In 1972, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings changed the face of country music forever with the Outlaw country sound. In 1974, the Ramones did the same thing for rock ’n’ roll. In 2000, my friend Tim and I set out to do the same for both genres with a way-out sound and a more ambitious instrumentation.
We call ourselves Royal Quiet Deluxe, which is also the make and model of the typewriter I play as percussion. Tim plays the guitar and the bass, often simultaneously. We provide the backing rhythms for two live chickens that peck out abstract melodies on toy pianos.
Every rehearsal and performance is a spontaneous improvisation, and no two performances are ever the same. The chickens are named Kitty Wells and Patsy Cline. Different individual chickens come and go, but in our pretentious barnyard Menudo they are always named Kitty Wells or Patsy Cline.
The band played two shows last year in college that we felt went incredibly well. Our former housemate lives in Japan now with a boyfriend who books bands in Osaka and Tokyo. We lied to her a little about how much we’d improved since graduation, and she lied to her boyfriend a little more on top of that, and now he says that if we can get him a solid live tape, of an actual show with a cheering audience and everything, he can book us a tour in Japan.
And you just know Japanese people are crazy about this kind of shit.
So now we’ve got to get a gig together, which you would figure would be hardly any problem at all, given the solidity of the whole general concept. But it’s harder than you might think, mainly because we are in Richmond, Virginia, the capital of the Confederacy. On the one hand, Richmond has a rich history of highly weird independent music—hardcore legend Avail is from Richmond, and it doesn’t get louder and weirder than GWAR, from right here in the 804. But then again, it’s like this town is doing the same thing with punk rock that it’s doing with the Civil War, just running reenactments until the old ghosts rise again.
Here’s the other thing on top of all that: you can’t have a show unless you can sell booze. And you can’t get a liquor license in this town unless you sell food. Then the city has this bullshit ordinance that says barnyard animals are not allowed into restaurants, even if they’re caged the entire time. It’s totally fine to chop them up, deep-fry ’em, and serve them with a side of collard greens, but if they want to come in through the front door and contribute to the rich tapestry of American music, that’s not allowed.
It’s this kind of attitude that’s holding the South back.
Tim and I live in a sagging two-bedroom apartment in the center of a block bedazzled with dried dog turds, half a mile from a stately row of monuments to Confederate war heroes flanked by a statelier stretch of historic homes. When you have chickens in your band, you do what the chickens do, which means waking up at dawn and rehearsing for a while before heading off to a beige job full of gray people reading a script into a telephone, and then coming back again to practice at dusk before the birds bed down for the night. We get an extra few practices on the weekends, but it really cuts into our social lives.
Some Sundays we sit there and listen to Johnny Cash for a while and then feel the fire so hard that we get up and try to capture it for ourselves. I figure out how to mic that typewriter up just right and I can get a really nice, booming, kick-drum sound from the shift and space-bar keys, and the letters thwacking on the cylinder make for a sharp snare sound. It’s pretty easy to reproduce Fluke Holland’s driving, minimalist drum sound on a typewriter if you’re really paying attention.
So I get a nice rhythm going on that typewriter and Tim smokes out that signature “Folsom Prison” riff and then the birds kick in all over the place, improvising and freestyling. Sometimes we get to going on that for twenty minutes or so, and a hole opens up in the fabric of everything and we slip through it into a palace of pure white light.
Right in the middle of it all, the father of one of my best friends calls me up. He’s the president of the local university and he says that the Reverend Al Sharpton is coming to speak at his school and would I like to not only come to the speech but eat dinner right next to Sharpton beforehand.
I strongly believe that you’ve got to take every opening you can get, even if you don’t understand it at all.
I’m seated at a large circular table across from my friend’s father and right next to Reverend Al Sharpton. Everyone else at the table is an exceptionally successful and prominent member of the African American community in southeast Virginia. There are CEOs and military brass and ministers and revered professors, as well as the coach of Hampton University’s basketball team. My friend’s dad says, Well, Reverend Sharpton, we all know what you do, but maybe we could go around the table and introduce ourselves and say what it is that we do for a living, starting with the young man to your right.
Would I ever! I say, Well, I temp to make money, but really what I’m into as a passion is that I play the typewriter as percussion in a country-rock band featuring two chickens that play toy pianos. Sharpton’s eyes widen to maximum strength, and then his pupils dash upward and back in an eye-roll so hard it probably sprains his optic nerves.
Hampton University’s basketball coach is seated on the other side of Reverend Al, and he leans over with an intense and gleeful intrigue, saying, Chickens! Really! Tell me more!
Well, I say, what we do is we glue corn to certain keys on the keyboard that are in tune with what the guitar is playing, and we practice at feeding time. We throw a bunch of corn on the keyboard so they can get a meal, which also makes them kind of a free-jazz Sun Ra thing all over the place at first, but they eventually lock into a more repetitive groove that’s in tune once they eat up all the loose stuff.
It feels so good to have an audience, even if we aren’t actually technically playing. I go all the way into how I see us fitting into and stretching the boundaries of country and rock music, and I don’t even really know what all I am saying. I just keep going. I have a dissociative moment where I’m hovering above my own body, watching Al Sharpton be like, God, Jesus, please make this boy stop, as a plume of pure purple bullshit hoses out of my mouth and all over the table. I see everyone else nodding politely and checking their watches, stifling yawns. But the me that’s still talking about the band is still talking about the band.
Al Sharpton’s speech makes me want to get out in the streets and get active, to get myself organized and help my community to do the same. I approach him afterward to tell him how much he’s inspired me and shake his hand. But he sees me coming—he meets my eyes, rolls his eyes again, turns his back, and vanishes behind his security.
Al Sharpton hates our band, man, I tell Tim the next morning. Tim takes a long drag on last night’s roach, exhaling slowly through his nostrils and says, I don’t believe we started this band just to impress Al Sharpton. We’re about a lot more than that. Now let’s take “Folsom Prison” from the top.
* * *
Sharpton’s disapproval bothers me even more than I want to admit out loud. I’m beginning to think that the whole band is little more than a concept that’s going to burn up like a meteorite as it falls into reality’s atmosphere. Having a prominent, widely respected figure who obviously has his whole life together think that the concept—arguably, the best part about the band—is dumb, too: it unties the dinghy of my self confidence and shoves it away from the pier.
Then the unthinkable happens: a band of Sun Ra devotees asks us to open for them at a show in an art gallery. There’s no health code to violate, but the show is coming up really fast. We call everybody, get a bunch of flyers made and out at all the record shops. Ticket sales are doing well. But sometimes when you get what you think you want, it feels like the universe is actually calling you on your bullshit bluff.
We may not actually be all that good.
One morning I snap a little: Tim, we have a show in two week’s time and we’re going to get up in front of everyone we know with these chickens and look ridiculous. But the birds, man, the birds can only practice until they’re full at breakfast and dinner. How are we going to get more practice time?
He thinks for a second. Then he scoops up a bird, engulfing its head inside his armpit, and says, Hey now, check this out. It thrashes a little and then settles into deep, steady breaths. You have never heard a stranger sound than that of a chicken’s snores muffled by a man’s armpit.
I learned this on the farm as a kid, he says, All you have to do is plunge a chicken into darkness for a few minutes and it goes right to sleep. It’s like pressing Ctrl-Alt-Delete on their little brains. It just reboots the whole system. And it’s a whole new day with a whole new breakfast.
He pulls the chicken out into the light. It opens its eyes and squawks, flapping back down to the keyboard to peck at the corn again.
With this we’re able to stretch a twenty-minute rehearsal to forty or fifty minutes, plunging the birds into our underarms when they slow up on the keys. Eventually they hit a wall and become sluggish. It’s like making pâté in slow motion. Whether or not our music improves, we do gain confidence, which is arguably more important.
It’s the night of the show, and the four-track we’re going to use to launch our Japanese art-rock careers is acting a little wonky. It will only record if it’s at a forty-five-degree angle. We duct-tape it to a shoe and hope for the best. The place is packed; even some of the GWAR guys are there. We’ve wrapped the birds’ cage in a large American flag, and I whip it off with a flourish to reveal Kitty Wells, Patsy Cline, and their keyboards. The stage lights hit them and they wake up, and Tim and I lay down what we know to lay down with maximum efficiency, allowing the birds to figure out their surroundings and come into the song with a bang.
The crowd erupts and for a moment we are all floating in the white light together, the birds and the band and the crowd. Then Kitty Wells pecks Patsy Cline right in the eye, opening up a blood spurt right across the tiny, white ivories on her toy piano. Someone in the crowd goes Ooooo and they all jump to their feet, edging closer to watch a spontaneous cockfight. We each grab a bird and stick its head under our left armpit while taking a deep bow. And that’s pretty much the end of it.
We check the tape the next night, and the recording messed up. The duct tape that was supposed to hold the shoe in place peeled off a layer of dirt instead, and the four-track settled at a bad angle. It’s a bummer, but after a performance like that, we shouldn’t have much trouble getting another gig, and we’ll make sure and tape that four-track to a clean shoe next time.
But I’m calling around looking for shows, and one of the guys from GWAR puts it to me straight, sort of: Listen, that show was a lot of fun, but you guys are not exactly headlining material. But nobody wants to go on after you, either.
The dejection seeps down into our bones. We take Kitty Wells and Patsy Cline back to a bemused farmer outside of town, and then the band breaks up. Tim moves to San Francisco, goes to grad school for art, and starts growing weapons-grade marijuana. And eventually I move to New York with no more sense of direction than I had when we started this band in college.
That’s where the story should end. Or it’s where the story really should have ended, if I could just let the past be the past. But late one night about ten years after Royal Quiet Deluxe’s tragic dissolution, I’m in a comic-book shop in Union Square and I see the Reverend Al Sharpton browsing the stacks. It’s surreal to find him here, a controversial civil-rights icon flipping through the latest Batman releases, and I just want to make a connection, to see if he remembers me and the band from that dinner a decade ago. To live on in the mind of someone that really matters, that’s a form of accomplishment itself. And it’s the only accomplishment Royal Quiet Deluxe has left.
I trail him, keeping my distance until he’s not near anyone else; then I sidle up to him and say, Reverend Sharpton? Is that you?
He looks at me, stunned, his eyes wide. I clarify: We had dinner together in Virginia about ten years ago, do you remember? I played the typewriter in that band with chickens that play toy pianos, and you gave an exceptionally moving speech after dinner, and I’ve wanted to shake your hand ever since.
He snaps out of his silence, his mouth working, then roars, Motherfucker, you think I look like Al Sharpton? He’s not Al Sharpton at all, I see now, just a heavyset guy with slicked back silver hair, a thick but neatly trimmed moustache, and a stylish velour tracksuit draped in gold chains. He yells, What the fuck? and my face ignites with shame. I drop my comics on the floor and bolt out into the night.
I know now, in 2014, what I wish I knew then: that closure is a story we tell ourselves, a momentary seizure of the ego, an attempt to reach back in time and rearrange events so that we look cool to ourselves and our self-image can carry on intact. When you have a strange vision you’re trying to turn real, loneliness and misunderstanding are just part of the process. If you’ve got a strange portal to something massive and wonderful, you’ve just got to yank that thing open on the regular any old way you can. You don’t need the real Al Sharpton or some phony Al Sharpton to approve of it, either.
People will not get you at first, but eventually they will—and they’ll act like they discovered you themselves or knew about you all along. Soon the whole world will warm their hands by your weird flame.
Listen to a recording of Royal Quiet Deluxe above.
Jeff Simmermon is a writer, storyteller, and stand-up comedian in Brooklyn. He has appeared on This American Life and won The Moth’s New York SLAM with a version of this story that you can watch here. He produces and performs in “And I Am Not Lying,” a show featuring stand-up, storytelling, and burlesque, at UCB East. Follow him on Twitter @jeffsimmermon.