I first picked up an electric guitar when I was nine years old and have been chasing the dream ever since. It’s not hyperbole to say that I practiced until my fingers bled, studying the masters like Eddy, Jimi, and Vai. I copped my style and attitude from the likes of Johnny Thunders and Joe Strummer. It took years, but I finally perfected that unwashed degenerate look. Along the way, I even learned a few chords.
It was 1991 when I auditioned for the Slobber Donkeys and got my first real opportunity. They were a punk outfit led by a guy named Borax who sang and wrote all the songs. His girlfriend, Wicket, played bass. She had a Wednesday Adams meets Happy Days kind of vibe with her pleated skirts, saddle shoes, and black makeup. Johnny Johns drummed for the band. Seemed like a nice guy, the one time he showed up to practice.
Borax was a pretentious prick by anyone’s definition. He took himself way too seriously and wrote all of his lyrics on cocktail napkins, exclusively employing his three-hundred-dollar Waterman pen to do so. He would never look directly at you when he talked, always facing up and off center while flipping his long black hair with that sort of disinterested look that rock stars have when taking band photos…
“Look, Billy, you’re going to have to start pulling your weight in this band. If you don’t start getting us some gigs, you know, putting some meat on the table, I’m gonna go another direction here. There’s a lot of other guitarists that auditioned for your spot,” he would threaten.
“It’s Benny,” I would correct. “Benny Bugs, man.”
For the record, I was the only one to answer his ad. Regardless, I believed his threats. He replaced Nine, a vastly superior musician, with Wicket simply on the merit of her looks.
After a few weeks of this not so passive aggression, I hadn’t been fired, though I was on the verge of quitting. Johnny continued to miss practice, which now only consisted of me playing along with the band’s demo tape while Borax and Wicket made out on the ratty sofa in the back of the space.
The gig drought finally ended in June when Karen Scrogg, an old high school friend of mine, reached out and invited us to play her house party. The event had the further distinction of being an after party for the Red Hot Chili Peppers’ show that night. Karen assured me that Flea and Anthony were guaranteed to attend as they were childhood friends of her boyfriend, Toby. It was good enough for me, so I brought it to Borax.
“A house party?” He rolled his eyes. “Fine, whatever Billy.”
Karen and Toby had been squatting in a house on the north end for a couple of months under dubious circumstances, though she claimed they were “housesitting.” It was typical Karen. She assured me that everything was kosher but, with Karen, the only thing that you could be sure of was that it was guaranteed to be some sketchy shit. In high school, she once sold me a bag of seeds and dried basil, calling it weed, but “a bit rustic.” She then tried to make up for it by giving me a fold of baking powder described as “fine Peruvian.”
The door was open when Borax, Wicket, and I arrived, so we walked right in with our gear. Toby sat in the middle of the bare hardwood floor mounted on a toy rocking horse and watching cartoons on a black and white TV that sat on the grate inside the fireplace. He wore only his leather jacket and tighty-whities, thoroughly engrossed with his Looney Tunes.
“Hey Toby,” I said.
“Heeeey, Bugs!” He was about as high as one could get while still operating a rocking horse. “Look, it’s Bugs too,” he giggled, pointing at the TV.
Toby had been busy making some renovations to the house, smashing down the bedroom and bathroom walls on the first floor. It was his idea of a mid-century modern open floor plan. His sledgehammer protruded from the broken toilet like Excalibur waiting for a king.
All the furniture, drywall, splintered framing, and other rubble had been meticulously collected and tossed down the basement stairs. This was a ritual for them, disposing of trash and unwanted items into the cellar. Karen considered it therapeutic.
Rumor was that a deranged and deposed tugboat captain named Jack lived in the basement. They called him “The Minotaur.” Toby, in one of his drug-addled nocturnal wanderings, had encountered the fellow walking the railroad tracks along the wharf and invited him home. Karen was not pleased and insisted that Toby send him away. When confronted, Jack drew a knife and retreated into the cellar. They never saw him leave, though, occasionally, a dreadful caterwauling could be heard below the floorboards. As a precaution, they kept the cellar door padlocked at all times.
“Dude, you’re here!” Karen called to me from the kitchen.
“Hey, Karen. This is Borax and Wicket. Johnny should be along soon.”
Karen was shirtless, wearing a pair of striped boxer shorts and a filthy terrycloth bathrobe that was missing its belt. A collection of ice trays were laid out on the counter in front of her, into which she carefully poured Sunny Delight.
“Where should we set up?” I asked.
She produced a roll of plastic wrap and began covering the juice filled ice trays before carefully inserting toothpicks into her popsicles.
“Hmm, probably over there…”
We plugged in where she pointed, a jagged corner of wall that still had a working outlet. We left space for Johnny between the PA speakers. Wicket drifted over to the shattered mirror in what remained of the bathroom and began applying a fresh layer of black eyeliner.
“So, what’s good, Toby? You think the Chili Peppers are really gonna show?” I asked, joining him at the hearth.
“Yeah, man, we go way back!”
He reached into his underwear and produced his wallet, extracting a weathered polaroid picture and handing it to me. The picture showed Toby holding Keith Richards of the Stones in his arms as if he were a baby, or a new bride.
“Wow! That’s cool, man. But Keith Richards isn’t in the Chili Peppers.”
“What?” Toby snatched the picture back, returning it to his crotch wallet.
It was a remarkable image, regardless, and it seemed to assuage Borax’s doubts on the veracity of Karen’s claims. Toby returned to his program, and we milled about the destroyed room, examining the cracks and holes as if they were museum exhibits.
Karen joined us and took a slug from the half-full Sunny Delight bottle, juice spilling down her chin and chest.
“How long do you think before we play?” I asked.
“An hour, maybe three? Midnight, I dunno?” she shrugged. “I’m gonna go get dressed, you make yourselves at home.”
Karen ascended the staircase and left us to Toby’s hospitality.
It was a full four hours of awkward silence before the crowd began to arrive. When they did, it was a circus of punks armed with pony kegs, half racks, and handles of booze. Soon, the fridge was overflowing with beer and the countertops boasted enough liquor to rival any dive bar in the region. By 10 p.m., there were over a hundred people crammed in the place.
I was getting nervous. Johnny hadn’t turned up yet. With the crowd pressing in on our “stage,” soon there would be no room for drums. I stood by the amps and tried to police our space, but it was hopeless. Wicket found me there and leaned on the wall next to me.
“So, what’s your deal anyway, Benny?” she asked, slurping on one of Karen’s popsicle cubes. “If that’s your real name…”
“Like, really, what do you do? Why are you here? I mean, Borax, he fucks me. He has a purpose. But you just kind of stand there with your guitar and go weedly-weedly-wee!”
Her black lips were washed with orange and her chin was smeared with makeup.
“I’m gonna find Borax,” I said, stepping away.
Something was off. In my six weeks with the Slobber Donkeys, it was the longest conversation we’d had. She didn’t seem drunk, but there was something wrong.
I found him talking to a pair of inked up skater girls.
“Hey, have you seen Johnny?”
“Fucker’s probably bailing on us again,” he said, rolling up his sleeves to share his own tattoos with the girls.
Karen appeared wearing a candy-striped pant and jacket combo with a white ruffled shirt, her wild, bleached hair streaking out from under a vintage top hat. Her face was painted in an elaborate Día de los Muertos style skull.
“You dicks gonna play or what?”
“Yeah, sure, just a minute,” I said.
“Good,” she said and pushed her way through the crowd.
“What do you want to do?”
“Fuck it, let’s play,” said Borax, making for our stage.
Wicket was already plugged in and strapped when we got there, a tiny pile of toothpicks stacked up on the head of her bass cabinet. Her black lipstick was completely gone, replaced by an orange smear of Sunny Delight.
I picked up my SG and plugged in. Borax took his spot between us, adjusting his mic as the angry static of our amps began to fill the room. It was time. After all the bullshit and all the work, I was finally live and in front of a crowd; my first show! Borax nodded and I came down hard on the strings, thrashing through the intro to “Cupid’s Chainsaw.”
I was pure! I was mighty!
I was playing by myself…
Wicket stood oblivious, staring vacantly into the crowd that was circling around us. Sunny Delight dripped like a melting glacier from her chin. Borax nudged her and her fingers began wandering the strings. It wasn’t our song but, oddly, it was melodic and somehow better. I let my chord dissolve to feedback and tried to follow what she played. If she noticed, or heard me at all, she gave no indication.
Borax tried to sing but the tune didn’t fit. He feverishly shuffled through his cocktail napkins, searching vainly for some words to connect with. Eventually, he quit trying and placed the mic back in its clip.
Wicket and I were reaching a communion when a shoe came flying from the crowd and struck her directly in the forehead, causing her to fall backwards into the PA and tangling herself in cords.
“You bitch! You ate all my acid!” Karen screamed, fighting her way through the crowd.
It suddenly clicked for me. Typical fucking Karen. I looked down at Wicket. She was already scrambling on her hands and knees into the crowd. My guitar was squealing into a chorus of boos as half-full cans of beer rained down on us. I cut the volume and set my guitar down.
Borax was fuming.
“You did this! You go get her!”
“Dude, she’s your girlfriend!”
The crowd parted as another chaos emerged. Toby, now clothed in leather pants, came screaming through to the kitchen, ripping off his Chili Peppers T shirt as he went.
“Fuck Flea, he donwanna come!” he screeched, rolling an empty keg down the cellar stairs.
A cheer went up as it crashed into the abyss. Someone handed him the black and white TV.
“Fuck you, Anthony!” he screamed, tossing the TV down the stairs to another raucous cheer of approval. A girl with purple liberty spikes handed him a sack of trash, which Toby promptly dumped out on the stairs like a demented Santa Claus. The garbage vanished into the darkness.
“Hey, you see a girl with orange lips? Kinda looks like a goth Joni Loves Chachi?” I asked a punk.
He pointed down the stairs.
I pushed past Toby, in between his trash ejections, and carefully made my way down into the dark cellar, guided by the light of my Bic. The smell was unbearable. As I stepped past the immediate heap of filth, the legend of the Minotaur became hauntingly clear.
All the rubble and trash tossed down from above had been collected and arranged into a strange kind of trash-hedge maze. I moved between the floor to ceiling rows of refuse, my thumb blistering from my lighter. I didn’t dare let the flame falter.
“Here,” came a whisper.
A dim glow manifested around the corner, and I let my lighter go out. There, in the light of a single candle, stood one of the largest men I had ever seen. He was barefoot, wearing a shredded set of oilskins and a captain’s hat, holding the candle in one massive paw with Wicket’s hand in the other.
“Hi… Jack. That’s my bass player. I need to take her home, ok?”
“My bass player,” he grunted.
Wickets eyes were discs of fear and despair.
“Do you want to join our band? Let’s go upstairs and play some music! I’ll get you a beer…”
Upstairs, the house shook with a thunderous commotion as if a heard of bison were stampeding.
Wicket bolted toward the distraction, rushing past me to the stairs.
Jack lunged forward in the dark.
“MY BASS PLAYER!”
I dashed after Wicket, scrambling up the stairs into a maelstrom of cops and punks. Wicket was gone but my amp and guitar had been stacked by the stairs, apparently next in line for the cellar toss. I grabbed them up and ran blindly out the kitchen door and into the backyard.
A wooden fence lay trampled by the fleeing crowd, offering me an escape toward the next street over. I stopped in the neighbor’s yard, contemplating going back for Borax and Wicket. The house was awash in blue and red lights, punks spilling out into the night. I caught a glimpse of Toby desperately trying to pull a steak knife out of his back while a small army of cops attempted to subdue Jack.
“Fuck those guys, I quit!”
I scooped up my gear and pissed off.
There was a big write up about the party in The Times the next day with the headline: “Slobber Donkeys Wreck Neighborhood.”
We were overnight legends.
I never got to quit.
“Fuck you, Billy!” Borax shouted on my machine. “You’re fired! Kick rocks, turd!”
I heard he picked up a new guitarist and bought a drum machine. I saw their posters fluttering around telephone poles, but never caught a show. I didn’t give up the dream, though, in fact I started my own band called Jack the Minotaur. We put out a few 7-inch singles and toured a bit before breaking up in 94. I’ve been in bands ever since and played a lot of shows, but that night at Karen’s still ranks as the wildest one.