Thursday, February 01, 2007

Hitting The Road With Keno (Part One)

I entered the summer of 2006 with meager concert expectations. Aside from what looked to be an annual trek to Ozzfest because the date fell on a fortuitous day of the week, and a few local shows scattered about in local watering holes that hardly garner mention, the season was dry. But then, Henry Rollins decided to get his Weight/Come In And Burn era band back together for a little jaunt around the country with L.A. punk pioneers X. I'm a huge Rollins fan. His music is very personal to me; I find it inspirational and use it in copious amounts at the gym. But it wasn't always that way.


Back in the mid-nineties, I befriended a guy from a rival company. At the time, we each worked for huge soft drink companies. While we worked side by side on the soda aisle, we'd strike up conversations on all sorts of topics, music being a prominent one. We'd also bump into each other at microbreweries, bars, and live music events. I really liked the guy, but we never could find the time to just hang out. Finally, one day he invited me over to his house after work. I had the typical "things to do", but realized that sometimes you just have to chuck it all and have a lazy afternoon.

Charlie lived in an old house with wooden floors and a big step down living room. He handed me a Newcastle and went to his respectable CD collection to put some music on. Of course, he wanted to give us something to talk about so he put on some of his faves, which turned out to be an eclectic mix to say the least. First, he put on an Elvis Costello CD and I listened to his sermon on all things Costello. A few songs later, Charlie seemed to fidget and bolted upright. "Oh, I want you to hear this one", he said as he bounded over to the stereo. His stereo was impressive and reminded me of the old "hi-fi" rigs that audiophiles would piece together. Charlie's was a mad mismatch of shiny high tech and ragged garage sale. The components were strewn about shelves and tables as if he was in the middle of moving in. But, damn, did it sound good.

For some reason, what he wanted me to hear was a Jimmy Buffet song. Like most Americans, I really only knew Margaritaville and was always amazed that Buffet could still fill major venues year after year with his fervent following of "Parrotheads". So we listen to this song and Charlie tells me the story of the lyrics as it plays. Something about a drug running plane ride that goes awry. It wasn't awful, but it really sounded to me like filler on an album that you could find pretty cheap second handed. But I was completely engaged by Charlie's enthusiasm. It's the same reason I can read anything written about any band, even if I either can't stand the group or have never heard a note of their music.

After a couple more beers and a listen to side one of the Japanese pressing of Led Zeppelin III, I told Charlie that I would really like to hear some crunch from his massive Sony tower speakers. He grinned; it would be an hour or so before his wife came home when normal life would dominate the remainder of the day. He spun out of his recliner and in the same motion, spun his revolving CD rack. "Ha", he exclaimed, pulling a title from the still twirling storage device. I could only see that the cover to the CD was black with a black and white photo. He loaded the tray and pushed play on the CD player and giggled a bit as the first raucous notes shook both his floorboards and my musical foundation.

I'd never heard anything like the Rollins Band before. Raw, powerful, and like a caged animal unleashed upon unsuspecting prey, the pure force of the tunes slugged me as waves crash the helpless shore. While I'd been exposed to the song Liar via MTV, before this day I'd no idea of what Rollins was about. I was really surprised at how technically deft and musical the songs were. I can only compare it to understanding the almost invisible grace of boxing; seemingly brutal on the outset, but when watched with a careful and educated eye, it can be compared to ballet or diamond cutting.

Over the incredible din reverberating off of the vaulted ceiling and the wooden floor of Charlie's living room, he leaned over and absolutely screamed, "THIS IS THE ROLLINS BAND. LIVE IN AUSTRIA!!"

"YEAH?", I yelled back.

"YEAH!", Charlie bellowed. "FUCKING BRILLIANT, HUH?" He nodded along to the tune and smiled at the wall.

"YEAH, FUCKING BRILLIANT! I GOTTA GET SOME OF THIS STUFF!, I yelled, not knowing that it was my first step into a years long obsession with Rollins' music. I left his place that day and went to a favorite little used software and CD shop and found Weight (featuring Liar) and The End Of Silence from '92. In the months following, I'd managed to pick up the disc Charlie played for me as well as a few others. I played them in the garage as I worked out and on the headphones on long runs. I was lucky enough to catch the Rollins Band in 2001, which I wrote about here back in April of '04 (titled Alone Again, Naturally).


When I heard about Rollins going back out with his old bandmates in the summer of '06, I was very excited and started making plans to see them up in San Francisco. I didn't care much about seeing X and cared even less about the opening band, Riverboat Gamblers, but the tickets were more than reasonable and I rationalized that it might be the last time I get the chance to see this band.

I initially asked my concert buddy Janet if she were interested. I'd recently burned some Rollins stuff for her son and I knew that she'd heard a bit of it. But she was really watching the finances and politely declined. I was a little sad because I just knew she'd love it, but I had to respect her very responsible choice. Of course, I also considered asking my brother-in-law Keno, but didn't think that Rollins was his scene. When I mentioned it in passing, he was a little put off that I didn't think he'd like it. What I'd forgotten was that Keno can roll with just about anything. I told him that I'd get the tickets and a hotel room.

The show was a Friday night and we'd have to take off after he got off work. We jammed up to the city and made pretty good time. I'd chosen the Hotel Metropolis, a funky place around the corner from the Warfield, because of the walking distance proximity to the theater. I'd stayed there many times, stumbling back to the room after Gov't Mule marathon shows. We checked in and made our way up to the 10th floor room. We had a nice little balcony that looked over Market Street. I stepped out to the sounds of traffic and yelling, but I was still able to hear the familiar sound of a beer can being opened behind me in the room.

I spun to see Keno standing at the threshold of the sliding glass door, grinning and taking a swig from a 24oz can of 211. He had a can for me in his outstretched hand. I hate 211; it's a gross malt liquor that Keno loves. To me, it has a sickly sweet taste and a vile aftertaste. But he and I have an unofficial tradition of slamming one before shows, so I popped mine open and chugged a bit, making faces like a baby eating mashed up lemons. As I gasped for oxygen, I wondered how this man, Keno, a lover of fine wines and quality cigars, could possibly enjoy a malt liquor like 211. Even the dregs on Market street drinking 211 were choking it down just as I was ten stories above them, the difference being that they were suffering the taste out of the day's meager panhandling and I was being punished due to some stupid pact.

We both finished our gun metal grey cans. Keno hit the head and for a reason I can only blame on Satan himself, I cracked opened another 211. Keno came out of the bathroom and smiled with his eyebrows cocked high.

"Well, now", he rasped. "What do I see here?"

Now, I should state here that all the way up to San Francisco I had been saying that I would not get trashed before the Rollins set. It meant too much to me, I'd said. I didn't care about the opening band or the headliner, but I had to be focused for the Rollins Band. I wanted to savor and remember every note, every moment. So when I committed to the second 211, Keno looked at me like Al Pacino in The Devil's Advocate. He may have even flicked his tongue. But I was in the moment and we had a few hours before the show, so I threw caution to the wind. Keno opened another horrible 211 and we leaned on the rail of our balcony watching the ants on Market Street bustle.

I'd turned on the T.V. and stepped in to check some baseball scores on ESPN. My can was empty. Keno crossed the threshold and shook his empty can and called me a pussy. I tossed my empty can at him and told him "you are what you eat", missing by a few feet. He was surprised that I'd finished at his pace. We looked at each other for a beat and agreed that we could split another 211 because somehow, perhaps by magic or demonic will, we had glasses in the room that we could use. While he used the bathroom, I split the can (which by now looked like a miniature tower at Three Mile Island) into those round bowl-like glasses that should normally only serve as after-brushing rinse providers. We tossed down the remainders of the infernal third 211 while watching ESPN and occasionally checking in on the Market Street tribes.

We now needed to shower and change for the night's activities. I went to shower first while Keno stayed out on the balcony. I came back into the room and started to dress and I heard Keno start the shower. I finished dressing and stood for a few moments on the balcony watching a woman scream at a pigeon, only to turn her rage towards a mailbox seconds later. I smiled and returned inside. Keno was finishing getting dressed, so I figured that I'd better get in the shower so we could get some dinner.

Wait a minute, I thought. I looked down and saw that I was already dressed. For a split second, I wondered if I'd simply changed and not showered. I could not recall the shower I'd taken 15 minutes ago. The 211 had induced some form of short term amnesia. When Keno looked up from putting on his shoes, he saw the puzzled look on my face and asked what was wrong. I told him that while I was positive that I'd showered and that there was proof to that effect, I could not remember it. He laughed, but then looked startled.

"What?", I asked.

His face changed from startled to horrified to complete confusion. "I don't remember mine, either", he sputtered.

We both stared at each other for a minute and then looked at the empty cans of 211. We looked back at each other. "What the fuck is in that stuff?", I asked.

Neither of us were drunk. A nice little buzz was making it's way into my head, but by no means was I out of control. But I had blacked out on my feet. To find out that we both had the same experience made me look at the clock to make sure that we hadn't slipped through some kind of time warping worm hole in the space time continuum. What seemed like an accurate amount of time for two men to shower and dress had passed, so now the possibility of a dimensional shift began to truly frighten me.

We both laughed at each other and shook our heads. We felt fine and made our way to the lobby. I remarked that I'd zoned out before while reading and had to reread the page and sometimes could drive for blocks without remembering specific red lights or landmarks, but had never completely showered and changed without being able to at least recall turning on the water. Exiting the elevator, we stepped up to the desk and asked a gorgeous clerk if she knew where we could get a good casual meal at perhaps a sports bar. She gave us a little tourist's street map and drew a line to a place a couple of blocks away.

She asked what we were up to and we told her about the show. She said it sounded cool and we playfully told her that she should join us. She giggled and said that she had to work all night, but that it sounded fun and maybe next time. I looked back as we walked out the door and she waved. I wondered if she was serious. I'm bad at reading those things.

We bounded out onto Market Street and it was alive with workers leaving their offices, tourists, the homeless hordes, and an abundance of street performers set up every hundred feet or so. We ducked and dodged our way up the street, pausing every once in a while to watch a juggler or magician. My favorite act was a trio dressed up in '60s regalia doing Hendrix covers pretty damn well. I'm always amazed to see full bands with electric equipment performing right there on the street. I meant to look to see if they'd brought a generator or had somehow patched into the city's power grid. I'd read that in New York City, some performers find a way to get power by tapping into a light pole or signal light.

Keno and I turned the corner on 4th Street and found the bar and grill. We were doing good on time and could relax and eat with time to spare before the concert. We were pretty hungry and agreed that we needed to eat in order to continue drinking or else suffer another possible Twilight Zone episode. I ordered a burger and fries with a beer. Keno asked our waitress if he could get a double cheeseburger. When she nodded, he asked her if it was pretty big because he was starving. She just smiled.

When she returned a few minutes later, I tore into my burger aggressively. Keno's was so big that he had to bite it top to bottom in the same place in order to make his way across the bun. It was much too tall to take a bite unless he could unhinge his jaw like a python. I laughed at him, but he kept at it like a beaver trying to topple a tree.

We finished up the good grub and paid our way. Our meals came with Tootsie Pops and we both did the Kojak thing on the way out the door. Market Street was twice as crazy now and the bay breeze was giving itself a stronger presence. We turned the corner towards the Warfield. Our whirlwind San Francisco rock and roll adventure was about to begin.