Saturday was a long day. My typed notes were almost forty pages, which in itself is an accomplishment every bit as remarkable as the construction of the great pyramid, or at least the Astrodome. My brain was frazzled, but I wasn’t anywhere near ready to quit. Fortunately, Mother Grail badgered me into stopping and getting ready; otherwise I would have been late for my date. As it was, it was after eight by the time I got up from the typewriter. No real problem—it never took me long to get dressed. Quick shower, quicker shave, a clean pair of jeans, choosing one of my four shirts with collars.
Judy Blue Eyes picked me up promptly at 8:35. She was (and who knows, probably still is) one of that rare breed, a woman who is consistently on time. On time to her meant five minutes late, of course. Which also meant that it had to be deliberate, since you cannot plan to be exactly five minutes late, time after time, without being just as capable of planning to be right on time. No doubt her subconscious was running the show. The Marquess, as it were, doing what her mother had drilled into her as her grandmother had drilled into her mother (and still effective despite the sexual revolution because the brainwashing had been done early enough): nice girls don’t appear too eager, lest they send out the wrong signals, and nice boys don’t mind waiting a few minutes for their dates anyway. Well, I wasn’t a nice boy, but I didn’t mind waiting a very predictable five minutes. She wasn’t really a nice girl, either.
She was looking foxy, too. Normally, knowing that I would be wearing jeans, she wore jeans too unless it would be totally inappropriate, in which case she would call and suggest I “wear your brown slacks,” which of course she knew about since she’d bought them in the first place. But today she was decked out black and slinky, just because she felt like it, and it didn’t matter a fig what I had on.
The Marquis loved it when Judy Blue Eyes dressed black and slinky. He would have been perfectly happy to skip going out at all, or at least make time for a quickie and get there a little late, but he wasn’t running the show (although if you believe that a man’s logical mind is ever in charge when both a woman and his aroused subconscious is involved, I have some hilly property covered with large chestnut trees in South Houston for sale). So after an admiring whistle and a quick grope or two to extend the compliment into multi-media, we headed for the club.
Bilo’s was a fancy dive on Richmond. ‘Fancy’ in that the waitresses put napkins under your drinks and emptied the ash trays if they started spilling out onto the tables; ‘dive’ in that they swept the floor once a week and haven’t painted or washed the accumulated cigarette smoke out of the curtains since they remodeled, back when they bought the place from the former proprietor and it was just a regular dive. But they’d added rock and roll regalia to the walls—a bright red Fender guitar, a poster of Hendrix playing The Star Spangled Banner at Woodstock, ads for shows long past at Fillmores East and West, psychedelic album covers from the late Sixties. They kept the lights low enough so you couldn’t really make out how dirty the floor was. And most important, they brought in live music Thursdays through Sundays, which kept the place packed and paid the rent.
There were still empty tables when we got there—we were Bilo’s veterans, and knew how long before the band started you had to be there to get a seat, which is why we hadn’t indulged The Marquis in a half-dressed-in-black-and-slinky quickie. By the time the band showed up an hour later, even the walls were crowded. In a brilliant burst of entrepreneurialism, the owner had installed a two-by-eight shelf running elbow-high all the way around the wall so that the standing-room only crowds that flocked to hear any band known more than twenty blocks from the garage they practiced in had a place to set their beers.
Sergeant Jenny Slade and the Privates was no garage band, and they could pack larger places than Bilo’s. Unlike the Indigo Poets, the Privates didn’t fiddle with their electronics, harassing the audience with a bunch of errant feedback, either—they were pros of the club circuit and did all that stuff in advance. They just strolled up onto the little raised area that served as a stage, exchanging nods with a few regulars, plugged in, switched on, and launched right into their first number. It was one of those instrumentals that featured a short solo by each of the musicians in turn as his unspoken introduction, a raucous, driving piece proven to get a crowd fired up.
Performing musicians have a unique relationship with their audience. The works of the non-performing artists—novels and poems, paintings and statues—are orphans. Begotten in dark solitude, labored over with love and hatred, done and undone and redone, ultimately they are driven forth from their refuge to stand naked and alone in front of the audience. Not at all like the creations of performing artists who must stand on exhibit beside their work, sharing in its accolades or raspberries.
Like the musician, the stage actor feeds off the energy of the audience. And yet seldom can the actor play his listeners like the musician can. With the words—penned by some playwright safe in his tidy alcove—dominating the performance, a play is, in the final analysis, too choreographed an activity to allow the depth of interaction that the musician experiences every time he steps in front of an audience.
The Privates were real musicians—two guitarists, bass player and drummer; no brass or keyboard players need apply. We had met them all during breaks at the half-dozen performances we’d attended, and although their stage personality was laid back (despite wearing fatigue shirts in deference to the group’s gimmicky name), they were totally dedicated to what they were doing: paying their dues and living the dream. There wasn’t five pounds of fat among the four of them—not because they were literally starving artists, but because food was as uninteresting to them as thermodynamics, something to keep them alive until they could step on the stage and begin ingesting their real nourishment. To a man they loved and adored Sgt. Jenny Slade, recognizing that it was her talent that made it possible to make a living playing music without having to work day jobs like so many of their peers. They were totally dedicated to supporting her every whim, wrenching just the right electronic scream from their instruments when she wanted it loud, or making them weep when she got blue and personal. And if you could actually get them to articulate their answer to “the big question,” they all hoped they would die on stage during the thunderous applause at the end of the perfect set.
Halfway through the band’s first number, the audience was already stomping and screaming at maximum decibels. The sound man kept turning up the volume so that the crowd noises wouldn’t drown out the guitar licks, finally holding it right there below the pain threshold for the veterans who had already lost the edge off their hearing, slightly into the discomfort region for the cherries. He was good, though; when the final chord began fading and the cheering died down, he’d already backed the volume down so the start of the next song wouldn’t blow the beer bottles off the two-by-eight shelf.
Then the drummer started a compelling beat which after six or eight measures the bass picked up, and suddenly she was there at her mike stand. Then the spotlight found her and the rocket ship that was the stage presence of Sergeant Jenny Slade blasted off. And away we went.
The good ones have such musical impact that it gives them a presence, an aura that sweeps the audience up into their music. But the great ones pour their animal magnetism into their music, not the other way around. They could just as easily harangue the crowds at Nuremburg and have them Seig Heil’ing without an electric guitar or even an accordion in the entire city.
Jesus had nothing on Sgt. Jenny Slade. If she’d owned The Grail instead of me, she could have conquered Europe and been the new Messiah both.