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On the Road With The Velcro Pygmies Part II
By Bob Bahr
Last month, I detailed a little bit of the Pygmies' business style, and followed the band through two gigs in the heart of Alabama. We pick up the tale at Tuscaloosa, and the University of Alabama campus.
The Velcro Pygmies formed a pack and headed out to check the competition for the night. An R&B and soul group was playing the Pike house, and a Grateful Dead-style band was playing Pi Kappa Phi. Pygmies lead vocalist Cam Flener chatted up the brothers in all the houses, making every one of them feel special and talking up their parties like theirs is the biggest and best. The fraternity brothers loved him. In the alley, Cam talked to a couple sorority sisters he had met before. He didn't see someone behind him and . . . he got "cleaned," fully, his sweats were pulled to his knees, his manhood was exposed. Cleaning is a Pygmies road custom, a democratic activity that keeps everyone's ego and dignity in check. Cam calmly pulled his pants back on without halting his sentence. The boys howled with laughter, the girls looked at each other with bugged eyes.
A quick trip is made to old fraternity row, where the Hammer Heads are playing in a basement. That group of skillful musicians could be a draw, but they are isolated over on old fraternity row with another good band called Metal Rose, and the Pygmies feel confident. "The competition is lean," Cam said. "Real lean."
The band returns to Theta Chi for a soundcheck. Certainly near the top of the list of least desirable road activities is the drum sound check, an interminable series of hits on various drums. It makes you cringe once every 5 seconds for ten minutes. Drummer Robb "Robbo" Bazzell and sound man Mike McIntyre approach it with resignation and a blank look; the other musicians try to clear out for the torture.
The Greeks started descending upon the fraternity, the guys largely in khaki shorts and blue button-downs, the girls dressed like little girls: simple colors and clothes, with lots of jean cut-offs and sleeveless blouses. Every group brought in their own cooler with their name written with permanent marker on the lid. They stood on these, screamed and drank beer out of bottles. Southern college students approach drinking with a degree of seriousness. They put their game face on and tilt the bottle up high.
They also are slow to react to the Velcro Pygmies. It certainly wasn't the band's fault. They put on an intense show in this hellhole, again demonstrating their professionalism. Cam went on the move around the third song, roaming out to the courtyard to engage the nonplussed. They remained nonplussed.
Back inside, the band tore into the Pretenders' "Middle of the Road." During the bridge, the riff is repeated four times, after each time, the song calls for the singer to count off 1, then 2, then 3, then 4. Cam always enlists help from the crowd for this, as a way of involving the audience. This dead group missed their cue all four times.
Cam remained determined. He stopped the band cold, completely, and lectured the crowd. When the song picked it up before the bridge, the crowd screamed out the count. Cam bobbed his head in pleasure.
The room filled up and the beer started to collect on the floor, empty bottles swimming in the pool. Cam was jumping around like a lunatic, hanging by his feet from the rafters, howling from atop a speaker cabinet. In rock 'n' roll, acting crazy IS professional, and Cam is perfect for that role. Although he swore that his stage persona is nothing like his real personality, it is the same, in a way. Offstage, Cam is every bit as energetic and enthusiastic. But gone is the lewdness and profanity.
"Sweet Home Alabama" is rowdily received, and the Beastie Boys' "Fight for Your Right to Party" brings the drunken crowd to a fever pitch. Watching the two-plus hour second set from the wing of the stage, I detected boredom among the musicians. "They were just drunk," Cam said later.
Metal Rose drops in and the Velcro Pygmies surrender the stage to them. They nearly steal the show with a tight version of "Smells Like Teen Spirit," the second night in a row that that tune threatened to upstage the Pygmies. The night before in Auburn, P.S. Dump Your Boyfriend played the Nirvana tune and got a fantastic response.
This night, the Velcro Pygmies got their hackles up and one-upped Metal Rose with one of the VP's signature covers -- Kiss' "Rock and Roll All Night." Even the relatively serene Blake turned it up a notch, bending down over his guitar with intensity. The Velcro Pygmies kept the heat up with Nugent's "Cat Scratch Fever," then eased the set to a close. The band performed in front of 800 people in a room the fire marshal said can only hold 257.
Once again, the band adjourned to Denny's after a messy, beer-soaked stage breakdown. Metal Rose and their entourage joined us at Denny's and we took over an entire room with one long table of 24 people. The frattitude evidently rubbed off on the guys, and jelly packets and lemons flew back and forth, launched by fork catapults. Cam would occasionally yell "The Wave!" and a stadium wave rolled around the table. Then Cam would yell "Surf's up!" and everyone would stand on their chairs, arms out like they were balanced on a surfboard. "JC Penney's!" he'd call out, and they'd stand on their chairs and strike a mannequin-like pose.
The Denny's staff endured the shenanigans with a weary smile, and the meal turned into a laugh marathon, finally ending past 6:00 a.m. We didn't make it to our next stop, a Holiday Inn in Starkville, Mississippi, until after 8:00 a.m. I slept on the floor of the room as the morning sun fought to wriggle in through the hotel window shade, and considered how wise author Anne Rice was to make her vampire character Lestat a rock star. I would amend that to make Lestat a rock musician on the road.
The afternoon sun was falling when I woke up in Starkville. It was 5:00 and someone had already taken the van to fix a rupture in the wall of the front left tire. During the course of the drive from Tuscaloosa to Starkville, a grapefruit-like tumor had bubbled out, inspiring more laughs at the oddity than serious discussions about buying a new tire. The replacement that Cam and company ended up purchasing that afternoon was criticized roundly by the rest of the guys. "It looked good to me," Cam said. "Yeah, but you know we HAVE to make fun of it," answered Robbo. "That's our job in the band."
Cam is most often the target of practical jokes in the band, which is perhaps a testament to his status of informal leader. Officially, the Velcro Pygmies is a democratic entity, with McIntyre and lighting man Andy Knighton joining the quartet in casting votes on all decisions. Artistic and business decisions always revolve around the question of what is best for the band. Profits are split equally six ways.
But informally, Cam emerges as the leader. When he gets up after a meal at Arby's or wherever, it's the signal for everyone else to get up and leave. The guys just naturally look to Cam whenever a business decision needs consideration. While guitarist Blake Baumeier silently carries a lot of weight in the band due to his extensive experience as a bandleader, Cam is the natural choice because he loves to lead. He is equally interested in the business aspect and the entertainment aspect of the Velcro Pygmies.
In fact, his behavior is so dominant in an understated way that a stranger could easily believe that Cam IS the Velcro Pygmies. That fact is not lost among the caustic wits in the band van. "Just say that Cam Flener wrote all the songs and played all the instruments. And taught us everything we know about music," the bandmates said to me mockingly dozens of times.
Cam doesn't drink or do drugs, and he remains true to his girlfriend on the road. In many ways, he is a role model for the band. Very little "partying" goes on within the entourage, and that's undoubtedly due to Cam's wicked imitation of a drunk or drugged person, an imitation he will pull out whenever he senses that someone around him is crossing the line. On stage he will pointedly lampoon the Doors' Jim Morrison and his alcoholism.
That may make him a dubious spokesperson for Miller Genuine Draft. The band didn't approach beer companies for sponsorship for just that reason, and when Miller contacted the band in December 1991 asking them to join the Miller band circuit, the Velcro Pygmies agonized over the potential hypocrisy. They leveled with Miller about Cam's abstinence and told them that Cam wouldn't be photographed with a beer in his hand.
"I won't tell people to get drunk," Cam said, "but I will tell them that if they are going to drink, drink Miller products."
Miller's Think Before You Drink campaign was a deciding factor in the band's decision to join the Miller program. On the other side of the deal, any misgivings Miller may have had were erased on the VP's first gig as a Miller band. The bar where they played reportedly sold out of all Miller products on the night of their gig.
Miller has learned the same lesson about the Velcro Pygmies that countless bar owners have learned: they deliver on what is promised. Regardless of what bar owners may think of the VP brand of simplified, speeded-up, hard-edged music, they pull in the people, and they handle themselves in a professional manner. And it's all done under the aegis of a common attitude held by the six guys of the Velcro Pygmies that they are musical entrepreneurs, running a business like any other business.
The Mississippi State campus was only a mile down the road from our hotel, and we arrived there at 6:30 after a stop at Hardee's. The stage wasn't set up, and Andy and Mike were mad. Jerry, the social activities chairman for Sigma Chi, heard the news and was enraged. The "damn pledges" were supposed to set up the stage, but instead they were inside the frat house sleeping off a drunk they dived into that afternoon. At 8:00 the crew was way behind in setting up. I lent a hand while bassist Joe Straub, Cam and Robbo went to the laundromat.
Once the stage was set up, the waiting began. I am amazed at how much of a musician's life on the road is spent just sitting around, waiting to go onstage. Girls, potential groupies, milled around the band flirting. The band talked to them with a blend of amusement and boredom. To the last member, the group stay true to their girlfriends, but they are willing to pass the time by chatting up the pretty pretties that gather around. It occurs to me that a musician is more likely to be untrue due to boredom than due to any real attraction to another woman. There's simply nothing else to do, and the cat-and-mouse of flirtation that goes on is merely a time-killing game.
While I was on the five-day trip, several members of the band had crises with their loved ones who were back home. It seemed to tear the band members apart inside, and they uniformly blamed the misperception that a rock 'n' roll road trip is non-stop fun. One member even popped off with this: "Actually, the girls back home have more of a chance to screw around, because they have a place to do it. Where are we going to f----? In the van?"
Granted, the Velcro Pygmies have a lot of fun, but "it's because we're fun people," said Cam.
"This is not a fun business," Blake responded. "It takes a really dedicated person to stick with it. They have to love music, not fame. Most people, when they find out it's not glamorous, they quit," the guitarist said.
The show that night was certainly glamorous though. The stage was set up facing the house on a wall bordering a sunken patio. A second storey balcony on the house was the ideal place for Andy and his lighting gear; underneath the balcony, Mike could get a good reading on the sound for proper mixing. Because it was outdoors, the number of people was unlimited. And because it was the Sigma Chi Derby, a huge annual event involving every sorority on campus, the Velcro Pygmies show was THE event on campus that night.
"It's like a mini-concert man!" Andy exclaimed, looking over the light show and the open-air stage.
The patio was full soon after the band started playing, but they were being "stately drinkers," calmly pickling their brains and resisting the music's call for dancing. Occasionally a student could be seen surreptitiously scanning the crowd to see if the cool people were dancing. A line of people were sitting on the wall in front of the stage with their backs to the band, drinking. Cam was starting to get frustrated.
"Come on people! Move! Move! MOVE!" he screamed. There were a few bobbing heads, but even the double-time section of "Should I Stay Or Should I Go" failed to shake down the uptight crowd. The crowd seemed appreciative, but by the end of the first set, the MSU audience was living up to its dull reputation. Jerry The Social Activities Chairman got up on the stage and admonished the crowd.
"Hey mah," Jerry began. (Mississippi long ago outlawed the use of the consonant "n," it seems.) "You guys are going to have some FUN tonight. You hear me? This is my last Derby, so you guys are going to have some f---ing FUN, all right?!" he shouted with quiet hubris.
The crowd couldn't resist that gracious request, and began the second set by sending a steady stream of stage divers up to the bandstand. The Velcro Pygmies embarked on a high-energy, long set, punctuated by a near riotous "Fight For Your Right to Party," and several Kiss covers. The once staid crowd of over 1,000 were now a pumping, thrashing mass of fans. The band was in overdrive.
At 1:05 a.m., one policeman went to Mike, another to Andy, and one motioned to Cam to stop the show in compliance with a noise ordinance. Cam finished the song, and then said the show was stopped by police order. At that, a large drunk fraternity brother took the stage and the microphone and screamed, "F--- the police! Go to h---, police!"
Before his last word had a chance to dissipate in the cool night air, an even larger policeman had him by the neck and he went off the stage. The show was over.
The band found that little bit of drama amusing to no end. And the show went better than any of them had hoped. Cam was a bit sad that they couldn't have played one more song. "I wanted to play 'Rock and Roll All Night.' That would have sent them over the edge," Cam said.
The musicians and the crew walked around like a triumphant sports team after the gig. They had taken a listless, subdued crowd and turned them into a mass of partying animals -- the pinnacle of entertaining Velcro Pygmies style. The audience had been so rowdy that road crew members Jeffrey "Pork Chop" Crain and Jeff Blocher had to constantly usher folks offstage, especially after Cam said that the women in attendance were undoubtedly among the most beautiful he had ever seen.
The musicians themselves never throw somebody off the stage. It's a part of the band's careful image maintenance.
"We never say no to anyone," Cam said. "When somebody asks us to play at their party, we always say, 'We'd love to do it. Talk to our management.' That way the management are the bad guys. They're the ones that say no."
Another image enhancement practice is having a road crew set up the stage. The Velcro Pygmies try to create the illusion that the musicians only have to show up and play. "Psychologically, it sets us up as stars," Cam said. If no one is around, the band usually helps with the tedious practice of setting up the gear. The crew knows that they are equal partners and they know their role in the band.
"They are not hired hands," Cam emphasized. "They are a part of something that is growing, and they help it grow. This is what they want to do. Andy doesn't want to be a lead singer. He wants to be a light man."
At 3:15 a.m., the band was back on the road. On the way out of Starkville, we stopped at Woody's Food Mart. The week was over, the band had just gotten paid for the trip, and a long drive to Nashville laid ahead, so it was time to celebrate. By the time everyone had put their purchases on the counter, it was jam-packed. For one last interview, I chose to ride shotgun while Cam handled the early morning drive.
The discussion lasted about 30 minutes before what sounded like a drumroll became louder and louder, engulfing the van. It was our deceased left rear tire flapping against the pavement. We coasted into a gas station. A deserted, out-of-business gas station.
The spare was questionable and the jack was undependable on the gravel lot, and tempers flared. Everyone was tired, and the spare looked like it might give us trouble before we arrived at Nashville. A half-an-hour into the attempted repair, Cam said, "I just feel like running naked."
So he did, with Robbo and Pork Chop, running across the deserted Mississippi road, through the deserted parking lot, and around the van, their pants around their ankles. After getting their laughs, the three returned to the worksite. The jack kept slipping, bringing the entire van down on the exposed wheel. Despite the danger, every member of the band, Cam leading the way, pitched in to fix the flat.
We lost an hour of time and one hubcap before getting back on the Natchez Trace, a historic highway. Cam and I talked the entire drive to Nashville, our conversation covering topics ranging from his childhood to isolation tanks. He told me about a nightmarish gig at the Auburn Pike house, where the fraternity brothers wore army helmets with bull's eyes painted on them. For every case of beer they brought to drink, they brought another to smash on each other's heads.
The rest of the guys were asleep in the back; a bad Divine movie called "Lust in the Dust" was playing on the VCR/TV to no one. The early morning sun was bringing deer out for breakfast in the fields beside the road. I was slipping into sleep deprivation delirium. When we hit Nashville, Andy, Blocher and I took Pork Chop's Saab back to Louisville; the band was staying in Nashville to lay down four new songs at the 16th Avenue recording studio. I pulled out my tape recorder and listened to the words of their manager Bill Puryear that I had taped what seemed like two weeks ago.
"They draw people," he had said (a mere two days ago). "They create serious excitement. And when they're off, they won't be hanging around the hotel room. They'll be at the radio stations promoting themselves, they'll be at the fraternity houses talking to people, telling them, 'Hey come see us.' They work hard and that's the key."
The Velcro Pygmies plan to shop the four new songs around to record companies, and if they get no bites, record four more. If they still get no bites, they'll record a few more and put out a new album on their own label, BFE Records. For the new cuts, the Pygmies enlisted the songwriting and production help of Scott Baggett.
I was to miss the fun in the studios, because I was headed home to deal with a bad case of schedule maladjustment. I arrived in Louisville at noon Sunday in a daze, ready to sleep off the effects of a week on the rock 'n' roll road.