Posted on January 18, 2012 - by writerman
In a previous life, I played in a ska band.
You haven’t heard of us. We weren’t particularly cool or popular. We never got on MTV, signed a record deal or played at the Peach Pit After Dark. We did manage to tour a little and write a lot of upbeat songs about drinking and surfing and girls who hurt our feelings. The pinnacle of our success came in 2004, when the single from our first record reached the #2 slot on the Canadian college radio charts, outplaying bands you have heard of like Modest Mouse, Broken Social Scene and even that fella Jack White beat up from the Von Bondies. That was a good week.
But, the times weren’t always so good. Playing ska is a little like growing a mustache – it inspires highly polarized responses in those around you. Whenever you tell someone you play in a ska band, they invariably have one of three replies:
“Oh my god I love ska! The Specials1 are totally my favorite band!” I think it’s important to point out that this is, by far, the least common of the three responses.
Getting back to my earlier comparison, the second type of response is akin to the glare someone gives you when that hipster mustache makes you look like a convicted sex offender and you are standing too close to their child. These people usually say nothing, but their disdain and disgust with your musical tastes are clearly written all over their faces.
The third and most common response always comes in the form of a question:
After a while, I begin to prefer the hatred. At least hate is an emotional response. This reaction reminds me way too much of that time in junior high when I spent all night screwing up the courage to ask Robyn Erickson to slow dance. God, my thirteen-year-old self had a terrible crush on her. I saw her in homeroom every day. She had this mole on her cheek, just below her eye. And I’m not talking about one of those Cindy Crawford / Madonna beauty marks, either. This was an actual mole around the size of a dime. She was probably self-conscious about it, but as far as I was concerned it only made her prettier. Anyhow, when the familiar strains of Careless Whisper came on, I knew this would be the last slow song of the night, so I raced over and asked her to dance before my nerves could get the better of me. She blinked and said, “Do I know you?” Not outright rejection, just confusion. Her friends turned to see who this sweaty young stranger was. I fled.
Years later, I wouldn’t run away when confronted with confusion about this strange musical genre we played, but I never really found a satisfying way to answer that question. And I won’t try and answer it now. Google it, if you like.
The reason I share all of this is to help set the context for what follows. I’ve been in bands, but we never had a tour bus and I’ve certainly never rolled around in a limousine full of strippers and cocaine. Also, you should know that I’m not a drummer, singer or guitar slinger – I play the trumpet. Even if we had gotten famous, I’m no Dan Auerbach or Travis Barker. More like Vince DiFiore.2
Still, once in a while your number comes up.
One night, we’re playing a small club in Vancouver for the Hot Breakfast record release party. Even though the other guys are technically the “headliners,” we go on last. This allows Canada’s favorite surf-rock-reggae-cowboys to play when the bar is at its most crowded. It also gives them a couple of hours after their set to sell CDs and t-shirts over at the merch table. Our job is to keep the crowd entertained and thirsty so they hang around long enough to spend the rest of their money on drinks and Hot Breakfast merchandise. The crowd stays. The record sells. This is one of the good ones.
After the show, the usual suspects head to the Railway Club for drinks. Which is a lot like going out for a pint after work, except it’s 3:00 am and you’re already drunk. A few beers later, last call is called. Me and Braces decide to hit McDonald’s on the way home and pick up some cheeseburgers to eat in bed. It’s busy, but I suppose that’s what you get at a fast food joint thirty minutes after all the bars downtown close their doors. Still, we’re hungry, so we decide to wait it out.
A rowdy group rolls up behind us. I’ve seen this gang before – rockabilly band Big John Bates, along with three burlesque dancers from the Voodoo Dollz. They are also on the way home from a show and still in costume. One of the girls notices my horn case and wonders what’s inside. “A trumpet.” I tell her.
“Will you play it?” she asks.
“Yeah – if you play us a song, we’ll strip.”
“Seriously? Right here, in McDonald’s?”
I look at Braces to see what she thinks. I know it might seem kind of old-fashioned, but if three strange women offer to strip for you in a public place, I believe a gentleman should check with his girlfriend first to make sure she’s comfortable before proceeding. Braces’s eyes flash me that “what the fuck are you waiting for?” look she has the patent on.
To business then. I get the horn out and start playing. And, three girls in fishnets and corsets get their striptease on for a packed house of hungry drunks, homeless guys and under-paid kids in polyester uniforms. It’s dinner and a show for the price of combo #5. Impressively, the hardworking employees of Ronald® carry on selling fries as if nothing out of the ordinary is going down. Of course, if you work the graveyard shift at a downtown McD’s, you’ve probably seen a lot worse.
The girls get really into it. Shimmying and shaking and flinging their tops around and hamming it up for the crowd. Personally, I’m having a hard time concentrating. You might think this is because of the half-naked brunette gyrating next to the ketchup dispenser to my left, but the truth is I just kept wishing for the chance to make a quick phone call.
A phone call3 to my thirteen-year-old self to give him the pep talk I never got:
“Look dude, I know girls think you’re invisible and the last thing you want to do every night is practice the stupid trumpet, but just hang in there and stick with it. Trust me, someday it’s all going to pay off.”
- Band reference can be substituted with The Skatalites, Sublime, Operation Ivy, English Beat, King Apparatus or The Mighty Mighty Bosstones, depending on the age, sex and nationality of the speaker. [↩]
- Who’s Vince DiFiore? Exactly. [↩]
- If anyone manages to invent this time-traveling phone, please let me know. I figure it’s never too late to make this particular call. [↩]
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