Sometimes I’m nostalgic for things that never were. Like those old days of the nineties when I was in a rock band.
I was never in a rock band. But there were moments a few decades ago where I stood with my nose pressed up against the glass.
Don’t get me wrong, I was in a group, a couple of groups, and we played music together. Until I had my daughter, and even after next to my daughter this was the center of my life. We got in vehicles to go play shows, we slept in motel rooms, we sat side by side on recording studio couches. We plotted, schemed, sang, laughed, cried and raged together.
What makes a band a band? I think it might be the drummer. And until I started putting out my solo albums, I never had the experience of playing regularly with a drummer. I was only married to one, Will Rigby. He even played with the Shams on occasion. Dee Pop of the Bush Tetras also did a few gigs and some recording with us. It was always a bit of an experiment, because at heart the Shams were a vocal trio.
Without a drummer, a band is – a group?
Without a drummer, a group can travel in a car. Without a drummer, a group can rehearse in an apartment building, not a basement. Without a drummer, a group can set up in the corner of a Polish restaurant and do their thing while people eat pierogis and carry on conversations around them. Not that this is anything to aspire to. But once it happens you find yourself looking back at it fondly years later.
I was never in a band or a group you could classify. There was indie and there was alternative rock but when you’re doing your thing, you don’t sit there deciding what you are. A bat doesn’t fly around thinking “I’m after all, a mammal” and it’s like that with musicians. It’s only the people outside that need to categorize what you’re doing.
The Shams were like the Roches, and sometimes like the Shaggs or the Shangri Las or Raincoats and sometimes Wilson Philips and occasionally we were like the Del Rubios, that trio of near-senior citizens who played guitars and sang on Pee Wee’s Playhouse in matching outfits. They lived next door to each other in a trailer park and drove themselves to gigs, the three of them together in a beat-up clunker of a car. Maybe they were a joke, but they were in it together.
The nineties were a serious time in music – there was still a music industry with money, and record deals and validation were only a life-changing gig or album away. The Shams had an album out on Matador right around the time of Liz Phair’s Exile In Guyville. I didn’t fully appreciate the brilliance of her album til years later because I was too busy being envious of Liz Phair – she was on the same label and that album cast such a huge shadow it was easy to feel sidelined. There was only room for one girl of the moment and she was that girl. Of course now in hindsight it’s possible to look back with gratitude and go “we were on Matador, and people who heard us loved us” but at the time when I was trying to justify all the hours I spent away from being a mom or bringing home money to live on, those things didn’t seem like enough. Success in an alternative world felt far removed from our folksy thrift shop coffee klatsch. I wanted to at least have been to Guyville. How can you turn your back on a place you’ve never been?
The Shams were on one of our short tours which involved the three of us in a car (no drums!) alternating between finding the clubs willing to book us and locating the best barbq restaurants and thrift shops along the way. We played the tiny clamshell stage of the Rainbo Club in Chicago to rapturous applause from the small but knowing crowd. Somebody introduced us to Nash Kato of Urge Overkill, a Chicago band I’d heard of but never heard. Nash, King Roesser and Blackie Onassis were indie rock legends who’d toured with Nirvana. Even the title of their current LP – Stull – had an alien sinister mystery. Nash was entranced by the Shams, he said, pledging his love and allegiance at two AM over shots of bourbon and by the way, was it true we were headed for Minneapolis the next day and was there room for him in our rental car?
The three of us conferred and agreed it would be fun to have a passenger.
“Great,” he said, and then asked if we could give him a ride home. His apartment was two blocks away.
We pulled up at 9 AM the next morning in front of the same doorstep we’d deposited him at a few hours earlier, a tape of Clarence Carter’s “Strokin” blasting from our rental car player. Based on the amount of alcohol he’d consumed, we figured we’d probably never see Nash again. But he emerged from the shadows like Joe D’Allessandro in Andy Warhol’s Trash: tight white jeans, dark shades, brown suede jacket and straight, center-parted shoulder length hair. No suitcase.
He peered into the car. I’m sure we weren’t as entrancing in the cold light of day, and he looked like he was wondering if it was a good look to be seen with three near-middle-aged women in a white Ford Focus.
But he was all charm. “Hello ladies,” he intoned, his voice a good octave lower than it had been the night before, which was very low indeed. He got in the front passenger seat next to me as Amanda joined Sue in the back. As I pulled away from the curb and approached the highway, he ejected Clarence Carter from the tape deck and tossed it out the window, pulling a cassette from his back pocket to replace it:
Shilo when I was young
I used to call your name
When no one else would come
Shilo you always came
He leaned back and lit a joint. I don’t know why his cheesy Neil Diamond music was cooler than our cheesy Clarence Carter music. It was, because he said it was.
As we drove through snowy Wisconsin, he clapped a radar detector on the dashboard.
“Wait,” I said, good Catholic girl to the core. “Aren’t those…illegal?”
His silence was worse scorn than any comment. But I’m a mother! I wanted to shout. Nash was instructing us on road behavior:
“If you’re hungry on the road – eat popcorn. It’s the perfect food.”
“A five minute rule in truck stops – otherwise, everyone will get distracted and stand around forever.”
Ten years of playing music and I’d never been in an actual rock band, with the rules and codes and secret language. Urge had traveled the interstates for years. They didn’t play by human rules, unlike Will’s band the dB’s, who through all their touring had managed to maintain a veneer of southern gentility that had perhaps been their downfall.
“Tell Sue over there it’s wagons ho in thirty seconds, or she gets left behind,” Nash said at a truck stop near Rockford, when Sue tarried a little too long at the rack of sunglasses. There was lots to learn and Nash Kato was an eager Sir to our uncertain Lulus.
When we trooped into a restroom with our hefty vintage makeup cases that had long ago disassociated themselves from their luggage sets, he nodded admiringly.
“Now that’s what I like to see.” Impracticality won points, I noted.
He gallantly took the wheel and drove ninety miles an hour while we put in hair rollers and applied eyeliner. We felt like the group in Beyond The Valley Of The Dolls – innocents on our way to success, or an early midlife demise. We were suddenly in his thrall, unable to say no to his instructions.
“Let me see you hit that stage RUNNING!” he shouted at us, in the dressing room of the Uptown in Minneapolis.
“But Nate, the only way onstage is up these tiny, rickety metal steps?”
“Just do it!” We did, knocking into each other a la the Three Stooges and arriving winded in front of our microphones to face a small, confused audience.
Later that night, he kept us up until dawn at his buddy’s crash pad, playing REO Speedwagon over and over at full volume while we tried to bed down in the brown shag carpeting.
“We’ve got a photo shoot in the morning,” one of us moaned. “We’ll look like hell!”
“Perfect!” he cackled, swigging from a champagne bottle.
On the way back across Minnesota, he talked us into stopping off at his mother’s house. In Wisconsin, we arrived in Madison late at night and spent hours driving around the outskirts looking for a “classic” motel he deemed was the only acceptable place to stay.
“It has to be the Old Towne,” he said, cracking open another beer as Sue blearily did a U-turn in the parking lot of the 7-11 we’d been passed repeatedly for the last hour. “I’m sure it’s on this side of the lake. It’s worth it for the breakfast.”
I was losing my grip when we pulled up for an afternoon gig at the University of Wisconsin in Madison the next day.
“If you act like stars, they’ll treat you like stars,” Nash admonished us as we drank more beer on the terrace of the Rathskeller.
“But it’s just a couple of kids from the Student Activities Board,” I whimpered, my voice shot from nonstop smoking and drinking. I covered up with dark glasses, wishing it would all stop.
We roared back into Chicago with Nash at the wheel, and as he spun the car around 360 degrees in front of the Art Institute, I swear I saw flames and his eyes gleam red in the rear-view mirror. At that moment I prayed I’d never see him again.
But a few weeks later, REO’s “Keep On Loving You” had found its way into the Shams’ set. When the new Urge Overkill album Saturation appeared with its indelible graphics and rock so majestic it was pointless to wonder if it was ironic or not, I couldn’t help myself: I played it constantly.
And when the call came to open a run of east coast dates for the band on their U.S. tour, we had our makeup cases dusted off faster than you can say “Shilo,”
Amy Rigby solo tour
- Thu Oct 18 Chicago Burlington Bar
- Fri Oct 19 Rockford IL house concert
- Sat Oct 20 Minneapolis MN house concert
- Mon Oct 22 Winnipeg MB StuDome
- Nov 1 – 4 Harbor Springs MI Springfed Arts Songwriting Retreat
- UK Nov 10 – 25 dates here