I navigated the Honda Civic into one of those New York City parking spaces where you’re not sure if it’s even a parking space at all, but this was still pre-Giuliani New York City when the police didn’t give a rat’s ass. Since I was still inept with the stick, I stalled 8 or 9 times trying to back into the spot while passers-by looked on disapprovingly. I was a Native New Yorker and yet somehow managed for the first time in my life to be marked as a tourist. Go figure.
It was 6pm and just getting dark, but the sidewalks were already empty. “Where IS everybody?” I thought. I had worked as a foot-messenger in this area as a part-time job back in high school and knew the neighborhood pretty well. Even at 6, it should be packed with people. I turned the corner onto West 28th Street and walked right into a scene from “Taxi Driver” – cars were backed-up the entire length of the block while 8 or 9 hookers in full regalia conga-lined it from car-to-car, hustling for “dates”.
“Oh, THERE they are!” I thought with a sense of relief. The “scene” would move a few blocks this way or that over time, or whenever the heat was on, but the common thread with this was that it would always take place on a block with a hotel, so that once the handshake was made there was a convenient place to go and get the dirty work over with. Apparently, the “scene” had just made it’s way over to the block I was to audition for Gregg & Tim on. Well, at least if the audition sucked I could go back downstairs and drown my sorrows in the sweet arms of Chlamydia.
This image pretty much sums up the police attitude towards “vice” in 1980’s New York CIty. Photo credit: booyorkcity.com
I made my way down the block, found the building, and rang the buzzer. The door buzzed open, and I walked down a narrow, dimly-lit hallway into a very small elevator that was barely enough to fit me and my bass case. I pressed the button for the 6th floor, the door slammed shut with a heavy “thud”, and the elevator jerked upwards with a start, then stopped for a brief moment, then slowly began ascending with a horrible mechanical grinding sound that made me think someone was trying to crush a refrigerator in a trash compactor. This was not alarming in to me in the least, by the way, as most every band rehearsal space in The City was in a similar state – housed in a building that had dodged condemnation for years because the landlords knew who to bribe in the building department and how much to give in order for the guy to look the other way. It was much cheaper to do it that way than actually keep the buildings in functioning order.
I often imagined a modern-day re-enactment of the tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire taking place in one of these buildings – with dozens of panicked rock band musicians trampling each other in a mad-dash to the exits, draging their still-attached amplifiers behind them.
I stepped off the elevator and onto the 6th floor, then knocked on the studio door. Several bolt-locks were unlatched from the inside, and the door swung open.
There stood a tall, curly-haired, glasses-wearing, pot-bellied-tie-died man who looked just a few years older than I. He was holding a bowl of cat food in his hands. The guy just stood there and looked at me with such an intense expression of disdain and resentment that I would’ve thought I had knocked on the wrong door if I wasn’t so used to it by now.
You see, pretty much everyone I had to deal with in those days in the lower levels of the NYC “rock music ecosystem” was a total dick. Guitar store salespeople? Dicks. Studio owners? Dicks. Club bookers? Dicks, Dicks, Dicks. All of ’em. I think it was the first item listed on the job requirements to get a sales job at Sam Ash. “OK, now. Let’s take a look at your resume. Hmmmm, I see here it says that you’re a complete and total dick. How does $150k a year sound?”
Above: One of the fine establishments on West 48th street in the 1980’s where you could walk in off the street with a pocket full of cash and still get treated like a piece of shit by the staff.
The cat-food-holding man just stood there, staring me down like I was a door-to-door Jehova’s Witness who had just interrupted his family dinner.
“Uh . . . I’m supposed to be meeting some guys named Gregg and Tim here for an audition?”
His cat paced back and forth nervously behind him, awaiting her dinner.
“LUCY………..SHUT!!! THE!!! FUCK!!! UP!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!”
He turned away abruptly, set down the bowl of cat food, and walked through another door to what I imagined was his “office”, slamming it shut without saying another word.
I entered the “reception area” and could see a door ajar down a dark hall to my left. I headed down the hall, pushed open the door, and standing right there before me was Hank Letterman. Holy shit, it was really him.
“Hey, Bob. Great to meet you!”
Gregg looked exactly the same as he did on TV, and I couldn’t help but burst out in laughter. “I’m sorry, man. I just love your stuff on TV so much that the mere sight of you cracks me up.” I realized that might be taken the wrong way, but he didn’t seem to mind. I think he was used to it.
One of the other two guys, looking like a somewhat slightly younger, thinner version of Morrissey without the coiffed hair-do, came over and introduced himself. “Hey, I’m Tim, thanks for coming down all the way from Westchester. This is Tim Curry, our drummer.”
From the riser, Tim Curry extended his hand with a big smile. He struck me as a bit older than the rest of us, and had a vibe about him that told me “this guy isn’t from New York.”
I put down my bass case, took off my jacket, and began the most awkward part of the audition – the chatty bit that happens while you simultaneously try to unpack your instrument, tune up, and attempt (in vain) to get a halfway-decent sound from the crappy amp provided by the studio.
“Yeah, so the drive down here was crazy. There was an accident on the Hutch.”
“Cool. What kind of bass is that?”
“Oh, it’s an Ibanez Musician, I got it back in high-school.”
The first thing rock band musicians do upon meeting other rock band musicians is is to sniff out each other’s gear. It’s the same exact thing that happens when dogs sniff out each others’ butts. Gregg had a black-and-white Rickenbacker 360 running through a Roland JC-120 guitar amp. This was the standard-issue setup for “alternative rock band guitarists” at the time (as an example, see the same exact guitar/amp setup in the Smiths video on my post from a few days ago). You could basically walk into any guitar store in America and say “give me an REM” and they would hand you a Rick 360 with a JC-120.
Our “awkward pre-audition setup chit-chat” was suddenly interrupted by the loud and unmistakable sound of some heavy-duty duct tape being ripped from it’s roll. I looked over to Tim Curry, and saw him perched atop the drum throne, his right foot held high in the air. In his right hand was his kick-drum pedal, while a really long piece of duct tape dangled from his lips.
In a single motion, he pressed the pedal to his foot, took the tape from his mouth, and started wrapping it around his foot and the pedal together, around and around several times so that his foot was completely, firmly, solidly affixed.
“Tapin’ in, boys! Tapin’ in!”
As he continued to apply additional long strips of tape, wrapping them around the now-joined-together-foot-pedal, getting tighter and tighter with each turn, I stood there completely baffled. I had played with dozens upon dozens of drummers of all shapes, sizes, and levels of ability in my life, and had yet to see anything even remotely close to this. If you’ve ever played the drums before, you know that even though it can look like nothing but a whole lot of heavy-handed booming and bashing, it actually requires a great deal of tactile control and feel on all four limbs, including the legs and by extension the feet.
If you’ve never played a drum kit before, imagine duct-taping your foot to the gas pedal in your car in the manner described above. Can you even imagine trying to drive your car that way? “Maybe this guy is on to something here,” I thought. “Maybe I should be taping my right thumb to the ‘E’ string, so my hand doesn’t slip off. Don’t need the ‘E’ string much anyway.”
The first song we were to play was one of Tim and Gregg’s original numbers called “Fact of the Matter”.
“You want me to show you the chords?”
“Nah, I play by ear. Just start the song and I’ll pick it up.”
Tim Curry counted us off, and the song began. A mid-tempo intro with a jangly guitar arpeggio, rimshots on the snare drum keeping time.
“D major, walkdown to B minor, walkdown from G to E,” I thought to myself as I joined in. Simple chord changes, piece of cake.
Then Tim began singing. “Stuck in the middle of . . . relationship and lust . . . have I been unjust . . . don’t know who to trust.”
“Man, this guy needs to put away the rhyme dictionary,” I thought to myself as the song built towards the first chorus. The melody was nice. The jangly guitar bits were nice. Tim’s voice was nice. This was sounding pretty good!
Then we hit the chorus and the drums kicked in.
For those of you that have never played bass in a rock band before, the musical relationship you have with the drummer is very intense and intimate – just like the relationship you have with your sex partner. It’s exactly like fucking in the sense that if you can’t get a good rhythm going together, if you keep struggling to get into a groove to no avail, then you’re in for a very frustrating and unsatisfying time.
We finished the song, and I couldn’t help but imagine what it could sound like with a drummer who didn’t have his foot taped to his kick-drum pedal.
NEXT–> Laying down some “Ground Rules”