Spring, 1965

“Are you sure about this?” Aiko asked me, her face radiating doubt as we drove through the campus.

“No more clubs, no more bars… this is what’s left. Besides, they said one of the guys heard us in Chicago, so they must know what they’re getting.”

She gave me her “Inscrutable Asian” look, and then turned to gaze out the window again. The campus was large and sprawling, students spread out across the park-like lawns taking in the warmth of this beautiful Southern California afternoon. It was a mixed crowd between the clean-cut and fresh faced, and the more bohemian types and absolutely nothing like the seedier crowds we were used to playing to.

I had my own doubts about this- since swearing off dives we had not performed much, though we had never stopped playing. In a way those months in practice studios and rented barns had served as a buffer, another layer of good times between where we were and the brutality of the life we had left behind. It seemed our path was laid out in stages where we would sprint ahead, then stop and recollect ourselves before moving on again. First fleeing New Orleans, then a long summer in Virginia as Dalene fought to regain her dignity and break free of the addiction that had been killing her. After that, a haphazard journey across the Midwest playing loud music in seedy bars led to a soft landing first in Santa Barbara, then later Los Angeles.

I navigated my way into the Greek quarter, our van and its trailer attracting only cursory attention as I noted there were other similar vehicles scattered about. We had been hired to play at a Spring Concert put on by the fraternities and sororities at the university, a festival where two houses would join up to present a stage act for the day. Apparently there was some competitive aspect to the entire thing as I could see elaborate stages facing the Quad and some of the bands being advertised were if not famous, at least locally well-known.

“Surfers, rockers, soul… at least we won’t be the only ones getting a little loud,” Dalene said as she noted the bands already there, “but look at all the Tom Jones types.”

“It’s the fraternity system- lots of kids from very conservative families. If this were an Ivy League school it would be a lot worse.”

1965 was the cusp, in my opinion. The assassination of the President and then the cultural impact of the baby boom had become irresistible by then, but there were still holdouts, even on large state university campuses such as this. The next few years would make all these things quite clear, but for now there were those who blindly insisted nothing was changing even as the nation convulsed its way through the change.

I found the frat house and pulled into the driveway, following it around to the back where the house overlooked the Quad. They already had a stage set up and the place was decorated in a mix of pink and white streamers and balloons with posters declaring the “Greek Pride” of the frat and its sister sorority. Since we had only just purchased our van it was plain white. We had not painted the band name on it, or made any changes, and the trailer was just dull grey, so at least we didn’t clash. I parked by the stage and saw some students gathered nearby, looking us over.

“Okay, ladies, first impressions are everything here. Unless we want to get fired before we even unpack we have to keep it cool, understand?”

Solemn nods all around failed to reassure me. Both Aiko and Neff had mischief written all over their faces, and Dalene was trying to suppress a small grin that slowly broke down into a laugh.

“Have you looked at us this morning?” she asked, incredulously.

I nearly laughed myself. Aiko, so very Japanese, had bleached and dyed her hair honey gold and was wearing snug khaki shorts with a matching halter top. Neff was in blindingly white shorts and a bikini top- all our time in the California sun having turned her skin so dark the contrast was almost impossible to look at without your eyes watering. Dalene was in black leather pants, black spiked heel boots and a red-white-and-blue bikini top. And I might have been the worst- I had thrown on cut-offs and a halter top for the trip, and had not been too concerned with modesty in my choices.

“Just try, okay?”

A knock on the window frame drew my attention and I turned to see a young man, maybe nineteen or twenty. He looked in the van, looked at me, and was about to say something so I cut him off.

“We’re looking for Jacob. We’re the band.”

“Really? The band?” He looked confused and I got a bad feeling immediately.

Aiko leaned across from the passenger seat and fixed her eyes firmly on his.

“Baby,” she said with a cryptic grin, “We’re the girls momma warned you about.”

I shot her a bemused look then turned back to him. “Yes, the band. Find Jacob for us, okay?”

With a task to perform he seemed more at ease and sped off to find the guy who had hired us while we piled out of the van and stretched our legs. This in turn attracted a small crowd of young men whom Aiko and Dalene artfully corralled into helping us unload our equipment. We were in the middle of that process when Jacob arrived.

Jacob Jacobsen was a tall, wiry blond with pale blue eyes set in a hard face that made him look like he was always just a little unhappy with what he saw, but when he took in the sight of the girls and his frat brothers unloading the van and trailer his face lit up with a smile that could melt glaciers.

“You made it!” he exclaimed, “I was getting worried.”

“Good,” I replied. “Tell me, do these boys and girls know what they’re getting from us?”

“I told them you were a girl group I saw in Chicago and that you were different,” he said, spreading his hands in exact proportion to the amount of information he had apparently not bothered to share.

“So this is some sort of joke to you?” I looked up at the stage where Day and Aiko were assembling the drums while Neff laid out the microphone stands and cables. They were all business now. “Somehow, I just don’t find this very funny.”

“Girl, look around you! All these pompous assholes, they think they’re the center of the world and that this little contest actually means something. My brothers are mad because last year we lost to some local band covering the Beatles and the Kinks and they wanted to get back on top. So I found a band that will do it… but they’re too straight-laced to even consider somebody like you four, so I just didn’t give them the whole deal, that’s all.”

What to do? This was our first real job in months and we had been looking forward to it. Yes, the frat boys and sorority girls were likely to freak out once we started into our usual sets, but they could not be any worse than what we were used to, could they? And as Day had pointed out, we would not be the only loud band on the Quad. I crossed my arms under my breasts and turned to Jacob, giving him such a stern look he actually stepped back a bit.

“We get paid up front, in full, or we pack up and leave.”

Jacob grinned and looked relieved. He really needed to learn to smile more, it suited him.

“I figured you might feel that way, so…” he drew an envelope out of his back pocket and handed it over. I counted out three hundred dollars in fifties. “You stay and play sets until ten o’clock, at least two sets an hour. We’re scheduled to start at noon and we alternate with Kappa next door. Anything you need, you ask for me.”

“Angie!” Day called from above. I looked up and saw her leaning against the railing, actually posing, as some of the guys working near her stopped what they were doing to stare. It was cruel of her because she would never let another man touch her, not after that night in Detroit, but she did it because she knew I enjoyed ogling her as much as any man did.

“Cher?”

“They’ve already got a sound system set up, but nobody up here knows anything about it.”

“That’s my doing,” Jacob piped up. “I’ll be right up!” He turned to me, “I hired a sound crew and some high-end equipment- we should just be able to plug in your master board… that’s assuming you have a master board?”

“Talk to Day and Aiko- they handle the sound system. I want Day’s stuff set up first- if there’s time before noon I want her on stage riffing once the sound checks are done.”

“Yes, ma’am!” Jacob replied, grinning again as he snapped off a mock salute. He bolted up the stairs to the stage and Neff passed him on the way down.

“I like this place,” she said, “so much better than the bars.”

“We haven’t even played a note yet, so don’t get too excited. At least we got paid up front.” I handed Neff the envelope and she nodded almost solemnly.

“It’s going to be a good day; I can feel it in my bones.” She smiled as she said that and I could feel myself relaxing. Neff’s Kenyan accent had a way of lending a sort of extra weight to her words when she spoke of believing in things. “I’m going to lock this in the safe.”

By eleven o’clock we’d drawn a bit of a crowd, mostly boys looking us over, but also some very curious girls drawn by watching us do our sound checks. When it was revealed there wasn’t a backup band and we actually played our own instruments it had set off a bit of a buzz amongst the students slowly streaming into the Quad for the festival.

I had Day get into a more comfortable stage outfit because it was already pretty warm and looking to get warmer as the day wore on. She came out on stage in a light cotton top that she tied under her bust, a pair of very short denim cut-offs and simple flip-flops. When she fetched up her SG and pulled on a pair of aviator sunglasses Neff, Aiko and I retreated off stage to get dressed. From inside the house I could hear the mournful moan of her guitar as she moved through a solo version of Die for Love, one of the first songs we had written together. She brought down the tempo and dropped it an octave and it sounded like something you would hear wafting out of a New Orleans blues joint.

We changed quickly, Aiko opting for a sleeveless denim vest and jeans while Neff slipped into a stunning blue, red and gold kaftan we had made a few weeks before. It was not a traditional style, instead more open in the sides and a little more form-fitting. Aiko donned a Hachimaki, both to proclaim her Japanese heritage and to keep the sweat out of her eyes as she played.

They got to dress mostly for comfort, with an eye towards also looking good. As the front girl I had less leeway. Black leather boots that came up above mid-thigh, leather shorts and a sleeveless leather vest/bustier: It would be hotter than hell in the sun, but it was our signature look. The heels were five inches, but there was a one inch lift on the toes, necessary because I was so short compared to Day and Neff. I opted for the lace fingerless gloves covering just the forearm.

“Make sure there’s plenty of cold water up there,” I told Jacob.

Dalene was just winding down as we approached the stage and I snatched up a pitcher of ice water for her as we walked on. There was an audible reaction as Aiko and Neff took their positions. Aiko rattled through some runs while Neff shouldered her double-necked bass- she preferred an eight-and six string combination.

Day took the cup I filled for her and downed it greedily- it was very warm outside and we would be in the sun all afternoon given the layout of the stage. I poured her another and she drank half of it, then set it aside as she dropped the SG into its stand and shouldered her Strat, the very one I’d given her in New Orleans. I stepped close and settled one hand on her hip.

“Are you ready for this, cher?” I whispered. In response she leaned forward and kissed me lightly on the mouth. It was not a provocative kiss by any means, but I could feel the way it sent a ripple effect through the crowd. Whatever they might think of us, everybody watching was pretty sure we would not be singing paeans to our boyfriends.

I strutted over to Aiko, ensconced in her drum kit. She blew me a kiss and I snatched it from the air as I passed. Stopping before Neff we leaned into each other and pressed our foreheads together. She smelled of cinnamon.

“Let’s do this,” I whispered and she reared back as I twirled and leapt towards the microphone at center stage, the first notes crashing forth before my feet touched down.

I danced, letting the waves of sound move through and animate me while the girls pounded out the complex, powerful opening refrains of Hobson’s Choice. The microphone stand served as a focal point so I could stay within reach of it while my body became the music, just a puppet animated by the beat and notes, tossed about the stage until I landed before the microphone and it was my turn to wail forth.

If you’re lucky you get to choose

Between those things you love,

And the things you need to lose

But Mother Nature is a Bitch

Doesn’t matter what you want it to be

You’ve got no corner on Reality

And I’m not here to tell you its okay

Because choices, they’re torture

Is it agony, or is it horror

And can we tell the difference?

Best to turn and walk away

Leave you to the life you chose

When you had no choices at all

We assaulted the audience with sound and while a number turned away, far more came to witness. Was it the spectacle, or was there genuine interest? Probably a good mixture of both, but we tore through two full sets, stopping between only long enough to down large cups of ice water. When we finished the response was pretty enthusiastic. It was just the right crowd.

Our counterparts at the Kappa house started their set and I stayed long enough to be polite, but they were a boring and not-very-sincere effort to relive the Fifties so I retreated inside and found the girls in what had to be the frat’s common room, fanning themselves from the heat and carefully fending off advances from slightly inebriated college boys. I could see this becoming more of a problem as the day wore on, but what could we do?

A hand settled on my rear and squeezed. The boy doing the groping was about to say something, but it transformed instantly into a yelp of pain when I twisted and ripped his hand away, securing him in what I can assure you was a very painful finger lock. I squeezed just enough to let him get an idea just how close I was to breaking three of his fingers, then let him go, smiled, and patted him on the cheek.

“Hands off, sweetie,” I said, keeping my voice low and sweet, then louder I said, “These are costumes, boys. Stage costumes, not invitations.”

Jacob appeared and things immediately settled down some as he ushered us into a room where we could change, standing guard outside the door. I peeled off all the leather and collapsed naked on a couch while Dalene and Aiko pulled off my boots. Within moments we were all undressed; a situation that would have had very intimate connotations anywhere else, here it just meant it was time to break out some towels, soak them in cold water, cool down and wash up.

Aiko was just lacing up the back of my vest when there was a quiet knock at the door. I looked about to make sure everyone was dressed.

“Come in!”

Jacob entered along with a girl who was clearly his girlfriend. There were few others gathered outside the room and they all had that same look as Jacob, as if they might be frat boys and sorority girls, but they did not take it too seriously. The girl spoke up first.

“That was some pretty unusual stuff you were playing,” she said, “we’re all kind of hoping you have more. I’m Dinah.”

“Plenty more where that came from,” Dalene said, “we don’t do covers, it’s all our own.”

“Well you’ve certainly got everyone’s attention,” Jacob grinned, “people are already queuing up for your next set.”

“Then let’s not keep them waiting.” I said and let Aiko tie off my laces, then sat down to struggle into my boots once again.

I remember those few minutes so clearly, how excited Day was, the way Aiko was practically bouncing off the walls with eagerness to get back on stage and even Neff, usually so cool and reserved, grinning and dancing a little as we finally walked back through the house out to the stage. I remember the joy radiating from all of them and feeling it infect me, my heart pounding as we left the house and entered the stage…

I nearly froze, but watching Dalene and the others moving with such confidence forced my feet to move even as the sight of the crowd sent a chilling spike of fear down my spine. When we had finished before there had been a few hundred students on the Quad split pretty evenly between our stage and the one on the opposite end of the field. Now… there were thousands of people jammed into the Quad and most of them were piled around our stage.

A cheer went up as we took our places and I turned to face Dalene. She immediately saw something that concerned her, but I swallowed everything I was feeling at that moment and forced it down hard. I would not spoil this for them, Instead I grinned and mouthed the words quite a crowd, isn’t it. Normally I would have repeated my little circling of the stage that I did to start our first performance, but I was afraid I might infect the girls with my own fear so I just pointed at Aiko.

“Go,” was all I said, then turned to the sea of faces before me as drums and cymbals crashed, then guitars followed and I took the mike in a death grip.

Keep it tight, keep it close

It’s yours to lose and you know it

A precious thing and what it knows

Could all be gone – don’t blow it

You guard yourself like a fortress

You never give anything up

Live like a hermit, a Soldier for your God

Never a thought for life or the things in it

No joy for you

No joy from you

Selfish little bitch

Hopeless and helpless in your silly pride

In your head is a shitty place to hide

Once we started I was fine, but as soon as we finished our two sets all I wanted was off the stage and away from those thousands of eyes. When the crowd refused to leave Jacob asked us to go up for an encore and I nearly told him no, but instead grabbed a bottle of something cheap, vile and whiskey-like from the hand of one of the frat boys, took a long, long pull from it, then went back out on stage as the alcohol rushed through me to calm my nerves. I turned to Aiko and Neff.

Slaughter.”

They both looked shocked, but Dalene just nodded at them and changed guitars, handing me the SG. Slaughter was an intricate instrumental, a chance for the three of them, but mostly Dalene, to really strut their stuff while I played the fills Dalene had mercilessly drilled into my fairly untalented fingers. It went long, more than seven minutes, and it was flawless and the crowd loved it. I was terrified they would demand more, but mercifully the band on the Kappa stage started up the instant we finished.

The rest of the day was like that, and I knew what was gnawing away at me. It was not stage fright, it was simply knowing so many eyes were upon me. Only a few years ago I had spent a year working in a diner on the Pacific Coast highway, before that nearly three years playing housewife to a dying man and his son. How many of those people out there had encountered me during those years? How many would possibly recognize me?

When we played small clubs and the like it never bothered me because I knew I could brazen out a chance encounter, particularly in the parts of the country we were working, but this was California and big as it was I’d been here too recently for too long.

I was too old, too good an actress to let any of this show outwardly. After that second set I put on as good a show as any we had done or would do. Everybody was happy, Jacob’s house won the contest hands down and we had some new dates to play.

And I was terrified.

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