Laying Them In the Aisles
Winston-Salem, North Carolina
Mylos's Steak House
Another Saturday night in another two-week gig. Different for being a restaurant. Huge family restaurant with seating for 300 in two different rooms, plus a small bar. The stage and dance floor was in the main room. This was our last night in Winston-Salem. Monday, we started another two weeks at the Sheraton in nearby Hickory. It had been a nice, easy gig. The bass player/frustrated lead guitarist had been banned from doing his favorite tune, a good copy of VooDoo Chile by Jimi Hendrix. Mylos, the short, swarthy Greek owner, didn't think it was good dinner music. I agreed, but Ken, the kid who wanted to be Hendrix, fumed.
Now Appearing: Two young men in their early twenties with this thirty-something, playing guitar-band radio hits. Disco hasn't hit big yet, but it's coming. The Doobies are huge. We do four of their hits, more than other bands we cover. Creedence Clearwater Revival works: our twenty-minute version of Born On the Bayou gets the crowd up and on the floor.
I'm the thirty-something in the trio, which changes names periodically in order to keep working the motel/hotel circuit. After being fired from another band, I got sober long enough to find two more willing young men in their early twenties to venture onto the road, leaving friends and family behind to live in hotels and motels; playing small, noisy lounges for little dough.
The chance to meet females can be a strong incentive for men of all ages, but we did enjoy the music. We had to. We played six nights a week, usually four hours per. Even hormonal youth cannot sustain this solely for the chance to fondle strangers. The music kept us linked, learning and losing our way around new towns. For me, much of the time between 1971 and 1982 involved finding new drummers and new Top Forty songs to learn.
A large table of happy customers was celebrating a birthday. The guest of honor was a brand new forty year-old male member of a well-known tobacco family. He had the ruddy complexion of the over-weight drinker, and his beautiful blonde wife had hair that did not move.
We were in the middle of the early dinner set devoted to easy listening. I was singing Mr. Bojangles and as usual, the boys were bored playing a waltz. From the stage, I noticed the birthday customer was choking. At a nearby table, a female customer rushed to the choking man's side. People were pounding him on the back. The woman pushed through and forced his mouth open, checking for the obstruction, a chunk of steak. She was too late. Fragile, we are here and gone. I thought, the show must go on, and then cursed myself for an idiot, before realizing this wasn't about me.
We left the stage while the paramedics wheeled him out. The wife was hysterical briefly and then ushered out by friends.
Fully half the tables emptied out in minutes. We sat in the bar and slugged down drinks. After fifteen minutes, Mylos found us and seemed irate: we had lost our will to perform. "Mylos, the guy died. We don't feel like playing."
"Fine. I don't feel like paying. Get your asses out there. There's still paying customers out there. Keep singing and no one else gets hurt. Or I tell your agent AND I don't pay you AND you don't play here again. Look, I like you guys. The people like you. Don't piss me off. "
Climbing back onto the stage, we noticed fully half the customers remained. The smaller dining area had been darkened, chairs on tables and silverware put up. Customers sat at tables around the main room, staring at us expectantly. I had an idea.
"Ken, let me ask you. Do you feel like playing some VooDoo Chile?"
He didn't say a word. Handing me his bass, he strapped on his black Fender Strat, fiddled with his amp, and stomped on his wah-wah pedal. You could almost see the wind blowing through his shoulder-length thick blonde hair as the familiar riff screamed into the audience. The crowd perked right up. Will, the drummer, looked at me and we smiled at each other on stage for the first time in two weeks.
As the volume rose, Mylos came running. He was about to unplug us until he saw people looking around to order drinks. He glared at us, shook his head, and gave a grudging nod of approval. People had started taking their coats off again. A table of two young women was staring at Ken like dieters in front of a bakery. The last three sets were a blur of loud crowd noise, loud music and dancing.
They danced and danced and danced.