Are We Big Yet?
This month's confession is the woeful tale of the lust for fame and the
consequences that are sure to befall those who blindly chase it. It is the
story of how a few ne’er-do-wells (namely myself), some working musicians, a
stripper with a burnt nipple, a club owner with ceiling damages, drunks
charged with assault, and a hunter with a screwdriver jammed into his gut
celebrated an autumn Saturday night together in 1993.
A long, time ago, almost a decade, I joined a country band. The name of the
outfit was the "Johnny B. Band", featuring the one and only Johnny B. on
I got hooked up with them when the Johnny B. Band when the guitar player
Terry Trnka (no, there’s no vowels missing), got my number from his nephew,
Danny, who sang a respectable, but hopeless brand of metal in a band I was
in at the time. This kind of connection between musicians isn’t made in Rice
County, Minnesota due to merit, reputation, or ability. Folks call you up to
play because you will play- good, bad, or otherwise. Just as long as
somebody will vouch that you’ll show up on time. Simple as pie.
Now, I would be remiss if I didn’t admit that this was the worst sort of
country cover band that has ever existed. The really cheesy kind- we played
"Achy-Breaky Heart" three times a night, usually because it was requested.
So we did it, no matter how unnecessary. A mess of misfits hacking their way
through covers that the Yonder Mountain String Band would take a perverse
pleasure in ripping up.
Johnny B. looked like a dead ringer for Dwight Yoakam. But he strummed an
acoustic guitar that wasn’t plugged in anything; the cord just went behind
an amp and was taped to the floor. The pedal steel player needed to pee
every three minutes due to a prostate problem and the drummer suffered from
a rare muscular disorder. Sometimes he would have to drop his sticks and use
his hands to "resuscitate" the leg that kicks the bass drum by grabbing the
bum leg with his hands and pump the kick drum, quite often to beat of
As for me, I drank. And why not? Plenty of time to kill while the drummer
pumped his leg like Tommy Chong doing his "Blind Lemon Chitlin" routine.
Even more time while the steel player relieved himself. Bottoms Up!
So we stank. But this wasn’t going to stop Johnny. You see, he a plan. A
Southern Minnesota country station was sponsoring a "Win a Gig With Tanya
Tucker" contest. Bands were invited to send in a demo tape, and the winner
would get to open for Tanya Tucker at some casino. Johnny would twang:
"All’s we gotta do is send in the Real Country Demo that they’re lookin’
for, and we got it made. Once they git ahold of me. Record contracts, tours
opening for the BIGGGEST STARS. We’re gonna be BIG!"
We recorded the miracle demo in the garage. Johnny brought out a
bargain-basement tape recorder and two cheap microphones. We played George
Jones’ "He Stopped Loving Her Today" three times until Johnny felt we had
"the right shit, man". Nothing could stop us.
Except that nobody gave a shit. The right shit, or otherwise. The radio
station never contacted Johnny and played dumb when he called to inquire the
status of his impending fame.
Oh well, the Johnny B. Band got gigs. We would play to the barflies in every
farm town beer hole South of Minneapolis on the weekends. And it paid!
Usually we got $350 or more, minus 10% to the booking agent. After gas, my
take was around $50, and all the free MGD I could drink. Not a bad deal,
considering someone was paying for me to drink in their bar for a change.
As I mentioned earlier, the guitar player in the country band was the uncle
of the singer in a metal band I was in at the time. I feel secure in saying
that most of you haven’t ever met anything quite like the singer, Danny P.
He’s one of those guys with a look, sound, and disposition that meets a
trend in the world, only three years too late. A walking anachronism who
could sing like a mother fucker. Because Danny and his uncle were so close,
it didn’t take much maneuvering to replace the bum-legged-drummer and the
prostate-paroled steel player with guys from the metal band. I mean, why
not? Any band of jokers can choke out "Friends in Low Places", but the
fellow metal compatriots had a certain respect for country music seeing that
nobody had any respect for the rock we were playing. So we tried to make it
And Johnny B. noticed. He had started to resurrect his dreams of being more
than a cover-yodeling hick, he wanted to get BIG. In fact, he echoed this
sentiment quite often in our private moments: "I jist don’t git it, why
ain’t we BIG yet?" Or better yet: "What does it take to git BIIIIG? I mean,
we done it all to git BIG, but we ain’t that yet!"
The Johnny B. Band scored a regular gig at a Peeler’s strip joint along MN
HWY 52. This is the kind of place that anyone could find themselves,
especially if you don’t mind getting lost just for fun, and all kinds of
folks would. Farmers, construction guys, college students, Latinos,
grandpas, whatever. My favorite was a biker who would drive his Harley right
into the bar and park it next to coatroom. The tiles in the entryway were
streaked with black tire marks; peeling out of Peeler’s if you will.
Tammy, the owner, was this really cool woman, a fading blonde beauty that
could shoot pool better than most and drink more than the rest. She had done
a million things in her time, including work on the Alaskan Pipeline. She
didn’t see any irony in owning a strip bar, it was her half of her divorce
settlement. It was just a job, no better or worse than any of the other
million that she had held down over her rather bizarre life. And oh boy, did
she have stories.
She would pay us cash plus let us go downstairs to the nudie part on our
breaks and drink on the house. Outside of that, we were free to do what we
pleased, as long as we kept the customers upstairs dancing, or at least
drinking. I know this arrangement seems to be a little colloquial,
especially to the more socially progressive reader. But I was twenty-one at
the time and it was fun, so kiss my ass.
As I said, we were free to do what we wanted. One Saturday night, no
different than any other, Johnny B. caught a serious cold. Poor guy couldn’t
sing, let alone fake it. It just so happened that Danny P., the metal
singer, was there to help out as a sound guy. Since both bands had the same
musicians, just different singers, it was decided that the bands would swap
sets, country=>metal=>country=>metal. Same band, different singers. Just
substitute Garth Brooks with Megadeth, and vice-verse.
For the first half of the night, everything seems normal. Nobody in the
audience liked what we are playing, be it Dwight Yocham or Alice In Chains,
they just keep yelling for "Free Bird" as usual. (Between you and me, I bet
they still are.) After the first metal set, Danny and I go down to the
tittie bar. He had front loaded with a bottle of Jose and was ready to go
with the local girls. No sooner had we bellied up to the runway with drinks,
a dancer placed two sparklers in her nipples. Danny, getting overly into the
spirit of time, began to throw matches at her as to help light the
I believe it was the third Ohio Blue Tip match that landed on her nipple.
After considerable screaming the manager came out from the mirrored backroom
door, grabbing Danny and I, threatening to kill us if we didn’t leave. It
wouldn’t have been of any use to tell him that the owner hired us to yodel
and scream to the patrons upstairs, even if it did hasten their way to spend
the big money downstairs. So we ran outside and smoked a funny cigarette
until the coast was clear.
By the second metal set, the band had achieved a sublimely Fully Kreausened
state of intoxication. There was even a crowd of people watching us; the
usual suspects plus the holdovers from a bus load of bachelor party chumps
that made a pit stop at Peeler’s. Their enthusiasm for the performance was
contagious, and Danny P. caught the fever. Somewhere in the middle of
Metallica’s "Seek and Destroy", Danny jumped on to the floor from the stage
and enunciated his point by stomping the tiles as hard as he could to every
word of the chorus, over and over and over. Until the manager who had
already kicked us out came blazing upstairs screaming that all the plaster
on the ceiling was fall on his dancers.
Then he saw us. As he was throwing the bachelor party guys aside to get to
the stage, we quit playing and braced for the worst. However, the deafening
silence and impending doom was broke by the unmistakable sound of gunshots
outside the door. Five seconds later a hunter, who had been drinking and
mouthing off to a couple of rednecks at the bar, came stumbling in, grabbing
his gut, yelling for an ambulance. While we all expected him to collapse on
the floor, riddled with bullet holes, he stood there screaming that "those
fucking pricks stabbed me with a Stanley!" Sure enough, Tammy and the guy
who parks his Harley in the hallway guy got him to move his hands from his
midsection. And there it was: the familiar yellow plastic handle of a
screwdriver, (you know, the kind that everyone’s dad has in the kitchen junk
drawer), was mounted in his beer gut.
By the time everyone was cleared out, the cops had caught up with the
tool-wielding perps, and Tammy calmed down the manager who wanted to stick
the Stanley up Danny’s ass, the real story came out. It seems three hunters
and some rednecks at the bar got into a friendly argument about which
version of the band sucked more. Words were exchanged and they went outside
to settle it once and for all. One of the hunters pulled out his 9mm pistol
and fired it into the air to give the rednecks a scare. In response, one of
the good ol’ boys grabbed a screwdriver from his tool box in the back of his
pick-‘em up truck and drove it through hunting vest into the soft and
luckily, forgiving depth of the gunman’s belly.
Since the sheriff closed the bar for the rest off the night, we were told to
come back and collect our amps the next morning. We showed up at Peeler’s
around game time, as I seem to remember the Tampa Bay Buccaneers
questionable cream-sickle orange uniforms on the tube. Tammy was scrubbing
the blood of the sidewalk with bleach "before the goddamn news paper jerks
We packed the gear and swilled free beers while watching the Vikes. Tammy
wasn’t in the worst of moods, considering the rash of unfortunate events
that happened to her bar in the last twelve hours. This was positive, as we
had somehow been involved in almost everything that went wrong. But she
waxed philosophical and excused us from responsibility for all, save the
plaster damage. But even that she let go "It would’ve happened next year
anyway", she quipped.
So while we finished up packing, Johnny went in to see if he could scrape
any money out of her after we attempted to set a dancer aflame, wrecked the
ceiling and inspired a couple of felonies in her parking lot. As you can
guess, we were sent packing sans pay, although we could come back next
month. Good enough, I thought. I mean, you can’t pay to see all that. The
money would be spent in a week, but the memories will last a lifetime. Just
as well. Johnny had a different view: "When we git big, this’ll never
happen. I do mean to git us set right wit’ a big record deal, big tour, big
everything. Man alive! When we gonna git big?"
Lord, Johnny, I don’t know. I jist don’t know.
Last month I promised to divulge a recipe from the family archives. This
month’s comes from a good friend, whom I’ll call Tony Santosaprano. A
self-described thoroughbred Chicago dago, Tony has never let me go hungry
for a minute during any of my visits to the Windy City. As if to show that
he means business in the kitchen, he never cooks without mentioning how his
grandma would "Do it differently. But hey! That’s her place and this is
mine. So how you doin’?"
If you look at the amount of ingredients below, you will notice that this
isn’t for the lonely bachelor. It’s Italian family style, plenty for
everyone- and then some. Keep in mind that you can freeze leftover sauce in
smaller containers for later.
This recipe isn’t anything exotic, but don’t be put off. Tony’s Authentic
Dago Red Spaghetti Sauce is the real deal: sturdy, simple, and full of the
good stuff that makes pasta everyone’s favorite.
3-3 1/2 LBS OF SPICY ITALIAN SAUSAGE OR CHUCK ROAST (CUBED)
3-4 8oz CANS TOMATO PASTE
3-4 CUPS WATER (MEASURE DEPENDING UPON # OF CANS OF PASTE)
1 BIG CAN TOMATO SAUCE
1 SMALL CAN T SAUCE
1 ONION (CHOPPED)
PLENTY ‘O GARLIC
PARSLEY, ORAGANO, SALT, PEPPER
Okay- This is easy:
Grab a big pot, and brown the meat.
Add onion, garlic, parsley, salt and pepper.
Mix it up, add paste, sauce, and water
Add whatever you feel is missing.
Simmer for AT LEAST two hours, but four is better.
Serve over pasta.
Last but not least, this month’s Old Style poster boy is my brother, Van
My principle partner in crime, Van is a credit to the House Of Heilman:
smooth as silk, steady as a rock.
Happy Thanksgiving and Go In Peace-