Joe King Carrasco and The Crowns 1983
While Walkee Talkee was struggling to get through our long post-Christmas two-week engagement at the Holiday Inn in Beaumont, Texas. It was a challenge trying to not go stir crazy in our hotel rooms during the day and then playing to a near empty lounge at night, all while dealing with a neurotic club manager. The night before the end of our engagement there, I received a phone call from Dick Ross, my old drummer from Cirkus.
Dick had been playing with MCA Record’s Joe “King” Carrasco and The Crowns for the past three years or so. He explained that they were getting ready to go on a major US tour and they were having problems with their current bass player.
Their current bass player, it seems, had not impressed producer Richard Gottehrer during their Party Weekend LP recording sessions. In fact, some of the bass parts apparently had to be done by a studio bass player.
The MCA execs weren’t very impressed with the album’s material either. Dick said the record company wanted them to find someone who could help Joe craft his Tex-Mex pop tune ideas into more commercially viable songs that would help the band sell more records. Either do that, the label said, or MCA would drop the band when their option came up in September. They had six months.
Somehow, the Fresh Out EP that I had released almost a year ago had ended up on Joe King’s turntable and he liked what he heard. When Dick told Joe he knew me and that we’d played in a band together a few years earlier, Joe was intrigued.
So, Dick asked me if I’d like to come up to Austin to audition for the band. The other three guys in Walkee Talkee were sitting in my hotel room as I was talking to Dick and we had to be on stage in 15 minutes. I had to think straight and fast! I took a quick assessment of where I was and where I wanted to be. “Sure”, I said to Dick. “When?” “Sunday”, Dick said. They had a major US tour scheduled to begin in less than a week to promote the new album. Today was Friday. I told him I’d call him back after our gig tonight and I hung up.
Now my bandmates were certainly suspicious and I’m sure I was acting very awkward. They asked me lots of questions as we walked over to the lounge from my room. Everyone, that is, except Rick. He just had a knowing, friendly smile on his face as we walked down the hall. He seemed to know what was going on but I could also tell he was cool with it. Rick was the kind of unselfish guy that wished anyone well in this business when they got a break. The music business and our planet could really use more people like Rick.
I kept telling myself that Carrasco had a major record label deal and I could only see this as an opportunity I shouldn’t ignore. But it was still tough getting through the gig that night. The place was practically empty and, my god, we were in Beaumont, Texas in a lounge at the Holiday Inn! Of course I was going to go to Austin in two days to audition for Joe King Carrasco & The Crowns!
I got back to my room after our show that night and everyone followed me into the room. I told them why Dick had called, that I had decided to go audition and I hoped they understood. In any career, individuals go from job to job as they try to move up the ladder of success. But being in a band is like being in a marriage and sometimes the individual musicians get their feelings hurt when someone leaves the group and this happened with us, although everyone eventually got over it.
I called Patti, told her what was happening, asked her to make me cassette recordings of Joe’s last two albums and bring them to Beaumont first thing tomorrow morning. I knew she’d be up late that night making cassettes!
The next morning, Patti arrived at our hotel in Beaumont and I started listening to and learning Joe King’s songs on my Sony Walkman and earplugs. Nothing was very difficult about the songs at all but I just wanted to be able to blow them away!
We played our last Holiday Inn gig that night and right after the gig, Patti and I put my equipment in our car and then I helped load the other band equipment into the van. Everyone was bit uncomfortable about how things had transpired, but it seemed like everyone had accepted things by now.
Patti and I drove back to Houston, arriving home about 4:30am and went to right to bed. I got up at 9:00am, showered and drove to Austin. On the way, I played the Joe King cassettes in my car until I had the material drilled into my brain.
I drove straight to their rehearsal hall at Willie Nelson’s rehearsal facility there. As I got out of the car with my Fender Jazz Bass, I noticed that there seemed to be a lot of people at this place. I walked into the building and saw about 15 musician-looking people lined up in the hallway outside the rehearsal room. Just as I got in line, I saw Dick Ross, who greeted me with a big hug. He said, “C’mon man, Joe can’t wait to meet you!”
With 15 pairs of “who they hell does he think he is cutting in front of us?” eyeballs blazing into me as I walked past the long line of hopefuls and into the rehearsal room. Joe walked up to me and, in a very meek and “fluffy” sort of way said, “Hey man, good to meet you! I love your record!” “Thanks!” I said. “I can’t wait to jam with you guys!”
As I turned to go and take my bass out of the case and plug in, I saw a big guy with sticking up black hair, wearing a black Bob Marley t-shirt, black pants, black sunglasses and black shoes attaching the strap to my bass. He walked up to me, reached out and put my bass on me saying “I’m Richard. I’m your tech. Would you like something to drink first?” “Ah, no … no thanks, ah, Richard … thanks!” Wow! They were giving me the first-class treatment!
The next few seconds were sort of a surrealistic blur of instruments tuning up, microphones being tested and drums being banged on. Suddenly, Joe shouted out “Imitation Class! Uno, Dos, One, Two, Three, Quatro!” and Dick the drummer started playing the pounding tom-toms introduction of the song. I came in strong on the downbeat when it was time and we all launched into the song! I was even adding to the backup vocal parts. I played like there was no tomorrow! As far as I was concerned, I had nothing to lose now but my hearing. We were playing that loud!
Time stood still inside of this three- minute Tex-Mex pop tune. On many occasions when playing music, time has no meaning and there is a sort of detachment from the process of thinking and the mechanics of plucking strings with one hand and fingering notes on the fretboard with the other hand. I think of it as a musical auto-pilot.
Suddenly the song was over and I was drenched in sweat! Everyone else was too! I had never really sweated like this before during the first song. It was intense!
Joe came over and said “That was great! Let’s do another one!” “Call it!”, I said. “Don’t Let A Woman”, Joe said. “You sing Michael’s part.” While the band were recording this song back in 1982 at Studio 55 in Los Angeles, Michael Jackson was working on his Thriller album across the hall with producer Quincy Jones. While taking a break, Joe ran into Michael and asked him to come in and sing harmony on one of the songs they were recording. Michael said “Sure!”, in his high-pitched voice.
So, here I was now, playing with Joe King and singing Michael Jackson’s harmony parts! Only eighteen hours earlier, I had been playing at the Holiday Inn in Beaumont. It’s amazing the feelings that can be created by both exhaustion and a lucky break.
After the song was over, Joe said “That’s it man! You’re in!” After a few celebratory hugs, we played another 8 songs and called it a day. Richard gave me a three-week tour schedule that began in four days with the first date being an opener for Joan Jett and The Blackhearts. Richard was very serious and intense about his job but he was damn good at what he did.
I went out for Mexican food with the band to Chuy’s and then drove back home to Houston. I called my now former bandmates in Walkee Talkee and told them the news.
With the upcoming tour starting soon, I was going to need colorful gig clothes, an Anvil case for my backup bass equipment and lots of spare sets of bass strings! Patti and I spent the next day going to stores to buy bright, funky stage clothes, extra sets of bass strings and generally feeling pretty good about our future. I’d finally gotten a break and I was playing with a popular band on a major record label. Wow! It had only taken 14-short years for all this overnight success to happen.
Touring in general was hectic but it was really a lot of fun! Like me, Dick had been in bands all of his life and he was having a blast not having to set up and tear down his drums every night. As a result, we didn’t find the road life all that difficult. I soon discovered that this was the first and only band that Kris and Joe had ever been in. They had only put in a couple of years’ worth of dues before “making it”. I tried not to let this bother me, except when they would complain about having to play a “whole hour” set instead of the usual 8-song, 40-minute set we normally did for high-profile concert openers.
The manager of the group, Joe Nick Patoski, had been a contributing writer for Rolling Stone magazine, which didn’t hurt when it came time to call attention to the Joe King Tex-Mex phenomenon out of Austin, Texas.
Oddly enough, I had a direct tie to the woman who was instrumental in getting the band their record deal. Back in 1974, Patti lived and worked on a farm in Monroe, NC with two other girls; Cindy Weiss, whose parents owned the place, and Dana DeMarco, Cindy’s free-spirited friend who came down from Poughkeepsie with her.
About three years later, Dana said she was moving to Austin, Texas to be near musician Doug Sahm, whom she liked very much. Doug’s songs She’s About a Mover and Mendocino had somehow captured Dana’s imagination and she had to be near him.
When Dana got to Austin, she also met Joe King Carrasco. Being from New York originally and having some contacts in the clubs in Manhattan, Dana got Joe King a gig at The Lone Star Café. The night Joe played there, some execs from Hannibal Records were in the audience with Joe’s manager Joe Nick Patoski. It was the band’s first real gig. The rest is history; the kind of history that makes most musicians want to slit their wrists because 99% of stories like that are all made up bullshit. Except for this time, it wasn’t!
So, we were we surprised a few years later when Patti and I moved to Texas and ran into Dana once again in Austin at a frat party while I was playing with Cirkus. We didn’t know it at the time but we were witnessing a future musical circle being completed.
Two days after joining the Carrasco crowd, we had a warm-up gig at Chelsey Street in San Marcos before meeting Joan Jett at the Texas A & M Coliseum the next night. The security guard who worked at the condos where Patti and I lived in Houston, had asked me about getting Joan’s autograph for her daughter. So, the next night just before the show, I sent a note to Joanie’s dressing room via her manager, asking for the autograph. I signed the note “the bass player next door”.
About 5 minutes later, Joan came over to my and Dick’s dressing room, announcing her entrance with “Where’s the bass player next door?” and wearing a big smile on her face. She was wearing one of those bunchy wraparound sports bras, a little pair of sweat shorts and flip flops. This was NOT the rough and tough rocker she personified on-stage! OK, Bruce. This is showbiz, I told myself. Don’t get excited and don’t act stupid! Be cool! The thing that really impressed me was her beautiful clear-eyed, girlish smile. She was so pretty and so sweet! I was looking for the tough “I’ll kick your ass and take no prisoners!” rocker, but she just wasn’t here. Anyway, Joannie said “Here ya’ go! This is for your friend. The photo is from our last German tour and it’s the only one left!” She got up to leave, stopped, turned to me and said, “By the way, we’re looking for a new bass player. Play good tonight!”
No problem. My second gig with Joe King and now I’m auditioning for Joan Jett! No pressure! Oddly enough, there wasn’t. I was getting very comfortable with the whole idea of touring with big rock stars and perhaps, one day, being one.
I remember Richard coming into the dressing room five minutes before show time and saying, “You guys ready?” “Sure thing, Uncle Dread!”, we said. Richard had affinity for Ska and Reggae music and the “Dread” name was short for dreadlocks. Uncle Dread lead us out of the room and into the hallway. We approached the stage which was in total darkness. We could hear the audience sounds as Richard said “Follow the flashlight spot on the floor!” As we got closer to the backstage area, the sounds of the crowd grew louder and louder.
The little flashlight led me up some steps, not unlike those used for the gallows, I momentarily thought to myself. OK, Bruce. What have you gotten yourself into?
Richard put my bass on me, told me I had a beer and two cups of ice water on my amp, my pick clip was loaded and there were four sweat towels behind my amp. “If you raise your right hand, I’ll toss you a towel. If you raise your left hand, I’ll change out your bass. Got it?” “Yep!” I said. “Have a great show, Bruce! Welcome to the boards, man!” Richard said.
The next thing I knew, we were announced, the lights came up full as Joe counted the first song off and the rest is a 40-minute blur. At one point early in our set, I saw Joan Jett sitting on an equipment case at stage left near my stage position, watching me and smiling very big.
After our set, I posed with Joan for a photo (see photo page). I also met their drummer Lee Crystal who asked me when we were going to be in New York. I told him in a few weeks. He gave me his phone number and asked me to call him so we could hang out. I wondered where all this was going. I told him my next few weeks were one-nighters working our way out to the west coast and back. He just said “Call me when you get to New York.”
The next thing the record company wanted us to do was to make a video to support the Party Weekend from the new album. We were due to play a couple of Spring Break shows over the next two weeks and the settings would fit well with our video plans. The first stop was to fly to South Padre Island for our gig with Mike Love and Dean Torrence (from Jan & Dean) and their “Mike & Dean” show, which was basically the best of the surf party songs from The Beach Boys and Jan & Dean.
We videotaped all morning all over the island and then got a wild-ass jeep ride to the concert stage late in the afternoon. The promoter told us there were 60,000 spring breakers waiting to see us play!
The camera crew for the video followed us around all day filming every move we made, in case they got something spontaneous that could be uses as a nice cutaway shot in the final music video.
Before our set, Mike Love invited me to sit and share some shrimp nachos with him. “Sure!” I said. I asked him about going to India with The Beatles in 1968. Oddly, he said in a rather matter of fact voice, “I have a strict ‘no talking’ rule when I’m eating.” “OK, cool. Thanks for all the good vibrations, Mike!” Mike and Dean’s set kind of sucked, actually. They didn’t put much into it and it was (sadly) obvious they just didn’t care. But our set was good! MTV was there videotaping too. I’ve seen some of our set on MTV's Spring Break ’83 specials over the years.
After this show, they mashed all of us into the jeep and drove us to a deserted part of the island so that we could prance around in front of the sunset and water for the end of the video. We then, did a quick trip back to the hotel to grab some fresh cloths and head to their tiny airport. We flew to nearby Brownsville in one of those little 8-seater prop planes for a late show. We did the show and flew back to South Padre Island. We arrived around 4:00am. We were up and on set for an 8:00 am call to resume filming.
Today, we were going to be filming at a water park where we’d be sliding down these watery chutes on foam mats. The problem was, it was March and even in South Texas that water was freezing! We had to do the water slide thing about 4 times until they got one they liked. They had dressed us in vintage 1960’s boxer short bathing suits and some of us were having “codfish peeking” issues, as our director later commented. Liz, our wardrobe person, had forgotten to order our he-man jock straps and the three guys just had to wing it, so to speak. Hey, some duct tape and a clever camera angle and no one’s the wiser, right?
We went down to Mexico the next day for an afternoon off. We ate at a great Mexican (oh really?) restaurant in Matamoros called The American Bar where our cab driver drove right up on the sidewalk and stopped with the cab practically touching the restaurant’s door! After lunch, we went to some huge 250,000 square ft, warehouse where there were used clothes piled up in 50-foot mountains. We were given plastic bags to stuff our clothing finds into. There were about a hundred people literally swimming through the clothes and stuffing items into their bags. When we were done, they weighed our bags and we paid them for the clothes which were charged by the pound. It seemed an amazingly efficient way to shop! I got my next 4 months gig clothes for about $4.00!
We flew back to Austin that night from Harlingen just over the border very late and then left in our tour bus the next morning for a show in Dallas where we were booked to open for The Ramones at the Agora Ballroom there. I slept on the bus, or tried to anyway. Richard had brought along the movie “Das Boat” (“The Boat”) in both German and English versions for our bus. Repeatedly, he would play the German version in the forward lounge and the English version in the rear lounge. I was soon to know every single line from this movie. I can still hear Richard’s laughter!
We got to the hotel in Dallas and then took a very large Lincoln limousine to an in-store appearance to sign albums at Cactus Records.
I signed records and my very first breast that day! At 5 pm, someone handed me a sandwich, stuffed us back into the car and drove us over to The Agora for a soundcheck so we could go back to the hotel and catch a nap before our 10:00pm opener.
Let’s discuss something here. The road can be hell. It seems like you’re always tired, hungry and pissed off at someone. Even when you’re very young, you can only miss so much sleep before your brain starts eating you up and you disappear into a puff of smoke. This self-induced haze is where some folks turn to drugs to keep going. Big mistake. This only sets you up for a higher and bigger fall later. I'd already seen some of that with my own eyes so I knew to stay away from those pitfalls.
We got back to the hotel for some glorious sleep and another shower, where I ate my room service club sandwich. I didn’t care that the sandwich was getting wet in the shower. I was hungry, dammit! We were in the limo and back to the club by 8:00 pm. When we arrived to our upstairs dressing room at the Agora, Joey and Dee Dee Ramone were there stealing our beer. “Hey guys!”, I said. “What the hell are you doing?” Joey says in his great New Jersey accent “Ah, hey man, we were just, um, grabbin’ some brews, ya’ know? OK?”. All I could was giggle at all of this. Over the next hour, I watched those guys drink some beer - lots of beer! Wow!
But now, I had to focus. It was ten minutes to show time and all the record store workers, radio DJs and and an MCA rep and their families and their 40 friends each were there to hang out with us. Richard came into dressing room and said, “If you’re not in the band, get the fuck out of this room! If you are in the band, your ass better be in this room!”
Suddenly, I heard someone downstairs announcing us! We were on! But we weren’t! We were still in the dressing room! Now, the Agora Ballroom in Dallas had upstairs dressings rooms on the other side of the club and away from the stage. There were long, narrow hallways that wound around the building until you got to the front of the building where you had to take a long flight of stairs down to get to the stage right wing. Joey said “C’mon man. I’ll take youse. I know where it is.” The irony that struck me sometime later when, listening to The Ramones song I Wanna Be Sedated and Joey sings the lines “Just put me in a wheelchair, get me to the show. Hurry, hurry, hurry, before I go loco.” And now, here Joey Ramone is getting ME to the show! You just cannot make this stuff up!
About 5 minutes later, we finally arrived downstairs in the wing area of the stage and they had to announce us again. We blew on and had a great set! After our show, I handed Richard my bass and found a spot in the wings of The Agora to watch The Ramones. I thoroughly enjoyed singing along with them from the side of the stage and I’m glad I got to meet them and spend some time with them. I can’t believe they’re all gone now. But hey, Joey got a street named after him in New Jersey!
This was the official beginning of our West Coast tour. As we worked out way west from Dallas towards California, we were told that MCA wanted us to perform at their annual MCA Records Execs retreat, this year in Tucson, Arizona at some fancy resort. Our manager “managed” to schedule us for an afternoon set the day after the Oklahoma City show and just before our scheduled evening concert in Phoenix with Sparks.
The morning after the Oklahoma City gig, we flew to Tucson, where the bus would catch up with us later. Arriving around 2:00 pm for our 4:00 pm set. We scrambled madly from the airport to the resort where arrangements had been made for us to use another MCA artist’s equipment. Richard and Gary, our sound engineer, flew on to Phoenix to get things ready for our show there tonight.
Tucson was where I learned about how things sometimes work in the music business. After our brief set for the MCA elite, I was running back to my room for a quick shower before being driven back to the airport to fly to Phoenix for the opener with Sparks. As I was making my dash across the resort grounds, I noticed a quite large man soaking in one of the in-ground hot tubs.
“Hey!”, he called out to me. “You’re the new guy with Carrasco! Come get in the tub! Let’s talk!” “I can’t”, I explained, telling him that I had to hightail it if I was going to make our show that night in Phoenix that evening. “Hey!”, he said. “I’m the MCA rep in Seattle. You guys are number 58 this week with a bullet in the northwest, which is my territory. I can make that record break the top 40! What about number 8 with a bullet? Just get in the tub and we can talk about it.” “Uh oh”, I thought. This is nothing but a freaking “casting spa”!
I made my apologies and off I ran. He called out behind me “Your record’s gonna be gone by next week!” “Fine!” I said. In exactly 5 days, Party Weekend had slipped from the number 158 position in the Billboard charts to nowhere.
We’d been on the road for two weeks; performing every night in a different city, signing records (and other things!) in music stores every other day, traveling on the tour bus while being endlessly serenaded with Richard’s rented copies of “Das Boat”. This was the glamorous life I’d dreamed about for so long?
We arrived in Los Angeles on a Sunday morning where we were booked to play at the Music Machine in Westwood that night. This was going to be a busy day! In addition to finding out in advance that all the California bands who weren’t touring would be at our gig that night. MTV had decided to put us on their late-night Sunday show called The Cutting Edge. That morning, MTV taped a short bit for our segment’s introduction of Joe in a phone booth supposedly talking to a fan asking stupid questions about the band. Then we were supposed to give the audience a tour of bus.
At 7:05 pm West Coast time, just as the program was airing live at 10:05pm on the East Coast, MTV was going to roll the taped phone booth segment and then have us give this make-believe fan a personal, guided tour of our bus live. I thought the whole thing sounded a bit stupid, but I’d never been on a live show that was seen by 35 million kids before, so I was in.
Right on the button at 7:05 pm (hey, these TV folks were really punctual!), they played the phone booth video and then dissolved to us live with Joe saying something like “Hey, why don’t we show everybody around our tour bus?!” So, the camera guy followed us up the steps and onto the bus where we showed them where the driver sat and Joe got to use his “96 Gears” joke pretending to be the driver (a reference to the song 96 Tears by Question Mark & The Mysterians), plus I got to show them my (then) new $600 hand-held Donkey Kong video game.
We proceeded down the center aisle and to the back of the bus, showing them our bunks where we slept and mentioned that our wine cellar was downstairs and the jacuzzi was upstairs. Never mind that this bus had no upper or lower floors, this was a gullible MTV audience!
When we got to the bathroom ay the very back of the bus, Joe gabbed the knob and tried to turn it but the door was locked. Keep in mind that we’re on live, coast-to-coast television with 35 million people watching. Joe knocked on the door and we heard Richard’s voice saying, “Go away, I’m taking a Jimmy Riddle!”, which is British for going smelly potty. Joe was insistent, “Hey man, we got MTV here and they want to see the bathroom!” Richard bellowed, “Man, you really don’t want to come in here right now!” So, we blew it off, went back up the aisle towards the front of the bus and ended our segment. Note: There was really something else going on inside of that bathroom that, if it had been seen on live TV, would have caused quite a scandal for everyone involved in our world at that time. In the interest of not being sued, I won't be be specific at this time. But feel free to ask Richard Luckett!!
We ate dinner on the bus and just before showtime, we were visited by Kathy Valentine and Gina Schock from The Go-Go’s. God, they were sooo cute! Someone took a picture of me and Gina on the bus just before we went on (see middle of book). We also met Nigel Harrison, bassist for Blondie and Terri Nunn, the singer from the group Berlin.
It was decided then and there that we were all going to go bowling after our gig at some little bowling alley place in Hollywood. That sounded very rock n’ roll to me!
MTV videotaped our set at The Music Machine, but the producer complained that the venue was too dark for TV so most of the concert never aired, just bits and pieces on the repeat showing of The Cutting Edge. I still have some of the show on videotape.
After the show, we took a limo ride to the Hollywood Lanes Bowling Alley. It was such a trip riding around Hollywood in a limo to go bowling with these people! Just a year before, I’d been buying and listening to their records as a fan and now I was to be part of a rock star bowling team!
We made a grand entrance into the bowling alley, but at 3:00am on a Monday morning there just weren’t that many music fans trying to nail the pins. No matter! My drummer Dick and I, plus Nigel and Gina were on one team. Kathy, Richard, Terri Nunn from the group Berlin, along with someone else I forget were on the other team. I remember that our team did OK, except that Nigel kept rolling gutter balls and would shout out “Shit!” very loudly each time he did so. It got to be that all of us would just yell out “Shit!” every time Nigel released the ball. Very funny!
Nigel also told me a funny story about when the band members of Blondie finally got a royalty check after 3 years of blood, sweat and tears. In his tidy British accent, he said, “So I go to the mail box and there’s this envelope from management. I opened ‘er up and there’s a bloody check for ₤186,000 pounds! Brilliant! I’m buying a bleedin’ house now!”
As our night came to an end, both Kathy and Gina snuggled up to me and gave me the ol' show biz double cheeks kiss. Of course, rock n’ roll fantasies played out in my mind, but for some reason, it didn’t feel like that with them. We were all just young people out having fun and never knowing what tomorrow might bring.
I did write to Gina later when she was at Cedars Sinai having minor heart surgery. She sent me a nice card back, which I still have. I saw Kathy Valentine again in Austin a month later (she lived there) and she told me the girls were fighting and everyone was mad at Belinda (their singer) and taking sides. Their second album Vacation was already starting to level off sales wise and Belinda was spending more time with actor Jason Robards’s son than rehearsing and touring with the band. That's the kiss of death for any pop group. I'm so glad they put all that stuff behind them years later and they did a fun reunion tour together.
Next, we went to San Francisco, where we were to play Bill Graham’s legendary venue Old Waldorf. Many of the legendary 1970s bands had played there and it was one of rock music’s hallowed temples. I was excited because we were going to be in San Francisco for three days with a whole day off in the middle. I did all the tourist stuff with Richard and Gary and it was great! I have some great photographs from this place.
It was during this time that I began to see a few crinkles in the Joe King organization’s armor. Apparently, MCA was breathing down our manager’s neck about album sales, making good on the promise of having me help commercialize Joe’s Tex-Mex sound and the group's upcoming option with the label probably not going forward. Joe King was anything but approachable on the road. He had his French companion Nicole with him 24 hours a day and he wouldn’t listen to any of the songs I’d written on the tour bus. He said he’d rather we go to Mexico when we got home, take some peyote and write songs with me while sitting on the Aztec pyramids. Sur-r-r-re Joe.
The other thing I got wind of from Richard and Gary was about the upcoming Scandinavian tour that was planned just after our gigs in New York in a couple of weeks. I asked our manager “Why are we going to Scandinavia right now when we have a record breaking here in the US?” He replied, “Because the shopping there is great there this time of year.” Oh, so this band was formed to save money shopping in cool foreign countries and be tourists, eh? Now I get it! This was very disappointing to me.
Needless to say, I argued with them about this nonsensical business decision but their minds were made up. I could now see that I was going nowhere with these guys and it was only a matter of my wasting time until it all fell apart. As fun as it was pretending to be a big rock star and sending money home to Patti each week, this gig had peaked. I gave them my two-week notice.
“I’ll do the New York dates with you but after that, I’m done”, I told them. “You’ve done nothing of what you said you wanted to do when you asked me to join this band. The group has enjoyed its best live performance reviews to date and I think I’ve written some cool new songs and Joe won’t even listen to them until we’re tripping together on ancient pyramids in Mexico!”
Joe Nick asked me to “humor” him and bring my passport with me to NY, just in case I changed my mind. “Fine, I’ll bring it.”
Our West Coast tour continued into upper California, Wyoming and Colorado. The upper California gigs were a blur in my mind then (and still are!), although I do remember how beautiful some of those towns were! Along the journey from Jackson Hole to Cheyenne, Wyoming, I never again worried about the United States running out of land to put its people. Seriously. In 1983, there was so much nothing out there and practically zero cars anyplace around. During this 5-hour drive, we would stop every hour or so to get out of the bus, stand in the road and pee! Kris, our female keyboardist was great! She thought this was pretty funny and she would come sit in the front of the bus to watch her fellow band mates take a potty break in the middle of a long stretch of lonely highway!
We played The Rainbow Theatre in Denver which was a large 1,500-seat music venue. The elevation there is over like 5,000 feet above sea level and there’s not the usual amount of oxygen available to breath at that height. During the second song, I started to get dizzy from the lack of oxygen to my brain. At our gig, I saw some stage hands standing around the edges of the stage in front of these tall steel oxygen tanks holding face masks while waving me over towards them. I walked over to them and they immediately placed the mask over my face and opened the oxygen flow value. Ah, sweet O2! I could breathe and I could think again! “Every 10 minutes!”, Richard shouted to me.
Just before the beginning of the next song, I notice two very cute girls standing up against the stage in front of my microphone and they were looking at me and smiling! I walked up to them and bent down to say hi before we launched into the next song. As soon as I leaned over, they each hooked their fingers through the laces of my high-top tennis shoes, counted to three and suddenly yanked up on my shoelaces! This caused me to fall down on my back, partially hitting my vocal monitor floor speaker as I came down hard. I was in a lot of pain and now I really couldn’t breathe!
Richard ran over to my rescue by bending down and picking up both girls by their belts, walking to the edge of the stage and just flinging them out into the dark crowd. That was a very surrealistic thing to witness, especially since I was low on oxygen!
We finished the show and started to walk out on to our bus, as we had to drive through the night to the next city. But this crowd was really supercharged after our show and they converged on us as we got closer to the bus which was parked just outside the theater. It felt a little dangerous and now, for the first time, Bobby, our bus driver was recruited to work security. I was about 100 yards from the bus and he said we need to “run like hell, now!!” My back was killing me and those two girls were calling out my name as they ran towards us faster and faster. Bobby literally picked me up and carried me to the bus, put me on the steps and then went back down the steps to help everyone else get on.
Those crazy girls started shouting that they wanted Joe King t-shirts! One of them had on a Beat t-shirt. Shouting through the partially opened bus door, I joking told her I’d trade with her. She slipped it off over her head which exposed a beautiful pair of perky greetings! Oh, what the hell? I took mine off and traded shirts with her. She wanted to travel with us on our tour bus to the next show, but Bobby, sensing my uncomfortableness with the situation, came to my rescue yet again, secured me away and onto the bus. Whew!
From Denver, it was a straight shot to Oklahoma City to play The Bowery. By this time, the road crew had had enough of Joe King’s whining and so they duct taped him to the carpeted walls of The Bowery’s dressing room! The rest of the band saw this but we said nothing, preferring instead to let the guys blow off some steam and maybe teach Joe a lesson about being a baby. We just got on the tour bus and snacked on the fruit we’d hidden from our earlier soundcheck hospitality platters.
From there, it was back to Austin where we played our last date of that tour at a noon time assembly at an Austin middle school! I do remember substituting my normal harmonies with shouts of “Das Boat! Das Boat!”, much to Richard’s maniacal laughter. I was so glad to finally be getting away from that movie!
I flew home to Houston for a well-deserved two-day rest before heading to four days in New York City. When I got back to Houston, Patti and I spent some time walking around our River Oaks neighborhood haunts like Birraporetti's restaurant and Neal’s Cookies as I told her more about my plans to leave the band after the New York shows.
The next morning, I flew to Austin, met the rest of the band there and then boarded a plane for New York. Our first gig there was going to be a very high-profile show at the famous Bottom Line. That night as we took the stage, I noticed lots of record company executives, music producers and top-notch musicians all over the place. Lee Crystal, the drummer from Joan Jett’s band was also there. It was great to see him again and he wanted to talk with me some more about their bassist situation.
I met recording engineer/producer Thom Panunzio. Thom’s very first job in a studio was at New York’s Record Plant as tape operator for John Lennon’s Rock n’ Roll album sessions. Lennon was forced to do the album for two reasons; the first was that his old post-Beatles recording contract had one album left in it and two, Morris Levy was suing John for copyright infringement. It seems the melody for John’s song Come Together was way too close for comfort for the Chuck Berry song You Can’t Catch Me. Chuck didn’t give a rip. Hell, The Beatles had bought a couple of mansions for Chuck with royalties he earned from The Beatles cover versions of his songs on their albums for years. But Morris Levy was Chuck’s music publisher and Morris smelled the dough. Levy and Lennon had worked out a publishing percentage arrangement for Berry's songs included on the Rock n’ Roll album.
Panunzio was having a blast working on this session with one of his idols. One night, Lennon called the Record Plant and asked Thom to make a cassette copy of two final mixes of the Chuck Berry tunes so Lennon could give the tape to Levy for his approval. Lennon said he’d be by the studio in about 30 minutes to pick up the tape.
So, Thom grabs the master reel, quickly threads it onto the machine, wraps the loose tape end around the take-up reel and hits fast forward to get to the song. When the tape was about where he thought it should be, he hit stop on the machine. But there was a problem. In Thom’s haste to get the tape threaded onto the machine, he had forgotten to loop the end piece around the tension capstan.
This is a little arm on the machine that senses the amount of tape still remaining on the reel by the tension being generated on the arm when the reels are moving forward or backwards. When threaded through the capstan properly, when the operator hits stop, the machine gradually slows down, just like applying a car’s brakes, according to the amount of tape on the reels. Without utilizing this clever little mechanical device, the tape machine just suddenly stops, which is what happened to Thom.
Unfortunately, when the tape machine stopped suddenly, the master tape popped into! “Holy shit!” was what Thom said he screamed. I believe him, though I probably would have added a few more things to that if I had just trashed a John Lennon master. Oddly enough, the break came in the very middle of the second chorus of You Can’t Catch Me.
Since a chorus is usually just a repeated part of a song, it shouldn’t be a problem, right? Well, not really. However, the way John Lennon had approached these songs, and a lot of his recording, was to get a good “live” take of the basic rhythm track. This meant that there were slight variations in the parts leading into and out of each chorus that were unique to that particular chorus. Thom ended up making a splice-in with the second chorus and then creating a mono mix of the final mix of the song so the variations would not be (as) noticeable. He handed the tape to Lennon and didn’t mention it. John never said a word. Even if he did know, I could easily imagine John mumbling “sly bugger!” and letting it be. Thom told me about this in 1983, eight years after the fact, that he still felt guilty about this.
The night after our big gig at The Bottom Line, Thom invited me and a few others back to his apartment in Chelsea on the west side of Manhattan. Our road manager Richard Luckett made arrangements with Thom to come by The Record Plant the next day so I could get a VIP tour and John Lennon’s piano that he’d been using on the Double Fantasy record just before his physical being left us. YES!
The next day, Richard Luckett and I met Thom and studio manager Jim Ball at The Record Plant. The first thing I saw was this huge acoustic guitar (about 10 feet high) in the lobby that Lennon had given to The Record Plant. Then I was shown the main studio where the rock band Kiss were rehearsing some tracks before recording. They really should have left their makeup on all the time. No offense, guys!
Next, I was ushered into this soundproof room where I saw a maple-colored upright piano pushed to one side. Ball said that the upright piano behind me against the wall was “The John Lennon” piano. I just stood there looking at it for a while. OK, this is John Lennon’s piano. The upright was the one he used to record Imagine on. Thom said “Knock yourself out. I’ll be right back.” I first went over to the grand piano and slowly started playing thinking about all the people who'd been in this room making music. It was more than a little overwhelming. John wrote songs with both Elton John and David Bowie at this piano and he used it for composing and as an instrument on the Walls and Bridges album. Bob Dylan played it on a couple of his sessions there as did Peter Townshend of The Who while they were recording tracks for their album Who’s Next.
As I started playing the grand piano, I looked back over my right shoulder at John's upright piano against the wall, trying to compose myself before going over to play it. But before I could get up, Richard said he wanted to take a photo of me and to look up at him. I did and the next thing I saw was a very large flash! This was not a typical camera flash but more of a burst. I asked Richard if he saw that and he just said “Wow! What the heck was that?” Suddenly, my camera started making a loud whirring noise which meant that the roll of film had just taken its last frame and the camera was automatically rewinding the roll.
After that big white flash, I wondered if maybe we were being visited by John’s spirit. I found the experience somewhat comforting, so I moved over to John’s upright to play “Imagine”. But being out of film, there no more photos could be taken. When I later saw the photo that Richard did manage to take, I was pleasantly amazed at what I saw. My entire body was glowing! I think it was supposed to be that way.
As I was about to play Imagine on John's piano, I put my hands on the keys and just froze. “This is where John’s hands were!”, I said to myself. When I turned around, Jim Ball was standing there. He said, “Everybody does that. Everyone plays Imagine on that piano. It’s very strange to hear that coming from the tape room where I just was.” When I later saw the photo that Richard did manage to take, I was pleasantly amazed at what I saw. My entire body was glowing! I think it was supposed to be that way. It’s still a very emotional thing to write about, even now.
Thom came back in and asked if I wanted to scoot across town in a cab to get some lunch. The group had an interview at MCA’s (then) Park Avenue offices with a Swedish DJ that afternoon so it needed to be near there. I thanked Jim for the tour and Thom, Richard and I left The Record Plant.
As we were waiting for the cab, Thom begin telling me about the last time he saw John. It was the night of his murder. He and Yoko had been working on a song called Walking On Thin Ice. They had gone home about 5:00 pm and Thom began setting up the studio for another session with a group called Grand Master Flash. Around 8:00 pm, Lennon rang the studio and asked Thom if he could make a rough cassette mix of Walking On Thin Ice for him to pick up in a few minutes. Thom said sure, made his apologies to the band, who didn’t mind at all. Hey, they were going to meet John Lennon!
John and Yoko showed up at The Record Plant about 9:00 pm and Thom gave him the cassette. Lennon was very upbeat and spoke with the awaiting band members. John was very happy with what was coming out of him on this new album. Double Fantasy was sure to be a huge hit. Everyone said their good-byes and, for some reason, John hugged Thom good-bye this time. This struck Thom as a bit strange as, while his relationship was certainly cordial with Lennon, he didn’t think he was on a hugging basis. “Oh well, maybe I’m moving up in his eyes!” He thought.
Thom went back to setting up for the session. About twenty minutes later, one of the musicians from Grand Master Flash came running into the control room with a funny look in his eyes. The band had been out in the lounge of the studio playing video games with Monday Night Football on. The musician said that TV commentator Howard Cosell had just announced that John Lennon had been shot just outside his New York apartment building.
Thom told me they ran back to the TV. Ten minutes later, Cosell said that Parkland Hospital in Manhattan had just admitted John Lennon in their trauma ward, that he had multiple gunshot wounds and he was not breathing. A few minutes later came the news that John was dead.
I hardly know how to write about the devastation I felt after John’s death, not just as it relates to me, but to so many others as well. So, I will choose not to go to that place where the pain is too deep to speak of. Instead, I would rather suggest that we all keep the positive aspects of John’s spirit alive. Imagine.
When you visit New York City next time, you really need to make it a point to go to Central Park West (you can get off the subway at Columbus Circle and cross the street to the left heading towards Central Park). Go see the Imagine Circle there on the outskirts of Strawberry Fields. It’s quite moving, especially with the Dakota building where John lived right behind you.
And now back to our other story, already in progress… So, Thom let me off at MCA’s office and told me he was off to the Left Coast for a few months to try to get The Go-Go’s ready for their third album. Richard Gottehrer had produced The Go-Go’s first two LP’s and now Thom was going to produce their third. I told him to give me a call in a week or so.
I took the elevator up to the 10th floor and found myself in front of one of those stuffy “I’ve seen it all baby!” receptionists. I walked up to her and she said “Yes, may I help you?” I said “Yeah, where’s the free promo record and stuff?” “Pardon me?” she said. “Oh, that’s alright, I’m looking for Jurgen Sampson to do a live radio interview for Stockholm radio. “Oh!”, she said. “Room 24. Hurry! They’re expecting you to translate!” “Translate what?” “Hurry!”, she said.
I found Room 24 all right and when I opened the door, the DJ was sitting there already live on the air in Stockholm with only Dick, our drummer and now me. A few moments later, Joe King and Chris came in and the guy looked somewhat relieved. What happened next made me feel like I was back in Killeen, Texas and someone had put something in my beer! With the four of us sitting there with headphones on staring at this guy across the other side of the glass, he started speaking in Swedish!
“Yahn sa hanis sorden goshbe wanken wande plattenspeiler!” Oh my God! He doesn’t speak English! He thinks we speak Swedish! The receptionist thinks I’m an interpreter! How long is this “live interview”? One hour!
“OK, here’s what we do guys”, I said. You know he’s only asking us the same damn questions everyone else asks us but in Earthling ways that we can usually understand. Let’s just wait until he stops talking looks at us and one of us will “answer” his question. Here is an actual excerpt from our interview:
Jürgen: “Hur länge har bandet varit tillsammans?”
Bruce: “Well, Jurgen, the group’s been together about four years now, with me being the newest member to join.”
Jugen: “Färgar du håret?”
Bruce: “No, this is actually my natural hair color!”
You get the idea. Later I heard that about 90% of our replies were in direct response to his questions. During the time though, our manager was about to have a cow as he was listening to the interview in one of the little studio rooms at MCA Records. Well, not nearly the cow he would deliver after our chat this night right after our gig at The Peppermint Lounge.”
Later that night, at The Russian Tea Room, at Richard Luckett really laid into Joe Nick Patoski in no uncertain terms: “You are screwing up man! You’re not insisting to Joe King that he needs to let Bruce help him make his songs more commercial for the radio! He’s got some good ideas, man! At least listen to them!” I sat there in silent agreement and a little embarrassed as I enjoyed my excellent food and wine, all the while knowing that the surf was up and that soon the Joe King house of cards would fold for me.
The next night, our last in NYC, was played at a club out on Long Island and our show was simulcast on radio station WLIR. In the dressing room before the gig, Joe Nick kept asking me “Are you coming? Are you coming? We leave for Scandinavia next week.” “Christ Nick, what’s wrong with you? I’m not going. I want a career in this business, not a closet full of European clothes!”
After the gig, I gave Peter, our assistant, my plane ticket and I got into the equipment van with Richard and Gary for the long 36-hour drive back to Texas. I needed time to decompress and think. Along the way, we stopped and saw my dad and Patti’s folks in Charlotte, NC. We also stopped and got ourselves a large strawberry pie and a can of whipped crème from Shoney’s to snack on during our drive back to Texas.
After our long, practically non-stop 36-hour drive later, we were at my condo in Houston. Richard and Gary carried my equipment up the stairs to my place for one last time. I hugged them both and thanked them and that was all for me with the JKC organization.
In the end, after finding yet another bass player, the group traveled to Scandinavia to play a few clubs and go shopping instead of working to promote a chart rising single in the US. There entire career had served up to them on a silver bullet platter. But it seemed all they could think to do was say “Take it back. I’m not hungry.”
By the summer of 1983, I had enjoyed my 15 minutes of national fame with Joe “King” & The Crowns. But as things turned out, I was never a permanent Crown, just a temporary filling. But I was now writing my own songs again; lots of songs and some of them were pretty good. At least I thought so.
I knew I had to keep moving forward. I just had to figure out how to do that.