Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
The author, Jennifer Ball: "I’m not very good, but who would know? I sound passable, even inspired at times, but I have a range of about an octave."
My husband and I are in a rock band. It keeps us married. Well, that and the psychiatrist we see monthly. We used to see her weekly, but after ten years, we’re on the maintenance plan. Or that's what my husband says.
We built a music studio in our garage, insulated it with soundboard, and padded it with those foam mattresses they use in hospitals.
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
We built a music studio in our garage, insulated it with soundboard, and padded it with those foam mattresses they use in hospitals. We bought out the supply at several UFO stores: United Foam Outlet, for all your foam needs. The foam we bought looks like a sea of egg cartons, a landscape of baby blue vortexes that suck up the sound like a noise vacuum. “Lots of surface area” would be the chemist’s explanation (my husband’s a chemist). We built a music studio, then crossed our fingers that the neighbors wouldn’t call the police.
Free Range Chickens. Being in a band is like poking a bruise. Club owners are snots, band members quit, or their equipment does. Your friends don’t show up to see you. Strangers spill beer on your monitors. You smell like smoke when you get home. Your ears ring for hours after you play.
Photo by Sandy Huffaker, Jr.
Our studio is a vehicle for fun. When we fling open the door, our friends expect to see a garage and instead find a scene from The Commitments. First you notice a huge drum kit: tom-toms, snares bass drum, a slew of cymbals. It’s big. The amount of space needed for one’s instrument is an ongoing negotiation. Turf is something to acquire when all you have is a small stage, or, in this case, half a garage. We bifurcated the space horizontally, building a wall parallel to the street Sheets of song lyrics and gig lists checker the floor; cords lie in wait, ready to catch an unsuspecting foot; and microphones stand at attention. It’s tight. Especially with a washer and dryer flanking the door. (Someone told me she imagined we had the only soundproofed laundry in the neighborhood.)
P.A. speakers straddle the back wall, atop recycling crates that belong to the city. The mixer, where voices are delayed and chorused, flanged and reverberated, sits on a chest of art supplies. Leavings of bands past (a digital delay, keyboard and stand, a vibraslap) clutter the outskirts. Everyone stakes out territory, a bass player has his monster amp; a guitar player, an assortment of foot pedals.
I have my French horn. Dealing with the case alone shows you that it wasn’t an instrument designed for rock and roll. It doesn’t have rectangular dimensions. If you’ve forgotten what a French horn looks like, think two perpendicular circles, then flesh them out with 24 feet of tubing that spirals like a snail shell on one plane and flares in like a black hole on the other.
The way a horn case covers a horn is by cradling it upside down. When latched, the case looks faintly like an elephant, top-heavy, and ready to be knocked over by scurrying musicians. When I play the horn, I keep the case on its side, a lower energy state, but the curvature of the part that covers the bell makes the position awkward, filling space uneasily, rockable at the slightest rock. (Of which you hope there are many.)
“French horn? In a rock band?” people ask. I get boatloads of attention. There’s not a lot of competition. No famous French horn rock stars to compare me to. I’m not very good, but who would know? I sound passable, even inspired at times, but I have a range of about an octave. Weak embouchure. (Comes from French, meaning “mouth tension.”)
Look. You use what you got. I happened to hear the sound of the French horn in fifth grade, and I can still remember the film our class was watching. A seated gentleman, hand in horn, played Siegfried’s Horn Call. Even though my mother forced me to write “flute” as my first choice, my teacher knew what I loved. I’ve had nine years of piano, but I’m not a piano player. I’m a horn player. It does have its drawbacks. You can’t sing and play at the same time. (Well, some good horn players can — it’s called doublestop, two notes at once — but I can’t. I also can’t circular breathe, so don’t ask me.) The French horn is not the ideal instrument if you intend to use makeup. In fifth grade, you don’t think about choosing an instrument you can play while wearing lipstick. I now apply lip liner that doesn’t come off. Probably a sin in the Dennis Brain guide to horn etiquette, but necessary to rock and roll.
My horn has survived a taxi accident, a drunk bridegroom’s attempt to play it, and a ride on the handlebars of my bike. I also hit a bass player while holding it. He asked me if I was drunk — I’d made one little mistake on “Sometimes Good Guys Don’t Wear White” — and I was six months pregnant. Not only was I not drunk, I hadn’t tasted alcohol for ages. A friend confided that the only time she’d thrown a plate was when she was five months pregnant. You hate to have to jastily violence with hormones.
The worst thing that’s ever happened to my French horn was me. I was trying to fix a dent in the rim by pushing on it. (The rim is the strongest part of a horn; the bell, the weakest.) Oh, I was sick afterward. I’d had the horn for almost 20 years, and I’d ruined my baby. I ran around the house crying and screaming for an hour. The bass player asked baldly, when he saw it, “Wow. Whaja do? Drop it?" (We have a love-hate relationship.)
The bell had twisted from the force of my fingers. The horn felt shorter when I played it, my arm crooked around the bell protectively. (You hold a horn with the back of your open hand pressed against the inside of the bell, the side farthest from you, so that you can constantly tune it, your hand moving in and out, flattening and sharpening the pitch.)
The hell is such a cool part of the horn, second only to the sound. Kids peer inside to try to see the music. (I played “Happy Birthday" at my daughter’s preschool when she turned two, and she ran around the room yelling, “My mommy. My mommy." Makes me cry just thinking about it.) Certainly the ltx>k of the French horn affected my decision back in grade school. It’s a classy instrument. Mine glistens, a lacquered nickel-silver. A French horn adds legitimacy to any occasion.
I have a memory for every dent in that horn. When I got the first, the man at the repair shop said, “The first dent is never your own." He was right. It was from Dainty June dropping her baton during a production of Gypsy. I was sitting in the pit. That’s where they stick the orchestra. (Dainty June also used to tap dance on the pool table in the green room.) The years passed, the dents accumulated. In a tight space, collisions are a matter of course. I stay away from anyone wielding an instrument.
To play an instrument is to wield it in our studio, which gets continually smaller as our band increases in size. We’re now six. We’ve had a studio for ten years. It took forever to build. I sat on a ladder for days, plastering Fixall with a putty knife and scaling cracks between sheets of drywall Then came the soundboard. An ex-drummer helped us power-staple the foam on. (Nice guy, terrible drummer. Owned three drum sets, none operable unless someone else played them.)
We scoured the neighborhood for carpets being replaced, finally settling for the trash. When a carpet salesman spied me taking carpet from a dumpster behind the We Are Carpets store, he warned office and odors. Surely I wanted new carpet. “Oh no,” I said. “This is for musicians.” Harsh, perhaps, but I know whereof I speak. We once had a bass player who lived in his car. This is how desperate we were for a decent bass player. We let him shower in our house because it was in our best interest. Believe me, it can get pretty steamy inside a padded garage at the height of the summer. And this was a guy who could smoke an entire joint between the third and fourth sets and then come back and sing “Panic in Detroit” (while playing the bass) as if he were channeling David Bowie. Talented, but not someone from whom you would expect superior hygiene.
One day the bass player disappeared (easier to do when you don’t live anywhere). We got a letter from him postmarked Studio City. He had moved back in with his girlfriend. She lived in a trailer. Transience was a way of life for him, as it is for most musicians.
Smedley, a drummer, would take the bus. (Some names of people and places have been changed.) He’d bring one bass drum that would serve as a container for one snare and one cymbal. The first thing he said when we met him was that he’d smoked pot with Paul Schaffer, as if that somehow proved his musicianship. Smedley played with us for about six months. During this time we were called, alternately, Caution: Red Herring, A Remuda of Extra Cowboy Mounts, the Monotremes, Crow Murder, and the Dingos Ate My Baby. Usually we played st) poorly that we changed our name hoping anyone who had seen us once might be fooled into seeing us again. Smedley was a great drummer despite the fact that he had virtually no equipment—and no car. He did, however, have a place to live. When we performed, Smedley would watch TV. He had a little portable with headphones. He would place this pint-size television — the screen a good four inches — on a bar stool positioned as if it were his third drum. Then he’d plug in the headphones, tilt one earpiece so he could hear, and play flawlessly if unenthusiastically. I am not making this up. I remember him watching it at the Silver Fox in Pacific Beach. Go ask them. I think we were “Remuda” then.
We joked about how this would make a great scene in a Robert Altman film. The movie would open on a rotating satellite dish. The camera would zoom out to reveal the flatbed truck on which the dish sat, the truck parked cockeyed, one wheel on the curb. The camera would follow the trail of cord, through a rosebush, past a barking dog, until it made its way into a fancy party at someone’s mansion and lurched toward the band (stoned out of their minds and playing “The Girl from Ipanema”). The drummer would be watching an X-rated movie on his private TV.
It wasn’t far from the truth. Smedley would laugh in the middle of a song, then poke my husband with a stick and say, “Check it out. Max Headroom is getting pussy." My husband, taxed to the limit of his guitar-playing ability, would only be able to think, “Smedley, I’m busy up here." Smedley liked to taunt us because we were beginning musicians, and he’d already smoked pot with Paul Schaffer.
Smedley knew the ropes. During breaks you might find him in a dark comer of the bar * in a headlock with a woman he’d just met. “How does he do it?” my husband would ask, certainly out of commission but jealous anyway. One such woman we knew tangentially. A friend of a friend. There she was, nearly foiling off the bar stool in her lunging hold of Smedley. “I’ve had a major career change," she said. “Yeah, I used to be a sales rep for Armstrong Carpet, but now I sell hardwood flooring.”
It was easy to see how Smedley could talk his way onto her lips. He was a talker.
Smedley was always saying, “Right now, we’re making money in Japan.” He telemarketed.
“Exactly how are we making money in Japan?” my husband would ask, interested in anything having to do with money, but Smedley was late for a bus, and we never got the details. One day he disappeared too. The keyboard player, Morley, went to pick him up (because this way we could have the richness of an entire drum set) and Smedley’s brother said he’d moved back to LA. with his ex. A trend with musicians: they moved north for the women.
It is so hard keeping a band together. The snarl of phone calls it takes, the placating that goes on during song selection. Musicians will say they like your playlist, and then, as soon as they’ve rehearsed with you once, they want to do something by the composer of Brandy, you're a fine girl fine.... A band is either democratic — if you aren’t paying people — or monocratic — if you are. In the first case, you do songs you wouldn’t normally do. And even that doesn’t keep a band together. Just when we get all rehearsed up and have forked out the money for a demo tape, someone leaves and the tape becomes a piece of history. For several years, whatever critical mass our band achieved, it would eventually degrade to me, my husband, and Morley. Morley was a psych dissertation himself.
When I first met Morley, he was smoking opium over an open flame in a Mar Vista kitchen. I had lived in L.A. during the '80s and had seen a lot of things, but never anyone smoke opium with a bread knife held over a gas stove, the drug perched on the knife like a mound of sacrificial flour. In L.A., Morley, my husband, and I had been in a band called Milt and the Caviars. Morley had moved to San Diego and was a chef at a hotel. Two years later, my husband and I found ourselves here as well.
Morley was an idiot savant when it came to the keyboard. You could give him a three-chord song, say E, A, and B, and he’d screw up at least a hundred times. But give him a solo and he’d be on top of the piano. One of his trademarks was smashing the keys with his forearm and then sliding into a solo that was astounding in perspiration alone. He was the David Helfgott of rock and roll.
I haven’t seen Morley since 1990, but the thing 1 remember clearly about him was one evening when he described his ex-girlfriend as “so clean." We laughed and then laughed again. “Who else have you dated?” I asked. “Fish?” This girl lived with him for five years and never went outside. She had agoraphobia, which she blamed on him. But now that she wasn’t living with him, she had gotten over it — just like that — and had come to visit She came to one of our gigs at the Snoozarium, toting a video camera and recording every meaningless moment so that when her agoraphobia returned she could have some semblance of a nightlife, there, watching bad rock and roll in living color.
We played at the Snooze for years. You’ve probably passed it a thousand times, right by the big lemon. We played there until one day when I stopped by to drop off flyers and another band was set up on stage. The guy who booked us had been thrown in jail, and no one called to tell us we were canceled. They acted like they’d never heard of us. If you’ve ever been to the place, you wouldn’t be surprised. My husband calls it a refugee camp for Vietnam vets and ’60s burnouts. When we did “The Weight,” it was a religious experience for them. They’d sing along, word for word, then give us a standing ovation, a bunch of drunks raising their Bics and nearly setting each other’s beards on fire.
The Snoozarium was a place where guys would come up to you and offer sampler packs of drugs because they liked the hand. The Baggie I was offered had in it an itsy-bitsy Baggie of coke, a larger Ziploc of mushrooms, and two identical bags of marijuana.
“It’s always nice to see chicks in the band,” the guy says as he hands me the sampler.
“It’s always nice to see guys with big moles in their ears.” Okay, I didn’t say that.
“You guys don’t suck.”
I start to move away.
“So what are you doing after this?” he asks.
“I’m going home with my husband.” Knowing the effect this comment will produce, I tighten my grip on the Baggie. “He’s the guitar player.”
He gives me a look that is windless, the wind having been knocked from his sails. I see it all the time. Don’t get me wrong. It’s not that I’m great-looking or anything. These guys are indiscriminate. As long as I don’t have a dick, they’re interested. That’s why they’re trolling for women at a place like this.
One time we went there with some ballet dancers (long story, don’t ask), and within seconds of walking in, a guy up front punches another guy and knocks him out cold. The ballet dancers say, “You guys play here?” They couldn’t fathom knowing someone who would hang out at a place where people got hit.
Hanging out with musicians makes my husband and me feel well adjusted. Perfect example: Morley and his ex-girlfriend Doreen. At the Snoozarium gig she becomes enamored of the bass player Carl and starts swapping spit during the break. The short story? Morley’s ex-girlfriend and Carl get married. That was years ago. They’re divorced now. Her agoraphobia came back. Surprise.
The first thing Carl said to me when I met him was that his mother had served lunch to Rommel. Carl liked to sing with those flippy things that I call “serifs of the voice.” You hear the (Carpenters do it. Little meaningless glides that junk up the melody. It’s a way to avoid having to be in tune because you’re always sliding into place. That’s not why Karen Carpenter did it. She had a gorgeous voice, and she ruined it by singing phony rather than singing from her gut. Maybe if she’d sung from her gut, she would have realized the advantage to having a gut and still have one to this day.
Most singers are weird. They have an inferiority complex because they don’t play an instrument. We had a singer who got mad because her mike cord was too thick. We met a singer who auditioned with his mom. But then we also had a drummer who showed up at a gig with a gold microphone and chimes, having never brought them to rehearsal. That’s like the old joke: What do you call a guy who likes to hang out with musicians? A drummer.
We’ve had someone psycho in every position. One bass player quit on us because the other bands at the rehearsal studio were too loud. Said he was going back to jazz. (I remember him yelling this over the din.) He wasn’t cut out for rock and roll. Things are loud. A fragile mental state could easily crumble.
There were quieter, more expensive places to rehearse. Or else you went east, where land was cheaper. Music-A-Go-Go was cast. It was because of Music-A-Go-Go that we built our own studio. Lemuel and Bessy Ann, the couple who ran the place, seemed fine at first. Lemuel was straight out of The Grapes of Wrath, a little hunched, a little gray, with an Okie accent and self-deprecating humor. He would bring water and towels during rehearsal. He’d knock once, then poke his head through the door. Carrying a tray like a headwaiter, he loved to lower it with a flourish, leaving the carafe of water, the plastic cups, and the nicely folded hand towels. It was his moment with the band.
There was no drinking, swearing, or smoking allowed, except for the ubiquitous cigarette that hung from Ixrmuel’s lips as he made his rounds. Morley had his own hip flask, of course, filled with vodka or gin, or even Southern Comfort. A man who smokes opium over an open flame is not a man to be daunted by senseless rules.
Lemuel wasn’t stupid. He could certainly smell the cheap cigarettes that Morley ground into the carpet. But Lemuel liked us. We gave some respect to the place. We had day jobs.
One time Lemuel heard me sing an X song (“In This House That I Call Home"), and he complimented me. This was high praise from Lemuel, who never gave much indication that he listened to the music. The problem was Bessy Ann. She started grooming us as a “Music-A-Go-Go” band. We got extra towels. There was a Music-A-Go-Go night at the Bacchanal, and she wanted us to be there. Bessy Ann brought in outfits that she thought I should wear, awful stuff: a puce dress that buttoned up the front, pumps, a jumpsuit with shamrocks on it. I began to get pissed.
“You’re the rock-and-roll daughter she never had,” my husband said, urging me to take it in stride. The Bacchanal would be a big deal for us.
“You know, she makes all the guys wear makeup. She told me that she applies it herself."
Bessy Ann was a woman you didn’t argue with. No makeup, no Bacchanal. It was the closest she could get to fame, makeup artist to the musicians. (Hard to believe she’d want to touch them, but she was married to Lemuel...)
People want to touch musicians. I’ve had to push away drunkards pawing the band, handsy dancers manhandling the microphones. Worse is the bar manager who tries to trap me in his lair. How can I convey the feeling of standing in a cramped office — shit everywhere — while a fat guy sits back, puts his feet up on his desk, and tells me he’s on work furlough, yeah, possession of marijuana. He has to go back to jail after the bar closes.
He sighs. Adjusts his feet. “You guys are good, but this is Escondido, man, it’s not the coast.”
He’s right. The coast is seven miles to the west. I know he's suggesting that we didn’t play enough country, but I don’t say anything. I’m waiting for my money.
He counts it out and then holds it in his hand, purposely keeping me there.
“People want to hear songs the way they were done.”
I’m thinking: I’m getting advice from a guy who’s going back to jail in a few minutes.
“So which guy is your husband?”
It’s a recurring theme. This guy doesn’t want to date me. He wants to engage me. A dominance thing. Guys get off on lecturing women. When I used to do stand-up comedy, the manager of the Comic Strip in Manhattan told me about how he and his girlfriend used to name his penis. He was equating my comedy to the naming of his penis. For 20 minutes I was forced to listen to his simplistic observations about life and how my comedy could be funnier. He was the manager of the Comic Strip because he built the place. He was the carpenter.
I reminded myself of that.
I like playing in a band better than doing stand-up. There are more of you, so if food gets thrown, there’s a chance it will hit someone else. A band is a group activity, but it’s also more of a scheduling nightmare. Getting five people to show up for a rehearsal is akin to getting five ants to crawl in the same direction. But when it happens, when we’re “groozin’" — I made that up. It’s a portmanteau of “groove” and “cruising” — when the music becomes a thing I can cut with my voice, and I hold tight to the microphone, my lips grazing the wire mesh as my alto becomes entangled in the chords, hanging for a moment on a seventh or a minor third or even, if I’m punchy, a second, and then resolving, it’s as if the music has been spun into a skein of tones, a braid that anchors the audience, riveting them by sound alone.
I like to get wild. Usually in the fourth set, but sometimes in the second. Depends on the audience. Once when I was performing, one of the many singers who have walked through our band asked if I was drunk. It seemed funny that she thought my behavior implied alcohol. I don’t censor myself. Why censor yourself if others are so willing to do it for you?
In my youth I used to go to this piano bar to sing. The Date Room. Outskirts of Culver City, which looks exactly like everywhere else in LA.—a couple mini-malls, several restaurant franchises, one place out of business. A sign in front of the Date Room always advertised “La Mancha Realty.” Only in LA. could a development company turn Don Quixote into a symbol of mini-malldom. How can idealism be so devalued as to stand for fly-by-night insurance companies and fast-food franchises?
At the Date Room a frowzy, half-drunk, bleach-blonde lady played the piano and occasionally sang in a dry, rusty, devil-may-care voice, the kind of woman for whom the word “floozy” was coined, and every night someone at the piano bar would sing about eight songs, all along the lines of “To Dream the Impossible Dream.” I’d want to cry. The singer would be off-key and drunk and wouldn’t give up the microphone until she’d sung her repertoire, and my heart would ache for the masses. The talentless, off-key masses. You knew that they came here 20 years ago to be famous, and now they ran used-car lots or wholesale carpet outlets or laundromats. Now their dreams had dwindled and they sated themselves by getting a bit tight and allowing the emotion to empty itself all over the bar. I watched, horrified and enthralled. I’m intrigued by talentlessness in the same way that poking a bruise feels good.
Being in a band is like poking a bruise. Club owners are snots, band members quit, or their equipment does. Your friends don’t show up to see you. Strangers spill beer on your monitors. You smell like smoke when you get home (well, you used to). Your ears ring for hours after you play. If you wear glitter, as I sometimes do, it gets stuck to your contact lenses. Sounds awful, doesn’t it? But even with all that, you do it. Music is its own reward. The poseurs don’t know that. The people who join a band for the women. (Few join for the men.) These people tend to fall into the singer/guitar-player category. In the Free-Range Chickens, our name now, we had a singer who didn’t show up tor a gig. Her first. Said she slept through it. When we fired Roxanne (I did it), she said, “Well, if I knew you were going to fire me, I would’ve shown up."
We hadn’t known her king, but she’d already told us that she’d gotten married at 14. It’s a worry when someone lets out too much rope right up front. She’d invited us to her house. (She had a stunning ocean view, anyone would have gone once.)
My hushand asked how she had come to live in the house (the obvious question). She said it was her boyfriend 's house. Then she said, “I’m living with my sister’s ex-husband — "
My husband tried to stop her. “ I Don’t tell me any more—” “ — because my sister ran off with her therapist.”
Ugly stories with new band members are always uncomfortable. Unable to stop, she admitted to having four children before she was 21. Her oldest was 14.I met the daughter, large breasts. The kind of girl you could see being an unwed mother at an early age.
I know what you’re thinking, and it’s true. We’re snobby. We’ve been conditioned. After having a drummer come to our Halloween party dressed as a lobster, it’s only natural. The lobster passed out in the bathroom with the door locked. Every year we floated something in the tub to bob for: plastic rats, live goldfish, hot dogs (Bob for Dogs). So we’re pounding and pounding on the door at two in the morning, worried that he’s drowned in the tub of turkey dogs. We take off the doorknob with a screwdriver. (Jimi Hendrix died by asphyxiating on his own throw-up.) The lobster passed out with his head on the scale. It weighed 16 pounds.
Twelve years of rock and roll is 12 years of a lot of big-headed musicians—the ones you laugh about later, rehearsal being the shared oral history of band experience. I don’t write about the good musicians. Their music is better than their story. Like Rizz, the guitar player whom my husband called “a lick library." Rizz always called me the minor police” because I have a decent ear, and I force others to have one as well. (It’s rhythm that I lag on. Our drummer checks out percussion equipment to singers on a song-by-song basis.)
Rizz now has a lawn-mowing company in Florida and doesn't play in a band.
It’s hard for music to compete with a real job. We’ve lost good musicians to better jobs, new marriages, even a bladder infection.
Fastrada told us she was an English Gypsy from the Island of St. Thomas. Okay. She sang with us for a couple of months, including one time when the buried septic tank we were playing over started to leak. I have to hand it to Fastrada, she stuck right in there, singing “The Night They Drove Ole Dixie Down” like a pro. She had a beautiful voice and looked like Jane Seymour. But a few weeks later at O’Connell’s she refused to sing because she said she couldn’t stand up. She explained that she’d had a miscarriage (her period was two weeks late), which had intoxicated her body and given her a bladder infection She couldn't afford to go to the doctor so she was taking pet penicillin. (She had eight dogs.) She was sitting at the bar when she told me this. I was stunned by my inability to call these shots, to not realize that at the instant we saw her we were wasting our time.
I told the band. My husband laughed, assuring me that the penicillin would only help if she had gonorrhea. The drummer, leaning toward us, said, “Don’t tell her that yet. First ask her if it’s working."
We never found out. There's not a lot of keeping in touch with ex-musicians. No fond reminiscences. I have an affinity for the past, though. As I see now, it was something to get through. A hill we surmounted, strewn with bodies that stumbled in and out of our lives, some on their way up, most on the way down. I miss the people who are gone. Our studio always ends up with more band equipment when someone leaves. Possession is nine-tenths of the law because the other tenth requires that a musician move his or her possession somewhere else.
What we gain in equipment, we lose in some other way, in some twinge we feel when we hear a song we used to play. It's a proprietary thing, a possession of our past, when we could share a joint between the third and fourth sets and play our hearts out to no one but ourselves and know that deep down, we were a rock-and-roll experience that most people would never have.
I feel relief that we don’t have to make a living from music and can instead play whatever the hell we want, no matter how far we are from the coast. You can do that if you’re solvent or really good. Being really good is more exciting; having a day job is safer. You don’t have to live the lifestyle. The statistics on aged rock stars aren’t favorable. My husband jokes that it’s good he’s not a great guitar player because if he were, he’d probably be dead now. An excuse perhaps, but who wants to test it?
The Free-Range Chickens will play tomorrow night at O'Connell's on Morena Boulevard.