music and bought our single. I suggested to Eugene that we go with our more “accessible” material, meaning less improvisations and more covers. He nodded and showed me the set list. He’d already included all our covers in the set, I was preaching to the choir.

There were a good amount of people in the club when the Vortex Genies took the stage, somewhere close to forty. They were enthusiastic, drinking beer and dancing to the band’s funky songs. I manned the band table where our records were available for sale. I sold three before the show started and another two while the band played. After forty minutes the Vortex Genies’ set ended and it was our turn to play.

The set went well, thanks to playing songs that the audience may have heard of and our ten minute “Keep On Chooglin’” went over surprisingly well. More people came in as we were playing and a few brave souls ventured close to the stage and stared at us while we performed. After the show we sold another ten singles and made $75.

That night driving back to Seattle we heard “Megaphone of Death” again through our ringing ears. We were on rotation!It’s an incredible feeling to hear yourself on the radio.

Portland came after a very successful show in Olympia where we had stage divers and a great loud all-girl group open for us. We sold twenty-five records and drank lots of beer. We decided to not drive back to Seattle or drive to Portland, since we were loaded so we slept in the van. It was incredibly uncomfortable.  It was cold out and our breath was visible in the van. It was also snowing lightly. All of these things lead to a bunch of disagreeable people in the van the next morning. We’d probably be sleeping in motels for the rest of the tour, unless our record sales declined. Sleeping on a warm floor would be preferable to a cold van.

We had to be in Portland by seven o’clock in the evening for our performance at the Satyricon. So we had a good breakfast with lots of hot coffee to brighten everyone’s mood. Then we reluctantly piled back into the van and took off. Somewhere by Centralia the van broke down. We skidded onto the shoulder and Howard got out and laid down in the snow to look under the van. His fine toothed comb was missing a few teeth, Howard’s inspection revealed the u-joints needed replacing. So Eugene and Howard walked into Centralia, about two miles, and purchased the u-joints and some tools to replace them. Meanwhile we pulled all of our equipment out of the van to make it easier to jack up. Once Howard got back it took him four hours to fix the van. Then we reloaded the van and drove carefully for a few miles then stopped to check the u-joints. With all this happening we were way behind schedule. Luckily, Portland was only another two hours away and we pulled into town late for dinner, but early for the sound check. We could eat after that.

Our sound check went fine, but the sound guy had one eye that looked the opposite way of where his other eye was looking. I took to calling him “Eyes Akimbo” to Clark at the restaurant where we had dinner. Clark laughed, but Ritchie wasn’t happy with my moniker.

The Satyricon had “punk rock” décor, with graffiti, black walls painted with day-glo paint, black lights, and lots of band posters on the walls. The green room was a dingy closet behind the stage with a bench and lots of band graffiti. We sat on the bench and drank beer while waiting for the club to officially open.

We were opening for a popular local band called Talc. Soft rock, I thought to myself, but they were a very cool college rock band in the R.E.M. mode. We climbed on stage at nine and started our set. Although the bar in front of the club was full, the back room where the stage was remained empty through our first three songs. I jumped off the stage and listened to the sound mix and it was a wall of mud. Everything we heard on stage was well-mixed, but the sound the audience was hearing was a loud, muddled and indistinct noise. I went back on stage and stopped the band and asked Eyes Akimbo to check the levels again. He fiddled a few knobs and said it was alright. We started playing “Blank Frank” and I jumped down off stage again and the sound was much better. I don’t know what Eyes Akimbo did to make the sound shitty, maybe he still had the board set for Talc, but he fixed it and people started coming into the back room to listen to us. Eugene’s keyboard parts on “Blank Frank” were getting people to move around a little bit. I felt better, the feeling of dread passed, and we rocked Portland.

Eugene, Oregon seemed to feel different with a sense of foreboding. We were playing a tavern called Duffy’s and as we were setting up there were some customers at the bar, frat boy jocks. I had a strange feeling come over me, a feeling of dread. It seemed to pass as we did our sound check and then sat at a table going over the set list and generally killing time until the show.

Three girls came over to the table and started talking to Clark. They were flirty so Clark was joking with them, but I could see the guys at the bar were not happy about the attention the girls were giving him. The girls stayed at our table until it was time to play our set.

“What do you do when someone offers you drugs?” I asked the audience. Somebody laughed and another offered up, “Just say no”. “Wrong answer, you say ‘Thank you!’” I said into the microphone. There was no laughter, the girls at our table giggled, and the few faces I could see seemed to take offense at the comment.

We started “Megaphone of Death” and I looked to see if the other guys got a bad vibe from the audience. They didn’t seem perturbed by the response from the crowd so I shrugged it off. Still, something didn’t seem right.

“I’m never gonna be again!” screamed Ritchie into the microphone, “never gonna beeeeee!”

The crowd was polite in their applause when the song was over. We started playing “No Dyslexics”. I looked out at the audience again looking for the hippies I heard lived in Eugene. Instead, I saw more college kids, more frat boys, more jocks. It was like a horrible dream out of high school, where I was the outsider once more and the popular kids were crowding me out. I turned my back to the audience and worked my guitar into a position near the speakers so a burst of feedback shrieked out. I continued with the feedback and turned to my effects pedals. I stomped down on the phase shifter and the feedback started a slow rise and fall in pitch. Needless to say, the audience didn’t appreciate this. It was a difficult performance.

I knew we were losing the audience, but they didn’t leave, they continued to grow and started crowding the stage area. There were some punk rocker kids there, as ubiquitous as always, but they were far outnumbered by the ordinary college kids on a night out. I shook loose the feeling that I was in someone else’s nightmare and played “Keep On Chooglin’”. Here I felt in control again, playing the riff and working on the interplay between bass, drums, keyboards and guitar. Ritchie had taken to playing the harmonica and he’d added a harp break in the song as well. All seemed right. After three more songs we took a break. We had one more set to play afterward.

When I went to the bar to get a free beer I encountered some frat boys who wanted to get in my way. I politely asked them to move. They did but I heard them mutter that we sucked. Take it in stride, I thought, and continued to the bar and my free beer. Free beer makes almost everything better.

At the band’s table I asked if anyone else noticed anything strange about Duffy’s. No, they hadn’t. Was there anything weird about the crowd? No, nothing. It had to be me, but I couldn’t shake this feeling I had, a foreboding of ill will and potential violence. Maybe I was finally feeling the effects of little sleep and being crowded in a van with four other guys, some of whom I did not like all that much.

Sure enough, after the second set, as we were packing up the same three guys who blocked me earlier came up to me while I was alone on stage and threatened me.

“We don’t like you. Your music sucks. What are you going to do about it?”

I told them we should settle this outside. Duffy’s was a windowless brick building with a front and back door. As they left the building I grabbed a beer bottle and went outside. I stood with my back to the outside wall and broke the bottle, leaving the jagged edges of the bottle’s neck. I held the neck firmly and pointed the broken end at the three of them.

“I’m fucking crazy. There’s three of you and one of me. I know I’m getting beat up, but I’m taking one of you fuckers with me. Which one will it be?” I said, slowly moving the bottle neck from one guy to the other. They didn’t seem as brave now, and they looked at each other, actually shrugged it off, and turned around and left. I dropped what remained of the bottle and reentered the tavern, lighting a cigarette as I did.

“Where were you?” Howard asked. “You’re supposed to help move equipment.”

“Bite me,” I said and went to Eugene and told him what happened. He ran outside to make sure they weren’t still there. He quickly returned.

“There’s no one there,” he reported. I went to the bar and ordered a shot of whiskey. I downed that and immediately ordered another. The bartender looked at me suspiciously, like I was going to drink the whole bottle in front of him. I shot him daggers with my eyes and he relented and poured me another shot. I downed it then walked away, back to the equipment and the van and another lousy day.

Back in the van Eugene explained what had happened to me. We still had one more show in Eugene, at Max’s Tavern. We debated whether to cancel the tour and return to Seattle. We still had shows in Corvallis.

“No way! We keep on playing. We can’t let the bastards win,” Ritchie said.

“It was just an isolated incident. They were probably upset that the girls sat at our table. Let’s play the show at Max’s and make sure none of us is alone, in case they come back tomorrow,” I said.

The Max’s gig was on the weekend, in between we had a show in Corvallis. Corvallis, Max’s in Eugene, then Corvallis again then we were driving back to Seattle. I was looking forward to it.

To be honest, all these places started looking the same after a while, Corvallis, the Long Goodbye in Portland, Speedy O’Tubbs, all the clubs we played in Seattle. Only the Satyricon and Squid Row had “punk rock” décor, with the graffiti and the intimate setting. Otherwise, it was a wash of brown wood bars, a pit area for the stage and the audience, and lots of white people. One night was indistinguishable from the last, except for the potential violence I experienced in Eugene.

I felt deflated after the incident at Duffy’s and lacked any enthusiasm on stage. Luckily we had Ritchie to stand front and center and be the focus of the audience’s attention. I just stood in back and played guitar. It was a grind, playing the same songs every night and trying to make it sound fresh. Even the use of the effects boxes didn’t cheer me up and get me excited. Corvallis was one long night.

Back in Eugene for our Friday night gig at Max’s I kept one eye peeled for my frat boy friends, but they didn’t show up. Max’s was more punk rockers and hippies than Duffy’s and they seemed more appreciative of our music. We sold twenty singles that night. They also let us have lots of free beer, more than any other venue ever did and I took to it like a baby to the bottle. Ahh, mother’s milk!I drank so much after the show that I passed out in the van, even though we had a motel room. Nobody could rouse me so I slept in the van all night, waking up cold, achy, and hungover.

One more gig, a Saturday night in Corvallis, and then the tour was over. I was determined to enjoy this show, to shake off the bad feeling that had descended on me after the Max’s show, and ignore the squabbling that was surfacing again now that we had no unified purpose as a group. Everyone was making demands, asking for a share of the profits even though we had agreed to add it all up when we returned to the Rat House. I kept my mouth shut and let Eugene deal with it. I was just the guitar player.

The last show was more college kids, more frat boys and sorority girls, more white people. That’s Oregon. I decided I was going to go full bore with the feedback and my stage presence. I did windmills and jumped up with my knees bent, every Pete Townsend move I could think off. My guitar was slung against my hip and I dared the audience to ignore me. They couldn’t, I was in their brains with my guitar. I was a Zen koan, only without words. They had to contemplate the meaning in the chaos. I sensed Eugene was on my wavelength because his keyboard playing was also chaotic and maddening. We worked together, played off each other, all with a steady, throbbing beat provided by Howard and Clark. Howard admirably kept 4/4 time, deciding against doing any fancy rolls or complicated drum patterns that he’d fuck up anyway, just playing 4/4 and keeping the beat. His only concession to the chaos was using his crash cymbal more than usual. It was at that show that I decided we were a band, we could see eye to eye only on stage, the rest of the time it was arguments and petty grievances. We crystallized that night and we did it in front of a bunch of college kids. We sold all the rest of our singles that night.

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