That autumn my childhood friends and I started to go our separate ways. Hal The Drummer left for college, and so did Sherri. We hadn’t dated for months, but I still pined for her. Andi took off for our new art school in Savannah, but I was late with my paperwork and had to sit out the fall quarter.
I moved back in with my parents to save money for art school. Calhoun left for the Marines, and Jarod let our Alabama Street place go. He moved into a small apartment that backed up to the railroad tracks. When the freight trains rumbled past the whole place shook.
Lee G. and I spent our evenings at Jarod’s place or hanging out on the steel skeleton of the abandoned trestle bridge near our parents’ houses. And when we weren’t drinking Jarod’s beer or crawling through the kudzu we were at The Dawg.
Dawg Gone might have been one of the strangest music venues ever. The Dawg was a freestanding restaurant near Hillcrest, Spartanburg’s forgotten shopping mall. As the name suggests, during the day the joint served hot dogs and burgers, but in the evening The Dawg was the place to be.
If you were up and coming or down but still rocking in the eighties and you stopped in Spartanburg you played The Dawg. Taj Mahal played there — Taj Fucking Mahal sharing a roof with a weenie steamer.
That’s how it is, though. We tend to deify artists because their music (or writing, painting, etc.) means so much to us. We disconnect them from reality. Surely Taj Mahal doesn’t have to play with shouts of “order up!” interrupting his set! Such a venue is beneath him! But only a rare few don’t have to hustle to keep the bills paid — the rest are just trying to make ends meet. Simply being Taj Mahal doesn’t keep the lights on.
Anyway, The Dawg wasn’t about blues legends. No, it was the heart of what looked to be Spartanburg’s first local music scene since the Marshall Tucker Band heard it in a love song, and at the epicenter was Dawg Gone’s unofficial house band, Matthew Knight and the Days.
Matthew was a tall, skinny dude with a mod haircut and a crooked smile. He played a hollow-bodied Telecaster slung low, and his bass player could walk it every bit as well as Duck Dunn. He had special tuning peg on his E string that ratcheted down to a D at the flick of a switch. He’d hit it in the middle of a solo and we’d all “whoo!” like he’d busted out some Geddy Lee shit. We were a great home town crowd.
The played upbeat, borderline cowpunk –beating it out in 4/4 time with maybe one rail too many in the can before the show. I’m talking tempo here, not literal substance abuse. I have no idea what happened in the head prior to showtime, all I know is that when Matthew Knight started rocking we started dancing, and we didn’t stop until he stopped.
And that’s what those nights were about: try to lie our way to a few beers, push the tables out of the way and dance. The single greatest thing to come out of the post-punk/new wave era was permission to dance without shame. During the mid-eighties anybody could dance and it was okay.
Sure, you could buy Alfonso Ribeiro’s Breakin’ and Poppin’ and learn how to breakdance the safe way, but that’s not what I mean. Also, you’d look like an asshole. No, what I mean is that it was okay to sway, pogo, or jump around like a marionette caught in a ceiling fan. If nothing else you could get up and do that Molly Ringwald dance , the one that Bruce does with Cougar Town in the “Dancing in the Dark” video.
Lee G. liked to pantomime shaking water out of his ear. Our buddy John opted for a kind of low key skip, shoulders slouched and hands buried in his pockets. I was the trapped marionette, arms whirling while I jumped, spun, skipped. Matthew rocked and we danced until our tank tops soaked through and our lips stuck to our teeth. There was no greater feeling than dancing.
“We’re going to take a break but y’all stick around,” Matthew said, and we walked over to our table to polish off our ill-gotten beers. A small piece of folded paper rested on top of my notebook. I need to know who you are, it read, along with a phone number. Well, there was one feeling better than dancing.
The next day I called the number.
“Hi, who is this?” I asked.
“Who is this?”
I paused. “Did you leave your number on my table last night?”
“Oh my god, I didn’t think you’d call,” she said.
“Do we know each other?”
“No, I just saw you and you looked so cool that I wanted to talk to you. I’ve never done anything like that.” See? Anybody can dance.
We agreed to meet at the art museum because, well, if you’re going to have a John Hughes moment where else are you going to meet? Her name was Lillian, and she was so painfully shy that she spent the afternoon trying to disappear into her overcoat. We walked through the museum. I looked at the art and she looked at me.
I should have been thrilled. All of those years on the outside: the high school battering, the shock and awe assault on my self esteem. Now this cute little girl was peeking at me from behind the upturned collar of her overcoat, and for no other reason than I was the guy in the funny clothes who danced joyously, shamelessly, like a happy child.
But I wasn’t thrilled, I was uncomfortable. I did not deserve this girl’s attention. I was nothing – a fool, a loser, an embarrassment. I never called her again.
A couple of years later The Bus Boys played a club in Savannah. Their claim to fame was 48 Hours, the Eddie Murphy movie, in which they played the bar band. They were an all black band, but their music had mass appeal, a sort of rolling piano boogie reminiscent of early rock and roll. Even in that era, when the rock vs. dance music wars will still fresh, it was okay for anybody to love The Bus Boys.
I couldn’t find anyone to go with, so I went by myself. The band was already on stage when I arrived at the club, so I ran to the front and started dancing: marionette limbs flailing, pogoing, jumping, shuffling from one end of the dance floor to the other; nothing but the childlike joy of music and motion.
When the song ended I realized that I was the only one on the dance floor. The entire crowd sat around small cocktail tables — the entire black crowd. My eyeballs switched to fish-eye vision and the whole club burst into breathless laughter. I turned to the stage and The Bus Boys were laughing, too. Lead singer Brian O’Neal took on the generic “black guy impersonating a white guy” voice and said, “All right! Let’s go dancing!”
The crowd ate it up. I ran out of the club as quickly as I ran in. This was more like it. This was the kind of reaction I deserved. I never danced in public again.