In January of 1999 I got this killer job working at Amazon.com. Customer service. On the phones. It started out with a 10-week full time training course. I was the only person in my 30 person training class without a four-year degree. I had an in, though, and I am me. So I got the job.
Five weeks later I would arrive at the New American Shame practice space for my tryout. I was without a car during this time in my life, but for this first meeting I borrowed one. I got the gig and bought a bus pass. I was living on 46th between Wallingford and Ballard. My workplace was on 2nd Ave just north of Stewart in downtown Seattle. The practice space was south of the brewery just off Airport Way South. I was a bus riding mad man.
As it turned out, my first day on the phones was going to be the very morning New American Shame would, by that time, be scheduled to fly home from the South By Southwest Music Conference in Austin, Texas
I was really good at the customer service thing. Whenever we would write up mock responses to customer emails, the trainer would anonymously go through the class' attempts on an overhead projector, and talk about each one openly to find its strengths and weaknesses. Invariably when he got to mine, he'd sigh, and give a little 'tsk', "this one is perfect". It seems I had a knack for addressing people's problems and giving away free shipping.
At the same time the Shame was having all sorts of label guys just kind of showing up in town and coming down to our practice spot and taking us out to dinner. It was a great time. It wasn't until the SXSW date was confirmed that I started to foresee a conflict of candle burning. I had signed up for the early shift at Amazon, which started at 7 a.m. and went till 3 p.m.
The later shift would have cut into the evening hours too strongly, and while I'd never had much luck getting up early in any sort of consistent manner, I wasn't going to forgo practice, show and drinking time for any day job, regardless of how great the stock options were supposed to be.
I had been under the impression the NAS booking at SXSW was last minute and a little under the radar. That is not accurate. Here is what the Austin Chronicle had to say about our show in a big string of blurbs about the "name" acts performing at that year's conference.
NEW AMERICAN SHAME: The advance of New American Shame's debut advertises a March 9, 1999 release date, but the disc inside is all about 1989. Like Buckcherry, these Seattlites are unabashed Eighties cock-rock throwbacks with big guitars and bigger sing-along chorus. Do with that info what you will, but know that their loud 'n' proud live show may wind up the least appropriately titled "sleeper" at SXSW '99. (Steamboat, 1am) -- Andy Langer
We were flown down by Island Records, put up in a really fancy hotel. The lobby had glass elevators going up 30 stories. It was Texas huge. I have to be honest: the specifics of the timeframe of the stay are hazy at best. There was a lot of free booze. A LOT. Like a Texas lot. What I can piece together is we got there Friday went to the hotel. Like I said, was an amazing sight. It sticks out through the alcoholic haze as pretty startling.
We went out to dinner with our lawyer to some true barbecue joint - barrel of peanuts at the door and wood chips on the floor. It was the kind of place you walk through a kind of served buffet, pay, and then go find a picnic table to roost on while you make a mess. The talks with the lawyer were the first inkling I got that some folks other than the label that flew us in had heard of us and were putting us on their "must see" list.
I remember that night walking down Sixth Street with a blended something-or-other kind of fruity drink. I had yet to see New Orleans, so this was my first visit to an advanced culture. Walking around in public with a cocktail in hand came very naturally to me. I mentally made a note to put Austin on the short list of cities to end up in if I were ever run out of Seattle.
I remember the next day may or may not have started with a hangover. I DO remember going to lunch with our (presumably) soon to be label rep. There was talk of perhaps NOT drinking more free booze, but as our show that evening was not until 1 a.m. we were going to have plenty of time to drink before we needed to "worry" about sobering up for the show. So drink we did.
I was still the new guy. These guys had all known each other for ten and fifteen years. The singer and the lead guitar player even longer. But I had just come from Green Apple Quick Step and had not only taken a few plane trips for rock (this was three of the guys first), but I had showcased for the president of Columbia and also appeared on MTV. So I could hold my own, but I still wasn't about to be the drunkest person on stage during our shot.
As the afternoon wore on and we ran into more and more people who had us on their list, it became clear The Steamboat would be packed when we played. No one in the band was interested in over-indulging. I guess nobody wanted to be the weak link this night.
A few hours before we were to play I walked a block or so down the street from our venue and watched a former bandmate and good friend, Stephanie Wicker, play in her new band called The Western State Hurricanes. It was really cool hooking up with someone who had also toughed out the music thing and was getting to do some fun traveling.
I remember walking into the club while the band before us was still on. There was a good amount of people. The band was OK, but there was (what I know now was) a buzz in the room. You don't feel it very often. Maybe never, anymore - when expectation has exceeded what could possibly be reality, and all that is left is the static build up of anticipation; when a room full of people, as one, are bursting with the same hope, the hope that what they have been told, or heard, will at the very least not be bullshit.
It's something virtually impossible today. This was before YouTube, before MySpace, before camera phones, before texting. These were the days when a "mini hand held" camcorder could easily cost you more than a used car. I was the only one in our band who had a cell phone.
It was still possible to be astounded by something.
We took the stage and we started our show. It was feeling great. At almost the end of the first song we encountered a broken guitar string. It would have been no big deal for a touring label band with roadies and guitar techs, but for us that was still months away. We had no one helping us. At this point we were still just some guys from Seattle. There was confusion as we looked around helplessly for assistance. We weren't freaking out, but it would have been very easy to slip into un-professionalism to mask our growing embarrassment. Without warning Jonny Jams goes a capella, thundering over the growing murmur of the crowd...
"JONNY WAS A SCHOOL BOY, WHEN HE HEARD HIS FIRST BEATLES SONG"
It was terror for everyone of us on stage except Jams.
"What the FUCK is he doing?!!?'
"Shut him UP!!!"
"LOVE ME DO I THINK IT WAS AN FROM THERE IT DIDN'T TAKE HIM LONG...... BOUGHT HIMSELF A GUTAR, USED TO PLAY EVERY NIGHT," he continued.
By the time he ended the first verse we realized not only had someone come to the aid of our shoddy guitar string, but Jonny had knocked it the FUCK outta the park. By the time he got to the chorus, the crowd was singing so loud you could hardly hear the man leading. Looking back, it's clear, during the scramble and confusion to fix the guitar string, the crowd never left Jonny. And he knew it. The crowd finished their chorus and the applause was unleashed. We bathed in their cheering. We cheered right back at ‘em. It was a moment you can't plan for as a band nor expect as a observer. We had all shared it, so we all applauded.
We slammed into the second song of the set with the crowd in our pockets. I remember having a really good time. There was lots of funny, band only, non-verbal joking around. The band was loose and fast. Before I knew it, time for the last song had arrived. I had written little notes by some of the song titles on my set list because I'd really only been playing these songs for a month.
"AMERICAN SHAME," was set to be the finally. Scribbled next to it said:
None of the songs were rocket science, but I just sort of drew a blank. Thankfully, I didn't bat an eye. Kelly turns around to look at me to get the count. I start my four stick clicks that almost all the songs start out with, figuring I'd just pick up which song it was on the fly when whoever comes in first chimes. After my second stick click, Kelly comes in, and by my third stick click, the other three faces have turned towards me showing the same questioning look that Kelly's face was displaying.
The third stick click was my last. Kelly stops playing, and we all have a good laugh. We were having a great time. No label guys or record deal talk were going to change that.
"OHHHHH, THAT SONG"
I give two clicks and CRACK!! Kelly and I crash into "American Shame's" intro.
It didn't seem like a barnburner. I guess it was preparation meeting opportunity. I've heard and read since that we burned the place to the fucking ground.
When I got home on pre-dawn Monday morning, I called into work and was straight up with my supposed to be supervisor. I said I was still drunk and wasn't going to make it in. I told her the band had just returned from SXSW and were being flown to New York later that day. She said it sounded like I already had a job. I said I think you're right. I thanked her for being so cool about it and we hung up.
A few hours later, hungover and ears ringing, the band flew to New York to sign a record deal with Lava/Atlantic Records.
Drummer Geoff Reading - who writes a bi-weekly online column (Fridays) for the Weekly Volcano called "Holding Down the 253" in addition to his weekly Wednesday music column - has played music in tons of Northwest bands - Green Apple Quick Step, New American Shame, Top Heavy Crush and most recently Duff McKagan's LOADED - to name but a few. He's toured the world several times over, sharing stages with the likes of Slipknot, The Cult, Buckcherry, Korn, Journey, The Sex Pistols, Nine Inch Nails and on and on. He has called Tacoma home since 2005, and lives in the North End with his wife and son.