© Copyright 1998
by Brian Alpert;
All rights reserved.
Somewhere In Alaska
The six-piece group took Western Swing music of the 1930's, added vocals in the style of the Andrew Sisters (three of the six musicians were women), electrified and acid-washed it in the style of the Grateful Dead and packaged the whole peculiar deal with strong original writing, imaginative arrangements and crackerjack musicianship.
The group's niche was unique enough to score a two-album deal with (large independent label) Rounder Records, and the group recieved some press, including an interview with Bob Edwards on National Public Radio's "Morning Edition." We won some independent music awards and sold a few records, but mostly we pounded the Western states on an endless string of far-away gigs in clubs and concert venues that lasted from 1979 to 1986. I was in the group from 1982-86.
In love with romantic notions of the American West, Cowboy Jazz was such a bunch of musical mavericks we were embraced by Alaska Public Radio, and in turn Alaskans, who love maverick things. With some financial sponsorships arranged by the non-profit radio stations we were fortunate to tour America's last frontier, twice. The folks from Alaska Public Radio (including and especially KHNS in Haines) were wonderful people who exerted a great deal of effort to bring us to their state. They made us feel positively royal and no member of Cowboy Jazz will ever forget their good will. Even though there were two trips, these were once in a lifetime experiences.
The episode chronicled here occurred while touring the fishing villages of the great state's Southeast 'panhandle' during the summer of 1986, our second Alaskan tour and my last-ever tour with Cowboy Jazz. Unfortunately, the true story is best told under the cloak of pseudonyms and non-specific locations.
About live music in Alaska in the 80's: there wasn't much.
What there was consisted mostly of acoustic, bluegrass, old-time and such. An electrified band with drums was a big deal, particularly in the small villages and towns, which helps explain why these nice people went to such pains.
As you might expect, most of Alaska does not have the stuff bands need to survive. No, I'm not talking about limousines and bowls of M&M's with the brown ones removed, it's a little more basic: cheap restaurants and squalid motels. There just isn't a surplus of crummy motels in towns with a single paved road and easy-access by the local bear population.
So one of the many logistical challenges involved arranging for places for the six band and two crew members to eat and sleep. The solution in most towns was the good will and hospitality of the friends and employees of the radio station, who agreed (or were coerced) to house us in guest rooms, on couches, floors, etc. It was no small sacrifice: many of our hosts didn't have much room to spare.
We had commercial accomodations in some towns. One town, which was supported by a vibrant fishing industry and even a bit of tourism, boasted a number of guest houses. Happy with the prospect of real beds and maybe some privacy, we traveled there the Thursday before our next booking, a Saturday night concert in the local Community Center.
Much of our travel was courtesy of the "Alaska Marine Highway" ferry line, which agreed to provide our complimentary passage. The ship docked, we drove our van and equipment from within its hull, met our local radio station contact and pulled into town well after dark.
The guest house was owned by a married couple.
We met the wife, an attractive Scandinavian-featured woman in her thirties, Julie. She showed us to our rooms, along the way introducing her daughter, an adorable, three-year-old named Kiki.
Kiki was unable to walk. Julie told us she suffered from a rare, irreversable birth defect. She would eventually graduate to a wheelchair, but for the time being was light enough to cart herself along the floor and up and down the stairs. Kiki had light brown hair, was precocious, vying for attention, surprisingly mobile cruising along the floor. I remember her at that moment as happy, smiling, cute.
It was late and things were quiet. We were getting settled when we heard the front door open, then Julie's voice, and a man's. The words were indistinct, but you could hear the man's agitated, almost beligerant tone. They got closer and we heard him say "Well dammit, all we've heard about is this band and this is my house and if they're staying here I want to look at 'em."
Then came Julie's knock on our door. "Um, I'm sorry to bother you. Could you come say hello to my husband? He's anxious to meet you."
We stepped out to face a tall, thickly-set man with thinning brown hair, watery eyes and a goofy grin.
Julie's husband Carl stood swaying, reeking of alcohol.
We shook hands, thanked him for his hospitality, told him how happy were were to be there. Still sporting the silly grin, he unsteadily nodded his approval.
We bade each other good night; Jule mouthed a sheepish "sorry" over her shoulder as they disappeared down the hall.
We spent the next few days knocking around town, taking little trips, eating at the restaurant where one hot meal per day was prearranged. Carl, who worked on a fishing boat, was not around much. Julie and I shared some casual conversations.
She was bright and perky, seemingly tireless. She also was very uptight. Her inner tension was evident in comments and mannerisms, and I could sense an ability to push all the right buttons and lay down a Holy Guilt Trip.
I don't mean that to sound harsh or judgmental. I took her to be a strong person and I liked her. She was trying to run their business herself and god knows, Kiki required a lot of attention. There was real weight on her shoulders.
She could be manipulative.
One of the favorite things to do on a nice day was to set-up Kiki on the sidewalk selling lemonade to tourists. Kiki's natural outgoing charm (and yes, her handicap) made for a nice take by the end of the day. Behind the scenes Julie ran the show.
It was real cute, but I felt Julie was using Kiki's handicap to manipulate people. Hell, she admitted as much. But, whatever. It gave Kiki something to do, she obviously loved the attention and a tourist dollar is a tourist dollar: get 'em while you can.
On Saturday Julie and Carl graciously hosted a cook-out for their friends and ourselves. We were relaxed and more than ready to perform. There was good 'buzz' about the gig. Supposedly, the whole town would be there ready to let loose.
The news came late in the afternoon, only a couple hours before we were to head over to the Community Center: the halibut were running.
It was the worst possible news.
The entire male population was instantly marshalled.
It was sadly explained: every year the village was attuned to this event beginning suddenly and without warning. When it did, there was no time to waste. A substantial percentage of every fishing family's yearly income would be made (or lost) over the next few days.
Virtually all able-bodied men would be gone, working the fishing boats until the staple fish stopped running, period. Most wives would be nervously camped at home, fully aware of the intense, dangerous work seething out on the boats.
Our gig was a guaranteed wash-out. The best we could hope for was a small crowd of nervous women and their children.
We were crushed and cursed our rotten luck. As showtime approached the simple, wooden Community Center was cavernously empty. Apologies flowed freely and sincerely; there was a feeling that we were all in it together.
Selfishly, we knew we weren't financially hurt; we were working on a guaranteed fee. The same could not be said for the radio station, which hoped, all public service aside, to make money on the show. Because of the halibut, they would be in the red, and by not a little.
We played the best we could under the circumstances.
It was difficult considering not only how small the crowd was, but how palpably nervous and stilled they were. The best hope we could muster was that we might distract their anxiety during our 90-minute set. They were as enthusiastic as could be expected.
Afterward we lingered, wallowing in disappointment. Having long-arranged a babysitter, Julie was commiserating with us. Drinking Budweiser supplied by the radio station, we deleriously imagined the town's men suddenly bursting in, flush with excitement and fistfuls of cash, the party coming to life after all.
It was a ridiculous thought; we sunk even further into our sodden selves.
Punch-drunk with defeat, and a little drunk to boot, steel and electric guitar player Barry Sless got behind my drums and began fooling around, hunting and pecking a clumsy, good-natured shuffle beat. As if on cue from an old Mickey Rooney movie ("Let's put on a show!") pianist Deanna Bogart picked up Barry's guitar, and began to hack at it. Fiddler Denise Carlson went for Barry's steel guitar, while bassist Liam Hanrahan gingerly approached Denise's violin.
I made my way toward Deanna's piano, and Julie plopped down next to me.
Back to basics: we were playing the simplest kind of 1-4-5 blues shuffle mess, and it sounded awful.
But it was spontaneous combustion, and the goofy release was the perfect antidote for our self-pity. Suddenly, stripped of the pretention we desperately lovedbeing one of the nation's hottest Western Swing bands (well, depending on who you asked)we were beginners transported back to the innocence of hardly knowing how to play, NOT knowing how to play.
We were having a ball, laughing and carrying on in complete musical incompetence.
OK, so we were a little drunk. Julie also had a few (and I mean a few - perhaps one or two), and was acting as goofy as us. She was the kind of straightlaced person who referred to herself as "tipsy."
We gleefully bashed away at the piano. Julie was animated, telling me this was so much fun, more fun than she's had in ages, but you know what, what she really always wanted to do was play DRUMS. I laughed and of course agreed drums were superior to all else.
Julie and I were having a pretty damn good, silly time. Then, a shadow came over her face. She looked up from the piano, crying.
It was the last thing I would have expected. While the band droned on, she opened her mouth to
What Julie had to say came out in a teary, run-on sentence:
"I don't know why he has to go out drinking. Every Saturday. He says it's the only one night of the week and it's his night to be with his friends, but sometimes they're not even there and he goes anyway and sometimes he goes on other nights too. Why can't he stay home and be with me? Why does he have to get drunk?"
I was dumbfounded. She was weeping softly, the band still goofily shuffling along, unaware. I didn't know what to say; I mouthed an
aplogy, "I'm sorry Julie,
Her next statement struck me like a bolt of lightening.
"Sometimes, he hits me. I don't even have to say anything, he just comes home and hits me. I don't deserve it. Why does he do it? He's a good husband."
My mind was racing. Over and over I asked myself "What do you say to this?" I wanted to hug her and tell her she had to take Kiki and leave and go get help, but deep down I knew it was none of my damn business.
But I couldn't help thinking maybe it was. She had just opened up to me and maybe she was asking, needing me to say that, or something. This was the darkest, most secret part of her life and I didn't even know her. It was very confusing.
All I could muster was a simple statement of fact. I could hear myself repeating over and over, "Julie, that's really serious. That's really serious Julie." I guess I wanted her to take the conversation somewhere without me leading her. I also asked her how she felt and what did she think she should do, but it wasn't much of a conversation. It just kind of trailed off.
As did the impromptu blues shuffle. After exhausting all possible beginner-muscial avenues, the thing sputtered out like a bad car running out of gas, completely without ceremony. The spontaneous, awful, wonderful jam session was over.
I was stunned.
Why had she opened up to me?
It's a fact that strangers will tell musicians the most intimate or darkest details of their lives. You see it all the time. This happens for a combination of reasons. Music is an inherently bonding, charming, experience, and people perceive musicians to be sensitive, special people.
Also, there is the low risk and lack of committment involved in conversing with a stranger who lives thousands of miles away and is leaving in the morning for God Knows Where.
Then of course, there's alcohol...
I don't know which, if any, of these motivations applied to Julie that night.
The "music" stilled, we got up from the piano, sharing a final knowing look. The band went about the business of packing and loading the equipment. A sober Julie made her way home. She and I never again spoke of the crimes being committed against herself and indirectly, her daughter.
I never mentioned it to anyone in the band.
Carl returned home the next day. We loaded the van and thanked them, said goodbye to Julie and Carl and Kiki. They bid us an affectionate farewell.
I gave Julie a pair of drumsticks and told her it was never too late to learn how to play.