Free Beer

I began keeping a journal of my exploits, December 31, 1989, writing in it compulsively as I sought answers. Music became a bigger part of my life as days passed, and my diary, like a map, would show me where I was going by noting where I had been. New Year’s Eve was also the night that I had my first and my last show with the worst band on the planet at an empty bar in Forest Falls, California.

My father’s eccentric high school buddy Dave asked me and my buddy Art to join his Sixties-rock revival combo. Dave raved about how earth-shattering our principal concert would be: his 25-year high school reunion:

“Lights and smoke machines and tons of people…it’s gonna be incredible!”

The rhythm section of the new band would consist of Art and myself. The heavily bearded Bob would play guitar—Bob was another high school friend of my dad’s. Bob’s daughter Beth would handle keyboards, while our leader and his girlfriend Debbie would take care of the vocals.

It was a curious assortment—Bob being the only one who really knew what he was doing. Art, Beth and I were still beginners. And while we could cheat our way around a song, feeling the nuances like Braille, our singers belonged to the zip code of another dimension. Like a duet during a double root canal, their technique was the embodiment of catastrophe. At best, one could re-imagine a version of Sonny & Cher as devout noise terrorists. At worst, Dave and Debbie inhabited the vocal cords of the damned, drowning each other out in a cascade of lamentations. Sackcloth and ashes was all that kept them from becoming a Monty Python sketch. Me and Art, we couldn’t afford so much as a glance at one another while we played.

Dave named us: Free Beer.

“Wherever you see that name written it’ll cause a stampede,” he boasted, waving on a herd of buffalo. This was precisely the guy my father claimed came up with the word zit when they were young. Why not? I guess I didn’t have anything better to do when I wasn’t sitting in a classroom. Art lived around the corner. And we both needed the practice. Then my father (who’d never sang outside the shower) joined as a third vocalist. Free Beer practiced late into the night, the commotion reverberating between our house and that of Steve-Next-Door. I’ll bet poor Steve was late to work a lot back then.

Practice sessions consisted of Art and myself waiting (at minimum) an hour for the rest of them to turn up. Dave and his girlfriend had a ritual, whereby they would rumble in, talking loudly about nothing. And they wore black leather rocker outfits: shiny rawhide trousers that laced up at the crotch and leather jackets with long tassels. Where in our Podunk sprawl could they have found such gear? At least this way, while our singer was getting gas for his caved-in El Camino in Fontana, passersby could assume that his Jaguar was at the shop in Bel Aire.

Just as we were ready to begin, Dave fired up a joint the size of a Belicoso cigar, bragging as he passed it along to his wife, Cheech & Chong style. They analyzed the philosophy of rock and roll with rasping ‘I’m holding the smoke in’ cadences. The soggy doobie was passed to my father, who sucked at it as the garage was saturated. Art sat next to me, waiting to play. It’s widely known that after William Shatner crooned “Lucy in the Sky With Diamonds,” the planet gave a collective sob. Dave burgled Shatner’s crown with a singing voice not dissimilar to that of a broken saxophone. A lopsided Buster Brown haircut and vibrant armpit stains merely added to his charms.

We rehearsed for more than a month before the man decided that his band was ready to try their second number. And even though he’d chosen a batch of exceptionally easy cover tunes, he wanted them p-e-r-f-e-k-t. The rehearsals dragged on, and a waft of Dave’s left armpit was borne on a gust of wind from the amps as he faced me while we played “Baby It’s You” for the eleventeenth time. Art fell asleep on a stool, cradling his bass, midway through another round. The chorus still drags me right back to that infected garage whenever it comes on the radio.

“I don’t want nobody…nobody! Cuz baby, it’s you…sha-la-la-la-la-la-laaa…”

If those were the days of Don Quixote, our singer might have found himself among the non sancta, with a chain around his neck, led to the galleys by mounted guards for his confession-under-torture vocal style.

In his regular life, Dave was a mechanic. He spent years working for a premier engine builder, Dyno-tuning the engines of Sprint cars and other high-performance vehicles. This involved subjecting himself to an unthinkable deluge of metal-on-metal turmoil and sonic upheaval—for extended periods of time. By the time he told my father about Free Beer, Dave was officially tone-deaf.

What had been intended as a warm-up concert for Free Beer might have been a dress rehearsal for a little known theatrical production, given the amount of people it attracted. But to one man, truth mattered not. Like Elvis during the ‘68 Comeback Special, or Mad Max, our lead vocalist was head to toe in heavy leather S&M gear. We plugged in our amplifiers, the lights went up, and Dave rocked the empty room, tongue at the roof of his mouth, eyes pinched shut, groaning and now wailing like a mongoose in labor, raining down buckets of acrid sweat that clung to everything like spatters of green paint. As the last chord rang out, the tavern was transformed into the locker room that deodorant forgot. And I half expected Dave’s girlfriend to come throw a cape over his shoulders as he knelt at the foot of the stage, basking in applause. But the silence was total. It was louder than us.

I wonder what Samuel Beckett would have made of Diaphoretic Dave. “When body odour and volubility meet,” the author, playwright and poet once noted, “then there is no remedy.” As our lead vocalist possessed both in spades, the only option available to Art and me was to resign poste-haste.

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