The Rise And Fall of……. VIRGINIA AND THE SLIMS
The ad read: “Female Singer looking for guitarist with drive for punk band Influenced by Blondie: call Virginia”.
The Recycler. Last gasp classified rag of hope for all unsigned musicians. Should I call this ad? I am reading this advert at my place of employment, Smith and Larson electronic repair shop in Van Nuys. My desk is shoehorned between two other desks in a narrow office space not much bigger than a hall closet. There are oily, rusted, shiny, new and used electronic parts bulging out of every shelf, drawer, cabinet and orifice. To my right is Yolanda, a slender raven haired Hispanic destined for under achievement and multiple child births. To my left, Cathy is a childless, late 30 something, fading blonde flower and spousal abuse victim. Off in the distance, Jerry, our black and white T.V. technician launches the first of what will be many loud, flagellant outbursts. Each one accompanied by a crude editorial comment on the emission’s smell, consistency and/or food origin. I think I’ll call Virginia.
I arrive at the appointed hour to meet Virginia. I am unfashionably prompt as usual. The meeting place is a typical Hollywood rehearsal bolt hole. In this case, a vacant industrial storage space of some sort. I enter to be greeted by an unsmiling, grumpy drummer who by all appearances is a car mechanic by day.Virginia is sitting in a corner with a notebook and pen. She greets me warmly with a winning smile and a nicely appointed front end. I detect a New Jersey accent. She communicates mild disappointment that my guitar is not a Gibson Les Paul. The fact that my amp is a woefully inadequate Fender Princeton seems to escape her notice. She seems all business and that’s fine by me.
We run through some things. The drummer is the hardest hitter I have ever encountered. It is clear he has one speed and one volume. Fast and loud. Any attempt to deviate from this policy is met with catastrophic result. Further, he seems to have no interest in any musical approach other than getting from A to Z with minimal fuss or imagination. My association with him will not go beyond this session, and the rehearsal limps to an unspectacular finish.Virginia tells me that I need to play with more “drive”. I duly note her comment and leave without expectation of a second meeting.
I get a call from Virginia two days later. She answered both my questions before I asked them. First, she’s settled on me as her guitar player. Second, the grumpy, hard-hitting drummer would not be joining us. She said he has a gig with The Wierdos and would be happier there. She made a point of telling me that my selection as guitarist came with some reservations. However, she felt any musical deficiencies I might have could be worked out under her mentorship.
By next rehearsal, I am surprised to see things have moved forward dramatically. First, our new rehearsal space is a spacious, shiny new T.V. studio in the Technicolor complex just off Cahuenga Blvd. This compound gobbles up an entire city block smack in the middle of Hollywood and is fortified with concrete walls and razor wire. Our designated space appears to be the type of studio used for a game show or a daytime talk show. There is lots of stadium style seating suitable for any showcase or VIP guests. The lobby entrance sports a security guard surrounded by a phalanx of Video monitors that would do any Bruce Willis action movie proud.
Our benefactor and camp commandant is an acquaintance of Virginia’s who looks very Italian and very “connected”. He has a private office with no windows and yet more video monitors. Virginia being Italian herself, one is tempted to draw all sorts of exotic conclusions. Never the less, the accommodations would be the envy of any established band, let alone our nameless and unformed concern. I would just be careful to mind my P’s and Q’s and not piss off anyone. I am also relieved to see we are auditioning drummers of a much higher musical pedigree than that of Mr. Grumpy. However, none stand out except for a good-looking, chipped tooth gent named Mark White. He prefers to be called Francis. He’s from St. Louis and his last band was a blues band. He is also familiar with the progressive rock bands I covertly admire. After 10 minutes of jamming, I unilaterally pronounce him our drummer. He’s not so sure and neither is Virginia. However, my antenna regarding musicians has always been keen and indeed, he would end up staying for the life of the band.
By day Virginia was a real estate agent for Fred Sands Agency in West Hollywood. This explained her administrative skills and enviable contacts. I would call her there often regarding band business. It was obvious that she was using her office as a base of operations for the band. She also had a nice spacious one bedroom apartment on Franklin not far from her office. She had a beautiful marmalade colored cat named Algebra. She was an ace cook. We were both driven to succeed at music. I was very square by punk standards but, clear and focused as regards to music. She had minimal guitar skills and her voice was serviceable. However, she exploited the one or two guitar shapes she knew impressively when it came to songwriting. Her songs were far beyond the usual three chord punk thrash fare. They did not adhere to any standard pop formula and were very difficult, structured and (gasp) progressive. They were her songs in her own language. I was the perfect interpreter to translate them to the other musicians. Our musical union soon evolved into something more meaningful and physical. It was the springtime of my life and it was all good.
After some preliminary gigging and recording we finally found the right bass player in Rick Gerard. He was a refugee from a hard rock outfit named China. He was not my first choice. He was selected per Virginia’s edict. However, he was fluid and a quick study. He was professional all the way with no obvious hang ups other than a fondness for herb. He had a laid back easy-going personality in stark contrast to his black clad 6’5” frame. He also had two sets of gear. One combo amp for small clubs and an Ampeg SVT rig for the larger venues. Rick and drummer Francis could gallop, stop on a dime, play in 7/8 time. Pretty much anything you asked. I used my entire tax return to buy a brand new Fender Twin Reverb amplifier and a distortion pedal with the hope I could hold my own against the world-class rhythm section I now suddenly found myself blessed with.
We came up with the perfect name. “Virginia And The Slims”. Everybody thought it was clever and nobody forgot it after they heard it. Virginia’s friend Terri was a real good photographer who promptly hooked up with Francis. Terri’s brother just happened to be the drummer for the band 20/20. They were up and comers at the time and had a regional hit “My Yellow Pills”. This gentleman produced our first demo. Things were looking good. We continued to rehearse at our sprawling Technicolor club house. Francis was a good-humored Midwestern boy who curried favor with the security jocks.Virginia earned her keep as manager by providing us with a steady diet of gigs in old-established clubs like Gazzaries and newer, hipper little clubs like The Blue Lagoon, The Hong Kong Café and The Londoner. We would also play the odd college gig and occasionally venture out to the hinterlands in the San Fernando Valley and the South Bay Area.
The higher profile bands at the time played at Madam Wong’s in Chinatown. Just across from Wong’s was the Hong Kong Café’. There was a rivalry. If you played one you couldn’t play the other. Virginia pestered Ms. Wong relentlessly for a gig. However, Esther Wong didn’t like other women much. And, I’m sure Virginia’s New Jersey bluster didn’t help matters. It was easier to get into the Hong Kong, so Virginia committed to them. While Wong’s boasted bookings like Robert Fripp, The B 52’s and The Motels. We shared the Hong Kong with Fear, X, and the Suburban Lawns. We must have played there a dozen times. Fatal error? We’ll never know.
We always seemed to earn return engagements despite the fact our fan base was modest. We were very entertaining and athletic onstage and our musicality was impressive. The band even started to attract some fans who were heroes of mine. Glenn Cornick, the erstwhile bassist of Jethro Tull, had recently moved to L.A. hoping to jump on the new wave bandwagon. He started hanging around the band after a chance meeting with Virginia at the Madam Wong’s bar. He even jammed with us at our little T.V. studio to an audience of my ex-high school band mates. He played slide bass with a beer can. He was pleased that I knew the Tull standard “We Used To Know” I offered him a gig with us on the spot. He was graciously non-committal. Tony Kaye of Yes even showed up to a couple of gigs with an eye to shag Virginia. Virginia was totally indifferent to Tony’s impressive musical pedigree. She had enough smile and charm to make anyone (male or female) feel like her future ex.
When a band starts generating a buzz, people suddenly appear out of thin air. Virginia managed to recruit a sound man with full P.A. and monitors and a lighting tech with a nice little homemade rig. No pay of course, but we felt like a real deal band. Also, the tech support allowed us to play clubs that were cut off to those bands dependent on a house system.
It should be said that much of the band’s appeal stemmed from my onstage rapport with Virginia. We were a couple and she played that angle for all it was worth. There was much shoving, grabbing, leaning and mugging during our set. She would strum my guitar while I fretted and held her round her waist. Stuff like that. Somehow, I managed all this without breaking stride in my guitar playing. Very “West Side Story” now that I think about it.
The fact we were a punk band seemed to obscure the reality that Virginia was beginning to sing off key in direct proportion to her increasing consumption of her favorite beverage, Southern Comfort. Other cracks in the infrastructure of the band were starting to appear. For example, in the interest of honesty and forthrightness, Virginia and I “came out” to the rest of the band regarding our personal relationship. It was only then we discovered that our drummer, Francis was smitten with Virginia and was prudishly disapproving of our union. It was that point that I started to feel tension from Francis. Cruel irony.as I found my dream drummer, he started plotting to edge me out of the band.
Also, the Italian wise guy who was the overseer of our rehearsal complex started showing up to rehearsals and putting in his two cents about the direction of our songs. As musical director, my response was to ignore his input and return to the business of rehearsing the band.Virginia was more politically savvy and paid polite lip service to his suggestions. What was obvious was, he had a dislike for me. I later learned that he surreptitiously booked a recording session with a blonde pretty boy guitar player with an eye to producing a single and edging me out of the band. The song chosen happened to be our most perfect collaboration, “Chronic”. The failure of the recording session did nothing to lessen my feeling of betrayal by my band mates. What did they gain? An eight track recording that denuded our best song. The recording was flaccid and weak. Thankfully it has disappeared into the mists of time.
Virginia eventually lost her apartment and her position at Fred Sands and moved in with a girlfriend. Our base of operations was now West Los Angeles.Virginia was putting it all on the line for the band an aura of desperation started to waft around the rehearsal room. Additionally, Virginia was unfortunately developing a fascination with Jim Morrison as an artistic role model. Eventually, Virginia and I agreed to keep our relationship purely platonic in the interest of band harmony. No arguments, acrimony or hysteria. Conventional wisdom says that such an arrangement shouldn’t work. Our case was the exception. She was more civil and business like with me after we broke up, but not in a bad way. I continued in the band for a while, but then, I just decided to quit. The gigs were not getting better and no record companies were knocking at the door. My last gig was at the Londoner in Santa Monica andVirginia allowed me to play a classical piece on acoustic 12 string guitar as a farewell to the audience. It was extremely well received.
Virginia displayed her usual resilience and acquired another guitar player ASAP. In this case a short, stocky, Sicilian (again the Italians!). Not only that, but his debut gig would be at the prestigious Troubadour night club. The boat was leaving the dock just as I debarked!
I attended the Troubadour gig. The tempos were slower.Virginia was no longer a robustly athletic cheerleader of the band. She now opted for a moody chanteuse persona. The new guitarist possessed beautiful vintage gear and a journeyman’s knowledge of blues and rock licks but little else. I should have been up there. The gig failed to achieve ignition. Oh well, there will be other bands I’m sure. Damn. I returned to my bedroom in my parent’s Encino apartment and diligently kept practicing. I still used the Slims songs as a template to hone and expand my guitar skills. Then out of the blue, I got a call fromVirginia.
It would seem my replacement lasted only a handful of gigs. During a lackluster set at the Blue Lagoon inVenice,Virginia and the Sicilian engaged in an onstage debate regarding the superiority of “White” Italians versus the “Black” variety. The Sicilian punctuated his argument by kicking Virginia very hard in her under padded posterior. The Sicilian was fired and I got the call to go back to the band on short notice. Further, we had little more than a week to pull a set together for the band’s next gig….
The Troubadour: The Troubadour is a Hollywood institution. A fey diffident British unknown named Elton John became famous overnight after his maiden American gig at the club was reviewed in the L.A. Times. John Lennon was roughly escorted out the rear of the club after he got shit faced drunk and donned a tampon on top of his head. It is owned by a very colorful and decadentL.A. character named Doug Weston. This was the biggest gig in my career up to that point.Virginia got us a good opening slot. Closing the show held certain prestige. However, opening the show meant you got to sound check last and leave your gear set up before going on.
A Troubadour gig was a feather in any bands cap, but Virginia didn’t get the gig without some major hazing by Doug Weston and his teen boy- toys when Virginia arrived to drop off the tape at Westons home. Weston commented approvingly of Virginia’s boyish ass and insisted she avail herself of his hospitality; which involved copius amounts of cocaine and alcohol. Somehow, Virginia managed to use her formidable street smarts to fend off the affects of the blow and the advances of Weston’s retinue of bi-boys to secure the gig for the band unsullied.
I only had a couple of rehearsals with the band before the gig. I found our rehearsal digs had been downgraded to a more traditional rehearsal studio in a commercial zoned block inWest L.A. Still nice, but it possessed none of the wow factor we had once enjoyed. I had returned to the band a better guitarist than before. However, my enthusiasm was temporarily squashed by the appearance of another guitar player at our first rehearsal. Nice handsome kid. Puppy dog attitude; and eager to please. I grimaced my way through one rehearsal and made it clear to the band that I would not be appearing on stage in a two guitar line-up with the Slims…ever. I guess I was operating from a position of strength, because the idea evaporated quickly and was never broached again.
My temporary Sicilian replacement had left his fingerprints on the music. The tempos were slower in a few songs and our bass player Rick, had abandoned some of my signature arrangement ideas. Never the less, I slipped back into the band dynamic easily and I good naturedly absorbed some of the Sicilian’s better ideas into my guitar arrangements. Now, the only black cloud was my amplifier. The previous 12 months of gigging and rehearsals found my amplifier in perilous condition. I tried in vain to borrow a new rig for the Troubadour show. Nothing was available and I had no funds for a rental. I would have to make do and pray.
On the night of the Troubadour gig many friends and peers turned out. Not the least of which was Glen Cornick. My fears and apprehensions regarding my amplifier were realized from the opening notes. From my perspective, the guitar sound was spreading out in all directions with no clarity or definition. It sounded like a mushy wall of sound. It was impossible to get a frame of reference from the sound I was hearing. It was like a jet pilot flying on visual flight rules when his navigation equipment went down. I couldn’t panic. The energy on the stage was good and none of the band members seemed unduly bothered. Sometimes the audience hears it differently. I resolved myself to channeling energy into the performance and fuck the rest. This was punk after all.
The gig was a blur of energy for the most part. However, at one juncture during my spotlight guitar solo, I spied Virginia lying down at the front of the stage on her back seductively. My mind flashed back to a David Bowie concert I had seen where guitarist Mick Ronson jumped on David Bowie’s back and simulated sodomy. For what ever reason, I thought this would be a good opportunity to execute a more missionary version of this stage antic. I took a sudden very high broad jump into the air and landed on my feet in squatting position on top ofVirginia. She seemed surprised, pleased and game for some stagemanship. I grabbed her by the hair, shook her head around a bit (not too roughly) and deposited her head back on the stage with élan; all this to the accompaniment of feedback and distortion.Virginia exaggerated my actions for maximum effect. I then stood up to leave.
Suddenly, just as I was disengaging from her to return to my position stage right,Virginia grabbed me by the shirt and pulled me back towards her. She knocked me off balance and I fell horizontally towards the stage; the full might of my 20 pound solid body electric guitar speeding on a collision course with her face. The danger of the moment was conveyed to me later by Rick who was watching in horror only five feet away. At the time I wasn’t thinking, but I instinctively pulled my guitar hard and fast to the side of my body with my left hand and broke my fall with my right. I ended up in prone position doing one armed push up with my right hand. Beneath me was Virginia, unscathed and oblivious to the danger of the moment. She just looked up at me and smiled.
At the conclusion of the set I was poised for disappointment. However, our audience seemed to be in a wired, excited state and were and cheering lustily. We did an encore. Glen Cornick rushed up and said something to the effect that, “you nailed it”. I sheepishly informed him about my sound problems onstage. His only reply was, “who gives a shit? It was a great show!” My best friend Adam also came backstage and commended me on excerpting Prokoviev during one of my solos. My Sicilian predecessor lined up to sheepishly offer a handshake which I accepted. Virginia seemed not at all disturbed by his presence, and in fact, seemed to enjoy smiling some extra salt into his wounded psyche. It was a classic victory snatched from the jaws of defeat.
This should have been in the point in story where the fortunes of the band changed and success and fame followed. Our reality couldn’t have been more different.
During my absence from the band, it transpired that Virginia and Francis became intimate companions. He was not happy that the Troubadour success solidified my position in the band. However, I was happy to be back and gigging. I was now at the top of my game; and quite frankly, I was laying waste to every other guitarist who dared share the bill with us.
Virginia booked us into a tiny hole in the wall club in Santa Monica called Pippin’s . Had the club been located in North Hollywood, it would have been dreary and depressing. However, it’s proximity to the ocean made it quaint and atmospheric. The band stand was just large enough to accommodate the band and our gear. The audience seating area was such that 75 people constituted a packed house. The bar was separated from the performance area by a 4 foot banister and was the domain of a predominantly Mexican and blue collar clientele. On this particular Saturday night, the club was jammed and they were there to see us.
Evidence of tape suggests that we killed. The band had developed over the last year into a shit hot unit that could run on cruise control even on an off night. This night we were on. My guitar leads were fast, melodic and concise. Our banter with the audience was witty and saucy. During band introductions,Virginia layfully referred to Francis as “she”. The performance only benefited from the fact that 90 percent of the audience was horny young male musicians.Virginia manipulated their testosterone count like a veteran pole dancer. We closed with our adrenalized version of “My Boyfriend’s Back” and the place exploded. It was quite a moment to hear even the lowly number of 75 audience members scream “More!” at the top of their lungs.
The band excitedly piled into the back of Francis’s van in the club parking lot. We gathered around a cheap little cassette player to listen back to our triumph. Something we never did. Rick was leaning back in stoned bliss with his girlfriend Rena listening. I was sitting near Virginia intently listening and dishing out compliments as the magic unfolded again through the miracle of audio tape.Virginia sat as regal queen on the throne of a spare tire rim at the back of the van; tall can of Bud as scepter. It was at this beautifully fragile and life affirming moment that Virginia decided to call Francis a faggot.
Exact transcripts of the dialogue are forever lost in the mists of time. However, conversation inexplicably turned to stage wear; specifically Francis’ scarf. I thought it was attractive. In fact, it served the dual function of a face towel; something that a drummer in our band would desperately need on stage. Never the less,Virginia suddenly decided she hated it and grabbed both loose hanging ends of the offending accessory item and flung it back in Francis’s face hissing her infantile epithet. This caused the cigarette in his mouth to disintegrate into a starburst of ash and red fireworks that showered his face and hairless, bare chest. He promptly responded with a hail of fists directed atVirginia. He managed to get a couple of good thudding slugs to her leg. I stood on my knees in front of Virginia and absorbed the rest of the flurry with my shoulders and chest; all the while clutching Francis by the throat with both hands whilst trying to push him back. I heard Rick in his stoned reverie calmly exclaim, “Fuck!”. Then, as I was holding back the salivating, snarling dog that had possessed Francis, I distinctly heard Rena say, “Rick, do something!” Rick responded with Zen calm to this command by taking one huge left paw, grabbing Francis by the shoulder and effortlessly depositing him back into a seated position.
My stomach disappeared.. I knew we were finished and all camaraderie and unity of purpose was gone. A couple of days laterVirginia asked me if I thought she should entertain offers from some other bands. I said told her to go for it.Virginia And The Slims were dead except for one last gig that we felt compelled to honor. The venue?…..”Doug Weston’s World Famous Troubadour”.
It was an uncomfortable and dispirited band that showed up for our final gig at the Troubadour. By design or decline, we were closing the show. The club was packed for the two opening bands. By the time we got on it had pretty much emptied out. A few scattered faithful here and there gave the club a cavernous empty vibe. Further, the sound man refused to mike my amp. A favor he had granted to the previous two bands. I was now using a powerful but compact suitcase amp with one twelve inch speaker which needed the sound reinforcement that the powerful Troubadour house system could provide. Any inspiration I had was gone. There was no hope of turning on the audience. Virginia And The Slims would not even be a footnote in history by the evenings end.
The gig passed gloomily. No bitter sweet moments or musical epiphanies. My solos felt too long. Every time I looked to Rick to wind up a jam section, he would keep steaming along. I just ran scales to fill in the spaces. The set ended to a smattering of applause. No encore. A black male voice called out in the dark silence, “What is this?” The most appropriate comment of the night.
Virginia was a Joisey girl and a street-smart soul survivor. She was also a master wheeler dealer. Despite catty comments from some musicians, she had talent. She invited me to go see her opening performance with her new band. An arty Europhile group of valley kids named Berlin. I was surprised because she barely tolerated that sort of music during our time in the Slims.
She scrubbed up nicely for this group and she was singing bang on key. I think she knew what was at stake and took a hiatus from her beloved Southern Comfort. Good group. Moreover, their guitar player had the right look but could barely play. My imagination slammed into overdrive and I was thankful I had not burned any bridges with my dear Virginia….