“Saddam Hussein is like a real Robin Hood to the man on the street here.”
This isn’t Radio Baghdad talking, but a Houston cab driver, who continues: “If he can drive a barrel of oil up to the price it should be, maybe they’ll start drilling again here and save the Texas economy.”
As profound a cabbie screed as this may have been, it was impossible, careening through downtown Houston recently, not to be distracted by a large theater marquee announcing “Chris Gaffney and the Cold Hard Facts” in black, Depeche Mode-size letters.
It was an arresting sight, considering that in Gaffney’s hometown of Costa Mesa one can scarcely find a store that carries his latest album.
But any intimations that the maverick country band had found fame under the Texas sun proved premature. The marquee was merely advertising a free weekly outdoor beer bust that would feature Gaffney five days hence. And according to Houston club owner Pete Sellen, the gigs aren’t that big an honor: “How much regard does it show for musicians to set them up in the heat in a town where they won’t even play baseball outdoors?” he asked.
Catching up with the Gaffney band outside of Sellen’s Bon Ton Room club, the musicians weren’t looking any too famous.
“I feel like hammered dog meat,” noted guitarist Danny Ott, expressing the consequences of a rather liquid diet and days of travel in a Plymouth Voyager, a wonderful Detroit piece of deception in which a golf cart masquerades as a passenger van.
Singer-accordionist-guitarist Gaffney, 39, his bassist brother Greg, keyboardist Wyman Reese, drummer Tucker Fleming and Ott had left home six days earlier, essentially looking for new walls to beat their heads against.
Gaffney’s minor-label album “Chris Gaffney and the Cold Hard Facts” had received scattered radio play and a rave review in People magazine (as well as in The Times) since its January release, and the group had given a rapturously received performance at the influential South-by-Southwest conference in Austin, Tex., last March.
But that airplay and influence hadn’t been sufficient to make inroads with the staid country music industry, and now the band was running that curious music-world gantlet known as “the road.” Somewhere between the mental tread wear of daylong drives--they put 4,800 miles on the Voyager in two weeks--the road food, the dicey accommodations and the money grief, bands have the opportunity to build a name, play for their scattered fans, make some new ones, and sometimes find that elusive joyful on-stage spark that only a day full of friction can produce.
Whether that’s recompense enough, only the musicians can say. For an outsider tagging along with the band for a week, it seemed kind of like driving through hell for the occasional cold beer.
Houston’s Bon Ton Room, though, was practically a six-pack onto itself. Pete and Pat Sellen are that rare breed of club owner who actually love music. The club’s message tape gushed high, you-gotta-see-these-guys praise for Gaffney, and they were even more effusive in person. Pete listens to the album constantly, he said, and it was, indeed, playing as the band loaded its gear into the club.
When it was time to perform, there were only about 45 people in the club, prompting Gaffney to remark, “a slight chill has overtaken the room” while apologizing to Sellen for being such a poor draw. Sellen’s response was, “Don’t worry about it. We’re looking at this as the start of a long relationship.”
The concern turned out to be unwarranted anyway. The club soon filled up, and the band knocked back its array of hard country, Tex-Mex, blues, rock and zydeco as if they were tequila shooters lined up on a bar. Not long into the band’s second set, Houston Chronicle music writer Rick Mitchell exclaimed, “These guys ought to move to Texas. They’re the perfect Texas band.” At evening’s end, Sellen paid the group $750, more than band members figured he took in at the door that evening. If that seemed like too much going right, the next day easily made up for it. A chunk of the day was spent getting some emergency maintenance done on the van and the tiny rented trailer into which their equipment was force-fit. After installing two new tires on the trailer, mechanics pronounced everything OK. The van’s disturbing bump persisted though, and an inspection at the motel found a rear shock had rattled entirely loose, unnoticed by the mechanics. It’s unclear how Ott and Reese fixed it, but they did ask for some Super-Glue at one point.
The Banana Bay Club on Lake Conroe 45 miles north of Houston had “bad gig” written all over it, with the first signal being that the only people in the place who didn’t look like genetically engineered, Body-Gloved Californians were the band members. Jet-skis and other forms of abundant consumption lined up at the docks outside; above them flew the Stars and Stripes along with a more colorful flag proclaiming “Party Time!”
As the band set up, the club deejay played Heart, Boston and other generic ‘70s leftovers. A Bachman-Turner Overdrive song was cut short so Gaffney could start, and an audience member warned them, “Hey, if you’re going to cut off BTO, you’d better play some . . . Aerosmith!” Gaffney refers to such people as “16-piece-Chicken-McNugget-heads,” and after the show suggested, “we weren’t loved.”
Most of the crowd expressed indifference, with the exception of some blisteringly drunk large people who couldn’t really be counted since they kept falling over. When one took an unscheduled dive to the linoleum, Gaffney cajoled him over the microphone, “Damn those bar stools. How’s the weather down there?”
A large part of country music has always been based on trouble, both in dealing with hardship and, far more difficult, living with the hardship we may have caused others. It’s music that admits we screw up sometimes, and several of Gaffney’s finest songs grapple with personal contacts with divorce, desolate relationships and even barrio turf wars. But all of this seemed lost on the Banana Bay crowd. By all appearances, the greatest suffering any of them had experienced was perhaps wiping out on a jet ski or developing a depilatory itch. Though they didn’t particularly want more of the band, the club manager rounded the day out by strong-arming them into playing a third set, threatening not to pay them, and then trying to pay them $100 less than the contracted amount.
Calling home later in the evening, Gaffney learned that a letter had arrived from Warner Bros.’ Nashville office informing him that, for the second time, the label had decided not to sign him. Among the reasons, his wife Julie told him it read, “Chris has absolutely no energy.”
Gaffney takes a stoic approach to such things. “I try to look at it from the perspective of being another pimpled guy trying to get a date, and the chick turns you down, so you go on to the next.
“Hey, I’m Bobo, the Dunkin’ Clown"--he’s referring to an Orange County Fair attraction, a sneering, abrasive dunking-tank chairee, who, whenever beaned into the water, pops up rasping, “I’m back! . . . high and dry!”
“I’m driven,” Gaffney said, “I’m not going to stop until something happens, or until it gets too embarrassing to continue. When somebody says, ‘Hey, sodbuster, why don’t you just sit down for a while--the kids got some records they want to play,’ that’s when I’ll hang it up.”
Some bands floss on the road. This isn’t one of them. (“Tartar holds your mug together,” Ott maintains.) On the drive from Houston to New Orleans, the band van was aswirl in Marlboro smoke, with most of the cigarettes crunched into sad hobo angles by the cramped ride. These were joined by a steady flow of Budweiser cans--the South doesn’t have much truck with open-container laws (New Orleans is, after all, noted for its drive-through daiquiri stands).
For most groups at this level of success, touring is a money-losing proposition until they’re able to build a decent following. To minimize the dollars lost, the Cold Hard Facts had planned on camping instead of staying in motels, an idea that fell by the wayside after one attempt. It’s hard to make camp at 4 a.m., though a dirt floor would have been preferable to some of the scuzzed-out lodgings they found.
The camping notion did add some rumpled sleeping bags and tent pieces to the back of the Voyager, which, with its complex layering of clothes, bottles, jumper cables, bagpipes (yes, bagpipes ) and such, came to rival the strata of Troy.
The band members would alternately sleep or talk during the long drive, though Greg did both. A longtime sleep-talker, he would conduct animated, one-sided conversations in his sleep.
Tucker Fleming, for whatever reason, had collected 16 bars of motel soap, and was preparing to see just how many would fit into the slumbering Gaffney’s open mouth, when the latter was awakened by a van jolt that sent a corner of a toolbox poking into his eye. If this ain’t the life, what is?
There is some pressure for this to appear like a reasonable, businesslike enterprise. All the band members are either married or acting like it with a live-in partner, and not all their better halves are supportive of their musical pursuits. On a call home, one was told there would be divorce papers waiting when he returned.
And while it would seem one of love’s ideals is to support a mate in realizing his or her dreams, a spouse might also reasonably see herself in the role of helping these guys face reality. The musician’s lot--working for chump change and getting home after the morning paper arrives--gets harder to justify as one nears 40, and the road just amplifies that.
“It’s a fine line we have to take with our wives,” said Greg, 37. If we say how much fun it was, they’ll get mad that we ran off on a vacation; if we say how much hell it was, then they’ll argue, ‘why you ever would want to do it again?’ when we’re going out the next time.”
New Orleans was a special gig, both because they were headlining the world-renowned Tipitina’s club, and because it gave Chris a chance to see his 11-year-old daughter Erika. Though Gaffney’s ex-wife and her new family were generous with their hospitality, a visit to their house was nearly the proverbial last straw for a couple of members.
After an eight-hour drive and a hideous gut-gouging truck-stop meal, no one was quite ready for the household’s 6-year-old twins, boundlessly energetic little hellions just waiting for the opportunity to turn a recumbent musician’s body into a Mutant Turtle battlefield.
Monday at Tipitina’s is some form of “college night,” and after the Banana Bay show, the band was worried about looking like grizzled old men--which, essentially, they are--in front of another college-age crowd. But, though the club wasn’t nearly packed (in part because hometown heroes the Neville Brothers were appearing across town), it was an appreciative crowd, and it offered some examples of the singular fan loyalty Gaffney’s music is slowly earning.
One such is Carla Dugger of Huntington Beach, who, working in the air travel business, was able to fly in cheaply just to catch the Tipitina’s gig. No time to see New Orleans, just the show. “They’re that good,” she said.
Steve Rucker, associate professor of art at Loyola University, had delayed a trip out of town to catch the band.
“I heard their CD at a party a few months ago and flipped,” he said. “It might not be getting played on the radio, but I turn as many people as I can onto it. I’ve got 30 friends and relatives in Tennessee for whom (Gaffney’s song) “Lift Your Leg’ is an anthem now. I love country music, and it’s so rare to find lyrics that are this intelligent and real.”
The Tips gig offered an example of just how real those lyrics get. Gaffney’s daughter was in the audience, so he found himself singing his words to “Daddy’s Little Girl” directly to her:
There’s a cold moon shining out my window tonight
She left with her momma and it didn’t seem right
Tears through the back seat window, what had I done wrong
To make my baby a part of such a sad, sad song?”
Watching, Rucker said: “That song touched my heart when I heard it. That happened in my life, and it made me feel it wasn’t just a song to him, either. And there it is right in front of you.”
He wasn’t the only one moved by the moment. “I barely made it through that,” Gaffney said. “I got a little bubble in my throat and it was almost Vicki Carr cry-real-tears time. It was hard because that little girl is so sweet and she’s right there, and I’m thinking about all the mistakes I’ve made.”