When Rock Is Right

A few years back I wrote an essay for Barrelhouse Magazine (Issue #3) in which I rail against the overuse and misuse of the word rock. The co-optation of the word by advertising execs (“Fruity Pebbles Rock!”), political campaigns (“Dick Cheney Rocks!”), and other clearly non-rocking factions had rendered rock meaningless.

Now, however, in the interest of equal time, I want to give credit where credit is due. Sometimes rock is used exactly right.

For your consideration:

One night Watershed played an opening set at The Nick, a club in Birmingham. We’d packed away our gear, and I was making for the bar when the soundguy walked up and shook my hand. “Dude,” he said. “Fucking awesome.”

“Thanks, man,” I said. “How’d it sound out front?”

“Kicked major ass. All I had to do was turn the motherfucker up.” Like all soundguys, he was stoned to the gills. How else could you stare down band after band, night after night? He pointed toward the bar. “What kinda shot you want? Whiskey? Jager?”

I told him tequila, and he flagged down the bartender, who was wearing a strategically torn Nick t-shirt. On the back it said, Birmingham’s Dirty Little Secret. I looked around at the fifteen people who’d watched our set, and I figured the secret was safe.

“I gotta apologize for something,” the soundguy said, sliding the shot glass my way. “I saw Watershed coming up on the calendar, and I been telling everybody you guys suck. I had you mixed up with some other band.”

“Shit, man,” I said. “Don’t worry about it. Sometimes we’re great. Sometimes we suck. Maybe we’re great because we suck. I don’t know.”

“Goddamn,” he said. “I’ll drink to that.”

The next band up was called The Tombstones, a three-piece psychobilly act from Austin by way of Atlanta. They wore black pegged jeans and Pomade-slick hair. They looked like 1950’s auto mechanics—wiry tough guys who probably rolled cigarette packs in their t-shirt sleeves and had bathroom sex with bartenders who wore strategically torn clothing.

Halfway through their set, The Nick started filling up. The crowd was elbow to elbow. Somebody jabbed me in the rib cage. I turned around and saw a cute girl whose flowing skirt and Birkenstocks told me she was there to see the headlining act, Colonel Bruce Hampton.

She leaned in close and said something I couldn’t hear.

“What?” I said, and I jammed my finger into my ear.

She leaned in again. “I said, ‘you rock.’”

“Cool,” I said. “Thanks.”

She reached her hand around the back of my neck. “No,” she said. “You rock.” She dragged her fingernails down my forearm. “I’ll see you later,” she said. Then she winked. It was the kind of road moment I don’t tell my wife about.

Come three a.m., The Nick was beyond fire code capacity. Even way in the back of the bar, against the far wall, toes were stepped on, drinks were spilled. Colonel Bruce had been noodling for well past two hours, and he didn’t seem to have any quit in him. And yet, for the Nick regulars, none of this was remarkable in the least. In line at the bathroom I heard one guy say to another, “Place is kinda dead tonight. Let’s get outta here.”

After I pissed, I found Colin, Watershed’s guitar player, standing against the Galaga machine, talking to the same hippie-chick who’d told me she’d see me later. Her head was cocked just-so. She whispered something to Colin. His shoulders hunched up, and he smiled nervously. She started fondling a silk scarf with tiny bells sewn onto the ends. She ran her thumb along the waistline of her skirt. She thumbed it lower. Then another girl grabbed her by the elbow and pulled her away. The hippie chick blew Colin a kiss, and then both girls disappeared into the bathroom.

Colin walked over and said, “Do you believe this?”

I shook my head. “Almost four in the morning and it’s twice as packed as it was at midnight. I thought Birmingham was the Bible belt.”

“Get a load of these two,” Colin said, pointing toward Dave and Pooch, our drummer and rhythm guitarist. They were taking turns autographing some girl’s ass. Then she took hold of the Sharpie, and they unbuckled their belts.

A few minutes later Dave and Pooch pulled up their pants and joined us.

“This is crazy,” Dave said. “What time does this place close?”

Pooch twisted around, trying to see down the seat of his pants. “You think we’ll be able to wash that girl’s name off our asses before we get home to our wives?”

Then Biggie, our tour manager, walked up, stuffing our share of the door into his pockets. “The manager just told me they stay open ‘til the last person leaves,” he said. “Nine or ten a.m. Whatever.”

“Then, gentlemen,” Colin said. “We’ve got drinking to do.”

Just then the hippie chick and her friend walked out of the bathroom. She elbowed her way past Colin and me without acknowledging either of us.

“What did that girl say to you earlier?” I asked him.

Colin told us he’d been watching some dude play Galaga when she tapped him on the shoulder and asked him if he had any cocaine she could borrow.

“No, not really,” Colin had said to her.

“You got any X?” she said. “You got anything?”

“I got beer,” Colin said.

She smiled. “I’ll buy you a beer if you give me some coke.”

“That’s cool,” Colin said. “But I was in the opening band. We get beer for free.”

She nodded. “You guys totally rocked.’

“You liked the show?”

“I got here late,” she said. “I didn’t see it.”

Now Colin interrupted the story to say this to us: “So this girl didn’t even see our set, right? As far as she’s concerned I’m just the guy watching some other guy play Galaga. I’m just the dipshit standing there.”

“So what did she say?” I asked him.

“She said, ‘I’ll suck your cock for some blow.’”

We all went wide-eyed with laughter. I looked around to see if she was nearby, but she had disappeared into the crowd. “Wow,” I said to Colin. “Wha’d you say to her?”

“I was just like, ‘Uh…um…do you wanna sign our mailing list?’”

“Watershed are such pussies,” Biggie said. “I bet The Tombstones have cocaine.”

“She’s probably backstage with them right now,” I said.

“And you know Colonel Bruce has something,” Colin said. “A quarter bag at least.”

Biggie pulled a tin of tobacco from his back pocket. “Think I could get a handjob for a pinch of Copenhagen?”

As we walked out to the gravel lot, I turned back toward The Nick, a short stack of cinderblock, hard in the shadow of the I-280 overpass. Then I looked up a two-story high pole. At the top of the pole was a weather-worn sign that read, The Nick Rocks.

Truth in advertising, friends. Truth in advertising.

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