Fiction by Jim Rader
By the spring of '82, I was fed up with the New York band scene and relocated to Atlanta. My main connection there was Del Morgan, whom I'd met in New York in '79. After graduating Pratt Institute, Del returned to his hometown Atlanta.
Del lived with his young bottle-blonde wife Sherri in Atlanta suburb Stone Mountain, a split-level house. My first night there, Del introduced me to a band that rehearsed in a spare room: paunchy young bassist Marshall, trim thirtyish drummer Stanley (Del's boyhood pal) and guitarist/singer Sam, a shy guy who looked a bit like Mark Twain. We came in on a fairly catchy song called "Contradiction," penned by Sam.
"Hey, guys," said Del, "how 'bout lettin' Jim here sit in on guitar for one song?"
"I'm cool with it," said Marshall with a crazy smile. Stanley agreed, and Sam diffidently handed me his shiny new Gibson. I played a fancy lick. "This guitar is too easy to play," I jested. Marshall and Del laughed, Stanley didn't laugh, and Sam's head hung down. I tuned up with Marshall. We played Chuck Berry's "Carol," which went well. I felt I should apologize to Sam but somehow couldn't bring myself to it.
A few days later, a Saturday, the Morgans invited me to Atlanta's annual arts festival in Piedmont Park. Local bands were scheduled to play: indie favorite Pylon, an Athens band I'd met in New York through a nomadic acquaintance, and Atlanta's more commercial Producers. Late morning, Sherri played The Producers' album, lightweight palatable pop a la Cheap Trick. The couple danced sentimentally, but for the last two nights, Sherri had gone to bed early while Del and I watched TV and got drunk. I slept on the living room couch, and had once overheard them arguing upstairs, their words unintelligible, their voices hushed, serious.
Eighty-eight degrees at only 11 AM, the first of May. We waited for Marshall, Stanley, and Corrine, Sherri's bottle-blonde buddy.
A car screeched into the Morgans' driveway, its driver Corrine's "man" Bubba, rumored to be on the lam for manslaughter. Bubba dropped Corrine off then burned rubber. Photogenic Corrine came in with a sort of blonde St. Bernard, the giant dog's long tongue drooling. "Hi y'all," said Corrine. "Turned out Bubba had to work today."
"Kaz, Kaz!" exulted Sherri, squatting to hug the enormous pooch. Del frowned exasperatedly.
"I'm sorry, Del," said Corrine, "but Bubba just cain't have him. Kazzum knocked over Bubba's beer last night."
"Kazzum," perhaps a corruption of "Kasim," was a lost dog Sherri had taken in. She also had a noisy white cockatoo stationed in a tiny cage by the front door, a cute little birdie that shrieked and banged a bell with its beak. Never did get its name.
"Del, Del, we jes gotta keep Kazzum!" pleaded Sherri. "Don't you git it, he knocked over Bubba's beer because he wanted to come back here. This here is his home."
"Oh okay, honey," said Del, and the two embraced.
Marshall's blue Chevette pulled in, Stanley's black Ford pickup right behind. They came in together.
"Hi, y'all," greeted Marshall. He laid a crazy smile on me: "Hi y'all, 'Keith.'" Here, he caustically linked me to iconic guitarist Keith Richards as if to say, "You're a good guitarist, but not that good." Country gentleman-in-jeans Stanley laughed slightly.
"Hey drummer boy!" Del slapped his back. "What's happenin', ol' buddy?"
"Well, it looks like me, Marshall and Sam are in two bands now."
"You mean you're backing somebody up, right?" I asked. "Who?"
"A gay Janis Joplin named Pam," said Marshall. "Oh, by the way, Jim, Sam's pissed off at you."
DING! DING! DING! went the bell in the birdcage, the neurotic cockatoo in a frenzy.
"Aw c'mon, Marshall," said Stanley. "Jim didn't mean Sam no harm. But Jim, Sam's very, very sensitive, so try and be more careful next time."
"Dinka-dinka-dinka!" Marshall mocked the birdie bell. "Sam's gay, too, Jim, but I know you're alright with that, New York City man."
Del grinned at Marshall's hip teasing. Sherri and Corrine lovingly petted Kazzum, discussing the blonde St. Bernard's "hypersensitiveness." We all moved to the kitchen to grab ice cold Cokes for the road, Marshall's partying mood infectious. The jester could say anything so long as he smiled. He removed a small glassine envelope from his jean pocket, held it out in his palm, its contents a dozen or so tiny plastic stars.
"Whatcha got there, Marshall?" asked Corrine.
"Acid. Got it from Sam. He said it's great."
"Wait a second," I broke in. "Won't we all get sick from eating that plastic?"
"Dinka-dinka-dinka! It ain't plastic you fool, it's semolina. Ain't y'all ever heard of Campbell's Chicken n' Stars soup?"
"Damn, imagine that. Acid in Atlanta," I said.
Del say"Y'all gotta get wise to our unwritten history here, big guy. Back in the day, Atlanta was the South's Haight-Ashbury."
"Aw Del, it wasn't that crazy," objected Stanley.
"The truth lies somewhere in between," I said.
Marshall laughed, shaking his head. "What, you guys in a panel discussion or sumpin'? Will somebody please get me a scissors so's I can cut open this here envelope?"
They ingested one star each. I ingested only half-a star.
"Jim, why just half?" smiled Corrine. "Y'all are with friends here."
"Now hold on, Corrine," said Stanley, "the man got here only a few days ago."
I wore a pink psychedelic shirt found in a thrift shop. We headed out to the fest. Corrine, Sherri and Kazzum in Marshall's little blue Chevette, Del and Jim in Stanley's black Ford pick-up.
Piedmont Park impressed. Though not as sprawling as Central Park, it was greener. The tag "Arts Festival" somewhat misled, as there were no artworks for sale on a hilltop midway, only little crafts booths offering wicker baskets, ceramics, and spin-art tees. Other concessions sold Budweiser, Coke, and hot dogs smothered in coleslaw. These indie booths offset Atlanta's rampant commercialism. The hilltop ledge, shaded by pretty, looming trees, overlooked a big sun-drenched field. One booth sold small Day-Glo foam alligators that floated through the crowd on plastic leashes. These acid-gators kicked off the trip, our group of six laughing in unison.
Del leaned over to pet Kazzum. "Duh, funny gators, ain't they, Kaz?"
"Don't make fun of him, Del!" admonished Sherri.
We came upon two tall plastic barrels full of canned Buds and ice. "Big guy, this acid's comin' on strong, let's take the edge off!" said Del. He bought our first round, the others bought Cokes. Del and I looked down at the field where a thirty-foot high inflatable Bud can swayed in the hot breeze. Two small boys bounced off the can and we laughed like hell. On a big stage at the field's other end, Pylon began to play, their geometric rock losing a bit of its edge outdoors.
"That's Pylon," I informed Del. "The band I was telling you about."
"Hell, let's go down there and check 'em out." Del tossed his empty Bud can over his shoulder. Marshall went down with us, sneering ghoulishly, his bushy eyebrows sinister, his fangs sharp... I vigorously shook my head, and this nasty caricature was gone. "Shee-it, Pylon ain't much," he said sourly. "Combination of Talking Heads and B-52's."
Del shrugged. "Sounds alright to me. You gonna go over there to talk with them, Jim?"
"Nah, not when I'm like this."
When The Producers came on, I found myself enjoying them as I now heard music simply, like a child, the band's Cheap Trick derivation and garish suits far from my mind. As was often the case at festivals, the crowd danced and cheered for whatever band. A Lynyrd Skynyrd tribute band followed, kicking off with the overplayed oldie "Free Bird."
Del says "God, am I sick of this fuckin' song. Say, what happened to Marshall?"
"I don't know, he must have wandered off."
"Well, let's go find him. Just look for a hamburger." Here Del alluded to that old cartoon in which a starving thin guy hallucinates his portly friend as a giant hamburger. We combed the park, still no Marshall. On the midway we ran into Sherri, Corrine, Stanley and Kazzum.
"Y'all know where Marshall went?" panted Sherri. "Somehow we lost him."
We looked at each other blankly while the tribute band reprised "Free Bird." Stanley says "I'd say he must've gone back to Stone Mountain." We smiled at each other in instant agreement, my first group trip bringing to life that old myth about LSD bringing people together. Then along came Manson.
Sure enough, there was Marshall's blue Chevette parked in the Morgans' driveway. He came out of his car, grinning. "Del!" he shouted. "Marshall!" shouted Del. They rushed toward each other and hugged. The moon rising, the acid wearing off, we all went into the house.
"Shoot," said Sherri. "Wish there was sumpin' to do tonight."
Marshall snapped his fingers. "Hey, y'all, Baby and The Diapers are playin' tonight at Harlow's! I just remembered there's some hash in my glove box."
"I think I'll take a rain check, folks," said Stanley, who split despite much coaxing.
The hashish revived the LSD. Harlow's was a mid-sized music club in a strip mall. The club had a bright yellow sign, an art deco font of striped block letters over a 1930s drawing of Jean Harlow's face. The club's dated name and sign recalled '70's glitter rock as well as its unlikely successor disco. AC/DC's "Highway To Hell" blasted from the PA as we entered, laughing. Many customers wore '70's styles: platform shoes, wide collared polyester shirts, slinky polyester dresses with tropical motifs. The club had two levels, its darkened lounge a few steps up from a sunken dance floor with a stage. We took a table near the steps, a disco strobe light washing over us.
Opening band Operator took the stage, the singer/bassist's stark skull n' bones T-shirt offending a John Travolta clone: "Punk rock sucks!" The lead guitarist wore an antebellum frilly white shirt, a magenta sportcoat with black velvet lapels, a crazy smile. Operator was not punk- their complex psychedelic sound a countrified version of New York's Television. We all hit the dance floor, laughing. Following leader Marshall, we danced like children to a long song with several changes in tempo and key: "This is how/the story begins," sang the skull n' bones bassist, our group improvising goofy little dances like "The Kazzum," our tongues lolling out, our "paws" raised before us. Throughout Operator's set the audience held their drinks and listened, but never clapped. The singer perfunctorily said, "Thank you," after each song.
Back at our table, the scene was no longer funny but depressing. Sherri and Corrine talked about how "nice" Harlow's was; Marshall and Del were shitface drunk. The trip was over and dull reality set in, just in time for headliners Baby and The Diapers. The strip mall stars pulled an old showbiz trick, late for "reasons unknown" according to the DJ/ announcer; way back in 1973, glitter band The Dolls had pulled that cheap trick. The audience swallowed the hype whole, grumbling, pacing. The DJ assured them: "Now y'all maintain your cool, Baby'll be here any minute." He played dull '70's hit "After Midnight," a few mustached customers hastening their dates to the dancefloor.
The record over, the stage lights switched on/off a few times to signal Baby and The Diapers' belated glorious arrival. They were a glitter band who thought it was still 1973: singer/guitarist Baby copied New York Doll Sylvain Sylvain's rouged cheeks and hennaed perm, the keyboardist's Hitler mustache owed a debt to Sparks' Ron Mael, and The Diapers' muddy plodding groove evoked Slade. However, they played original songs, their fans singing along. Dumbed down by Long Island tea, Del and Marshall stomped along to Slade-ish original "Stomp Your Feet." Depressingly, he really dug The Diapers. I nudged him throughout the set, whispering, "Marshall, The Dolls...Marshall, Sparks... Marshall, Slade..." "Damn y' all, Jim, I know, I know!" Despite this acknowledgment, he continued cheering on Atlanta's best kept secret.
Harlow's closed at one. Soon as we got outside, Bubba's Trans Am Firebird screeched into the parking lot and Corrine got in. Marshall was okay to drive but Del was too fucked-up. Sherri drove us back to the house. Out on the highway, he yelled out his window: "YEAH, FUCK REAGAN, FUCK 'IM! WE HAD A DAMN GOOD TIME TODAY AND WE'LL HAVE A DAMN GOOD TIME ALL FUCKIN' SUMMER!" Kazzum woofed stupidly.
"Cool off, Del!" scolded Sherri. "Suppose a cop hears y'all, and tell us to pull over?"
"Oh okay, honey."
Sunday, I phoned Marshall. "You ever drive out to Athens to check out that scene? I wanna see this new band R.E.M. everyone's been talkin' about."
He sounded hungover. "Yeah, well I went there once and got snubbed. Besides, you do not wanna see REM live, dude, they suck."
Monday morning, I started looking for a day job. I checked out the want ads in The Atlanta Constitution. Where the hell was Little Five Points? Where was Buckhead?
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