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NO COMPROMISEthe life story of KEITH GREEN
By MELODY GREEN DAVID HAZARD
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2008 Melody Green
All right reserved.
Chapter One"ONE DAY YOU'RE UP ..."
Anything can happen on the streets of Hollywood. I'd seen some pretty wild things, but never anything so bizarre as what I saw one night on Ventura Boulevard.
As Keith and I walked out of the Bla Bla Cafe, a blast of hot night air hit us in the face. It was after 2:00 a.m., but the street was still awake with activity. Four drag queens swept by us, followed by a couple in disco outfits, all headed inside for a late-night breakfast. Next door the watchdogs at Bruno's Corvette Repairs were pacing inside their chain-linked fence, barking at everything that moved-including us. Keith had played three sets that night, and we were headed for home, exhausted. I was glad to see "Victor von Van," our VW with the hippie-style Indian print curtains I'd sewn, parked at the curb.
Keith had been performing at "the Bla"-as it was affectionately known to its regulars-for almost a year. It was a small showcase nightclub in the San Fernando Valley just a few blocks from Hollywood proper. The Bla spotlighted showbiz hopefuls and was frequented by agents and talent scouts from big record companies. Keith was one of those hopefuls. But tonight he'd given it his all one more time-and now we were leaving, still undiscovered.
As Keith walked around the front of the van, I opened the passenger door. That was when we spotted a figure looming toward us out of the dark. It was Harmony.
Harmony looked like a gruff mountain man with his brown, scraggly hair and beard. Here we were in 1974, but this guy struck us as someone caught in a '60s time warp. He was calm and easy. All he talked about was peace, love, and living off the land. He wasn't a close friend, but he and Keith had gotten stoned together once.
"Hey, how's it goin'?" Keith called. He shut his door and stepped back onto the sidewalk.
Sleepily I leaned my head back, knowing I was in for a wait. Inevitably most of our conversations drifted toward spiritual experiences these days. Keith and I had tried a lot of things-a lot of things. Recently we'd been curious about Jesus. We weren't Christians. Church was a dead institution to us. But Jesus did seem to be a spiritual Master of some sort, and we had a degree of respect for his life and teachings.
Sure enough, Keith and Harmony immediately began talking about the supernatural. It was just a typical conversation-for people who were into drugs and the mystical, which were a lot of the people we knew.
"I've been reading about Jesus lately," Keith was saying. "He was a pretty radical person."
Harmony's eyes seemed to brighten. Then, slowly, a strange look came over his face. His eyes got misty and distant. Very calmly he said, "I am Jesus Christ."
Keith reacted like he'd been stung by a scorpion. Without missing a beat, he shot back, "Beware of the false prophets who come to you in sheep's clothing, but inwardly are ravenous wolves!" I recognized the quote as something Jesus had said. What happened next was really hard to believe.
Harmony's eyes grew wide. Then they narrowed to slits. Furrows creased across his forehead, and his bushy eyebrows knit together. A sneer came over his usually mild face, and his upper lip curled back, exposing yellow, smoke-stained teeth. Leaning toward Keith, his teeth bared, he let out a growl that started in the throat, like that of a wolf, and ended with the horrible hissing sound of a snake.
It happened in only seconds. Harmony's face relaxed. But his eyes looked confused. Embarrassed. The hiss seemed to hang in the still night air.
My skin was still tingling from the shock. Keith had obviously been rocked by it too. He looked from Harmony to me with wide eyes. This was Hollywood, but things like this only happened in the movies. I wondered what Keith was thinking.
It was as if someone or something took control of Harmony momentarily, using him for its own purposes. Then just as quickly it discarded him, leaving him to pick up the pieces in confused embarrassment. Dazed, Harmony mumbled something. But Keith quickly excused himself, jumped into Victor, and shoved the key in the ignition.
As we drove home over the dark streets, we kept looking at each other in disbelief. Keith was more animated than usual. He kept saying, "Did he really do that? I can't believe it!"
We talked about nothing else until we crawled into bed and fell asleep, sometime after 3:30 am.
The weird experience with Harmony did have one major effect on us. It brought some things into sharp focus. Namely, that there was, indeed, a very real spiritual realm-a realm full of power and possibly even danger. We were just coming to a deeper realization that there must be spiritual forces beyond our knowing. Had we heard a voice from that other side, speaking through Harmony? Or was it just the voice of the age? After all, a lot of musicians, artists, and writers-the "beautiful" people-were saying things like, "You are your own god. Everything's relative. There is no right or wrong." But we wondered: Is there a dark side and a light side to spiritual energy?
Keith and I had both been caught up in a search to find our spiritual identities for some time. We were looking for truth-whatever it was-and our search for light had taken us on many strange paths, from Buddhism to stuff like astral projection and, of course, drugs; especially psychedelics. We were convinced the truth was hidden out there somewhere like a pearl in the ocean and that when we found it, it would fill an empty spot in our hearts. It would make life really worth living. Until then every day held the potential of being the day of the great revelation.
At the time of our weird encounter with Harmony, however, we'd been slipping a bit, losing hope, even dabbling with the drugs again that we'd sworn off but kept falling back into. Our spiritual ambitions never kept us out of the fog for long. In fact, the constant lure of those other voices had pretty well convinced us there was a dark and a light side. After Harmony's eruption, Keith, with his usual all-or-nothing manner, was determined to know how to tell the difference. Although we never forgot the incident outside the Bla, there were more pressing matters. Like Keith's all-consuming dream.
In particular, our whole life revolved around Keith's drive to make it big in the music business. Now that he was performing at the Bla, we lived with the constant hunger that the right person would walk in one night and discover Keith Green.
The Bla was just a few blocks down Ventura Boulevard from the infamous nightclub the Queen Mary, and Keith's audience was always seasoned with gays and straights alike. Neither camp seemed to mind the other. To be honest, it was often difficult to tell who belonged where. The biggest standouts were the drag queens, sweeping in after 2:00 am wearing satin dresses, jangly jewels, and high-styled wigs. Only their exaggerated feminine gestures and five o'clock shadows peeking through heavy layers of makeup betrayed their true gender.
Keith's family and my mom lived here in Southern California. But the Bla was like a second home to us. The people like family. Even though Keith's last set ended at 1:00 am, we often stayed until Albie, the owner, closed the doors three hours later. Keith and Albie would lift a table onto the empty stage and we'd get a foursome together, shuffling the cards for a lot of laughs and a hot game of Bid-Whist. We hung together away from the Bla too. Keith and I often went over to Albie's house for the evening while Billy, with his tiny white poodle tucked under one arm, fussed over us serving drinks and snacks. Sometimes we'd even meet up with a big gang from the Bla to take a position in their Sunday afternoon softball games. We weren't any good, but it was always fun.
Albie, who was in his forties, took pride in running a successful club and rubbing shoulders with the almost-elite of Hollywood's underside. He doted like a mother hen over his performers and expected the audience to give each act their full attention. The green cards alongside the menus on the tables said so. Albie had become not only a dear friend but a cheerleader and mentor to Keith. That's why his sudden ultimatum threw Keith for such a loop.
It came one Wednesday night after Keith's third set. People-wise, the turnout had been disappointing. Wednesday wasn't the greatest night, of course, but it was a start. Albie's eyes were kind, and his manner fatherly as usual, when he came up to our table. Then he lowered the boom.
"I'm sorry, Keith, but you've got two weeks to pack 'em in or I'll have to replace you with another act."
"You're kidding," Keith said in surprise. I felt a stab of rejection too.
"I'm not," Albie said. "If you want your own night, you gotta draw more people. I've got a club to run. Salaries to pay. I'm sorry, Keith, but I just can't afford to keep losing money on you."
We couldn't believe our ears. Keith went home that night deeply depressed. Even the Quaalude he took to soothe his bruised feelings couldn't touch the real hurt-the whispers of failure. It seemed to me that the worst part about performing was having to sell yourself. Being so vulnerable. When you don't measure up, nothing eases the sickening feeling that maybe it's not just your act that isn't good enough. Maybe it's you.
After Albie's ultimatum Keith sprang into immediate action. He was never one to take a challenge lying down. Starting on Thursday, he spent all week phoning everyone and anyone he knew. He almost begged them to come, telling them about all his new songs, how he wanted to see them, and how he was going to lose his job unless the place was packed. I felt embarrassed for him, and even worse when he insisted I call all my friends as well! But we were in a terrible bind.
Keith had already pitched himself to every major record label in town. That resulted in some nibbles. One company had flown us to New York. Nothing materialized. Keith even tried to sing on a Grand Funk sound-alike record, but didn't sound enough alike. There were some more nibbles but no bites.
Money was tight and getting tighter. We'd already sold my red Triumph sports car and my prized Martin D-35 guitar. My savings account had breathed its last. So to supplement our small income from the Bla-sometimes less than fifteen dollars a night-Keith clenched his teeth and played proms, parties, and banquets where no one ever listened. It was the bottom of the barrel for any serious artist, but the word for us in 1974 was survival. And now the threat of getting fired from the Bla Bla-a small-potatoes club as Hollywood nightspots go-would be the final humiliation.
The following Wednesday, we walked into the Bla about 8:30 pm, feeling quiet apprehension. I looked around and was struck with how empty this place could look. The Bla was dark and narrow inside, with a small stage to the right as you walked in the front door. The bar, which was too small for anyone to sit at, ran across the back, right in front of the tiny, one-man kitchen. The most consistent thing about the decor was its inconsistency. Absolutely nothing matched. Between the stage and the bar was a collection of banged-up wooden tables. On the walls huge dragonflies in vivid yellows and oranges hung beside oversized photos autographed by "sorta knowns." When packed, the Bla could hold about eighty-five people on chrome-and-vinyl chairs, the kind you'd find around a Formica table in someone's kitchen in the 1950s. Right now those chairs were mostly empty.
Only a few patrons sat in quiet conversation as Keith nervously eyed the stage. Albie was getting a check ready at one of the tables. The cook and the two waiters, Eddie and Mr. Sally, were at the back bar, the only others in the whole place. Albie caught Keith's eye. Neither one said anything, but it was a knowing glance. Tonight was it.
Keith and I sat silently in the back of the skinny little club, watching each other watch the door. We certainly looked like West Coast musicians, if nothing else. Married for only eight months, we made quite a pair. Me, in a homemade Indian print skirt, an embroidered gauze blouse, and my long straight hair. And Keith, wearing blue jeans and a new flowered cowboy shirt. His long, curly ponytail had recently been left on the hair stylist's floor. What remained had been layered into a new California style called the shag-short for shaggy. Even freshly cut, his hair still hung well below his shoulders. I silently admired his new professional image. Less hippie, but still very hip.
Slowly, in twos and threes, people started arriving. One cigarette after another was lit, and spirals of blue smoke curled gracefully to the ceiling. As the chairs filled, the noise level began to rise. Chairs scraped against the cement floor. Loud laughter punctuated conversations. Eddie, the headwaiter, clipped his orders to the revolving wheel, and the smell and sizzle of burgers drifted from the tiny kitchen.
Still, there weren't enough people and we knew it. Mr. Sally stepped over to our table to take my order, wearing his usual uniform-a custom-made T-shirt with a sketch of him in a bouffant hairdo and "Mr. Sally" scrawled across the front in fancy white script. In the low light, the black cotton stretching tightly across his ebony skin threatened to cast him into obscurity except for a few well-placed rhinestones striking a pose. I wasn't very hungry so I ordered Guac-and-Papa's-fried potato slices with a bowl of guacamole. Would any of our friends bother to show up? Keith's first hourlong set started at 9:00 p.m. We had only ten minutes to go. Keith's right leg was bouncing nervously. He was all raw energy and ready to start. More tense minutes ticked by.
"Do I look okay?" he asked, poking at his hair.
"You look great, honey," I assured him.
I loved the way Keith looked. His clear blue eyes and fair skin gave him a pure, almost childlike air. Now that he'd shaved off his beard, the fact that he was just twenty years old was much more evident. "It's 8:58," Keith said, breaking into my thoughts. "Where is everybody?" He was all wound up and ready to pop.
I tried to calm him down a bit.
"They'll be here in a few minutes," I responded, trying to conceal my own fears. "We've got a little more time."
"There is no more time. This is it."
Keith shoved back his chair with disappointment written all over him. Yet I sensed his determination. He was a fighter, and even though the odds were against him, I knew Keith would give it his all.
Albie had started to pace in the back as Keith made his way to the stage and sat at the battered upright piano. He squinted into the single spotlight and, leaning toward the microphone, spoke in mock military fashion.
"I'd like the sergeant of arms to call the room to attention! Ladies and gentlemen, and others, I'd like to interrupt your rambling conversation for some music."
Keith started noodling on the piano, but few people in the scant crowd paid attention. Keith fidgeted in his seat while his fingers wandered over the keys for a few moments. I could tell he was trying to figure out what to play. He finally launched into "Life Goes On," a song he'd just written with his new friend Randy Stonehill:
Marvin was a connoisseur of twenty-cent wine. you could see him bummin' nickels down on Sunset and Vine. One day his wealthy uncle passed away in Bel Air. And now he's sippin' from a vintage year. Marvin's sippin' from a vintage year!
Then the chorus:
Life goes on and the world goes 'round. One day you're up, the next day you're down. Don't count on good luck, there's nothing to say except, "Thank you, Lord, for another day!"
The funny lyrics and funky rhythm grabbed everyone's attention. Keith pounded the keys in a way that sent terror into the heart of every piano teacher he ever had. I often held my breath hoping he wouldn't miss a note, but even when he did it didn't matter. It wasn't perfection that drew you to Keith's music, or to him for that matter. It was heart.
A few more tables were filling up, and to my relief some people were clapping along. Keith paused to do what came naturally-give more directions: "Here's the second verse. But you don't really have to pay attention to the verses. They're just there to keep the choruses coming. Okay, here we go!"
Excerpted from NO COMPROMISE by MELODY GREEN DAVID HAZARD Copyright © 2008 by Melody Green . Excerpted by permission.
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