Riff, Sticks and Studs

In the blog entries Johnny B. Goode and To Buy a Calculator, I've described what life was like playing guitar and singing with Spiff Cool and the Keen-o-Jets. Recall that I joined in April of 1974 while living at 249 Norton Street. We were a five piece, with Spiff handling lead vocals (sort of), Howie and I on guitars, Riff on bass and Sticks on drums. Fortunately, Angelo had departed, thus avoiding what seemed to be inevitable bloodshed at the time.

Somewhere around the end of summer, Howie was expelled for...well, let's put it this way as discreetly as possible... lack of concentration. The night he fell off the stage, yet again, in Mason City was the straw that broke the camel's back. I told Spiff I couldn't take it any more and threatened to leave, actually concerned a little bit about the musical quality of what we were attempting. Instead he fired Howie and we carried on as a four-piece.

As autumn approached, none of Riff, Sticks or I was particularly happy with how things were progressing, if that continuous verb tense is even applicable here. Melodically, we were in a rut since rehearsals seemingly had very little impact, at least to the ears of the rest of us. More seriously, we were being nickeled and dimed to death. Silas Marner before redemption, as it were. In the early days, Spiff tried to establish an iniquitous pay schedule, unequal percentages, leaving him with a few dollars more at the expense of member loyalty. Who wants to earn 19% holding the show together while some replaceable guy up front is getting 23%? And then there were all the extra "services" we were constantly being hammered with: phone calls, gasoline, agent fees, advertising work, you name it. Portions of some of these were legitimate, but our opinion was that he was milking the system for all it was worth. All it did was drive us away.

The next step was in the stars: we discharged Spiff from his own band and started a new one.

Thus, the East Side Pharaohs were formed.

Riff, Sticks, Studs
All these years later, I still vividly recollect the great sense of relief and excitement as we took control of our own destinies. After unceremoniously dumping Spiff, one of the first things we did was jettison all of the Minneapolis agents we had been stuck with; they were nothing but a bunch of cutthroats who expected us to play lots of lousy venues just to get an occasional worthy one. Some of these hucksters siphoned off as much as 20%! Next, we promptly started ignoring the music union which offered no conceivable benefits that I could fathom, yet drained another 5% cut on each contract.

At last: we were completely in charge, musically and financially. But more importantly, the three of us were friends and genuinely looked forward to getting together for rehearsals and performances. What a switch that was from being chained to someone whose guts you couldn't stand. It's hard to smile on stage when all you can think about is throttling the guy in front. At times it was impossible to tell who detested him more, the audience or us.

Free of impedimenta, all of a sudden, playing in a band had become exciting and fun once more.

We started handling our own bookings, beginning with a mass mailing to colleges and high schools. Our very first gig as the East Side Pharaohs was a dance at Northwestern College in Orange City, Iowa. Would you believe it? We snared that job for $350, a princely sum in those days, and only to be split three ways! Like Orson Welles, we started at the top and worked our way down over the years, for we never made that amount again...

But then something remarkable happened: the East Side Pharaohs became the superstars of Watonwan County! Let me tell you how this came to pass, and why it had such an effect on us.

Back in the Spiff Cool days, we had played a two-night gig in St. James at a pub called the New Square Deal. It was across the tracks literally and figuratively. A bit on the sleazy and brawling side, we didn't find out until later that it attracted a rougher crowd; in those days the town appeared to be somewhat socially divided. Nonetheless, we did reasonably well.

Once the Pharaohs were in business, we managed to book ourselves in there. Bob and Mel were the owners, as I recall, and just the nicest couple to work for. They hung up special decorations, sponsored a dress-up contest, ran advertisements in the local rag, and papered the town with our posters. They even erected a rough plywood dressing room in back for us with three metal folding chairs, a mirror and an auto-mechanic's trouble light hung over a crossbeam. That was a magical night.

The crowd was dancing like crazy, and more importantly, responding to our jokes and bits like you wouldn't believe. I'm probably conflating things from later shows just a trifle, but we started to get to know some of these St. James folks at once. They were all smiles, and laughed uproariously at our crude humor. In my mind, I can still hear the bark-like guffaw of Lars from the first row of tables, when I turned to my companion and said over the microphone, "I told you Riff, if you want to impress the chicks, you're supposed to put the potato in the front of your trousers, not the rear."

We built a following starting that very first night.

Lars, Nancy, Mr. K, Ronnie Olson, Mary Olson, then a little later, Dick and Ruth-Ann, Daryl Olson, Bryce Bregel, the list goes on and on. These kind and friendly people became not only fans but friends, and within a very short time we were playing Watonwan county a minimum of three weekends a month without surcease! I'm not kidding! Our rent and tuition (Riff and I were still undergrads) were literally being subsidized by the wonderful crowds at The Eagle's Club, The V.F.W., The Knight's Lounge, The Ormsby Townhouse, Herb's Corner Bar and a number of other clubs in this area.

Most important: performing had become pleasurable again.

In between times, we also nailed steady bookings, once a month at least, at the Bodega Bar in Mankato. I'll have to save descriptions of those crazy performances for another entry (with due discretion, since nakedness on stage to rival Oh! Calcutta!  figures in yet again.) And then, without warning, we all of a sudden became very popular in Winona, playing repeatedly for the Jaycees, the Elks, the Country Club and even the enormous Steamboat Days festival overlooking the river. For being the sleaziest band in town, in the eyes of most of the other traditionalist musicians, we probably had more bookings than anyone else. Prostitution? Maybe, but we played, made money and enjoyed no end of hilarity.

Riff, Studs, Sticks
Musically, the three piece East Side Pharaohs weren't all that special. And yet we were gigging nonstop, indeed, having to turn down dates. So, why was that? Well, I'd like to think it goes back to something I've mentioned before. We saw ourselves as entertainers first, not musicians (who are a dime a dozen). We also pushed the envelope on the topicality of our joke material on stage, which as it turns out was exactly what St. James and the Bodega were looking for. Lastly, the greaser image was a perfect fit, with much of the audience confusing our on-stage personae with the real thing. For example, I well recall a tough-around-the-edges girl, a stock car racer and genuine gear-head, dressed in leather from top to bottom, hustling me during breaks at Herb's Corner Bar. Blue powder burns pocked her face. She clearly viewed me as a kindred spirit in grease and was very intent on winning my attention. I'm guessing she probably saw me in her mind's eye astride a 1940s model 1200cc Indian hog. I've always wondered how this girl would have reacted if she had found out I was working on a degree in pure mathematics and didn't know the first thing about motors...

Those were truly carefree and fun days, despite the sometimes taxing labor involved in driving, setting up, tearing down and only getting home at 4:00 in the morning. The important thing was, the three of us, Riff, Sticks and I, liked each other and were constantly laughing at something (like the half-eaten chili dog Sticks whipped out the Econoline van window one afternoon). Humor was always at the heart of the East Side Pharaohs.

This group, just like 249 Norton Street, was an integral factor in who I became. I'd do it all over again in a trice...

Next installment: Myron, Clancy and Betty-Lou

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