Heads Ain’t Ready

Education of a drummer

El Shaddai’s
El Shaddai’s, Brooklyn, NY, 1997. Photo courtesy of Erica Fletcher.

I’d like to tell you a story of an Oneida show and see if you can place it in our fifteen-year history. I imagine it will be instructive to anyone with any kind of fantasy about being in a band.

Oneida was on the West Coast. We had a show booked on a Thursday at the Brookdale Lodge — a place deep in the redwood forest of the Santa Cruz Mountains that once, during a more optimistic time, had been a destination for Hollywood royalty. The Lodge was a sprawling, grotesque combination of Jazz Age elegance and crack-house decay. The crown jewel of the grounds was a multi-tiered restaurant with a river running through it. Photos from the ’30s showed massive redwoods and extravagant greenery growing through the dining area’s vaulted ceiling, but that was all gone now. All that remained was the flowing river, a dampness that permeated everything, and poorly disguised evidence of rat control. Still — grand architecture can distract you from otherwise obvious faults. As we loaded into the performance space we were impressed by the grounds.

“These woods are filled with criminals,” a friend who’d once worked there as a waiter told me. Drug dealers, bikers, crooks on the lam, prostitutes, and various other hard-up characters filled the area surrounding the lodge. The show’s promoter did something with weed — harvested it, delivered it, packaged it . . . something. She was a friend of a friend and she had never booked a show in her life. A clear red flag should have been the fact that this midweek show had eight other bands on the bill. The flyer insisted that performances would start at 6 SHARP — which meant that the first band decided to shuffle their gear toward the performance area at about seven.

The promoter was so excited about the show that I was disturbed. She clearly evidenced some kind of mania, whether native or drug-induced I’m not sure. She was small, cute, blond, and obsequious. As the night went on her mood touched on everything from callous indifference to tearful (and drunken) despair. She had hired the venue for an undisclosed sum and had actually added some bands to the show after the flyer was printed. I think the total ended up being eleven. In other words, for her first-ever show she had tried to put on a weekday festival, in the middle of the mountains, with Oneida as the headliner. Just so you know — Oneida has always headlined shows on the West Coast. This sounds like a good thing but it’s not. Any touring band will tell you that it’s not a coveted slot. Most people leave as soon as their friend’s band finishes their set, because they all have to work or they assume that the touring band will suck. This is in fact often the case.

We were given two rooms in the hotel, both of which were in states of decay. There was a torso-sized hole in the drywall in the front hall in one, and in the other the bathroom door didn’t have an inside door handle — so if you made the “mistake” of closing the door you were locked in. The sheets seemed clean and there was a balcony, though.

By the time 9 PM rolled around, one band had finished their set and the second had just started after a long, involved, and pointless sound check. It was a parade of amateurs. Everyone was incompetent, from the promoter, to the security, to the sound person, to the mentally impaired hotel managers — but especially the bands. Literally every band was filled with clowns. They needed “more vocals in the monitor,” they needed “more treble in the drum wedge,” they “couldn’t hear the bass.” Oneida doesn’t sound check. We can barrel through. I’m just saying — these eleven (!) bands on a Thursday night, running lengthy (sometimes hour-long) sound checks for a show that maybe had . . . ten to fifteen paying customers reveals a certain LACK OF SELF-AWARENESS.

It was at this point that Oneida decided to find out whether there was a curfew, which at these kinds of venues there often is. It turned out that the curfew was 1 AM, a mere two hours away, and there were five more bands to play before our set. My one friend who lived in the area, the former waiter, had gone home long before. It seemed likely that there would not be an Oneida set.

We begged and cajoled the promoter to beg and cajole the owners of the hotel to let the show go on longer so all the bands could actually play. But the promoter at this point was drunk, crying, incoherent, and not in a position to advocate for anything. So we did our best to convince an assortment of disinterested employees to cut into their sleep so Oneida could play to no one. Or, well, there was a couple who had driven six hours to see us . . . I’m not sure from where . . . it might have even been twelve hours. But yes — there was a dude (and his girlfriend who had never heard us — not such an uncommon scenario) who was waiting patiently, through this cataract of terribleness, to see Oneida play a set.

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