How Could I Forget That Bass Player?
Recalling a little incident from a journal, one that I didn’t even remember until re-reading it…
I convinced my buddy Emma from Queens to come with me see China Crisis, one of my favorite bands from college. She and I had an unspoken pact: Whenever one of us wanted to do something and needed a friend to do it with, the other was automatically in. Emma owned a car—a great amenity in New York City—so if I wanted to get back and forth anyplace at night, she had to drive me. And when she needed to bring up the sophistication level of whatever party she planned to go to, in order to impress whatever guy she was trying to affect that week, I was obligated as a chick from Long Island to accompany her. It was subtly known throughout the boroughs that Long Island girls were classier than Queens girls (if a tad less exciting). We were mellow and smart and sensible. They were turbulent and street-savvy and bold.
Emma and I dutifully filled each other’s friendship needs and usually had a riotous time doing so. That is, if we did not get thrown out of whatever club we were in. Because as much as I classed-up any party she took me to, she amped-up the crazy/fun quotient at any place we went.
So, she agreed to see this bunch of obscure English guys play at The Ritz, one of the biggest new wave clubs in the city. By this point in my life, I was skilled at muscling my way to the front row at general admission concerts, despite being smaller than most of the rest of the crowd. I planted myself against the stage under the lead guitarist, who had rather fabulous European bone structure. He played there right above my head all night. I would not even let Emma herself elbow in front of me. When she tried, I took her by the shoulders and supplanted her so briskly that she fell on the floor, and I apologized.
Anyone else, Emma would have belted them with a beer bottle. Me, she let slide. I was the only one who got away with that stuff with her. I was the only one who even tried.
Before the end of the night the two of us swore we’d figure out a way to take the freaking band home (although we hadn’t decided which of us would say uncle and let the other have the lead guitarist). At this point in my life, I wanted to be a real groupie, but thus far the only musicians I ever went home with were the few I had already been dating before the show. Yet when you hung around with Emma , sometimes that kind of thing was possible. She was this exquisite little wild-woman who never said no to anything. Men worshipped her.
Also consider this was Manhattan, and the party wasn’t over until you had to get ready for work the next morning. When the band’s set ended at 12-ish, we were just getting started. Sometimes we didn’t even go out until that hour.
In an effort to secure the attention of the guitar player post-show, we waited a safe gawking distance from what was labeled a stage door, next to a table that several place cards designated as reserved for the band. A nebbishy, older guy in a black suit and glasses hit on Emma repeatedly, insisting he was the band’s photographer, despite the fact that he didn’t have a camera. He looked more like he had just come back from a prayer group than a new wave concert. She flirted back, even though she was way above his league.
“Emma,” I whispered sideways in her ear. “This guy’s a bullshit artist.”
She ignored me.
“Emma, I’m tellin’ you, he’s not with the band.”
She ignored me. The guy had to take off. He gave her his card.
The Ritz was gothic and cavernous; everything was awash in in black paint. She held the card up to what little light was available.
“Jeweler,” she read. “He said he’s a fucking rock photographer, and his card says Jeweler.”
“Told ya’.” One point for the Cynical Long Island Bitch.
A thin guy with blondish, mussed hair emerged from the door marked stage. Emma pointed at him. “That’s one of the guitar players,” she said. She yelled to him. “Hey you! Come ‘ere!”
He came over. Guys listened to Emma.
She asked if he was in the band.
“Yes, I play the bass,” he says, in one of those early-Python-esque British accents that’s such a rapid and choppy cascade of syllables you can barely tell it’s the same language we speak in New York. The band had announced they were from Liverpool. Like the Beatles.
He talked to us. It was loud in the club; they blared the music once the show ended.
Emma smiled. “You know, I love your accent, but I can’t understand a word you’re saying,” she shouted.
I spent a semester in London, so I recognized the lilt and I somewhat understood what he was saying, although I don’t remember a thing and didn’t write down specifics. Likely he was deflecting our advances. Or maybe I piped up about living in England. If I was able to gather my thoughts together.
He was friendly, an ordinary guy. Except one who we could scarcely comprehend.
“I’m Emma.” She shook his hand. He turned to me. We shook. “Suzanne,” I said.
He said his name. Me and Emma looked at each other like WTF?
“What was that again?”
He said something that I wrote down in the journal as Gaesa, assuming it was maybe Gaelic. It was my best guess. You never know. I had met a guy from Ireland a few weeks before (relocated to Woodside, of course) who pronounced his name “Ian,” but spelled it something like EOINEN. I swear there might have been a “w” in there somewhere, like a Tolkien character.
I asked him to spell his name but couldn’t hear the answer.
Note at the time there was no Internet to look things up, so if there was no photo of the band or list of names prominently on the album cover, then you didn’t know what the guys looked like or who they were until Rolling Stone did a feature. But you listened to the music anyway. So I let this encounter go, not even convinced that the guy honestly was one of the guitar players, wondering if instead he was just running with things because two cute groupie-types waved him over. We girls who hung around stage doors learned early: The guy who comes out after the concert is not always in the band. Sometimes he is just a guy with cool hair who moves amps.
This guy seemed far too polite to be a rock star, and he was about as young as we were.
However, in the here and now, I can look up the names of the members of China Crisis from that year. One of them is listed as Gazza Johnson. This was, according to reports, a nickname for Gary— also the name of the black-haired lead guitarist we were drooling over throughout the show. There were two Garys in the band that year, so I guess they needed to differentiate, like me and my four roommates from college, all of whom were named some variation of “Sue.”
I’m sure me and Emma made a play for this guy to come out with us, but it did not work. However, my notes say he was very sweet, so he must have found a diplomatic way to sidestep our invitation.
So… here’s to Gazza Johnson of China Crisis in 1987, for making nice with me and my buddy, even though we could hardly decipher most of what he said. Even though Cynical Long Island Bitch didn’t believe he was who he said he was. Let’s give one point to Emma, the Crazy Little Queens Girl, who believed, and who had the balls to yell loudly enough across the Ritz’s pitch and earsplitting mosh pit to get him to come over and talk to us.
And here, also, is to a life in which I have forgotten things that are way cooler than what many other people ever get to do, ever.
Note that Gazza Johnson was actually an exceptionally talented bass player, and some of the numbers from that year’s album are still my favorite tunes. I will share one of my faves, then.
“Safe as Houses”
Why I didn’t recognize the guy who played it even as I shook his hand is beyond me. Apologies for having eyes for the other guy, who was close enough to step on my fingertips. But apparently not nice enough to come out and say hello.
Note I have purchased and repurchased “What Price Paradise” in every format that it has been issued in since the ’80s, starting with the record album, moving on to a tape cassette for my first car, then a CD, then a download on iTunes after the CD was destroyed in a move, and a second download from Amazon after the iTunes stuff wouldn’t play on my phone anymore. So the band has gotten their share of royalties from me on that recording, in addition to the concert ticket.
I have a certain affinity for bass guitar anyway, since I grew up listening to bass lines being plucked out daily, repeatedly, maddeningly. My younger brother played. And played. And played so much that sometimes I’d march into his bedroom and yank the cord out of the amplifier at 9:00 in the morning on summer weekends when I had a hangover. Certain days I would stand there like an idiot ordering him to mow the lawn before my father had a conniption fit. Until I got fed up and flattened my hand over the strings, it was as if I weren’t even there. At that point he would finally look up as if to say, oh, sorry, you’re in the room with me?
I don’t know if that qualifies me to judge anything. But I do love a good new wave bass line.
That, and thanks to my brother Jimmy, I will have the bass notes to “Tom Sawyer” etched across my brain cells till I die.