WHY I DON’T COME DOWN OFF THE MOUNTAIN ANYMORE
(reprinted from LC’s smash autobiography Off The Record – The Trials and Tribulations of a Travelin’ Troubadour)
Okay boys and girls, for this month’s installment of “So You Want To Be In Show Business?” we are going to be traveling back to a place some of you East Tennesseans/Southwest Virginians will definitely remember – the historic downtown train station in Bristol, Virginia. The Bristol Train Station, situated directly (and conveniently) across the street from the Bristol Police Station, was home to many a shady nightclub through the years, and the opening scene for this sentimental saga of musical misery takes place here. So let’s start with a song…sing children sing, to the tune of House Of The Rising Sun:
There is a club in Bristol
Right across the street’s “the man”
With fightin’ freaks and migraine geeks
In the back of Lightnin’s van
This is a tale of a typical night’s employment for yours truly (before I saw the Light)…
Once upon a time, after playing a non-eventful three-set gig in a nightclub in the aforementioned train station, the band had finished the load-out and retired to a table to sit, talk, and have a nightcap (Sprite for me) with four or five patrons who were still hanging around.
It was after closing time, but they were apparently friends of the bartender and were enjoying the tranquility (and the smell of stale beer) that permeates a bar after closing. I knew one of the guys at the table – I had bought my wife’s engagement ring from his local jewelry store. So we were just hanging out, making friendly small talk, when I got up to go to the front desk and telephone my wife to tell her I was running late and I’d be home soon. When I hung up the phone and turned to go back to the table, I saw my bass player, Jack (his real name), and one of the guys from the table engaged in fisticuffs (that is, they were rolling around on the floor, punching each other in the head and face). I ran over and got between them, pulling them apart, to break it up.
My drummer was standing there, a chair raised over his head, shrieking and screaming as only he could do. Let’s call him “Mork” (not his real name, but just a vowel away). Mork was wearing a powder blue tuxedo, the latest of his borrowings from me, and was quite a sight…and a sound…and a mind.
“You’re traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind;
a journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination.
That’s the signpost up ahead – your next stop, the Twilight Zone!”
Mr. Mork was not only dependent upon me for clothing, but for housing, transportation, and food as well. Mork had been kicked out of his previous abode (and several others before that), and I took him in, dumbly thinking that I could keep him under control, and at least I wouldn’t have to go looking for him when it was time to go to the gig (Mork didn’t have a car either).
Mork might not have had a home, a car, clothes, or social graces, but I’ll tell you about one thing Mork did have. Mork had this extraordinary shrill tone (the understatement of the century) when he would scream or yell loudly that was like no other. It would loosen the fillings in your teeth. I have never heard anything else like it, before or since. He was a big fan of the rock band, K.I.S.S., and idolized the deviate drummer Tommy Lee. Mork looked up to sociopaths as his sole role models, and he was always screaming, loud and long, about something.
I can’t overstate the mind-blowing ferocity of Mork’s cry. We put him out of the van onto the street several times for taking these fits. We’d literally throw him, bodily, out of the van, after begging him to stop. One would go blind from a sustained exposure to Mork’s screaming in a small, confined space like a van; it was unbelievable. You’ve heard of people whose voices could break glass? Well, his could break plaster. It was deafeningly loud, but it wasn’t the volume that got you. It was the tone. Mork’s howlings had the tonal quality of fingernails on a chalkboard. It made you feel like you were chewing aluminum foil. It was maddening and quite unbearable; torture in the truest sense of the word.
Another benefit of having Mork in the band (a Mork perk!) was that occasionally, when the spirit (spirits is more like it) moved him, he would strip off all of his clothes (my clothes) while playing drums at a gig (my gig), and then shriek/recite some terribly vulgar lines from the movie Full Metal Jacket (at his trademark head-splitting volume). This was always a Tennessee showstopper and real deal-breaker of the highest order (for me). My drummer Mork: what an asset. Well, that’s almost the right word.
Anyway, let’s get back to our Bristol brawl, y’all. I had left Mork, our asset, holding a chair over his head, and yowling like a thousand hyenas with their tails stuck in an old clothes-wringer, and Jack, our bassist, rolling on the floor, in a no-holds barred wrestling match. I just noticed, while typing, that our asset (Mork) and our bassist (Jack) have something in common. If you’ll look again at the words asset and bassist, I’m sure you’ll see it too. It’s a personality trait that the two of them shared. And it’s also another name for a mule.
I managed to separate the two fighters and was demanding to know what in the wide world of sports had happened. Jack said that this guy just sucker-punched him in the eye (which was already swelling shut) for no reason. The guy denied it, to which Jack, pointing to his quickly closing left eye, replied logically that, “Yeah, I guess I just punched myself in the eye.”
This other fellow, the Sucker-Puncher, was no spring chicken, but he was big, and he was tough. He had the kind of face that looked like you could strike a match on it. He was at least twenty years older than Jack, and a lot bigger, but he was obviously one rough-dried old dude, and was not the type of guy to mess with. His looks reminded me of some of the crusty pirate mutineers in Mutiny On The Bounty (not the glossy remake with Marlon Brando, but the killer original with Clark Gable). Why this codger cracked Jack remains a mystery, but the reasons for the fight don’t matter, as they don’t affect the rest of our story.
It was at this point that the two of them decided that there was nothing left to do but “take it outside and settle it” and they started towards the door. And we all followed; to make sure that the Marquis of Queensbury rules of bar fighting were strictly adhered to. After all, we were not barbarians. There would be no guns, no knives, no standing eight-count, no saving by the bell (no bell), and no calling of police.
And so Jack and the Sucker-Puncher, Mork and I, along with another guy and girl from our table left the club and entered the long corridor of the train station, which led outside where the dispute was to be settled. All of a sudden, this other guy begins belligerently shoving his chest and beer-belly into Jack’s back as they’re walking out. I should mention that Jack was only about five and a half feet tall, weighing somewhere in the neighborhood of 130 pounds, and this guy bumping and bullying Jack was another big ’un, standing six foot two or so, and tipping the scales at around 225 pounds. This guy wasn’t involved in the fracas at the table, and was simply taking the opportunity to be what his mother raised him to be, a redneck. Bullying someone 100 pounds smaller than themselves is typical of rednecks. About the only time they’ll pick on someone their own size, is when they outnumber the guy five to one (or when their victim is handcuffed – see last month’s Lowdown). Perhaps this redneck was puffing up and bumping his chest into Jack for the want of some personal attention from him. If so, he was about to get it.
Jack spun around and, quick as a cat, had this big lummox down and was applying a Royce Gracie Ju-Jitsu stranglehold to his throat. Jack was so fast; he looked like a spider monkey climbing that guy. Jack’s superb chokehold completely shut off the carotid artery from delivering much-needed blood to the brain, causing the redneck to turn gray immediately (grayneck?), and pass out. This procedure took all of two or three seconds. His girlfriend or wife was now in a state of panic, hitting my one-eyed bassist in the face with her purse and screaming. I was panicking as well, trying to get Jack’s spider monkey hands unlocked from the guy’s throat (he wasn’t letting go), and I was doing my fair share of screaming, too, pleading, “Let him go, Jack! You’re gonna kill him!”
Jack did let go of him and it was then that we noticed the foul odor coming from the fallen redneck.
Yes friends, I’m sorry to say his bowels let go about the same time Jack did. Quickly regaining color and consciousness (such as it was), he was led into the men’s room of the club by his faithful girl Friday, never to be seen or heard from again. Good riddance to bad rubbish. The Sucker-Puncher, who thought he might be on his way to meet a similar fate, now reconsidered, and smartly decided that he wanted to be friends.
So the two of them, the Sucker-Puncher and the One-Eyed Jack, shook hands and became fast friends. Bosom buddies, even. So much so, that the jewelry store owner even told Jack that if he’d come by his store the next day, that he’d give him a diamond ring for his girlfriend, which he did.
There was much “slapping fives” and “man hugs”, and I was quickly sickening and tiring of the entire affair. I had had a bellyful of the slugging and the screaming, the judo-ing and the choking, the defecating and now the lovemaking between these yahoos, and suggested strongly to the boys in the band that it was high time we made tracks. Let’s get while the gettin’s good.
Remember, the Bristol police station (and jail) was located directly across the street from the train station, and I really didn’t want to deal with the police (as readers of last month’s Lowdown will certainly agree) or any more redneck shenanigans. So we tiptoed to my van to start the 30-minute journey home. I was oh, so very grateful to be getting out of there in one piece (with the exception of ‘one-eye’) and without the intervention of law enforcement.
But as fate would have it, about halfway home, our drummer Mork started into a screaming fit, telling me at the tip-top of his lungs to…
“PULL OVER CHARLIE,
I’M NOT GOING HOME SOBERRRR!!!”
I pulled my diesel van (“plub-plub-plub-plub”) and 12-foot trailer into an all-night gas station/convenience store along the side of the highway, thinking that a quart of beer might well appease my Turret’s Syndrome-afflicted drummer. My intent in pulling over was solely to shut him up. I realize the road to Hell is paved with good intentions, and this, as you will see, was no exception.
Mork leaped out of the van, violently slammed my van door, and now full of fight (back at the real fight he didn’t do anything except hold a chair over his head and scream like Tina Turner on helium), promptly proceeded to kick a metal newspaper bin through the gigantic plate glass window of the convenience store, smashing it, and leaving a hole the size of a Volkswagen Beetle.
I’m parallel-parked right in front of the store, in full view of the open-mouthed clerk who was (up till now) enjoying a quiet night and playing a quick game of Ms. Pac-Man in front of the window. Mork-Maniac jumps right back into the van and screams,
“LET’S GOOOOOOO, CHARLIE!!!”
To which I replied,“Go? Go where? You stupid [many expletives deleted] moron!”
Funny, I just couldn’t see myself outrunning every cop car and helicopter in Bristol in my GMC diesel van with loaded 12-foot trailer. Plup-plup-plup-plup…
I got out and tried to explain to the freaked-out clerk that we were Lightnin’ Charlie and the Upsetters, and that my drummer was a hopeless psychotic who had just been involved in a bar fight where he witnessed his buddy (and fellow asset) get his eye blacked and he’s just upset (pun intended), and if he would just allow me to clean up the mess and give him my driver’s license with my home phone number, that there surely would be no need to involve the police in this matter, etc. etc. He didn’t answer me or say a single word.
Well, the next thing I see is about fifteen police cars, lights spinning, sirens wailing, pulling into the scene of the crime. This battalion of cops all jump out of their cars and, whom do you think they throw against the wall of the building??? How’d you guess? Me, the sober babysitter who’s been busy singing songs, loading and unloading equipment, breaking up fist fights and strangulation murders, dealing with spoiled, suburban, shrieking banshee-brats and big, bowel-moving rednecks. Me, who had been apologetically picking up pieces of broken glass the size of card tables and offering up my name, address, phone number, driver’s license, and lots of cash to the clerk (in exchange for some silence), while One-Eyed Jack is sitting in my backseat thinking about what kind of free diamond ring he’ll get tomorrow and my screeching asset of a drummer is sitting in MY van wearing MY powder-blue tuxedo and griping about how long this is taking ME to straighten out, because he’s in a hurry to get his quart of beer and go home to MY house!!! Do I sound bitter, friends? I still get migraine headaches occasionally, but not nearly as often as I used to.
So after being roughly handcuffed and searched (not stripped this time, thankfully) by the police, I was allowed to explain what had happened – that my drummer, who is a hopeless mental case, had kicked the newspaper bin in anger, but had in no way intended for it to bust out the window of the store, and that I’m sure that the clerk would vouch for my sober cooperation and for taking complete responsibility for this mishap and that I would gladly pay for the damages. I was told to sit down and shut up and wait while they phoned the storeowner. They called him, woke him up (it must’ve been 2:30 AM by then), and told me he was “on his way to the scene”. It would then be up to him whether or not charges were placed and arrests were made.
By the way, Mork (the other white meat), who has a history of law-breaking and outrageous public misbehavior a mile long, has never, to this day, ever been handcuffed, let alone arrested, by law enforcement. I was extremely confident that if any arrests were made that night for the window Mork kicked in, that the guilty party’s clean record would not be tarnished, and I would surely be the one to go downtown and face the music. Why? That’s easy: because I was the only one present who hadn’t done anything wrong. Call me crazy.
While we waited, the police did remove the cuffs from me, as I must not have appeared to be a threat, and I was even allowed to videotape my drummer (in my powder blue tux) and my bass player (with one eye swollen shut) sitting on the curb in front of the massive hole in the plate glass window. It’s a wonderful moment that sums up the 1980s for me in a five-second video clip.
At this point, as if things couldn’t get any weirder, an old, jalopy pick-up truck, that looked like something Fred G. Sanford would abandon, pulls up to the gas pumps and two long-haired, bearded, dirty dudes get out. The driver yells at his passenger (in front of twenty cops), “Yew pump the gas and I’ll git the beer!”
I’m standing at the counter inside the store, still trying to schmooze and sweet-talk the clerk into putting in a good word with his boss for us, to allow ME to pay for the damage, in cash, but the clerk was having none of it, when this new kid on the block lurches in. This nouveaux idiot (in a lot full of idiots) wobbles up to the counter with his 12-pack. He slowly looks me up and down (I’m in my funky stage clothes), and then, looking at the gigantic hole in the glass, says sneeringly to the clerk,
“That’s the reason I don’t come down off the mountain anymore.”
I was not in a position to argue that point, although I’m still not sure if he was referring to the assets, to the hole, or to me.
Bearded Beer Breath, the Tennessee Mountain Man, pays for his half-case, gives me one last dirty look, and swaggers back out towards his truck, where every cop in Bristol is waiting for him. One smiling policeman goes up to him and says, “Put the beer down on the ground and put your hands on top of your head.”
While having nothing else to do while waiting for my arrest order, the cops got some ID from the passenger, and ran the truck’s license plate, and it comes back with fugitive warrants on both of them. Not to mention a sure DUI for the driver and probably possession of any number of other types of illegal mountain contraband and paraphernalia. Now my question is this: if you are drunk and driving, and wanting to buy more beer, and you have a fugitive warrant out for your arrest, and one on your passenger also, why pull into a gas station where every cop in town is present, and not hiding behind some trees, but with all their lights and sirens on? I’m looking at these two rednecks in disbelief (as I know the cops are), knowing that we three will surely be cellmates soon, and fearing that they’ll be blaming all this, and all these cops, on me. I remember thinking then how I wished I knew a little Ju-Jitsu.
The storeowner finally arrived an hour or so later (in his pajamas and robe – bless his heart), and after I handed him $500 in cash, I was allowed to drive to the ATM where I withdrew $500 more for him. He took my contact information and profuse apologies, and said that if I called him in the morning, he would let me know how much more the glass was going to cost (it ended up costing $1200), and that he didn’t see any need to press charges. Mork was still sitting unmolested (as usual) on the curb and smoking cigarettes that he was bumming off the cops. He gets free cigarettes and I get frisked, handcuffed, and touched for $1000.
Today, Mr. Mork the Psychopath is living comfortably in Nashville, Tennessee, righteously rent-free. By night, Mork is still wearing K.I.S.S. makeup and still stripping off borrowed clothes in public. By day, he drives a delivery truck for a liquor store. That’s perfect, like putting the fox in charge of the henhouse.
Jack recovered nicely from his shiner and got a free diamond chip ring from his sucker-punching new best friend (I had to drive him to the store to get it – he didn’t own a car either). Jack is now out of the music business and working as a river raft guide, taking tourists rafting on the rapids. Funny, I’ve spent a lifetime getting taken up and down the river by musicians and malcontents (very redundant), so it’s very comforting for me to have this forum, to share these stories, to vent my many frustrations, and to avoid shock treatment. You Lightnin’ Bugs are saving me a bundle in therapy.
I’d like to close this installment of American Midol with a quote from the novelist, Tom Clancy, who said, “The difference between writing fact and fiction is that fiction has to make sense.”
Said a mouthful there, Tom.
See you next time, for more lore, in store!