I recently re-established contact with a friend from my high school rock and roll days in Texarkana. His name is Ronnie and somehow we just stopped communicating and fell out of each other’s habit. Anyway, if I tried to recount all the interesting experiences I shared with this guy I could devote an entire year of the MACHINE’S PUMP solely to him. I first saw Ronnie with his mom at the Texarkana Music Center getting excited over a distortion box called a BOSS TONE. I believe he was in the eighth grade then. A short time later he showed up at a jam session, perhaps in Spring Lake Park on a Sunday afternoon, got out his guitar, plugged it into his brand new BOSS TONE, which then plugged into a Fender Deluxe Reverb Amp and blew everyone away. This little kid was getting “the” sound and improvising guitar lines better than anyone else in the park. He was the only musician not trying to look like a hippie, too. So, that’s how I came to know him. Over the years we played in bands together and hung out a lot together, as well. In the early 1970s I moved to Denton to go to North Texas State University (now the University of North Texas) to study art and to live in an environment dominated by artists and musicians. After a couple of years Ronnie was ready leave Texarkana and I persuaded him to give Denton a shot. I had a band and thought he would be the perfect addition, which he was, although I can’t remember exactly what happened to that band. It doesn’t matter. I’m just explaining a little about who Ronnie is. Now, a little story.
During the 1970s a local AM radio station would broadcast, every weekday afternoon, a live 30-minute organ concert from a location in town. I think it was on from 4:00-4:30. The organist’s name was Les Mills and he ran a music studio; not a recording studio, but a place where you could take violin or piano lessons or give a recital or buy school band instruments. The building was quite ornate, if not conspicuous, by Denton standards and always had a formal vibe about it. Anyway, Ronnie and I enjoyed listening to Les Mills’ live performance over the radio whenever we could and marveled at his wild sound. It was from another time. Square wouldn’t be a strong enough term to describe it. We loved it; this creepy twilight zone-ish soundtrack to a roller rink funeral that warbled its way deep into our psyche. Well, guess what? Free tickets were available to see Les play the mighty organ in person. Keep in mind, he was on from 4:00-4:30 in the afternoon during the week. It was so perfectly odd. Pretentious and not pretentious at the same time. So, of course, once we learned it was open to the public, there was no holding us back. I don’t know which local merchants carried Les Mills tickets, but they were easy enough to find and I think we went that same day. Around 3:30 we pulled into the parking lot by the studio and immediately noticed that it was empty. Confused, we got out of the car and gingerly approached the side of the building and looked inside. Although we had heard the usual ads for the show and an announcement that it would begin shortly, we decided it wasn’t going to happen there and started walking back to the car. Suddenly, a flipped-out, well-dressed (suit and vest and maybe even a flower in his lapel) gentleman came out of nowhere accusing Ronnie and me of trying to break in and screaming that he was calling the police. We were stunned and didn’t know what to say. One of us held up our ticket and the frantic gentleman stopped in his tracks, as if we’d just shown him a crucifix. He looked at the ticket and said, “Oh, this changes everything. Come on in.” It was les Mills, himself. He explained that someone had tried to pick a lock on one of his doors recently and figured it was us. Anyway, he graciously led us through the front door, down a hall and into a room designed for entertaining with a stage at one end encircled by deep maroon theater-quality curtains. And in the middle of the stage was a big ol’ parlor organ. On the floor were probably 40-50 chairs arranged orderly, facing the stage. Les instructed us to take a seat and said the show would begin in a few minutes. Of course, no one else was there or likely to show up. So we found the most perfect two seats in the joint and sat down, reeling from what had just happened. At 3:59 Les took the stage and sat at the keyboard, explaining that today was a special day because, as all Dentonites knew, the body of a young girl, who had been kidnapped months earlier, was found that day in a gravel pit in Dallas and the selections for his show that day would be chosen by God and that his fingers and hands would be divinely guided through his music book. And then it was showtime! Les launched into one maudlin song after another. Admittedly, this was a dark day for Denton. Everyone in town had been following the search for the little girl and, to the bohemian Fry Street crowd in particular, this had been especially hard because the girl’s mother ran a popular health food/juice restaurant right by campus. In fact, that building eventually became Benny’s (the first club in Denton to book Brave Combo). Today it’s called Cool Beans and is the only structure that survived a recent controversial block razing in the neighborhood. So, it was, indeed, a sad day, but I think Ronnie and I were hoping to be a little more entertained, even if bizarre is the ultimate entertainment. After about ten minutes we noticed that, contrary to his claim, every song Les played was marked by a paper clip. God didn’t appear to be making the set list at all. At that moment I remembered that Ronnie might start laughing in such a situation. I tried not to look at him, but his attempts to stifle himself were getting pretty obvious. So, here we all were; Me, Ronnie and Les in this extremely weird funeral chapel/concert hall just trying to get to 4:30. Sometimes, even often, experiences that stay with you are not exactly high on the predictably “fun” scale. Usually they’re simply situations with high impact; enough impact to brand an image on your brain. This was one of those times that I was playing the part of Carl stuck in the middle of something unique which can never happen again. Although I was somewhat wigged-out by the whole thing, I loved every second, even if the occasion was solemn. Oh yeah, I think the sky was gray and I’m almost sure there was a light drizzle falling the whole time. I don’t remember many specific details after Ronnie started laughing. The tension level went up considerably, but I just became focused on getting out of there. I guess Les eventually played his final number and we left. I wonder what happened to that guy. His fancy place is still there, but the days of a daily afternoon organ concert broadcast live from a spooky environment are way gone. I can’t tell you how much I think this sucks. So, I’ll stop my little story right here.
One day recently we got an email at the office from Rounder records, informing us that our version of “Feliz Navidad,” from our CD, IT’S CHRISTMAS, MAN would be on the TV show, UGLY BETTY, the very next night. We made a point to watch and, sure enough, it was there, during the final 30 seconds. Sounded pretty. The last word of the episode was “heart,” sung by me. Before I knew it, the next show had started and it was full of exposed brains and exploding arteries, with little segments of light-hearted human interactions. I don’t think any of our songs were used in that show. Brave Combo wants to thank the good people at UGLY BETTY for having such good taste.
Speaking of Christmas music, we’re back to old tricks, taking traditional, reverent, sometimes sacred material and turning it into something new by arranging it in an old “uncool” style. This is physics, people. Please come out and hear the results of our evil experiments. Snap to! We only do this once a year, even if it seems like Christmas is coming around every couple of months. That’s physics, too, but more like the kind of physics that applies to global warming. Somehow, I think, the world linking up, as efficiently as the Internet allows, somehow creates time acceleration. For instance, 100 years ago, a minute was actually longer than a minute in 2007. It also has to do with how much activity we think we can cram into a minute in 2007. I always, always, always think I can do more than I have time for. You do this, too. And this tendency is diminishing the quality of our time. But, Brave Combo is constantly over-extended. So, that’s the way it is. A minute feels like what we think 30 seconds should be. So, you really don’t have a minute to lose. Use your time wisely. Make that decision to come to a Brave Combo Holiday Show and share our confused vision of sugar plum fairies dancing the polka in the middle of a dried up meteor crater with one million three-toed sloths gazing at them apathetically.