Friday, August 10, 2012

We Played for the President

by Dan Cunneen

The Nightcaps are a band I put together with my pals Theresa, Garth and Bill in the mid-nineties. We wore 1960s outfits and did our best to reconstruct mid-twentieth century pop, jazz and torch. There were tons of like-minded people that mined thrift stores for old records and listened to “Music of Your Life” radio stations, so in a relatively short amount of time our garage-y lounge band gained a pretty healthy following.

Having primarily played in punk-rock bands, I didn’t know about the private party market for musicians until I got a call from a guy that told me he was a producer for the CBS show “Northern Exposure”. I was so ignorant of the opportunities available to a band like ours that I thought someone was playing a joke on me. After a few reassuring words however, I was convinced. The show, which was filmed in a small town east of Seattle, was having that season’s “wrap party” and they wanted the Nightcaps to play.

“How much do you charge?” the producer asked.

I’d never been in this position before, so I was flummoxed by the question. “Uh, $500,” I said, with my reply sounding more like a question. He readily agreed to my request.

Although the top stars on the show weren’t in attendance, our first foray into private parties went well. Curiously, at the end of the night the producer gave me a check for $750 instead of the agreed upon $500. I could only guess that I had underbid for our services and they kindly threw $250 our way. I learned a valuable lesson I would put to use many times later: Start high and then go down.

While playing in clubs up and down the west coast, the Nightcaps continued to perform at events for titans of Pacific Northwest industry like Nike, Starbucks, and Microsoft. The money we made from private parties gave us some pocket change and allowed us to pay for expenses like our van, recording, and practice space.

In the fall of 1997, right around the time Linda Tripp secretly began taping conversations in which Monica Lewinsky detailed her affair with President Clinton, the Nightcaps were asked to play a fundraiser for Senator Patty Murray in Seattle. The offer came about when a guy that worked in Senator Murray’s office saw the Nightcaps play at Seattle’s Crocodile Cafe. The staffer thought we would be perfect for the benefit, so word was passed to our booking agent.

After talking to Patty’s people, our agent found out two things. First; our services would be considered a donation and second; William Jefferson Clinton, the 42nd President of the United States, would be in attendance. Despite the lack of pay, we decided to go ahead and take the gig.

While most of the band member’s political leanings were to the left of liberal, we had no problem playing for a Democratic politician. As least Democrats pretended to care about the lesser moneyed while kissing the feet of their jack-booted corporate paymasters. The Nightcaps did have some ethics however. We would never consider playing a Republican fundraiser. Also, we had previously been asked to play a high paying event for the then notoriously right wing and anti-gay Coors Beer Company. We gleefully refused.

A few weeks prior to the gig, Senator Murray’s office asked us to provide our Social Security numbers for a background check. Since none of us had ever been convicted of a felony (but perhaps having committed hundreds collectively) the band was cleared to play. Senator Murray’s staff also asked us to provide them with several copies of our debut CD so it could be passed on and vetted by the White House. (Turns out our decision to remove the song “Kill Clinton” from the album was a good one.) Lastly, we were informed that there was a chance the President Clinton would sit in on saxophone with us.

The Murray fundraiser was to take place in the “Alki Room”, an event space at the Seattle Center. The 74 acre Seattle Center campus was built for the 1962 World’s Fair and along with events spaces; it houses the Space Needle, a stadium and a sports arena. The band was scheduled to play at 7:00 pm, but we were told that we needed to load our equipment in at 2:00 in the afternoon so the Secret Service could do a bomb sweep. (We left the flash-pots at home.) Arriving at the appointed time, we loaded in, set up our gear and had lunch. When we got back to the Seattle Center we were met by several intimidating Secret Service agents near the entrance.

If you’ve never stood next to a Secret Service agent, let me tell you it’s quite an experience. Simply put; these guys don’t fuck around. They take “bad-ass” and “poker face” to a whole new level. They are big, burly and packing heat. As I stood in front of one of the giant ogres as he waved his gun-spotting wand up and down my person, I realized that this guy is trained to jump in front of a shooting gun in order to save the life of the president. They are not to be trifled with. All the same, as we entered, Theresa cheekily asked the agent if the distinctive pin on his jacket was a microphone. All he said was, “Secret Service ma'am.”

The President hadn’t arrived yet, but the large rectangular space was already filling up with Democrats. At one end of the room there was a stage for the dignitaries and at the other there were several tables of snacks and a bar. We were set up on another stage against the back wall in the middle of the room. The restrooms were located outside the actual space near the speaker’s stage, so the Secret Service had set up another security check-point for guests reentering after they used the facilities.

Private parties can be soul-crushing for a musician because many times you’re just background music. We ran through our set of classic chestnuts mixed in with our original tunes and thankfully a good percentage of the crowd was actually paying attention to us. After we did our thing, we left the stage to hear the speechifying.

I’m a bit fuzzy on how it came about, but Jonathon Poneman, the president of Sub-Pop was at the event with us. The Nightcaps had a distribution deal with Sub-Pop Records to release our debut CD, so his presence might have stemmed from that or he may have actually donated to the senator’s campaign. (Maybe he figured that Red Red Meat would never be asked to play a party with the President, so this was his chance.) Regardless, Poneman, our booking agent Julianne and our soon-to-be-fired manager John stood with the band as we listened to the speeches.

It was just like rock show, but instead of 5 bands sharing the bill, it was the Washington State Democrats doing the rocking. The opener was Seattle Mayor Norm Rice (delivering a weirdly overenthusiastic speech), then King County Executive Ron Sims, followed by US Representatives Norm Dicks and Jim McDermott, and finally Senator Murray.

As we were all watching the show unfold, our contact person came over to tell us that the President was running late. He asked if we could play again until Clinton arrived. No problem! So after Senator Murray finished her speech and told the crowd that the President was on his way, we dutifully took the stage again to make some more noise.

We had the set-list spelled out tightly for our initial performance, but now we were forced to call “audibles”. Picking songs on the fly usually fell to me and after we did several more numbers, I was at a loss for the next tune. We had a snaky little James Bond-ish number I had penned called “Touch of Evil”, so I called it out on the bandstand. After we got a few bars into the song, a wave of excitement spread through the room like a coke dealer finally arriving at an after-hours party. The President had arrived through a rear entrance and while you couldn’t see him, his presence was definitely felt. Bubba was in the house.

We were still playing “Touch of Evil” when Clinton came out from behind the curtain and began greeting the VIPs on the stage. It was then that I remembered the words to the song we were playing as the President of the United States made his entrance:

“Touch of Evil” verse:

He’s brutal, mean, very malicious
Surly, obscene, completely vicious
He’s ugly, wicked, entirely rotten

Wretched, lurid, better forgotten
He’s harsh, sordid, solidly sick
Foul, horrid, the epitome of ick
He’s vulgar, vile, fully perverse
Gruesome, grisly, plainly the worst
You’re not advised to mix with him
The man’s despised don’t stick with him

…and the chorus:

He’s got a touch of evil it’s true
There is not much that he will not do
To get inside your heart and under your skin
Avoid his touch; one stroke will do you in

Mind you, the Nightcaps could rock, but we were not a rock band. We didn’t have a singer that screamed over a Marshall stack and an Ampeg SVT bass rig. We had combo amps and little 50 year old drums - and Theresa had a microphone. While they were surely absorbed by Clinton’s entrance, there was no doubt that many of the guests could figure out the words of the tune. Awkward.

We soldiered on for a minute or so and finally, mercifully, we stopped the song just as the President began to make his way to the podium that bore the Presidential seal.

The rock show analogy is very fitting when it comes to Bill Clinton. The crowd was roaring their approval as Clinton waved and beamed his 50,000 watt charisma. As I stood there perhaps 15 yards from the President, my first thought was “My God, the man’s pink!” With his rosy cheeks, Clinton always had the look of a guy that liked to tie one on. In person his glowing face and slightly sweaty sheen was more noticeable. It looked like he had hoisted a few on Air Force One. Nevertheless, Clinton nailed his overly long speech. He was effusive in his praise for Patty Murray and the rest of the Washington State Democrats, making the obligatory references to coffee, software and airplanes that were expected of a politician visiting the Puget Sound.

As I stood there I had to reflect a bit on how improbable it was for me to be in that room. I had started playing music in the early 1980s in a hardcore punk band called Final Warning. I had come a long way from Satyricon’s beer-soaked stage in Portland. In a million years I never would have thought that I would be at a party with the president of Sub-Pop Records.

All kidding aside, it was a thrill for all of us and while we never got to meet (much less jam with) President Clinton, we did get a bit of notoriety from the event. The Rocket, Seattle’s music newspaper, made a mention of the gig in their gossip column, so the word spread - which no doubt helped us get more high profile gigs.

It made such an impact that even four years later when the Nightcaps played on KEXP’s The Live Room, the host, Abe Beeson, brought up the Clinton party during the interview segment. By this time the Clinton/Lewinsky dalliances were in the books, prompting Abe to mischievously ask Theresa, “Did he hit on ya?”

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