Relay: CBGB Detour

If you didn’t have a band, you were nothing

   I couldn’t sing, but that didn’t stop me from being a lead singer.  

    It was the early 1980s, and New York City was the coolest place in the world.
    There was danger and sex and excitement, crime and punishment, one-night stands with someone you just had to sleep with, and anarchy everywhere.
    And if you didn’t have a band, you were nothing.
    I lived at CBGB’s. It was the only place to live. I was working at the club as a bouncer. The pay was $15 a night and all the Screwdrivers you could drink.
    When I wasn’t bouncing or drinking, I was writing lyrics. I needed someone to write the music. I went to see Mike Paulin, a friend from growing-up days in Queens, who lived a few blocks from me in Chelsea. He was a good guitarist, very clean, his idol being Eric Clapton.
    Every day when Mike was done with work, we’d work on the songs. We put an ad in The Village Voice and found a good bass player, Richard Badenius, who had a great look and a good sound.
    Drummers were always an issue. They came and went, rehearsal after rehearsal. We started gigging, and the drummers kept rotating.
    And still, I could not sing.
     We gigged at small bars and clubs, any place that would let us play, running around the East Village, SoHo, and Tribeca when we weren’t playing, pasting our posters on abandoned buildings and lampposts.
    We were the Detours.
    Some of our gigs worked, and some didn’t. Rich had great energy and stage presence, and he and Mike were musically tight. Mike’s stage persona was aloof. His clean sound might have been a bit too clean, but he sure had the chops. The drummer was always a crapshoot.
    When the audience dug what I was doing, we were cool, when they didn’t, not so cool, but it was working.
    We finally got a date at CBGB’s that wasn’t just an open mike. We would have one set.
    The next day, at rehearsal, Mike told us he had been putting too much time into the band and had to drop out. But we still had the date.
    Rich and I hooked up with a guitarist named Steve DeMartis. In his leather jacket, he was wild and energetic. We had one rehearsal, going over the songs. That night, we hit the stage.
    It worked. Far from being aloof, Steve was wild, having fun, we all had fun, and the audience dug us.
    Performing onstage when the audience is with you is a super high, especially when it’s rock and roll. You tingle all over, electric, every moment making sense and then not mattering. You sweat, you’re wet, you come off stage dripping, alive, sit down for a moment in the back dressing room, every pore breathing, some girls come over to look at you, be with you.
    We got an offer to go up to Toronto to do a gig in a hot club. Steve didn’t want to go. He had a couple of other bands he was playing with. Mike had been in the audience that night. He wanted back in.
     We rehearsed with our drummer du jour. He had good drive, but was nervous. We had to keep things straight and easy for him, or he’d get the jitters.
    The deal in Toronto was we’d have second billing. We’d use the drum kit and amps of the headline band. We sat in one of the hotel rooms, going over a new song. The drummer was picking it up. We felt good.
    Things started falling apart at sound check. The headliner’s drummer kept lurking around, telling our drummer not to hit his kit so hard. Our drummer was getting nervous.
    When we hit the stage, the place was packed. They were not there to see us, we were an afterthought. We started playing “Driven to the Rhythm,” our drummer started hitting, when the hometown drummer jumped up onstage behind our drummer and said something. Our drummer fell apart. The set fell apart.
    I looked out at the worse-than-uninterested  audience. There was a pause, the kind of pause when you’re onstage where you understand that anything is possible, and I said, “Toronto is a beautiful city, but not enough people piss in the streets.”
    I have no idea why I said it or what it meant, but I could feel, at that moment, the incredible power of the stage, as the entire audience turned on us.
    We got out of there alive, how, I do not know.
    Rich holed up in his hotel room that night with a girl he’d picked up. Mike and I talked and drank for a while, and I went to bed.
    They all split the next morning. I stayed in Toronto an extra day. They have a lovely indoor botanical garden there.
    I headed back to New York that night, changing trains in Buffalo. I walked through the Buffalo Central station, built the same time and along the same lines as New York’s Grand Central. It had become an empty, unused mausoleum, a tomb for Buffalo’s past.
    I smoked a joint and boarded the train for New York.
    The detour was over.

    T.E. McMorrow is a reporter at The East Hampton Star.