Wednesday, May 30, 2012


“Straight from the shoulder I think like a soldier
I know what’s right and what’s wrong.
He knows what’s right and what’s wrong!
I’m the original discriminating buffalo man
And I’ll do what’s wrong for as long as I can.
He’ll do what’s wrong for as long as he can!”
The Minotaur’s Song by Incredible String Band

Having never worked in a restaurant before, I had the choice of starting out as a busser or a host.  Cleaning up tables seemed like too much work, whereas greeting people at the door and escorting them to their seats (punctuated by periodic bursts of song) sounded like just the kind of breezy job duties I could handle.  As we rehearsed for the opening, like minded musicians found each other and duos and trios began forming.  This was especially helpful to someone like me, who could marginally provide my own piano accompaniment, but who would be much better off singing while one of the other far better pianists (or guitarists) played.  And I was hoping I could convince some other people, musicians and singers, to join me on a couple of “group” numbers.  I was very lucky early on as there were many brave souls willing to help me in what would turn out to be somewhat whacked out, peculiar performances.

Opening night arrived; the joint was PACKED.  Here’s an encapsulation of the Great Northern experience, which repeated itself in one form or another for the 18 months I was there: The “C’s” (a not exactly affectionate term for “customers” coined by Bongo) would come in the front door to be greeted by one of the four hosts: two attractive young women (think “American Idol”), one who mainly sang “show-tunish” numbers and another who was more pop influenced; a tall, handsome, blond haired country singer (think TV network CMT); or a long-haired, bearded, wild-eyed “outsider” type (uh, that being me).  To the right was a full bar with a copy-playing rock band.  To their left was the restaurant.  One of us hosts would escort the party to their table.  The chances were high that there would be someone performing.  The chances were also high that the signature dish, The Plank, would be making its way to one or another corner of the room.  Food, liquor and music were served up non-stop throughout the night.

The Plank was an attraction unto itself.  It was a maybe six by three foot long piece of wood piled high with barbeque-sauce slathered ribs, various other meats and cheeses, and a selection of fruits and vegetables.  It actually came in several sizes depending on how many people were in the party that ordered it.  It brought a sort of medieval, bacchanalian edge to the whole proceedings.  Two people had to carry it out of the kitchen, and it was usually greeted with as much (if not more) enthusiasm as a well-played musical number.  (The waiters tried to be careful regarding just when they brought it out – its appearance could absolutely destroy some of the quieter musical numbers.)

In between a mouthful of ribs, a shot of whiskey, and raucous table conversation, here’s what an unwary C might experience those first few months: Bo Richards blasting through the Stones’ Heartbreaker with a voice that filled the always noisy space (there was no amplification); the breathtaking vocal magic of Sears, Seely and Nitz on Home to You; the folksy roots music of Marty C; the show-stopping beauty of Antoinette, Nancy and Alice’s Soft Spoken Man/Desperado medley; the Nicky Hopkins/Elton John-like brilliance of Ichabod’s piano playing; the calming beauty of Gray and Cathy’s Bluebird; the rhythm and blues piano playing Lanny supporting the raunchy decadence of Lindaroo as she stopped the show with Don’t You Feel My Leg.  The list could go on, and will, but for now, suffice it to say there was a mighty, mighty, array of amazingly talented performers who made strong impressions and immediate repeat customers out of the folks who came to visit.


Wednesday, May 23, 2012


“I grew up, like many people, believing memory to be a sort of hologram stored in the brain.  An accurate image of what was once perceived, once felt.  Of course that’s not true.  Memory is a reconstruction, and frequently a faulty one.”  Max Cairnduff

Way back in 1973, I was working part time as a DJ at the local “underground” radio station.  Going through various written Public Service Announcements and such for an upcoming break, my girlfriend, who had joined me that day (and who would later become my wife), found an interesting one.  It was for a new restaurant that was looking for musicians to fill host, bus and waiter positions.  Evidently, the staff would supplement their usual duties with periodic songs for the benefit of the customers.  The Velvet Underground’s “Sister Ray” ended, and before I started The Incredible String Band’s “You Get Brighter”, I read this solicitation during the break.

Up to this point, I had played piano and sang intermittently, and also had done some acting.  I was just beginning to “get serious” about the band I was in (one of the musicians is the “co-writer” of this blog).  I hadn’t really performed “professionally” or in front of that many people.  But I needed another job, and this sounded intriguing.  So I took note of the audition date and decided to give it a shot.

I think there were about 50 of us auditioning for some 20 positions?  We were all in a large banquet room adjacent to the actual restaurant, sitting around the perimeter.  There was a piano (with an accompanist if needed) and three people who were going to listen to us.  Running things was Gerald Scarne, whose father had written the classic SCARNE ON CARDS.  Evidently he and a few others had opened a similar establishment in Los Angeles that was wildly successful, and they wanted to expand the empire.  The audition would proceed with everyone there listening to everyone else.  It was a colorful and diverse crowd: fresh-faced young ingĂ©nues singing show tunes, grizzled old guitar players singing Leonard Cohen and Bob Dylan, and everything in-between.  We were each asked to perform two songs.  The only one I remember playing, at the piano, was John Prine’s “Your Flag Decal Won’t Get You into Heaven Anymore”.  The only other individual auditioner I remember was this insane, wild-eyed percussionist who did a surreal, Ricky Ricardo inspired routine on congas – absolutely incredible.  As with any audition, there was a wide range of talent, and of course only so many “slots”. 

Along with a couple dozen others, the percussionist (who became known as Bongo) and I were hired to open The Great Northern Food and Beverage Company a few weeks later.  Little did I know that this would be the beginning of an intensely productive, creative and insane 18 months, and that I would stumble into at least a half dozen friendships that have lasted my entire life.  But at that point, with an LSD dosed kitchen staff, barbeque drenched ribs on huge wooden planks, and initiation to the proper way of drinking tequila still around the corner, I was clueless.