As hard as it is to believe, there was a time it wasn't cool to be in a garage band in New Jersey. As far as the world of the eighties was concerned, nothing good had ever come from New Jersey. They were making fun of us on Saturday Night Live. Springsteen was playing the Monmouth Arts Center for his friends. Southside Johnny had a crummy album. Tom Cruise was still in grammar school, and all the cool kids were hanging out at CBGB and Max's Kansas City in the city.
It was the great musical wasteland of the 1980's. The life we had ahead of us as lower-middle class, anal-retentive nerd boys seemed bleak. Jimmy Carter's left-over double-digit inflation and Reaganonomics were going to keep people without money from getting any and those things seemed aimed straight at our empty bank accounts. Worse than our financial outlook was our terminal lack of rhythm. We watched Michael Jackson Moonwalk and saw the girls swoon to George Michael's five o'clock shadow. The alternative was punk, and we weren't ready to pierce our frontal lobes. We were college students. We might need those brains some day.
While bands like Blink 182, Weezer, and Jimmy Eat World, have made it socially acceptable for suburban white boys to be cool, twenty years ago we were pitious, sexually bereft charity cases. We got mercy dates. We were doomed to pocket protectors, white shirts, and black hornrimmed glasses. We would marry women named Gladys, have sex once, and die like mayflies.
So we hung out at the music store in swarms, ogling gear, coaxing feedback and the sounds of tortured animals from stacks of amplifiers.
We formed "Ted Greth and the Honeymooners" one boring Saturday afternoon in 1979 after a poisonous ennui overtook us during a three-hour drive home from Lancaster, Pennsylvania, where boredom was first invented. Someone remembered the only interesting landmark we'd seen was an International Harvester dealership. The guy had a sale on combines and hay balers. His name was Ted Greth.
We didn't have a tape deck in the car so we had to listen to the radio. In those days they played Eddie Money and Cyndi Lauper all day long. We sang Two Tickets to Paradise and Girls Just Wanna Have Fun for two hours. ( Now, whenever I hear either of those songs, I get the urge to throw myself head-first into a wall.)
It was me and a couple of guys singing. In true Mickey Rooney style, someone said, "Hey kids, let's put on a show."
When we drove back to pick up the body, Mark, our soon-to-be drummer, was still alive. So we started the band.
For most of his 18 years of life Dennis had done little else than masturbate and play guitar. It showed. He had a bad complexion, but he was a guitar teacher from Matawan and could mimic Steve Howe riffs note for note. And he was dating my sister, so he was always over the house.
Mark had been rejected by Juilliard, and got into the Shenandoah Conservatory of Music instead. After a year of playing timpani in a symphony he went nuts and hitchhiked north to New Jersey where he was doing social work in the inner-city. Being an orchestral percussionist he liked banging anything that would make a sound. Every now and then, in the middle of a number, we'd start hearing a weird clanking where the tom or snare should be, and it would be Mark pounding brake drums or somebody's amplifier. It was hard to keep him playing a regular old kit.
I had a couple of years of piano lessons under my belt, but between playing scales for Mrs. Anderson in fourth grade and hacking out Tony Banks synth solos, there was a huge air gap of musical illiteracy. I was an undergrad EE working at RCA in Somerville, and probably better off measuring input capacitance on integrated circuit input pins than trying to entertain people.
My brother, on the other hand, had studied classical guitar under a protege of Segovia. While other kids were picking out the forever stale opening notes to Stairway to Heaven driving people to murder in local music stores, he would hammer out Steve Vai or Stevie Ray Vaughan licks on any Stratocaster in the place with an expression of calm indifference, then pick up a nylon guitar and pick out Mason Williams. (Then he'd comment on how easily impressed everyone was, and play something really hard.) He complemented his flawless playing with terminal good looks. He need only show up in his boots and jeans, shirtless save for his leather vest, and women of all ages would flock to his side to curry favor. He played anything with strings, filling in on bass, rhythm, lead, and ever-presumptuous mandolin.
Occasionally he'd play ukelele for effect. Occasionally I'd hold up a four-foot plastic chicken to distract people from my playing.
We did a gig at a bar on Monmouth Street in Red Bank, New Jersey, which is now famous because of Kevin Smith. We'd been trying to get into Big Man's West, Clarence Clemons' place, as he always sponsored local talent. But the booking guy wanted to come see us play somewhere first. So we did the place across the street--a restaurant/bar called something pseudo-nautical like, "The Rotting Crow's Foot".
It was one of our very first gigs as a foursome (we'd just fired our inept bass player--he cried) and we sold ourselves as a Motown band. My brother played the owner a tape we'd made of the only two R&B songs we knew -- Ain't That Peculiar and Gimme Some Lovin', and the owner figured it sounded like Motown even though it wasn't. So he put up a big sign on the marquee outside the bar saying, "THE HONEYMOONERS MOTOWN NIGHT - HAPPY HOUR 8-9" We were going to play "outside" on the covered "patio", which was a nice arrangement capable of holding about 100 people.
This concerned a lot of people for a couple of reasons. First, the bar was more a restaurant than a bar and the "inside" was quite sophisticated in decor and atmosphere. They frequently had a jazz trio play. A gorgeous woman played a seven-foot Steinway. She was accompanied by two gray-haired guys, one on a very small, Buddy Rich style kit and another on acoustic bass.
When we showed up the jazz combo was setting up, which involved, for her, sitting down in front of the piano.
The Honeymooners, on the other hand, arrived in four nearly-wrecked, bondo adorned, american-made automobiles. We lugged out amps, cabinets, mike stands, my Rhodes (which weighed 200 lbs), a couple of synthesizers, floor monitors, a mixing board, guitars (both Mark and Dennis traveled with no less than four guitars each), and some lighting. This concerned the jazz trio who were directly between our amplifiers and Big Man West's front door, across the street.
We were then confronted with the fact there was only one outlet on the patio and we needed part of an electrical generation station just to get the mics to feedback. This was easily remedied by stringing a couple of extension cords to the tuxedo rental store next to the bar. The tuxedo guys were closed, and so were fair game by New Jersey state law (which may no longer be in force).
After the first eardrum bursting notes emerged from our puking amps, we faced our second problem, which was that we knew absolutely no Motown. We could, however, do a 12-bar R&B improv that sounded like the intro to a Motown song, so we warmed up by playing it for about a half an hour.
This wasn't working too well. The windows were rattling in the restaurant, bugging the jazz trio who were well into "Taking the A Train" when the owner came out and asked us where the Motown was, and by the way, did we notice the lack of Motown was not drawing any paying customers?
We had indeed noticed. And so we did what any band would do. We launched into a set of intense progressive rock, blaring our renditions of Roundabout, One more red nightmare, and Duke's travels. Windows were shaking, but we were tight as hell and strange as it was, because you absolutely cannot dance to that kind of music, people began to fill up the patio and tried to dance anyway.
That's when we learned an important law of gigging. When people are drunk, they like everything.
Seeing the audience was growing and wanted to gyrate, my brother suggested a few songs that people could dance to. So we did our Gimme Some Lovin and Ain't That Peculiar. Then we hit them with the big guns.
My brother was half way through a flawless rendition of Stevie Ray Vaughan's Couldn't Stand the Weather just as the movie theater one street over let out. The patio jammed with popcorn breathed people. The one waitress couldn't handle the crowd, and the unruly folks piled into the calm restaurant waving money, fondling the women, and demanding liquor.
Inside the restaurant, OUR crowd began to suggest in a very intense manner that the beautiful piano playing girl take off her dress. People were having trouble eating their lobster bisque because slobbering New Jerseyans wearing New York Giants sweatshirts were demanding stage sex and spilling Budweiser foam. The jazz girl demanded the owner do something or the jazz band was gone. You couldn't even hear them with all the insanity outside, she said.
Outside, drunken women were dancing seductively with each other, taunting my brother with their undergarments as he belted out Born to Run. It was about this time I started getting messages.
I'd had a water glass perched on the top of my Rhodes. As it was impossible to drink and play the progressive shit we did, my glass was in fact filled with water--until a woman stuck a twenty-dollar bill into it. Then she tossed out my water, put the twenty back in, and added a piece of paper with her phone number.
She batted her eyes and walked away.
I was singing Money for Nothing by Dire Straits while this was happening.
Then another woman came by and did the same thing. Then another.
Eventually there was about $120 in my glass and a bunch of phone numbers and I wasn't even doing any nifty soloing. I was feeling like a true rock star stud when the last woman put her mouth to my ear and let me know in no uncertain terms that those phone numbers and tips were for my BROTHER, who was sweating under his leather vest so seductively that he was not going to make it out of the bar without having some kind of intimate sexual relationship with at least two of those women at once.
I was crushed, of course. And to make matters worse, my own wife had come onto the patio just as the woman leaned toward me and spoke into my ear, so it looked like she was nibbling my ear while I was playing.
Just about everything went downhill from there.
The owner came out and pulled the plug. The cops had come by because the unruly crowd had spilled out into the parking lot behind the bar and were vandalizing cars. The restaurant patrons left before dessert because the noise out back was so loud they couldn't hear the ice tinkling in their vodka tonics. The jazz combo had left before finishing their second set.
Though it had been a record night for bar receipts, the Honeymooners had breached their contract by claiming to be a Motown group and not playing any. We got $200 and were told never to return.
The booking guy at Big Man's West had heard about the commotion across the street but had never come by to see our set of original music.
I wound up having to carry my brother's guitars and amps back myself, because he was off getting blow jobs from two women at once in their conversion van.
And my wife wouldn't speak to me for two days.
My career in the entertainment business had finally gotten off the ground. We were no longer soulless white boys.
We were musicians.