My grandfather had families all over the state of Iowa.
Of course, none of us knew this until his funeral. I was sixteen-years-old. It was one of those scorching, midwestern summer days. The wind was steady and hot like a convection oven. I was standing over his casket at Mt. Holyoake Cemetery in Waterloo thinking, “Who are all these people?” Well, ends up they were family: twenty-two children by four wives.
Grandpa was a marxaphone salesman. He drove a beat up Packard Eight Clipper Sedan to the far corners of the state selling the instrument door to door. From Spirit Lake to Keokuk, Decorah to Clarinda, no one sold more marxaphones. Or, apparently, had more wives. I suppose it would have been a much bigger problem dividing the estate four ways, but he didn’t have much left. And what he did have left (some $6424.67), he expressly willed to his six musical grandchildren: Kevin, Nick, Roy, Scott, Nicholas, and me. So we moved to New York, and started a band: The Smith Family.
We’ve been performing together since we were teenagers. Oddly enough, there’s no marxaphone in the band, just the standard honky tonk arrangement: guitar, bass, drums, fiddle, and pedal steel. We’ve gotten pretty good. We even performed at Dollywood a few years ago.
But infighting was beginning to tear us apart. Nick wanted to play more gospel, Kevin wanted to play more bluegrass, Roy wanted to play more funk, I wanted to play more rocknroll, and Scott, heck, Scott never cared; he just wanted to meet the ladies (the apple, apparently, really doesn’t fall far from the tree). Worse, perhaps, than musical differences, was the greed. Our take on any given night at Hank’s or Lakeside Lounge can be well into the hundreds of thousands of dollars. And Kevin, reasoning that he sings 60% of the songs, insisted on 60% of the profits. We all agreed, in part to keep the family together, and in part to keep our 40% (divided by five, mind you) coming in. I mean, what else are a bunch of Iowa-born and bred musicians gonna’ do here in the big city? Work at Starbucks?
The final straw came last month. We were performing at Hank’s, Brooklyn’s Own Home for Honky Tonk. Our rider stipulated that we perform two sets starting at eight o’clock. Well, eight o’clock rolls around and Kevin’s nowhere to be found. So we start anyway. I sing. Nick does some Cajun stuff. It wasn’t perfect, but we were managing without our Enigmatic Front Man. But the crowd, rowdy as always, was having none of it. They were shouting in unison, “Kevin! Kevin! Kevin!” Just as I was starting “Wine Me Up,” a woman hurled a Falstaff beer at my head and chipped my front tooth. Then Kevin strolls in a fluffy white fur coat, a woman on each arm, and white powder all over his face. He’s clearly fucked up. Still, he walks straight for the stage, takes my mic and starts beat boxing and free styling. “Bitches and hoes, everybody know / I’ll meet you backstage after the show / Eeny meeny, bitches, miny moe / Drop your britches, c’mon let’s go.”
Needless to say, we were floored. Roy and the Nicks stormed off, leaving just Scott and I to make some sense of it all. Kevin asked me why I was bleeding, I tell him, and he says, “Serves you right.” Then he slugs me again. Afterwards, I’m mopping up my bloody face, when Kevin dropped the bombshell: he and his girlfriend Monica are moving to Minnesota. Because — get this — they like that film with Keanu Reeves.
I mean, listen, we’ve always known Kevin has a problem. But we all though Monica, was helping him get back on track. They’d moved in together, got a coupla’ cats. Heck, he’d even started gardening on his roof deck. But enough is enough: the music was suffering, and so was the family. So the band broke up.
The Smith Family’s last performance was last night at Lakeside Lounge (click here to see some photos). There wasn’t any pimento in the olives, and the green room wasn’t stocked with Cherry Coke — that really pissed Kevin off. But I’d say it was a pretty good show. A little bittersweet even. I’ll never play “That’s All Right” again. I’ll never have a valid excuse to stand on a table and get the audience to join us on “May The Circle Be Unbroken.” Sad.
The last thing I remember is standing at the dark bar, raising a glass of whiskey and toasting Grandpa Smith. “It’s all his fault,” Kevin said.
Then I threw up.