On the road. The Sheila West Band making the big time. We’d played Chicago, all over Wicker Park and Clark Street. Biggest fucking thing on the street. Now--on the verge. Hauling our asses to St. Louis.
350 big-time miles there; 350 big-time miles back.
Sheila, She, was at her best when at her worst. I never was quite self-destructive enough to tumble her, but I admired the shit out of her. She was beautiful in the way fair grounds are after the carnival pulls out. Yeah, there’s garbage strewn everywhere, but it’s shiny garbage: torn down streamers, ripped-ticket confetti, primary-colored splashes of popped balloons.
Example. Her hair. A glorious disaster. She partied and sucked up life with the dedication of a fiend—which left little time or energy for making hair care product decisions. Her head was a tangle of tarnished gold wires like a twisted rat’s nest—after the rats have moved to less messy digs.
Singing was all and She was relentless, always pushing to the next gig.
The band was her: The Sheila West Band. Countless men played behind her, but of women the number was zero. Queen Sheila ruled. The divine right of uncontested sexuality. The stage was hers, no female pretenders to the throne welcome.
She tried a backup singer once. The poor girl suffocated during the first song. Sheila sucked all the air out of the room to fill her lungs, launching headlong into one of her standard, overheated, take-no-prisoners, blues rocking barnburners.
The girl was gone by the second set. Rehearsals hadn’t prepared her—as no one was ever prepared—for the transformation when Sheila stormed the stage. I said something stupid like, “Too bad she couldn’t cut it after all the rehearsal.”
“I told the fuckin’ little rag it wouldn’t work!” She always shouted. “Boo Hoo.” The end of the night, bar empty, tables littered with bottles. “You can’t practice life.” She waved around the room, the empty stage, the mountain of amplifiers and drums, “This is life. Fuck the little tight-ass bitch.” Queen Elizabeth condemning an infidel. We were all swept up in the spirit of things. Even the little tight-ass bitch herself, sitting at the table, sucking endless beers, sucking back tears she dare not let fall, raised a glass to celebrate life, but never came back.
She beat her rhythm guitar senseless, forcing it to surrender big gutsy chunks of sound. Her ‘man’ played lead, hopelessly out of tune most of the time, but who cared—we played bone-breakingly loud.
His face was a razor-sharp, acne-scarred, greasy-haired mess that most people appreciated only after a few drinks. His aquiline nose was smashed against his left cheek exposing one of the largest nostrils I’d ever seen on public display.
Sheila’s selection criteria for the men skipped looks. She wanted tough boys, boys ready to leap to her defense, fists flying, but willing to cave to her every demand. Her perfect man: “Hard as nails on the outside, soft as shit on the inside.” Their tolerance for and access to drugs and alcohol had to be inexhaustible. Booze was easy, being in bars most every night. Drugs were trickier, cocaine, crystal, peyote, grass, opium—She took in more drugs than a pharmaceuticals warehouse.
We had a drummer who, given the intensity of Sheila’s rhythm guitar, just had to pound the snare into the floorboards and all went well.
I played bass. They said I was the best musician in the group and the best looking, but I always figured, “compared to what?”
The big time. St. Louis.
We pulled up in front of the venue, Johnny’s Broken Spoke. Our tip-off to tragedy—a twenty foot tall neon “Howdy Partner” cowboy effigy out front. “We’re fucked,” I said.
We were not cowboy.
Sipping from a flask of Southern Comfort, She said, “Goddam Carlotta. I hate getting fucked by a woman.”
Carlotta Boss managed the Sheila West Band. We called her Bad-Ass Boss—not because she was bad-ass but because she had a bad ass. Bad-Ass had managed rock bands for decades, rolling past her prime without noticing the milestones. She still ran around in cotton hot pants—her butt cheeks, the “twins,” sagged to mid-thigh, the fabric wedged in her butt crack.
Fucking booking a country bar, Bad Ass deserved our venom.
Owner: “You sure this band is right for our club? We’re purely country.”
Bad-Ass: “Sugar, It’s The Sheila West Band. West! Of course it’s country.”
Sheila: “I’m gonna fucking kill that bitch.” Hoarse from last night’s set and today’s drinking.
But six hundred miles of road takes fuel and food. We unloaded and set up.
We took the stage in an alcohol haze, wired and lit. She, spectacularly lit, eyes sweeping like a lighthouse over an ocean of drunk cowboys and rodeo sweethearts.
She growled, spanked a chord on her guitar, a tidal wave of noise unrolled. “Hi, y’all.” All the Southern Charm Southern Comfort gave. We, her band, shrank back. Where the hell was this heading?
“Y’all come to Johnny’s for country.” Long pause. “But,” She shivered another chord. “I just want you to know—the only thing country about this band is I’m a cunt.”
She hit another chord. We knew the song. We rocketed.
Sheila’s voice was gratingly hoarse when she spoke, leaving people thinking they wouldn’t want to hear her sing—until she sang, and then they never wanted her to stop. It was that good,.
When the magic worked.
At Johnny’s it worked—for the first 8 bars of the 12 bar blues we’d jumped on.
The rest of the night: cat calls, tossed insults and thrown bottles. We gave as good as we got, but finished the night. We needed the money. At 3:00 AM Johnny, a gentleman, as are many with country-raised hearts, kept his word and forked over the cash.
Road trip over.
A month later, She fired us. She kept the guitarist. They had another band in a week.
published 1 September 2011