This is a true story and took place in El Paso in 1987
“The Red Rose Lounge”……….hearing the name by itself suggests it might
be a nice place to relax at the end of a long day, with some nice piano bar music, some greenery here and there, polished brass railings along a shiny oak bar, a handsome Tom Cruise-type bartender mixing and serving exotic drinks to the yuppie crowd. But when you add the street name to the location of this lounge, the locals know it is on one of the worst streets in town and is more commonly known as a “dive”. I’m still not sure where the term “dive” originated, but I feel it may have something to do with a person taking a headlong dive into a world of alcoholic misery, for that is what I was about to do.
I was in rehearsals with a surefire up and coming rock band during the week (whatever happened to them?), when the drummer pulled me aside one day to talk. J.R. was playing on weekends with a three-piece band at the Red Rose Lounge, and would I like to bring my equipment out and sit in with them sometime……of course there would be no money involved, but it would be “fun”. Well, being the ham musician I am, I rarely ever turned down a chance to perform, so there I was! I soon became a regular fixture at the Rose, and before too long, I was on the payroll at a whopping $15 a night, every Friday and Saturday night from 9 till 2AM.
The stage, such as it was, was very small, and only about 8 inches above the dance floor, and barely enough room for the three guys, so I set up on the side near the fire exit (good thing there was never a fire!). The band’s unofficial name was “Mixed Nuts”, and since I was off to the side, I became affectionately known as the “Lug Nut”. My trademark song was ‘The Rose”, appropriately enough, and I sang it twice every night. Sometimes people noticed, but most times they didn’t. The clientele at the Red Rose Lounge, was a very serious drinking bunch no white wine spritzers or fancy drinks for these folks. Beer, the cheaper the better, the occasional whiskey and Coke and not even any pretzels on the bar in cute little baskets. No, if you happened to get hungry during the night, there was a vending machine in the back hallway, full of stale cheese and crackers, and candy bars.
One of the regular patrons, was a down on his luck fellow named (for the purpose of this story) Larry. Now, Larry had a very serious drinking problem, which probably explained why he was homeless. He would rather drink than do anything else in the world, including working to make money for a place to live. Rose, the bar owner, was one tough cookie most of the time, but had a soft spot for Larry, and let him sleep in the back office when it was really cold or wet outside, and Larry did a few odd jobs in order to get his beer for free. The rest of the time, Larry, I was told, slept in the desert under a shrub, and wandered the streets looking for handouts.
Larry began sitting at the table nearest my keyboard every night that I was there, and really paying attention to my music, to the point where he was heckling the band because I wasn’t singing enough songs. He would try to talk to me on breaks, but I was trying to keep my distance, not knowing exactly what his motives might be. Because he was usually so drunk and hard to talk with, I was polite, and tried to laugh things off, until one fateful Saturday night. Larry finally drank enough to get the nerve to tell me that not only had he fallen in love with me, but I was the “love of his life”, and he would do anything for a chance to prove his love to me. My pulse quickened, my heart was racing, but not for the declaration of his love, it was time to panic here I was slowly inching my way towards the fire exit door, while this poor guy is earnestly promising he will cut his long hair, give up his earring, get a job and find a place to live, if only I will give him a chance. But he didn’t want to do any of those things for himself, to make his life better, only for me. I tried to explain as gently as I could, that a person couldn’t, and shouldn’t have to change himself just to make another person love him, to make himself worthy of love. I assured him that he could put his life back together, then surely there would be someone in his future that would find him to be the perfect mate, but for now, it wasn’t me. I wasn’t the cause of his current problems, and I couldn’t be the solution for his future. I was not very convincing, and Larry didn’t take this very well, he said he cared only about me, not himself, not his family, and since I wasn’t going to give him a chance, he might as well have a few more drinks and he did. I was very anxious about this turn of events, as I had never had an “admirer” such as Larry, and didn’t realize until then just how dangerous it can be, to be in the “spotlight” so to speak, even in a low class place like the Red Rose Lounge.
One Monday morning not long after my encounter with Larry, I went to the club to pick up my equipment for my other band’s rehearsal, and had to wait a few minutes for them to open. The bar opened at 10 AM every day, and as I sat in my 20-year-old station wagon with 150,000 miles on the odometer, I saw several of the “regulars” walking up, they weren’t fortunate enough to even own a car, to wait by the door. These were the same people who I saw every Friday and Saturday night, and here they were, bright and early on Monday morning……waiting to get in. I wondered what kind of lives these men and women had lived in the past, and what road had led them to spend most of their waking hours in a dim, smoke-filled dive like the Red Rose Lounge. If I kept playing here and drinking like I was, could my future be staring me in the face? How in the world did I get involved in this place? At that moment I realized I had a choice to make.
As I loaded the last of my equipment into my car (by myself), one of the fellows hopped off his bar stool long enough to hold the door open for me while I carried out a single mic stand……he told me how much he enjoyed my music and hoped I’d play there a long time. I looked into his tired, worn face, smiled my best smile, said thank you, got into my car, drove away, and never returned to the Red Rose Lounge. I’m sure it’s still in business today. I wonder if Larry is still there……….
Sureshot, El Paso, 1987