Life by the Beat / Stories from the Road, Vol. 1

October 18, 2018

George Rains has had a life fuller than most, as exemplified both by his great musical reputation and by the following stories, each told with his straightforward honesty and solid back beat. For someone who started playing drums in an all night go-go bar called the Cellar in Fort Worth in the early '60s, George has gone on to stages around the world with Mother Earth, Doug Sahm, Boz Scaggs, Jimmie Vaughan and more. He plays a right-handed drum kit left-handed, defying the boundaries of time and space. And that's just for starters.

 

 

BIG LAKE TEXAS

 

Gary P. Nunn is a singer/songwriter in Austin and years back, for a brief period, I played some gigs with him on the road. I abandoned a temporarily inert blues career for the most logical alternative: Country and Western music. Not the first time I’ve made such a drastic move — or the last. There was also Junior Brown in there somewhere but that's a whole OTHER story!

 

Back then, I would classify Gary P. Nunn as more of a Suburban and Western – Outlaw – Cowboy – Shit Kicking – Existentialist. What the hell did I know? Whatever it was, it wasn’t blues. It was okay, though. Gary was more of a rocker than a straight up and down country picker. More important, he was a nice guy with a paying gig that didn’t suck (the Musician’s Holy Grail).  In your more traditional, “Honky Tonk” type country music, there’s not a whole lot for the drummer to do but go clippity-clop most of the night with a little swing here and there and an occasional Chuck Berry groove thrown in to break up the monotony. Don’t get me wrong. I do like country music ... I like listening to country music. Not today’s country music, of course — god no! Today’s Country Music is, to borrow a Fort Worth phrase, “all hat and no cattle.”  It’s these weight-lifters in their cowboy dusters, looking like they're wearing a leather shower curtain, running from one side of the stage to the other, singing watered down rock tunes with an exaggerated country accent into a little Burger King microphone stuck in their ear ... Boring! I like my country music with lots of tragedy and heartache mixed with alcohol and diesel fuel and sung by stringy looking people with big ears and funny hair. But that's just me ... Different strokes, et cetera. Which brings me to the night Gary P. and the band played a show up in Big Lake Texas.

 

At first glance, things seemed peaceful enough when we arrived at the festival in Big Lake: One big outdoor stage with bands, people dancing, a big crowd of music lovers sprawled out on the ground with campfires, beer coolers, fireworks and motorcycles. Yeeee-hah!. But after a while, it was obvious that a lot of these folks lumbering through the crowd, speaking in tongues and tripping over dirt, had been out there all day in the sun, consuming large quantities of alcohol, recreational drugs, prairie dust and sausage wraps — a volatile blend. And now, around eight o’clock at night, this zombie jamboree was starting to get its second wind.

 

My personal view is that it's just not a proper Country and Western venue without at least one fight. I realize I’m falling back on stereotypical clichés but hey, that’s my style ... this ain't Tolstoy. It doesn’t even have to be a good fight! Just the right amount of friction to activate some ol’ boy’s John Wayne gland enough for him to start marking his territory. But that night in Big Lake, things got a bit ugly ... I don’t really know how it started. With cowboys it’s hard to tell where the dancing stops and the fighting starts. Things just seemed to turn mean. And when a few of the biker boys cranked up their Harleys and began riding through the campfires, well, we knew our little show up there on the stage was pretty much over with. All of a sudden, we were the audience and they were the show! 

 

Amid a shower of sparks, with flaming logs, beer bottles and a few volunteer security guards flying through the air, clumps of crazed cowboy-redneck-bikers punched, kicked and wrestled around on the ground having the biggest time. Then, in split second precision, this thundering herd of humanity changed direction and headed straight for the stage. It wasn’t like they were coming after us. It wasn't one of those The band must be destroyed! type situations ... with flaming torches.... No, these rustic individuals forgot all about the small group of clean, well dressed musicians cowering behind guitar amplifiers as soon as the punches started flying. I think it had more to do with the ground slanting down toward the stage and the mob was just carried along on the path of least resistance. 

 

Now this was no little roadhouse beer joint. This was a big, professional, outdoor stage with banks of lights and towers of large, heavy speakers standing fifteen feet high on each side. And this stampeding redneck juggernaut hit it full force. The towers began to teeter, the microphones went dead, then lights, speakers, bodies, blood, teeth, hair and cans of menthol snuff rained down in Biblical proportions. The Sound Man, a friendly little hippie looking guy with long hair and a mustache, suffered a complete emotional breakdown trying to save his sound equipment. Pulling a sawed off shotgun out of one of his many crates and boxes, he waved it around, screaming hysterically for everyone to get back and keep away from his stuff. The mob ignored him — ignored a guy waving a shotgun! He finally got one bearded, bleary-eyed biker’s attention. The biker walked right up to him, grabbed the gun barrel, took the gun away and began beating the sound man over the head with it. These people were not going to let anything stand in the way of a good time.

 

I’ve long observed that people in Show Business can easily be divided into two distinct categories: Talent and Production, that’s it. You’re either one or the other. Everyone else pays to get in. And as far as the band was concerned, this was a Production Problem. So, we got the hell off the stage and back to the relative security of our trailer/dressing room combo where, as the faint pop of small arms fire from assorted hand guns wafted in on the dry, west Texas wind, the band plotted its next move. The big question was: Do we save our collective asses by hauling them out of there immediately? Or do we stick around, hoping to get paid? The majority vote, myself included, was, “Let’s get the hell out of here now, man!” The bass player was already in the van with the doors locked. But this was where Gary P.’s experience and natural leadership prevailed. Gary P. had been in these situations before. Hell, he was raised around these people. 

 

“Aw, come on, fellas,” he drawled. “Relax. These boys are just blowin’ off a little steam. Things'll quiet down after while. Just try and stay low and keep away from the windows.” Gary P. was not leaving empty-handed. Taking full advantage of the vast quantities of hard liquor on the premises, we numbed our frayed, artistic nerves until the show’s promoter showed up with a small army of security guards. The whole bunch looked like they’d just crawled out of a car wreck. Bruised, beaten, covered with dirt, the promoter held a bloodstained towel against the side of his face with both hands, apparently trying to keep an eyeball from falling out. 

 

“We got your money, Gary!” he shouted with an urgent, semi-hysterical tone. “I sure appreciate you bein' on the show, buddy! You boys are welcome back anytime,” he assured us. Gary P. humbly acknowledged the compliment. 

 

"Lookin' forward to it, pardner." The rest of us just stared at the floor.

 

"Make sure Gary gets his money," the promoter instructed a nearby assistant. And then, like the super hero he was that night, and with his crack security team leading the way, Promoter Man once again charged headlong into that zealous horde of ornery shit kickers.

 

“Later, Gary!” we heard him call out as he disappeared into that chaotic night — “I gotta find my dog!”

 

 

 

 

THE TRAIN TO HELSINKI

 

 

Mel and I missed the train to Helsinki. We made it to the station and, in fact, made it very close to the train. We just didn’t get on the train. And that, after all, was the whole point. We were at the last car, passing our luggage and musical instruments up to Pat, when the train pulled out. There was no smiling uniformed attendant blowing his whistle, announcing “All aboard!” There was no “Let’s get all this crap on board, we’re leaving!” Nothing! — at least nothing in English. 

 

Pat, Denny and Angela were already on the train, which was no small accomplishment considering we all had to get up before dawn to disembark on a ferryboat then lumber through a train station like zombies, following directions from signs that looked more like eye charts than an actual language. This is when — as it so often does in the course of evolution — the law of natural selection kicks in: Survival of the fittest. The trains do not wait! Mel and I didn’t make it. Our small window of opportunity shrank to a mere peephole before slamming shut and leaving us behind to fend for ourselves at the bottom of the Scandinavian food chain.

   

The five of us: Pat, Denny, Angela, Mel and myself had successfully traveled from Sweden to Finland on an enormous ferryboat. We were a blues band touring Scandinavia or, as Mel liked to call it, “The White Congo.” Mel is of the African American persuasion. The rest of the group, various shades of pink.  Although, being from Texas, I would have to say that we weren’t as pink as the Scandinavians. I mean, I understand that whole thing about people in hot climates eating spicy food to perspire and cool off, but come on. A typical Scandinavian’s response to, say, a Jalapeño pepper is usually something like, “My God, I’ve been poisoned!” Their idea of “kickin’ it up a notch” is to add salt. However, these people are absolute masters with bread, beer, potatoes, moonshine and reindeer ... Go with what you know.  

 

The Norwegians, the Finns, the Swedes, they all loved Mel: A black American blues musician, all around charmer and major babe hound. Mel wasn’t the only dark skinned man in Scandinavia, although he said at times he felt that way.  Not that he was complaining much. Opposites definitely attract ... On the boat ride over from Stockholm, Mel was approached by a tall, strong, Nordic goddess who announced with all the deadpan seriousness of an Ingmar Bergman movie, “I vant to have your child.” In the spirit of diplomacy between nations, Mel decided to pass on the impregnating part of her proposal while emphasizing that anything up to that point was cool with him. She declined his counter offer and eventually settled for a free T-shirt.

 

On the same voyage, in the bar, two old men in cheap suits, drinking vodka and singing in Russian, took a strong liking to Mel and temporarily adopted him. Standing on each side of Mel, these two old comrades drank from an enormous bottle of vodka, passing it back and forth while singing to Mel and occasionally kissing him on the cheek. The Russians wore these ill-fitting suits apparently made of material left over from a cheap sofa, complemented by wide, red and yellow ties ...they looked like circus clowns. Their noses and ears glowed red and they seemed momentarily happy, singing their melancholy songs in deep, growling, Russian bear voices. Mel wasn’t sure whether they were just a pair of old drunks or a pair of old queens. Careful to maintain a neutral position, Mel patiently endured this international incident for the sake of world brotherhood and because we were all on a boat out on the ocean with nowhere else to go ... all the while being drawn deeper and deeper into the heart of the White Congo! (accordion music rises to menacing volume)

     

Once the boat arrived in Finland, the plan was to unload our worldly goods, hump it over to the train station then catch a train into Helsinki. No problem, a walk in the park. The five of us lumbered off the boat like pack animals with our luggage, guitars, electric bass and the biggest, heaviest, most cumbersome electric piano I have ever had the misfortune to watch other people deal with. Before we left the States, Pat, our bass player and self-appointed musician wrangler, had concluded that although the band was being furnished with drums and amplifiers on the tour, it would be infinitely more pleasant to lug (along with everything else) a five-foot, eighty-pound monolith around ... in and out of taxi cabs, through plane terminals, train stations and hotel lobbies. Pat’s reasoning was, “Hey, they may know a lot about Trolls over there but electric pianos are a whole other thing!" 

 

Well, you can't argue with that logic. We could have but by then it was too late. Instead, we huffed and puffed all our crap through the train station and finally made it to the last car on our train. Pat, Denny and Angela boarded the train while Mel and I stood outside and passed the stuff up. Pat passed it back to Denny and Denny threw everything in a pile inside the car. Teamwork, clockwork — pointless! The train pulled out. We’re still loading our gear and the train pulls out! What’s up with that? It felt like a scene from an old silent movie: Mel and I standing there on the tracks with our remaining bags, the train is pulling out and Pat’s hanging out over the rail with outstretched arms, laughing.  (FADE TO BLACK)  All we needed were walking sticks and derby hats. 

 

My first instinct was to run down the tracks screaming, “Stop! Stop the train!”  Mel and I exchanged looks and quickly reached the same conclusion that running after the train would be futile, not to mention, just plain un-cool. And the one thing you want to avoid while standing in the middle of some railroad track with your luggage around your ankles, waving and screaming at a train, is to look un-cool. Once the initial shock was over and Mel and I realized that we weren’t going to spend the rest of our pathetic lives wandering lost and homeless through Finland, begging for herring, we picked up our bags and headed into the station. The next train to Helsinki was in two hours. We wait. We sit, we wait, we smoke cigarettes, drink coffee and watch the Finns.

 

One thing I enjoy about being in a foreign country and not knowing the language is that you can observe people while maintaining a degree of detachment. Their every day chit-chat fades into a sort of background music. So, it doesn’t matter to me whether these people are complaining about their relatives, complaining about their jobs or calling me an asshole. It’s all the same: gibberish. Musicians especially seem to be easily entertained by the eccentric behavior of others. The train station was quiet, with only a few hearty travelers with backpacks milling about. Mel and I sat by a window, dozing off in the sunlight, paying little attention at first to the drunken man in a wheelchair being forcibly ejected from the bar. Two barmen pushed the drunk in his chair out into the waiting area. They all three argued loudly, waving their arms and pointing at each other. I think the thread of the conversation was that the drunk wanted to stay in the bar and continue drinking while the two barmen would prefer having him killed. They dismissed each other with a round of Finnish Fuck You’s and the two barmen walked away leaving the drunk parked uncomfortably close to Mel and me.  

 

The drunk sat there staring at us, grinding his teeth. He held a charred cigarette filter between his tobacco-stained fingers and, though the cigarette had long burned away, he continued to take drags off the filter. He was a small man, thin, in his early 40's with dark, stringy, shoulder-length hair, seven-day beard and a full, Mexican bandit mustache. He wore faded jeans, cheap sneakers and a black bootleg Rolling Stones T-shirt with a big red tongue printed on the front. A pack of smokes rolled up in his sleeve exposed a crude “AC/DC” tattoo on his arm. His face had a clammy, pink, puffy look that’s easily achieved by consuming large quantities of alcohol every day and night. This man was an angry, bitter, disabled drunk who did not give one shit. So, fuck it! He spun his chair around and rolled back into the bar.

 

It took about ten seconds for the two barmen to roll the drunk right back out again. The three men argued much louder this time, all yelling at once. The drunk took a hard swing at one of the barmen and the barman was so shocked and incensed by this attack that he kicked the side of the wheelchair. The drunk attacked the two men with his chair, ramming into their legs and running over their feet. “This is like watching the Three Stooges,” I said to Mel as we watched the two barmen hop around like bullfighters dodging passes from El Borracho. 

 

“These are your people,” Mel pointed out to me. Eventually a policeman arrived to put a stop to all this anti-social behavior. He tried listening to both sides of the story but the drunk wouldn’t shut up long enough for anyone else to get a word in. After another round of “fuck you’s," the two barmen returned to the bar and left the drunk in the hands of the authorities. The policeman looked to be in his early twenties, very polite, very well groomed ... very pink. The poster boy for the Police Academy.The drunk was neither impressed nor prepared to surrender. When the policeman attempted to question him, the grumbling drunk started swinging. The policeman calmly pulled out his radio and called for backup. With his other hand, he stiff-armed the drunk in the face, holding him off at arm's length. The drunk threw wild roundhouse punches but the policeman held him off, just out of reach.  

 

“This is better than the Stooges,” Mel said. “More drama.”  Even the policeman was smiling ... a ludicrous farce indeed. It began to resemble a dance, with the policeman talking on his radio while stiff-arming the drunk in the face, pushing him away, the drunk growling and punching blind, his wheelchair slowly rolling backwards in a circle.

 

“You seldom see this caliber of live theater anymore," I observed. "Especially in a train station.” A police van pulled up outside the station and two more officers jumped out and proceeded to "Subdue The Perpetrator." Taking advantage of the drunk’s decision to rest between rounds, the officers quickly bum-rushed him out to the van. They slid back the side door and prepared to lift him and his chair up into the van. Now, I don’t believe the officers did this with any malice but as they picked up the chair by the wheels, the chair and the drunk pitched forward and the poor soul plummeted face down hard onto the floor of the van. The officers appeared to argue amongst themselves about just who was at fault while the drunk rolled around on the floor of the van, cursing them all and trying to untangle himself from his overturned chair.

 

I believe it was here that the entertainment value of this spectacle began to diminish. Now it was just sad and pathetic. The officers managed to sit the drunk upright in his wheelchair but failed in their attempts to calm him down. The drunk pushed them away, continued to rant and bellow until finally the policemen, satisfied with the appearance of showing some token of concern for this poor bastard, slammed the van doors closed and sped away with lights flashing.

 

“I guess they got another show to do,” I said as we headed back into the station.

 

“The road never ends." Mel pointed to our train pulling in. "Time to go."

 

Grabbing our bags and bidding a reluctant but fond farewell to the plucky Finns with their quaint customs and Old World charm, Mel and I managed to catch the train to Helsinki.

 

__________________________

 

"As music journalists, we try to avoid using superlatives, like, say, “the greatest living blues drummer.” At the same time, it’s inarguable that for those who’ve been in a room where the Austin drumming icon George Rains is playing, the notion is tough to ignore. Rains’s credentials in the world of blues are impeccable. In addition to backing Jimmie Vaughan since 1993, he was the house drummer at Antone’s blues club for a decade, and has played behind just about every blues artist you can think of from the early ’80s onward."

 

- Modern Drummer magazine

 

 __________________________

 

George Rains © 2018

 

George Rains, has played drums with Willie Nelson, Jimmy Vaughan, Doug Sahm, Boz Scaggs and many others. He's famous for his Texas Shuffle. 

 

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