The Loudest Band I Ever Saw

Up until the night in question, I had seen many, many, really, really loud rock 'n' roll acts: The Sex Pistols, Patti Smith, The New York Dolls, The Dead Boys, The Rolling Stones, etc. So, I knew loud, and I loved loud. Or thought I knew and loved loud, until I saw...The Plasmatics, with Wendy O. Williams.

They were playing at a small club I used to hang out at in Detroit, and they had been all over the newspapers. A few days before, Wendy had gotten arrested for some kind of obscene behavior onstage, with a microphone. The Plasmatics were the most notorious act in the land at that time, and I was eager to check 'em out. So, I went down the club with a girl I knew at the time, Maria. Maria was a total rock 'n' roll babe. She loved a good show, so she was pretty stoked to see them too.

When we got there, the place was so packed; I could hardly believe it. They had removed all the seats from the club so they could squeeze in more people, and everybody was just squished in together on top of each other. So, I was squished up against the front of Maria, which was very nice, and we kind of squeezed our way past a few people while the warm-ups were playing, so by the time it got to the headline show we were in about the middle of the club. By this time, a lot of babes were riding on their boyfriend's shoulders, so they could see a little over the crowd. The place was really crowded, the stage was really low, and it was really hard to see.

In the middle of the club, there was a partition. This is what remained in the club after they took out the banquet seats and tables, in their desperation to shove in more paying customers, and this partition had been a part of the banquet seats. It was covered in ugly red vinyl. Maria and I got over next to it, and I had just climbed up and sat on top of it, to try to get a view, when the band came on stage. I hadn't had a chance to boost Maria up on to the partition yet, so she was still standing holding onto my sleeve, ready to be pulled up, when the band came out.

Now this band was just the craziest outfit. I have seen lots of out-there, over-the-top acts over the years. Wayne County, the first transsexual to make a name in rock music was pretty wild, and Skafish, an extremely effete singer from Chicago was pretty out-there too. But The Plasmatics were just the total cheese in wild-looking, crazed rocker thugs. They were utterly nasty, pissed-off, surly fucks, with shitty, angry, humorless attitudes.

Which was totally undone by the preposterous way they dressed.

For one thing, the bass player was just this enormous mountain of a black guy. Huge front-linesman type material: like 6' 5" and about 280-300 pounds. I kid you not; he was a very substantial, mean-lookin', scowlin', angry-lookin' BIG DUDE. Think Mister T, but without the underlying benevolence and humor. Menacing, scowling, enormous black guy, in a very crowded, hot, sticky, cheap, mainly white a bad part of Detroit. This is the man...the threatening figure of American Urban Drama...plunked down and pissed off in the middle of a huge crowd of hairdressers, artists, fairies, junkies, and other white derelicts...whose threat is completely mediated by his stupid clothes.

He was completely outfitted in a pristine, old-fashioned, ironed and pressed, white nurse's uniform. With the ugly white shoes and the little goofy cap, and the white nylons and the whole deal. A white nurse's uniform. This huge guy was in this dainty little Miss Priss outfit. And he also had a perfectly lovely little green Mohawk hairdo sticking out the back of his cap. And one big, sparkling earring.

And the guitar player was just the skinniest, scrawniest, pastiest-faced, sallow, pale, white guy I'd ever seen. He just looked sick and starving. He made Ron Wood (who gets skinnier and skinnier every tour. The Stones don't have to worry about getting old; they have to worry about Woody just disappearing.) look like the picture of robust manly health. This guy was just utterly pathetic and anemic in appearance.

And he's wearing a nurse's uniform. And his legs were just these pale, slender sticks that hung out beneath the skirt and went into the top of his shoes. And the nylons he was wearing just sort of bunched and hung there, because he was so skinny the stockings wouldn't fit right. He was just this utterly grotesque sickly looking guy; it didn't seem like he'd be able to lift his guitar, let alone play anything.

So, these guys are walking onto the stage, and I saw them over the crowd and started cracking up. I just thought they were hilarious. Now, Maria is right next to me, but she's still down in the crowd; she hasn't gotten up onto the partition yet, and she can't see anything over the people in front of her. So, she tugged on my sleeve, and I turned to look at her...and just then the band started to play and oooooooommmmmmiiiiiiiiiiiigggggggggoooooooddddd weretheyloud.

I'm looking Maria square in the face, and she starts to say something...and just at that exact moment the band starts.

Did you ever get hit a cheap shot playing football or something? You don't even see it coming, and you just get smashed on your ass, and the half of your body that gets hit hurts like hell, and the other half of your body that gets smashed into the ground hurts like hell, and you're so surprised, you don't know what to do? And you kind of stagger a bit trying to figure out what happened, and if you need to do anything about what happened? A moment ago everything seemed normal and right, but now everything is horribly wrong? At that exact portion of a moment, when that band started to play, everyone in the place suddenly got that horrible, confused, blind-sided feeling. I was looking Maria square in the face at that exact portion of a moment, and her face went from this wonderful, beautiful, smiling bit of loveliness into this confused look of repulsion, confusion, and nausea.

You know how when a show starts in a crowded place, there's a sudden surge toward the stage? Everyone stops talking and looking at each other, and turns toward the stage, and everybody scoots up a little to get a better look? Everyone takes a half step forward? Well, when The Plasmatics started to play everyone took a half step back. And then they backed up some more. Everyone instinctively backed up slightly to get away from the menace of that enormous, powerful sound.

Maria, at that moment, was about to say something to me. But, that was pointless now, of course. She cupped her hands around her mouth, and was yelling--with great exertion and effort.--toward me. But, that was equally pointless too. She was instantly reduced to trying to mime to me the universal expression for "Jesus Christ. Are these guys ever loud. Do you think we'll be OK?" That suddenly, obviously became a huge concern: "Will we be OK?" People in the crowd were all suddenly looking at each other, visibly concerned, and somewhat confused. "Will we be OK?" "This is such a powerful, overwhelming sensation. Will we be OK?" It was so loud; all these punks and hipsters were actually concerned for their safety.

Well, I quickly got down off of the partition, and deliberately got back into the crowd, just so I would have something...anything in front of me to absorb the force of the attack. I immediately realized I wouldn't be able to take it without some kind of cushion, some kind of shield.

I got down, and stood next to Maria. She now cupped her hands around her mouth, AND around my ear, and tried to scream to me. But I could hear nothing. It was like she was playing some kind of mime gag. But she was trying to scream in my ear. And I would just look at her and shrug? Because I couldn't tell what she was trying to scream. After she tried this, with no success, several times, we both looked at each other and pretended to laugh. It was so strange. Here we were, two normal, healthy people. Standing right next to each other. And we couldn't communicate verbally at all.

And as the band continued "playing," (who could tell? the sound was just so overwhelming and undistinguished and blended together? You could see that Wendy O. was standing on stage, apparently screaming into the microphone, but no one could distinguish what, if anything, she was adding to the sound.), people continued to back away from the stage, and shot worried looks at each other. And a few people started to leave, then more people were leaving, then a lot of people were gone. They left because the band was so loud.

Now, this wasn't like Guns n Roses playing at a PTA meeting, or something. This was a very hardcore punk club in a nasty neighborhood in Detroit. And even the flintiest heart of the hard core was leaving--because the Plasmatics were so loud. It was incredible.

Pretty soon, there were no people in front of Maria and me. What had been a mass of dozens of people between us and the stage quickly thinned out to a mere handful of people, who were looking around, wondering if they should back off, too.

But, the band had quite a presence. Wendy O. was really animated, dancing around, trying so hard to sell each and every song with everything she had. The two nurses were such freaks. They were interesting to just look at. Like zoo creatures, they were so outside the ordinary daily experience of human existence, the only appropriate reaction was to stare. And they had an act, and they were going ahead with it, and just act like this was a normal part of the show...that a lot of people would leave, after having paid, and waited, and waited. A lot would leave because they were so loud.

And now I had a good view, and I knew I'd never see anything like this again, so I struggled on watching the band. Maria went to the bar, but there was no way to order a drink. She came back, and we sort of decided, with hand gestures, and shrugs, to watch a little more, because it looked like it was going to get outrageous.

There was a stack of TVs on the stage. They were all on, tuned to the Tonight Show with Johnny Carson. And Wendy kept making threatening kicks at them. At one point, I turned and looked at Maria, and we shrugged about something or another, and when I turned and looked back at the stage one of the TVs was gone. The big one at the top of the stack was gone. For a moment, I wondered what happened...and then I saw that there were pieces of it lying around, and a guy up in front of the stage was picking up part of the thing. And there was a bunch of smoky dust. Wendy had kicked in a TV set. The thing had blown up. Parts were all over the place. But I hadn't heard anything like an explosion...I soon realized that although the TV blew up, I couldn't hear that over the band.

Soon, the skinny guy came out with a chainsaw. It was big. He seemed to have trouble starting it. Wendy went offstage for a few moments and brought out several armfuls of cheap guitars. She stacked them in the middle of the stage. The chainsaw seemed funny, because it didn't seem like the little shrimp could start it. It looked like a toy, and he kept waving it around, and it just seemed silly. Then Wendy kind of stepped back and held out her arms like Vanna White, like "Ta Dah." at the stack of guitars. And the shrimp in the nurse uniform has this toy chainsaw, and he waves it at the stack of cheap guitars, which suddenly start falling apart.

It was so puzzling. "What's with the guitars? Why are they falling apart like that? The shrimp looks like such an idiot with that toy chainsaw..."

And then it hit me: it was a totally real chainsaw, really sawing at this stack of guitars, but I couldn't hear it over the band. The band was so loud, that a chainsaw cutting through guitars could not be heard over the band. It was like watching a silent movie. I kept seeing things that didn't seem real, because the "sound" part of the picture was completely drowned out by that ferocious noise coming from the stage.

That was what it was like to see The Plasmatics.

The Trouble With Betty

Well, I didn't know Betty Ister, but we had a lot of friends in common. Several hundred, actually. I forget how it started, but we got connected on Facebook. Last fall, I think it was.

She seemed pretty funny, and she was always doing things around town, so we started messaging back and forth. It was all super friendly. She's very funny, and it was enjoyable. Anyway, she likes to collect stuff, so one day she said she was going to come up to Ann Arbor to go "junking." You know, hit all the vintage/antique places that are up here.

So, she came by, and we went to lunch and spent all afternoon together going around town to the Salvation Army, Treasure Mart, Value Village, and a zillion other places. Had a great time. Lot of laughs; we became fast friends. We know like 800 million people in common; we went to many of the same shows in our younger years. We hit it off pretty well. Every couple of days we were in touch about something or another, and we were becoming thick as thieves.

Anyway, she's worked as a ticket agent at a big theater for over 30 years, and she knows everyone in entertainment around Detroit. Which is cool, because she can get great seats for anything. Anything. She goes to a lot of shows and concerts.

Anyway, she calls me up and says she's getting tickets to see Nick Lowe at The Famous Venue up here--this is back in December--through our common friend Mr. Straw, who runs a big theater here. So we arrange to go to that.

She comes by to pick me up, and she's finishing a joint. I mean, I don't give a shit, I don't care about drugs, I'm only setting the stage for the rest of the situation. She smokes a joint while she drives us into town.

Now, The Famous Venue is kind of a peculiar place. It's actually like a private club, and although they serve booze and stuff, you have to be a "member" to buy it. If you aren't a member, you have to buy like a $20 pass to drink there. So she goes on and on about how she hates this setup, and how fucked up it is to run a place like that, and how she think’s they’re idiots, because they lose all kinds of money, and what a crappy business plan it is, and how she isn’t going to buy a pass, or buy any booze, so she's brought a flask of booze to get through the show. I think it was vodka, but I’m not sure. Maybe gin? Anyway, she wants to get a couple drinks and visit and chat before the show.

So we go to this bar on Main Street across from The Famous Venue, and she has a couple drinks. I don't care, I'm just telling the story. Anyway we talk and trade stories about all the people we know, and we're having a really fun time. Now, normally, at this venue, people stand in a huge line waiting for the doors to open. But she figures Mr. Straw has set us up nicely, so we don’t have to do that. She figures we can just go in at show time, and some lackey will lead us to the front, and we’ll be golden.

So, we sit at this bar while she drains a couple. I had a coke. All the normal people are lined up down the block in front of The Famous Venue. But she keeps telling me we don’t have to go through that bullshit. We can just sit so she can drink, and we can go at the last second.

Then, there's some kind of mix-up on the tickets, and she gets really pissed off! We go the box office, and they give us tickets, but they're just regular general admission tickets, nothing special, so she's furious. She's got steam coming out of her ears. Desmond Kincaid's playing, and, you know, I think his act is terrible. Incredibly out-of-tune white guy playing these old old blues tunes, pretending he's some old sharecropper. Well, Betty's friends with him and starts cheering every single thing he does REALLY LOUD. REALLY LOUD. Making a scene--getting lots of looks from people.

She's totally ripped--which I could care less about--but she's making a scene. She's yelled at several ushers, she's singing along really loud, she keeps smacking me on the arm to sing along, too (which I will not do because I thought the act was fucking horrible), and making a scene. Anyway, between songs she keeps complaining, loudly, about how pissed she is at Mr. Straw for not getting us great seats, and she's gonna fuck him over, blah, blah, blah. When Desmond is done, Betty shoots up out of her seat to go find Mr. Straw and rip him a new one. Well, I don't want any part of that. Mr. Straw is a friend of mine, I think getting any kind of seat is great, I could care less. So I stay in my seat.

Anyway, Betty goes off to make trouble. And this utterly smoking babe turns to me, and says "Is your friend the singer's mother? She seems really enthused." So, I start apologizing all over the place for how she's been behaving (The Famous Venue is not like CBGB's, you know? It's a quiet, sedate, kind of pretentious place. Kind of like if your Grandmother's living room was a concert venue. And Betty has totally stuck out like a sore thumb.) And this babe seems to be by herself, so I start having a really nice chat with her, and just basking in her attention. But, you know, I thought it was hilarious she thought Betty was Desmond's Mom! That was just precious!

So Betty comes back and grabs me, and goes something like "Well, Mr. Straw didn't fuck me over at all! He got us cool seats! Let's go!" So we go down front, and there are two chairs that, honest to god, have little signs on them that say "Betty Ister and Guest." Two great seats that have her fucking name on them. Mr. Straw and his wife and his brother and sister are there, and I've known them for years, so we have a nice chat like a big old reunion, and everything is super nice again.

Nick Lowe comes on, our seats are like right under his nostrils, he and the band, Los Straitjackets, do a fantastic show, it was really great, etc., etc. It's almost Christmas, they do a couple Christmas songs, everyone in the place is singing along and crying, it's an incredible moment. Really, really ace show. I mean, I hadn't paid any attention to Nick Lowe since Rockpile days, but I was utterly blown away. Great, great show.

I’m pretty jaded about this stuff, but I was very impressed.

During the show Betty finishes off her flask. After the show it's still fairly early, so we go back to the bar across the street to sit and visit. We have a great time, we're just talking talking talking about all the people we know, and all the things we have in common. Betty has another drink or two. And we spend a lot of time talking about all the heavy shit going on with her Dad, down in Florida. She's going to visit him soon, and she's really worried about the whole situation, and really dreading the trip, because there will probably be a lot of trouble with her Dad's new girlfriend, who Betty is convinced is a very unscupulous golddigger.

Then, at one point, OUT OF NOWHERE, she grabs two glasses off the bar and throws them past the bartender and smashes them on the floor. Grabs one, the bartender kind of ducks, and the glass goes smashing to the floor and breaks, loudly, into a million different pieces. Grabs glass two, does the same goddam thing. That was really unexpected, and it was immediately obvious they weren't used to people doing this sort of thing at this particular dram shop.

The bartender is just mortified. Paralyzed with surprise, and utterly unclear on the protocol in this situation. The manager comes over and Betty is like "Aw, we're just some old punk rockers cutting loose. We're leaving; don't worry." And we leave. On the drive to my place she goes on and on about how I'm totally doing Facebook wrong, I can't let people know I'm upset, can't let people know I get depressed or have problems, everybody thinks I'm a total fucking whiny little loser, blah, blah, blah. She was completely oblivious to the irony of the situation, of her giving me etiquette lessons. But there you have it. She goes on and on about how pitiful I seem all the time, and how everybody she knows is just totally disgusted with me.

Which, you know, I take with a grain of salt, because she's really ripped, and you know, it's my fucking life, not hers. Anyway, she gives me a bag full of little christmas presents, we had a lot of laughs, the show was great, I had a very memorable time--if a wee bit embarassing because of her shenanigans--and she drops me off.

So, we're thick as thieves. Using the Facebook messenger thing, joking back and forth all the time, totally keeping in touch for the next couple months. At this point, I consider her a really close friend, a good buddy, and I'm sort of looking past how she is sometimes super insulting to me, but she's a lot of laughs, and we're rolling on. The next couple of months we're in contact every day or two.

Then, maybe about a month ago, someone, not me, not Betty, posts a photo or mentions Shelly Winters in a post on Facebook. Actually, maybe they mentioned The Poseidon Adventure, and who was in it? Anyway, just some inane movie trivia, really. And I post a comment about how I always felt bad for Shelly Winters because she had been such a babe when she was young, but then she gained weight and her career went down the tubes. I just posted some comment about some old movie star that has been said a million times before. "Shelly Winters was a babe, she got fat, her career went down the tubes." I mean, you know, Johnny Carson used to rip on her on The Tonight Show all the time. A long tme ago, right? Since Shelly Winters has been dead for like 10 years, or something.

Then, out of nowhere, Betty starts texting me all this stuff about what an absolute totally shallow asshole I am to say something like that, she can't even believe how offensive I am, I'm such a totally shallow asshole, and just goes on and on and on. How can I be such a sexist asshole, don't I know heavy women have feelings too, what a fucking asshole I am, etc., etc.. Just unrelentingly going off on a total tirade on me in this stream of texts. Goes on and on and on about something I posted about Shelly Fucking Winters--who I actually happen to love and get a kick out of and who I actually have a lot of sympathy for--and Betty just completely loses her shit. Just totally goes on and on at me in the most insulting way I've ever seen. I mean, I haven't had somebody go at me like this since the playground in like sixth grade. It was just totally unexpected, seemed pretty extreme, and, from what I could tell, came out of nowhere. Like the smashed glasses.


So, you know, I just let it go. Ignored it. Didn't contact her for awhile. Anyway, she had some car trouble, and I had heard all about her car trouble/money problems for awhile, and I had sympathized. And she bought a new car, and I texted her how did she like it, and she was like "Oh I love it, I'll have to come up to Ann Arbor and show it to you, etc."

So, we exchanged a few friendly texts. I was just kind of sticking my toe in the water, not really knowing what to expect. Had she forgiven? Forgotten? Stopped caring so much about Shelly Winters and her feelings? 

And I kept an eye on the things going on with her on Facebook. So, then, when a work project for me came through with someone she knew a couple weeks ago, I texted her about it. For me, the money was going to be good, the project seemed interesting, and I was excited. And the job was for someone I knew she liked, and I thought she'd say something nice, as one does.

And she replied, basically, "Oh, he's a nice guy. I hope you don't get fired when he finds out what a fucking whiney little fucking asshole loser you are. Do me a favor and lose my fucking phone number."


And she blocked me on Facebook, and I haven't heard a thing from her since.

So, that's what I know about Betty Ister.

I've never had somebody hate my guts about something I said about a dead movie star before. But that is the honest truth of what happened.

I have never been so puzzled in my life.

And I remember, specifically, saying to her, "You know Betty, I don't care about any of the crazy shit you do or say, because I know deep down you're a good person, and your heart is in the right place. I've decided you're a good person, so you can say whatever the hell you want around me, and I won't think any differently about you. That's how I am with my friends."