I figure it’s a good time to let go of a small dark secret, now that it’s twelve years later. In the past few days I’ve seen social media hotheads go off on former SNL bandleader/guitarist G.E. Smith for playing at the current Republican National Convention. Some voices of sanity have finally risen above the shaming, calls for slaughter, etc. Good thing. Because, as they have pointed out, he likely did it simply for the payday.
As did I, in 2004. I have a fan who is a significant player in that party’s business. I was contacted through his office about performing at a private event, a party at Roseland Ballroom during the RNC, which was in Manhattan that year. I didn’t know what to do. I was not a W. fan. But unlike Neil Young, for whom I have great respect, I wasn’t sitting on piles of cash that would have made it easier to take a noble stand against endorsements, or, in this case, what might look to be an unspoken endorsement of someone I wasn’t voting for. I looked at the calendar. Not much happening. And I needed the money, desperately. I figured: shoot high, and see what happens. So I did.
They accepted the offer like a dog inhaling a scrap of hamburger dropped to the floor, so quickly that I immediately knew that I could’ve asked for at least twice as much and gotten it, no sweat. File under: lessons learned. But the figure was enough–especially considering it was a 20-minute set–I needed the work, and the experience itself seemed like it would be very interesting. I did have my attorney put something in the contract about my likeness, appearance, etc. could not be used as advertisement, endorsement, whatever. (But it occurs to me now: why would they?) They were also paying for all transportation and hotel rooms.
This was a short three years after 9/11; there was a tangible amount of fear in my decision-making process as well. We were booked at a hotel on a corner in Times Square, across the street from the Roseland. Got there the day before. Had a good time that night, walking the streets–all the way down to the Village and back. Next morning, what was going on down on the street, below my window, was also on national television–numerous protests going on. Definitely added a certain edge to the day. Soundcheck was early afternoon; we were escorted over to the venue and after setting up and checking, we were given the play-by-play–our movements backstage were very tightly scripted–and the show was being recorded on video. “You need to be in this spot at 7:23pm; in 4 minutes, someone will escort you to this spot,” etc. We went back to the hotel after getting some lunch. As the day was progressing, the tension on the streets increased. The street between the hotel and venue was barricaded off. Three of us had gig bags with guitars in them–a “gig bag” being a soft case that you carry on your shoulder; they’re an easier way to transport instruments when in less than likely harmful environments. We were told to enter through the front doors of the venue–we had laminated passes that would get us through the doors and backstage. But as soon as we came out of the hotel to walk over to the venue, we saw rows of heavily armed law enforcement officers guarding those front doors. Not wanting any of those folks to think WE were armed (with those long narrow bags on our shoulders), we went back upstairs, called our contact at the venue and demanded to be escorted around to the backstage door. Which is what they should’ve done anyway.
I don’t remember much about the set itself, except that it went quickly–4 songs and we’re outta there! There’s a video of Down to the Well on youtube from that set: https://youtu.be/Rjb-GYKiEzg; I don’t remember the rest of the set, though I do have a copy somewhere of the video of the whole thing. We lingered at the buffet tables and the bar afterwards, taking in some of the “free”; there were other acts playing before and after us. After dismal results at selling merch in the lobby towards the end of the night, I got into a heated and hilarious argument with a delegate’s daughter from Montana, who’d had way too much of the Kool-Aid, literal and otherwise. I took that as a sign to head on out. We had an early morning ahead.
I had arranged, by talking with our “handler” that night, for us to be picked up and taken to the Newark airport in good time to catch our flight home–a couple of hours early to account for traffic, etc. So next morning we got ready, packed, brought our stuff downstairs to the hotel lobby, and stood outside waiting for a driver in an black Escalade to pick us up. Waiting. Waiting. Waiting while watching NYPD officers with bomb dogs searched across the street–that made me nervous. But not as nervous as the continued . . . waiting. I start calling the contact numbers I had for the responsible parties. Nothing. Zip. Voicemails left in vain. We were quickly losing our extra time. Finally–I got a half-awake intern on the phone, who told me a car was on its way. Finally, said Escalade arrived, with a very skittish and peculiarly uncomfortable looking guy at the wheel, who in my memory’s eye resembled a skinnier Chris Farley. His vehicle/code name was “Omega 33“. He helped us load our stuff in, then when we got in the vehicle, he turned around from the driver’s seat and said, “Now do you any of you guys know how we get to Newark from here?”
We looked at each other, then at him in disbelief. “You don’t know the way to the airport?!” I don’t remember how we got directions (this was pre-GPS being common technology), but I think it might have been our driver calling someone on his cell. It was as if this person had never driven a car before. And we had maybe an hour before our flight left. Once we got on the freeway, I felt a little relief. But he was driving erratically–3 near-collisions with either guardrails or other vehicles–and then he started looking at his phone, and answering personal calls. Tom exploded–“Get off your #$@! phone and watch where you’re going!”–something along those lines. By true benevolent grace we did make it to the airport unscathed. While unloading our luggage, the driver said, “I guess this means I shouldn’t expect a gratuity?” To which one of us replied, “Correct.”
We ran inside–at the ticket counter we were greeted by Mr. Non-Congeniality, who informed us with relish that we were too late to check our luggage–so we had to haul ass to the gate with everything. Because this was post-9/11 security, I had to surrender wire cutters and a number of tools that I carry with my guitars. But otherwise, no casualties–we made the flight just as they were closing the door. Got home; the check cleared, and all was well.
Would I do it again? Probably. I’ve always thought that music, and all art for that matter, should be for everybody, inclusive in every which-way, though not compromising for the sake of that accessibility. And (good) art, by its nature, if it’s doing its job, offers us an implicit opportunity for change, for growth, and maybe reminds us of the baffling wonder of what it means to be alive, whether it’s Shakespeare, Billie Holiday, or Thornton Dial. And who doesn’t need that? I don’t think we put anything across that night at the Roseland that made anybody think twice about ol’ W. I’m not sure how many folks in the room were really listening. It was a party; some people danced. Mission accomplished. We were just a band . . . playing a gig.
VINYL ON SALE: Don’t forget, vinyl collectors, the gatefold double-LP issue of Long Gone Time is now available–and is now ON SALE for a limited time in the store here at kevingordon.net. The vinyl presents the record as it was originally intended to be sequenced–totally different from the CD, and with a bonus track not available on CD. Comes with free download of all tracks. Get the vinyl, or the CD, here: http://kg.kevingordon.net/long-gone-time/
Thanks to all of who in the midwest who came out to hear us earlier this month–it was a real pleasure playing for you! Look for a lot more tour dates coming up in the Fall.
He passed away this past Tuesday, one of the chief architects of rock n’ roll. I only met him once, after he, Keith Richards, Levon Helm, and others cut a song I wrote with Gwil Owen called Deuce and a Quarter, in the summer of 1996, and released on “All the King’s Men” on Sweetfish Records in 1997. ATKM was a tribute record for Scotty, Elvis Presley’s first guitarist, and D.J. Fontana, Elvis’s first drummer, who was originally from Shreveport, LA, my birthplace.
Scotty’s and D.J.’s manager, the late Dan Griffin, took me and a couple of others out to Scotty’s house, which I believe was out around Ashland City TN, just northwest of Nashville. It was one of those things that, at the time, you can’t quite believe—though he was such a nice guy, and very welcoming. I remember someone asking him about particular Elvis shows, and he had amazing recall, using his memory and a book he referred to (whose title I can’t remember). I only wish I’d had the presence of mind to stay in touch with him, to get to know him better. And yeah, maybe to ask him about that one lick from the Sun sessions w/Elvis that Keith apparently still can’t figure out, according to his autobiography (and I can’t remember which track it’s on at the moment)! (Though why I think he would have told me, I don’t know!) And there’s a particular and peculiar kind of “stumble” thing he played on at least one of the more obviously blues-oriented tracks, kind of a club-footed T-Bone Walker lick, that I sure wish I’d been able to ask him about. The most obvious example is on EP’s version of Billy “the Kid” Emerson’s “When It Rains It Really Pours”. Some of my favorite solos or parts of solos include the beginning of the 2nd solo in “Hound Dog” (about 1:22 into the track, those two chordal “growls”), and that wildly chromatic ride on “Too Much”. How bout that nutty start to the solo in “Money Honey”? But really—it’s the whole mix, right? What came to be known and grown as rock n’ roll. You can hear him going back and forth between country and blues (with an occasional foray into “pop” songs like “Harbor Lights” or “Blue Moon”), a conversation with itself in related languages like Spanish and Portuguese, but going out from the somewhat predictable towards . . . something else, a new language. Those crazy dissonant bends, that would often occur at the end of a solo that had been otherwise faithful to the song’s melody, like what had come before, what was expected, a la Chet Atkins. As with anyone’s passing who’s been such a major cultural force, Mr. Moore’s death provides (unneeded) incentive to revisit his playing in a different light. I’ve loaded an old iPod with the Sun Sessions as well as a couple of the early RCA LPs, and plan on doing several hundred miles over the next week giving those records that I’ve loved since I was kid in the single digits a fresh listen.
More about Deuce and a Quarter: It was one of four songs that Gwil and I had written after I’d made what would become my first release for Shanachie, “Cadillac Jack’s #1 Son”. I’d started it in early 1996 and finished it with Gwil that May. Along with “Deuce”, there was an early version of “Casino Road”, “Pueblo Dog”, and, I think, “Marina Takes Her Aim”. Three of those would later end up on my next record, “Down to the Well”, but at the time were just what we’d been working on. Dan Griffin called me and asked if we had any new songs; I told him that we had four, but that they were all so weird that I would likely be the only person to record them. He asked for a demo of them anyway, and explained what he was working on, the project that became the “All the King’s Men” record. So, with a beat-to-hell Shure SM-58 (at that time, the only mic I owned), plugged into an old Boss analog delay guitar effects pedal (that I’d bought from Bo Ramsey circa 1989), into a cassette deck, I set about making demos of those songs, just vocal and acoustic guitar. I sent it on, not thinking much of it, since these kinds of possibilities are like lottery tickets with even worse odds.
Much to my surprise (mixed with a little horror, because of the lo-fi quality of the demo I’d sent), about a week later I got another call from Dan, saying he’d been riding around Manhattan in a limo with Keith Richards listening to my demo and that Keith, along with Levon Helm, Scotty and D.J. were going to cut “Deuce”. Having then lived in Music (Business) City for long enough to know not to put much hope into a “gonna-happen” like this until you had the record in your hands and played it and found that your song was indeed on it, Gwil and I were mildly excited, but knew better than to take it as a sure thing. The session itself was still about a month away, and, considering some of the personalities/habits of the folks in question, well . . . anything could happen.
I think it was early July—my wife and I were at the in-laws’ place in Okoboji, Iowa. I can’t remember who called whom, but Gwil told me that he’d gotten a very late night call from a mutual friend, photographer extraordinaire Jim Herrington, who had been hired to shoot photos of a recording session at Levon’s barn near Woodstock, NY, a session in which Keith Richards, Levon, Scotty Moore, D.J. Fontana, and others (mostly members of The Band) were on—they had recorded “Deuce” that day. Jim didn’t know the song was ours until the subject came up that night while a rough mix was being put together. So it was through Jim’s phone call to Gwil that we found out that the session had actually happened.
When the record came out and I first heard their version, I was a little under-whelmed—it felt so slow, compared to the Rockpile-esque quick tempo I was used to. But it has sweetened over the years—maybe I got smarter, maybe it took some time to realize how special the track is simply because of who played on it and the fun they apparently had while recording it. (Jim’s photos document some of that fun very well—one image that was published in Rolling Stone is of Scotty and Keith about to fall off their chairs, with guitars on, laughing at each other.
I just found my journal from this time period; this entry is dated July 15, 1996:
“Went over to Dan Griffin’s yesterday—heard the Deuce & a Quarter cut—great—at first seemed slow, but I think it’s o.k. now—just sounds like a wacked-out Chuck Berry track—Keith’s solo a little buried in the rough mix—clean tone, which I didn’t expect—vocal’s good though—they changed the phrasing on the turnaround, but that’s o.k. Keith sounds like he’s singing ‘green stains’ on the 2nd chorus—but who cares, it’s Keith Richards singing something we wrote—
“Went out to Scotty Moore’s house in Joelton, too. Nice man, looking old, though—he reminded me of (my paternal grandmother)—the mannerisms of an older smoker—something in the voice, too . . . incredible to be sitting at this guy’s very normal kitchen table—watching him look up info about where he played in Richmond, VA w/Elvis—in a book . . . . We had gone over there to take him his and D.J.’s gear—D.J. still uses the same throne he used with Elvis—a padded piece of round plywood with a couple of nails holding on the hardware.”
I’m forever grateful to Dan and everyone who played on the recording and made this incredible stroke of luck happen . . .
Heading back out on the road tomorrow—check the tour page for details, but the short version is:
July 1 The Stage at KDHX St. Louis MO
July 2 FitzGerald’s 35th Annual American Music Festival (2 sets) Berwyn, IL
July 3 Byron’s Pomeroy IA (double-bill w/Jon Dee Graham) 4pm
July 4 Franklin IA
July 5 (open)
July 6 Summerfest Milwaukee WI (our first time to play this great festival)
July 7 Natalie’s Columbus OH
These are all full-band (quartet) shows, with Tom Comet, Paul Griffith, and Joe V. McMahan. Come on out and dig in!
room, where it’s about 80% chaos. Guitars, amps, records, books, stuff that doesn’t work anymore “but might be worth something” . . . my version of the man cave/storage unit/writing room, as of now. Been fooling around back here late at night, (not) writing songs, recording some covers very informally (we’re talking cell phone voice memos […]
Just a short one here, letting those of you who’ll be in Nashville tomorrow(Thursday, May 26) that I’ll be wrapping up my early show residency at the 5 Spot, here on the east side, from 6 to 8 pm. Kevin Gordon will open the show solo. Then I’ll close the show with my band o’ […]