ike all bands just out of the gate, Sitting Ducks continued to evolve. Spring and Summer saw the band gaining momentum and identity, the music taking a decidedly urban tone, more inclined toward Count Basie than Professor Longhair.
Inevitably, as things moved farther from his musical center, Kurt left for Boston, stretching himself even farther from New Orleans. Various personnel changes ensued, including the band's booking which was now partially handled by someone completely lacking that professional experience: me.
My qualifications were blind confidence and a simple willingness to do the job. Not everyone is so willing. Booking bands is one of the world's thankless and frustrating occupations. It's a cold-calling sales job. Your product is cheap and plentiful and your prospects (nightclub owners) are tough, miserly and unresponsive. From the other side of the coin, the musicians may be thankful to be working, but all too often there aren't enough gigs, the conditions on the ones you got didn't measure up to their hopes and the pay is never enough to go around.
But, I didn't know that. I thought simply, 'Cool. I'll get into management.' Besides, the band's singer, Judy Coughlin, was doing the lion's share anyway. How hard could it be? In truth, booking Sitting Ducks locally wasn't difficult. Charlottesville possessed a vibrant music scene. Bands were aplenty, as were places to play. One such joint was called Poe's.
Named for the famous writer who spent only ten months at The University, Poes was known for sloppy drunk U.VA-oriented parties. The club had recently changed hands and was experimenting with live music, trying to cash in on what was proving a lucrative venture for other clubs, places with names like The Mineshaft, Sandy's, and of course, The West Virginian. Poe's new owner, Frank had no experience serving-up live music, so he had a local kid named Jimmy booking the bands. Jimmy would steer Frank through the uncharted waters. What could happen? You pick a popular band, stick'em in the club, pay 'em a few hundred bucks and rake it in!
A professional secret: new clubs pay more. They're too new to have lost money on bad nights and aren't familiar with going rates. Also, they have no name recognition and think (mistakenly) they have to pay the bands more to get them to play there. Poe's was no exception. At a time when the band was playing for $120 to $175 (yes, for the entire band) Judy finagled a Friday night for a guaranteed $200, including an $80 deposit!
The gig bombed. A tiny crowd. The $2 cover charge did not nearly recoup the "high" guarantee. The logic is always crystal clear after the fact: Who wants to waste a Friday night on a place known for Thursdays, to see a band you can easily see somewhere else? Afterward, for better or worse it was time to take the money and run. A deal was a deal.
Judy was nervous. She was getting a bad vibe from Frank who was drinking and acting surly. She grabbed me to tag along. Somehow, I ended up doing most of the talking. Frank didn't want to give up one thin dime; losing eighty bucks was enough. It wasn't much of an argument. He was sitting there saying "NO!," I was standing there nervously insisting that regardless of what happened a deal was a deal and we would like the remaining $120.
Tension was rising. Over my shoulder the band members were blithely carrying the equipment down the stairs and out to Judy's battered blue Buick station wagon. I was hoping they might see what was going on and lend some support. The other Poe's employees (i.e. the ones who knew this guy) were getting nervous and I was thinking this is NOT a good sign. Finally, after a few minutes of this back and forth, Frank rose to his feet and SLAMMED his Budweiser bottle down on the table. Beer sprayed everywhere. The noise shattered the restaurant's tired murmer. Everything stopped.
Surprisingly, the bottle remaining intact. The Poe's employees grabbed Frank, who was heading my way. One ran to his office and returned with a large black ledger. Another said "C'mon Frank, it's not worth it, just pay them." Frank, shaking, sat down and wrote the check. We were outta there. I was in line at 8:30 the next morning when the bank opened to cash the check. My sentiments were equal portions of anger and outrage. How dare he try to stiff us? A deal was a deal.
In retrospect, it may not have been wise to argue with Frank. On one hand we got paid when many would not have. On the other hand, more experienced musicians would recognize that $120 wasn't worth the possibility of a trip to the emergency room. Even more experienced music-businesspersons would have gauged the value of the relationship with the club and possibly forgiven the $120 in lieu of future bookings, or even in the interests of cultivating a win-win situation in the venue. The club owner's point of view is the band should hold up their end of the bargain: they should be popular enough to attract a crowd so the club and the band make money; a symbiotic relationship.
It was well over a year
before we would set foot in Poe's, then only by virtue of the club
changing hands. Even under new management Poe's would ultimately close
its doors. My lingering impression was that the first owner was
obviously a psycho and weren't we slick to escape that crazy scene
with a check. Though I didn't know it, 'that crazy scene' was an
important first glimpse that even the happy-go-lucky world of kids in
bands revolved in the same bumper-car pit with larger, grimmer
business realities, where the day-to-day grind of register receipts
and payroll, cover charges and mortgage payments, hiring and firing,
all add up to spell success or failure.
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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.