It was late 2000.
The commercials strike had devastated my business, being an actor whose main source of income came from appearing in TV ads. I had little to do with all the free time. Auditions had completely dried up, as they would during a work stoppage. Many of my friends and colleagues started new businesses or got support jobs or just went home to their families.
I started a band.
Like many other actors in Los Angeles I was an orphan in search of a home. Some sort of connective tissue that allows us feel worth some and not worth less. The desire to belong to someone or some thing is strong in performers. I assume it is with anyone, really, but actors seem to crave it more; the attention, the lights, some hole to be filled, some emptiness longing to be replaced with, sometimes, anything. However, it’s not just the bond with people that we covet. Contrary to what many assume, the bohemian lifestyle, while occasionally wonderful with its virtual lack of responsibility and constantly changing environs and experiences, is just as often chaotic and disjointed. There’s really no center. No gravitational pull to keep us grounded. We just spin and jut from one class or workshop or show or audition or job to the next. Until and unless we “couple up” or start a family, some of us seek to carve that home out of the people available to us, usually they are other ragamuffins and journeymen and women who only truly shine in the limelight.
While I spun around, in search of something grounded, the sun I would orbit was my home, a one bedroom apartment in the heart of West Hollywood. A haven, yes; a Melrose Place to call my own, with a pool that was surrounded by big windows behind which neighbors, who all knew each other, embraced and welcomed me and my daughter and were almost as bohemian as I.
But, still, it wasn’t a family. It was, by happenstance, a collective of supportive weekday sunbathers but it wasn’t that home. I would find sanctuary in the shape of a little theater company in east LA called Sacred Fools (a company so aptly named) situated on Heliotrope Dr., a street name so suited for it housed a motley bazaar of foundlings and strays. That was where I found my family, my friends and colleagues. People with whom I would toil, for free, till wee hours of the morning making theater. A community with whom I would be intimate, both personally and physically. That dusty and creaky old playhouse just off of Melrose before the Hipster invasion, with its legendary ladder that led up to a light booth that was, supposedly, built by Harrison Ford in his pre-Han Solo days, was where I met my closest confidantes, my best and lifelong friends and, most surprisingly and satisfyingly, my wife.
That was also where I was encouraged, by some generous and kind patrons, to start a band.
And, just like a 13 year old self taught guitar player with dreams of pyrotechnics and groupies, that is what I did.
We called ourselves Throttle Back Sparky and we opened for our theater company’s “Music Night”, a covers and originals concert where anyone who wanted to could play. A nonstop monthly party that went to the deepest hours of the night.
Our little 7 piece theater-rock outfit played at that theater on the night that Dubya was elected. Band members moved on and out and in, as amoebic as bands are and we morphed into other incarnations with new players, though all of them from the house on Heliotrope until we settled on a drummer (!) and that became my family.
And then we ventured out of the safe cloister of where we formed to the real world of the Los Angeles Rock Scene.
Our first gig was at a club that doesn’t exist anymore. The appropriately named concert hall/bar, “The Gig”. It was a dark and nondescript room where the stage perched high at the back end, elevated about two and a half feet above the ground, the bands viewable from the moment you entered the joint. It also had a curtain which would rise to present each act and a smoke machine on the stage. Oh, man, how I loved that smoke machine. When we played we would ask the stage manager for “More smoke! More! More! More!” while the curtain was down. To the point where the seven of us could no longer even see each other and I reached through the cloud to find my microphone when the show started. I wanted us to emerge from the mist like rock gods. I wanted us to be Kiss. If people paid seven bucks to see us, I wanted them to feel like they saw a $50 show. The Gig was exactly what I was hoping to play to fully embrace my Rock Family Experience.
I used to jump from that stage into the audience pit when we would play our faux-swing song, “Great Big Mardi Gras Head”. During the guitar solo, it gave me the opportunity to show off my sweet East Coast Swing dance moves, an integral element of my lead singer courtship repertoire. (It should be noted that I married the first person I danced with during that song and my membership into “Lead Singer Lothario Academy” was summarily revoked. No regrets!)
I don’t remember who we played with on our first night. It was a blur. After the show, Martha, the club’s booker, told me that she liked us but our demo didn’t do us justice. It didn’t. It was recorded on an antiquated-by today’s standards-four track in that same theater where we were born. And it was on cassette. It was lame. And, more importantly, it didn’t sound like us. Martha thought we would work better on another bill with another band. Someone that might fit what we were about. She had just the band in mind…
We were booked. We rehearsed and got ready to play our first show with–
The Piper Downs.
Now, look, I, along with the other members of the band, crafted a show that, like I said, was designed to give you more than your money’s worth. If we couldn’t leave you wanting more we could at least satisfy you to the point where you wanted to come back for seconds.
And I thought we killed it that night. When I left to go home I found a note on my car from the lead singer for Four Star Mary lauding my singing voice. High praise, indeed, coming from a rock belter whose power could be felt at the back of any theater where he played.
But as strong as I thought our show was, the headliner was the real show.
The Downs. The band with the super cool chick drummer who pounded the skins like she was inventing joy. On stage right stood that goofy lead guitarist who seemed to jump out of his skin while ripping through those rollicking licks like a guitar tech who had been champing at the bit to get his chance and finally did! On the other side, with a perpetual beam of a smile was the bass player whom we were supposed to believe was the band’s biggest liability, the clown. The one player that needed to be carried by everyone else when, in fact, he nestled perfectly in the pocket with that awesome woman behind the kit. It would come as no surprise to learn that they were actually married. Well, maybe to some, like the member of my band who was so taken by her that he was crushed to learn the truth.
And that lead singer. The guy who wrote the tunes. The Big Sexy. A songwriter whose self-effacement was actually a laser guided song-writing technique. A master with a turn of phrase who let you in on his heartbreak and his journey through power chords and infectious melody.
A personal highlight in my brief sojourn into the stream of LA Power Pop/Rock was when Bobby (Big Sexy) Bognar sang lead on my song, “Prozac Girl” at the concert that my bandmates never knew was going to be my last. It wasn’t but, damn we came pretty close. And, dammit if Bobby didn’t make the melody just that much better. He found notes that I didn’t even know I had written.
Another highlight was when I was asked to perform A Piper Downs song with them. I clambered up to the stage at Molly Malone’s, the place that would seem to become their second home after The Gig disappeared into some grotesque bistro/bar/cafe thing, and warbled out “Madeline”.
I got through that damned song, a favorite of mine, but, truth be told, I could barely remember the words to my own songs let alone someone else’s despite how much more fluid and lyrical they may be.
The Piper Downs are playing their last show on August 29th. In a fashion that I would come to expect from them, they are also releasing their first album in a decade. 21 songs for 21 years. And then the last of the power pop rock acts of the aughts are hanging it up for good.
It is my hope to hear “Madeline” one more time.
And “That Way”, one of the first songs of theirs I ever heard, before I knew who they were and one of their best.
And “Hail”, the song they played and allowed me to sing along with when they played my wedding. (How many people can say that their favorite local band and the best unsigned band in town played their wedding???)
Maybe I’ll get to hear “I Am a Dick” or “I Swear to God What He Calls Love” or “Hardcore” or “Louder” one more time.
Whatever they play, it will be bittersweet. Because it means the era has really ended. From a time when a few dreamers who were a little “too tall for the ride” took over some stages in Los Angeles and created their own rawk scene. When a boy with rock and roll dreams got to play alongside some real local heroes.
We may not have sold a million records but for a brief and shining moment the Danny Blitzes and The Andersons!s and the Four Star Marys and The Pissants and The SparkleJets U.K.’s and The Bat Countrys and The Throttle Back Sparkys and The Piper Downs had our way with the music scene just long enough to burn an indelible set of memories in the few who saw us, danced to our tunes, sang along with us, partied with us. Those are memories I will cherish forever when I tell my son, “Yes, your father was cool…once….”
Thanks, Piper Downs, for leading the way with generosity and encouraging us all to be better by watching you be the example of how to do it right almost every single time. Almost, because, you know…Yell.