My brother died on the first Tuesday of my senior year of college. Three days later, I got an email from the guy who played the bass in the Moo Shoo Porkestra, the band we had started up the previous semester, with the subject line “EMERGENCY PORK NEWS.”
He wrote to inform me and the rest of the band that he had secured a gig at a local bar called the Grog and Tankard. Problem was, the only open spot in the schedule — at least according to the booking guy — was the upcoming Tuesday, so he needed to know if I could make it back to D.C. from New York by then.
It stands, to this day, as the nicest thing anyone has ever done for me.
We didn’t realize then that the Grog and Tankard almost certainly would have been able to book us a few weeks later. We didn’t know that the place kind of sucked, and that every kid in the greater D.C. area with a band played his first gig there because the bar would basically take anybody. We couldn’t recognize it as some weird, stubborn hemorrhoid weathering the ointment of gentrification, along with the strip club next door.
We just knew it was a real, authentic, beer-serving bar, and everyone in the band wanted badly to play a legitimate off-campus show.
There was nothing left to do in New York but sit and stew and curse everything and feel generally numb. I made it back to D.C. by Monday, just in time to practice the handful of songs we knew and figure out how to extend them out long enough to fill the two-hour slot we were charged with playing.
Because the bar sold Bud Light cans for $1.50 with only a $5 cover and was lax with ID scans, we drew about 150 people. We played our loose brand of funk for two hours. About 90 minutes deep, my lower lip split open and I played the remaining half hour with blood dripping down my chin from under my trombone mouthpiece. No one in the dancing, drunken crowd seemed all too grossed out.
When we finished, the bar’s owner took us into the tiny, fluorescent-lit linoleum glorified mop closet where we stashed our instrument cases and handed me a stack of cash. He called us “the next Chicago” — presumably only because we featured horns — and asked us to play a regular gig there on Thursdays.
We thought it was because of our talent, chemistry, stage presence, everything. We didn’t know yet that he mostly cared about the crowd we amassed — as seemingly all venue-owners do. We were floating.
My brother was dead only a week and I was suppressing all sorts of awful emotions I wouldn’t fully face until over a year later. But I was so damn happy. We thought that somehow, despite our lack of original material and constructive rehearsal, we were on the cusp of making it.
We played there every Thursday for the next six months. Crowds — especially when they’re half-full of drunken college girls — attract crowds. We made friends with the strange older men who started showing up and lurking in the back. From the stage, we stared in amazement when the strippers from next door would come in for a drink and dance with their clothes on. One time one of them flashed us. It was amazing.
We learned a bunch of new covers and eventually wrote a few new originals. On Halloween we dressed up as the Beatles and played our version of Abbey Road in its entirety. We met legitimate fans — people we didn’t know who actually seemed to like our music.
For six months we ignored the crappiness of the sound system and made due with the tiny stage. We suffered through the ever-present stench of vomit, knowing that we were often directly responsible. We made money, something we never could have imagined happening when we first started jamming the previous winter.
Eventually we started booking other gigs in better venues in hipper locations with even better drink specials, and the allure of the Grog and Tankard grew stale. We cut ties with the owner and played our final show there in February, in front of a small crowd that braved one of the worst blizzards D.C. had ever seen. We closed with our version of “Burning Down the House” and no shortage of pelvic-thrusting college-aged bravado.
I should remember my senior year in college as one of the worst times of my life. I lost my best friend and hero, and I threw myself into a whirlwind of activity because it was the best way I could figure to prevent my mind from straying in hellish directions.
But I think about it now and I struggle to conjure up all the loneliness and anger.
The lasting image I have of that year is looking out at a boozy orgy of dancing college kids in that narrow space, my friend Dan cozying up to whatever girl he would inevitably take home, sketchy Herb singing along to our shamefully rendered James Brown covers, and my roommate making a beeline for the toilet because he drank too much. And of course, I remember the camaraderie the band fostered with all those nights playing together in suboptimal conditions, something I had been searching for since high-school football, and something that could never replace but made a pretty respectable stand-in for brotherhood.
It was awesome.