Stripper Music Done Right
Today's music review takes place at a strip club. But first, a short monologue on the tenor saxophone. Ahem. The tenor saxophone was THE instrument at the Dawn of Rhythm and Blues and Rock and Roll. Sleazy, screaming, growling, honking, louder than hell. The great wailing saxmen were criticised by the snobs for selling out to primitive music, but the sounds they made—though certainly less cerebral than jazz—were just as moving. More moving. How many of you can hum a Charlie Parker solo? Now how about the solo from “Tutti Frutti”? I can do neither but I'm pretty sure the Lil' Richard solo goes, “WHAAAAAAA! WHAAAA WHAAAAAAAAAOOOOOOWHAAAAOOOO!!” Parker? “Bop dip sheebob” or something. Even on paper the “Tutti” solo is more fun than Parker. I'm not going to get in a debate, I'm simply pointing out the obvious.
Over the years the sax was supplanted by the electric guitar. You could sing while playing a guitar. Fuzz boxes made them dirtier. And guitars have always been cheaper and easier to learn than the sax. The great horns went by the wayside; Jimi Hendrix replaced Jimmy Forrest and, while it wasn't the end of the world, it was the end of the era of the tenor saxophone. When King Curtis (Aretha's “Respect”, tons of solos for the Coasters, “Memphis Soul Stew”, some Lennon work, and a thousand other hits, B sides and even legit Jazz albums) was killed in 1970 so was the last of the great R'n'B horns. In the past three decades the saxophone has all but disappeared as a solo instrument in popular music. The last time I recall hearing a prominent tenor sax in a top 40 hit was in “Who Can it Be Now?”.
I considered the art of the Tenor Sax dead, buried, and decomposed until a few nights ago. I was on the bus when I overheard the following conversation between two suits:
Guy 1: The ladies were gorgeous but I think the band was better.
Guy 2: What are you? Some kind of--
Guy 1: Really. You should go down there. The saxophonist was phenomenal. I couldn't take my eyes off him.
Guy 1: I knew it! You ARE some kind of--
Guy 2: Shut up. It was exactly what stripper music should sound like.
I interrupted their conversation and got the name of the joint and its address: Tyrannosaurus Sex in Arvada at 7823 Wadsworth . I'm not a fan of strip clubs. I'd only been to three others (for each of my first three bachelor parties) and each time I'd been drunk. This time I was sober (I quit drinking a couple months ago). The bar was tiny. The walls, which had once been covered with crushed red velvet, were now frayed, showing plaster and lath. Every table had a squat brown candle in the center. The lights were low and the air was chewy. I felt old and awkward.
Directly in front of the stage was an upright piano, a doghouse bass, and a silver five piece drum kit. Three musicians arrived, dressed in bright blue suits and took their places. No sax player. An old, rat-faced man climbed up on the stage. With a martini in one hand and the microphone in the other he told some forgettable jokes while the musicians tuned up. No one laughed. Finally, “Lazies and Genitalworms, we're gonna have some fine dancers on this stage in just a minute, but first, a big round of applause for the Chipp Wallechinsky Quartet.” No one clapped.
The door to the men's room swung open and out strolled a guy holding a shiny King Super 20 tenor sax. He wasn't more than five and a half feet tall and his suit was a gold lame just like Elvis on the cover of 50,000,000. He walked to a spot right in front of the drummer, gave a cue and the band went into one-chord jump blues vamp, four on the floor, hard swinging and a cymbal crash on the two and the four.
The sax player, Chipp Wallechinsky, held his horn just cool as an ice cube in a polar bear's ass, licked the reed, twisted the mouthpiece a fraction, clacked the keys a couple times and then nodded at the drummer. The band hit four times and took a one bar break, which our teeny little horn player turned into an explosion that sent chunks of plaster off the ceiling. He played for an hour straight. And nothing about it stunk. On the ballads he played with the creamy goodness of King Curtis. On the jazzier numbers he played with the ferocity of Sam Taylor. And when the stripper grind-it music hit, he sounded like he was gargling a 428 Cobra Jet. He didn't move. Behind his sunglasses I imagined his eyes were squeezed shut. His forehead bulged on the loud notes, his chin quivered on the soft notes. Oh, he was IT.
Not only that but the band was fabulous. Unbelievable. This wasn't one of those, they're-so-bad-they're-good things. These guys were so good they were good. They didn't laugh self-consciously after making a mistake. They didn't make mistakes. I wasn't even drunk, I was in a strip club and holy cow I don't remember a thing about the strippers.
After the show I sidled up to the bar to talk to Chipp. Scotty, the bassist, stopped me. “He doesn't talk. He doesn't do interviews.”
“He's ashamed at playing in a strip club.”
“Why's he do it then?”
“You'll have to ask him.”
“But he doesn't talk...”
“Tell me, why do YOU play in a strip club?”
Scotty thought for a moment. “Because he plays here and I wouldn't play with anyone else for all the money in the world.”
“Do the strippers ever get jealous that the band gets more attention than they do?”
“No. Yes. He brings in the customers and if it wasn't for him, this place would close. But…Yeah, they get jealous. If you ever stop to watch them onstage...they work so hard and hardly anyone looks. By the end of the gig you can see them get mad. Buy me a drink.”
I buy him drinks. I keep prying. “Come on. Why do you guys play this cesspool? Denver 's small but I know there's better joints than this.”
“You wanna know?” Scotty gripped the bar tightly. “You wanna know why we play these shit gigs and make no money?” He bit his lower lip hard. “You wanna know why the best combo I've ever been in is wasting the greatest days of our musical lives in this dump?” He paused.
I said yes.
Scotty nodded, looked left, then right, and said, “He's in love with Raquel.”
“She won't give him the time of day. He plays every note for her. But she don't care. She just dances on that stage and shakes her stuff.”
She's a stripper?
“Yeah. Raquel is a stripper in this club. The only one without a tattoo.”
I don't remember her.
“Really?” A hint of sarcasm.
It must be torture then, for him to know the woman he loves is twisting her naked body around a pole not ten feet away.
“Au contraire, mon square. He loves it. See that mirror?” Scott pointed at a mirror on the other side of the room. “Behind his shades he's watching that mirror all night long and in that mirror he sees Raquel. Meanwhile, he plays so good no one watches her strip. No one but him. Torture? Hell no. He loves every damn second of it.”
--Strapping Danforth, November, 2001