(Originally published here on October 6, 2007.)
We were a garage band without the garage.
The guitarist David Higginbotham e-mailed me earlier today and asked me to recall and write down everything I could about a bizarre chapter in our lives, a short-lived association with an improvised and seat-of-the-pants blues band we were part of in San Francisco forty years ago. Its official name was Mother Blue, but I always thought of it as T.J. Faulkner's All-White Blues Band.
In 1968 I was working the sandwich counter at a well-established, sleazy, and sometimes frightening dive on Upper Grant in North Beach, the Coffee Gallery. T.J. Faulkner was one of the local musicians who played there frequently for a chance to pass the hat. T.J. was tall and emaciated, with sandy blonde hair and huge John Lennon-style glasses which constantly slid down his nose. He played only slide guitar and always in the key of open D, usually the Roll and Tumble Blues, an old Delta standby, and often the first tune young kids in Mississippi learning that style try to imitate. His guitar sounded kind of like farm machinery, and his vocal style was that of a man whose feet hurt. It was definitely bluesy, and boozy.
I don't know how T.J. got wind of the fact that I knew how to play drums (although I hadn't played or owned a kit for six years). Probably my girlfriend, a plump, pretty, black-haired Jewish girl just arrived on the west coast from New York City, told him. She was always trying to promote me, even after we were married and she knew better.
T.J. introduced me to his partner, a harmonica player named Albert Ponzi who performed under the stage name Albert Rush. He had a fat wife whom he loved passionately, and was a mild and harmless person. I offered to rent a kit and show up for a rehearsal, and when I did I was surprised to discover that I could play as well as I had when I stopped drumming, six years earlier, as if I'd never missed a day.
We rehearsed, amazingly enough, in T.J.'s second-floor San Francisco apartment, and even more amazingly, never got any noise complaints, even though rehearsals were frequent and amplified. We'd show up at about ten in the morning to be greeted by T.J., trembling and shaking from heavy drinking the night before, trying to roll a cigarette and scattering Top tobacco all over the place. Then he'd give one of us fifty cents to go downstairs to the corner store to get him a quart of beer. It was the only way he could steady himself enough to play. I remember the ritual well -- a puff on the cigarette, simultaneously pushing his glasses up to the bridge of his nose, then a quick swig on the quart bottle.
T.J. lived with his wife, a pretty woman with a shriveled leg and a perpetually fear-stricken look on her face, as if catastrophe was about to strike at any moment. She seemed to consider it her lot in life to be living with an alcoholic street singer.
There were four of us. I never figured out how we secured the services of David Higginbotham, a young, blonde, neat and fastidious North Beach hippie who managed to give the group a fairly fat sound. He played a conventional guitar -- a Telecaster I think -- with a heavy emphasis on the bass strings, to compensate for our lack of a bass player.
Our first job (if you could call it that -- we mostly played for free beer, which was fine with T.J.) was at an all-black bar across the street from the Cow Palace. That was a nerve wracking night, but it actually came off pretty well. We had about 20 songs, about half of which were variations of the Roll and Tumble Blues. We also covered "No Expectations" by the Rolling Stones, and Robert Johnson's "Walking Blues," as well as an obscure twelve-bar goodie called "Duckin' and Dodgin'" by an obscure prison singer, Hog Man Maxie. The name was soon applied to David the guitarist, whom T.J. ever after referred to as Hog Man Higgins. Probably our best songs were covers of Savoy Brown's version of "Shake 'Em on Down" and Bo Diddley's "Don't Let it Go."
After the Cow Palace job we had another beer gig in Berkeley, and then a job that actually turned into something down in Palo Alto. By that time we had an ersatz manager named Jim Rose, and when he saw a film crew shooting in the Palo Alto bar while were playing, he cornered the guy in charge and shook him down. We got about 50 bucks apiece that night.
There were also a couple of bass players, but they didn't last. One guy showed up for rehearsal, sang and played well, and obviously felt like he was better than the group, which he was. He came along for a free-beer matinee Rose fixed up for us at a little bar in Bernal Heights, and sang about half the tunes. Afterward, T.J. accused him of "trying to take over," and that was the end of him.
About this time the three-month rental on my little three-drum, one-cymbal kit was up, and I'd had enough of T.J.'s delicate condition. Whenever we played, we'd always have to get enough alcohol into him so that he'd stop twitching and be able to play fluently, then work to keep him from downing so much that he ended up on his lips. He also fought with his poor wife a lot, and the drama was beginning to get on everyone's nerves. Plus I'd just been indicted for refusing the draft and I was expecting to go to jail soon for a fairly long stretch.
I never did go to prison (I was eventually acquitted), but I was glad to be done with T.J. Faulkner's All-White Blues Band just the same. I didn't lose contact with Higginbotham (we were practically neighbors) and later on he and I were together in even stranger adventures. But that's another story.