Tuned to Dead Channels: Background white-noise at Babes Lounge.
STANDARD HANDS: Marcus makes easy ambiance.
Walking into Babes Lounge at the Ho-Jo is like walking into a time warp.
There are stacks of old-school, not-cable-ready, wood-paneled televisions. Some are tuned to basketball games, chosen at haphazard; others are broadcasting static; the rest are turned off. It’s smoky here, very smoky. Occasionally you’ll overhear bits of conversations. Some bar chitchat involves something about business, people explaining why they’re in Knoxville, people hoping to sound more important than they actually are. Some men in suits sip their four-dollar beers, cloistered in the dark corners of the lounge. Then there are the regulars, ancient women, dancing hoochie-mammas, burnouts, seasoned drinkers, just people being people.
The whole scene’s adorned with strip club décor, the kind of kitsch that you’ll find in the old, forgotten lounges of Mafia-era hotels in Las Vegas. The stage has seen better years. The dim lights and the twinkling stars on the backdrop scream for a facelift. Yet it’s not terribly difficult to imagine a time when this kind of atmosphere was en vogue. Perhaps Babes Lounge takes us back to when Elvis had just played his Aloha From Hawaii comeback special, or when “Broadway” Joe Namath was out partying to celebrate his ’72 pro-bowl appearance.
There’s a scrolling marquee that reads, “Enjoy Live / Music.” It’s a bit hokey, but no one seems to care. The sound system plays a Blondie tune as the night’s band warms up. On stage are four guys who, at first glance, seem as hastily thrown together as their surroundings. They call themselves Spellbound. I don’t expect to be rocked hardcore. I don’t know what to expect. Maybe I’ll find something to joke about. I don’t plan to stay long.
But, when Spellbound begins its set, the music’s polished, not typical of most bands who play for half-empty rooms. These guys, I say to myself, they’re professionals. They pull off some classic favorites, those tunes that every oldies station in the country jams into its regular rotations—Sam and Dave’s “Soul Man,” the Beatles’ “Back in the USSR” and other rock epics.
“Why’s everyone looking at us?” quips Walter Moore, the guitarist and lead singer.
“ ’Cause you’re cute,” a woman cackles from the bar.
Spellbound’s performance is all about the fun of music, wrapped in a jubilant aura without any delusions of grandeur. They’re just doing what they love, and Moore is quick to point out that they enjoy a puerile form of enthusiasm. “You know we’re just fucking around up here,” Moore says. “Fucking around like we do keeps me young.”
There’s Chico Crawford on the keyboards, decked out with a stylish cowboy hat, while Robin Miller handles percussion. They aren’t a flashy rhythm section, but their disciplined talents give each song a steady, consistent backbeat. Many cover bands try to jazz up the songs they play, hoping to turn someone else’s genius into their own. But Spellbound goes another route, playing each number as it’s supposed to be played without any gimmickry or trickery. When bassist Ronnie Worthington sings “You Look Wonderful Tonight,” the sound is distinctly Eric Clapton, sung with a bluesy, calm, soothing voice.
It’s like listening to the radio, but it’s live. Spellbound is more of an homage band than a cover band, giving props to all the music that has become synonymous with American culture. They’re musical historians, content to play the stuff that makes us feel good, the stuff that is pure American legend.
“It’s what I’ve done since I was 16, and I’m 41 now,” Moore explains. “I had a chance to go out on the road and do other things, but I had kids. So, I didn’t want to leave [Knoxville], to make a long story short.”
Here, in an aging hotel that’s completely surrounded by road construction, there aren’t any famous people. The guys in Spellbound have been playing this gig for months, and they don’t have any immediate plans to do anything else. There’s a content emotional wave when they’re on stage, because they’ve found a little piece of music heaven, which seems all right by them.
“It’s decent money, and we’re all close to home. We got our mornings and afternoons open. I can spend time with my girlfriend, with my kids or something. I got that freedom, and then I come here, plug in my guitar and play for four or five hours,” Moore says, adding: “I was put here to play music, and that’s what I’m gonna do, man. I’m not gonna stop now.”
A pirate and a cowboy walk into Jiggers Lounge in the Budget Inn on Cedar Bluff.
“Hey, Amos,” the Cowboy says, “what’s the name of that black-liquorish shit you was talkin’ about?”
“Some kind of ouzo,” the Pirate says.
“Ouzo’ll fuck you up,” a boozy man at the bar yells, a comment not directed at anyone.
The band here calls itself Five O’Clock Somewhere. And, like any good cover band, its M.O. is have a good time or go home . I ask what they plan on playing, and they chime in unison, “We’re not sure yet.”
Frontman Rodney Yardley has been in the business forever, having toured with both Candy Cream and The News. He also has a European tour under his belt with the DOD, which is similar to the USO but, as Yardley explains, “doesn’t pay as well.”
He came back to Knoxville after a major burnout. “I was just tired of the road,” he says. “We did 100 weeks straight, and I was just over it.” But the grueling pace of life on the road never quashed his love of music. Yardley, along with bassist Steve Allen and drummer Mark Seals, has a more mature, albeit whimsical, approach to playing music.
“We try not to take it too seriously,” Seals says. “We never rehearse.”
They’re more content to ham it up on stage than to spend countless hours at practice sessions. Playing live is how they practice. The camaraderie of being on stage with good buddies and playing to a familiar crowd creates the feel of a house party. Unlike the other hotel lounges around town, Jiggers is more of a neighborhood bar. You won’t find any businesspeople talking shop or drinking away a bad sales trip. It’s an older crowd, sure, but here everyone has a pass to act a little juvenile.
“People enjoy us,” Seals says. “We have people come back every weekend. I don’t think it’s necessarily the music, it’s our attitude, the way we cut-up on stage. We’re for crowd participation and their enjoyment.”
Over at the pool tables, the Pirate makes a nice shot. “California queer,” the Cowboy says. “Son of a bitch.” And, to my right, the bartender says to her co-worker, “I’ve been in court a lot, suing people, trying to get my money, honey.”
It’s loud here. “You over the age of 18?” a man asks a random woman. “What’cha want, baby?”
Some drunken gentlemen at the Holiday Inn Select off Cedar Bluff are trying to chat-up the bartender with bad, slapdash jokes.
What d’ya call a man who passes out in front of a door? —— Matt. What d’ya call a man who falls in a pile of leaves? —— Russell. What d’ya call a quadriplegic who falls in a river? —— Bob.
“I got two grandkids,” one man says, “and she still cards me.” The bartender doesn’t seem to hear him and says, “What can I get you?” He says, “Tequila.”
One tequila, two tequila, three tequila, four. Four tequila, five tequila—I don’t want no more!
This lounge is swanky, more upscale than Babes Lounge. The people who’ve come down from their rooms to get a goodnight cocktail seem to like it. “It’s a good bar,” a tired businessman tells me. “I like it.” He then promptly finishes his drink and heads for the exit.
Overall the mood is subdued. There’s no rock’n’roll here. The clientele is more interested in liquid euphoria than the smooth jazz standards coming from the trio in the corner. I begin to wonder who the music is for. There’s no glory here. No groupies waiting for autographs. No thunderous applause. No undergarments thrown at the band.
There are only disinterested drinkers. Short, barely audible claps pitter away as each song ends. The only real ruckus comes from a large group in front of the television. They’re watching basketball. When their team scores after a few long, scoreless minutes, hoots and hollers overwhelm the trio’s rendition of “If I Only Had a Brain.” It’s adult-contemporary in the flesh. It’s a tasteless, odorless and colorless atmosphere. Not offensive, not particularly exciting.
“I think most people are here for the beer,” says Marcus Shirley, the house piano player.
Shirley’s playing with drummer James Pippin and saxophonist Terry Schmidt. Their style of play is highly technical, proficient, and unabashedly OK. It’s good, clean music, what you might expect to hear on an easy-listening station or in the lobby of a large office building. I wonder if this is a parody or just a cruel joke, reducing classic jazz to down-tempo ambient music. Everything feels sterile.
Then, Shirley begins playing “The Girl From Ipanema.” It somehow seems to fit the mood, as the soft, familiar tune plays in the background as we drink and, occasionally, check the basketball scores. This music, unlike the rock covers played by Spellbound and Five O’Clock Somewhere, sedates, with soft, almost apologetic tunes played behind a few puffs of smoke for beery wannabe sophisticates.
I talk to Shirley after his first set. He’s a bit terse and keeps asking what I’m planning on writing. “I like playing here,” he tells me, “but I’d like to do some recordings again.” He’s a dreamer, talking about his love of different styles of music. He dreams about writing music that’s completely new, something that’ll create new musical genres. Maybe he’s just looking for something that’ll make him famous. Maybe he just wants to tell me something that sounds impressive. Either way, it’s a noble, peaceful dream.
It’s also an old dream. Local jazz vets place Shirley among the most accomplished of jazz cats ever to call Knoxville home. If you go to 4620 and ask a jazzman over the age of 35 about Marcus Shirley, he’ll most likely have a story. Chances are they played together, back in the day.
But I can’t help singing “The Girl From Ipanema” in my head: Tall and tan and young and lovely The girl from Ipanema goes walking And when she passes I smile But she doesn’t see
Maybe, like the greenhorn comics at the bar, new age lounge lizards are all trying to find that sweet singular moment of peace. Like any of us, we often stumble around, use bad pick-up-lines, yell offensive remarks over a game of pool, dream big, play top-40 tunes, make awkward statements, and so it goes. Thank goodness there’s music everywhere, playing behind real-time, everyday drama, even over the boring parts, something to remind us of that fundamental human desire to sing and be heard. It may not always be my kind of music, but it’s always there, in the background.