Part four of “That Other Guy”

The last installment – here you go.

*****

            In the days and weeks that followed, we just tried to wake up from the nightmare, but had no luck.  Jim Martin awarded The Other Guy with the prize, consisting of a two-record deal with IRS and some tour dates opening for the label’s more established acts, but Gerry’s status left us in limbo.

            “We can’t go on without him,” X said, almost in a whisper one day as we made a half-hearted attempt to practice as a threesome.

            “What?  Just a couple months ago, you said – ” I began.

            “I was wrong.  You were right.  This is his band.”  Harrison thumped the bass drum twice in agreement.

            We never got the full story on Gerry’s arrest.  Some said it was just one count of possession, but others insisted there were a couple counts of distribution, too.  Phone calls to the Rittle house didn’t help, either; no one answered, and when we drove by to see if we could talk to his mom, the windows were dark and a ‘For Sale’ sign leaned up against the tattered mailbox.

            “He saved our asses, y’know?” Harrison said.  He wasn’t really looking for an answer, I could tell, but I couldn’t just sit there and be quiet about it.

            “Uh huh.”  We’d been through this several times, but talking it over wasn’t bringing Gerry back. It was graduation day, and a few weeks before, I’d finally called Jim Martin to tell him that we couldn’t accept the award.

            “What?  That’s crazy.”

            “Well, yeah,” I said, feeling a wave of exhaustion hit me.

            “Mind if I ask why?”

            “No, it’s fine.  We broke up.”  True, to a point.

            “Oh.  That’s too bad.  You guys had a great sound.  Especially that drummer of yours.”

            “Thanks, Jim.”

            And that was that.

***** 

            Now here I am, twenty-five years later, listening to music that every now and then reminds me of those fleeting days – just six short months – when we played shows and were on the verge of getting a record deal, a possibility so far beyond our original hopes that we never even spoke of it.  Of course my students have no idea that I’ve ever been in a band, though they know I love music from the strains of R.E.M., The Clash, or The Smiths emanating from my room between classes.

            It is near the end of May and school has just let out for the day.  I’m surprised to see an e-mail pop up; this is my school account, and I don’t recognize the address of the sender.  I open it, curious:

Well, I found you.  Should’ve looked there first, I guess.  It’s been awhile.

I’ve got something you’ll be interested in seeing – and hearing.  Meet me tonight after our show – I’ve got a ticket in your name at the box office. 

Harrison

            Holy crap.  I’d seen a listing in the paper that The Taser Lites were playing with a couple other bands at the 9:30 Club in downtown D.C.  They’d sold out the last three times they’d been in town, so I didn’t even try to get tickets this time and didn’t even think twice that I might see Harrison Winfield.

            I go to the show in jeans and a t-shirt, feeling like I can’t possibly fit in at a ska show as a balding redhead in his early forties.  The Taser Lites play a tight set: everyone in the crowd dances for the full hour and twenty minutes, and I feel twin emotions of jealousy and pride – jealous that I’m not up there playing, proud that my old friend has still got it.

            After the show, I wait outside under the copper-colored streetlights, playing spectator to the spectators as they wait to get CDs and t-shirts signed by band members.  Harrison taps me on the shoulder, smiles, and gives me a bear hug, looking remarkably like he had when we played the festival: shaved head, white tank top, gym shorts and running sneakers.  The wrinkles in his face are the only change.

            “C’mon,” he says, and we walk back to an empty dressing room where we sit, just looking at each other for a moment.  He takes out a tape and places it on the table in front of us.  “This is what I promised you.  Go ahead, look at it.”

            I pick it up, confused.  I see the names of songs scrawled in someone’s hasty cursive: “Mindbender,” “Blackout,” “Run Like Hell” – and then it hits me.

            “You – how did you?”

            Harrison calms me down and pops the tape into an old beat-up cassette player.  As we listen, he explains how we’d forgotten about the recording of our set after the festival, focused as we were on Gerry and breaking up the band.  Apparently, it didn’t occur to Jim Martin to send us the tape, either.

            “So how’d you get it?”

            “Well, I’ve stayed in the game, right?”  He spreads his hands out as if to indicate that this dressing room somehow sums up the music industry, or at least his experience of it.  “Jim Martin – you remember, the guy who ran our last show? – well he stayed in it, too.  He organized a festival a few months back up in Bethesda, and we played it.  He saw me and said he recognized me but couldn’t remember why.  I’d forgotten about him, but eventually we figured out that we met at the ’82 festival in Fairfax after I mentioned Gerry stagediving and Paula Paula getting the record deal.”

            “Oh yeah.”  I hadn’t heard about them in over two decades.  Thoughts of Leah Andrews flutter in my mind.

            “So anyway, Martin remembers he’s got this tape.  It’s in great condition, and he gives it to me a week later.”

            “Well, that’s cool.”  I smile, happy to see my old friend.

            “But that ain’t all.”

            “Huh?”  Now I’m confused again.

            “He’s planning on putting out a compilation CD this summer, kind of a throwback thing to commemorate some of the local scenes – ours in Fairfax, a couple up in suburban Maryland.”

            “And?”

            “Well, he wants to put some of our songs on it.  But he can’t if he doesn’t know where we are.”

            “Wow.  But you and me only makes two.  What about X?  What about . . . ?”  I don’t even say his name.

            “X and I have been trading e-mails for a week or so.  He’s in. He’ll be back from Japan in mid-June.”

            “And . . .Gerry?”

            “You won’t believe me.”

            “Try me.”

            “He’s been here.  Came back after the year he spent in juvenile hall.  Lucky for him they busted him when he was still seventeen, so they had to try him as a minor.  He got out, came back here, got an apartment, started a new life.”

            “No more drugs?”

            “I don’t know, man.”  Harrison seems as amazed to tell me the story as he’d been to hear it himself.  “He’s in Fairfax is all I know.”

            “Holy God.”  I pause, listening to my seventeen-year old voice try to sing Rudy Lewis’s vocal line on “Up on the Roof.’  “So what do we do now?”

            “I think you should call him.  He’ll take it best from you.”  As soon as he says it, I know he’s right, but I feel a profound urge to do nothing, to let Gerry Rittle live his life and not be bothered by his past.  I leave Harrison that night promising to call our old bass player, though, the tape now in my hands.

            Sure enough, Gerry’s name is in the phone book, and apparently he’s married to some lady name of Rita.  Rita Rittle, I think.  Poor woman.  I look at the address and recognize that it belongs in a neighborhood where we had played several basement shows.  I stare at the phone number and then my phone for a few minutes, unsure how I want to proceed.  Will he even want to talk to me?  What will he say after so many years?

            “Rittle residence,” I hear a voice say on the other line, a pleasant woman’s voice.

            “Um, may I speak with Gerry please?”

            “Gerald,” I hear as she cups the phone with one hand.  Gerald?

            “Speaking,” he says, and I freeze for a moment.

            “Um, Gerry?”

            “Yes?”

            “This is Danny Kramer.”  I pause, letting this name sink in.  “From high school.”  That’s all I can think of to say for an intro, and the silence that follows seems interminable.

            “Yeah, hey,” he says, and I’m immediately regretting having called him.  “Long time no see.”

            “Exactly, exactly,” I continue, hoping to swing the momentum to the matter at hand.  “Say, I just saw Harrison the other night, Harrison Winfield?”

            “Uh huh.”

            “Well, Gerry, I got some good news for you.  Really for all of us.”  I realize when I say us that it’s the first time I’ve referred to That Other Guy in over two decades.  “But I’d like to deliver the news in person, if you don’t mind.”

            “Not at all.  Meet you at the diner in an hour?”

            My heart leaps for a moment.  “Absolutely,” I say before he can change his mind and I lose whatever it is that has just come together in the last two minutes.

            We meet at the diner in Fairfax, Tastee 29, a historical landmark incidentally, and when I see him, I must admit, I’m impressed.  He looks good, trim and fit, though sad in the eyes.  But then I think back and realize he always had sad eyes.  We shake hands, order dinner and the conversation starts slowly like before.

            “So you said something about good news?” Gerry asks, and I show him the tape, recount the story Harrison told me about tracking down Jim Martin, and he listens, nodding every now and then, sipping his coke.

            “The tape, huh?” he says, and he looks at it like it’s a museum artifact, turning it over in his hands several times.  He looks at me with those eyes again.  “I haven’t thought about that day in a long time, Danny.”

            I don’t know what to say to that.  I want to ask him what happened that day, why he dived the way he did; I want to thank him, knowing as I do how that dive saved Harrison and me from almost certain bodily harm.  But I can’t get any of those words out.

            “What does this Martin guy wanna do with the songs again?”

            This topic I can talk about easily.  “He needs our permission to use the songs we played that day on the compilation he’s making.  It’s gonna be for the early ‘80s Fairfax scene.”

            Gerry sits still for a moment, contemplating this possibility.  “Compilation, huh?” he asks, sliding the tape back over to me.  I nod.  “You wanna know something?  I tried real hard to forget that day.  I tried to forget those six months.  For awhile there I told myself it was the worst time of my life, getting hooked on speed and everything, watching my mom . . .”  He waves his hand in the air for a moment, not finding the words to convey what had happened to his mother.  “Tried real hard to forget you.  And Harrison and X.  The whole band.  Tried real hard.”

            Again I feel at a loss, then find myself saying, “I’m sorry, Gerry.”

            He looks down, perhaps not wanting an apology; I don’t know.  His voice begins as a whisper as he says, “Tell Jim Martin I’m in too.  And let me know when they release that CD.”

            “Sure thing.”  We sit in silence for a moment, and the regret I felt earlier is fading slowly.

            “Y’know what?”  He lifts his eyes to meet mine.  “Rita asked who you were when I got off the phone, and I told her you were a salesman.”  He holds his gaze for a moment, then breaks into deep laughter; I join him.

            “So did I make the sale?”

            He just laughs some more, promising me he’ll have to have me over some time for dinner, maybe when that CD comes out.

            I said at the beginning that this wasn’t going to be a reunion story, and now you might say I’m just an out and out liar, but I don’t think so.  That Other Guy didn’t reunite on stage – not ever.  The four of us are in touch with each other, which is new, and the CD came out to some acclaim.  One of the D.C. radio stations, K 93, played most of it on their local music show one Sunday night, and they even mentioned the four of us by name.  Jim Martin made sure we got a fair deal on royalties, but I’ll still be keeping my day job, as will X with the foreign service, and Gerry at the hardware store he manages.  Harrison keeps playing drums and staying young, our lifeline to the music world that That Other Guy never quite reached, all because our bass player, whose life was falling apart, took a leap that saved our lives – and his.

Published in: on September 7, 2010 at 4:33 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Part three of “That Other Guy”

Third installment – enjoy.

*****

            DIY.  These three letters were the shorthand for how most of the hardcore music scenes operated, partly out of serious conviction, partly out of simple necessity.  There were no big labels eager to have bands like ours record for them or tour with their corporate banners hanging behind us.  We were left to fend for ourselves, which inevitably led to a combination of the wildly exciting and the marginally competent – but it was all on our terms, so no complaints.  Do it yourself.  Simple – you don’t like something, make your own way, chart your own course, blaze your own path, and so on.  Within certain scenes, though, you’d find a strange snobbishness.  “You’re too reggae,” some might say about a new group, or “You’re not loud enough.”  Didn’t make sense, really, and yet we were subject to that kind of response early on from some people who had been mainstays in the Fairfax scene.  Our having a black drummer?  Few really commented on it, mostly because Harrison was almost always the best musician in the room, but for some it didn’t fit the hardcore model that they somehow believed was the purest.  Our cover selections?  People spoke up about these, though our up-tempo versions silenced most of them.  Some of them may have even thought we were mocking the groups we were covering – that was probably Gerry’s intent, anyway – so they gave us a free pass.  That we were high school students?  This was our saving grace.  We were still innocents, supposedly unspoiled by the world of corporate music: we deserved our moment in the hardcore indie spotlight, such as it was.

            For the next two weeks, we practiced every day, paying little attention to the academic requirements of our final quarter of high school.  Some of us knew our fates for the fall: X was going to Scranton, a Jesuit college up in Pennsylvania; Harrison was off to Virginia State University, one of the few remaining all-black schools, where he’d received a full-ride for music.  I was still weighing my options: work a year, then go off to school somewhere far, far away, maybe even overseas, or stay local and go to George Mason, right there in Fairfax.  Gerry?  God only knew.  We certainly didn’t; I doubt he did either.

            During our practices, we went back and forth over our songs, trying to decide what our set list should be at the festival.

            “Why not just keep it the same?” Harrison asked, twirling a drum stick with the fingers on his left hand.  “It’s a good set.”

            “Maybe,” X said.  He turned the volume down on his guitar, seeming to weigh his words carefully.  “I’m just thinking there will be a lot of the same people at the festival who saw us play at Knott.”

            “So?  Screw them!” Gerry said.

            “Um . . . what?”  X held his hands out to his sides and examined Gerry as if the guy might need to be checked for rabies or ticks.

            “Any thoughts on what you wanna change?” I asked, more to redirect the conversation than anything.

            “How about switch up one of the covers?”

            “Which one?” Harrison said.

            “Doesn’t matter to me.”

            “What do you want to play instead?” I asked.

            X paused.  “ ‘Run Like Hell’.”

            “You mean Pink Floyd?” Gerry yelled.

            “Uh huh.”

            I stood there, convinced X was doing this just to piss off Gerry.  It was funny, too, because I knew X didn’t like Pink Floyd – actually, he hated them – so proposing one of their songs seemed strange.

            “Play it for us,” Harrison said, curious and moving behind his drum kit.  X did as he was told, turning up the volume on his guitar again, adding an effect or two, and then exploding the room with the song’s opening chords.  Ten seconds later, Harrison was adding the drum part, decidedly different from the one in the original: a little reggae on the verses, sped up on the choruses to a breakneck ska.  Gerry scowled the whole way through.

            X brought it to a close, nodding to Harrison in approval.

            “Well?” they asked in unison, looking squarely at me.

            “Two conditions.”  I crossed my arms.  “We drop ‘More Than a Feeling’.”

            Harrison sighed.  “Okay.”

            “And . . . you sing lead on ‘Run Like Hell’.”  I pointed at X, whose eyes and mouth formed perfect ovals.

            “But I’m not . . .”

            “Your back-up vocals are great,” I interrupted.

            Harrison did a little drum roll and hit the crash cymbal hard.  “Why not, man?”

            X was silent, but his silence was different than Gerry’s; his was all about making a decision, not stewing over some perceived injustice.  He absentmindedly strummed the opening chords of the Floyd song again.  “Okay,” he finally said.

            We practiced that song over and over, adding Gerry on back-up vocals, where he did surprisingly well given his loathing of Pink Floyd.  A week remained before the festival.

            In 1982, all over America the hardcore punk scenes were feeling strained.  There was the unavoidable issue of key figures dying – Gerry’s mentor Sid Vicious early among them, three years prior – but also the overall falling flat of the movement as a whole in the minds of the public.  On other fronts, the long-valued diversity of so many early punk scenes, where bills including The Ramones, Television, and The Talking Heads could exist, or Bad Brains playing down the block from Black Flag, seemed to be losing steam.  So far, our strange covers fit in fine, and Harrison’s presence behind the drum kit, big shaved-headed black guy that he was, didn’t make anyone think twice when we played someone’s basement.  But unbeknownst to us, things already had begun to change.

            Up until we started playing shows, the skinheads who were so ubiquitous in the Fairfax scene were just as their name stated – guys (and some girls) who shaved their heads as close to the skin as you could without bleeding.  It was a statement, of course, like everything else punk, and it boiled down to this basic idea: this is our way, and if you don’t like it, you know where you can get off.  But some movements from across the Atlantic Ocean were making their way around America now, and the skinheads were becoming more than just a bunch of punk kids with no hair and an interest in hardcore music.  There were the Oi boys, among others, declaring their allegiance to a new version of Hitler’s Nazi ideals, lacing up their steel-toed boots and summarily kicking the crap out of anyone who looked different: black, Hispanic, long hair – the list went on.

            That spring, I’d heard about some of these guys but figured we wouldn’t see much of them since we lived near D.C., with its majority black population.  Wrong again.  In fact, some of them had shown up at the Knott show to cheer on a band of their own boys, a trio called The Front, who Lyme Crane edged out for the second spot at the festival.  Apparently, this group of brownshirts had caused a ruckus by not merely jumping into the mosh pit, but mixing it up with the black kids who held sway with their skanking and pogoing.  The neo-Nazi skinheads, or Frontboys, as they called themselves, were escorted out right after their friends’ band played.  We never even saw what happened; we were backstage during the whole thing, and only found out the details from a couple of the guys in Lyme Crane.

*****

            Sid Vicious died on February 2, 1979, the middle of our freshman year of high school.  He’d been a member of the seminal British punk band The Sex Pistols for all of 11 months after replacing their original bassist Glen Matlock (the one who recorded with the group on their only major release, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here’s the Sex Pistols), followed by drug problems, prison time at Riker’s Island, a murder charge for the death of his one-time girlfriend Nancy Spungen, and then his own death by heroin overdose.  It was a busy couple of years for the young punk – and this was the guy that Gerry looked up to, idolized it seemed.  It was as if Gerry were oblivious to the central fact of this man’s life: barreling down the track, eyes closed, headed for his own destruction.  Then again, maybe he was well aware of the final chapter of Vicious’s life; maybe he figured his life was already moving down a similar track after he watched his parents’ ugly separation and divorce; maybe he saw something romantic about it all, something that neither Harrison, X, nor I could see.

*****

            The day finally came, and all of us were feeling nervous, packing and re-packing our gear in the van I borrowed from my parents.  Gerry looked like he had that night when his front lawn was littered with someone’s personal belongings (all his dad’s stuff, I found out later): jeans, black boots, black leather jacket, no shirt.

            “It’s gonna be 85 degrees out there, y’know that,” Harrison pointed out gently.

            Gerry grunted.  He looked like he hadn’t slept in a couple days, or eaten.

            X provided quite the counterpoint to Gerry’s disheveled look, wearing a white dress shirt, jet black jeans, a thin, black silk tie, and black dress shoes – and of course, the jet black sunglasses.  Harrison couldn’t believe that either, but just laughed as he repositioned his cymbals one last time.  He wore a white tank top, a pair of gym shorts, and running sneakers.

            “What, you gonna work out?” Gerry asked in a slurred voice, already sneering.

            “Yeah, yeah I am.”

            I gave no thought to my attire that morning and just wore my standard white t-shirt and jeans, with black Chuck Taylors – the same outfit I’d worn to bed the previous night, actually.

            When we arrived at the festival, we noticed half a dozen bands we’d either played with or seen perform in the last six months, all of them looking about as nervous as we felt.  Gerry didn’t make matters better, either, shouting out things like, “This is it, boys, we’re gonna break it huge,” in a horrible British accent.  The rest of us groaned – or I did, anyway, preferring to keep our ambitions modest.  Preferring something else, too: to put Gerry’s pill-popping out of my mind, though I worried I might not be able to do that before the day was through.

            That Other Guy went on third that day, after Lyme Crane and before Paula Paula, which was this all-girl group that had been kicking ass for the last year all over Fairfax.  We were grateful to play before them.  Jim Martin, a local record storeowner who was in charge of the festival, gave all of the bands – nine total – the breakdown before anyone hit the stage:

            “Keep your set to forty minutes.  Seriously, forty.  We will cut you off.  And keep the language clean – last year I got complaints, don’t ask me who from.  Get as much of your gear off the stage when you finish your set as you can.  Okay, that should be everything.  Any questions?”

            “Are kidney punches allowed?” Harrison asked, a mock-serious look on his face.

            “Never mind, no questions.  Go get your crap together.”  He turned to leave, then remembered one more thing.  “Hold up – forgot to tell you that we’ll be recording all of the sets.  Every group will get a tape in a few weeks.”  No one really reacted, though it was a kind gesture on his part; we were all so focused on the possible record deal with IRS that I don’t think anyone had considered we’d get anything else out of playing that day.

            The four of us scattered around the festival grounds, an hour on our hands before we needed to check in backstage and prepare for our set.  I had half a mind to go with Gerry, maybe just to diminish whatever trouble he might get himself into.  Again, though, I played the coward, grabbing a sno-cone and gazing forlornly (and from a safe distance) at Leah Andrews, the lead singer for Paula Paula, who, incidentally, sat in front of me in physics class.

            The set list was nearly the same, with “Run Like Hell” replacing “More Than a Feeling,” and our energy felt good, like it had at the Knott show.  But as soon as we ran onstage, I noticed something was different.  The Frontboys apparently had decided to come to the festival even though their friends wouldn’t be on the bill.  I saw the dozen or so of them edge forward a little each song, finally reaching the lip of the outdoor stage.  Was I the only one of us who saw these brutes?  At first, I couldn’t hear what they were saying, but after we finished “Mindbender,” and I was introducing everyone in The Other Guy, the Frontboys’ leader bellowed, “Kike singer, nigger drummer,” two or three times.  Kike? I thought.  So he thinks I’m Jewish with this red hair and fair skin?  I laughed as I recalled the framed picture of Pope John Paul II hanging on the wall at my house (my mom was second-generation Polish).  But I turned my head and could tell Harrison heard the slurs, so I counted off the “One, two, three, four,” to start “Blackout” right away.

            The rest of the show was a tug of war: we played each song, sounding as tight as I think we ever had, then abbreviating the between-songs chatter so we didn’t have to contend with the jackass patrol spouting their fascist nonsense.  “Run Like Hell” worked especially well: no one had ever heard us play it before, and between Harrison’s otherworldy drumming and the one-two punch of X and Gerry’s vocals, I thought we might have hit our high point a few songs too early.

            Unfortunately, the crowd’s enthusiasm did nothing to dampen the Frontboys attempts to heckle us off the stage.  “Yeah, you better run like hell, boy,” the leader shouted, this time pointing at Harrison and emphasizing the word ‘boy’ in case our drummer wasn’t getting the message.  All we could do was move on to “Up on the Roof,” during which I noticed Gerry gyrating all over the stage, then reaching back to the microphone stand just in time to join X on the back-up vocals.  One thing was the same: his moves were herky-jerky and unpredictable, drug-addled as his brain was at that point.  But there was something different, too: he was looking at the Frontboys, apparently aware as I was that these guys held us a grudge from the community center show and had their eye on taking out Harrison for being black and me for being Jewish.  As we repeated the chorus to the old Drifters’ tune, I saw Gerry give them all a menacing stare, one they probably didn’t take seriously because he was so rail thin.  I knew something that they didn’t know, though; I knew that Gerry Rittle was a powder keg that day – and that maybe he always had been.

            We tore through “Courtesy of Me,” X’s face full of his wide smile as he played my circus simple riff, I handclapped and Gerry do-si-doed all over the stage, keeping his menacing glare fixed on the Frontboys.  Slowing it down for “Thank You Friends,” gave us a breather, and each time I sang the word ‘friends’ I smiled and looked at those angry skinheads, at one point holding out my hands as if to welcome their embrace.

            When we finished that song, the Frontboys were uncharacteristically silent, though I could still see the rage etched in their faces.  “That was a Big Star tune, hope you liked it,” I said into the microphone.  “This next one will be our last.  X wrote it” – I glanced over at him, catching his eye – “and it’s called ‘Final Go’.”  Before I could back away from the mike, X lit into his opening riff, blistering the air in a way I’d never heard before.  This is it, he seemed to be saying, no sense in holding back, and the rest of us joined in, building bit by bit to the crescendo.  Gerry sang back-up again, still scowling down at the Frontboys, still skittering around the stage.  Without a shirt, his pale white torso was covered in sweat, his leather jacket sticking to his skin.  As he caterwauled across the stage at one point, nearly bumping me away from behind the mike, I saw one of his open pockets, two black plastic film canisters rolling around, and I felt my stomach churn and my face go cold.

            Then came the close of the song.  X had wanted to do something different when he showed it to us months before.  “We’ll do a coda.”

            “A what?” Gerry asked.

            “It’s like a mini-song tacked onto the end of the main song.”

            “Whatever,” Gerry responded.

            During the coda, we switched keys, from G major to A major, and X and Harrison battled it out with a flurry of solos while Gerry and I attempted to keep some kind of rhythm going.  I felt like we were about to collapse into chaos, the song building and building, X’s lead guitar notes ringing loud as church bells.  Gerry and I dueled with each other like we were members of some cheesy metal band, wielding our instruments like weapons.

            I suppose one thing that artists, musical and otherwise, have to learn is how to keep their audiences wanting more.  That afternoon I thought we’d done a pretty good job, and as Harrison hit his crash cymbals one, two, three times to signal the end of “Final Go,” I thought we had a real shot at that record deal with IRS.  What I didn’t notice during the song’s conclusion was the Frontboys assembled in two groups of six or seven, each one near each end of the stage, ready to do something other than wish us well on our performance.  What I didn’t imagine was that Gerry would leap from the stage at that same moment, bass still strapped to his skinny, sweaty body, aiming for the leader of the Frontboys.  So just when we thought we would hear the final round of applause, bouncers all over the festival area broke the ranks of the fans to separate Gerry from the number one skinhead.  In the process, Gerry’s pill bottles fell out, and less than a minute later, we silently watched him get carted away in a Fairfax County cop car.

            I looked at X, then Harrison, speechless.  So this was it, I thought.

Published in: on September 5, 2010 at 7:07 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Part two of “That Other Guy”

Here’s another installment . . .

***** 

           Gerry’s antagonistic stage antics helped get us noticed.  It also got X pissed off – “What are we, a Sex Pistols tribute band?” – and Harrison frustrated – “Can he follow the beat at least half the time?” – while I felt compelled to play referee and peacemaker.  “C’mon guys, he gives us some stage presence.”  This was partly true, but it was a cover for me, too: I was petrified of singing in front of people (and still am to this day), so Gerry took some of the pressure off of me with his weird gyrations and steady stream of insults for the crowd.

            Harrison and X shook their heads and shot me looks that said in no uncertain terms, You better be right, Danny.

            I’m convinced I was right, but I didn’t know something then about Gerry – something that clued me into his performances on stage and the reason why we stopped performing together as a band.

            A month after we started playing shows, Gerry’s parents divorced.  I’d only met them once so I knew hardly any of the details of the break-up, except that it was loud and ugly.  One night, a heap of clothes, a couple of opened suitcases, and assorted stacks of books and magazines, were all strewn about their front lawn.  I almost parked my station wagon by the Rittle house to pick Gerry up for band practice, but before I could turn off the ignition key, he came running out, his bass in hand (no case), wearing dirty jeans and leather jacket and no shirt.

            It was January.

            “Drive,” he said, and I did.  He didn’t talk about it; I was too much the coward to ask him.

            But that wasn’t everything.  His moods swung all over, from a dark, brooding surliness that enveloped the room as soon as he entered to a high-pitched manic phase that shouted down everyone around him.  He’d always idolized Sid Vicious, but he began to resemble the dead-by-heroin –overdose bassist more and more, from the iron lock on a chain around his neck to the permanent scowl and the spiked black hair (this despite his natural blond locks).  One day at practice he left to go to the upstairs bathroom in X’s house.  I was playing around with the chords of X’s new original song, “Final Go,” which I liked but found more than a little challenging with its jazzy changes and fast rhythms.  I walked around the basement, looking over at X, who was nodding at my strumming and then Harrison, who was testing out different fills for the tune.  Then, as I passed Gerry’s bag sitting on the floor, I saw it.  But I didn’t believe it.

            Later, when I gave Gerry a ride home, I noticed it again, still sticking out of his bag: a black plastic film canister that was really a bottle of pills, looking like the ones that we saw plenty of guys carrying around at shows, both in the Fairfax basements and in clubs all over.  Speed mostly, though I’d heard something about acid and PCP showing up in some neighborhoods.

            Again, I was too much the coward to say a word about it to Gerry, but with every show we played, I saw the unmistakable signs of what the pills – whatever they were – did to Gerry.

            Throwing his body against the walls.

            Bouncing against X or me while we were playing guitar, or brushing against Harrison’s drum kit.

Jumping high in the air – and then just landing with a thump, in a pile, his bass bruising his thighs and ribs.

            Plenty of people thought Gerry’s theatrics were a hoot.  They also thought it was all pre-arranged, too – in other words, that all of us were in on it, letting Gerry play the fool to our three-headed King Lear.  We did nothing to disabuse people of this mistaken notion.

            For a few weeks, I assumed I was the only one who knew about Gerry and his pills.  As with so many things in our band, though, I was wrong.

            “What, are you crazy?” X asked me one day after school as we were walking to the parking lot.  “Of course I know.  So does Harrison.”

            “But . . . how?”

            X shook his head and looked at me, sighing.  “Well, the bouncing around on stage, for one.  And people have been talking.”

            “Oh.  Okay.”

            “One more thing,” he added, stopping for a moment and looking in a few directions as if perhaps Gerry might be nearby to hear our conversation.  “I’ve seen him with some guys at the shows.  Dealers, I’m sure of it.”  I just nodded, having not noticed what should have been obvious to me.

            “So . . . what should we do?”

           “Kick him out of the band,” he responded, without a moment’s hesitation.

           I sputtered.  “But . . . but we can’t.”

           “We can’t?  Sure we can.  Bass players are a dime a dozen.”

           “Well, yeah, but this is Gerry’s band.”  I said it before I thought it, and hearing those words came out of my mouth felt strange to me – not false, but somehow skewed.

           “And the way he’s going, it won’t be anyone’s band.  Don’t you see, kid?  He’s going to get us in trouble.”

           “But none of us . . .”  I stopped there.

           “He gets busted, we’ll all get nabbed for something – possession maybe, aiding and abetting, distribution for all I know.”

           “You don’t think.”  I stepped back from X for a second as if he were aflame.

           “At this point, nothing would surprise me. Nothing, kid.”

           Clearly I didn’t share X’s sentiments, but Harrison felt ambivalent about kicking someone out, so the status quo held.  And we were playing more and more shows, making more and more money, and writing more and more songs.  One night a few guys from some of the D.C. hardcore bands, Minor Threat’s Ian MacKaye among them, showed up at an all-ages show at Knott Community Center, half a mile from our high school.  No one mobbed him – this was a DIY scene, after all – but the place was buzzing all the same.  What were those guys doing there?  Was there a chance that their indie label, Dischord, might be looking to sign some bands from the Fairfax scene?

           That night was the first show we played where the originals outnumbered the covers – a good sign, we thought, if we were ever going to be noticed as anything other than some novelty punk band that performed an eclectic selection of other people’s songs.  X’s songs tended to sound moodier, more British, more intricate.  (The year after we broke up, I heard The Cure on my college radio station and could have sworn that X was playing guitar on – and had written – “Lovecats.”)  My songs – well, my songs tended to result in people dancing.  I can’t say that was ever my intention, but what can you do?  I often had horn parts playing in my head while I was writing the lyrics and strumming the chords on the Gibson hollow body electric that my father gave me one Christmas when I was 12.  Maybe that’s why there were usually “doo-wahs” and “la-las” in my choruses where trumpets and saxophones might otherwise have played.  I sometimes referred to our set lists as punkadelic, which made Gerry gnash his teeth, of course.

            At the community center show, we were second to last on the bill.  It was a battle of the bands, of a sort, anyway: the top two bands would get to play a festival show in May.  Metric System had played that same festival in ’81 and got signed by IRS Records, this small sort-of-independent label that was distributed by one of the majors and already had The Go-Gos and The English Beat recording for them.

            We began our set with one of my songs, “Mindbender,” probably my most upbeat tune.  “Whip them into a frenzy,” X would say before we started playing this two-chord rave-up, and we often did, though part of me felt like he resented my song becoming our standard opener.  Next was X’s “Blackout,” which featured some of the most explosive – and, frankly, least punk – drumming of any of our songs.  Harrison neatly segued from a tight beat to a nearly go-go rhythm, echoing D.C.’s Chuck Brown and another music scene that never quite rose to national prominence.

            After that, we did a couple of covers – “More Than a Feeling,” which got equal amounts of cheers and confused stares, and The Drifters’ “Up on the Roof,” which featured X and Gerry harmonizing nicely on the back-up vocals – and felt confident that we had a lock on one of the two festival slots.  Gerry was in his best Sid Vicious mode, but the stage at Knott was so much bigger than the basement spaces we’d been playing for the last few months, so his gesticulations seemed a lot less pronounced.  At least for the first four songs, anyway.

            Next came another one of my songs, “Courtesy of Me,” a short song with lots of handclaps and a goofy little four-note guitar solo that X could have played in his sleep.  More frenzy, and during the second half of the song, when I stopped playing guitar and clapped along with Harrison’s Wall of Sound drum beat filling the place, Gerry started dancing, flailing really, somehow still managing to play the bass part (only three notes, thankfully).  I watched him from the corner of my eye, smiling at first.  The more he flailed, though, the more my smile became a mockery of itself.  Was he going to self-destruct now, with just two songs left and our spot at the festival almost guaranteed?

            “Courtesy of Me” ended on Harrison’s rim shot, and I jumped to the mike, figuring that starting our next song right away might keep Gerry from unraveling completely.  Or just bring this set to a quicker close.

            We started playing our third and final cover, our most obscure of all of them, Big Star’s “Thank You Friends.”  It was a good deal slower than some of our other tune, which was good: Gerry just stood fairly still, played his very simple bass part – four notes on this one, I think – and all we had left was our closer, X’s “Final Go.”  When we’d hashed out our set list a few days before, I resisted ending with this song, half-assedly arguing that it was too Mission of Burma, too weird to go out on at a battle of the bands.  X didn’t respond – maybe because he wasn’t a fan of starting with “Mindbender,” I speculated – but Harrison was adamant.  “Weird?  It’s his best tune.”  He pointed at X for emphasis.  “That makes it one of our best.”  And, to my surprise, Gerry nodded, making the decision clear.

            Before X opened his song with a thundering riff high on the fret board, I walked over to him and whispered something to him about Gerry to which he nodded, then opened the floodgates.  For the next three minutes, we all jumped around, actually, Gerry flailing again, X and I pogoing to Harrison’s propulsive rhythm.  When X finished, returning to the initial riff, I was sure we were in – and Gerry fell over dramatically to punctuate the moment.  (Everyone in the crowd seemed to think his fall was hilarious, much as crowds had for the previous five months.)

            We rushed to the makeshift backstage, adrenaline pumping and sweat soaking our t-shirts and jeans.  We barely listened to Lyme Crane, the final act.  Too bad, too: great little three-piece that sounded like a hyperactive cross between early David Bowie and Lynyrd Skynyrd’s “Sweet Home Alabama.”  Their set seemed to end in record time while we sat in a circle staring at each other as if to say, “Can you believe it?”  When they called our name – and Lyme Crane’s, as it turned out – we weren’t surprised.  Not a bit.

            As we cleaned up after the show, one of the organizers came up to me.  “Hey.  You Kramer?”

            “Uh huh.”  I had my guitar case in one hand, my amp in the other, and I was eager to go home and sleep, not talk to this guy – or anyone, for that matter.

            “Listen, I don’t want to bring you down after that great set and all . . .”  He dropped off vaguely, as if I already knew what he was going to tell me.

            “Then don’t,” I said, feeling more cross.

            He laughed.  “No, seriously.  Look, I just need you to be aware of something.”  He turned his head both ways, as if he were checking for traffic before he crossed, or worried that  someone might want to listen to his secret.  “That bass player of yours.  The cops, well . . .”

            “Well . . . what?”

            “They know.”  He looked me in the eyes as if to say anything more might lead directly to Gerry Rittle getting his Miranda rights read to him.

            I played nonchalant.  “They know, huh?”

            He only nodded, slowly walking away, while I felt my body quake for a moment.  Would we even make it to the festival show? I wondered.

Published in: on September 4, 2010 at 1:46 am  Comments (4)  
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Part one of a story titled “That Other Guy”

Here’s a story I wrote – or at least the first section.  I’ll post the other sections in the course of the next week.

*****

            Reunions are at the heart of a lot of great stories.  Odysseus returns to Penelope after 20 long years at sea, fighting off the tempting sirens and the vengeful Poseidon.  Ebenezer Scrooge does an about face and rejoins the human race, stopping in at his nephew Fred’s house after a long night of eye-opening dreams.  Huck Finn meets up with Jim near the end of the novel to save his friend from the injustice of slavery, after a long circuitous route involving faux kings, an unexplained feud, and more than a couple of fake names.  This is not a reunion story, though.  Not really.

            When we were in high school, it was all about hardcore punk.  Or at least that’s the way people in our circle talked.  Picture it: 1982, Fairfax, Virginia, an affluent suburb of Washington, D.C., and kids all over are starting up bands and playing shows in their friends’ basements (and, when things are really going well, the occasional coffeehouse or club).  In some respects, our group was no different from the others.

            Gerry Rittle, the bass player, instigated it all as far back as middle school – we all went to Poe – by singing “Pretty Vacant,” at the top of his lungs in the cafeteria, perched atop the table where we’d been eating our lunch just moments before.

            Xavier Solz, or X, the lead guitarist, was a British music aficionado, having lived there for most of grade school and stocked up on plenty of records along the way.  His hair was a dark black, well before the Goth scene even became a scene stateside.

            Harrison Winfield, our drummer, had traveled the world with his Navy commander dad and claimed major league baseball player Dave Winfield as his uncle.  Harrison had weird gaps in his musical knowledge, due I suppose to his travels as a kid

            That leaves me: Danny Kramer, rhythm guitar and vocals, lifelong resident of the commonwealth of Virginia.

            Now I mentioned that we weren’t that different from the other punk rock groups in the Fairfax scene.  Two guitars, bass, and drums for one, but our appearance gave us away, too: close-cropped hair; white t-shirts and jeans; scruffy sneakers or black boots.  I suppose our music sounded similar to other groups’ in the scene, too, like Random Y, Metric System, The Dangers, or Paula Paula (whose lead singer Leah Andrews was reason enough for me to go to see their shows).  We mixed up our set like they did, scattering cover tunes among our originals.  It wasn’t a rule or anything that you had to do covers, I don’t think, but some groups did them because they figured it was easier to learn someone else’s song than write your own.  Others just really dug a particular tune and wanted to play it.  For us, covers were a constant bone of contention.

            “Why not ‘(I’m Not Your) Stepping Stone’?” Gerry asked one afternoon, a few days before our first basement gig.

            “Why not?” X responded, incredulous.  “How about ‘cause everyone does it, maybe?  Like Minor Threat, for one.”  He paused.  “Besides, it’s a Monkees’ tune.”  X always was a bit snobbish about any Brit imitators.

            The mention of the DC hardcore band Minor Threat, already on their way to legendary status, shut Gerry up for a moment, though for complicated reasons.  See, our little Fairfax scene often felt like it was competing with the burgeoning DC scene.  We probably should have known that we had no chance of measuring up with Minor Threat, Bad Brains, or any number of other groups coming out of the nation’s capitol, but merely mentioning one of them by name raised the question: Better to imitate them or do the opposite?  We ended up being confused a lot.

            But back to the covers conversation.

            Harrison, who was stretched out on the floor of X’s basement floor, crossed his arms and looked up at the ceiling as if song titles might magically show up there.  His perspective was unique in more ways than one – living overseas meant he had these odd gaps of knowledge about the bands and songs that the rest of us took for granted, from the popular radio-friendly ones to the less-heralded underground groups.  “How about that song by that band – damn it, what’s their name?  They’re named after a city?”

            “Chicago?” I asked, pretty sure I was dead wrong.

            “No.”

            “Boston?” X offered, looking equally convinced as I had been a moment before.

            “Yeah, yeah,” Harrison said excitedly, tapping out a beat with his hand, then launching into the vocal with a bit of a falsetto: “ ‘More than a feelin’ ”  X, Gerry, and I watched in various stages of amazement and amusement.

            “You’ve got to be kidding,” Gerry said, kicking his bass guitar case pointlessly.

            “What?  It’s a good song,” Harrison protested, now slapping more insistently on the concrete floor.  He looked at me and X, hoping for a different response.  X stared at his feet, but his face gave me the impression that he was working out some complicated math problem without the benefit of pencil and paper.  Before I could say a word, he’d picked up his guitar, turned up the volume on his amp, and played a slightly revved up version of the riff to that Boston song that was still getting requested on Top 40 radio.  He looked over at me finally, still playing, shouting, “Think you can sing it?”

            That moment was typical for us.  At our first show and all the ones that followed we invariably covered songs that struck one of us as interesting or strange – that was the only real criteria, looking back.  Gerry lost out a lot here, because he would recommend Ramones’ songs half the time.

            “ ‘I Wanna Be Sedated’?  Why?” X would ask.

            “ ‘Cause it’s punk rock and it’s a great song – isn’t that obvious?”

            “Yeah, but what are we gonna do with that song?”  Harrison asked, genuinely curious.  But Gerry couldn’t respond; most of the time it seemed like all he wanted to do was offer a Xerox copy of the CBGB’s alums’ classic tunes.  Still, though we vetoed nearly every one of his suggestions, somehow it was Gerry who drove the band.  Without his belting out The Sex Pistols’ “Pretty Vacant” in his best punk rock snarl, standing atop the cafeteria table, I think we probably would’ve hung out on occasion, maybe even gone to a few of those basement shows, but that’s about it.  Harrison would’ve played drums in the marching band and jazz ensemble – which he did anyway – and X and I probably would’ve just noodled around on our guitars in front of our ever-captive mirrors.

            It did take us a couple years into high school until most of us had gotten out of a few very lame groups, though.  Our senior year came along, Gerry broke down and bought an imitation Fender bass at a garage sale for $19, and finally we could call ourselves a band.  Before we knew it, we started playing basements all over Fairfax.  Most places started their shows a little after nine and tried to have at least five or six bands on the bill.  We would’ve played all night if we could’ve, but we generally wrapped things up by 1 a.m., because if we didn’t, we risked cops coming and shutting us down, maybe arresting some people, too, if they weren’t careful with the beer and the pills that were becoming more and more common on our scene.

            This arrangement meant having a 40 minute set ready to go.  Early on, we played almost exclusively covers – maybe that was another reason bands played them – some kind of sentimental attachment to the early days? – and then gradually X and I started writing original songs.

            Meanwhile, our cover list became steadily more schizophrenic.  We’d follow “More Than a Feeling” with James Brown’s “Papa’s Got a Brand New Bag,” and then segue into The Box Tops’ “The Letter.”  Somehow it worked: we kept getting invited to play again, and each time we played we got paid a little more.  (Let’s not kid ourselves, though: the first show we played for nothing, and by the time we called it quits, I think we were maybe getting $200, split four ways.)

            I probably knew it then, but I certainly know now that one reason we kept getting called back was Harrison.  Damn could that guy play.  I mean professional level when he was 16 or 17.  Flat out the best drummer I’ve ever seen, he made us sound good when my voice was cracking (not uncommon) or Gerry’s bass was out of tune (ditto).  Then there was X, who took to wearing these jet black sunglasses to offset his pale white skin and make himself look even more British than usual.  (Plus, his guitar-playing kept improving, something a lot of people didn’t notice but should have.)  Gerry, snubbed as he often was, deserves his share of the credit, though his contribution was less musical and more theatrical.  As a bassist, he was mildly competent, but his Sid Vicious act always got people going – partly because he often appeared to bait audiences with his sneers and mean-spirited comments, and partly because a lot of people assumed he was just joking around with them.  It was never fully clear which was true, and I think that was just how Gerry liked it.  His sense of presentation carried us some nights, and also tipped the scales when it came to choosing a band name.

            “I hate this,” X said after an hour of mind-numbing possibilities: The Kranx, School Daze, Jars of Piss, and the worst of the lot, Unfair Facts.

            “Well, we need something,” I added lamely.  I had suggested half of the names and felt defeated and defensive.  I kept rubbing my quarter-inch thick red hair, still itchy from a spotty shave job I did myself the night before

            “The Harrison Four,” Harrison suggested, again, and snorted.  He was sitting behind his drum kit and he had just shaved his head bald again, which might have looked imposing on anyone else, but this large black teenager was grinning like a little kid.

            “Nice, Harrison,” X said, and groaned.

            Gerry began pacing, making me nervous.

            “What?” I asked, still edgy.

            “What do people know us for?” he asked.

            “Huh?”

            “What do people remember about us?”

            We paused.  I was afraid he was going to treat us to another one of his piss-offs about our choices of cover songs, but no.  He just waited for us to respond.  Harrison offered his take.  “My sweet rhythms?”

            “Good God,” X said, walking towards the door and pantomiming several headbangs in quick succession.

            “Well, he asked.”
            “We’re kind of . . . different,” I said vaguely, not really sure what I even meant.

            “Uh huh,” Gerry said, apparently agreeing and getting excited.  He looked around at all of us.  “Remember last Saturday night at McCarthy’s place?”  We all nodded, recalling our most recent show.  “I heard one of the guitarists in The Dangers talking to somebody about us.”

            “So?” X asked, looking confused.

            “He kept calling us ‘those other guys’.”  Gerry smiled, more than a little maniacally.

            “So you’re saying . . .” I began.

            “Uh huh.”

            “ ‘Those Other Guys’?” Harrison said, tapping out a reggae beat on the snare and the floor tom.

            “Or maybe ‘That Other Guy’?” X offered.

            And so we had our name, courtesy of Gerry.  None of us ever bothered to check the truth of his story, either; that didn’t seem to matter. 

*******

            It’s been 25 years since That Other Guy – we agreed to leave off  ‘those’ since it just sounded weirder and therefore cooler to us – played its last show.  I’ve been teaching most of that time, high school English, but lost touch with the other guys.  I know that Harrison stuck with music, though: he plays with a ska group, The Taser Lites, which has had a few hits and a huge word-of-mouth following up and down the East coast.  The Grateful Dead of ska, some people call them.  He’s smart, too, though I’ve always known that: I read an article about how he not only plays drums for The Taser Lites but also works as the drum technician for the bands that play with them on their tours, guaranteeing that he’ll be doing just fine even if his own group is having an off year.  He was going to make his living in the music biz, no question about it.  I even tried to get tickets to see his group play one night in D.C., but they sold out too quickly for me.

            X – who had always been X, from middle school when he insisted, quietly and politely, that teachers refer to him as such – followed in his father’s footsteps, doing foreign service work  all over the world.  I lost track of him, too, though I know he spent time in Turkey, Lebanon, Qatar, and Germany.  Supposedly he came back to Fairfax every now and then – his parents stayed in the area, even remaining in the same house – but I either heard about him being in town after the fact, or was out of town myself when he was here.

            As for Gerry – well, damn if I know anything about him after that last show.

Published in: on September 1, 2010 at 4:43 pm  Leave a Comment  
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