Before tweens and hillbillies started singing that horrid Nickelback anthem, it was the secret dream of most writers to play in a rock ’n’ roll band. Some authors, including Rick Moody, Stephen King and even (alas!) Barbara Kingsolver, have actually nailed semi-regular gigs doing something a step above karaoke.
When tasked with choosing one thing I wanted to enjoy before the world ended, I didn’t hesitate to swear my allegiance to rock ’n’ roll, which is how I ended up “with the band” at the Mine Shaft Tavern in Madrid, the Saturday before Halloween.
One of Santa Fe’s finest, Stephanie Hatfield and Hot Mess, had agreed to let me sing one song during its set, and as I stood in the doorway of the historic tavern, the irony wasn’t lost on me. Not only did the bloody and ghoulish costumes harken the end of days, but the terror in front of me mirrored the terror inside me.
Bill Palmer’s TV Killers was on stage when I arrived, and I have to admit, it was hard not to have fun. My friend Karla said Bill, with his top hat and white face, looked like a combination of Jack White and Johnny Depp, but he played far better. The costumed attendees partied like it was their last night on Earth, and my wife Lala and I couldn’t stop gawking at a couple in gold and silver robot costumes, a former bar band singer with brains leaking out of her head, and various skeletons and artsy-craftsy masks you’d make at a warrior womyn’s creativity retreat.
I slipped out to the porch for air and to run my lines. A toddler dressed like Thomas the Tank Engine wandered into my purview, and between verses, I rattled off names of the trains my son London used to collect: Salty, James, Alfie.
“You must have a 3-year-old at home,” a woman in a skintight shimmering dress said, hearing my babble. I had no idea what to say. London is now 10, yet my memory of Thomas and company was as clear as the topless drag queen leaning on the porch rail.
After a short break, Stephanie Hatfield came on and lit up the stage. Her eyes were lined all Clockwork Orange status, and her deep set of pipes, swinging hair and white teeth made her seem like the goddess of rock ’n’ roll on her very own altar. The dance floor churned with a human-sized roadkill bunny, a Rastafarian in sunglasses and a bearded man in fishnets. Somehow, I knew that, when Stephanie slipped into a ballad, I was on deck. I had rehearsed daily in my offices at home and at school and knew the Johnny Cash song I was scheduled to sing, “Cocaine Blues,” by heart.
When I stepped up on stage into the lights with a band playing a bouncing C at my back, however, I went blank. I forgot everything after the first verse and stumbled along until I recalled that I had a cheat sheet tucked away in my back pocket. At first glance, the scrap of paper seemed to list some very useful engines, but then I saw enough to finish the song—not well, mind, you, but I finished. And I’m here to testify that, like the bards of rock once wrote about their profession, “I tell you folks, it’s harder than it looks.”