It’s 10 o’clock on a chilly, November night. You cross the street to the tiny barbeque joint and from the curb you can already feel the energy inside. You’re excited, but you approach the doorman with reticence – you’ve been told that your name is “on the list,” but if it’s not you’re out of luck, because you aren’t legal, you’re only 18.
At last, you squeeze through the door. Bodies are already packed to the point of having to breathe and move as one. You somehow make your way into the middle of the crowd, wedged between a couple of girls with long, dyed black hair and a red-faced guy wearing a dirty John Deere cap. On stage are the musicians – they have to be onstage, because there is literally nowhere else for them to be. Even on that small stage, bathed in the meager glow of a few track lights pointed in their direction, they look larger than life.
Before you have the chance to really register what’s going on, the drummer, whose long, lank hair reinforces his resemblance to an un-permed Tommy Lee, strikes the count on his hi-hats – “one, two, three …!” You feel, more than hear, the music as it rolls through the room. You’d dance, if there was any room to do so; instead, you move with the crowd as it responds to the bass and drums, locked together in a ferocious 4/4 assault. The singer, miraculously, cuts through the wall of sound with a baritone that is both Hank Williams-thin and Springsteen-powerful. With his black hair, hat, coat, boots, and faded black pants, he looks like some sort of nineteenth-century “medicine show” barker. He stands at the microphone, his big, hollow-bodied Rickenbaker guitar in hand, singing and blowing harmonica like a preacher delivering a hellfire and damnation sermon while cursed with the knowledge that he has some serious sins of his own to pay for.
To his left is his foil, his black, shaggy hair bouncing, by turns smiling and frowning, playing his worn Telecaster with a speed, fervor and accuracy that betrays many nights holed-up alone in his bedroom with a guitar, surrounded by records. He seems to be in a world of his own, and when he comes forward to take the microphone, he sings with a sincerity and emotion that makes even his most humorous lyrics seem heartfelt. On the opposite side of the stage the bassist stands stock-still, impervious to the chaos going on around him. All that seems to move are his hands and fingers; his only flourish is his right wrist snapping to emphasize a chord change or to follow the song’s dynamics. In contrast, the drummer is all movement, playing hard and fast, digging into the beat, staying inside the music while keeping it right on the precarious edge between order and confusion.
You are watching Brian and The Nightmares, circa 1988: Brian Relleva, Kurt Hagardorn, John Smith, and Mark Ryalls. You are where I stood on that chilly November night at Quarterback’s Barbeque, the night that changed my life, the night I was saved by rock and roll.