The Tron Theatre Glasgow Friday January 20th, 2017-The Celtic Connections Festival
Communication was a major problem for me when I came to America first – especially on the phone. My friend and roommate Bob Schwenk from Bay Ridge always found it hilarious when he witnessed my desperate attempts to communicate my name over the wire.
“Pee-ersss TuRRneR” Trying so hard to emphasize the consonants that my tongue was in a knot.
Irish people tend not to open their mouths too much when they speak. And where I come from it’s almost a badge of honour to be seen withholding your clarity during conversation. It’s important to be ordinary. And trying to communicate is fancy!
“A rale Wexford accent ain’t supposed to be clay-er”
So I brought some of that stuff to America with me. No one could understand a word that I said at first. It seems to me that I got so used to no-one understanding what I was saying, I began to misunderstand what people were saying to me. There were numerous incidents where I misread what was being said; to such a ludicrous extent that the sayer appeared to suspect derision. Usually I wouldn’t cop on until they were gone beyond apologetic reach. As I said, I believe that I was so nervous of being misunderstood, that I began to try too hard, causing me to elaborate on a simple statement. Small things; like a guy came up to me after a loud Major Thinkers gig in a crowded venue in the East Village called the UK Club – after you play a gig it’s not that uncommon for people to approach you about joining the band – saying things like “that drummer is not right for you guys, I’m much better man!” or, “Yo , do you need a roadie?” On the night in question a bloke came up to me and said “Do you have a lightman?”
“No, actually we don’t! Do you do lights?”
“What????” With a look that suggested I was being a smart ass.
When he left, Hammy, the Major Thinkers drummer fell around laughing.
“I think he just wanted a light for his cigarette”
He had disappeared into the crowd by then. I mean, we really did need a lightman! But that wasn’t the worst one. By far the biggest mishap occurred at an Irish wedding in the Bronx. The groom was a big ‘Turner and Kirwan of Wexford’ fan and managed to talk his partner into having us play at the reception. The only thing smart about his choice was that we were not expensive by wedding band standards. Wedding bands are expensive for a good reason, they know all the reception rituals, they can play everything from the top 50 to evergreens, including standards from a host of different cultures. It’s a business, and they expect to be paid extremely well. A good wedding band could charge somewhere in the vicinity of three thousand dollars. I think we charged about three hundred. I believe he gave us a bonus of two hundred, we were so pleased, he wondered out loud if we were hard up?
“Ah no, but just the same, you’re a decent skin and we really appreciate it!”
I suppose we knew that we were doing it for too little and had hoped he would do the right thing. We left a lot to supposition. It was some kind of a bare bones function hall, nothing too fancy. We brought our own Shure sound system and set it up in the corner near the entrance. We were a two man band in the truest sense, in that we were really loud and made the sound of a full ensemble. People were known to stand outside and say “how many musicians are in that band, do you think?” Usually the answer was three or four. Larry played bass drum and guitar while singing, and I played clavinet (electric piano) mini-Moog and hi-hat while singing. The drum and hi-hat were mike’d and the guitar and piano were over-driven, it could be a helluva roar.
So there we were in the corner setting up. I had to tune the piano almost every night. The clavinet has actual strings inside it on an iron frame with pick-ups. The beauty of this was that I could make it feed back into my fender tube amp, giving it that Jimi Hendrix effect. But when it was moved around and thrown in and out of a van, the strings would shift and slip out of tune. Each string had a screw at the end of it that I would turn with a short fat screwdriver. So there I was with the piano plugged into a strobe tuner tweaking away on the strings, getting them up to pitch, it was tedious and slow.
We had arrived at this bizarre line-up a couple of years previous while we were doing a summer residence down in Cape Cod. The owner of the place had seen us playing at one of his other places in Lowell Massachusetts and thought that we might be interesting to have on before the main attraction at his club on the beachfront. The place in Lowell was a two hundred capacity folk rock club where bands did residencies for a month at a time playing mostly covers. We were kind of folky at the time and sang Simon and Garfunkel stuff mixed with Cat Stevens etc. I can’t say if we drew the crowd or if it was just a popular place, but I know that it went well and there was a lot of young girls there. I remember once, during a break, kissing some young one at a table and seeing Larry at the far end of the room kissing another. The accents were going over big time with the locals! We must have done well enough there if he offered us the Cape Cod gig. We were absolutely elevated, getting a gig at the Cape during the summer was sort of big time for a cover band, not to mention three months work with bed and board included. We had put our originals on the back burner for now, until we found our feet.
His club at the Cape turned out to be a very different scene than we expected. The headlining band was typical of what most of the clubs down there were presenting. A top notch cover band from Boston, they could re-produce Led Zeppelin’s “Stairway To Heaven” to perfection – the singer had a range like Robert Plant, the guitarist thought he was Jimmy Page and had learned every single note down to minute detail, even having the double neck guitar with twelve strings on one for the opening section. The keyboard player had a massive A.R.P Synth with a patch bay and numerous wave controllers, just like Keith Emerson. Naturally he could reproduce “Lucky Man” by ELP and the recorder part in “Stairway to Heaven”.
They were loud and powerful with a full light show and a stadium size sound system. We were the mis-match of the century. And the owner didn’t beat around the bush about telling us that he had made a mistake giving us the gig. Everyday we began playing at 3 p.m. to a few stragglers at the bar and a slowly filling room. He hoped that we would draw people in at that time, allowing him to start making money before the main attraction. This would also guarantee them a full house when they began, which would make them look good too. Unfortunately the crowd didn’t know what to make of us with our little folky sound. We turned the Irish charm up to Disney level, but even that didn’t seem to work. The main band liked us though and was beginning to feel sorry for us, we told them that we were afraid we might get sacked.
One day when we were preparing to play, the drummer told us that he had an idea that might up our sound a couple of notches. He explained that our sound was too small and if we were going to compete in this environment we would need more oomph! He had some old spare drums that we could have if we like. He suggested one of us could play Bass Drum and the other Hi-Hat! Without further ado (and without rehearsal) he put the Bass drum in front of Larry’s right foot and the Hi-hat under my left. Off we went. Some songs we decided were better with, and some without. Clearly the idea had potential. It was exciting, and God forbid, maybe even had some originality. The next day we bought two drum stools and tied our new additions to the legs to stop them running away as we beat the living daylights out of them. Then we put microphones on them. Now we started to get louder. I started overdriving the piano and Larry got a fuzz box for his Ovation. Because of this we managed to hold on to the gig for the rest of the summer, not cos we were blowing them away, more because we were such good triers. By the time we reached that wedding in the Bronx we were creating such a roar that we sounded like Mott The Hoople. One audience member in Boston’s Inman’s Square Men’s Club heckled. “Turn down for Christ’s sake, you sound like a Boeing jet!” I suggested he go down the road and find a James Taylor imitator. Jon Moss, the Boston Globe critic, gave us a rave for the same gig. Apparently he arrived late, we were ripping into the climactic instrumental of “Travelling People” our most “Boeing Jet” moment, he had never heard two people sound like that. He gave us a critic’s choice the next time we played there.
The guests were starting to arrive at the reception; I recognized a certain style about them and even knew some of them from seeing them at other people’s gigs when we were out on the tare. I had a very bad habit in those days of pre-supposing what the audience would think of us before we’d even started. I decided that they were a straight looking Irish and Irish American crowd. And whether it was real or imagined I cannot say, but I believed that they were aghast upon realizing that we, were the band. There they were in their Sunday best, while Larry and I were in denim jeans and T-shirts with shoulder length hair. I imagined them negatively confiding.
“Please tell me they’re not the band?”
The tension was building up in me now, my shoulders were up around my ears when this very straight looking older bloke came over to me and pointed at me.
“Is that a he or a she?”
This drove the fume that had been building up inside me to take complete control of my mind.
“Would you like me to take my prick out and show it to you?” I snapped.
Well that soon shut him up. He was absolutely astonished and walked away shaking his head from side to side looking dazed. Larry turned to me and said.
“What did you think he said?”
“You heard him! He pointed at me and said is that a he or a she?”
“No, I think he was pointing at the piano and said, is that an E or a G?”
I looked out into the once empty room, now filling up with guests arriving from church. Mulling over what Larry just said, it felt more and more like it was plausible that I had heard wrong. At first I had jumped to my defense in the heat of the moment.
“Gimme a break, why would he ask me what note I was playing?”
But then I thought about that guy’s demeanor
“He was a little bit harmless looking to be leashing out insults”
I kept tuning the piano.
“In fact, he coulda been a silly Billy type with a miniscule knowledge of music, trying to show off and be all pally with the band – is that an E or a G? -He was smiling after all! And my reply was; do you want me to take my prick out and show it to you? JESUS CHRIST!! He must think I’m a really nasty bastard to respond like that to such an innocent, albeit, stupid question”
Larry said that we should start soon everyone was in. Thinking it would be best to start off easy, we gently tested the water with Tom Paxton’s “The last thing on my mind” This crowd was up for it, they immediately hit the dance floor. I saw yer man going past doing some kind of a foxtrot, he was moving fast. I tried to get his attention while projecting the most congenial smile I could muster from my drum stool. But he seemed afraid to look at me. While we were playing he went by several times with many different partners, he obviously liked to dance. And even though I am aware that I was displaying some paranoid tendencies, I still could swear he was retelling the story every time I saw him, nodding his head in my direction and exclaiming something to his dance partner with an astonished open-mouthed delivery, which was met with an even more open mouthed, gaping, response of disbelief.
I never did get to apologise to him, and even if the opportunity had arisen, I wasn’t sure what I would say. It seemed almost better to pretend it didn’t happen, and with time I had almost convinced myself that it was an exaggeration. But Larry was there, and he confirms that it happened all right. Whatever ideas the guests might have had about us being unsuitable when they arrived, were certainly confirmed.
I wrote this song many years later for my Beggars Banquet album “the Sky and the Ground” I was inspired by that time in Massachusetts and New Hampshire when we drove around in a beat up old Dodge Polara that we bought for three hundred dollars. The song is about the futility sometimes of trying to communicate a belief or a line of poetry. We especially experienced it while writing a song, I might feel sure that a line works and Larry might feel not. There is no point in arguing, my belief was based on my experience not his. Eventually it would be ok for me to sing it, but maybe not Larry. These things are so subjective, and are contrived by our past personal experiences.
You can never put yourself in my brain
And feel what it felt like in a Dodge Polara
Speeding down a New Hampshire highway