‘We’re gonna work on our Jewel set now.… It’s called Jewelmania. Then we’ll do a spoken-word thing where each of us will interpret one of her poems. I’m doing mine in dance,” says José Sinatra to his new bass player Gregory Page.
Sinatra, without further warning, snatches the mike and cries out painfully, “Jew-elll, get outta my life / My love for you is way out of line…” The band kicks in with the music from “Young Girl” by Gary Puckett and the Union Gap: “You bet-ter run girl / Like egg foo young girl.”
José, or “Hose,” as the band calls him, is dressed in a black leather jacket, a turquoise turtleneck shirt, enormous black plastic glasses, a golf cap with two brims (one in front, one in back), a hat a pimp might wear, and black-and-white bowling shoes. He sips from a black sports bottle with an attached straw.
“The first time I saw you at the coffeehouse. / The songs you sang seemed just for me. / Before I left, I put a dollar in your jar onstage. / Those other jerks heard you for free. Oh, oh, oh, Young Jewel, get outta my mind. / My love for you is in your behind. / You better run girl. I’m much too hung girl.”
It doesn’t take long to teach Page the bass parts, even though he is better known for guitar.
“I have a simple approach to the bass,” Page explains. “All the notes you need can be played on two strings.… When I was in the Rugburns, I only had two strings on my bass. I didn’t ever need the other two strings. I do plan on using three strings with Hose though.”
The cul-de-sac off Sports Arena Boulevard where José Sinatra and the Troy Dante Inferno conduct their rehearsal is a small district of various wood and metal shops. On a cement wall that separates the street from the interstate, a giant, snouty possum basks under the moon. The rehearsal room is a small wood shop with a drill press, a table saw. The smell of timber is pleasant and powerful. There is an assortment of bass guitars, in various stages of completion, hanging on the walls or propped on stands. On a shelf, in the back of the room, leans a solitary Dean Martin record, The Door Is Still Open to My Heart.
This wood shop is where drummer Owen Burke (stage name “Otis”) builds his own line of basses. Though he tells me modestly, “I don’t want to spend too much time on my line of basses because I have to give my fans what they want: my incredible drumming talent.” Owen doesn’t want to give me the name of his line of basses because he is afraid someone is going to steal his website name. Burke builds fretless and semi-fretless basses. The semi-fretless have frets on one half of the neck and none on the other. According to Burke, this gives the player “instant access to notes, and they will be able to slide around on the fretless part.… My plan is to build only 500 original basses and then move on to another art form.… I would hate to have a business, because then you have to deal with people all the time and that’s not what I’m good at.”
When the song is over, Sinatra asks Page if he’s going to adopt a persona too. (Sinatra’s birth name is Bill Richardson. He claims that he was an abandoned child who was found in an alley with a Frank Sinatra record attached to his umbilical cord.)
“Maybe you should have a Native American name,” suggests Burke. “How about ‘Running Beaver’?”
Page shakes his head. He is not an alter-ego kind of guy. But he yields the final word to Sinatra. “We’re going to figure out a nom de plume for Gregory later,” insists Sinatra. Gregory Page is a local musician who is recognized for introspective songwriting. José Sinatra is recognized for lounge parody. They seem an unlikely marriage.
“When I saw Hose at the Bacchanal years and years ago,” Page reflects, “I never thought I’d be playing for him. I was in a gothic rock band called Baba Yaga, and we were so serious. Who would have guessed I’d be playing for the Andy Kaufman of San Diego!”
They begin to play an original tune called “Too Young for Love,” and Sinatra pulls the mike in close. “I met her at the five-and-dime / she was 15, I was 29. / We didn’t flirt, but it was obvious. / The situation could’ve been…dangerous.”
“Stop right there!” shouts Troy Dante, bringing the song to a halt. He turns to Page, “Now we come to the middle part.” Page is attentive as he sits on his bass amp and scribbles the notes and chords given to him by Dante. While class is in session, Sinatra turns to me and says, “That was written by my late brother Tom. He wrote it for the Ravers before they became Rockola. Tom formed Rockola.”
Not until the rehearsal break does Sinatra reveal what is in his sports bottle. It’s Magnum malt liquor. We step outside. The possum is still there. He doesn’t give a damn about us. The same thing cannot be said about Sinatra toward the possum. “They are so evil. They are so fucking evil,” he cries and heads back inside the rehearsal room, leaving Burke and me behind. Burke looks to be in his early 40s. He has been with Sinatra for three years and doesn’t mind being in a band that will probably not see much success outside San Diego.
“I play for José because it’s so much fun, and I’d work for him for nothing,” he asserts with a smile. “My dreams of superstardom are gone. We don’t make enough money that we have to deal with any pressure.… I’ve actually given my ten-dollar share to the sound man or a bum on the street.”
“What’s the difference between being in a serious band and being in a comedy band?”
“The difference is, people are laughing.… [Our crowd] has heard these songs already and doesn’t need to hear [us] trying to imitate someone else. Like Rockola — they’re great at what they do, but they bore me shitless.”
“Let’s play some songs, godammit,” Dante hollers from inside the practice room. The band reassembles. They play “Thunderball,” the theme from the James Bond motion picture. Sinatra is a movie buff. On Tuesday nights at Java Joe’s he shows 16-millimeter prints of his favorite movies: Women in Love, The Brides of Dracula, The Conqueror Worm, and To Sir with Love, and others.
“The next song,” Sinatra announces to Page, “is actually a trilogy/medley. It begins with the theme from To Sir with Love, followed by ‘Whole Lotta Love,’ and ends with ‘Theme from Love Boat.’ It’s called ‘To Sir with a Whole Lotta Love Boat.’ It’s going to be complicated.”
Dante and Miff Laracy — the keyboardist and sax player — recite the chords to Page.
Laracy grew up in San Diego. He and Sinatra’s late brother were best friends. They both learned guitar together and started playing gigs at the old Spirit club. Laracy is in another band too, Alternate Realities, an original psychedelic band, hippie music, the stuff that you would imagine would have a projector behind them displaying swirly colors and surreal shapes. (Alternate Realities is playing tonight at Dream Street in Ocean Beach.)
The next song the band breaks into is a parody of “Eli’s Coming” (written by Laura Nyro and made famous by Three Dog Night). The song has as its chorus, O.J.’s coming, hide your white girls!
The rehearsal is over. Sinatra seems pleased with Page. He offers to slice his own palm open and become blood brothers, but only if Page gets an AIDS test first. Putting his bass away, Page doesn’t hear the part about blood brothers and doesn’t understand why the band requires an AIDS test to join. Sinatra doesn’t explain. We step outside. The possum is gone.