Subject: Carlisle Montgomery, Jerry Garcia, Grateful Dead, Brokedown Palace, Truckin’, Friend of the Devil, Longstreet’s, Wilmington, N.C., Harry Kollatz Jr., Richmond, Va., Kurt Cobain, Dr. John, Django Reinhardt, Rule of Party Bands
The Live Wires played Wilmington, N.C., on the day the world heard about the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia. A heart attack took him at age fifty-three while in his bed at a Northern California drug treatment center.
The news affected Carlisle in a way she’d not anticipated. Following Kurt Cobain’s suicide the year before she’d felt greater sadness for his family than for any fabric in reality ripped open by his violent departure. At ScottsFest in the Never-ending Jam you heard attempts to cover “Heart-Shaped Box” and “Smells Like Teen Spirit.” And she’d join in for fun’s sake. Damn right she had a new complaint.
Carlisle’s associations to Jerry, though, included a mental roster of musicians who managed to achieve greatness despite a lack of fingers. As a kid, Jerry’s brother lopped off a hunk of his right middle when chopping firewood. The story gladdened Carlisle in that the musician steeped in bluegrass and folk before his renown leading the Dead didn’t have part of the finger smashed in a car door. Dr. John got his left ring finger shot off during a New Orleans bar brawl. Before them, Django and his finger-crippling burns changed music.
She called Bobby from the road between Rocky Mount and Wilmington. He knew from the morning news. The Dead-decorated Cary Street Café provided the setting for much of their artistic life but neither father nor daughter con- sidered themselves Deadheads. Bounders & Rogues included half a dozen Dead numbers in their repertoire.
“It’s like the Third or Fourth Rule of Party Bands,” he told her. “When things go bad, go to the Dead. Or Spring- steen or Tom Petty. Or the Beatles. Depends on the room.”
In November ’85, Carlisle aged ten, Bobby and Jeanne took her down to the Richmond Coliseum to see the Dead. Jeanne didn’t want their girl too close to the front for fear of her inhaling something or knocked down by the exuberance of others. She stood at the time close to six feet. A stick sprouting red pig tails though the age-price break didn’t get her a discounted ticket. Bobby wrangled good seats on the floor.
“Your Mama was very, very nervous about that show,” Bobby remembered. The rest stop receiver hummed and hissed. The tight silver cord allowed her to lean against the metal phone box post and smoke.
“Couldn’t carry you on my shoulders. We held your hands.”
“Yuh, like to pull off my arms.”
“Your Mom didn’t care a flying Fig Newton about the Dead. But I did it for you, you know. For your education.”
“And you got to give her credit. She came along to see the scene. She got an eyeful.”
Carlisle’s sense of the night came from whirling rolling sensations as though observed from a playground push- turner of many hundreds of people jumping, twirling, sway- ing, singing in unison. The sharp tangy whiffs of pot. Strangers kissed and more than that. Massive waves of applause greeted familiar songs.
“Dancin’ In The Streets”… “Little Red Rooster”…”Gimme Some Lovin’”…The first time she’d heard a stadium full of people spell out the name of “G-L-O-R-I-A.” Carlisle twisted around to view the upper galleries as the worshippers summoned letters thundered one-by-one, substantial and grand, but light as one of the tossed about balloons.
She picked at a sticker on the phone box rendered illegible by others in her position advertising a place – maybe a head shop – where “Good Times Roll.”
Bobby said, “Man, that was the gig that got them banned from Richmond! Gate crashers piled into the glass doors. Jiminy Christmas what a mess. Miserable rain cold as the dickens. But they elevated the Coliseum, man, they gave a great show.”
“My first concert, you think?”
“Um … reckon so, if not the first, close to it – ‘least out- side your Mama’s belly. We took you places but that was probably the biggest show of that kind you’d seen at a time when you’d remember, you know.”
“I’d started playing guitar.”
“‘Wreck of the Ole ’97’. Yup. After that, you started on the ‘Casey Jones’ and your Mom didn’t like none of that, either,” he laughed. “‘… High on co-caine’. Hah.”
“Trouble ahead, trouble behind.”
“Right, exactly. So I had to tell her, ‘Darlin’, these are train songs. Train songs are part of our tradition.’”
“Yeah, you got to know the train songs.”
“She said, ‘Maybe so, but that song’s really not about trains.’”
“Think I should say that we’re dedicating the show tonight to Jerry except we don’t do that many covers –”
“Play some tunes. “Friend of the Devil” isn’t that tough, couple others. Why make a special announcement?”
“Dad, I mean, this is history.”
“Yuh. So, you think everybody in that joint who has eyes to see and ears to hear doesn’t know that Jerry Garcia died today?”
“Wull – I guess –”
“Sure they do. And they’ve come to see you for one rea- son: not to get more down, but to get up, or deal with what this means for them. Just do your Live Wires show, put in some tunes here and there – people’ll know why: Jerry’s dead but we live, sweetheart. Where are you at tonight?”
“Wilmington. Major-General Longstreet’s. Basement next to Bessie’s. Bar and pool hall.”
Carlisle glanced around. The Live Wires, grasping their hospitality desk coffee and Weems his Mountain Dew, am- bled from the rest stop toward Travel.
“Yuh, yuh, heard about it – never been there,” Bobby said, distracted, probably doing paperwork in the Urban Jungle’s office. “Sounds fun. Take care of yourself, Gooney. Just do what you do, it’ll be fine.”
“Fare you well, Dad.”
“Fare you well, Gooney. Well. There you go. Lay some “Brokedown Palace” on’em. Oh, man. They’ll be weeping. That one gets me right there even when I’m in a good mood.”
“Thanks, Dad. Love you.”
“Love you too sweetheart. Hey, listen, call me tomorrow and tell me how it went.”
“I will. Love ya.”
“Back at ya.”
They arrived in Wilmington hours ahead of their gig
time. They shook off the road, breathed in the sting of salt air and got some real coffee from the bare-brick walled just-opened Port City Java. Discarded newspapers scattered across tables showed in repetition Jerry, that loony wizard corona of grey hair and beard, playing the guitar resting on his big belly. Weems massaged his forehead to press against the tom-tom reminder of their last night in Rocky Mount.
“Jerry’s dead and I don’t feel too good, either.”
Carlisle used this remark to broach the subject.
“What Dead do we know?”
Colby perked up. “My first band jammed on the Dead.”
Laurel squeezed his arm and gave Carlisle a ‘so-there, aren’t you glad he’s with us?’ look.
C.P. frowned. “Silliest band ever. But sometimes the tim- ing is right. Them and Sha-Na-Na at Woodstock.”
“We’ll do a couple – maybe three tunes,” Carlisle said.
“‘Friend of the Devil,’ right at the top, right after ‘Live Wires.’ I’d love to do ‘Truckin’ like in the second set.”
The Live Wires laughed.
C.P. said, “Couple run-throughs, we won’t sound any worse pullin’ it out of our asses than when they do it. And no hour-long solos.”
Carlisle didn’t know the sung-spoken stanzas, but she figured a trip to a record store might yield a book or sheet to cheat with. She considered putting in “Sugar Magnolia,” too, somewhere deeper into the night, and she’d spare them by going it alone.
C.P. offered his services, “It’s dumb but I’ll do it.”
Weems and the rest joined in. “Dude, they’ll all be drunk by then so it won’t matter.”
She figured on Laurel and Weems introducing the tune and then they’d join them in the reverie. Carlisle pulled out the notepad bent to the shape of her behind. “She can ‘Jump
like a Willys in a four-wheel drive,’” she squinted the eye.
“Always liked that.”
A mid-week gig at a late season beach town with a battle- ship parked in front. The Front Street establishments closer to the Live Wires nine in the evening start not making much noise. Snippets of Grateful Dead floated from passing cars and out of the open windows of the bars.
A chalkboard sign by the bar’s entrance alerted passersby about drink specials and playing there, in a colorful but terse and semi-accurate though un-lyrical description, TONITE: LIVE WIRES (RICHMOND, VA.)!! BLUEGRASS & GOOD TIMES!! More permanent and eloquent historic marker signs told of the Orton Hotel that burned January 23, 1949, to the basements that contained the bar, the barber shop and the Nation’s Oldest Pool Room in Continual Use.
The stairs into Major-General Longstreet’s fell at a steep angle away from Front Street. Pictures of famous pool sharks, bands that had played there and the occasional luminary who’d made the descent into this dark underworld decorated the stairwell walls.
The bottles behind the dark wooden bar lit up like stained glass and the clacks of billiard balls and people twisting in captain’s chairs at the tables. While pleasant and shadowy, hauling the drum set and amps downstairs took some of the edge off the atmosphere.
The Live Wires, accustomed to cramped playing conditions, clumped into the designated performance space opposite the entrance. Not much room remained for maneuver after C.P. installed his minimal trap set. Jason, the red-ringlet haired and freckle-armed manager in charge, took care of them drink-wise. Guinness on tap suited Carlisle. The amiable enthusiastic Jason loved his job and live music opportunities.
Jason and Carlisle made their ginger one-of-us connec- tion. During the evening, while tending to bar duties, he’d stop to admire the way she shaped her mouth to sing and the extent of her legs when she took a stance to grip the micro- phone and roar. A few more inches of heel would’ve brought her forehead closer to the ceiling cross beams. But tonight she wore lace up Red Wings.
The Live Wires summoned their theme song without the perfunctory introductions to send a startling blast through the intimate assembly. Conversations paused as heads turned.
Following “Richmond-Petersburg Turnpike Breakdown” and “Biloxi” came welcome applause and whistles. Carlisle made the introductions, pitched for the merchandise, then strum- ming, checked her bandmates and said, “This one’s for someone who’s inspired us along the way.” Laurel and Weems brought in “Friend of The Devil,” for Carlisle and Colby to join. C.P. maintained a subtle whispering presence.
The bar babble hushed as though they played a spiritual. Colby’s voice blended well into Carlisle’s, though not near seamless as Bruce’s, that more a function of time than ability. They’d rehearsed a few times before making the downstairs journey. “Truckin’” absorbed most of the preparation time.
The Longstreet’s denizens made loud appreciation of the Live Wires recognition of the day’s melancholy event. “We’ll do a few more of those tonight,” Carlisle said, frowning and adjusting the mike stand. “But – like everybody else – we were caught unawares by the news,” emphatic nodding heads at the bar.
Glasses and bottles lifted high toward the truth of the observation. A girl in a paisley halter dress used a napkin to pad away tears. “We hope you’ll like this one of ours,” Carlisle said. She called for “That Ain’t Right.” And the evening proceeded.
By the start of the second set Longstreet’s and the adjoin- ing pool hall bustled. The Live Wires received requests for more Dead memorial tunes. Carlisle figured, what the hell, let’s get this one out of the way. She’d copied from a book the “Truckin’” lyrics and key signatures and made photocopies.
Jason the bartender scared up some tape to stick the sheets to the microphone stands. Colby and Carlisle had been through the tune a few times that afternoon on the street. Coins and bills dropped into the instrument cases indicated that their faulty rendition struck a personal enough note in passersby. “If we get it more than half right, the song itself will do the work for us,” Carlisle told him.
The bar, louder and looser for the second set, seemed more bent toward release than remembrance, but no reason that the two couldn’t become joined in wake tradition. Enough of the audience remained from earlier for a smooth transition.
The Live Wires gave a longer intro than usual for Carlisle to narrate, “I think most everybody in here probably knows this tune – maybe better than us.”
They built toward the crucial verse by which time the
entire place joined in chorus. “Late-leee it occurs to me,” Weems gave the beat, “what a long, strange trip it’s been.” C.P. brought the percussive emphasis – “But if you got a warrant – “Rappity-Rap! “I guess you’re gonna come in.”
The Longstreeters raised their arms in victorious celebration. They whooped and whistled, and Jason, hitting the draught levers, grinned as big as though kissed by Carlisle. After that more song titles came hurling through the air, balls of energy and memory and Carlisle bounced them around but passed along saying, we’ll do something a little later, but you know, right now, speakin’ of freaks …”
This “Freak of Nature” went on for almost ten sopping minutes and transformed Longstreet’s into a hot, hopping joint. Afterward, Carlisle sweat-drenched, imbibed of a small pitcher of beer posed in front of the mike and the crowd clapping, “She’s a freak … She’s a freak!” as she chugged.
By time the Live Wires got to the encore of “Sugar Magnolia,” the perspiring club goers stood shoulder-to-shoulder singing along.
“Thank you all, thank you Jason,” she said over the clap- ping and shouting crowd. “But most of all, thank you Jerry,” she hoisted the replenished pitcher. “Couldn’t have done it without you. But, speaking of how it lately occurs to me.”
She grasped the mike stand and looked around to the Live Wires. “Hey, you all, Brokedown Palace. I’ll do it.”
Her bandmates agreed except for Laurel who didn’t move. She nodded and asked for a key. They turned the five-minute ballad into a spiritual. The crowd remained standing and some of them indeed wept. The tune allowed for a voice to crack and as Bobby predicted, the words ad- dressing loss got to her in the concluding verses. Laurel’s plaintive fiddle drew up the sadness that came into Carlisle at, “Sing a lullaby beside the water/Lovers come and go – the river roll roll roll.” And by “Listen to the river sing sweet songs” her vision blurred. She ended as a raspy prayer and grasped Laurel’s hand. The Longstreeters cheered themselves hoarse.