I know this is late. I spent too much time this week watching the Olympics, then on Sunday I was called in during brunch — something was wrong with the soda guns. Got stuck there for another two hours in meetings. I returned home just in time to take a shower and head back for my regular shift. You know how it goes . . .
Let’s face it, I’ll never make money on Sunday at Johnny D’s. Tips on a Friday or Saturday night are sometimes 5 times better than for the Sunday afternoon/evening Blues Jam — but that aside, it’s a good shift.
There’s something honest about Jam, and about the people in the audience — especially those who are randomly thrown together on stage for each set. Often, they’re meeting each other for the first time . . . and they just start playing. And it’s good. That always amazes me.
At least for the summer, something else interesting is going on — there’s no longer a house band to start things off, the music goes straight to the Jam. The jammers themselves now sort through the sign-up sheet and call out the next names. There’s no more cover charge at the door for customers walking in — this summer, the Jam is free for everyone.
Yup, the jammers now run the show. (We like to say, “The inmates are running the asylum.”) They’re breaking all the rules, but I guess it’s a good thing.
At least Sunday is a laid-back shift. And beyond good music, the shift has perks of its own — a lot of weird stuff happens when things are done out of the box. There’s always good conversations and great stories from the Jam. Here are a few of my favorites . . .
(1) Fatal Attraction
One Sunday afternoon, a long-time regular was at the bar after just playing on stage. I’ll call him “Paul” (not using his real name for reasons that will become clear in a moment.) I served “Paul” a beer, and I was thinking that I hadn’t heard about his new girlfriend in a while — he’d shown me a picture of her once, a tiny gal who standing next to him wasn’t much taller than his elbows.
“So Paul, . . . how’s the little woman?” I asked before thinking.
The look on his face told me I’d just asked the wrong question.
“Oh, God!” he replied.
He began to tell me about a relationship that had gone suddenly to hell. Apparently this little gal had a lot going on behind her quiet, innocent smile. As the bad stuff came out, she turned into a raving lunatic.
“She was calling me all hours of the night,” Paul said, “She was complaining non-stop about everything I did. I did this to disappoint her, I did that to make her mad.”
“I found myself apologizing,” he said, “For things I didn’t even do!”
After Paul finally broke it off, she became intent on “revenge.”
The late-night phone calls and constant blaming escalated. There were long, profanity-laced emails flooding his mailbox. She showed up at his front door unannounced, ranting.
She even tried to get him barred from another club where he’d been a regular for years. (She’d taken a job as a waitress there recently.) Fortunately the club’s owner tried to get things back under control. “Just try to stay away from her,” he told Paul, “It’ll all blow over.”
“But I’d try to hide in a corner,” Paul explained now, “And she’d find me and start in all over again.”
In the end, there was no bunny being boiled in a pot of water on the stove (Fatal Attraction), but there was at least one pint of beer dumped over someone’s head . . . and through it all, Paul was the only one who got wet.
Live and learn. I should have known there was a reason why I hadn’t heard about the “little woman” in a while.
(2) “OK, I think you’ve had enough!”
There was a server at Johnny D’s who always ended his brunch shift by staying around for the Blues Jam afterward and having a few drinks. Actually, having quite a few drinks.
This server was on track to become a manger, and one Sunday afternoon Tina DeLellis, the owner, decided that this guy wasn’t doing himself, or her club any good by getting shit-faced in front of the customers and the rest of the staff.
She went over to him to suggest that he might slow down, perhaps go somewhere else if he was determined to get half-in-the-bag.
But this server wouldn’t hear of it, he was having too much fun.
The discussion continued with Tina becoming more and more insistent.
“No!” the waiter said finally, folding him arms across his chest, “I’m staying here . . . I want another shot and another beer!”
Tina turned as though about to walk away, . . . then she turned quickly back. She reached out and grabbed one of the guy’s ears. With a firm tugging motion she pulled on his ear until he had to get up off his stool and follow her.
It was one of the funniest things I’ve seen. Tina was maybe 5’ 6”, 110 pounds, a lovely sixty-something blond lady who was dragging this twenty-four-year old server toward the door by his ear.
He was 6’ tall, 200 lbs, but at the moment he looked like a little boy being dragged along by his ear by his mother. As Tina pulled him bent over toward the door, all he could do was yell out, “Oouuch! Hey, stop! Ow . . . Ow . . . Ow!”
Like I said, it was one of the funniest things I’ve ever seen in a bar.
(3) Any story from Taylor is a good one
John Taylor (everyone just calls him “Taylor”) is a veteran drummer/vocalist who’s been coming to the Jam for years. He’s one of the audience-performers now running the show. He’s also by far the best story-teller at the Jam.
Taylor reminds me in a way of Steven King — most of King’s stories are in the horror genre, but then he writes something like “Stand by Me”, which is heart-felt tale about young boys on their way to becoming men.
In the same sense most of Taylor’s stories are about bars, the nightlife, and about being a musician . . . but I think some of his best are about growing up in a tough Cambridge MA neighborhood.
One afternoon he told me a story very like “Stand by Me.”
It seems Taylor was confronted one day by a groups of young toughs several years older than he was — these guys were fifteen and sixteen years old, while he was only twelve.
One of the guys challenged him to a fist fight. Taylor had done some boxing, and thought he could beat the kid, but he was worried what would happen afterward with the kid’s friends.
“I let him hit me a few times,” Taylor recalls, “I kept moving, tied him up, pushed him away . . . but I never really swung back hard. I knew his friends would beat the crap out of me if I knocked him down.”
The next day, Taylor showed up on that kid’s doorstep. The guy’s mom answered the door.
“Hi, Mrs. ____,” Taylor said politely, “Can Tommy come out and play? I’m one of his friends.”
When Tommy came out, Taylor invited him to a secluded spot and proceeded to give him a lesson in boxing. He knocked him down again and again, bloodying his nose until the kid begged to call it quits.
“Those guys never bothered me again,” Taylor explained.
I don’t know why, but I really love that story. Every young man remembers the first time he had to make a choice — to stand up for himself — or to back down, and then live with that.
(4) First time on stage
Grant is also one of the jammers now running the show on Sunday. He’s been playing at the Jam for twenty years, since he first arrived in Boston from his native New Zealand.
We like to bust his balls, saying that when his plane took off from New Zealand, he was seconds ahead of the local constable who stood on the runway beneath the jet’s exhaust waving a warrant for his arrest.
Grant still tells the story about the first time he stepped onto the stage at Johnny D’s — it was the first time he’d been on any stage anywhere.
“I was nervous as hell,“ he recalls, “Just starting out on guitar.”
Somehow he managed to hang in there, and after his solo he was feeling pretty good about it all.
“I thought, . . . that wasn’t too bad,” Grant recalls, “I thought I’d gotten through it in one piece.”
Then the young man beside him began to play his solo. The kid couldn’t have been more than thirteen years old.
“He began ripping through stuff like B. B. King or Stevie Ray Vaughan,“ Grant laughs, “He blew me off the stage!”
That first time on stage, Grant just happened to be up there with young guitar prodigy Mike Welch.
The same Mike Welch who would later be asked by Dan Akyrod to play at the opening of the original House of Blues, in nearby Cambridge, MA. The same Mike Welch who would have that first House of Blues crowd applauding and cheering so wildly that Akyrod would leap up onto the stage shouting, “Mike Welch, ladies and gentlemen . . . Monster Mike Welch . . . Monster Mike Welch!” It’s a name Mike Welch says has stuck with him, whether he likes it or not. Mike now tours America and Europe with the Monster Mike Welch Band. (Imagine being on stage for the first time at a local jam, and being followed by this guy.)
5) Stormy Monday
This might be my favorite blues jam story, but it’s too long to do justice to it here. Let me just say that it involved the three Sunday regulars in this photo . . . and it ended with the guy in the middle trying to give the guy on the right an engagement ring — while they were sitting in a crowded blue-collar bar. (It’s not what you think . . . read the full story here.)
(6) THE HULK
This is another of my favorite Blues Jam stories. I’ve told it before, so I’ll just give a quick synopsis here.
When Johnny D’s first started the Blues Jam, we had a young woman checking ID’s at the door. One afternoon this huge guy walked in. He looked like the Incredible Hulk, complete with bulging muscles beneath a torn T-shirt. That T-shirt was smeared with dirt and it looked like there was blood on it, as though he’d already been fighting somewhere else that day.
The door lady stopped him. It was clear they were having words.
“What the FUCK do you mean, I can’t come in!” the big guy said.
I came out from behind the bar.
“What the fuck is the problem?” the guy asked as I approached, “Why the fuck won’t this girl let me in?”
He was two feet away from me, arms away from his body as though he was about to grab and crush me.
I tried to straddle that fine line between being unbending, yet non-confrontational. As we talked, I was thinking about what this guy might do to me.
I would later learn that he’d just gotten out of prison. He’d been serving time for beating the shit out of people, and sending them to the hospital. Right now he was clearly messed up on some kind of drugs.
He stood there looking at me, but when he saw that I wasn’t going to back down . . . the strangest thing happened.
His eyes began to water. He had a few tears trickling down his dirt-smudged cheeks.
“Give me a hug,” he said, stretching out his massive arms.
“What???” I thought.
“Give me a hug,” he said again.
If he got those arms around me, I’d be fucked. There’d be no chance for a quick defensive strike to a vital area.
“Give me a hug,” he said.
So I gave him a hug.
We stood in the open area by the front door, two guys with their arms wrapped around each other for a minute as I patted him on the back.
Then he turned and left.
“Thank you,” he said over his shoulder as he left, “Thank you. I know I’m all fucked up . . . I’m all alone.”
“That was the first time in here I’ve actually been afraid for my safety,” the young door lady said afterwards.
“But all he wanted was a big hug!” she laughed.
Yup, I took a lot of ribbing for the rest of the shift.
(7) OK, I’ve run out of room — but I have to cite all the conversations and stories from the jammers on any given Sunday.
We have a great crew of regulars . . . Dan (on harmonica and vocals) and his lovely lady, Ashley. Kevin, a regular who absolutely smoked his set this week (guitar and vocals). Jonathan is has been stopping in again recently –one of the best guitar players at the Jam (he’s in the photo at the top of the page.) There’s Sharkbite Mike (harmonica), and another Dan (guitar) who when he’s not rocking his stuff on stage, is a manger at Longfellow’s Wayside Inn, in Sudbury MA.
Good conversation, great music, plenty of classic stories . . . I can live with that for one shift.