Have you ever pissed off a crowd of thousands of people to the point where they made rude noises and pelted you with whatever they had at hand? It’s obviously not a common hazard in most lines of work. Neither a house painter nor a chef would experience this no matter how bad a job they did. Most of us know of a lawyer or a politician somewhere who might deserve it, but even the worst of them are mostly just sneered at. Oddly enough, it seems that people save this special treatment for performers. Whether they be baseball players, comedians, or rock bands, if they fuck up according to the standards we set for them, we show them no mercy.
On the night of August 23, 1978, the standard the 9,000 people at the Civic Center in Portland Maine set for us was simple: “We are not here to see your band the Fools
, we are here to see the Doobie Brothers. Play your stuff quickly, don’t bother us, and get off the stage before our drugs wear off.” These were very clear guidelines, and we understood them, but up till that point in our lives it was the biggest show we’d ever played and we wanted to show what we were all about. We knew heading in that we were not your average backup band; along with our punched up pop music there was always a certain amount of shtick (Yiddish word meaning comic theme or gimmick) and even the odd costume change by me. This was the aspect of the band that a manager and a major record company would soon try to eliminate, essentially saying to us SHUT UP AND PLAY MUSIC. Before this show we even discussed playing it straight, but it seemed to be the coward’s way out. We would go on and do what we goddamn do goddamn it because this was who we were and there was no turning back now!
As we hit the stage most people were still finding their seats and a hum of excitement filled the arena. Though we were starting to get known in the Boston area, Portland, Maine, might as well have been Spain for all these people knew of us. We would eventually play in Madrid and think that it was easier than this night in Portland. And so, full of foolish confidence in the path we had chosen, we blasted into our first song, “Spent the Rent,” a choppy little number about being broke but partying anyhow. The song was followed by a smattering of polite applause. The arena lights were only now dimming and some people still had their backs to us. Next came “College Girl,” a song about a small town dirtbag trying to score some educated, upscale ass. A low grumble followed this song, as if the audience felt tricked, and a boo or two could be heard. It’s funny how that is; 3 or 4 people booing in an undecided but already grumbling crowd can give you a general feeling of unease, as if that bump on the horizon could be a huge wave coming at you. Song number three was where we’d planned our first bit of frivolity, and it was here that the tsunami hit and the wheels began to fall off of our little clown car. The song was called “WWII” and just as the crunchy power chords started it, I jumped behind an amp for my first costume change. I re-emerged wrapped in an American flag, playing a broomstick as if it were a guitar, and wearing a metal army helmet. This would win them over. I leapt into the first verse:
Jap Zero in a dead dive, I can’t get warm enough in the stinking jungle
God damn army chow, another fuckin’ stoned bummer
Let me tell you ‘bout Sheila oh yeeeeea!
By now what had been general distaste started to turn towards open hostility as the crowd, appalled at our attempts to entertain them, booed, jeered, and collectively flipped us off. Undeterred by their bad manners, we ground into the second verse:
Smells bad livin’ in a foxhole, can’t find my cig-a-rettes
Hey Kawalski keep your fuckin’ head down
You want me then go take a number oh yeeeea!
People were now jumping up and down, and waving their arms, as the first cup of beer hit the stage and doused my pants. This seemed like a good idea to others and soon all manner of objects began landing around us. Beer cups, empty food containers, and ballpoint pens rained down upon us. Loose change, belt buckles, and even a friggin’ lawn dart (?) landed at my feet. It wasn’t that they disliked us, they fucking hated us and wanted us to die. How weird is it that we let so many important things pass in life, but we seem to say “Don’t fuck with my leisure time.” Years later, when I was at a zoo in Germany and saw a group of monkeys jumping, screaming and throwing their feces at anyone who came close to their cage, I would remember this crowd.
By the time we got to the guitar solo, we were ankle deep in debris and moving carefully. I remember looking at the other guys in the band and realizing that they weren’t afraid. The irony of the situation was classic: we were playing a song about soldiers in a foxhole, and here we were in our own foxhole getting bombed. The choice was either walk off the stage and don’t ever play again because we obviously suck, or find a way through the night and maybe even enjoy the moment. We decided to stay. Just before the war song ended, someone from high above, or far away, threw one of those pot pipes made from small metal plumbing parts. It clanged on top of my helmet and for the next couple of songs there were some notes I wasn’t hearing, but we finished the set. I wish I still had the dented helmet.
I’ve told many people this story and they listen sympathetically until I tell them that the experience was somehow exhilarating, and then they think I’m nuts. This is how I see it: if the whole night had been a smattering of applause after each song, accompanied by general audience boredom and indifference, I would look back at it as a dismal failure. After our set the Doobies’ Skunk Baxter
came into the dressing room and said “That was fucking great!” He then asked if we wanted to come on stage during their encore. I found this to be a supreme kindness from someone who owed us nothing, but I said something like “Thanks but you don’t need us up there.” The Doobies then went on and played one major hit after another, for 2 hours, including the that-night appropriate “What a Fool Believes.” During their second or third encore, after they had thanked and gotten ovations for not only the mayor, and the arena staff, but the floor mats and chairs, Skunk said “Let’s hear it for the Fools!” It was the only down moment in two hours
of adoration as people almost growled their confusion and displeasure at their hero’s mention of the evil jesters.
It’s an odd thing to be booed, pelted, and publicly flogged for playing music people haven’t been trained by radio to like, but within 6 months we were getting airplay in Portland and backing up Rush in the same arena to probably many of the same people; this time to an encore. The lesson is this: it’s sometimes good to challenge the format, but always remember to wear a sturdy helmet.
Used by permission from Mike Girard
from Psycho Chicken & Other Foolish Tales