Friday, April 14, 2017

Nurse the Hate: The First Time We Played With the Steam Donkeys

The band is headed to Buffalo today, in what used to be one of my favorite places to play, Mohawk Place.  Buffalo is basically the same city as Cleveland, the bones of closed industry and weathered houses proudly standing up against harsh weather.  It's always felt familiar there.  The people are the same as in NE Ohio, down to earth folks that just want a good time.  In both of our cities there was a nonexistent roots rock scene when we both got started.  I don’t know why, but in my experience the worse the weather is in a place, the more they like metal.  Detroit loves fast and hard music.  The Cayman Islands?  Not much of a metal scene.  It’s just the way that it is.

We discovered the Steam Donkeys existed when club owners would refuse to book The Cowslingers in various venues in the Buffalo area in our Early Days of Bitter Struggle.  “You guys should do a gig with the Steam Donkeys.  They’re kinda like you guys.”  This is well before the web.  The only way to get shows in other cities was to trick someone into letting you play there once to prove you were a legitimate band and hoped they remembered you.  Everything was done on the phone, with most clubs booking in tiny little time windows.  “Richard does the booking on Tuesdays between 2-330”.  I’d be in the middle of a work day when it would hit me that my one chance to potentially talk to the guy that booked Sudsy Malone’s this week was going to run out in 17 minutes.  The system worked somehow.  (Now they just ignore your emails and never pick up a phone.) 

Our problem was always that in this region of the country there were three other bands across five states that did anything close to what we did.  There was nobody to play with that sounded like us.  When I found out that a band in Buffalo was doing something like us, I couldn’t believe it.  It seemed like a wild rumor, like a giant squid sighting.  I think I called Buck and we figured out a couple of dates to swap shows in our hometowns with each other.  Buck was getting the same runaround in Cleveland that I was in Buffalo.  I think I got us a show at the Symposium and Buck booked us at their favorite place, Club Utica. 

Club Utica was a down home legit country bar in Buffalo NY.  I didn’t know such a thing was even possible.  The Cowslingers were most certainly NOT a country band, but we were twangy and knew Johnny Cash and Hank Williams songs, so that was close enough as far as we were concerned.  Also of note during this period was the lack of Google directions.  When you needed to figure out where a place was that you were going to play, you needed to call your contact in the city and get the info.  So, every time we went to a venue in a “new” city, we would have written directions on a piece of ripped notebook paper that read something like “Take I-90 until Exit 6.  When you get off, take a right at the second Burger King.  There will be this fucked up looking tire store near there.  Veer towards that.  The street might be called Washington St.  Go for about 2 miles and take a left after the video store and Chinese place.  The club is on the corner.  Don’t park in the back or someone will steal your shit.”

Club Utica was a great place.  All the walls had faded 8X10 framed photos from obscure country acts from the 1970s I had never heard of.  They all looked like people that didn’t get cast on HeeHaw and were forced to play county fairs in campers.  We rolled in and the place had sort of a rough vibe as the working-class country residents living nearby had transitioned to a more “urban” and “lower income” population.  After speaking to an obviously intoxicated bartender we became concerned.  It turned out that the owner was VERY serious about his country music being reverential to country music tradition.  In fact, he was so concerned about it that he was known to wave a loaded pistol at anyone that dared to perform in his club and dared disrespect country music.  Meanwhile The Cowslingers were specifically about disrespecting the sacred cows of country music.  I will be frank.  We were concerned about our well-being.

When we started our opening set, I remember telling the guys, “No matter what happens, just keep playing.  One song into the next.  Don’t stop.”.  The sparse crowd that had begun to assemble didn’t look very happy at the rag tag band they were looking at on stage.  We plowed through a set of songs that were our most “country”.  The fact that our most “country” song at the time was a 150-mph version of “Why Don’t You Love Me”, that plan seemed sort of laughable.  I was wondering how badly a slug from a .38 was going to hurt when the unthinkable happened.  Bobby broke a string.  Suddenly we had to stop.  The crowd was totally quiet for a pause.  I think they were as surprised as we were that we had stopped.  Then they noticed they had a moment, so they applauded enthusiastically.  Hey!  We weren’t going to die!  What a relief!

The rest of the show was really fun.  We drank a hundred beers with the crew at the bar and grooved on the Steam Donkeys “Flying Burrito Brothers” vibe.  Those guys had captured the sound of that hippie twinkle in the eye Bakersfield sound.  They were seamlessly mixing their own well written originals with covers that were obscure to me at the time.  We dug 'em.  We had found fellow believers out there in the wilderness.  It was then an incident happened that I think we cemented our long-term relationship with the Steam Donkeys.

One of the neighborhood denizens wandered into the bar and gravitated to Leo.  I can guarantee you that if someone is damaged in some way, they will be drawn to Leo like a magnet.  Maybe they recognize one of their own?  I don’t know, but it happens.  So, this shaggy dog of a guy goes over to Leo and asks, “Hey man, you want to buy some weed?”.  Those of you that know Leo know that answer is always “yes”.  Leo, ever worldly, asked this guy what he had.  “Thai stick”.  That got his attention.

Now I am not a weed guy.  It just doesn’t interest me.  I don’t know very much about the culture of it or product specs.  However, I do know that Thai stick is allegedly a rare and very exotic strain of pot.  The chance of this guy in his tattered clothes having something rare and exotic was somewhere between “zero” and “none”.  Leo asks me if he can borrow some money so he can buy some Thai stick from this guy.  “Leo, that guy is going to rip you off.  He doesn’t have any Thai stick.  He is going to take your money and run away.”  Leo gets miffed that I refuse to help him and seeks out Bob.

Bobby must have been about 18.  Why Leo thinks it is a good idea to rope an 18-year-old kid into a “Thai stick deal” in a bad neighborhood of Buffalo is open to speculation.  All I know is these two guys come back from outside of the club feeling good about themselves.  Leo is grinning from ear to ear, and Bob is super excited to have been so close to the seedy underbelly of rock and roll.   Leo is nodding his head up and down in a confident “I just got over” way.  We pack up the gear and head over to John from the Steam Donkey's house, who graciously put us up.

Leo takes this little plastic bag and announces to John that he had made the score of scores and purchased Thai stick.  John, already skeptical, asks “At Club Utica?”.  Leo explains that he had gone outside with the guy, inspected the goods, and pronounced it as good to go.  He then asked John if he wanted to have some of it with him, just two drummers enjoying the fruits of their rock and roll labor.  I can tell that John is fascinated to see what Leo is going to pull out of his pocket.  It’s like a guy announced he bought a Fabergé egg at a flea market. 

Leo pulls out the sandwich baggie and opens it.  John immediately starts laughing.  “Dude!  That’s cuttlebone!”  What’s cuttlebone?  “It’s shit you give to pet birds! HAHAHAHAHAHA!”  Sure enough, it’s cuttlebone.  Leo had mistaken bird food for Thai stick.  The best part? 

Leo tried to smoke it.

Man, I can’t wait to see the Steam Donkeys tonight.   


At April 14, 2017 at 3:21:00 PM EDT , Blogger Dave R in Buffalo said...

Great story!

At April 15, 2017 at 1:47:00 AM EDT , Blogger AZ said...

When I describe you guys to the non-intellectuals, I always tell them that you guys play both kinds of music. Country and Western, ba, dum, dum, dum, but at least the beers for the band were you know, complementary! Love me some Buffalo, but I did tell a story to a young cat on the streetcar her in the deep South, Cinci about Sudsy Malone’s when he lamented about walking 9 blocks to do his laundry. Stunned by all those folks doing their laundry in the good old super black lung smoked bars. Have not seen the Steam Donkeys in forever. Sorry I missed it.


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