ometimes, even the most amorphous plans work out. In the Fall of 1978, having grudgingly graduated from the University of Virginia the previous Spring, and with no compelling reasons beyond "quality of life" issues such as foosball and beer, I chose to return to Charlottesville.
The plan was to get a part-time job at a record store, find a band, and stick it out until I could support myself playing music.
No problem. Back Alley Disc needed a part-time clerk and Sitting Ducks needed a drummer. So named because that's how they felt while playing eclectic music to crowds more comfortable with Johnny B. Goode, Sitting Ducks was led by Kurt Kasson, an affable hard-drinking rascal guitarist with a sharp sense of humor, a long handlebar moustache and a genuine gift for songwriting.
Kurt moved to Charlottesville to break from difficult circumstances in the city he loved, New Orleans, Louisiana, where he'd been leading the Kurt Kasson Band. His music ranged from accessible and witty to downright weird, as in his song Weird Sense of Humor:
He's got, a weird sense of humorSitting Ducks was fortunate to have a regular Tuesday gig. The seedy-yet-lovable West Virginian was distinguished by its complete absence of light and the long, narrow stairs leading down to the lone entrance and exit. A bona fide firetrap. For risking a fiery death every Tuesday, the band was paid $150. Quite honestly, I thought pocketing $25 for all that fun was all right.
The Fall passed, New Year's Eve, all at the West Virginian. Then, smack in the middle of the Winter doldrums came Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, where we would be as always, at the West Virginian.
Now, a little background. The University of Virginia though a diverse and modern institution, is at heart a Southern school, one that has for generations attracted young men from wealthy Southern families. Many of these boys attended private prep schools, where they learned to eat, dress, drink and act in the proper ways of their culture. One of these kids' favorite watering holes was a beer slathered meat market known as TJ's, named after, of course, the third president of our United States.
Combine this population (the "preppies") with the hippies from public schools everywhere ("us"), who dressed, ate, drank and acted in their own sacrosanct ways, ways as apart from the preppies as the Swedes from the Japanese. "Our" watering hole naturally, the dark and dirty, subterranean West Virginian.
Cultural differences. Add to the mix that each group was fiercely loyal to their bars, and the managers of the two bars equally devoted to their clientele. Then, add that in the fiercely competitive atmosphere of the day, TJ's employees would tear down the plastered-everywhere posters advertising the bands playing at the West Virginian, West Virginian employees would tear down TJ's nickel-beer-ladies-night plastered-everywhere posters. TJ's would complain about the noise coming from the West Virginian, we would return the favor. On and on.
Which brings us to the Mardi Gras gig. We had a great crowd; the joint was jumpin'. Many revelers in costume. Things were loose on both sides of the stage, the spirits were flowing. Kurt was in great form and was not shall we say, missing many opportunities. He kept talking about a midnight surprise, a special event the entire joint would enjoy, just you wait.
Things progress, louder and louder, an intense party. We normally played a few bits of New Orleans music, but that night, Kurt was pulling them all out. Finally, the clock struck twelve. Technically, Fat Tuesday was over. Kurt announces it's time for the special event, to say goodbye to another Mardi Gras in style. We're forming Charlottesville's first Mardi Gras parade and heading up the stairs and out of the bar! We're going to TJ's!
Kurt is passing out little instruments and a din of honking, squawking, bleating and jangling erupts. There's a lot of noise and we are out in the street, parading, whooping and hollering down the sidewalk and around the corner. There's about thirty of us. We burst into the joint, clamoring past the stupified doorman, into the room. It's a tiny place, one room with a square bar in the middle. It's perfect to march around and around, whooping and hollering, banging and bleating. A little taunting from the TJ's usuals, nothing we can't drown out. A little grabbing, even a little shoving. (Those guys knew when they were being abused by a bunch of costume-wearing, horn-blowing, hippies.)
We were there only a few minutes, no sense in hanging around. We'd made our point, won a righteous victory. We stumbled back to the West Virginian, mission accomplished, slam-dunk.
The night was more or less over. We did a couple more tunes. I was expecting a raucous finish, but Kurt instead closed the evening by himself, with a slow, mournful version of Fats Domino's Walkin' to New Orleans. It was pretty touching. But it was the end of the gig, good-bye to Mardi Gras, the culmination of our daring parade. I was thinking, "man, we gotta play a 'closer,' end with a bang, a big show-biz finish!"
And that would have been
fine; like a million other "big show-biz finishes" I would play in the coming years. But we didn't. We sat idly
by while the inebriated Kurt slowly strummed, poured his heart out to the tired crowd, a bittersweet tribute to
how much he loved and missed New Orleans. Walkin to New Orleans trailed off, Kurt blearily smiling as he
backed off the mike and took off his guitar.
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Introduction | Kurt's Mardi Gras Parade | Frankly, 'Poe's'... | Big Nick | Go Ahead. Shoot The Piano Player(s). | "Stormy Weather" | The Drive From Baltimore | The Hat
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© 1998 by Brian S. Alpert. All rights reserved.