When the Whole Club Wants to Kick Your Ass
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because discretion, not stupidity, is the better part of valor.
By Eugene S. Robinson
You develop a sixth sense about these kinds of things.
Knowing people and even more so knowing the signs surrounding people, this one had “hard time” written all over it. Specifically, the show we, the members of Oxbow, were scheduled to play in Bradford, England, stunk four ways to Sunday.
There had been arguments with the promoter, who claimed that “no one knows who you are anyway,” a common ploy of work-shy individuals who were notifying us of their intent to not do any promotion. There had been confusion about the bill and the budget. And when we finally arrived at the venue, the 1 in 12 Club — more an anarchist squat than a club — the tour bus barely fit down the super-narrow street, presenting us with a load-in that would make an already miserable day worse.
“This is it.” Greg Davis, our drummer, had a habit of saying that in his belief that eventually every band has a show after which nothing is the same. “It’ll be fine.”
A guy made his way to the front of the stage and simulated fellating me.
We got the gear loaded in. Naturally, there were problems with the sound check. Our contract still wasn’t ready. There was no food when we arrived, and no meat available for dinner (the squat turned out to be vegetarian). When we asked for water and towels, the reigning Old Punk Royal, purportedly the drummer for the great punk band Crass, sniffed and pointed lazily toward a sink.
Yeah, this could be it.
The show began uneventfully enough with a song titled “Bull’s Eye,” a slow burn that flames up halfway through with a riff that tears it open: bass, drums, guitar, voice, all lost in a crazy cacophony. The audience, which had been treated to some fairly doctrinaire punk rock before, was clearly torn. So they did what I’ve only known British audiences to do: They poked the bear.
It started mellow enough. A guy made his way to the front of the stage and simulated fellating me. I’ve got as much of a sense of humor as the next guy, but I knew where this was going to lead: a collision of senses of humor.
A song and a half later, we were there: A largish fellow from Belfast, in Northern Ireland, stood in front of me. He was smiling broadly and pointing to poorly drawn pen-and-ink imitations of my tattoos.
I laughed, switched the microphone from one hand to the other and grabbed his outstretched arm in what we in the fighting profession call an arm drag. It spun him around so his back was to me. I then took the mic and wrapped the cord around his throat. Cinching it in a chokehold, I watched as the audience finally tuned in to the fact that one of our senses of humor was clearly funnier than the other.
The drummer from Crass ran up and feebly punched me in the face, which inadvertently caused me to tighten the chokehold on the man from Belfast, who by now was flailing his arms around like a man who was drowning, not waving. When he was unconscious, or damned near close, I dropped him to the floor and finished the song, exultant.
Because, you see, here we were, finally, in a place that was very, very real.
The bottles and ashtrays being thrown at me attested to it. The reality between the audience and performer has always been this: No matter how much the audience dislikes the performer, it will never exceed how disappointed the performer is in the audience.
We kept playing.
The drummer from Crass approached the stage, tentatively this time, and picked up the mic that I had dropped because, unbeknownst to him, we had finished our last song.
“Please … could you get off the stage … please … go away … give another band a chance,” he begged.
I quickly dressed, which amounted to putting my pants back on — I guess I forgot to mention that I hadn’t been wearing any. I ran down to the narrow street where the tour bus was parked. I wanted to be there to prevent the windows from being smashed or the tires slashed.
But the vibe had become … curious. No one, excepting the man from Belfast, had been hurt, and sometimes the best art is created in the most trying of circumstances.
A filmmaker who was following us on the tour to record what would eventually become the documentary Music for Adults wondered if all our concerts were “like this.”
You mean “GREAT!”? Sure.
As the rest of the band started to load the gear, a woman approached me. She said she thought we had a social obligation to warn the audience. Her boyfriend — the club’s sound man — brushed past us angrily.
“Why are you talking to him? They’re the WORST BAND EVER!” he screamed. I laughed.
He was soon followed by a guy from Palehorse, the band that had opened for us. “Did you just play with Oxbow?” he asked. I got ready for him to say some variation of “good show,” but he followed up with, “I didn’t fancy you at all.” Which made me laugh even harder.
Our next show was in Leeds. Close to Bradford. Word had gotten out. The show? Packed. And it occurred without incident … sort of.
You see, I’ve developed a sixth sense about these kinds of things.