February 1975. Minneapolis, Minnesota.
Downstairs at my cousin Jeff’s house near Cedar Lake, the ceiling’s unusually low. There’s a shuffleboard court made of vinyl tiles built right into the floor and everyone’s winter coats are slung over the old couches and the ping-pong table. I’ve never tried Ripple wine before. It’s surprisingly good and tonight, I drink a lot of it. We’re jamming with some black guys from north Minneapolis. It’s all funk and R&B. They sound different from anyone I’ve ever played with. They’re tighter -more crisp somehow. Jimmy, a wiry alto sax player, says we’ve got to meet the soul singer, Alexander O’Neal tonight. He knows where he lives and he says there’s no question that Alex’s band will be there too.
At half past eleven Jimmy drives my cousin and me out of the safety of white suburbia, past Theodore Wirth Park and north, past Highway 55, to north Minneapolis. “North Minneapolis…”
It’s always had a foreboding sound. This was where the Jews of my parent’s generation once lived. They’ve long since moved though, out to the suburbs, and the black families, some from Mississippi, some from Chicago, moved into their houses. I’ve always heard it was a dangerous part of the city.
“People get murdered there all the time.”
When we get to the house, there’s blue light pouring from the window wells and I can hear the muffled sound of a bass guitar and someone playing a drum-set. Jimmy knocks on the front door for a full minute and just as we’re about to head back to the car, Alex O’Neal opens the door. He’s a big man; not very tall, but barrel-chested, with massive shoulders and a smile that exists in a space between welcome and menace. We smoke some weed and play into the night; jams in E9 that go on for hours, some Stevie and some Lou Rawls. Alex likes what he hears and before the night ends, my cousin Jeff and I are made official members of Alexander O’Neal and the Black Market Band.
The band consists of five guys: Alex on vocals, Billy and Bobby on bass and drums, a white guy with a shaved head named Larry Crags on lead guitar, my cousin Jeff on Fender Rhodes, and me on rhythm guitar. Alex has us practicing four nights a week for several months. Sometimes Jeff and I take a city bus to the practices. Other times his brother or one of our parents has to drive us, since neither of us has his license.
At some point, Larry Crags tells me that he’s an expert in Kung Fu, and though he seems pretty scrawny, I have no reason to doubt him -plus he’s got that scary-looking bald head. One day after band practice he announces,
“Alex, I’m afraid I’m gonna have to quit the snap.”
“What the did fuck did you just say?” Alex asks.
“Well, my wife just thinks it’s not a good idea for me to be practicing all the time since we don’t appear to have any gigs lined up.”
I can feel the air in the cramped rehearsal space arcing with electricity as Alex asks,
“Larry, are you sayin’ I’m not a man?”
I’m puzzled by Alex’s question since it doesn’t seem to me to be at all what Larry Crags had just said, but before Larry could answer, Alex hauls off and smashes him in the face.
Alex might not be the most refined person I’ve ever met, but still, I like him a great deal and now I’m truly worried for him -given what I know about Larry Crag’s martial arts expertise and as one who watches the TV series Kung Fu fairly religiously, I know exactly what’s coming next.
Larry Crags took the first blow –as a gentleman should- but now, he’ll do what he must. With his nose bent and bloodied, Larry gets up off the floor, and into his fighting stance. Instantly, Alex smashes him with a powerful right hook to the side of the head. Larry flies across the room and lands on my amplifier, which makes a thunderous noise. Moments later, without any Kung Fu moves whatsoever, Larry is crawling on all fours, up the stairs and out of the house. We can hear him whimpering all the while. Out of sheer fright, my cousin Jeff plays Rock- A- Bye Baby on the high notes of his electric piano as Alex paces in circles and pants heavily into his microphone -which sounds like a windstorm because of all the reverb. Then, from behind his drum kit Bobby says in the most offhand way,
“Why don’t someone shut off that amplifier?” Still breathless, Alex turns to me.
“Peter, now I suppose you wanna quit this snap too since you jus’ seen a black man beat up on a white guy.”
“No Alex,” I say. “I love being in this band.”
The truth is, I really do love being in this band. And it’s even better now since it appears that I’ve just become the new lead guitar player.