Friday, October 29, 2010

A Mansion With A Motor

It is not too often that I am speechless and/or starstruck, but it does happen. Several years ago, while visiting some friends in Nashville, I was invited to tag along with them to a charity benefit being held at a place called Green's Grocery in historic Leiper's Fork, TN. Kim Carnes ("Betty Davis Eyes") was the headliner, and she would be backed by various Nashville-area session players.  It sounded like a great time to me. 


Green's Grocery is just what the name implies–an old grocery/country store.  Over the years it had become a place where local musicians and Nashville bigshots would gather for the informal picking sessions for which country music is famous. Someone in the music business eventually bought the place and made music–not groceries–the focal point.  It's a small place that probably holds no more than 100 people, but it attracts some world-class talent.


It was bitterly cold on this particular December night, with intermittent snow. Dinner was part of the deal and was being served in a tent out behind the store. There was a roaring fire going in an outdoor fire pit, and the heat it generated was more than sufficient to chase away the cold.  This had all the makings of a great evening.

We staked out our table in the little store-turned-performance hall and went outside to the tent to get our supper.  As we were moving through the buffet line, I scanned the crowd.  I didn't expect to see anyone I knew, but I did see someone who looked decidedly different from the rest of this well-heeled crowd. He was a big ol' fella wearing sweatpants and looking a little disheveled.  "Hmmm," I thought, "he must be Kim Carnes' roadie or something."  He was about five or six people ahead of me in line and I couldn't see his face, but when he turned the corner and I got a good look at him, I was dumbstruck.  "Holy s**t, that's Al Anderson!" I thought to myself.  

Now, I have met and been around people who are a whole lot more famous than Al Anderson and I have never had a heart-stopping reaction to any of them like I had when I found myself in close proximity to the man described as "300 pounds of smokin' steel and sex appeal."
Big Al!
Al Anderson was a  longtime member and lead guitarist for NRBQ, easily my all-time fav-o-rite band.  Billed as "The World's Greatest Bar Band," NRBQ for five decades explored all the nooks and crannies of rock and roll before formally disbanding earlier this decade. While active they attracted a cult-like following and garnered the respect of every musician who ever heard them play. NRBQ's demise began when Anderson, tired of life on the road and eager to develop his songwriting talents, left the band after a New Year's Eve show in 1993.  However, he was for twenty-two years the Q's big man on guitar.


I couldnt begin to guess how many times I saw NRBQ play live in bars all over the East Coast.  Anderson was always there, set up on the left side of the stage with a huge fan blowing on him in a hopeless attempt to keep his Big Al body cool. 

And now here he was, ten feet away from me, literally and figuratively larger than life.  A scan of the crowd indicated to me that no one else seemed to have any idea that this music legend was amongst them.  Maybe these Nashville people were so used to having music royalty in their midst that this was nothing out of the ordinary, but I would rather talk to Al Anderson than just about any other musician I can think of.  I could not let this opportunity pass.

What to say?  I didn't want to be a dork or have him think me an obsessed fan because it has always been my opinion that famous people like nothing more than being treated normally.  If I were going to say something, I would have to be cool about it.

By this time the dinner line had split so that people could attack the buffet from both sides. He was directly across from me.  If didn't say something right then I would regret it for the rest of my life.

"Al?", I said shakily. 

He looked up, eyed me warily, an uttered a very noncommital, "Hey."

"Please don't think I am a nutjob or anything, but I just wanted to say hello and ask you a question if that would be alright." Unfortunately, I hadn't really had much of a chance to rehearse this conversation in my mind, so even though I told him that I had a question, I didn't exactly have one queued up. 

After a few seconds of silence I managed to think of something.

"I am a giant NRBQ fan (TOTAL DORKINESS) and I wanted to ask you about a song I heard you guys play but that I have never found on any of your albums."  I lived in Washington DC in the late 80s and NRBQ used to make a regular stop at a place in Georgetown called The Bayou, which was located on K Street under the Whitehurst Freeway. It was a dingy old spot but it was to D.C. what the Fillmore was to San Francisco.  It was an integral part of the District's music scene. 
D.C.'s own Nighthawks pose on the roof of the late, great Bayou music club.
One night at the Bayou I heard them play a song called "Hotel Coupe deVille."  I loved it and looked for it on every new NRBQ album.  I never found it.  This was my chance to find out about that song.

"I heard you guys play a song called 'Hotel Coup deVille' at the Bayou one time but have never heard you play it since and have never seen it on any album you ever released.  Was that song ever recorded?", I asked, realizing that asking him about an obscure song I had heard them play once almost twenty years ago might reinforce the notion that I could be a candidate for a restraining order.

Now it was his turn to be dumbstruck. Al, fairly or not, has something of a reputation for surliness so I half expected him to blow me off. 

"You know," he said, "I wrote that song and we only played it live one time. I guess it was that night.  I can't believe that you remember it."

I explained to him that I loved the story of the guy living in his car–a Coupe deVille– but what made the song memorable to me was the line that the car was a "mansion with a motor."   I loved that line and have used it many times since then to describe overly-roomy sedans.
1974 Cadillac Coupe deVille, large enough indeed to be a "mansion with a motor."
He went on to tell me that the song had been recorded by various artists and that, thanks to my reminder, he might just play it that night. Sweetness!  I wished him well and left him to eat his dinner in peace, at the same time mentally flogging myself for my failure to be cool and indifferent. 

 
Kim Carnes was great, but Al Anderson–even in a subordinate role–was better.  Kim would sing a song or two and then one of her backing musicians–all respected session players–would grab the mike to sing one of their songs.  When one of these guys got his turn at the mic, his first words were not a thank you to Kim but instead this:

"My brother is not gonna believe that I shared the stage with Al Anderson tonight!" 

Poor Kim Carnes.  She never had a chance.  

A few songs later, former Doobie Brother and current Leiper's Fork resident Michael McDonald popped out of the crowd to sing a few songs.  Finally, Kim gave us her signature song, closing the evening with "Betty Davis Eyes" in that great smoky voice of hers.  We hung around the bonfire for a little bit afterwards and relived the night's fun.  In the parking lot we ran into Big Al.  He hadn't played my song, but it didn't matter.  We wished each other Happy Holidays and as he drove off into the snowy night, I thought to myself, "How cool was that?"

He still occasionally takes the stage, but mostly spends his time writing hit songs for others.  Like NRBQ itself, Al Anderson is unknown to most of the public.  To his musician brothers and to my fellow NRBQ fans however, he is a titan.
"Three hundred pounds of smoking steel and sex appeal."

P.S. For those of you who might care, "Hotel Coupe deVille" can be found on iTunes.  A band called the Riptones recorded a more "countrified" version of the song, but the lyrics are all there with the exception of the "mansion with a motor" line.  Dang it.

6 comments:

  1. Great story ! I've seen "Big Al" perform many times with NRBQ . Never got a chance to actually speak to him. Saw him walking down the street once in NYC before a gig with his hair wet like he just came of the shower . He was so imposing that I dared not even say hello . From what I've read and been told he's really a sweet guy .

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  2. The last four or five New Years Eves I have been lucky enough to be in the presence of onstage greatness. Big Al plays a gig either in Northampton, MA or as he did last year in Hartford, CT. He is backed up by a fantastic band and he is still the on stage force of nature that he has always been.

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  3. Good story. I grew up two town away from Big Al and from the time I turned 13 he was always there - in one capacity or another. As a musician, I have to say that I've learned more from him and that band than any other individual or group. And yeah, he IS a nice guy - and finally approachable.

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  4. Al Anderson! By total coincidence, two weeks ago I downloaded from iTunes the awesome Big Al tune, "If you get your wish." I was building my digital library of music I loved as a younger man and was making sure I had all the NRBQ hits, when I recalled that song, which I had not thought of in 15 years or so. I played it for my kids and have been enjoying it. I highly recommend the download to anyone who likes good R&B.
    Separately, I have my own Al Anderson story. In about 1981, NRBQ was playing a party at the Country Club of Virginia (unlikely spot). I was walking down the hallway there several hours before the party and I heard some pretty sweet classical piano coming from one of the ballrooms. I peaked in the door and there was a large bearded fellow seated behind a big grand piano, playing some orchestral tune with his eyes closed, swaying and feeling the music. It was none other than Big Al. It took a moment for me to register, since I was used to seeing him sweaty and holding a Telecaster.
    He's a talented dude.

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  5. Nice little memory slice, but you should know that the Q never "formally disbanded." They simply ceased playing for several years, until Terry Adams re-created them with new personnel, currently active and sounding great.

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  6. Thankfully, in January 2012 Al released this tune (Hotel Coupe DeVille) on an album titled "Strings". I've been a fan of Al's since he played with the Wildweeds and would frequent our teen center across the river in Enfield, CT. They were largely a cover band then but still the best I've heard. Ironically, he dated my wife's best friend for some time. I'm sure some songs came out of that relationship.

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