I got to Spider bar late.
We were supposed to be on soon. Feral cats scattered from atop aluminum garbage cans, disappeared into the darkness, at the sight of my headlights. I barreled down the narrow alley, wedged between two brick wall buildings, dodged a leaning telephone pole which was pretty easy to hit if you weren’t careful. I pulled around, backed up to the rear door plastered with hundreds of band stickers like a rite of passage; Atomic Bitchwax, Juntar, Purple Doom, The Bedspins, Beyond the Flesh, our band tonight—Ottermeat.
Inside, I could hear Gail talking loudly in her Bayonne accent behind the bar.
The door opened, Seth stepped out, he had a beer in his fist and a menthol cigarette hanging out of his mouth. Twenty five: Tall, lanky, slouches, a mess of curly brown hair, wearing ripped up jeans and a RUSH 2112 t-shirt. He’s the best drummer I’ve known, one of my roommates, the closest friend I’ve ever had.
“Yo!” Seth says, happy to see me, grinning lighting his cigarette.
“Sorry I’m late.” I hop out of the truck.
Seth shrugged, “Nobody here anyway. It’s dead inside.”
“I was in an accident,” I said. “I caused a wreck.”
“Another one? Holy smokes …”
I walked to the back of the truck, dropped the tail gate. The jolt of the impact had ruptured a bag of cement. My amp and my guitar case was covered in cement powder.
I yanked my amp out of the bed of the truck, tried to brush it off, it was no use. The dust was all over it. Sucked in deep into the speaker cover fabric.
“Man, I need a beer.”
Seth handed me his, he’d only taken one sip. I sat down on the steps, guzzled it down. Cold, bitter, flat. I was still a little shaken up from the collision I’d caused. My friend pulled my guitar out of the bed of the Ford, dusted it off.
“Drawbridge was up, didn’t see traffic was stopped,” I said.
“There’s a drawbridge on Princeton Ave.?”
“That’s what I said,” peeling off the label of the beer. It was a Red Stripe. The Spider bar loved serving Red Stripe for some reason.
Seth grinned, took a drag of his smoke. I set the empty glass bottle down, rolled the label in my hands. Half of my fingernails were black, purple, brown–blood trapped underneath the nail from being crushed by rocks, brick, small boulders.
Masonry and playing guitar are at odds with each other. I was very nervous that I was gonna break my hand one day, then what would I do? At the time my life was playing guitar, writing songs, playing shows with my bands, recording music.
“Come on, let me buy you another one,” he said.
Seth stuck his hand down, I gripped onto his soft pink hand, record store clerk hand and he yanked me up to my feet.
We went inside, each lugging some my music gear. The inside of the bar was dark, stale, ominous. It’s a dive in the truest sense of the word. There were five guys in dirty work clothes just like mine leaning on the bar. They were smoking heavy and screwing around with the bartender, Gail, a former G.L.O.W. girl (Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling) now overweight and slinging beers in this ghetto New Jersey town on the ocean. West Long Branch. A wall of cigarette smoke hung in the air like a fog machine was on.
Seth’s drums were already set up on stage. Cherry Pearl kit. It gleamed in the spot light. It was the only bright thing in the place. The cymbals already seemed to buzz with a golden hum.
All around the drums, suspended from the ceiling were old Halloween decorations, plastic skeletons, bleeding skulls, big fanged 8 legged fluorescent spiders so thick with dust that you couldn’t even tell what color they used to be.
We set my gear down on the stage, just as Jacko, the ‘promotor/bar manager’ came rolling through the back door. He waved to us and motioned to the pool table at the center of the bar. It had to be moved into the far corner to open up room for people if they showed up to see any of the bands.
The pool table was off level anyway, nobody played it.
Jacko was stocky, looked like Grizzly Adams: shaved head, Dickie pants, full sleeve tattoos, Naval themed, pin-up girls, logos from hardcore/punk bands he’d been in, murals of prisons he’s been in. 58 years old, been kicked around a lot, had done a lot of kicking himself.
We helped him move the pool table and he starts groggily addressing us both in his gravelly voice. It’s eight o’ clock at night but he’s just woken up, he slept in a room above the bar.
“Ottermeat, right?” he asked, our band name.
“Yeah,” I say, we change it so often that its hard to keep track.
“You guys bringing anybody tonight to see you?”
He says, “First band canceled. Flakes. I’ll be doing a reading. Then you guys … then, Bitchwax.” Jacko is a poet. He’s gonna read some of his stuff, like he always does.
I sit down at the bar, Seth buys me a beer. I try to give Gail a tip, she takes my dollar and slides me back four quarters, winks, points over to the jukebox.
“Do me a fava, pick some good ones,” he says warmly.
Sometimes they played old VHS tapes of Gail’s matches back when she was on TV. Her signature move was jumping off the top turnbuckle and smashing down onto her ‘victim’ of the moment smothering her with her big balloon boobs. The crowd loved it, but that was back in 1984, when I was just 3 years old.
Now Gail’s balloon boobs were fatty fatal blimps.
I pick some songs on the box, Jacko’s got some good stuff on there: Tom Waits, Iggy Pop and the Stooges, Velvet Underground, Black Flag … Really, it’s the best part of that bar and why I like hanging out in there.
I dump some quarters in the box. The worker guys from the warehouse stand up, it’s a combination of the two things. First, happy hour is over, beer is full price now and I’ve put some music on the jukebox that those guys can’t stomach. Tom Waits singing like Cookie Monster backed by a junkyard band of noise, “We sail tonight for Singapore …”
Now the bar truly is empty. I get that sour feeling in my stomach, guilt. No one is gonna come to see us play. Oh man, there’s not much worse than that. Plus then the club owner gives you shit and you don’t get to play again. Forget the money, you’re not gonna make any money playing at these bars in this town.
Jacko sat down at the bar, started in with the heavy drinking. He was talking to Seth about the movie Bladerunner. Jacko was a big Phillip K. Dick fan and Seth just saw the movie for the first time the other night with Otto at the Lagoon house.
Otto is our other roommate and he has a huge collection of VHS tapes.
I get up from my stool and started to set up my amp. I’ve got tons of guitar pedals. I’m setting them all up on the stage, cabling then together with red chords; fuzz pedal, two delay pedals, wah, flanger, octave pedal, ect. I adjust all the knobs just the way they gotta be. All these little noise boxes, making havoc. I laugh to myself. I plug my amp in making sure the tubes haven’t popped from the crash … Then I unzip the guitar from its case and the headstock comes tumbling out, suspended by the nickel wound strings. It’s broken. Totally snapped off.
My Gibson SG, destroyed.
I’m in shock. I pick up the headstock like I’d be able to just stick it back on, but that’s not how these things work.
Seth walks over, “Oh no …”
I curse and kick around my pedals and as if it matters, Seth says he’s got an idea. He gets some more quarters from Gail and then goes down the rotten hallway by the bathroom and he gets on the pay phone and calls Wally.
I’m just sitting there on the stage in shock, when some college chicks come in off the street. They’re from the dorm up the block and its cool cause Gail doesn’t check IDs. I used to drink here when I was 16, but I had a beard.
I look over at them, they don’t pay me any mind. They’re trying to order margaritas from Gail.
“We don’t have that kinda stuff here.”
“Oh, then … apple martini?”
She points her big mitt at the single draft beer handle or the shelf of glass display bottles, Red Hook, Heineken, Budweiser.
A tension rises to a pinnacle over this decision.
Seth lurches over to me again. He walks like a bird and he kinda has sharp features like a bird. Big bird. He’s got the same hair cut.
“Alright, Wally’s gonna bring his guitar for you to use.”
“That fucker,” I said.
“What? He’s helping you out.”
“You probably had to threaten him didn’t you?”
Wally is the lead singer in our ‘main’ band. The real band. The one that’s gonna make us famous. Haha, what a thing. I don’t get along with Wally for quite a few reasons. He’s a stuck up spoiled rich brat who tries to pose as a punk, but I put up with him for a few reasons, chiefly: he’s a real good singer.
I sat back down at the bar. Me and Seth start trying to talk to the college girls but we’re not making much headway. It gets worse when Jacko gets up on the stage and says to us from the microphone.
“Thanks for coming out to the Spider bar. I’m Jacko, this is my place, girls,” he winked at the girls. This caused no reaction from them whatsoever. They were still pissed about the Heinekens.
Then Jacko starts to hollar and roil around as he reads his free verse poetry in a demonic gravelly voice to the six of us, he says:
“Cryogenic hallucination of a paycheck and Uncle Sam riding a Unicorn blowing bubbles cause you think you deserve your money back. Everyday I’m in a world of shit, ankle deep and there’s never any reason to watch TV, get your plastic injection dildo and aim your rockets up your own ass space/time traveler voodoo …”
The girls get up and leave halfway through their beers and Jacko just keeps rambling and rambling all this dark nonsense. He’s drunk and just spouting off.
For half an hour I’ve gotta sit there with Seth and listen to this, Seth doesn’t even wanna go outside and smoke a cig because he thinks it’ll be rude.
Finally, the door opens, Wally walks in. He’s in a leather jacket and has his hair all spiked up. This is a recent development. He used to exclusively wear an army jacket like John Lennon and he had his hair real long down to his shoulders.
Wally’s got a girl with him. A real good looking chick. Italian, dark eyes, long dark hair pulled back in a pony tail. Maybe 20. Jacko is still up there spouting off: “bull dykes manning pleasure cannons and worrisome kids afraid of anything that’s not a computer, I got your answers right here,” he says, grabbing onto his dick and faking a long moan. That’s the end of his reading. The long moan.
Wally and the girl come walking over, “Big crowd tonight,” Wally says.
“Sure, yeah,” Seth says shrugging.
Wally doesn’t introduce the girl, but she’s giving me the eye so I stand up and I say to her, “Bud.” Holding out my busted up hand.
“Denise,” she says, smiling.
Wally starts saying that I gotta be real careful with his guitar because its a collectors item and its irreplaceable.
I just nod. Guys got six guitars, doesn’t even play any of them. Each one cost a boat load more than my F-250.
Gail gives everybody beers and she hands Denise some quarters for the jukebox, she goes I’ve and starts to try to find something to play, but she’s pissed because there’s no, Britney Spears, Janet Jackson or N’Sync on the box.
The headlining band comes in. They’ve got real equipment. There’s a gaggle of people with them too. Thank god. Suddenly there’s ten people in the bar, right before we’re about to go on again.
I’m so happy.
I look around, counting as we’re up on the little stage. Twelve people.
Oh … Fourteen counting Jacko and Gail. That’s great!
I take Wally’s guitar out of the case. It’s a 1958 gold top Les Paul. I look down and realize, just as Seth starts the count off on his sticks, Wally’s guitar is left handed. It strung upside down.
I try my best to fake it through the songs, but its pretty obvious that shit is all wonky. It’s just me and Seth up there, there’s no place to hide. I turn all my pedals on and just make some swirling noise that circles all around the bar.
Wally and Denise leave after the first song. The headlining act goes outside and stands on the street smoking cigarettes and drinking beers, away from the noise.
Jacko and Gail watch from the bar and even clap when we’re done playing.
They’re the kings and queen of the underground, and think everything is art.
I love them like the mother and father I never had.