Going Down the Road Feeling Bad
A Report on the Health of the Amerikan Spine
Part V: Ze Final Installment
by Todd Brendan Fahey
illustration by Dave Dawson
I wrapped a newspaper ’round my head
So I looked like I was deep;
I said some mumbo-jumbo, then
I told him he was goin’ to sleep;
I robbed his rings and pocketwatch
And everything else I found
I had that sucker hypnotized
He couldn’t even make a sound;
I proceeded to tell him his future, then
As long as he was hanging around, I said:
“The price of meat has just gone up
And your old lady has just gone down.”
– Frank Zappa
Well… Jimmy Carter never showed. Some among us were hopeful, but then, it is Sunday in Decatur, Georgia, deep in the Bible-belt of Amerika, and not even the pawn shops can be roused from the southern Slumber. There will be no revolution early this day. Instead, Richard, Gordo and I resolve to take out our frustrations on the boho community that purportedly is Little Five Points, on the fringes of Atlanta.
The Furthur Festival concerts are not to begin until 4:00pm, and so, once we have loaded our queasy tummies with a genuine Denny’s brunch, we are left with a few hours to kill. Mebbe it is the pancakes, but somewhere in my addled psyche, I am seized by the spirit of Frank Zappa: Nothing less than graveyard dementia will do for me now. I have been polite for too-too long, the gumption threatens to leave me. So, I collar Richard, and tell him the plan:
“See here, mine friend,” I say. “We might not sell many books this afternoon. And if we don’t, I think I’m gonna call this whole thing a bad dream. I can get back almost a grand from Rent-a-Wreck if we can get back by Monday. So… we better go for it now.”
“Um-hmm. Whad’ you have in mind?” He is somber, but sincere.
I shrug. “I’ll try to drum up some press. Your job is to take over the band right now. Gear up with the weirdest thing you can think of.” I lay on him the retinal probe. “Comprendes?”
“I think so.” And his grin is invested with a charming nastiness. “It should be really weird. I’ll try not to let you down.”
There is a pain in an odd place, in my right side. I sigh heavily and head off, looking like from out of a photo I must have seen once of John Updike or John O’Hara, and which ruined my vision for what it is supposed to be like to be an author… and besides me bald-shaven skull, I wear well an expensive Austin Reed get-up and am toting a leather satchel heavy with copies of Wisdom’s Maw, toward a cluster of bookstores and record shops, in the heart of Little Five Points. And I am thinking: “How long, O Lord… How long?” (HST); how long might it be incumbent upon me to huckster this book by mine lonesome… Kesey was rich at 25 from the sale of Cuckoo’s Nest, when he tossed the Ching and decided to go out and see Amerika, in that ’38 Harvester, with his gang of crazies. I have merely rented this experience, we have no LSD, and the only woman aboard is Of The Nineties. How long?
Within minutes, tho, I have engaged a bookstore owner in a nostalgic longing for the Sixties, selling a half-dozen copies in the bargain, and my spirits are lifting. We now have enough money for lunch, and for at least one ticket amongst the six of us, for to enter the gates of the Furthur Festival. And then there will be Tent Village – like at any good Grateful Dead show, the action is not Inside, but from Without: hairy, natural gals hawking kindveggieburritos, their old men, clear-eyed but far gone (that, or altogether too “there”), sitting in a Lotus fold near a blanket littered with beads and small, hand-crafted pipes and sundry other Head essentials… if one is lucky, the beneficent, troll-like humanoid – a Diogenes in rags – muttering faintly, “Shrooms… Dose…” Yes, the tenor has changed. I feel it will be a good day.
I spot a garish mural on the building which houses The Junkman’s Daughter and neighboring Criminal Records, an enormous structure, which, even to an untrained eye, seems to be attracting the lion’s share of commercial traffic on this Sabbath noon-hour in Atlanta. And tho they portend to be outlets for Atlanta’s hip & beautiful, once inside, each is only a tad more charming than the Radio Shack at YR Local Mall. The man behind the counter is suspicious, even a little surly.
“Idonnknow,” he says, as I commence The Pitch. “What is it again? Hmm… We usually get books from, like, distributors.”
“Um… Yes, I realize this… I am sympathetic. But this is not your typical literary commodity.” I recall Gordo’s excellent salesmanship w/ the Minnesota blue-green algae, and co-opt the hard-sell. Hauling out a stack of magazines, I begin fairly thrusting upon him the reviews, until finally he agrees to take one (1) copy, on consignment.
“That is very kind of you,” I say, though with pronounced difficulty, the sting from the bile that riseth in my throat. “Now,” scratching away at some sales form, “there is another matter I would like to discuss. I am also manager of a very good avant-garde band, which is scheduled to play at the Furthur Festival this afternoon,” I lie, very comfortably. “They say they need to get some practice in before the show. Could we, mebbe, jack in to that plug that is in the concrete right outside your store?”
The man waves to one of his women-folk flunkies. “Deal with this guy. I don’t have time for this.”
She wears, as do they all, a hoop in one nostril and about eighteen studs in her left ear only; the right is unpierced, or else has grown over, meaningfully. She motions toward the street: “Is that your band out there?”
“Well… we’ve done it before. So I guess it’s ok. But if the neighbors complain, you’ll have to stop immediately. This is also a residential district.” Richard spots my thumbs-up and dives into the back of the ActionVan. When he emerges, he is clad only in yellow plastic trousers, which are three sizes too small, the waistband over which fairly creeps a not insubstantial thatch. They are all pale, except for Alice, only Richard is also mostly naked and is sweating heavily in the noonday Atlanta summer sun. Against the folding table one among us was crafty enough to remember to bring, I prop up the five or so huge pink Wisdom’s Maw posters – the one with a Brain being lifted from out of a bottle marked “XX” and which is loaded with code words: “MK-ULTRA, Government Conspiracy, LSD, CIA…”. People dining at a nearby lunch-counter jostle about for to get a better view. All-in-all, it is a hideous tableau, and were we not now In It For the Money, as it were, I would probably be greatly ashamed.
A pink-eyed man, blond and with a face worn by long years of homelessness or other outdoor labor, approaches me at the card-table. He surveys the poster, thoughtfully. Finally, but without picking up a book, he ejaculates, in a drawl that is more dumb than Southern: “What I wannaknow…” [the time it takes for a wet-brain to measure its words] “…Were they for it?, or were they against it?”
Mine palms turn skyward, reflexively, twitching.
“It’s a tough one, ain’t it?”
I agree, in principle – though not for any reason he will ever comprehend – and the man walks off, rather proudly, and apparently satisfied.
An official-looking vehicle pulls alongside our own utility transport. Gordo has just finished screwing down the snare and lays into his drum-kit with menacing aplomb. Anyone who has not yet noticed us is now alert to the seriousness of our endeavor. A man in his mid-forties, who wears khaki chinos and a sportshirt from L.L. Bean, approaches with notepad outstretched. He is, at first blush, too young to have been in the Nam; his hair – which is greasy like Gordo’s beard and is flecked with only the signposts of age – is still worn over the ears, ’80s-style. He wears a smug/smirk on his face, and with his cheeks peeled back, a straggling black whisker or three jut from out of his nostrils. All-in-all, I take him for a man who, back in 1974, probably sat in on a couple of SDS meetings, as the “Political Editor” of the campus newspaper. And so, I am not at all surprised at his line of inquiry, which begins something like this:
“So, guys, I got a call about an hour ago. You’re with one of these… festivals, is it?”
I nod. “The Furthur Festival. This is the house band.”
“Ah… I see. And, you are?”
And once again, I can see that mine efforts are to be like the proffering of pearls before so many grunting things. “Oh… I’m just a struggling prose writer. They are where the action is.”
Suddenly, Alice begins fondling her cello with a hairy bow-string, and, together with Gordo’s indelicate thammering on his five or so percussive instruments, the sound is like that of so many felines in garbage alley. “Hm…” the reporter muses, “an interesting bunch. So, we have a cello, a bass… a garage-band drum sound: Do they still use that term? ‘Garage band?’ I mean, I’m not going to look like a Neanderthal if I say that, right?” (Richard, who has now taken over as spokesman, in his lemon-plastic pants, assures him he will not seem silly – not for that, anyway.) “And what is your role, in this… unit?”
Richard reaches behind himself and scratches, indelicately. “You could say, I’m the front-man.”
Our attendant scribbles down the phrase. “Say – there’s about ten shows going on right now, it’s madness; I’m not gonna be able to stick around for your performance. So. Make it easy on me. Who are your influences? I mean, what would you guys call your music? Are you like Iggy Pop?”
Richard places a hand on his own naked breast, as an apologia: “Iggy Pop is a worn-out old boogiedaddy.”
“Oh, that’s good,” the scribbler assents. “May I quote you on that?”
“Certainly,” sez our front-man. “All our words are for rent.”
‘Worn-out old…,’ scribble-scribble. “OK, guys, it’s been a pleasure. I’m sure you’re really terrific. This’ll come out next Sunday, in Creative Loafing. We are Atlanta’s alternative weekly,” he says, with a measure of pride. “Oh! Your name.”
I shoot out of my seat – like a shortstop waiving off the center fielder: “That would be ‘The Ned Beatty Experience.'”
Scratch-scratch. Scribble-scribble. &, away!
And so it was, June 20, 1997, Little Five Points/Atlanta, Georgia, in the U.S. of Amerika, fifty or more humans standing clustered about the Wisdom’s Maw booth, and nary a one with commercial intent, as the band begins play. Truth be told, I had only heard them once before, in a living room in Lafayette, LA, and Richard was not among them then. But I had been told by several that he is some kind of savant virtuoso. And so, when he begins taking turns between clarinet and a very cheesy Casio keyboard, and with more than adequate laryngial prowess, I nod inwardly and relax, again a spectator on the fringes.
Alice’s cello grates admirably – like Donna Jean Godchaux’s caterwauling with the Dead thru the mid-1970s – never quite in tune, and all the more interesting, nonetheless. I find Gordo to be as able a drummer as he is a driver of the ActionVan – a subtle behind-the-beat jazz flavor, if a bit cruel to the snare. Slim Dave trades off between trombone and the nose-flute. And Zeke… Zeke keeps perfunctory bass harmonics, and looks as if he would rather be anywhere else in this world.
Were one to describe the sound of The Ned Beatty Experience, it would be in two words: Delayed gratification. Like with any slow and protracted hump – just at when the getting gets sooo sweet – the pitch goes southward, or the beat is reduced, or the instrument that is providing most of the drama is abandoned mid-note for another, of only middling aural significance… And though the throng outside The Junkman’s Daughter/Criminal Records is very clearly bewildered, I like it. There is a passive/aggressive genius to the sound and spirit of this band; and, finally, I am glad for to have brought it along.
But, as soon as I have adjusted to terminal indeterminacy, Richard is seized with an epiphany of his own. Laying out a harsh and vigorous chorus on the Casio, like a jockey in the final furlong, he fairly whips the band into a new gear. Grabbing up a Wisdom’s Maw poster from the table, and in an increasingly funky step – more like Mick Jagger than Iggy Pop – he unfolds a terrible refrain:
“We were lied to.”
This is his catchword croon. Over & over, and over again. Against a backdrop of Alice’s shivvering cello and Gordo’s imperfect jazz beat and thin Dave’s stoopid trombone, and even Zeke catches the spirit, sending out fevered clusters of bass-notes, “lied to.” Holding up copies of Wisdom’s Maw and making happy faces: “lied to.” Or, like in Zappa’s best “Cosmik Debris”-style bogus FM radio voice: “You remember JFK…: Lied to.”
“Oh, it’s a lot of propaganda,” spits one fortysomething soccer mom, before filing back into her primer-gray HumVee.
“Fuck-ing LIED TO!” Richard screams after her. “You stupid pieces of molecular waste. You’re so fucking deceived. You make me want to laugh!…. LIED TO…”
And within sixty seconds, the parking lot is a sea of brake lights, and we are ordered by the Manager to curtail the festivities, and soon there remains only a crazy old Cuban man, who tosses withered weed-patch flowers at the band (“Music, it lifts my soul!”), and a sport of about mine own age, who is enduring the outgrowth of a rather mangy blue mohawk.
“You know,” the punk says, “I came over here wanting to really hate you jazz faggots. But you’re alright. Any group that can generate that kind of response, with this crowd, is ok in my book.”
* * *
From the Notebook, Furthur Festival, Atlanta, GA, 7/21/97
No way to recount the total failure of our afternoon. We are not invited In, and are too poor to buy more than a single ticket amongst the six of us… No Tent Village (not “allowed” by the City Council? Furthur Festival organizers?); No “scene”… Bland and homogenized (pasteurized) Day-on-the-Green; Bruce Hornsby tickling the ivories, in his mechanistic way… hypnotic for those eager to be hypnotized; Bobby Weir doing his shtick: “One More Saturday Night,” once more… Furthur Festival-as-recreational escape, and not a lot more. Recycled Dead tunez, retooled merchandising machine (a booth Inside costs a groovy $10k; only Coors & Pepsi can afford it); our booth Outside costs us about $20.00… but we are gawked at, even ridiculed, by freaks and preps alike (“So? what’s this all about? You guys, like, really believe this shit? This is a spoof on X-Files, right?… ?)… Dewy-eyed lovepuppies, just hangin’ out, waiting for a Miracle. Toddmonster saith: SLOTH IS THE ENEMY: MUTATE UPWARD OR DIE. We are here for a Purpose & it is the job of each & every one among us to strive & search & seek after that which will lead us to the Next Stage of human development… Bust yr ass, or be content in yr subjugation. They want communion, but they loathe the shedding of blood; they need love, but are more needful than they are loving… to snuggle up, fall asleep against a warm breast (Zeke and Alice have, at last, found their perfect environs)… which is a fine thing to be able to do: But we are speaking of B>moments, not as a Mode of Living. The human brain loves opiates, for instance; a rhesus monkey will forego food and sleep until death for cocaine. There must be more, not just this “more of the same” gluttonous passivity… A mastery of systems, a mastery, yes, this is where it’s at… To achieve a mastery of the various systems & and the creation of untold systems yet unknown… All of which takes WORK.
. . .
(SCENE: Return-trip, middle of the night, some roadside Denny’s or other, Georgia/Alabama border)
Toddmonster, hungerless, being bathed in a vat of Robitussin, sips an iced-tea, listens patiently as Zeke vents spleen:
“Ho ho, some marketing wizard you are! Where were all the cameras? Where was all that publicity you promised us?”
I take it all upon me, and nod. “Yes, all-in-all, it was most surely a disappointing experience. But it was wrong from the start. Lafayette is not a counterculture mecca. [TBF’s note: I think I had one e-mail and no phone calls in response to the full-page color spread/PR job that ran on page 1 of the Sunday Entertainment section of the Lafayette Daily Advertiser prior to our departure.] We hadn’t a prayer for funding. Were I in Austin, probably eighteen bands would have been clamoring for to come along, and Rent-a-Wreck would have given us a van, for promo value, and I wouldn’t have had to lug around such a wasting human lump like you.”
Gal-pal Alice leaves formica counter, fully in tears. Richard, newly enfervored, heads off to New York to be ordained by the Rev. Ivan Stang at the SubGenius Festival. Toddmonster pays check, collapses generally in the ActionVan, to only road-noise and an ever-increased achening in the gut, on a forlorn and humorless ride home.
* * *
(EPILOGUE: Mid-week, after return, a Professor/friend’s office, University of Southwestern Louisiana, discussing the Great misAdventure)
“…I’m glad I called it quits early: I spent the night after I got back in the emergency room; something wrong with the bile duct; mebbe stones…” Hard laughter: “It’s all that gall.”
* * *
& so it goes; & I, TBF, plod on in an Amerika which, at least to mine own ventures, persists in seeing things – in the words of another riverboat captain – “As through a glass eye: darkly.”