“The music business is cruel and shallow money trench, a long plastic hallway, where thieves and pimps run free, where good men die like dogs. And then there is a negative side.”-attributed to Hunter S. Thompson
There is actually a debate as to whether Hunter S. Thompson said this or not. I suppose because there are variants that are similar attributed to other people. Really? It sounds so much like the guy it has to be Hunter S. Thompson.
Part of this post is a story you may have heard. I like to tell part of this story at shows. usually as an introduction to the song The Long Plastic Hallway. But it definitely needs to be written down for posterity. So here goes. It also allows me to get into the history of Box O’ Laffs one of the bands that preceded Camper Van Beethoven. Like the Estonian Gauchos and Sitting Duck there are a number of Box O’ Laffs songs that ended up being Camper Van Beethoven songs as well. Most notably Ice Cream Everyday and Flowers. So Box O’ Laffs’ story is integral to the history of CVB.
Box O’ Laffs consisted of Eric Curkendall on vocals, Chris Hart on Guitar, sometimes Chris Molla on guitar, keyboards and drums, and then a host of different drummers, Anthony Guess, Chris Pedersen and Richie West. All of which played with Camper Van Beethoven at some point. I’m also quite sure i’m forgetting a drummer or two. But you’ll forgive me if I just move along with the story?
And yes that is how we spelled it: Box O’ Laffs. Sometimes we wrote it this way Box O’ Laffs™ as the name was supposed to evoke a toy or board game. Often the venues would list our name wrong in ads or on flyers. They’d spell it “Box of Laughs”. This drove us crazy.
So Box O’ Laffs™ was formed in 1981 when I met Chris Hart and Eric Curkendall at College 5 at UCSC. I was still living on campus and so was Eric. We constantly struggled to find places to practice. We rarely managed, so much of our rehearsing was done live at shows. There was a neat little formula. Chris and I would make up a couple of very simple repetitive grooves. Then we’d alternate between the two while Eric improvised lyrics over the top. Each “song” had a title and generally Eric sang about pretty much the same thing but each performance was always different. Sometimes radically different.
It was very easy to add a new song to the repertoire. As long as me and chris alternated correctly between the two or three grooves that made up a song, usually the drummer could follow along. And Eric? well he was good at just making shit up on the spot. After a while these improvisations became more and more settled. Eventually they would come to resemble normal songs.
Mostly the college kids we were playing for didn’t notice this process. The grooves we played were kind of bouncy and were easy to dance to. As long as we didn’t stop they danced. No one seemed to notice that Eric would be singing lines from Aleister Crowley’s Book of Thoth, Dr Seuss stories or even laconically announcing a LA Lakers vs Boston Celtics game like a stoned Chick Hearn. This is how we worked out the songs. Sounds crazy i know but the over all effect was we came off like a slightly funky californian version of The Fall.
But a little bouncier. So a lot of people compared us to The Talking Heads.
So what does this have to do with the Hunter S. Thompson quote?
In the summer of 1983 Chris Hart our guitarist was living in LA. He was working for Eric Curkendall’s father in Pasadena. At the very end of the summer he started to call me repeatedly insisting that he had managed to get us a gig supporting The Talking Heads in Los Angeles.
Chris was never the most reliable person. Although he was the most normal or straight laced looking member of the band there was something not quite right about him. Aside from being a poor judge of character he would constantly end up in some fucked up situation. He of course would profess that he was a completely innocent bystander and had no idea how these bad things kept happening to him. The truth was we had all watched him put himself in dangerous situations over and over again. It was strange to us. Cause otherwise he was (and probably is still) an intelligent and thoughtful person
Still we had our guard down when Chris phoned us and said he’d got us a gig with the Talking Heads. We were skeptical but we wanted to believe. We called people we knew in LA for some sort of independent confirmation. Anthony even called KROQ to see if any of the DJs had heard anything about us opening for the Talking Heads. We know from our friends in LA that we weren’t in any advertising. It was 1983 and it wasn’t like we could look on the Goldenvoice website to confirm we were playing. It seemed improbable to us… still we wanted to believe. So after a little badgering from Chris we decided to make the 400 mile drive Santa Cruz to LA to play the gig.
Anthony Guess was at that time the drummer for Box O Laffs. Anthony and I got Joe Sloan to drive his pickup truck to LA. Anthony me and the gear road in the open back of the truck 400 miles to the leafy Los Angeles suburb of Pasadena. It was nearly midnight when we made it to Eric Curkendall’s parents house. Early september. We waited out in the yard smoking cigarettes and enjoying the mild night. we waited for quite a while for Chris Hart and The Talking Heads’ “percussionist”. They didn’t show.
Joe Sloan started to get really impatient and agitated. Finally someone figured out where this “percussion” player lived. We drove over to the apartment which was in a much sketchier area of Pasadena or perhaps even Alta Dena. There we found Chris Hart with a person who in retrospect was very clearly a crack head. Chris seemed pretty disoriented and stoned himself. Did I say apartment? It was really more of a crack house. An upscale crack house, but nonetheless a crack house.
Immediately our spirits fell. Still there is nothing like wanting to believe that something really implausible is true. We began to pepper the “percussionist” with questions.
“What time do we load-in?”
“How much do we get paid?”
“How long do we get to play?”
“Why aren’t we in any of the advertisements?”
The “percussionist” began to get more and more agitated. Finally he’d had enough of us and our ridiculous questions.
“Man I’m not talking about that gig. That gig is the fake gig. I’m talking about the real gig. And the real gig is after that gig. The real gig is on a flying saucer above Los Angeles”.
Joe Sloan is a big man. And at first I thought he was gonna attack the “percussionist”. Instead he turned his attention to Chris Hart. I really thought he was gonna beat the crap out of Chris. He didn’t. But he didn’t do anything to rid Chris Hart of the notion either. That is the rest of the night Chris kept a wary eye on Joe, certain that the ass-whipping was about to come at any time.
Now to quote the lyrics from the third verse:
playing on a flying saucer
box o laffs was supporting talking heads
everyone was high and having a real good time
they was having a real good time.
The story doesn’t end there. In the summer of 2000 I went to the wedding of Virgin CFO Ken Pedersen. There were several other celebrity guests at the wedding and I was delighted to find out that I was sitting at the table with David Byrne. Wow. This is so cool. David Byrne, ever gracious, stood and introduced himself to me as I approached the table. We exchanged greetings and then I said:
“We actually played a gig together a long time ago”
“Yes, it was on a flying saucer above Los Angeles”.
At this point David Byrne backs away almost imperceptibly.
“It’s a long story, you don’t remember because they erased your memory of the event”
Now he perceptibly takes a step back from me. Of course I then realize that i may have genuinely freaked him out.
“I’m joking… well sort of…”
It all ended up okay and I did manage to explain the whole story to David Byrne and he seemed to think the whole thing was amusing. But at the same time I could tell he was thinking what I sometimes think:
“some of our fans are out of their minds.”
The Long Plastic Hallway
La la la la la la
La la la la
La la la la
La la la la
Cigarettes and carrot juice
Marijuana and lots of booze
I threw the flower of youth into that stew
The serpent’s tongues were red and pointy
But they were wearing very cool shoes
Who wouldn’t wanna sell their soul?
REPEAT CHORUS x4
We waited in line for hours
VIP passes bouquets of flowers
To see the brand new siren sing her song
The virgins then were thrown into volcanoes
A beating heart, it was held aloft
And no expense was spared
REPEAT CHORUS x4
Quezacotl and Busby Berkeley
Hanging out in Pasadena
Rodney on the ROQ, and David Byrne
Playing on a flying saucer
Box o’Laffs were supporting Talking Heads
Everyone was high, everyone was having a good time (a good time, they were having a good time)
REPEAT CHORUS x4