Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Nurse the Hate: Hate Maxwell's

Maxwell’s was a club in Hoboken where every notable band in the last 25 years played.  A small room that held maybe 200, it was one of those New York area landmarks that became larger than life.  It was one of those places that you had heard about forever, and then walked in and thought "This is Maxwell's?".  I tried like hell to get the Cowslingers booked there, as it represented yet another place where everyone in our record collections played.  It was also especially exciting in that we risked being exposed for the frauds that we were by hitting the stage.  I think it was 1995 when we finally got a date there.  We were getting better, and had earned a modicum of respect for our “That’s Truckdriving” record on Sympathy.  We were by no means even close to the same level as bands that had headlined there like Husker Du, Replacements, Link Wray, X, Nirvana, Pogues, The Strokes, and on and on and on and on.  However, the kind of music we play was having a bit of a moment then, and we caught someone’s attention.

The plan was that we were going to be teamed up with somebody that had some draw in the area.  I think it might have been either the Swingin Neckbreakers or one of Ben Vaughn’s bands.  We had absolutely no draw in the area except for possibly three people on our mailing list and anyone that had been sent our “Hogtied” Estrus Crust Club single against their will and liked it in 1994.  (It did have a pretty good cover of Johnny Cash’s “One Piece At A Time” on it…)  This was a common tactic.  We would get ourselves in front of people that liked our kind of music and hope to win them over with our scruffy charm.  In that role, we were pretty good.  Give us 45 minutes to present our best material, and then let us get the hell out of the way.  However, things did not work out exactly as planned…

The gig was scheduled for a coupled days before Xmas.  I used to spend the holiday with my Aunt Rose and Uncle Jack in Tarrytown NY, just a short train ride away in Westchester County.  My plan was to stay at some dicey hotel near the venue after our triumphant show, make my way to the train station, and then shoot over to the greater Scarsdale area with presents in tow for all.  “Hello everyone.  I have just played the most noteworthy live music club in New York and now I will spend a few days here in the Big Apple hobnobbing about with you little people before my next glamorous adventure.  Who would like a marvelous gift?”  

We arrived at Maxwell’s at the same time a “Nor’easter” blew up the coast.  For those unfamiliar with this term, a “nor’easter” is a horrible storm that whips down the East Coast with awe inspiring winds, gallons of rain, and in this case sleet blowing sideways.  Every media outlet in the area has broadcasts which sound roughly like “Take shelter!  There is no hope!  The wrath of God is upon us!  Under no circumstances leave your homes!  These are End Times!”.  We, being used to horrible weather in Ohio, got out of the van and noted “Hey, it’s raining pretty good right now.”  We had no idea of the impact of this storm on the potential draw for the evening.  It seemed like a random rainy night, not A Major Weather Event.  What was the big deal?

We went in to the club and discovered the other band had cancelled.  It would be us and a guy called something like “Rockin’ Ricky” spinning old rockabilly records.  This was a Doomsday Scenario of the highest order.  Well intentioned booking agents love/loved sticking us with straight up rockabilly bands and the associated culture.  This is usually a disaster as we are more akin to a twangy country rock band that plays too aggressively than people that love Sha Na Na.  Making matters worse, we would be opening for “Rockin’ Ricky”.  This is an indie rock version of "Puppet Show & Spinal Tap".  Opening for a guy playing records?  Really?  The very, very small group of people that had assembled was all dressed like they had just stepped off the set of “Grease”.   I knew, without question, that they would hate us.  They did.  Oh, how they hated us.  Towards the end of the set there were about five people standing against the back wall staring at us and looking at their watches, hoping that this onslaught to their sensibilities would end and they could hear some guy spin a scratchy 45 of “Rock Around The Clock”.  We ended to complete silence.  I mean, NO ONE liked us. 

We slunk off the stage.  The promoter was furious with me.  I don’t know what he expected.  No one knew who the fuck we were there, and anyone that did sure as hell wasn’t going to go outside in this weather.  I didn’t tell him to book us with an oldies DJ.  The original plan would have been OK.  The events that transpired weren’t my idea, but he was writing the history and I stood there and got lambasted.  “You’ll never play this town again!” type of shit…  It wasn’t very fun.  Clearly, it was time to leave.  I don’t think we got paid, but they did comp our meatloaf dinners from the restaurant.  This was what being in the Cowslingers in the early 1990s was all about. Our motto was "Drive Further For Less".

I had no idea where I was ging to stay the night.  I had no plan.  All I knew was I had to get to a train to Westchester County at some point the next day.  The band dropped me off at a hotel I spotted from the road heading out of town to the turnpike.  It was an anonymous high rise business looking hotel that looked like it had been decorated by ex-Soviet military personnel.  It was bleak, but the rates were reasonable.  I struggled inside with my shopping bags of wrapped gifts and overnight bag.  Some greasy Eastern European in the ubiqitous cheap blue blazer checked me in.  There must be huge stores that sell poorly made and ill-fitting blue polyester blazers to Eastern Europeans.  Besides track suits, it is their go-to outfit.  I imagine enormous city squares with these outfits spread on cheap wooden tables as men finger the cheap merchandise.  "Buy two and get goat!"  I passed out almost immediately in my Spartan room, hoping that a night of sleep would wipe the shame off off me.

When I woke up, I was very confused.  Where the hell was I?  I heard people talking, but couldn’t understand the language.  Then more people in a different language.  Hard Eastern European accents.  Then sing-song African voices.  It was very disorienting.  I went into the antiseptic smelling bathroom and washed my face.  A fist pounded on my door.  "Dondrashock!  Kundra modra dog!  Shoo!"  What the hell happened last night?  Did I fall asleep on a ship and wake in Turkey?  I got myself together and went to the lobby to figure out how to get to Grand Central Station. 

Greater New York is a global village.  This is undeniable.  People from countries that are so obscure that they don’t field Olympic teams take over city blocks.  It’s what makes New York so compelling.  It’s a little bit of everywhere.   I have an expectation that I will come into contact with people from far flung areas from across the globe when I’m there.  It is part of the city’s DNA.  However, I think it is reasonable that when I go to the front desk that someone that works for the hotel can speak at least rudimentary English.  Instead, there was an African man that spoke French and a blonde woman that spoke what I believe was Russian.  Neither could provide me any information on where I was or how to get to the train station.  It went even more poorly for the Japanese couple that spoke no English much less French or Russian.  I decided that whatever the cost I would hop in a cab and get to Grand Central.  With all my bags of gifts, I sure as hell wasn’t going to walk around looking for a bus stop or ferry.  The word “cab” apparently was one of the few words my trusty hotel friends knew, and it appeared that they made a call.  In theory, a vehicle of some kind had been dispatched.

I stood out front of the hotel, the wind whipping my bags.  The bewildered Japanese couple stood next to me, either waiting for their own cab or hoping I would lead them to glory.  They just sort of stared blankly at me, waiting for me to take charge.  At least, that’s what I thought they were doing.  When the cab pulled up, I asked if they wanted to share it into Manhattan.  A little Mexican kid was driving.  He looked 14.  I asked him how much it would cost for us to share the cab to Grand Central.  He stared blankly back.  He also spoke no English.  I guided the Japanese couple into the cab, both of them clearly filled with reservations.  They couldn't have known what was going on, wondering if it was an American custom to drive around with visitors carrying gifts.  I climbed into the back seat with them, and said “Grand Central” to the cab driver.  He turned to speak to me.  “¿Dónde quieres ir? ¿Hablas español? No te entiendo.”


The confused Japanese couple looked out the window, overwhelmed.  I had no idea where this driver was headed, my rudimentary knowledge of New York’s geography telling me he was going the wrong way.  I asked the Japanese man where he wanted to go.  He stared back at me.  I took his guide book, looked up the word “where” in the back pages and pointed to it.  “Empire State”  You want to go to the Empire State building?  “Empire State”.  Hey kid!  Empire State building?  The Mexican boy eagerly nodded his head, a landmark he at last recognized.  We made a kazillion turns in what was obviously a trial and error method of getting to the Empire State.  When we arrived, the Japanese couple had no idea of the shared cab protocol of how to handle the fare.  We all sort of stared at each other.  Realizing there was no way I could communicate I needed $20 to this guy; I decided to eat the fare and just get to Grand Central.  Merry Christmas my new Japanese friends!  Good luck in ever getting back to that hotel!

How a cab driver in New York doesn’t know where Grand Central Station is I still find baffling.  It must be one of the top destinations for a cab in the city.  Yet, this tiny little Mexican boy had no idea.  He kept speaking in rapid fire Spanish into the radio and receiving equally rapid fire responses.  He would then mutter “aye aye aye aye” as he drove aimlessly around hoping to stumble into the New York landmark as the fare crept ever higher.  There was the real possibility I would need to take a temporary job as a dish washer to pay for this fare.  Finally I told him just to let me out, figuring that I would find any other human being that could point me in the right direction.  As I stepped out of the cab, my shopping bag ripped, sending all my holiday gifts onto the sidewalk where the always considerate New Yorkers stepped around them as opposed to helping me pick them up in the rain.  At least they didn't kick them into the street.

I walked several blocks juggling my gifts as my overnight bag continually slipped off my aching shoulder.  I stopped at a store on the way, asking if I could have a bag, where I was curtly told “You gotta buy something.  No exceptions!”  Merry Christmas to you too.  I bought a large bag of chips, threw them away, and used the bag to harness a few of my now soggy gifts.  When you see movies about people being chewed up by New York City and then spat out, these are largely based on that morning I spent trying to get to Tarrytown.  I was in well over my head, and lucky to have made the first train out of town.

I read yesterday that Maxwell’s had closed as a live music club this summer, the area around the club now gentrified.  I never got the chance to go back and play the room again after we had become a real band that could hold their own in such circumstances.  My Aunt and Uncle have passed on, the house sold.  Things change, as they so often do.  I don’t go to New York for the holidays anymore.  I miss the camaraderie of those family members.  It almost seems like someone else’s life I saw on a movie now.  As strange as it seems, I’d love to go back. 


At January 9, 2014 at 2:59:00 AM EST , Blogger AZ said...



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