Wednesday, October 1, 2008

Parting with the Red Sea


Beatle Bob has the following to say about the closing of The Red Sea:

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One of the best-kept secrets of fine St. Louis music clubs: The Red Sea closed its door last week. Despite being located in the ultra-popular University City Loop (directly across the street from the legendary Blueberry Hill), the club at times had trouble garnering the big crowds it deserved for booking some of the better up-and-coming local and national bands.

The Red Sea had been around for at least 20 years and booked acts simultaneously at both of their stages: upstairs and their basement club. The downstairs club had been coverted from a storeroom and put into use about 10 years ago. However, you'd be surprised how many regular U-City loop denziens never knew the Red Sea had a downstairs music venue.

What even fewer people knew is that the Red Sea booked a ton of of alternative rock acts, ranging from punk, heavy metal, roots-rock, power pop and more. Because the louder acts were booked in the Red Sea's basement, people walking by the Red Sea's spacious window space could only see the club's regular booking of blues, funk, and some folk music, never realizing that downstairs some young and wild kids were kicking out the jams.

The Red Sea was known for being the bastion of local reggae bands, as well as some national reggae acts, since its inception. They also had one of the finest open mic nights in St. Louis. It featured an excellent house band that any musician-singer could jump on stage and perform. Even if the guest musician had an original song, the band was so good it would immediately back the song up with superb instrumentation without being obtrusive to the artist's song.

The club, unfortunately, went downhill on its once-quality food, service and cleanliness, but they did have a wonderful bar staff and I deeply appreciated the chance they gave to the newer local rock & roll bands and their continuing support of reggae music. I hope the Red Sea's owner - Tesafye Boru - can make a comeback with a better dining experience plan and better promotional support of the acts he would book again.

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My first rock band Enormous Richard cut our teeth at The Red Sea. Here is what I remembered of those days in a music memoir I worked on a few years ago:

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Partying the Red Sea
Enormous Richard grew up at the Red Sea by leaning drunkenly on another, younger, more popular band.
The Suede Caesars were all seniors at Wash. U. when we were delinquent graduate students and guys with degrees but not much direction. They were also flat-out handsome boys whose looks fit into different archetypes.

Mike, the drummer, had your conventional dark, trim-cut good looks. Tom, the guitarist, had the languid charm of a lank, redheaded Irishman. Jeff, the bassist, was a blonde guy who could pass as a girl, his features were so fine. And Fred, the frontman, was enigmatic and hirsute, with kinetic potential and a shy smile that seemed to torment the ladies (though a fellow male wondered if he wasn't just a bit simple).
Between them, they aroused every kind of desire a woman could feel for a young white guy, short of a muscle fetish. So a Suede Caesars gig was swamped with girls. A gig that is swamped with girls, as every bouncer at a velvet rope knows, will eventually be swarmed by guys. These were madhouse nights. One night the Red Sea actually, literally, sold out of beer.
Someone in our band had the inspired idea that we should split sets with the Caesars: they play, we play, they play, we play. That way, the girls (and all the guys swarming them) would stick around for the Caesars' second set, drinking the whole time. By then, it would be too late for them to defect elsewhere, so they would stay for our second set, too, and be drunk enough, one hoped, to truly enjoy it.

In a band story of dumb luck and happy accidents, this may have been the master strategic stroke. It forced an entire generation of local college students to hear our songs when drifting on the dreams of alcohol. For us, it was like getting paid to practice, with free drinks, in front of beautiful people. No graduate seminar could compete with that. It was what kept us together long enough to get any good.
Joe, our bassist, the lost Ramone in lowcut black Chuck Taylors, needed endless repetition to play any song with confidence. He got that at the Red Sea.

Elijah picked up new instruments like we picked up allusions in a poem, effortlessly. But, as with most natural talents, his attention tended to wander - unless there was a woman on the other end of his banjo, watching him learn how to play it. He got that at the Red Sea.

Skoob, still a chipmunk, was sure to stay put for free beer (he got that at the Red Sea, after a struggle).

As a ploy to keep Matt, "just one more gig" was more effective the more fun each gig turned out to be, and the Red Sea was definitely fun.

Marshall was a fully formed performer when we found him, but the Red Sea gave him a forum for his more theatrical flourishes, such as dabbing on the occasional dash of eye shadow in imitation of his New Wave idols.
As for me, I can't say the Red Sea helped my singing, because I never heard myself sing there. Our rented sound system and the guys who ran it never could feed a decent monitor mix back to the band. But a crowded room with nothing at stake gave me the nerve to act like a frontman. I began to dance, if you could call it that, and make a spectacle of myself.

This wasn't show business, but it became a kind of show business workshop that met in the middle of the night, attendance optional but more or less guaranteed, and refreshments provided.
When I close my eyes and revisit the Red Sea, the songs I hear are two I didn’t sing, perhaps because they gave me a chance to squirm my way toward a beer, listen to our band, and bask in all the beauty.
"Looking Hip (in the Gaza Strip)" was a song we wrote collectively. It's a trust fund travelogue transposed to the Middle East. It takes a poke at all the rich kids who get to take the Grand Tour, but come back with nothing but partying stories, dude. Marshall flushed it out with big, corny chords in imitation of tourism commercials, and wrote a melody too lush for me to sing, so he took center mike.
You've been to Europe, yeah, you've seen it all
You even smoked a bowl in the Taj Mahal
You sat in St. Paul with a hit on your lip
But your goal this summer is to be looking hip
In the Gaza Strip

You're on a plane to the Middle East
The flight attendant comes by and she's pushing a feast
She's got a Molotov cocktail and an Arab flambé
You flip up your shades and order Perrier
Walking down the street you see a kid on a bus
Waving a machine gun and he's making a fuss
But his handkerchief would look good on your head
Playing hackysack and checking out the Dead

You bend to tie your shoe, a rock misses your face
You really think the fireworks are great in this place
U.S.-made bombs are dropping again
But you can't hear a thing because your Walkman's on ten
And Iran would be heaven
If you could only get it cranking up to eleven
Beirut would be just swell
If you could only get it cranking up to twelve
Libya would be just keen
If you could only crank it to thirteen


If you were in a campus band in 1989, you either played neo-hippie jams or had a song that ridiculed the phenomenon. Phish had just released their first album, and the Grateful Dead were still riding the "Touch of Grey" wave into the hearts of feckless college kids everywhere. Ayatollah Joe had written the definitive lampoon, "Great Fat Neck", a road song about "a suburban kid from the right side of the tracks" and his "bloodshot blonde" who "got caught up in the hippie revival - glad they brought it back!"

"The Chemistry Song" was Skoob's greatest hit, a send-up of his college major that was certain to connect with anyone who had ever spent a semester on campus. I am lost in the Red Sea, flirting with a drunken undergrad, as Skoob lurches to the mike, notches a borrowed cigarette into the tuning pegs of his acoustic guitar, and sings his story.

Well, I walked right into freshman chem on that first fateful day
Should have had a drop slip in hand, but no, I had to stay
It’s only now that I see the sign that you tried to give me, Lord
When the doc walked in and said today we're gonna learn all about Niels Bohr-ing

Lord, why chemistry?
Why'd you let me do this to me?

When it deals in parts per million and that's much too small to see
Lord, why chemistry?

I walked into organic lab, I threw my books down on the slab
And looked at the directions on the sheet
The chlorination of
dimethyl pentane was the subject for the day
And I thought this would be real neat
So I got
sulphuric chloride and some carbon tetrachloride
And I pulled out my microorganic kit
And I poured some
benzoyl peroxide in a test tube
But only after sneaking a small portion on a zit

Well, the reaction apparatus looked like something
Out of science fiction magazine (a real pain in the ass)
But by five o’clock I had it looking something like the picture
But was poorer fifty bucks for broken glass
And when dinner time finally rolled around
The T.A.’s were nowhere to be found
But I went ahead and mixed up the reagents
And I put them in a water bath and heated for an hour
And ended up with a test tube full of … air


We learned just about everything we needed to know at the Red Sea — except for the small matter of what we actually sounded like. Without a monitor mix, our sound was a mystery. The one thing that matters most to most bands, which musicians obsess over, which inspires them to invest thousands of dollars in equipment and live sound engineers, and provokes them to scrutinize tapes of shows, pondering how to improve themselves — how the band sounds — was absolutely unknown to us.

We just plugged in, played, drank, got paid, flirted, perhaps got laid, dumped our pathetic pile of gear into our cars and then parted ways, until the next "one more gig" brought us together again.

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The picture is a road scene from the Enormous Richard van, not long after the Red Sea days.

2 comments:

Tomatohead said...

RIP Red Sea and here's to some incarnation of it rising again.

Abee said...

So sad. I just found out this week the red sea closed... I havent been that way for a while but I spent many a new years eves in the Red Sea basement