Four of Dressler's old gangster colleagues have put together a national tour of once-popular rock bands they own a piece of: three nights of concerts by guys (and a few gals) who were big shots back in the 1960s and 1970s, and who are now hoping for one more gasp of glory with this nostalgia exhibition. The Rock of Ages tour has proved itself to be anything but a love fest: plenty of the bandmates have been feuding for forty years, and—perhaps unsurprisingly—drugs and bad behavior have created health, wellness, and legal problems for the musicians and managers. Plus there have been two near-fatal accidents that might have been attempted murders.
But they're not what Irwin Dressler is concerned about. It's that someone—one of his own colleagues—is using the tour as a front to steal Dressler's money. And that simply cannot be allowed.
Now the tour has pulled into LA, and Junior has one weekend to figure out who's to blame—a weekend that begins with his tires being slashed, threatening notes left on his car, and a theatrical backdrop falling on a drummer during the truly terrible first set of the first concert. To make things worse, Junior is saddled for the weekend with his teenage daughter, Rina, who lately has been much, much too interested in how her father earns his living. Can Junior recover Dressler's money, prevent a murder, talk his daughter out of pursuing a life of crime, and somehow survive all that bad music?
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Maybe a Hat?
The drum solo had gone on so long that it seemed to be taking place in geological time, and there was no indication that it was nearing an end. On the contrary, every time my hopes rose, someone in the sparse audience screamed something like “Faaaaar OUT” or “Go, Boomboom,” and the message seemed to get through the wall of noise because the drummer—who went by the name of Boomboom Black, although (as I had recently learned) he’d been born Morton Fefferman—did the impossible and played even louder.
And then he did it again.
Still, whenever I was gripped by a really compelling need to flee the theater, I looked at the guy holding the sticks—Morton or Boomboom—and felt a grudging admiration for his willpower and his stamina, while withholding the laurel wreath for taste. With the sparse, stringy, shoulder-length gray hair, the seemingly frail arms, and the ropy neck, he looked like he was moments away from having a special soft-food breakfast delivered on a tray in a place with a name like Perpetual Acres or Sunset Highway. Instead, he had embarked on a solo that, from my perspective, threatened to outlive him.
The evening had begun on a note of discord and had grown more cacophonous ever since, a bad joke that had slowly turned into a worse one. When there were butts in the relatively few seats that had been sold, the lights had gone to half and the absolutely massive speakers that had been hung over the stage erupted with the enormous chords of Strauss’s “Thus Spoke Zarathustra,” better known to the generation—some of whose members had (in part, at least) embraced this band—as “the 2001 music.” A follow spot lit up, pointed at no one, and then, after a jiggle or two, jerked spasmodically to our left, to the area downstage where a silver-haired little guy, who might have been five feet two inches tall and maybe seventy years old, was standing, mike in hand, looking out at us.
“Good evening, good evening,” he’d said in a voice simultaneously sweet and ragged, like a flute being played through a wet dishcloth. “I’m Oscar Fiddles—” and from behind us, a guy who obviously gargled with rocks yelled, “So what does Oscar fiddle?” and someone else shouted, “Can you play ‘Melancholy Baby’?” Oscar Fiddles nodded wearily a couple of times, cupped a hand to one ear, raised his eyebrows, waited to see if they were finished, and then said, “Boys will be boys. With friends like mine, who needs enemies? But seriously, folks, we’re all glad you’re here, and I hope you’re not packed in too tight.” A little wave of laughter sputtered over the seating area, indicating the presence of the easily amused and the extremely polite. “That’s better,” Oscar Fiddles said. “This is the last time we’ll be doing this show, but don’t forget, we got two completely different shows coming up tomorrow night and Sunday. Tonight, though—tonight’s a monster—”
“Speaking of a monster,” shouted someone, probably one of the midlevel thugs whose damp idea the concert tour had been, “get a load of that nose. You could park your car under it.” Someone else contributed, “Or sit under it so you shouldn’t get sunburned.”
A feathery ripple of laughter was the result, but Fiddles wasn’t having it. “Glad you folks think that’s funny, but I gotta tell you, twelve weeks, three times a week, and you know what? You guys can go fuck yourselves, or maybe each other, why should tonight be any different?” And he dropped his microphone on the floor with a remarkably loud bang and stalked off the stage.
One of the guys who’d been harassing Fiddles shouted, “Oscar’s gone to fiddle around with himself, folks, so let’s get this thing started. Here’s a band I know you all remember. Let’s hear it for Goat Motor and the Cranks.”
A tepid sprinkling of applause, no more enthusiastic than the beginning of a drizzle that’s not fated to swell into anything like actual rain, started and then faded away as nothing happened, and then a stagehand darted out to recover Oscar’s dropped mike. He waved to the crowd as though his mother was in it, getting a few sarcastic cheers in response, and then, as he ducked offstage, the ancient LA DJ, who was supposed to announce the bands when he wasn’t up packing his nose in the men’s room, said, “Booooyyyyyssss and GIRLS! Welcome to Rock of Ages, and let’s hear a big Los Angeles welcome for a band you all love, Goat Motor and the Cranks!” And the center-stage curtain rose to reveal four harassed-looking musicians who were hurriedly plugging in. The audience was clapping in impatient unison by then, and after a good three minutes that felt like a quarter of an hour, Goat Motor kicked off with the riff that announced “Chainsaw through the Heart,” one of its sparse little cluster of hits.
The business of the evening was finally underway.
Goat Motor’s set stretched over several generations and the rise and fall of great civilizations. Their standard for being called back for an encore was, in my experience, uniquely modest. Still, eventually they yielded the stage to Rat Bite, and any expectation we had that the evening would get better flew south in seconds. The theme of the performance was the apparent loathing between the drummer, Boomboom, and the lead guitarist. They’d been stepping on each other’s toes for what felt like an eon when Boomboom embarked on The Solo That Would Not End.
Three times already, the lead guitarist, who obviously sensed time’s wingèd chariot hurrying near, had launched into the raggedy six-note riff that had briefly owned much of AM radio, back when the heavy chains around the drummer’s neck had been de rigueur, which is to say when my parents were in high school. Under traditional circumstances, the decades-old riff, the song, and the band that played it would be half-remembered curiosities for a few people tottering on the edge of geezerhood, long replaced by newer, and often better, music. But rock and roll ignored the rules and refused to fade away as virtually all earlier forms of popular musical had. Rock was, after all, both the choice and the creation of the largest and richest generation in history. So here we were, fifty-some years later, watching the drummer swivel to turn his back on his bandmates and bang away even more loudly, exploring as-yet-unused features of his kit, which was bigger than some people’s apartments. This time, he went for a long line of cowbells, each of which, presumably, had its own unique sound and meaning, at least, to a cow. Looming all the way to the left, just beyond the cowbells, big and black and ominous, was the famous Ultra Boom®, a massive amplifier that was, apparently, being saved for the Big Finish, if any of us lived long enough to hear it.
George Santayana once defined a fanatic as someone who doubles his effort when he’s forgotten his aim, and the drummer was well into Santayana territory. The guitarist, whose skintight black pants bulged over something that looked suspiciously like a large blackjack, gave it another despairing try, a screaming series of minor chords, complete with an attempt at a Pete Townshend arm-windmill that suggested impending rotator cuff surgery. The drummer responded by moving one step closer to the Ultra Boom®, stopping at some tall burnished-wood African drums that had once probably summoned far-flung children to meals across the rippling infinity of the veld. The drummer and the guitarist, as I already mentioned, had hated each other since FM radio was still something most people picked up on their fillings.
An elbow nudge from the right made me aware that someone was trying to say something, and I cupped a hand to my ear and leaned over. My daughter, Rina, shouted, “How long can this possibly go on?”
“It’s a tradition,” I yelled. “There were three prices for every Rat Bite concert: those who were under eighteen, those who were over eighteen, and those who turned eighteen during the drum solo.”
“You made that up.”
Someone behind me tapped me rather forcefully on the shoulder, and I turned to see a man in either late middle age or early old age. He wore a mustache that curled up at the ends as sharply as a fishhook and then degenerated into a pointy little goatee straight out of Frans Hals. This display was framed by a set of hair parentheses—sideburns thicker and bushier than the Forest Primeval, all of it topping off the first Nehru jacket I’d ever actually seen on a person who wasn’t Nehru. The jacket’s high collar suggested that the sideburns might actually extend down to the tops of his shoulders and possibly keep going across the backs of his hands.
“Some of us want to listen to the music,” he said. He wasn’t shouting, but he had a remarkably loud voice.
“Oh, I’m sorry,” Rina yelled. “If I’d known it was music, I wouldn’t have dreamed of—”
“Wow,” Nehru said, poking me again with a thick index finger. “She’s got a mouth on her, doesn’t she?”
Brushing at the spot he’d poked, I said, “Sometimes it feels like she has several.”
To my surprise, Nehru laughed. He said to Rina, “I’d probably be trying to chew my way through the floor if they were playing your music.”
“I’m sorry,” Rina shouted. “I was rude.”
“Aaaahhh,” Nehru said, waving it away and cupping his hands to his mouth. “I remember wanting to back a car over my parents when they played the stuff they loved. The music you grow up with is like your first boyfriend or girlfriend, you know? It takes you years to figure out why nobody understood what you saw in them.”
A shrill, glass-endangering scream of outrage from the direction of the stage yanked me around just in time to see the guitarist swing his gleaming black Stratocaster at the drummer’s head. He struck with the kind of accuracy that comes only with years of practice and/or extremely vivid wishful thinking. It was a seriously solid impact that sounded like someone slamming a car door; the drummer’s head, if it hadn’t been attached to the rest of him, would have probably flown over the edge of the stage and ended up in a lap in the third row. But, since it was attached, his body simply followed it stage right at a remarkable speed, dragging his torso and his thin black-clad limbs—he seemed like the kind of guy who, as Baby Morton, had probably insisted on black diapers—straight across the exotic part of his drum kit, knocking over the cowbells and the African drums and the Indonesian rain stick, and into the nightmare hulk of Ultra Boom®, which emitted a sound so low and so loud that the concrete floor beneath my feet actually shivered. As the room continued to shudder and the African drums toppled in all directions, the keyboard player, who up to now had been essentially scenery, abandoned his instrument, wrapped his arm around the guitarist’s neck, and wrestled him to the floor. The low vibration from Ultra Boom® increased, only to be augmented by the still-amplified guitar, which had clearly shorted out, emitting a deafening, unwavering squeal that felt like a wire inserted into one ear and shoved straight out through the other, and then tugged back and forth. With knots in it.
By the time I got my hands over my ears the stage was swarming with beefy roadies in plaid shirts and—wearing a skintight T-shirt—a serious bodybuilder I’d met, not very happily, the previous evening. Lots of roadies are big guys, but the bodybuilder dwarfed them all; he looked like the Mr. Universe finalist from the planet Steroid, and he brought a measure of primitive, blunt-force order to the scene by kicking the keyboard player’s legs out from under him, grabbing him by the back of his belt, hoisting him one-handed into the air, and carrying him, kicking and shouting, arms and legs flailing toward all points of the compass, into the wings and out of the audience’s sight. I’d learned that the weightlifter’s name was Bluto when I first met him, and seeing him in action made the moniker seem even more appropriate. In his absence, the plaid-shirted crew, who apparently drew their fashion inspiration from the halcyon days of early nineties Seattle, joined the other band members in milling around and shouting at each other. The bassist took a few half-hearted swings at the person nearest him, but nobody noticed. Nobody ever notices bassists.
“Come on,” I shouted to Rina as I stood up. “Let’s go meet the guys.”
She said, “You’re shitting me,” but she got up and joined me in the aisle.
The guy in the Nehru shirt cupped his hands to his mouth and shouted, “Hey, where you going? It’s just getting good.”
We’d come a little early and had been honored with seats in the seventh row, much too close to the stage for my taste, and so, walking up the aisle, I got my first real look at the band’s surviving fan base: heavily male, many of them so battered they looked deep-fried. Some of them might have arrived on cobwebbed antique motorbikes after three or four amphetamine-fueled decades on the road with the Hell’s Angels or some lesser group, crisscrossing deserts at high noon, boldly swiping bags of Cheetos from convenience stores, and improvising other inspirational feats to burnish their legend. They wore cracked and peeling leather jackets over much-worn bug-spotted T-shirts, their eyes were haloed by pale raccoon imprints, courtesy of a lifetime’s worth of sunglasses, and they sported an improbable ratio of walrus mustaches, perhaps to compensate for receding hairlines.
The biker guys and their dates shared the rows of seats with an assortment of rail-thin possible former crack enthusiasts, superannuated hippies, and, here and there, a sprinkling of men, and a few women, whose grooming and attitude suggested that at some point in their lives it had occurred to them that they might eventually get older, prompting them to seek out the narrow road to the middle class. They seemed keenly aware that they’d dressed wrong, even though some of them gamely sported heavy earrings that must have required some painful reopening of the piercings of yesteryear.
From my brief survey I estimated that the place was about 70 percent male and 30 percent empty. I’d been told that most of the tour’s twelve earlier stops had been, if not always sellouts, still pretty solid and occasionally packed to the rafters, but that LA was an exception. LA was supposed to be the big finish, but things were clearly winding down with a whimper.
Behind us, down near the stage, some optimistic fans set up a rhythmic clap that spread across the audience like oil on water. It was then amplified by foot-stomping and, here and there, cries for more.
Rina shouted, “They’ve got to be kidding.”
“It’s been a long time,” I said. “Fifty or so years ago, they loved those guys.”
“I thought music from back then was all rainbows and unicorns,” Rina said, practically yelling into my ear. “Pacifists smoking pot and growing flowers in their hair. Meals of vegan broth around ecological campfires.”
“That’s tomorrow’s show,” I said. We had almost reached the door. “It’s a three-day tour, different music, different audiences. Gristle and heavy metal tonight, beads and incense on Saturday, Brits and nervous, skinny-necktie rock, quasi–new wave on Sunday.”
“These guys don’t sound like heavy metal.”
“Yeah, well, they might have been more dangerous when they had their teeth.”
The crowd began to chant: “RAT BITE! RAT BITE! RAT BITE!” The chant was in time with the claps and the stomps, and was audible even over the feedback. The floor of the theater was actually shaking.
“Kind of a cool name, though,” Rina said.
“I’m just sorry you’re not going to get to hear Wet Spot and Teeth of the Nameless.”
“You made those up.”
“Afraid not.” I got my hand on the door to the lobby, eager to put it between me and the shrill guitar feedback. Before I could push it open, I was frozen by an ear-scraping chorus of screams, one of which belong to Rina. I wheeled around just in time to see a roughly built set wall that suggested the interior of an old Midwestern farmhouse—complete with a red gingham curtain over its only window—knife down from the flies, where it had been hanging the preceding day when I first explored the theater. It landed, like an enormous and somehow homey guillotine, on the unconscious drummer. One of his legs flew into the air, a spasm of some kind, but before he could do anything else—if he was capable of doing anything else—the wall tilted toward the audience and, slowly and majestically, its red curtain fluttering, fell forward onto the stage, spewing a thick cloud of dust that rolled out over the audience.
Santayana also said that those who fail to understand the past are condemned to repeat it. If the melee on the stage was any evidence, it looked like old George was right again.