Weekendz with Bernie

part two

For starters, Bernie turned out to be a total, unrepentant slacker.


If the gig started at 9:30, we started at 9:40. If the breaks were 30 minutes, we took 40. If it ended at 1AM, we stopped at 12:50. It amazed me that this musician, who spent years working on his craft, sucking up to club owners and all kinds of ridiculousness to play in a real place before real people, would finally get there and work himself near to death figuring out ways to NOT play.

roamed from club to club... Now I'm not Mr. Perfect Punctuality; my friends will attest to that. But hell, if you're there, your gear is set up, you've got your drink, your guitar is tuned AND it's time to start... why not start? Instead, we'd sit around going "Well, NOW what time is it?" George and I might have goaded him into starting more promptly, and in fact I seem to remember trying that once or twice. But he let it be known this was his group and he'd start when he was damn well ready. What did we care as long as we got paid? It wasn't so much that he didn't want to play; he just liked, needed to get over on people. The club owner, the guys in his band, his girlfriend, whoever. He was that insecure.

Club owners don't always challenge a late-starting band. What they really care about is the cash register—when the smoke clears they survey the til and decide whether or not to re-hire the band. Hell, if you pack the joint full of beer-swilling yahoos you can play fifteen minutes for all they care.

But, we didn't do that, so not surprisingly, we roamed from club to club, all of which after a few gigs cast us aside like so much milk beyond the expiration date.

Such was the case with Rick, who owned (ahem) "Rick's Nightclub," and who, like the others, stopped hiring us after a few tries. But Rick was different—he actually called us on our late-starter routine.

It was a humiliating moment. There we were, ready to play, ten minutes past our official start-time. We were sitting in the dressing area waiting for Bernie's high sign. Rick came in. The conversation was short:

Rick: "So, what time you guys supposed to start?"

Bernie: "Umm... 9:30."

Rick: "And what time is it now?"

Bernie: "Umm... 9:40."

Rick: "OK. So quit sitting around with your thumbs up your asses and GET UP THERE AND PLAY!"

WITH OUR THUMBS UP OUR ASSES. That says it all. Rick was right of course. I knew it, Bernie knew it and Rick sure as hell knew it. Being the object of that kind of scorn was completely foreign to my professional experience; it was like taking a hammer to my self-esteem.

Unfortunately, slacking was just a piece of the puzzle; Bernie had a genuine Jekyll and Hyde thing going. He was funny when the mood struck and had a genuine decent side. I once hoofed to his house after running out of gas on DC's notorious Beltway, and though he made me feel like I was asking him to swim the English Channel, he did take me to get gas and then to my car, which I appreciated.

But more of the time, he was a selfish, spoiled pain in the ass. He bitched and moaned, pissed and whined, had a negative spin for everything. Worst of all, as a band leader he was as irresponsible as any I'd ever known.

For example, we would occasionally play weekends at one of New York City's better known Blues venues. Bernie loved this gig and would bend over backwards to keep it—even if it meant starting on time, keeping the volume down and playing right through to the bitter end. It was a weekend in New York however, which can be expensive for the band leader, who is responsible for booking and paying for the group's lodgings.

Bernie had a special "hands-off" approach to these responsibilities. We'd drive to the city, play Friday night, and at 3AM find out Bernie hadn't booked any accommodations, hoping we might somehow crash for free at someone's apartment. After much complaining and threatening to take a cab to Penn Station for the first train home, Bernie reluctantly scrounged up a cheap hotel room, the kind of walk-in place that had a $100 room available at 4AM. More poison for the self-esteem.

I already knew my days as a Blues Savage were numbered when Bernie announced a chance to play for truly excellent money: $300 per person for a one-nighter private party. Trouble was, it was in Saratoga Springs, New York, over 400 miles away. That's a pretty good hike for any road dog, but the distance wasn't what bothered me. I'd gone that far many times, and for way less money.

No, it was the cringing horror of having to spend an entire weekend cooped up in Bernie's 1976 Chevy Van, nowhere to hide, twenty-four-seven Bernie, held hostage to his whims and tantrums for the sour carrot of making it home alive with one third of a mortgage payment. So I did what any self-respecting, proud, hustling musician would do: I grinned and said "Great! When is it?"

Next: It was over the final weekend of the headiest time of year...