Tuesday, August 4, 2009

The Killer

Summer 1985 Iowa City, Iowa and Chicago, Illinois

Jerry Lee Lewis was playing in Chicago. I had a big white 69 Volvo with an eight ball clutch that just might get us all there. We were only three hours away from Chicago and our little university town was blessed with having some of those legends coming through on a regular basis, playing festivals and small clubs.Muddy Waters, Buddy Guy and Little Walter at the Crow’s Nest, Albert King at Gabe’s Oasis, Koko Taylor at the Crystal Ballroom, complete with a spring operated floating dance floor. I met them sitting in the back warm up rooms or in the case of Albert Collins and the Icebreakers, me and my friend Willie saw AC Reed sax player sitting in an IHOP at 3 in the morning and we asked him where the band was. He pointed across the street at the Motel 6, room 12 and 14 he told us so we went over. Albert stood silently in the doorway to room 12, a mink coat adorning him from neck to toe, watching his band snort cocaine. We joined in but never talked to Albert, he went over to room 14, which he had to himself. Later I heard he used to beat up his group, but they say that about a lot of blues guys.

Jerry Lee was a legend but he didn’t work as hard as the people from Chicago, so seeing him was like seeing Elvis Presley if Elvis hadn’t seized up on the toilet a few years before. Six of us got in the Volvo and about a half hour into the drive I start to smell Ether. One of my former housemates at the Maid Rite House, Rich Haven, was the son of the chief of police, and like sons of preachers, he was one of the wildest people in town. We hadn’t lived together for over a year, now Totem Soul was all living together in the country, playing and recording in the basement of a big ranch style house, and I was giving guitar lessons and teaching at nearby Scattergood Friends School. I hardly ever went into town anymore.

I knew that Rich had gotten on this Ether kick, getting it from some medical supply salesman, putting it on a black glove and sniffing it, but I didn’t think he would be so presumptuous to bring it on the road trip. He had his head out the window the whole time, glove pressed to his face, eyes bulging out. He even got our other friend Dan on it too, the two of them floating like Bugs Bunny in the back seat.I honestly don’t remember exactly what the Ether smelled like, but it didn’t go away. If you go into the 7Eleven, the cloud goes with you too. Everyone in the same air is overcome with a sickly sweet feeling, a dreadful primordial memory of the scalpel or the obsidian blade sweeps through your mind. A man on Ether becomes dangerous simply by the way he smells, as if he has strapped dynamite to his body in a crowded place.I chose to ignore it and drove on, The Killer was probably just waking up in The Hyatt, ordering a grapefruit and corn flakes for breakfast, thinking of Crazy Arms and Whole Lotta Shakin Goin On.

By the time we had made it to Lake Shore Drive, the strange clicking noises in the Volvo transmission sounded like a machine gun mowing down midday traffic. It died right there overlooking the waves of Lake Michigan, and we pulled over to a little safety lane as the cars whizzed by us. We could still make the concert though and the AAA tow truck and roadside assistance got us all downtown to a mechanic. Neither of the two drivers who came to help mentioned the Ether smell, luckily the canister had run out after two hours on the highway and Rich and Dan were getting back to normal, talking again.

As we were in the little greasy mechanic’s office, swiping credit cards and making phone calls, the classic rock radio station announced Jerry Lee Lewis had cancelled the show. No reason was given, but tickets would be refunded by KPJY or the TicketMaster outlet.We spent three days in Chicago waiting for the mechanic, and went to the Checkerboard Lounge to see Junior Wells. The Volvo made it back to its ranch style home by the river, new fuel pump and rings for 200dollars.

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