I have an appalling lack of shame.
I imagine it’s the sort of thing that in a naturally wilder human than myself would lead to trouble. Problem is, I’m an introverted square with an appalling lack of shame, so it has really only led to three things:
- A career in theatre;
- A trail of bewildered people in my wake;
- A lot of karaoke.
Not just karaoke. Other variants on the same idea – things most sober people would never do in a million years. Open-mic showtunes. Mall talent shows.
And, once, a band.
My dear friend Leonardo (probably not his name), an actor and sometimes drummer, had worked with me on a couple of experimental theatre shows in my hometown and knew from various and sundry cast parties that I played the piano pretty well. Well enough that I could handle the keyboard riff in “Ghostbusters”, anyway. And so he asked me to join his band.
“It’s just a fun little thing,” he said. “Covers, mostly ‘80s stuff. We’re thinking maybe we’ll get to a point where we can play at bars and stuff once or twice a week, maybe pick up some extra cash.”
Easy enough, I thought. Extra cash would be nice.
“I’m in,” I said.
Per Leonardo’s instructions, I drove out to the far suburban outskirts of town, where we’d be rehearsing in the basement of Michelangelo (definitely not his name), the guitarist. More to the point: Michelangelo’s mom’s basement.
Leonardo quickly introduced me to everyone – Michelangelo, the fun-loving, wise-cracking guitarist; Donatello (you get it), the kind and thoughtful bassist , and then—
“You know Raphael?”
Raphael, the lead singer, was a guy I did indeed know. He had played Hero in a production of A Funny Thing Happened On The Way To The Forum I had done in college a few years prior, pinch-hitting for a guy who dropped out early on because he “didn’t think he could handle it.” (For anyone who doesn’t know Forum, all Hero has to do is be a doofus and ogle women. It’s really not that difficult.) Raphael, an actor alum of the school, swooped in and saved the day, so to speak.
Raphael also quickly developed a reputation within the cast for getting a bit handsy with all of the women. (And it’s a show set in and around a house of ill-repute; there were a lot of women.)
All of the women, that is, but me. Which was curious, but more than fine by me.
(Raphael was married, which a) imbued watching him creep on the courtesans with epic schadenfreude and b) made me feel extra sorry for the poor girl who married him when a couple months after the show closed he accidentally emailed me instead of his family veterinarian something along the lines of “Hello, we need your help. We believe our duck is in heat. She is angry all the time and has bitten my wife on the face, and my wife is very upset. Please tell us what to do. Best, Raphael”. After laughing for maybe five minutes straight, I emailed him to point out the error and, er, wished him luck with the duck.)
I sort of smiled politely and said, “Yes, hi Raphael, good to see you again,” determined to let go of the ugly associations and start afresh in the name of rock’n’roll. He didn’t seem to care much that I was there, which was exactly how I liked it. From my experience, Raphael’s approval meant either a hand on the ass or a duck bill to the face, and I was managing fine on my own, thanks.
The thing that the guys didn’t realize at first was that I was a singer. (Still am.) During that first rehearsal, when we first started working through Journey’s “Separate Ways”, one of the songs that Leonardo had suggested I learn in advance, I started adding background harmonies because I could.
The guys all stared at me in shock.
“Uh, yeah, she can stay,” Michelangelo said to Leonardo, who beamed.
Of course, as weeks went by, the fact that I was as much of a singer as Raphael became an unspoken source of tension as the other guys started suggesting that we trade off on lead. Which maybe would have gone over differently if Raphael played an instrument, but he didn’t, or at least not for our purposes. I knew this was bound to come to a head when at the first band practice that Raphael couldn’t attend, the rest of us worked on a song that originally Donatello was supposed to sing.
“Maybe Christie should sing it?” Donatello, who really wasn’t all that comfortable singing, suggested.
“You could sing it together?” Leonardo offered.
Michelangelo shook his head. “Nah, man. Let her sing it. If you sing it together, it’ll be like parking a Ferrari next to a Pinto.”
(To this day, that’s maybe the greatest compliment I’ve ever received.)
What we ended up doing was working on different songs that were better suited to my voice – Pat Benatar’s “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” sticks out in my mind. We experimented with it, coming up with a weird double-speed pop-punk thing that was, in my opinion, pretty rad. Even despite the lingering cold symptoms that I couldn’t seem to shake.
Naturally, when we played it for moody, broody Raphael at the next rehearsal, he shrugged. “Yeah, I mean, it’s good. Maybe you guys can do stuff like that whenever I need a break.”
The band’s name, in the short, gloriously weird time it existed, was Retox.
(Not my idea.)
Three months-ish passed and we finally felt like we had our sea legs. (Or the cover band equivalent thereof.) We were talking about potential leads for paying gigs when Raphael had an announcement.
“I’ve booked us a gig. It doesn’t pay, but we need a test run in front of an audience anyway. Plus, I owe my buddy Harlow a favor.”
He went on to explain that it was a Halloween “field party” (“very popular, well-attended”) on the grounds of some Haunted Forest / Haunted Woods / Haunted Outdoors-y something-or-other. “We’ll be on a flatbed, so we’ll have a stage of sorts,” Raphael assured us.
And then he let slip the most pertinent detail of all:
“We’ll be opening for a DJ named Optimix Prime. And the event…is called Harloween 5.”
It was just a test, we told ourselves. None of us knew what a “field party” was, but hey, we were just good old Retox, your future favorite nostalgia band. We had to start somewhere.
(I say “nostalgia band”. We did mostly ‘80s stuff, especially once I arrived. The set list before I arrived was pretty dire; it included some Tool or Korn or one of those four-letter-word bands, and also, if I remember correctly, that one extra unfortunate Nickelback song that’s like, “somethin’ degrading, put it in yer mouth!”)
(Those probably aren’t the lyrics, but I’m not about to Google “nickelback mouth lyrics” if I can help it.)
Over the next month, as the temperatures dropped, my symptoms got worse. Sore throat, cough, fever – you name it, that was me. But dammit, I was having fun. I was in a band. A band with an impending Halloween gig! I was determined to soldier through.
We put together a really solid Halloween-ish set list for the occasion. (By which I mean we’d worked up “Ghostbusters” as our opener and “Thriller” for somewhere in the middle. Or maybe “Beat It”? Something.) The rest were all safe, solid ‘80s favorites – our pop-punk “Hit Me With Your Best Shot”, “Livin’ On A Prayer”, “Summer of ‘69”, and our piece de resistance, Journey’s “Separate Ways”.
(The key to a good ‘80s band, if you didn’t already know, is an ear for the right synth settings. Luckily I’d found the perfect one for “Separate Ways”, so we killed that shit.)
When I went to the doctor when this was all said and done, she told me that I had swine flu.
By the time the gig rolled around, I was in pitiful shape. We’d agreed in advance that we were all showing up in costume (it was a Halloween party, after all), and I’d managed to put together a rather impressive approximation of Helena Bonham Carter’s Mrs. Lovett getup from the Sweeney Todd movie. I didn’t have to do much by way of makeup to look like something out of a Grand Guignol, though: I was sickly pale to the point of translucent.
I showed up at the Haunted Forest Situation kitted out and ready to play (well, as ready as anyone with undiagnosed swine flu could be), only to run into Donatello (a medieval knight for the evening) and Michelangelo (Conan the Barbarian, complete with long flowing wig and fake bulging muscles) in the parking lot.
“So, um, things aren’t exactly what we thought they were,” one of them explained. “Just follow us.”
We trudged a tiki torch-lighted path through mud and marsh half a mile into the woods, quite a ways away from the Haunted Forest Situation, until we came to a clearing where there were three metal barrels with fires raging within them and a maybe 8x8 square of wooden industrial pallets.
“That’s the stage,” I was told.
I stared at them in horror. The pallets were firmly sunken into the swampy mud and surrounded by standing water. We were expected to run all of our electric equipment off of a pair of generators in this very spot.
“It’s gonna take us a couple of trips to get everything out here. Since you’re still sick,” Donatello said, “We thought maybe you could stay here with all the stuff?”
I nodded and plopped down onto one of the pallets. I’m gonna die here, I thought.
As it turns out, a “field party” is exactly what it says on the tin. A party. In a field.
Ten minutes later, a dude bounded up the tiki torch path: no taller than five feet, spiky frosted tips, bright orange pants, maybe a seashell necklace – imagine if they’d made one of those vinyl POP! figurines of Sugar Ray’s Mark McGrath, and you’ve got a startlingly accurate picture of this guy.
“Heyyyyy!” he called out to me as he approached. “You with the band?”
I nodded weakly, coughing and mentally cursing myself for choosing a costume with a frigging corset.
“Cool, cool. How do you think it’s gonna be tonight?”
“Um, good? Fun?” I croaked out, unsure what he expected me to say.
“Yeah, well, I think it’s gonna be fuuuuuuuuuuuckin’ awwwwweeeeeeesooooommmmmeeeeeeeeeeee.”
I’d never heard one human take so long to say two words in my life. I wondered if maybe I’d woken up in a beer commercial.
The dude disappeared.
This, I later found out, was Harlow.
As the attendees of Harloween 5 (Harloweeners?) started to arrive, one thing became horrifyingly clear: we were the only ones in costume. From my flu-addled vantage point, the audience seemed to be comprised entirely of 19-year-old skinheads in baggy kangaroo-pocketed hoodies and those jeans with the giant outer loop meant I think to store hammers or other weapon-like tools.
It took us a good hour to get set up thanks to the ungodly distance between “stage” and parking lot and another half hour or so to get the show going because Raphael and Leonardo were stuck in traffic en route from an earlier gig.
Finally, just as I’d started to envision how the 11 o’clock news would report my impending and inevitable demise (our top story: body of 25-year-old local woman found in swampy clearing in Bullitt County. We’re told the body was slung over a charred barrel, with swastikas drawn on the cheeks in mud, dressed in what appears to be a Victorian hooker’s costume), Raphael (as a Ghostbuster) and Leonardo (as Jesus with a Darth Vader helmet – I’m probably remembering these costumes all wrong) showed up in the nick of time.
We took our places. Raphael grabbed the mic.
“Heyyyyy, Harloween 5! Happy Halloween! We’re Retox! Let’s do this!”
We launched into “Ghostbusters”, determined against all odds to show these skinheads a good time.
“When there’s somethin’ strange…in da neigh-ba-hood…who you gonna call?” Raphael sang-snarled, holding the mic out to the audience for them to provide the answer.
Nothing. The skinheads stared at us.
“When there’s somethin’ weeeeeird…and it don’t look good… who you gonna call?”
Oh my God, we really are going to die.
Just at that moment, a huge spark and flash happened, followed by a loud pop!, killing one of our amps and shorting out one of our generators.
We got the show back up and running fifteen minutes later, by which time the skinheads were antsy and eyeing us with even more distaste than before. We made it through “Beat It” (yeah, in retrospect, it was “Beat It”), “Hit Me With Your Best Shot” and “Summer of ‘69” when Harlow bounded up out of the crowd to Raphael.
“Hey, uh, so, this is great and stuff, but I think people really kinda just want to dance. So maybe one more song?”
More than happy to cut the night short, we agreed, launching into our baller finale, “Separate Ways”. And for the first two minutes, bored skinheads be damned, we were invincible. I don’t know if it was out of a shared sense of relief that the ridiculously traumatic evening we’d just experienced was coming to a close or if it was pure fluke, but for that brief, wondrous moment, we were rock’n’roll itself, perfectly in sync, having the time of our lives.
And then – of course – that came to a screeching halt when, just as we launched into the last set of choruses (“SOME! DAY! LOVE! WILL! FIND! YOU! BREAK! THOSE! CHAINS! THAT! BIND! YOU!”), Harlow leapt out in front of us, a bottle of tiki torch fluid in hand, gargled the tiki torch fluid, and started fire breathing.
The band broke up about a month later. It had nothing to do with Harloween 5.
Whenever I think back on that All Hallows Eve spent out in the woods with friends, handsy duck lovers, teenage neo-Nazis and Harlow the Fire Breather, I can never determine whether the final moment of it for me actually happened or was simply the result of processing it under the influence of the heavy duty antibiotics I was on in the weeks that followed.
As I finally made it back to my car that night, the hem of my skirt completely caked in mud, I was ready to go home, chug half a bottle of NyQuil and sleep through November. I took one look back at the woods just as Leonardo approached with a load of equipment.
“Hope you feel better,” he said with a weary smile. “Regardless of what happened, we kicked ass back there.”
I nodded in agreement, as he left me with one parting thought:
“And hey: if you think that was bad? Just imagine what Harloweens 1 through 4 were like.”