“SLEEPS SIX, ***** TWELVE”/”Killer Swan – Pt.1″
Today, May 25, is kind of special to me. It’s the late Albert King’s birthday (April 25, 1923 – December 21, 1992). Our band, Evergreen Blueshoes (q.v. in these pages) opened for Albert during one of our WHISKEY A’GO-GO stints, June 19-23, 1968.
It was the closest up I’d ever gotten to a great practitioner in the American blues tradition, one that goes back probably to Reconstruction and is paved with the bottlenecks, picks and 78rpm records of all the usual suspects like Blind Lemon Jefferson and Robert Johnson, and less well-known barnburners like Bukka White, Sleepy John Estes, Son House and Lightnin’ Hopkins.
Btw, these are the guys that ultimately gave us Rock ‘n Roll. “That’s our love child, man. We gave birth to that baby,” one of them once said. Albert King, no relation to BB, was part of that tradition.
Like many of them, Albert was from the One-note Opener school, where a player steps out onto the stage following his introduction and drills you in your seat with a single note. Yeah, no shit, one note. But, oh, what a note.
Albert had a way of starting the set that promised little show but tremendous musical excitement. The band would be on stage setting themselves up, having already fine-tuned Albert’s amplifier to specific, pre-arranged levels, before they started a quiet, rhythmic vamp, drum and bass guitar on the bottom, keyboard or second guitar or both over that. Then Albert would come out, pick up the guitar lying somewhere on stage if he wasn’t already wearing it, put the strap over his head, all the time looking at some point in the middle distance just above the audience’s heads. Then he’d step forward, dig in and play that single, stinging authoritative note that let you know you were going to be in good hands for at least the next hour or so.
It’s hard to explain what that note sounded like. It would be the tonic, i.e., the starting note of the key he was in, played up the neck for richness and hit hard with a vibrato you can only get by fretting the string with your ring finger with the rest of your fingers on the same string behind it, like a loose fist, for control and strength. The amp would be set to just the right amount of reverb and equalization to jump out over the rest of the band like the backfire of a car. I will not do a further meditation on that note.
For the rest of the set he didn’t talk much, and when he did it was in short, pungent bursts of content, like his music. “And now I’d like to play you a medley of my hit,” he’d say before launching into “Born Under a Bad Sign,” his lone chartbuster up to that point. Then he would hit it with a ton of verve and fresh-seeming inflections, aural and visual, considering he’d probably played it a thousand times since its release.
Between shows we’d sit in the Whiskey’s deafening “relaxation” room over the stage, awash in the floor-to-ceiling throb of ‘Sixties overdriven bass guitars and over-miked drum kits and he’d let me watch his hands, which was cool, since I could hardly hear a note he played.
In fact, I don’t know how I ever learned a thing from Albert, since we had to yell to hear each other to make any oral contact at all, but I did. And we always lived to talk about it later at Hamburger Hamlet, a bistro just up the street, where we’d go after the show. No chance of being bothered by our “public” there. It was 1968; we looked just like them and vice versa.
Nevertheless, one nite we started talking to two women there. They acted as tho’ they knew we were performers of some sort and maybe even wanted to “entertain” (Albert’s word) with us. To my astonishment, we made headway. I guess they thought we were players because this was the hottest stretch on Strip, with the Whiskey on that block and several more clubs within a furlong or two from there.
Anyway, we scored. The chicks, who were not prostitutes by the way, said they wouldn’t mind going home with us, “for a drink, but no more; I’m off the pill right now,” said one of them; probably a lie, I thought, but part of the one-nite stand courtship ritual. “Okay,” we said, “just a drink.” No matter how you looked at it, it sounded pretty good for logging a little entertainment for the evening, and if not that nite, maybe some other one.
One little problem, and here it was: “So, where are we going?” said the short, spikey-haired brunette with no bra under the peace sign on her tank top. The other one, a tall, dirty/stringy-blond in elephant bells, also bra-less, looked at us blankly, which I took to mean, “Yeah, me, too; where you gonna take us?”
I lived far away and Albert, instead of sleeping in the band bus, was being quartered by the Whiskey in the “special performers’ suite,” a tiny, single room in the back of the building (the Whiskey was once a bank, so the room was probably once an office) overlooking the parking lot.
I was just about to lay the problem on Albert when he said, “Hey, ladies, tell y’all what: why don’t you let me and Mr. Al (this was the first time he ever called me that) show you the bus, right Mr. Al?” It seemed like a good idea at the time, so I said, “Right on, Mr. Al” (“right back atcha,” as we would say forty years later).
The bus was parked in the Whisky’s lot. It was a converted Greyhound with flat panels screwed on over the company’s trademark corrugation and “Albert King – The Velvet Bulldozer,” painted in three-foot-high iridescent psychedelic letters on the side.
Some of the lights were on. “Shit,” I said to Albert, “looks like some of your guys are in for the nite, Mr. Al.” I glanced back at the two women. They were still looking at the sign, and seemed to be talking to each other about it.
“What’re we gonna do with them, auction them off to the highest-bidding sideman?” I said.
“Easy, there, Sparky,” he said. “I gave the boys the rest of the nite off,” he said.
“But what if they come back early?” I whined. “What if they score, too, and come back early.”
“Don’t worry, Mr. Al,” he said, delivering “Mr. Al” with a leer, “I leave one light on when I’m entertaining. We call it the “smokin’ lamp.” If the smokin’ lamp is lit, I’m smokin’, and they know to split. But even if they did come back with pussy, it’s cool, Mr. Al. The Velvet Bus sleeps six, fucks twelve.”
“Ok,” I said, “Then, I guess I’m down with that.”
“Beautiful, man, ‘specially for you,” He said, “because if they did happen to score, you be the one S.O.L., because the bus does most definitely NOT fuck fourteen.”
“I can dig it, Mr. Al,” I said. Which was fly (his word), because by that time the girls had stopped ogling the sign and the four of us were standing in a purple velvet and velour version of what I guessed would be the interior of Hugh Hefner’s yacht.
Anyway, things went OK. The guys in the band didn’t come back ‘til late that nite, long after Albert and I’d finished entertaining and dropped the two girls back at their crib (again, his word, not mine).
As we were leaving the lot one of the chicks looked again at the big letters emblazoned on the side of the bus, glanced back and forth from Albert to me several times and finally said, “Which one of you is Albert King?” As one, Albert and I pointed to each other.
Albert and I celebrated our good fortune at Leo’s Barbecue on Crenshaw and the Do Drop Inn [look up Selico’s club], in what later would become infamous as South Central, for after-hours shmoozing. Goes without saying they knew which one Al
by Allan Ross
[Part 1 of 2]
See, you’re laughing already, just from the title. But then, usually when I tell the story I make it funny, and after it’s all done I’ll say something about how scared I really was, and sometimes someone in the group knows something about swans and they confirm that there’s a much darker version of the story than the one I’m about to tell you.
Anyway, around mid-spring of this year, a day or so before Memorial Day, I decided it was time for our first semi-familymy wife somehow never ends up on these nature-type excursions with us—canoe outing of the season. I got my two sons, Max and Ben, remembered to get the paddles from under the house, and walked down to the shore of the lake we share with 22 other families to our canoe.
As we approached the docking pier we could see the canoe had been “borrowed,” the lock on the chain that usually secures it to a tree trunk broken, and one of its cane seats partially burned. I was a little angry, but figured I was lucky it had been returned, and decided not to let it spoil our afternoon. No omens here, I decided.
I put the boys in the front and middle of the boat, pushed it out a yard or so into the water, got in myself, and paddled the short distance across and down the lake to an inlet was that connects our lake with two others. There was a rope loosely stretched across the inlet’s entrance, tied on either end to wooden poles about as thick as broomstick handles stuck in the shallow lake bottom. No sign or anything, just the rope slung across these poles a couple of times. It was so casual an arrangement you could almost imagine the wind blew the elements together into a sort of chance assemblage, not meant for anyone to pay any attention to, so I didn’t. I poled us under or around it, I don’t remember, and then it was Dark Continent time.
OPENING TO KILLER SWAN INLET IN HAPPIER TIMES
Going through the inlet that leads from our lake to the lake in the next community is one of the quiet joys of my life. The whole channel can’t be more than a quarter mile long nor is it really wildI mean, it does run through a culvert under a street in a New York City suburbbut it always makes me feel like Bogart in the “African Queen.” It’s a narrow meandering waterway where thick vines and dense bushes with berries and stumpy trees go right down to and over the edges of the banks so that the canal seems almost like a ragged tear in the earth. Forest creatures also come right down to the edges of the inlet, as if their lives, too, were disrupted by the tear. They chirp and call and scream, and make sudden, scurrying movements, and dive into the water almost before you notice them.
There is so much to see and hear that I keep forgetting to steer, so I’m constantly running into some overhanging bush or fallen limb, which intensifies the animal activity which distracts me even further, until it settles back into stasis. I have to admit, it sort of thrilled me to interrupt, and then be accepted, by the fauna of the little preserve; the last time (before the swan incident) I did the inlet I went home and subscribed to National Geographic.
Anyway, we’re slowly, very slowly, poling our way along the channel, stopping frequently, pretending our reveries are important, or at least scientifically significant in an age of shrinking rain forests and disappearing ozone layers, when one of the swans that was in the lake just outside the inlet entrance starts following us.
At a distance it seems to be just a casual reconnaissance on still one more boatload of dumb nature lovers, but as he comes further down the inlet, I see his is a more purposeful mission, and it soon becomes clear he is making right for us. The same thing happened last year: the swan followed the boat into the inlet, hung around it until we had passed a place which had some special significance to him, and then he returned to the lake, so I wasn’t particularly worried.
But this time the swan came very close to the canoe, paddled past it, and posted himself on our starboard side, moving only as fast or as slow as we did.
I figured he was guarding a nesting mate, and in a few more yards I saw the object of his protection: another swan sitting on top of a mound-shaped cone of sticks and twigs that rose out of a small cove created by a twist in the canal’s path—a miniature Sugar Loaf Mountain with a nesting bird for a tophat. We stopped as we came abreast of the roost, and so did the swan, positioning himself about halfway between us and it, and I told the kids that this is what his militancy was all about, and wasn’t it wonderful how nature worked, and how these very same instincts that get mommy and daddy out of bed each day to grouse at each other then go into the workplace, blah, blah, blah. When we were all bored enough with that, we began to paddle on, past the nesting swan and her guardian-mate, to resume our journey into darkest Lewisboro.
The sentry swan seemed to be content that we weren’t going to bother his family. He escorted us a few more yards, then turned around and started to paddle back in the opposite direction. But then, suddenly, he changed his mind.
He wheeled around, and came straight for the canoe, in a move that was faster than I than I had ever imagined a swan could be. And there was nothing casual about it. I had that sinking feeling I used to get on my paper route when a new dog spotted me and started running towards me. Would he stop short and make this a ritual how-de-do, with plenty of growling and barking, but nothing more? Or would this be time I was going to get bitten? Were rabies shots in my future? Would the crazed beast just make it simple and tear me to shreds, making shots and stitches academic?
[THE PHOTO HERE IS OF MAX AND BEN, MY SONS, SHORTLY AFTER THE KILLER SWAN INCIDENT. NOTICE HOW SHAKEN THEY APPEAR TO BE]
The swan came right up to the stern of the boat, where moments before I had been paddling and steering but was now frozen with surprise. He reared up out of the water and began beating the air with his wings and whipping his head and neck around like a short, fat snake.
My breath left me like the last puff of air in a balloon.
I didn’t know anything about swans that had prepared me for this. Also, I had my two little boys with me, and I
never knew exactly how I was supposed to behave in front of them. Do I act like I’m in control when I’m not? Do I try to act like I’m not scared shitless when I am? How do I protect them if the swan decides to go for them, instead of me, because they’re in the other end of the boat which will tip over if I try to get to them without using the delicate place-changing maneuver prior to capsizing a canoe?
The swan had backed off a couple, three feet, but was keeping pace with us paddle-foot for oar-stroke, mirroring our boat’s every little move with his own counter-moves. But at least he wasn’t attacking.
Now, in case you’re thinking, “Well, after all, it is a swan; how dangerous could he really be?” please know that he is now working himself into a frenzy, goaded by the threat to his family we must have posed and is in the water, where he’s at home. Think about being trapped in a small room with an average sized tomcat, agile and sinewy, fortified with rage; or on the sand with a seagull bent on pecking your eyes out (seagulls are much, much larger than you think when they are two or three feet away). It’s the strength that suddenly endows the all-instincts creature, the promise that they will battle far beyond their normal powers, that makes you realize all bets are off if you think your size or ability to reason is any advantage. I remember once being confronted in the kitchen of a club where I worked by a dishwasher who had overheard me call him a violent psychoticwhich he was. I remember his eyes, white with rage, the veins and tendons in his neck standing out like a lizard’s, and he had a meat cleaver in his hand. That’s scary. It’s the sudden threat of violence that you simply can’t talk your way out of, can’t buy or beg out of, and the weirdness, the bad-dreamness, that disorients you, makes you realize you’re in trouble because you thought you couldn’t possibly be in trouble.
I moved one of the paddles to port arms to be ready to defend us in case of real trouble, and my glasses went flying into the water. Now I would have to try to protect my family from an unfamiliar enemy I could hardly see. I remember wondering if this was really an object lesson in respecting other families’ privacy by seeing how I felt having a trespasser with unknown intentions sidling up to my offspring to have a look-see and maybe cause a little mayhem. I was desperately praying he would know that I did simply want to look and not touch. Would he know that? Was there any reason to try to tell him that in some way? What did I used to do with the dogs that chased me? Did I ever find a way to deal with them? I didn’t remember that I had.
Could I yell to anyone for help? Would anybody be close enough to hear me, let alone help? This one I knew the answer to: No. There wasn’t anyone within a mile or so who could hear or help. And underlying it all: this was a swan, for Chrissakes. A beautiful, silent, graceful, ornamental animal associated with tranquility and peace. I was kneeling in a canoe, holding a paddle like a baseball bat, defending self and kin against a swan!
Now he was back again, almost seeming to sense the advantage he gained when I lost my glasses. I was already sweating from panic, confusion, and the prospect of looking like a coward to my kids, two Koreans to whom macho and bravado were very important. Don’t hero fathers ever have fear for themselves?
Or are they only just afraid for their children? Well, I was afraid for all of us, and I couldn’t tell you who I was afraid for more: my kids or me.
The swan was at my right shoulder now as I twisted to try to pole the boat away from him and still be in some sort of defense posture. I was lightheaded with confusion and disbelief: this can’t be happening. It’s all going to stop in a second, isn’t it, and/or turn out to be a dream.
He was bobbing and weaving, like a boxer looking for an opening. Strictly short term thinking and breathing for me now. Very clear pictures of tearing flesh, pecked-out eyes leaving empty sockets, blood all over the place, and other swans hearing the screams and coming to watch or help, getting even for all the atrocities committed against them by treehuggers and other Upper Westside phonies.
Newspaper photographs of us drowning. And being pecked to death while we fight to stay afloat. And my wife’s voice, hysterical, screeching, “What were you doing going into a prohibited area with two little boys? And
what do you mean, wild swan? What kind of man are you, anyway?”
Now he was arching up out of the water again, beating the air, causing a bitter fluid to boil up inside my chest, like hot mercury in a thermometer. I thought I was going to vomit. He was so close I could see the wild-horse fury in his eyes, and he opened his mouth and whipped his head back like a python ready to strike. He was huge. With us low in the boat, me on my knees holding a paddle in front of me, he seemed to tower over me, and when he spread his wings, literally blocking out the sun, I knew I was no match for him at all. Him in the water, fluid, supple, and stable: me in the canoe, awkward and foolish and on the defensive.
He arched his neck once again, reared back and opened his beak, big, strong and bent back at the tip like a claw—I half expected teeth—and I guessed this was it: the way swans do it. They freeze you in fear and your own clumsiness and incredulity, then tear your flesh off with sharp, hooked beaks. It had become a full-scale death dream, the kind I always imagined people had as they were drowning or about to be in a terrible car crash, everything slowed down to one frame at a time. That I couldn’t run, couldn’t maneuver, could only twist and jump in the canoe like a hooked fish was just like all those trapped-in-slow-motion dreams that make you wake up in a sweat and ruin your night and the following day and make you wonder what’s the matter with you.
And then, suddenly, it was over.
Maybe I had crossed over some invisible line that took me out of the area of threat to his brood; or maybe he just figured I was scared enough. But he abruptly, though gracefully, turned away, as if from some game he was tired of playing and paddled off in the direction of the inlet’s entrance. I waited with my boys about a half an hour and slowly, very slowly, went back the two or three yards to get my glasses out of the shallow water.
It wasn’t until I actually had them on that I felt a modicum of control return, along with the realization that I was now going to have to make a choice: go back the way we came in, i.e., around the swan, maybe or maybe not giving him wide enough berth to ignore us, or go on to the other end of the inlet, which emptied into a neighboring lake, and portage home from there.
Portage is such an ugly word.
[End o’ Part 1]