Tuesday, December 16, 2008

A cautionary tale

Years ago, as a young feller, I'd have the occasional puff of a joint. Marijuana, in those days, was stuff you'd go and pick from shrubs on the banks of the Hunter River near Newcastle, where I lived. It was there because, in the nineteenth century, hemp was an important part of any economy. It was a versatile fibre used for making rope, fabric and even paper. When the hemp industry fell into disrepute thanks to the propaganda of the emergent plastics industry in the 1930s, all that survived were wild stands of the stuff skirting the river systems. By the time I came along, of course, it was an illegal "drug", and was considered by the establishment to be the cause of a myriad of evils, including mental retardation and abandoned licentiousness. I don't know about the first, but it always produced an effect that made me think of sex as a decidedly bizarre affair.

Thus disabused of the idea that my parents' generation had the faintest notion of what they were talking about, my friends and I happily puffed away on our pickings for a number of years. Eventually, though, my interest in it waned to the point where a joint or two per year was about as big a drug habit as I had (discounting the copious amounts of Tooheys Old that I'd begun to consume. But alcohol is a good drug that had the establishment's seal of approval, of course.)

I hadn't even had a puff for several years. It was about 1990, and I was playing in a fairly large ensemble whose raison d'etre was to make as much money as possible for all concerned. It was a very well-organised band whose methodology was described to me by Phil, the band leader, as "play the thirty most famous and popular rock songs ever released." Which is what we did. It was a cornucopia, an alphabet of pop: we did everything from Abba to ZZ Top, cranking out note-perfect renditions of all of the greats. My job was to learn, and play, exact replicas of all the famous guitar solos, perfectly, night after night.

Now, the interesting thing about this band is that it was all about the vocals. We had three very good female singers, a great male lead vocalist, and the other four blokes in the band able to hold a tune. And, without being immodest, we were pretty fucking good at it. As well, we had a synthesiser system triggered by a computer, so on top of the guitar, keyboards, bass and drums, we had all sorts of other sounds - more keyboards, horn sections, strings, percussion, and the like - belting through a gigantic, and very beautifully mixed, sound system. The computerisation of the band meant that we all had to wear little "in-ear" monitoring systems which would give us the click track from the computer so we could start the songs at the right moment and remain in time with the synthesised sounds. This is an almost universal phenomenon with professional bands these days, but in 1990 it was a technology still in its infancy.

We were doing one show at a very big club in Sydney. Just our regular set, which we'd played hundreds of times before, and which had got to be so robotic as to be like any other production line work. We really had to be conscious of making a performance out of it - once you've played the solo to "Stairway to Heaven" exactly the same way a hundred times, you're over it.

On this night, we had a new sound engineer. He was a very competent operator, and our sound-check had gone smoothly. We'd played our first set of two to an audience of about five hundred people. We had a twenty minute break, and the sound guy came over to me in the dressing room and said "Hey Laurie - you look like a bloke that might enjoy a smoke."

Without thinking - probably bored senseless - I replied "Sure, let's go." We went out to his car, where he proceeded to get out a bag of pot, and load it into an evil-looking bong. I'd never had much of an association with these devices, and had always considered them slightly anti-social, but what the heck - I was just getting stoned.

"This is really good stuff," he informed me. "Durban Poison - I grew it myself; it'll get you nicely stoned, mate."

He offered me the thing, and I sucked as hard as I could on it while he lit it up. It nearly killed me going down, I can tell you. "Thanks," I said at the end of it, spluttering and gasping for air. "Your turn, mate."

"Oh no," he said, "if I have one of these I'll be ratshit. I just thought you might enjoy playing after one."  Oh fuck, I thought to myself, what have I done?

We walked back into the club. It was time to go on stage again, so I walked on, strapped my guitar on, checked my tuning, turned around to face the audience, and thought I was going to die. I had, suddenly and completely, entered a world of trouble with a capital T, short for tetra-hydro-cannabinol. I was fucked. I had walked into paranoia city, and had the instantaneous fear that I wasn't walking out of it in a hurry.

I looked down at the set-list gaffer-taped to the floor, and saw that we were about to launch into the Doobie Brothers' Long Train Runnin'. I'd played this song hundreds of times; I could play it in my sleep, but I had an almost overpowering urge to throw my guitar away and run like buggery.

I didn't, though, because I heard the count-in in my earpiece, and it was me who had to start the song: da-da-da, da-da-da-do, da-da-da, and so-on. I was playing it, and it seemed OK. The bass was next to come in, and, as he did, I realised that he was a semi-tone away from the key I was playing in. The drums rolled, the keyboards played a riff, and I very quickly changed to the key that the song was now in (F sharp minor, to be precise). I kept playing as the intro unfolded, but then I started thinking "Hang on, this is in G minor - it has to be; we've always played it in G. The computer doesn't change; the synthesiser should be in G, but it's not - it's in F sharp! But that's impossible. Oh, no - maybe it has always been in F sharp. No - couldn't be; I've always played it in G. Aaaaaaaaahhhh - I'm going mad; what the fuck is happening???"

I kept playing; I had no choice. We got to the solo section, where I had to play a harmonica solo. I whipped the harp out of its pouch on my guitar strap, and there on the top of the harp was the key for the instrument engraved on it : "B flat". I was right! It was in G minor! But - I couldn't play my solo, because the song was now in a different key. I had the very morbid feeling that the establishment had actually got it right - marijuana does, indeed, cause brain damage. I looked around at the other band members, who seemed to be happily and unconcernedly playing away. The harmonica was useless, so I played the solo on guitar in the new key - becoming increasingly aware that the guitar strings had taken on an appearance like furry spider legs, and the sound coming from my amp had ceased to resemble a Stratocaster and had taken on the characteristics of Chip n Dale having an orgy.

I played through the rest of the set, trying to overcome a bizarre feeling of sinking into the stage. I had to keep lifting my feet, one after the other, to keep on top of the quicksand the stage had become. And as for singing - forget it; I was afraid that any sound that issued from my mouth would just be a throttled scream.

The last song of the night was the abominable Hotel California, wherein it was my duty to play the solo that everyone knows by heart. I started with the right notes, but it quickly devolved into Chip n Dale having a Sorcerer's Apprentice battle. I felt like Harding in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest - "I'm talking about form, I'm talking about content, God, the Devil, Heaven, Hell.." Folks, I was seriously off the planet.

Mercifully, the gig ended. I let my guitar slide off me and crash into its stand, and bolted for the dressing-room, where I sat in a cold sweat wondering if I might eventually come down, say before I was eighty. 

Phil and the rest of the band all marched into the dressing-room, giggling and pointing at me. The paranoia meter went completely off the scale. Phil came over and said

"Man, you played some seriously weird shit out there." And then he winked at me and said "It was good, though, it was damn good. I'll keep you in mind as the guitarist in any experimental music bands I want to put together." 

"Oh, and sorry about Long Train. I took it down a semi-tone - I forgot to tell ya."

Drugs are bad, 'kay?


John S. Wilkins said...

I have so many memories like that, except I was crap at guitar. I laughed a lot reading it, though. I have to say I know that situation too well, or did in the 70s.

Laurie said...

A mis-spent youth, John?

phil said...

Oh no, we're out here and we've all done it.

Up until (relatively) recently.

Thanks for the memories.

Apathy Personified said...

\beign {obnoxious preaching from a high horse}
I hope you learnt your lesson young man - Drugs are never the answer, no matter what the question is.

\end {obnoxious preaching from a high horse}

Haha :)

Laurie said...

I did, I did, Ap - I'll never touch the foul stuff again! Promise!

Ha ha - had my fingers crossed :)

Robert Madew' Ell said...

You know you're in trouble when someone says, "I grew it myself."

I tried it once as a teen. Made me so sick, I never tried it again. I think my asthma had a bit to do with that.