Saturday, July 30, 2005

The Last Good Time

In 1976 I was only 23 years old; just a kid. I started playing country and blues harmonica only three years before that. I pursued it with a youthful intensity I can no longer muster, and by the time I landed at Dirty Jack’s Theater in May of 1976 I was pretty damn good. As I have written elsewhere in these pages, that was the best summer of my life, for a whole bunch of reasons.

I drank a bit back then, mainly because it was a rite of passage for a young guy from Wyoming. Drinking beer – particularly Coors beer – was a social norm. It was fun.

Now that I have quit drinking nearly 30 years later, I can clearly identify the summer of 1976 as my last good time. It was the last time I was clean and sober enough – and perhaps naïve enough – to be happy with the pure joys of life. Things kinda went down hill after that.

Some readers have noticed that I haven’t written much on this blog about the 1979 season at Dirty Jack’s. I came back as a veteran performer that year, but it was a summer filled with trouble and tension. Looking back, I can see that my alcoholism had begun to grip me in the intervening years, while I lived and caroused in Phoenix after leaving the show in 1976. By the time I got back to Jackson three years later I was a young man addicted to alcohol, my life was slowly falling apart, and I didn’t even know it.

In all the years since then my drinking slowly but steadily accelerated, ruining any happiness I might have. Marriages do not survive alcoholism. Neither do jobs or friendships. Bands and careers in entertainment are wrecked. Before you know it, you are an old guy drinking alone and wondering when you will die.

Eight months ago I checked myself into a rehab program and stopped drinking. I am very active in AA. I don’t know much about long-term sobriety, but I am pretty confident I will make it to my pillow tonight without drinking. Every sober day is a miracle.

An odd thing happened after I was sober for a few months: I had this urgent, almost panicky feeling that I needed to run away. I felt like joining the circus or something. It persisted in my thoughts, and I couldn’t get it out of my mind. But it was vague and I couldn’t say what it was all about. Lost youth, or something…

Over time it became a little less cloudy. It was about Jackson Hole in the summer of 1976. It was about Dirty Jack’s Theater, and the last good time in my life before I got drunk and my life started to spin out of control. But I couldn’t transport myself back to that time and place, so I sat down and created this weblog.

I also decided to get back into the music business (Davis Blues Project. See the “Links” in the right-hand column). I may not be 23 anymore but I feel good at long last, and I am playing music again.

There. Now maybe I can write about what happened in 1979.

Thursday, July 28, 2005

Mikey

In 1976 there was a remarkable young man who worked for Jon Stainbrook as kind of a gaffer/grip for the theater. His name was Mikey.

Mikey was only about 15 years old, and slight and wiry. His job was to shinny up and down the rafters of the old theater and hang lights, or move scenery, or sweep the lobby, or whatever. During the show each night he helped with the light cues. I think he ran the follow spot. Mikey was a jack of all theater trades, and he was well liked by the cast.

I never knew anything of his family life, but he seemed to spend every waking hour at Dirty Jack’s Theater. His wardrobe seemed limited to jeans and a small collection of tight, long sleeved disco shirts he wore every day. He had curly red hair and a Wyoming attitude: Don’t Fuck With Me. He was something of a legend for having crawled on his belly the entire length of the theater under the floorboards to drag the sound snake or something. The actors were very impressed with that.

When I left the show in ’76 I gave him some records to hold for me. I had no place to pack them. So Mikey became the custodian of my beloved Uriah Heep LPs.

Several years later I returned to Jackson Hole on vacation from SoCal, and I ran into Mikey (he had become “Mike”) in the Snow King Bar. He was the manager of the local commercial laundry that did the linen for all the hotels and inns, a pretty damn good job for a guy in Jackson. He said my records were long gone, but he had played the hell out of them and enjoyed the music.

Its funny. Back in ’76 several of the band members and I became friends with a girl from Arizona named Josie who lived in a trailer near our theater in Jackson. She had a couple of young female roommates, so naturally we called them “Josie and the Pussycats.” Josie was achingly gorgeous, and I remember her vividly. Another thing I remember is that she and her roommates worked that summer at the laundry Mikey would years later come to manage.

I sat in the Snow King sipping a beer with my old friend Mikey, while my slinky SoCal girlfriend entertained herself by attracting notice with her studied nonchalance and careful expressions of bemused detachment. I wondered what ever happened to Josie.

Sunday, July 03, 2005

Mark and the Great Food Strike

On a day early in May of 1976 when the cast of Paint Your Wagon first gathered, I met the guy I will call Mark. Mark was a guitar-playing singer with long hair who fashioned himself in the mold of Jackson Browne or James Taylor or something. He whipped out his guitar and sang a whiny song in a nasal voice even before we’d all said “Hi.” He seemed a bit too eager to impress upon us that he was a REAL performer among us amateurs. I developed an instant distaste for the guy.

Mark had a pretty big part in the show, singing many of the ballads and playing sidekick to Jon Stainbrook, the head honcho of Dirty Jack’s Theater. But Mark just irritated everybody with his pretensions and self-importance.

The “board” part of the “room and board” arrangement for the cast at Dirty Jack’s was not too fancy. [Neither was the “room” part, but that is another story.] In fact, the cast ate every morning at an open-air restaurant attached to the theater that served only sourdough pancakes. We also ate there in evenings when it served only barbequed chicken. The menu was limited and the food was bland, and it was the same day after day.

Early in the 1976 season, Mark became dissatisfied with the food. We all grumbled about it, but it was an understood part of paying your dues in small-time professional theater… No big deal. But Mark was upset.

He escalated the thing into some kind of labor action, complaining about the food to Jon Stainbrook and suggesting that the cast was behind him. Yeah, we were behind him snickering.

Jon Stainbrook was pissed; not that someone would complain about the food, but that Mark had tried to stir up dissention over it among the cast. I learned that summer that Jon carries grudges.

Mark had a funny scene in the show where he popped his head up though a hinged trap door on the stage floor and delivered a laugh line to Jon, who was standing down stage center. One night in late July Mark stuck his head up on cue but mangled the line. You could tell he had tried to adlib something clever but it just came out goofy. Word tore though the cast that Mark had been smoking dope behind the theater between scenes.

When Mark delivered his goofy, clumsy line, Jon Stainbrook turned slowly and looked at him, and then turned slowly back. He skipped his dialogue with Mark’s character and went on as if he did not exist. I doubt the audience caught on to anything, but to the rest of us it was the kiss of death: “Mark sleeps with the fishes.”

Sure enough, at the pre-show make-up ritual the next night I saw Mark in the costume of a bit player, and the small-part actor wearing Mark’s stuff. Mark still sang his nasal ballads, but he no longer had a speaking role.

It wasn’t all about Mark blowing the line or getting high before going on. It was also about complaining about the food and making trouble with the cast. It was about paying your dues. And we who disliked Mark thought it was all pretty damn funny.