A television commercial promoting Las Vegas is the insidious cause of my most recent nightmares.
The spot is flashy and frenetic and features a couple of sexy beauties who seem to be having the time of their lives amid the lights and shiny objects that comprise their environment in Sin City. What have they done, I wondered, to deserve such uninhibited joy? What god have they been serving and praying to in order to have reached such heights of ecstasy?
We first see him only from the back. He is standing upright and looks enormous. It turns out his feet are upon a revolving platform, and soon enough that platform turns to reveal his visage to us all.
There’s just enough of Wayne Newton’s face remaining to allow us to identify him but exactly what those bits are I’m shamefully unable to define.
The skin itself looks to have been polished to a lustrous shine, resembling something between what comprises the heads of figures in a wax museum and the result of reconstructive surgery on a burn victim. It nearly passes – but doesn’t quite ace – the reality test.
The eyes, which once lit up with excitement or joy and seemed on occasion to be capable of laughter, are now like two tiny static pinlights illuminating something unfeeling and robotic, revealing so very little that one would be forgiven to assume that there’s no longer anything there at all.
The mouth is the scariest. They’re always the scariest, mouths. Each corner seems to have been tugged as close as possible toward the lobe of its neighboring ear, flattening and increasing the size of the lips in the process. It’s now merely a double-ribbed, dark slash on a fleshy reflective surface with one expression; it seems to say, “Me happy. You be happy like me. Come to Las Vegas or me kill you. Kill, kill.” It is, as writer Robert Bloch once so perfectly expressed, The Clown at Midnight. That mouth begins to smile and I’m nearly gone…
Who are these people – these fans and advisors – who tell Wayne Newton and Dolly Parton and Joan Rivers and Richard Chamberlain and Mickey Rourke that they’re actually “lookin’ good”? Let me retain whatever sanity I have so that I can recognize the futility and horror of artificial faces created by a surgeon’s scalpel, faces to which a public immersing itself in risk and greed can’t be bothered to give a second thought. If this is Vegas, folks, count me out. Even if your noisy hustle and bustle could adequately dilute my screams of ripping terror, I’d rather grow old in a more natural way, while enjoying the things I’ve always loved.
Which brings me to what I’m most happy to tell you about this month: some lovely music being made by some real, surgically unaltered people who were making music together in San Diego 41 years ago. They’re back this month. I should say, “We’re back,” to be correct since I happen to be a part of it.
It actually started two years before even that. It was 1971 and I was in the cast of the first American rock opera, Plymouth Rock, created, composed, and directed by Scott Busath, produced by Michael Brosseau, and presented at the music hall Earth on Garnet Avenue in Pacific Beach. It was in that show that I first met the Troubadour’s Kent Johnson, aka Phil Harmonic (who played the part of Miles Standish), and musician Craig Ingraham (who played a Mr. Carver). Craig and his girlfriend Debora Masterson eventually moved back to Los Angeles where they had both grown up and in 1973 began recording an album of his own compositions at Sunset Sound in Hollywood. To augment the band he formed in L.A., he pulled up from San Diego flutist Maxxine Sherman and Kent and me (also playing violin at the time) to join Debora as his backup singers. (On keyboards was a 17-year-old whiz named David Benoit, who eventually made it really big!)
After recording the album Craig Ingraham Freedom Quest, Craig decided to take the band on the road and curiously at that time “the road” somehow meant San Diego. So beginning in the early summer of ‘73, we played several outdoor concerts, opening for Dan Hicks and His Hot Licks at a racetrack in Chula Vista, at a shopping center inauguration in North County, twice at the Starlight Bowl, and as part of a one-day festival in Ocean Beach (we called it “O.B.-stock” and there are 8mm highlights on YouTube – craigingrahamfreedomquest). In October the band broke up, then Craig and Deb parted ways (she would end up touring with Sammy Davis Jr. in the show Sammy Stops the World; Craig hung out awhile in L.A. where, before moving to Hawaii, he and Freedom Quest’s percussionist Sodie Arcia were profiled in Playboy magazine and worked with Barry White.) Save for Kent, Maxxine, myself, and our indispensable roadie Stan Stafford, we lost touch with each other for several decades.
It was around the turn of the century when I caught up with Craig, who had moved permanently back to Los Angeles from Hawaii. He confessed to still having a big hole in his heart that Deb had burned; I told him I felt they were destined to be together – a very rare example of insight actually issuing from my heart and lips. Within a short time, the two ran into each other in a bank parking lot. Deb had married many years before and was the mother of two strapping sons. Within another short amount of time, Deb and Craig set up household together and have been together ever since.
I’ve spent many happy and productive times visiting them in the Valley, learning Craig’s new songs and harmonizing with Deb. With our old “beatmaster” Sodie and the addition of a bassist, Omar Ramirez, we have become the Craig Ingraham Band.
So… 41 years later, we’re happy to be back and we’ve got two gigs this month I wanted to tell you about: on Saturday June 28th, we’ll be playing a concert at Bird Park (that’s the northeast corner of Morley Field in Balboa Park) at 5:30pm. Interestingly, this is our first encounter with an “originals only” policy in San Diego – out of concern, I take it, about BMI and ASCAP. While we only have four or five “cover songs” in our repertoire, not being able to do them kind of upset me since I’m the lead singer on a couple of them, as Deb is on the others. Craig himself has been a member of ASCAP for ages and is working with Deb to gather the necessary clearances (two of which have come through at press time, thankfully.)
And somewhat wilder is our being chosen as finalists in the Battle of the Bands at the San Diego County Fair on the day before, Friday the 27th. This is something I’m really looking forward to – this group of grizzled geezers sharing the stage with a lot of musicians who could be our grandchildren, all playing music our own ways in a friendly public massacre – excuse me, battle… on that day, in a young person’s world, we’ll be doing what we love, what we were doing 41 years ago, wrinkles and all. There shouldn’t be a dry eye (or Depends undergarment) in the house.