It’s Friday, which means a day of preparation for a gig tonight with my band, The Blue Nuns, the only (I’m pretty sure) Chicago-style blues band in America that dresses in the habits of the Sisters of the Precious Blood, the religious order that ran my grade school.
“You have to suffer to sing the blues–or to redeem mankind.”
We’re a tribute band of sorts, but not in the musical sense. It was my sixth-grade nun, Sister Gabriella Marie, who first stirred the furies of ambition in my soul. “You could be something in life,” she said to me after I’d blown off practice for the Optimist Club Oratorical Contest (Topic: Values, American vs. Communist). “You could be a priest, or go to college at Notre Dame.”
I humored her for awhile on the priest score–Candace Spretz had already expressed her undying love for me by asking if I would give her a lock of my hair–but I took Sister’s broader message to heart. Perhaps I could get out of the little burg I was raised in, a provincial city by census standards with three–count ‘em–three movie theatres, but stuck in the provinces nonetheless. Sister Gabbie made me lift up mine eyes to the Ozark hills, to paraphrase the Psalmist, and think of the great big world that lay beyond them.
I didn’t become a priest and I didn’t make it to Notre Dame, however. I went where the scholarship money took me, which was to the South Side of Chicago, where I learned to play blues harp from the janitor in my building and by listening to others, such as Jeff Carp, who you can hear on the “Fathers and Sons” album that brought together older black Chicago blues musicians and younger white apprentices.
It was after a late night jam session, sitting around drinking the sweet wines me and my gang favored for their kick back then–Mateus Rose, Boone’s Farm, Thunderbird–that I got the news by a phone call from somebody back home–Sister Gabriella Marie had run off with the pastor of my parish! I couldn’t hold back the tears. Gabbie hadn’t been my first nun-crush–that was Sister Agnesita in first grade–but that was puppy love, spelling bee love, who’s-your-favorite martyr kind of love. With Sister Gabbie, I was on the verge of puberty, and the feelings I had for her were stronger, those of a man-child now loose on the streets of Chicago. I felt both devastated and somehow responsible. Maybe if I’d gone to the seminary like she wanted me to she would have waited for me.
As I gripped the bottle of wine passed to me by the guy on my left, I looked at the label and was struck with an inspiration by the image that stared back at me–a nun dressed in a blue habit. I would carry a torch for the woman I loved by changing the name of our little adolescent blues band to The Blue Nuns.
The other guys balked at first. “What’s the matter with ‘Fast Eddie & the Blues Hawks,’” Sam the lead guitarist asked.
“Nothing,” I said. “But it’s just like all the other blues band names. We’re trying to project a tough image when all we are is a bunch of white kids copying riffs from old records. We ought to be true to the upbringing that got us here; in my case, the woman who taught me to do square roots in my head!”
There is literally, no response to an argument like that. It’s the equivalent of a geometric proof. You can object to it, but you can’t refute it; you can try, but that way lies madness.
So from that day forward, we have lived triple lives; professionals and businessmen by day, bluesmen wannabes in the garb of cloistered nuns by night.
After many years of scuffling, we finally seemed to be hitting our stride lately. Last Saturday we got a gig at Tony Vig’s, a biker bar in Maynard, Mass. that is constantly running out of cues for the bumper pool table because the patrons keep breaking them over each other’s heads.
I’ve been after the owner, Tony Vigliano–I’m not exaggerating–for years. It’s the premier venue in the Northeast for loud, unintelligible blues rock performed by overweight, balding musicians. You make it here, baby, you can make it anywhere; any bar packed with male life-sucks-then-you-die nihilists drinking longneck Budweisers and the women who love them. I’d pester Tony, make him demo tapes showing off our new material–Junior Wells, Z.Z. Hill, Robert Cray–nothing. I’m not bragging–we’re good–but we could never reach the tipping point with Tony.
“Tony,” I finally said one day. “Is there something you’re not telling me?”
“Whadda ya mean,” he said as he methodically counted the take from the previous night.
“We’re better than The Exclamation Points, The Doo-Tells, The Tone-Defs, all these other groups you bring in here. Why won’t you hire us?”
Tony looked at me with a mixture of sympathy and exasperation, as if I was a girlfriend he was going to have to let down easy. “You really don’t understand, do you?”
I shrugged my shoulders. “I wouldn’t be asking if I did.”
Tony let loose with a little snort out his nose as he closed the cash register. “It’s those freakin’ nun outfits you guys wear.”
I was . . . shocked. “You’ve got to be kidding,” I said finally.
“Nope,” Tony said, all business.
The customer’s always right, especially in the $250 a night live music business, but dammit–sometimes you have to stand up for yourself.
“Tony–you don’t discriminate against the The Rusty Nails when they come in here with their brocade tuxedo jackets. Why are you singling us out?”
He leaned over the bar and got up in my face. I thought I detected a Pabst Blue Ribbon breakfast beer on his breath.
“The problem is . . . a lot of these guys have been in trouble with the nuns before,” he said. “They don’t want to come in here on a Saturday night and come face-to-face with the worst nightmare of their youth.”
I looked out the window to the state highway beyond and thought about what he’d said. “I don’t think you’re giving your clientele enough credit,” I began. “I think the world has changed, and people are more open about the pain and suffering inflicted on them in Catholic grade school, and cross-dressing bands. I mean, compared to what else is going on today, it’s nothing.”
Tony sighed. “Blues groups are a dime a dozen, why am I wasting my time haggling with you over an issue that is so central to customer satisfaction?”
Fair enough, I thought. “There’s a certain element of novelty to our group that the others don’t have. Don’t you think they’re getting a little sick of hearing ‘I’m a Man’ over and over again played by guys who are dressed–like men?”
I had him there–I could tell from the look on his face that he had no answer to that line of argument. “Okay,” he said finally. “I’ll split the gate with you–but if you guys screw up, you’ll never play Tony Vig’s again–capiche?”
“Raw fish cooked by marinating in fruit juices?” I asked, puzzled.
“No–that’s ceviche. Capiche means–do . . . you . . . understand?” He said this with as much menace as two separate sets of ellipses can bear.
“You won’t regret it Tony,” I said, barely able to contain myself I was so happy. “We’re going to put on the baddest three sets of the blues by a band dressed in the uniforms of a religious order this bar has ever heard!”
So last Saturday found me, Mitch the drummer, Sam the guitar player and Mike on bass filing into Tony Vig’s carrying our amps and our axes–we are not, as you might imagine, at the level of success where we can afford roadies.
The front door.
We drew a few curious stares from guys for whom the effort of turning their heads to take us in is the most exercise they’ll get this weekend other than raising 16-ounce bottles to their lips. “You guys know any Gregorian chant?” asked a guy named Guy–a regular who changed his post office address to the bar for awhile when he was going through a divorce.
“We can do some if you want to slow-dance later,” I said. I couldn’t tell if Guy was being a wise guy or not.
“Great,” Guy said. “Me and the old lady, we like to get up close and personal to Agnus Dei.”
“We’re more of a Chicago blues band,” Sam said. He’s got the set list down cold, and he hates requests.
“Oh, okay,” Guy said. “Just wonderin’. We’re into monophonic liturgical plainchant, and I just thought with those outfits . . .”
We added horns for this gig.
“Whatever you thought, forget it,” Mitch snapped. “This ain’t a wedding band.”
“Ex-cuuse me,” Guy said, and that was the end of the conversation. I know we’re entertainers and all, but audiences will forgive a certain rough edginess in a blues group.
After Sam and Mike tuned their guitars, they nodded to me. I led the band in our traditional blessing–a “Hail Mary,” after which I pointed to the sky and said “This one’s for you, Gabby”–then I counted it off. “One–two, one, two three four . . .”
We launched into the opening chords of Otis Rush’s “I Can’t Do My Homework Anymore” and I could tell we had ’em. These guys, inside their cynical outer carapaces, they’re suckers for good, honest Chicago blues. After a few bars, they didn’t even notice our long grey habits, white surplices and black wimples.
We brought the song to a crashing end, and the reaction was immediate and deafening. I looked over at the bar and saw Tony V smiling.
“You guys are fucking great,” a man in a Harley-Davidson jacket said, causing me to shoot my arms out to my side and give him an icy stare.
“What did you just say?” I asked coldly.
The man is a little confused. “I just said . . . you were fucking great.”
With that I whipped a ruler from my back pocket and brought it down hard on his left hand, drawing blood where the metal edge broke his skin.
“What’d you do that for?” he said, his face contorted with pain.
“You kiss your mother with that mouth?” I asked bitterly. “You’re staying after the last set and cleaning out the grease trap.”
“And I want you to write ‘I will not take the name of the act of love in vain’ 500 times.”
Available in Kindle format on amazon.com as part of the collection “Fun With Nuns.”