PT 3: CHEERS! Where everybody knows your shame!

(from Part 2) I knew something was up because Zoran was always much too busy to actually sit and break the bread during a Saturday dinner rush. “Jay, tonight’s a special night as my parents are visiting. They have friends and relatives coming in from the old country. We’re going to reserve these tables in the back and have a traditional meal prepared for them. It’s my mother’s birthday! I know it’s going to get busy in here in a few hours and the Newfies…well you know what I mean…the Newfies will get a little crazy. They’re going to want you to drink on stage and play those dirty songs. Now you know I like that normally uh? Right? You know I like what you do, but just for tonight I need you to calm down. Just take it easy. You can still have some drinks but don’t play those songs. Especially that’a song about “It’s forty below and I don’t giva fuck! OK? Just wanted you to know!”
“You got it Zoran. Gonna be a fun night man.”
Famous last words.

Flash forward to 9pm.

I find myself on stage with the usual Saturday night glow. The joint was jumping. Suddenly, in walks Zoran in a white suit accompanied by his wife in a long sequined black dress and an entourage of Euro-chic relatives and friends adorned in silk and fur. It was like a NOLA  Mardi Gras procession, only the revelers weren’t jazz fans – they were Stompin Tom fans – and I wasn’t Dr. John,  I was “Dr. J ” master of disguises. As they made their way to the reserved table, the place was overcome with an audible hush. There became the implicit understanding that Zoran had special guests in the house, and even the Newfies were obliged to calm down (a feat akin to the Apollo landing).

Midnight. The hour in any bar when “ALL BETS ARE OFF AND NO ONE IS FAITHFUL”. (I want to credit this line and philosophy to an Irish Public House owner from Dublin who I met while in Athens Greece. He’d just retired from inheriting the business from his family after having started in the bar at the age of twelve. “Fifty five fucking years later son and I finally sold it! There isn’t a story I haven’t heard or thing about human nature I haven’t observed! I know one thing for sure ” Give people a few drinks and by the time it hits midnight ALL BETS ARE OFF AND NO IS FAITHFUL!” I never forgot that.)

Midnight. The crowd had become seemingly restless with my lack of antics they’d come to know and love. They slowly started demanding pure nonsense:  “Bud the Spud! I’ve Seen Pubic Hair!” The tension grew palpable and suddenly the rising din of beer bottles being slammed on the table to the tune of RODEO SONG – RO – DE – O – SONG….clang clang clang. It was medieval. It was enticing. It was something I just couldn’t do.
Suddenly Zoran, as if in slow motion, stood up from the back of the room, glowing in his white suit, made a gesture with his hand across his throat as if to say “DO NOT PLAY THAT SONG – PLEASE? AS WE DISCUSSED EARLIER” and stared directly into my blood-shot soul.

That split second felt as though it was an eternity. If I’d have played the song, who knows what Zoran would have done? Would he throw me out on the spot for this amazing betrayal? If I didn’t play the song, my legions of lowest common denominator fans would have surely staged a mutiny.  How could I live with devalued street cred (at least until the after party kicked in).
Then I had a thought. It’s the kind of boozed soaked thought that can only come when you get off on walking the tight rope of social decorum.  Zoran and his family represented about ten people. The revelers represented ten times that. Simple math? Besides, it was not like Zoran and myself had ever shared more than a five minute conversation in the two years I’d been there. But the fans…MAN. The fans! They’d become my friends. I thought, if I appease them I can’t go wrong.  Zoran will forgive me once he sees the bar receipts and I’ll retain all street cred.  So, without further adieu I took the soldiers stance…I put my hands in the G chord position, slowly raised my fresh pint of draft and toasted the bar, toasted Zoran’s mother – sang happy birthday and spoke into the mic.  “Zoran, please forgive me, but it’s cold outside and I have to go start my truck because we’re heading to the rodeo tonight.”
“Well it’s forty below
And I don’t give a fuck
Got a heater in my truck
And I’m off to the rodeo
It’s an allamande left
And allamande right
C’mon you fuckin’ dummy
Get your right step right
Get offstage you goddamn goof
Y’know you piss me off
You fucking jerk
Get on my nerves”….

The place erupted like Manchester United scoring the go ahead goal with a second to go. It felt like an over-reaction. It seemed too obvious – as though the bar levied an insult directly to Zoran and his unsuspecting family.  I saw the white flash of  his suit crumble into his chair. Disgraced and humiliated in his own bar. A man too gracious to make a scene in front of his family he let the show go on and rode out the night. I continued to play well past 1am and as they paraded out of the bar Zoran leaned in to me and quietly whispered “It was a good run! Come by for breakfast tomorrow.”

The morning after hangover depression only heightened how bad I felt for my behaviour the night before. But then again, I was used to that feeling. Nothing a few days of sobriety and hard work wouldn’t cure. That filthy need to be loved – the great ego stroke –  fucking hubris  – booze – weed – it all took over and in one moment I’d betrayed Caesar when he was at his most vulnerable. A guy who’d been nothing other than fair to me. Maybe that girl who’d left that message on my phone a few hours earlier was right. I truly WAS an asshole. I could only hope Zoran would understand that it was all just a blur of good times with some poor choices made along the way.

“Jay, I don’t know what to say about what happened here last night man. I know things get out of control and I guess I am partially to blame for letting it happen. It’s not all your fault!” (Are you kidding me? What a guy!)
“Well, Zoran, I was caught up in the moment and really didn’t want to offend YOU, I was just playing into the crowd. I’m really sorry man!”

It was during breakfast that we had our longest conversation. I learned even more about his family back home and his current family in Canada.  He told the story of why he bought the bar and all of his future plans. He couldn’t believe I had a university degree and that I’d been playing other shows as a songwriter. It was a great way to end things. He was ready for a change and so was I. It was meant to happen. But before I left, he told me a story that really taught me a lesson.
“Jay, do you remember six months ago you were playing Saturday afternoon matinees? Performing your own songs?”
“Yeah for sure. It was OK but it wasn’t too profitable for either of us as I recall.”
“Well, there was that elderly Jewish man sitting at the bar with a friend who was paying a lot of attention to your songs. Remember him?”
“Yes I do. He wrote down his first name and phone number on a piece of paper beside the word DIRECTOR but I just thought it all seemed too weird. I remember him saying he worked in film and really liked the song I wrote about my mom. Why?”
“Well, he really is a highly respected Canadian director you know. He came back in here a few months ago and told me how disappointed he was that you didn’t follow up with a phone call. He was going to give you a break. You didn’t take it seriously man. He really was upset!”
“Oh wow, Zoran. You’re killing me. I guess my cynicism is my worst trait.”
“No, Jay….you just have to start believing in yourself a bit more.’
I’ll never forget that conversation with Zoran. He was setting me straight.
(Having saved the number I actually called the director the following week – who must remain nameless – and apologized for not following up right away. He scolded me and talked about missed opportunities and professionalism and kindly asked that I not contact him again. Ouch.)

I would walk by the bar a few more times over the next couple of years and it seemed awfully quiet. It always filled me with mixed emotions. Finally, one night I was out on a first date and she said “Hey, that bar has Karaoke! Let’s go try it out!”
Without even getting into it, I let her lead me back into Cheers. I couldn’t believe what was going on. It was the first time I’d ever seen my replacement. The stage had been moved to the right. There was a new sound system with some random dude inviting everyone to come up  to sing and dance while they read the words on a TV screen. After watching a steady stream of folks hit the stage to butcher Patsy Cline’s Crazy, I decided to kick it old school and give them an ironic version of American Pie. For eight glorious minutes I sang about The Big Bopper, Elvis, Janis Joplin, Buddy Holly and Chevrolet’s and some good old boys drinking whiskey and rye. Karaoke. The day the music died – INDEED!

I didn’t recognize a single person in the place. I walked up to the bar and asked “Hey is Zoran here tonight?”
“Zoran? Oh god no. He sold this place over a year ago. Who are you?”
“Oh I used to play here on weekends a while ago!”
“YOU’RE JAY? People come in here and ask about you all the time. They want to know where you’re playing these days?”
“Oh that’s nice…mostly just taking a break.”
“Cool. Hey are you the guy that played that Rodeo song one night?”

I smirked and walked away knowing that the story and the legendary night had lived on. If you’re gonna go out…you may as well go out in a great ball of fire like Jerry Lee Lewis. (Mind you – it’s not like I married my thirteen year old cousin or anything.)

Oh and the Buick LeSabre Estate Station Wagon with wood grained paneling? It caught fire in my driveway. The neighbour saved our house by putting it out with a fire extinguisher. I sold it for parts for $200.

“Well it’s forty below and I really give a fuck cuz I don’t have a truck and I’m off to the rodeo!”



One response to “PT 3: CHEERS! Where everybody knows your shame!”

  1. Jay, i have read all of you road stories over the past year and look forward to everytime one pops in my in-box. This story was as great as all the others. you are not just a talented songwriter but an awesome storyteller. Please write a book. Please write a book!
    cheers and merry christmas.
    steve purtelle
    acoustic grill

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