A dialogue driven work of fiction that considers the reasons bands are often plagued by jealousy and infighting…
by: Alan Swyer
On a Tuesday morning in January, two refugees from New Jersey were seated on the patio of a funky Santa Monica coffee house known to locals as the anti-Starbucks (and rumored to be owned by Bob Dylan) when a third ex-Jerseyite joined them.
“Wearing a t-shirt instead of a winter coat?” Phil Adler asked the new arrival.
“I gave it away before I got on the plane,” answered Joey Amato.
“So where’re you staying?” inquired Matt Kaine.
“With a cousin in Encino. Can I ask you guys a question?”
“Fire away,” said Phil.
“I’ve never seen so many pretty women—“
“Instead of Rosa the Mustache and Peroxide Polly?” interjected Matt.
Joey nodded. “But how the hell do you meet ’em?”
“I got lucky,” said Phil “Julie was living next door to me.”
“And you?” Joey asked Matt.
Matt sighed. “I only get lucky when I’m playing in a band.”
“Maybe we should start one,” mused Joey.
“Out here?” wondered Phil.
“No, on the moon,” replied Joey. “You’re a bass player,” he said, pointing at Phil. “He’s a drummer,” he said with a nod toward Matt. “And all of us sing.”
“Plus rumor has it you play pretty decent guitar,” Matt offered.
“Pretty decent?” complained Joey.
“For a white guy not named Clapton, Stevie Ray Vaughan, or Jeff Beck,” teased Matt. “And if we want, I know a guy who plays horn.”
Joey turned and faced Phil. “You in?”
“What’s that mean?” asked Joey.
“I’ve got a songwriting gig.“
“Anything good?” Joey inquired.
“Think anybody’s interested in “What A Difference A Day Makes” or “A Sunday Kind Of Love?” It’s mainly hooks, hooks, and more hooks.”
“Until Michael Buble or Dolly sparks to one of ’em,” said Matt.
“If only,” replied Phil. “And I’ve got a relationship just getting underway, plus…“
“Plus what?” wondered Joey when Phil hesitated.
“We’re in our mid-thirties. What kind of future is there?”
“Who’s talking future?” responded Matt. “We have some fun—“
“Get lucky once in a while—” stated Joey. “So?”
“On one condition,” said Phil.
“Name it,” said Joey.
“The moment somebody announces we’re the next Stones or Springsteen…”
“Yeah?” asked Matt.
“We jump off the Santa Monica Pier. So where are we supposed to play?”
“I’ve been sitting in at a place in Venice on Saturday afternoons,” said Matt. “If we get something going, I bet they’ll let us play.”
“So?” asked Phil’s new lady friend Julie when he got back from the first rehearsal a few evenings later.
“We won’t make anyone forget Ray Charles, James Brown, or Elvis.”
Not quite three weeks later, as he waited with his band members to follow a group called Fever for a three-song set at the club in Venice, Phil turned toward Matt. “Nervous?” he whispered.
“W-what’s there to be nervous about?” Matt playfully stammered.
“Yeah, me, too. But in a good way.”
Once the two of them took the small stage with Joey and a sax player named Fred Duffy, any skittishness gave way to a strange but comforting feeling of belonging. Having chosen songs familiar only to hard-core music buffs, first came their rendition of James Carr’s “At The Dark End Of The Street,” with Matt singing lead, plus a brief sax solo. Then a version of Howard Tate’s “Ain’t Nobody Home,” with a lead vocal by Phil. Finally Tyrone Davis’ “Turn Back The Hands Of Time,” with Joey singing.
Buoyed by applause from the small but appreciative crowd, the musicians gathered in the alley out back.
“Worth keeping up?” asked Phil.
“Hell yeah!” replied Matt.
“But where are the women?” wondered Joey.
“Wait till the word gets out,” said Fred, the horn player.
“By then I’ll have TSB,” stated Joey.
“What’s that?” wondered Fred.
“Guess who’s not from Jersey,” teased Matt.
“Terminal semen backup,” explained Joey.
The audience was a little larger, and the applause a bit louder, the next Saturday when the band performed three more songs from way-back-when: Clarence Carter’s “Slip Away,” O.V. Wright’s “I’d Rather Be Blind, Crippled, And Crazy,” and Buster Brown’s “Fannie Mae.”
As they headed off-stage and were joined by Julie, they were approached by the club’s heavily tatted owner, Smokey. “I wanna start promoting you guys, but you gotta help me.”
“What do you need?” asked Matt.
After a moment of silence, Phil spoke. “We’ll get back to you.”
“How about the Flying Lizards?” asked Matt when the four musicians, plus Julie, took seats on the patio of the Santa Monica coffee house.
“Used by some Brits years ago,” replied Phil.
“The Zippers?” suggested Fred.
“There were the Squirrel Nut Zippers,” answered Phil.
“The The?” wondered Joey.
“Also taken,” said Phil.
“The Cannibals,” said Matt.
“Cannibal and the Headhunters,” countered Phil. “Plus the Fine Young Cannibals.”
“Know what you should really call yourselves?” asked Julie.
“Go ahead,” responded Joey.
“Since except for Phil you have no girlfriends…”
“Yeah?” wondered Matt.
“The Strokers,” said Julie.
Thanks to word of mouth, plus fliers posted around the westside of LA, there was a near-capacity crowd the next Saturday for the newly-named The Strokers, whose set began with Slim Harpo’s “Rainin’ In My Heart,” then followed with Alvin Robinson’s “Down Home Girl” and Lowell Fulson’s “Reconsider, Baby.”
As though in answer to their prayers, leaving the stage Joey found himself confronted by an attractive redhead. Then Matt was approached by a petite blonde. For Fred, it was a tall brunette.
With an approving smile, Smokey the owner sidled over toward Phil, who was standing with Julie. “Ready to move to prime-time?” Smokey asked.
“I bet you can twist our arms,” Phil replied.
“Then two questions. First, as much as I love the oldies you guys dig up, got any original material to mix in?”
“And what if you make it a full-fledged horn band, with keyboard plus a couple of other saxes?”
“For that we’ll get the big bucks?”
“I thought you guys pay me,” joked Smokey. “But maybe I can spring for something.”
Aware that with women having materialized there would be little reluctance from his band mates, Phil put the word out about their needs.
That Tuesday evening, Fred, Matt, and Joey met with four different piano players, then with guys eager to fill out the horn section — three who played alto sax, plus two on baritone.
Once decisions were made, the three Jerseyites discussed songs written and performed during their East Coast days, which enabled them to establish a mixture of vintage tunes with a few of their originals.
On the eve of the band’s first nighttime performance, Julie put down the novel she was reading in bed and turned toward Phil. “Why’d you guys break up back when?”
“We never exactly broke up. One day it just kind of ended.”
“Money? Egos? Jealousies? Crazy expectations?” Phil let out a sigh. “Maybe it was just time.”
“So you moved to Brooklyn and focused on composing?”
“If you don’t mind my asking,” Julie continued, “why do you think this time’ll be different?”
“And if the other guys start getting their hopes up?”
“I’ll tell ’em they’re out of their fucking minds. Meanwhile, guess who’s not quitting his day job.”
The next evening, as the band — now including a skinny piano player called Vince, a wiry guy named Lamar on alto, plus a bearded lug known as Bear on baritone — readied to take the stage, there was some last minute jockeying not just about the set list, but also about how the lead vocals would be divided between the three Jerseyites.
Any incipient awkwardness or dissension dissipated the moment the band took the stage. What followed, for the musicians as well as for the audience, was a love fest, with people getting to their feet, and some even dancing.
As a result, there was no paucity of women zeroing in on the musicians once the set ended, though Phil quickly extricated himself to join Julie.
“So tell me the truth,” she began. “Ever think you’d be in SoCal with a horn band?”
“And best of all,” replied Phil, “with you.”
“An overstatement,” said Julie with a smile. “But I’ll take it.”
“Some feelers are coming in,” Phil announced to Matt and Joey a couple of nights later over beers at a dive bar called JP’s. “Some place in the Valley wants to know if we’ll play. Plus a club in Orange County, and one in Solana Beach.”
“Not the Greek Theater?” teased Matt. “Or the Hollywood Bowl?”
“Where’s Solana Beach?” asked Joey.
“North County San Diego,” replied Phil.
“So what’s the problem?” wondered Matt.
Phil eyed first Matt, then Joey, before answering. “What’s our goal?”
“Our goal?” said Joey. “Today SoCal, tomorrow the world.”
“Tell me you’re not serious,” stated Phil.
“I can dream, can’t I?” inquired Joey. “Let’s say through some miracle we get signed by some label—”
“Come on—” interrupted Phil.
“Or asked to go on tour,” continued Joey.
“Why not wake up 6’8” and play for the Lakers?” responded Phil. “Let’s get something straight. There are only two kinds of groups that tour today. The big stars, many of ’em catering largely to nostalgia—”
“Or?” asked Joey.
“Kids willing to pile into a van and sleep three or four to a motel room. I don’t know about you guys, but that’s not me anymore.”
“So what’re you suggesting?” queried Matt.
“Enjoy this for what it is: a chance to get out of the house, have fun, express ourselves.”
“And meet women,” Joey interjected.
“But local gigs?” wondered Matt.
“L.A., Orange County, maybe even North County San Diego, I’m in,” said Phil. “But now that there are eight of us in the band? Nothing farther, not that anybody’s offering.”
Despite his reluctance to consider the band as more than a lark, Phil found himself unable to subdue his excitement as additional gigs began to materialize.
Did the offers, he wondered, owe to the fact that they were an anomaly, playing Jersey bar band music in laid back SoCal? Or that a horn band was a rarity at a time when what predominated was either hip-hop or self-pitying singer-songwriters hoping to be the contemporary version of Joni Mitchell or Leonard Cohen?
Or was it simply ironic that performing as a lark was yielding quicker results than when he and his friends were younger and desperate for success?
Several nights in a row, Phil lay awake in bed, pondering whether he and the other guys were setting themselves up for a fall.
But then came a moment when he finally relaxed and chuckled. Since he had no expectations, he asked himself, fall from what?
So why not, he decided, simply enjoy the ride?
Though there were trials and tribulations in the weeks that followed — a flat tire en route to a gig in Orange County, plus a speeding ticket on the way back from North County San Diego — they did little to impede the ever-increasing surge of exhilaration.
Playing brought joy. Adulation brought more joy. Offers from additional clubs upped the pleasure even higher.
Then, before a gig in Malibu, a fear Phil had been suppressing manifested itself when Joey spoke. “I’ve been thinking—” he began.
“Uh-oh,” said Matt.
“Seems to me my vocals get the biggest applause,”
“Questionable,” replied Matt. “But?
“And since usually it’s the guy on guitar who’s the star…”
“Cut to the chase,” demanded Matt.
“He wants more vocals,” stated Phil.
“Exactly,” said Joey. “You’ve seen the way the audience reacts. Especially the women.”
“I think you’re exaggerating, “ responded Phil.
“You know I’ve got the best voice,” Joey insisted.
“Right,” teased Matt. “People everywhere mistake you for Sinatra, Stevie Winwood, even Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland.”
“That supposed to be funny?” demanded Joey, defensive.
“Enough!” exclaimed Phil.
“What’s your problem?” asked Joey.
“We’re on in ten goddamn minutes,” reminded Phil.
It was nearly 1 AM when Julie heard Phil tiptoe into their bedroom. “Go okay?” she asked.
When Phil’s only response was a sigh, Julie sat up. “Another flat tire? Speeding ticket?”
“I don’t want to wake you.”
“I’m up. So tell me.”
“Dissension?” she asked. “Swelled heads? Craziness?”
“D. All of the above.”
“More like disappointed,” said Phil with a sigh.
“So what’s next?”
“TBD,” was all Phil said.
Though his tendency was to be proactive, in the days that followed Phil made a conscious decision not to reach out to his fellow band members. That resulted in a silence that was broken only when he and Joey received a text from Matt.
“So where do we go from here?” Matt asked when the three guys from Jersey reconvened at the coffee house in Santa Monica.
When Phil said nothing, Joey spoke up. “Even though I like the songs we do from once-upon-a-time, if we’re gonna be more than a cover band, seems to me we’ve got to focus on tunes we wrote.”
“You mean that Phil wrote,” corrected Matt.
“We all pitched in,” insisted Joey.
“Only in the way we performed ’em,” stated Matt. “But go on.”
Joey frowned. “I don’t think having three lead vocalists will get us anywhere.”
“Where’s anywhere?” Matt wondered.
Joey gazed first and Matt, then at Phil, before speaking. “At least one of us is in demand.”
“Did you get asked to be opening act for Springsteen? Elton John? Adele?”
“That supposed to be funny?”
“You’re the one who said he’s in demand,” reminded Matt.
“Remember that group called Fever that we followed that first Saturday afternoon?”
“The ones on the cover of Rolling Stone?” teased Matt.
“It just so happens,” said Joey with a sneer, “they’ve got hot new management. And guess who they asked to play lead guitar and sing.”
“Bonnie Raitt?” replied Matt.
“How come I’m not laughing?” grumbled Joey. “So I guess I’ve got to thank you.”
“For?” asked Matt.
“Making my decision easier.”
After watching Joey stand and start to leave, Matt turned to Phil. “What’d’ya think?”
Phil took a deep breath. “There goes our multi-million dollar contract.”
“And my house on the beach in Malibu.”
“And my Ferrari.”
“And my two Maseratis.”
“So?” asked Julie when Phil stepped into their apartment.
“Know how you said we weren’t spending enough time together?”
“You okay?” asked Julie.
Phil shrugged. “If guys could survive the break-up of the Beatles, the Band, Cream, and the Byrds, know what?
“Somehow I’ll survive,” said Phil, not realizing that less than a week later he would get a call informing him that Dolly Parton had agreed to include one of his songs on her next album.
Alan Swyer is an award-winning filmmaker whose recent documentaries have dealt with Eastern spirituality in the Western world, the criminal justice system, diabetes, boxing, and singer Billy Vera, plus a new one called “When Houston Had The Blues.” In the realm of music, among his productions is an album of Ray Charles love songs. His novel The Beard was recently published by Harvard Square Editions.