Dispatches from Kuwait: The Rat King in the Kingdom of The Weird
Dispatches from Kuwait: The Rat King in the Kingdom of The Weird
Being the former guitarist for Tubesnake Willie and The Frogs I have an affinity for bar bands. It makes for an easy release: just a damn good bar band, some whiskey and some room to dance. Really dance, none of that hippy dippy stuff, real ass shaking, sweat driving funk and blues dancing. Anything less is hack work. And after months in the desert, a desert in all senses and metaphors of the word, I had hoped to find a good bar band in Bahrain, an open dance floor, a fistful of whiskey and maybe someone to shake my moneymaker with. My translator and bodyguard, a Jordanian by birth and an Otis Redding fiend by conversion, and I were wandering aimlessly around the side streets of Manama. For the three days that we had been there we had found the island kingdom’s mellow easiness both appealing and sensory opening, opening the eyes and pores like a snake’s newly found flesh after the shedding. They had been good nights, but nights without live music. Nights that had found us befriending Pakistani security guards, an Indian dwarf doorman and a mad old man, madder than syphilitic sailors, an old man with a gnarled face like a rat and gold rings on his pinkies, The Rat King in the Kingdom of The Weird. True, but nonsensical. As nonsensical as seeing a Saudi man in dishdasha (the long white robes so common to the Arabian Gulf) sitting hunched at a bar, his white dishdasha carnation pink from the neon above him. A sight that greeted us after we had turned down a side street, walking towards the water, and seen the makings of a good dive, a hardwood bar that must have had a pool table. Betty’s.
Seeing a stage set up for a band, tapestries laying across the drum kit, I took this to be a good omen and decided to stay for the evening. Nemer, my translator and bodyguard, didn’t take much persuading. "Maybe they’ll play The Blues," he said. "After all, the Fifth Fleet is stationed here."
The Blues. Indeed.
What ensued was the soundtrack of the other side of the world, moments before the End of Days. The night unfolded around us like a Hieronymus Bosch painting being created in the moment.
A Filipino band climbed on stage and immediately the bad omens appeared: skin tight white polo shirts on all of the males, platform boots, dragon tail hair to their waists, the checkered flag on the bass drum. _Here’s to the nightrain, I thought, there’s no turning back now. _
They opened their set with an instrumental song that reminded me of Eric Johnson without any of the balls. It was all notes and crisp drums, no grease. I believe I squealed in terror. Too unbelievable to let go down the hole of memory, I began flapping my arms like a mongoloid in heat and screamed for a pen and paper. The Indian bartender reacted as if I had a gun to him and thrust his hands into the register searching for them. Nemer sat calmly, smoking a cigarette, whistling an old Freddie King song. The bartender flipped me four squares of paper and a Bic pen, the kind you really have to press down on to get going, no flow at all to it. He poured me a shot of whiskey out of sympathy or terror, but Id like to think sympathy. After all, India has good music. I began to scribble furiously on the scraps of paper, trying to record the impression of the song, creating a title for it based on the impression. I have this instrumental listed as "Lotus Grass." It probably should have been called "Bongwater Reprisal." When it ended the lead singer stepped up to the mic to introduce the guitarist, but the mic was either turned up too high, or my ears had rebelled against what they knew was coming, or his English was too choppy, but I couldnt make out a word he said. _The hell with it. I’ll just keep making up the song titles as I go. It’s better that way anyway. _ But then, bursting out of the static or fear came the word ‘Madonna.’
"Oh shit," Nemer said, turning to me. "Did he…?"
"Quiet man, quiet. They won’t."
But they did. The bastards covered Madonna next. The craziest thing though was that they were serious about it. I mean serious. The lead singer had that one foot up, back arched, neck tendons straining pose, the bassist was head down into whatever New Wave groove they had conjured up, and the two female members of the band climbed on stage to shimmy in what could vaguely be called mini-skirts, all smiles and blue mascara.
I have the tune labeled as "Vagina Cry."
Drunk Saudis began lurching around the bar, weaving around the pool table while a pair of transvestite Thais looked on. An Aussie at the bar began muttering to himself, something about women or noise. The Indian bartender stood smiling beneath a sign in English that advertised the bar’s special quesadillas and leaned forward when he saw me looking at the Saudis and said, ‘The whole island dips further into the sea over the holiday weekends with the weight of all the Saudis that come in to drink.’ Holiday weekend? That’s right, I had forgotten it was the Prophet’s Birthday…
They segued "Vagina Cry" into "Happy Birthday," a "Happy Birthday" as played by ZZ Top. It was Abdulla’s birthday. Abdulla, despite the pleas of the band was nowhere to be found. Being good showmen, they rolled with the punch and launched into something that sounded like the Alan Parsons Project, something I called "Eye Shine." A good slow burner that brought nothing but silence, the mists of the unknown and a Chinese whore to the dance floor.
I turned back to the bar and looked at Nemer. He slowly stood up and began to do a little boogie near his bar stool, screaming "Have You Ever Loved a Woman?" as loud as he could, deranged and strangled, his cigarette hanging from his lip. He kept forcing the word "EVER" and each time he hit it, he would break out a flurry of air guitar notes just like Freddie King would have, all finger picking and soul-face crimping.
I looked at the bartender and smiled. What else was I to do? At this point I was scribbling furiously on the scraps of paper trying to catch everything down and the waitresses began to stare at me. Looks of worry and torment. One of the waitresses came over to me and asked if I wanted to buy a fake pearl necklace to support the band.
"You buy it for 3 dinars and the band wears it," she said.
"That’s no good. I’ll buy it but my friend has to wear it."
"No the band wears it. You can’t keep it."
"Well, why would I buy it then?"
"To support the band."
"Yeah. They are good, right?" she said.
"Un-real," I said. "But let’s change the subject. Where are you from?"
"Ethiopia. All the waitresses are from Ethiopia."
"Did you all come here together?"
"No, but I knew her and her from Ethiopia before we came." She pointed at two of the waitresses, one of whom was leaning against a pillar her eyes the most sad and lost things man has ever ruined. Was that escape? "What do you do?" she asked.
"I am a writer. I am re-writing the history of the Middle East."
"All of it?"
"All of it. Even this place."
"This place too? she smiled hoping for glory. I see you writing at the bar."
"Yeah, I don’t want to forget this."
"Where are you from?" she asked. I pointed to Nemer.
"He’s from America. I’m not."
"He’s American? He doesn’t look American. You look American."
"Are you a racist? He may be retarded, you know handicapped, but he’s American.’ Nemer turned around and smiled at her, letting his one eye sag shut to give off just enough of a 40 IQ look.
"I’m American," he said.
"You have another nationality," she said. "And so do you. You are American and something else. What is your other nationality?" she asked looking right at me.
"I’m Awesome," I said.
"I don’t know Awesome," she said.
"I know. And this would be the major problem between us."
By this point the band was well into their set and the Mini Skirt Twins had adopted stage moves that were horrendous attempts at copying The Temps. Without either the grace or the soul, their knees just swayed leaving their hips stiff like cold acetylene torches. The band asked for requests and someone screamed out "Dancing Queen" from the back. That person was not shot.
Nemer kept up his air guitar and Freddie King singing, I had devolved into shouting out "Johnnie Taylor" as the mood hit me and was buying shots at a pace designed to clear the static from the mic. Once a band entertains a request for "Dancing Queen" there are few alternatives outside of suicide to release you. And I am a fan of Camus, so suicide was never an option. Besides, I was taking notes.
A burst of feedback from the guitarists amp or the sound of one of the stage dancers singing I luhv ev-ryTING about youuuu, sent Nemer to the bathroom. The Aussie was still mumbling to himself, lightly running his index finger around the rim of his scotch. The curtains around the entrance parted and four American sailors came in. They walked in a square formation, the two at the back being dressed in full baller fashion with Sean John jean-shorts falling at a length somewhere near the heinous capris, untied bone white sneakers flapping, gold chains. The front two had obviously joined the service right out of high school because they were dressed for The Dance.
They strutted into the room and as they came around the corner of the bar one of the transvestites picked their (her? his?) head up off of their arms and smiled. The sailors tried getting seats at the bar, towards the corner of it near the bathrooms, but a pair of Saudis stumbled up to them and began jabbering in their faces. All four men reeled back at the sight of these two dishdasha clad men jabbering horrendously slurred Arabic at them. The one Saudi seemed to understand their fear and slung his arm around the shoulder of one of the ballers. Just as his arm went around his shoulders, Nemer came out of the bathroom. The action at the bar drew his attention and from my seat I could see his eyes expand at the sight. He took a step towards them, tapped the Saudi who still had his arm draped across the sailors neck and sang, Have You Ever Loved a Woman? The Saudi looked at him quizzically, the sailors looked like they were near tears, so far from Indiana, so far from the ship. And it was here that the band began the first notes of a song that in any language is unmistakable: Every Rose Has Its Thorn.
I couldnt contain myself. I got off of my stool, jammed my notes into my pocket and grabbed my beer. By the time I had hit the dance floor the lead singer was just lifting the mic towards his mouth to get out the first lines. My legs, as if controlled by forces greater than myself, began to slide apart into what I could feel was a full power-chord stance. And then, as if the psychic energy between us was symbiotic, both the lead singer and I began belting the lyrics to the song. In terms of volume he had the advantage of the mic, but like Chuck Norris I had the element of surprise. My voice, screaming against Madonna and platform boots and the loss of dignity, burst out of my mouth and threw him off guard. He missed miles apart and I could feel his stare burning me. I missed nothing, saving the moment. How long could I keep this up?
It didnt matter. Everything had been taken, all had fallen apart. Just get me through the solo
Perhaps because I had taken over the performance from the dance floor, perhaps because they had planned it this way, they segued the song right after the guitar solo into what was unmistakably Hard to Handle. I screamed. Literally screamed, like I had been stabbed with a screwdriver in my neck or had a kidney stolen.
I smashed my beer glass on the dance floor. Enough! I screamed. You goddamn animals, ENOUGH! I looked around the room wildly for Nemer. The bartenders were coming at me from behind the bar. The Ethiopian waitresses at the sound of the glass shattering had glanced over their shoulders, but now were heads down back in their work. The Saudis and sailors were frozen in place. Nemer came up behind me. Lets go, he said. Theyve killed Otis.
Much later, in the cool Manama dawn, I was sitting out on the hotel room balcony while watching the sunrise. As the light spread itself over the rooftops of the city and the call to prayer rose in the distance, I began drafting the laws for my own island kingdom. Public bitch slappingoperating on the same principles as our citizens arrest laws—-would be legal, stupid people would not be allowed to breed, and any band caught disgracing Otis Redding would have their faces skinned off in public and get fresh lemon juice squeezed over the raw and bleeding flesh. Then I thought about the sacrifices I make for my art.