Not so long ago I was in a rock and roll band that tested my previously high tolerance for drama and danger. Music has a way of attracting colorful characters, sensitive types with explosive and expressive personalities. The kind and the wounded. Having only played the guitar for six months or so, I was honored to be invited to sit in with some musicians who were talented and seasoned, and I was looking forward to the experiential learning that is more my style than the incremental. We rehearsed Thursday nights in an old converted warehouse that rented two stories of studios with padded walls, black paint and graffiti, soiled bathrooms, grungy floors. It was disgusting. And in a terrifying part of town. And I loved it.
This is not how it was described to me, but if one were to ask directions to the studio, they would accurately be thus: Drive south under the Saint Louis University archway on Jefferson (the one where the “S” in “Saint” is upside down), cross over the highway and keep going until you feel uncomfortable. Take a right at a gas station you thank god you don’t need. After three stop signs (at each one check the locks on your doors and take notice of the prostitutes staring at you across the street). Veer right towards a weedy lot. The Warehouse is the lone, dark structure with an open gravel parking lot dotted with tattooed skinny people in interesting tee-shirts. You made it!
Inside was a deep cave with hallways holding secret doors that opened and closed as people darted in and out, loud bursts of music escaping for an instant and disappearing. There were pool tables in a ghostly common area at the entrance just behind the steel door you had to be buzzed in through by a faceless, ageless reading guy at a desk who pushed the button to let you in and never looked up at anyone. Ever. The thumping of drum beats and vibrations of strings mixed in the air, where you knew there was music, and it was exciting, but you couldn’t tell whether it was good or not. It didn’t matter anyway. Once you were in, it was all good.
We were preparing for our first gig together, an outdoor music festival in the West End with blocked off streets, barbecue, beer trucks, and friendly crowds. It was perfect in every way, aside for a demonic heat wave that descended upon Saint Louis that week, raising the temperature ceiling from an almost pleasant eighty-five degrees to a stultifying one hundred and five. In the intense late afternoon sun we trudged onto a black wooden stage perched on a cul de sac of naked asphalt and gasped for air. There was only a small canopy above the stage and behind us, more for sound than for comfort since it, too, was black. I had the genius to wear a summer dress, only, it too was black. As was my guitar. And my hair. As the sun beat down, all that surrounded us mercilessly worked in concert to greenhouse the relentless rays and insulate us in a hot box of darkness, shielded from all drifts of cool evening air and humanity. Even the fan was black, shapeshifting into an old drunk man exhaling intensely into our faces.
It wasn’t long before we were ragged and drenched, resembling more a group of protesters shot with a water cannon than entertainers. We didn’t utter a word to each other. My fingers slipped around helplessly on steel strings and electrocution flashed in and out as a distinct possibility for all of us. A voice was convincing me it would be a good way to go. Maybe the next song I’d be out of my misery, checking out on a high note; it had been a good life, after all, no need to be greedy. Sweat rained down from the top of my head, mixing with mascara and stinging my eyes dragging black streaks down my cheeks. So there I stayed, plastered in place, dripping and dizzy like a grizzly bear in the desert, fantasizing about electrocution, until our time was up. It was a very strange sensation, an addictive cocktail of adrenaline and endorphins, of self-pity and generic loathing.
Our next gig was at Bob’s, a dive bar with an interesting story in another questionable part of Saint Louis. I drove there at night, by myself, guitar strapped in the front seat. It was a sordid adventure, even farther away from my newly expanded comfort zone, but when you survive scary things, it is emboldening. Streets grew darker, restaurants disappeared, row houses carried post-apocalyptic accusations, but I wasn’t deterred. Courage welled inside me as I reminded myself of the harrowing treks to the Warehouse. Abandoned lots and burned out buildings, zombies standing and staring on sidewalks, cars with broken windows. It took the sudden sound of an alarm to strip me of my courage and fear rushed to fill the void. My heart raced. I was about to turn around when I saw the sailboat on the pockmarked sidewalk. A half-lit sign flickered Bob’s in neon like a prophesied star.
The faded yellow Sunfish lay on its side chained and bolted to a lamppost that didn’t light by the front door. It was the landmark I was instructed to look for. With several pulls and a hard yank the door popped open and a wall of smoke greeted me with open arms, hugging me, flying up my nose and into my eyes and filling my lungs. I stepped in, coughing and squinting, seeing first two grimy, hollow bartenders, and a row of gray people wobbling on bar stools. Muffled Jimmy Buffet blared overhead. No one looked up when I walked in, and although I felt safer than I did outside in the de-militarized zone, the margin wasn’t by much. I cut my way through the already drunken throng to my band mates in the back setting up between the pool table and Golden Tee. I took in my surroundings and was overwhelmed by the feeling that I was far too old for these sorts of scenarios, when a thump thump thump on my thigh redirected my attention.
I looked down at a wheelchair with an outstretched wooden arm, attached to a man with a wooden nose, a wig, and a cigarette dangling from his lips. The other wooden arm was resting across his lap. How you doing? I’m Bob, he rasped and thumped me a couple more times on the leg. Nice to meet you, I said and smiled, shaking the dainty outstretched mannequin hand. Bob continued to tap me as we were setting up, and stayed at my side. He tapped when I was singing. He bumped into my knees when I was strumming. He ran his wooden fingers down my arm, and when I leaned down to reach a dropped guitar pick, he rapped me on the top of my head. Hey! and You need anything? were all that he would say, and he said it to me a thousand times.
It was time for the band to take a break. As we were turning down volumes and setting down instruments, Bob was in front of me, nudging me with his wheelchair and his wooden arms towards his office, which was covered in pictures of girls in bathing suits, beach scenes and racing sailboats, ashtrays and cigarette butts, full packs and empties scattered across his desk, and on the floor. He lit a cigarette while one still burned in his mouth and for a few puffs smoked them together. And then he told me his story. He had owned a bar and lived in an apartment above it. After a late night of partying and closing down, upstairs he went with his smokes in hand and awoke in the hospital weeks later without his limbs, his nose, his hair and most of his skin. His recovery was horrific and grueling, and eventually, he reopened another bar two blocks farther east from the old one, which remains burned out and abandoned. As he spoke I stared at the tinder, casually clinging to his lower lip by a spec of moisture on dry paper, the ashes breaking off and fluttering onto his shirt and pants as it lightly bounced with his words. I desperately wanted to brush them off, but the strangeness of being the only one of us worried about those ashes kept my hands still.
Those two gigs and rehearsing in the Warehouse are special memories ranging anywhere from humiliating to enlightening, from terrifying to liberating, and some others in between.