30 Years of Rocking in Place

How not to become a star

We came to love the gigs and our audience. Eventually you stop thinking in terms of who is disabled and who isn't. It was sad when, come the Reagan era, it seemed that anyone who could pass the tie-my-shoelaces test was put out on the street. We found ourselves playing to increasingly non-ambulatory, non-responsive people, folks strapped to wheelchairs with protective helmets on their heads. But even they seemed more into it than many a bar or nightclub crowd we'd faced. And some of these seemingly checked-out people would still surprise you by singing entire Beatles' songs into their pocket combs.

We endured our shareof jokes from our peers about playing for a captive audience. Or it might seem to you like it's just an easy ego stroke to play for such a bunch. You can say that because you've never had a brain-damaged person tell you your singing sucked; I didn't say they were deaf. Eventually the Fairview crowd even decided they preferred having a mobile DJ to us, and we were out on the street, without even Reagan to blame.

There came some sad years when we were forced to play for our fellow journalists and other losers. Then, a couple of years ago, I heard about Integrity House through Los Lobos' David Hidalgo when the band did a benefit concert for them. The north Fullerton organization is a "clubhouse" in which persons with brain trauma and developmental disabilities help each other to become independent (you can read more about them in News, page ??). Our kind of people!

Now we play dances for them every couple of months, and that's as close to an arena as I ever need to get. I've known so many bands that had business plans tacked to their rehearsal studio walls, plans assuming they'd be signed in a year and stars within two. Particularly around the industry town of LA, they would actually avoid playing music for people—which is sort of what music is all about—because they didn't want to "overexpose" themselves.

Let me put it this way: if you're looking to strike it rich in music, you're the only moron in this story. You aren't going to make it, and if you do you'll probably get screwed. In the meantime, you've got your whole reason for playing music ass-backwards. The respected musicians I've met who do make a craftsman's living in music—like the guys in Lobos—play from their hearts, for people, not from a business plan.

We've been fortunate to have real musicians augment our lineup—Chris Gaffney and members of his band, the T-Birds' Stephen Hodges, and others—guys who sure aren't getting rich in the kinds of things you can hold on to. At a recent show, an autistic woman who'd only sat and rocked for two years, wordless, suddenly came up to the microphone and led us in a six-minute version of "The Hokey Pokey." Does that factor into your business plan?

Integrity House's 70 members have their own anthem, to the tune of the Monkees' theme, with the main refrain being, "Hey, hey we're the Droolers!" They've learned to laugh at themselves before anybody else has a chance to, not a bad defense mechanism in a world that often makes them feel unwelcome. The lease on their current property is up, and they got the cold shoulder from Fullerton's redevelopment agency when they tried to relocate downtown. When they do move to a less-ideal location in the next few weeks, they could use some help, as well as donations of records and CDs for the store they plan to open. If you're interested, call (714) 526-9154 or e-mail cdmello1@msn.com.

What do I get out of playing thesegigs? More than I give. It's nice to be appreciated, to play for people who dance and enjoy it. But mainly the shows are humbling to me. Humbling to see people with so much less doing so much, to see so much openhearted sharing and hope from people whom life has whacked with its trouble stick. There but for fortune go you or I, Irene, and I can only hope we'd handle it with as much grace.

These dances are a great spot check for someone who spends as much time as I do obsessing over whether I'm cool. I'll be thinking, "Gee, I hope this solo makes Gaffney look upon me with newfound admiration," and then I'll notice some wheelchair-bound girl on the dance floor. She's out there trying with whatever she has to move to the music. She doesn't care if you look cool or not, and she makes it just about impossible for you to care anymore, either.

Instead, you just rock, and it doesn't ever have to go anywhere but right there.

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