#48 Friends – 3 Guys Walk Into A Bar In Canoga Park. Why being backstage at a low grade music festival is like being in Iraq.
Patterson Hood, Johnny Hickman and I Perform Friends.
In february of 1998 Cracker was mixing our Gentleman’s Blues album. Don Smith our producer engineer had just acquired a mini estate in Agoura Hills CA. It had a smallish mansion and enough land that it cost a small fortune to water and landscape. It also had some kind of combo 6 car garage guest house at the bottom of the driveway. Don had set up a studio in the garage/guest house so he didn’t have to drive all the way to hollywood to mix his records. He got to be near his family and at the same time stay up all night mixing albums. I didn’t understand that so much then. Now I do.
That was Don Smith’s playful nickname for the place.
Costalot was little bit of a shock for Cracker cause we were used to being right in the middle of Hollywood or Manhattan when we were mixing a record. We weren’t used to being in a gated community in the far western San Fernando Valley. We weren’t used to being in the nuevo riche suburbs with the faux mission style shopping malls, upscale restaurants and wine bars. As detailed in a previous post Johnny and I back then enjoyed our dive bars, our funky old man bars, and the general seediness of Hollywood and Downtown LA.
So one night, must have been a weeknight and late, like 1:00 am, Johnny Hickman, myself and the Austrian assistant engineer decided that we need to go find a seedy bar and get a drink. First it’s difficult to even find anything open in Agoura Hills at this hour so we head south on the 101 back into the valley. By my recollection we probably ended up in Canoga Park. We finally found a place that seemed to be a sports bar that may or may not have had a country music subtheme. Certainly some pop country was on the juke box when we walked in. And the the only other customers in the place three vaguely jock looking dudes at the bar turned and blatantly stared at us in that particular way that california rednecks stare at you.
To be fair:
1)The Austrian assistant engineer Martin Pradler was wearing tight leather pants.
2)I was commuting out to my cabin near pioneertown on the weekends so I was probably dressed in high desert thrift store hippy cowboy threads.
3)And well Johnny has always been the metrosexual of the group.
We ordered the usual, bourbon on the rocks and a beer. Martin may have ordered schnapps which also probably didn’t help. But the three locals went back to talking amongst themselves. So we lost ourselves in conversation discussing the various songs on the new album and relative merits of the mixes.
After a while i noticed that one of the locals was standing right next to me. He wasn’t the biggest of the three and he didn’t seem overtly hostile, yet somehow i knew something was up. His two friends were watching intently.
“Hey man” I said. I think I kind of tipped my beer towards him in a friendly gesture.
“Can I ask you a question?” he said as he peered around me to get a better look at martin in his leather euro-jeans.
“Are you guys.. are you guys queer?”
I couldn’t believe the softball the guy had tossed my way. And before I could stop myself or consider the consequences I shot back in the most friendly manner, smiling ear to ear.
“No, but what did you have in mind?”
His two friends just about fell out of their chairs laughing. So did the bartender.
Johnny had initially alerted me to the guys presence when he suddenly acquired a guarded serious look and slyly palmed a glass ashtray. (you definitely want Johnny around if there’s gonna be a bar fight). Johnny now visibly relaxed and joined in laughing. The Austrian was the only one not laughing. He was convinced there was still going to be an altercation. No. When everyone laughs at you it’s over with and the guy knew it. He slunk back to his friends. His friends had completely joined our side. They kept yelling at him “yeah what DID you have in mind?”
I did not write the song Friends. Johnny Hickman did. And I’m pretty sure he was not referring to this incident specifically when he wrote these lines:
If a fight breaks out and you’re the cause of it
In some redneck bar where you been talking shit
However it very well could have been about this fateful night in Canoga Park.
“it vas Terrrrrrrrefying” even his hair was frightened.
But it’s not just me that has this survival threatening smart-ass gene. Virtually everyone in the band and crew has at one time or another done something like this. On reflection there are about a million of these incidents I could describe. It’s something about being in a band, being in close quarters driving around busting each others balls constantly that keeps us in this heightened state of smart-assdom. We are all always ready to pounce on the smallest opening. There is intense competition to be the first one to the punch. That’s why it’s funny when people attempt to heckle or make smart ass comments from the audience. They have no idea how practiced we are…
And now that I think about it not just our band. The poor austrian Martin Pradler was also involved in a milder but similar incident with the Counting Crows. That same year I hired Martin Pradler to help with the “This Desert Life” album. Dan Vickery Counting Crows guitarist had taken to purposely referring to Martin as German. This was driving Martin Crazy.
“I’m not German I’m Austrian”
“But it was once all the same country”
“Yes in World War II”
“No-No” Martin was getting visibly flustered ” We were invaded just like most of the european countries”
At this point Adam Duritz couldn’t stand it anymore and kind of runs out of the room in feigned terror waving his hands above his head.
” IT VAS TERREEEFYING, ZEY RODE IN ON BICYCLES!”
This was not only funny in a ball busting way but made a very valid historical point. Austria was annexed by germany in 1938 when German troops-many on bicycles-rode into the country and were greeted with flowers and enthusiastic crowds. Ouch.
This trash talking and ball breaking is an important part of the band’s camaraderie. In fact the old adage is that when people stop making fun of you, you need to worry about getting kicked out of the band. So it is also important to acknowledge and repeat to others when you have been the victim of a particularly brilliant bit of ball busting. It means you belong.
For instance. I must dutifully report that Thursday morning I was in Las Cruces New Mexico with Bugs my childhood friend and former cracker guitar tech. We were driving back from breakfast with our concert promoter when she pointed out a bunch of buzzards circling in the distance. Bugs happily chimed in:
“Oh that’s just David’s career”.
Again all the crew guys and band members are quick this way. Relentless training and repetition. During the recording of Gentlemen’s Blues Bugs had gotten so good at these one liners that we started calling him Shecky Salcido after the comedian Shecky Greene.
We were all in a thrift store in Woodstock NY when a parked car (with a dog in it) rolled down the hill and bumped into another parked car. An older gentleman came into the thrift store and asked
“does anyone in here own a blue toyota sedan with a dog inside”
Bugs quickly fired back “That’s no dog! that’s my wife!”
We were pleasantly surprised that when we went to Iraq the soldiers who transported us around Baghdad engaged in a very similar kind of trash talking and ball breaking. Within our MRAP convoy there were external and internal comms. The external traffic to things like helicopters or to destination bases was highly formal and proper. The internal comms were a profanity laden free association roast of virtually everyone and everything within view of the gunners and drivers. Iraqi women in traditional abayas became “Ninjas” and were treated with mock reverence as a lethal threat.
“Number 2 you got 3 ninjas at your 2 o’clock. Prepare for some wild monkey style”
Iraqi policemen got some of the funniest treatments. This centered on the very specific style the high ranking Iraqi policemen adopted. Very large bushy moustache and 70’s style leather jacket. Like they’d been watching reruns of The Mod Squad. This was summed up best by one of the gunners in our convoy.
“We are training the Iraqi Army and the Paramilitaries. Apparently the Ensenada Police Department is training the City Police”
The ball breaking included us in the band as well. Sal with his thick NYC accent was for some reason a particularly inviting target. Sal also made the mistake of not buckling his 6 point harness properly when we were put in the MRAP rollover simulator. When they flipped us upside down Sal landed on his head with an audible thump. This prompted the operator to ask over the intercom “Is everyone good?”
“I’m not good” came Sals response over the intercom.
This was hilarious to the soldiers in our convoy. We could hear them laughing through the intercom system. If i fall and hit my head it’s tragedy, if you fall and hit your head it’s comedy. For the rest of our time in Baghdad every so ofthen someone would randomly and anonymously pop on the internal comms with an “I’m not good.” Complete with thick NY accent. This was later translated into latin “Salus Non Sum”, and when we made our official coin for the cracker tour we included Salus Non Sum as our motto.
The ball breaking did not stop when we returned to the states. St Patricks day we were playing in Myrtle Beach SC. A typical city street festival thing. We got word that 5 or 6 of the guys from the 82nd airborne that had escorted us around Baghdad would be coming to the show. I realized that they had only been back home in the states for a couple of weeks. I figured there would be some hard drinking that night so i put them in the VIP tent NOT backstage. I just wanted to play it safe. One of the soldiers was underage. Frank took him backstage where Drivin’ n Cryin’ invited him on their bus. This was not lost on the other soldiers. Eventually their highest ranking NCO started bugging me to get take them all backstage. Fair enough I could tell at this point they were all pretty well behaved and didn’t need to worry about them. So I led them all backstage. At this point their sergeant looks around and says to me:
“This is backstage? Tents? Porta-potties? Generators? Steam trays? I can get this shit in Iraq”.
I’d [C] never sleep with [G] your ex-girl-[C]-friend
Even if she starts to flirt with me [G] again
Al-[F]-low me to a-[G]-pologise for my [C] slightly [Bb] wicked [F] thoughts
But [C] that’s the kind of [G7] friend that you’ve [C] got
If a fight breaks out and you’re the cause of it
In some redneck bar where you’ve been talking shit
I would not forsake you later in that parking lot
‘Cause that’s the kind of friend that you’ve got
Through the [F] laughter and the tears
We go [C] stumbling through these years
A bit disfunctional [Bb] some might [G] say
But I’ve [F] got the dirt on you
Hey I got [C] plenty [Bb] on you[F] too
So I [C] pray we stay to-[G]-gether all our [C] days
When you’re on a date and you finally bring that girl home
you put a little captain beefheart on the stereo and disconnect the phone
I’ll show up drunk and ravin’, and then i’ll pass out on the spot
‘Cause that’s the kind of friend that you’ve got
Dear Lord I [C] pray we stay to-[G]-gether all our [F] days