By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Alice Laussade
By Scott Reitz
Interior, Charlie's Paradise Bar, South Padre Island, 3/19/99, 3:45 p.m. The subjects are onstage, here, now, doing sound check: the Toadies. You remember--responsible for the huge radio hit "Possum Kingdom" a few years back. ("Do you wanna die"--that song.) Big rock. Rubberneck, platinum record. New album out later this year, maybe. Band is on short regional mini-tour.
At the moment, singer-guitarist Todd Lewis is playing "Crazy Train"; the riff echoes through a venue about which entire epics could be written. Charlie's can hold upward of 6,000 people, and its massive interior is some combination of airport hangar, barn, and monument to modern advertising: high, tin roof; wood beams aplenty; and wall space covered to its last inch with banners that pimp everything from Met-RX to Nair to Futurama to all extant brands of beer.
Though none of these banners bears the island's unofficial mantra ("Show us your tits!"), several employ a similar theme--most notably Moosehead ("Nice Rack") and Hiram Walker Sourballs ("We Got Balls!" and "So sour it makes your butt pucker"), whatever those are. From the ceiling hang any number of Hawaiian Tropic Beach Balls and huge, inflatable Coors Light cans. The stage sits along the south wall; the floor houses about a dozen picnic tables and four huge bars.
Outside, there's a fenced-in area that contains booths for ear-piercing, tattoos, and Copenhagen snuff; a mechanical bull; and a couple of extreme-sports type rides. One of them is a little slice of hell called "The Ejection Seat"--basically a reverse bungee-jumping situation in which two passengers are flung 60-some feet in the air via elastic rubber, the primary objective clearly being to determine the relative sphincter strength of whichever nimrods stumble into the thing. Indeed, between the laxative properties of The Ejection Seat and the availability of butt-puckering sourballs, Charlie's management has neatly addressed all the potential evacuatory needs of its patrons.
Exterior, Charlie's Paradise Bar, 4:30 p.m. In sky, airplane carries banner that reads "Live Concert Toadies Charlie's." On ground, pick-up truck carries bumper sticker that reads, "Beauty is in the eye of the beer holder."
Interior, Charlie's Paradise Bar, 5:30 p.m. Sound check is over. Ken, the band's merchandise guy, has concocted a plan that he guarantees will turn a profit: He'll go buy a bunch of beer now and stash it in room 613 of the Sheraton, where everyone is staying. At 2:15 a.m., 15 minutes after all the bars and liquor stores have closed, he'll begin selling it to desperate partiers at a markup of about 500 million percent. It is at this point that the intrepid reporter first adds the suffix "the Crazy-Ass Merch Dude" to Ken's name.
Another thing about Ken: Though he is both crazy-ass and a merch dude, he possesses some weird psychic energy that immediately invites trust and inspires calm. When he walks into a room, questions become answers. Thus, within five minutes of presenting his plan, he's on his way to a liquor store with $120 in his hand.
Exterior, Sheraton Hotel, 6:05 p.m. Slogan written in shoe polish on window of van parked outside hotel: "We eat pussy '99."
Interior, Sheraton Hotel, 7:10 p.m. Each February, the South Padre Sheraton--like pretty much every other resort space on the island--prepares for a hotelier's version of war. It hires about 110 extra employees. It removes the coffeemakers and glassware from its rooms. It blocks off its entire second floor, which houses meeting and banquet rooms. On all the other floors, it covers the elevator-direction lights with wood paneling. "History," says rooms division manager Andrew Fine, "has shown us that these can sometimes get damaged."
It downgrades the menu in its restaurant, orders three times its normal supply of liquor, gets stingy with towels, requires all guests to wear pink wristbands, and has at least one of its employees mopping the lobby floor at all times. All of this in anticipation of the impending five-week assault of spring breakers--about 125,000 total for the entire island.
Thirty of these revelers sit near Andrew Fine in the Sheraton's Beachside Bar & Grille as he recounts all of this. The boon to Padre's economy--an estimated $68 million--has meant that island clubs can afford to bring in a bunch of bands during those five weeks, and according to Fine, most of them stay at the Sheraton. He mentions Run-DMC, Robert Earl Keen, and Digital Underground as recent patrons. He adds that Mstley CrYe was here last week, and that Vince Neil was a "terrific ambassador." He hopes aloud that the Toadies will show their appreciation by giving him some "product."
The conversation ends when the lights go down, the DJ starts blaring that really annoying song by the Offspring, and a wet T-shirt contest begins.
7:45 p.m. While standing in a 10-minute line to get on the elevators, it becomes clear that word of the Toadies' presence has spread throughout the hotel. The girls in room 310 want them to come by for autographs. A guy in 925 can play guitar and declares himself "primed" for tonight's show. A young Southern girl gets on an elevator and asks for "the sixth floor--The Toadies' floor." Found later, the band members seem oblivious to the din of anticipation. Their mission, according to guitarist Clark Vogeler: "Get in. Rock 'em. Take their money. Get out."
Charlie's Paradise Bar, 8:45 p.m. The green room at Charlie's is actually pink, and it's tiny--maybe six by seven. When last seen at the end of the sound check, it was full of beer, soda, cheese, and lunch meat. Now, it's full of semi-clad members of the Coors Light Texas Bikini Team, and security won't let anyone else in there, including the Toadies.
The Bikini Team was slated to be the opening act--"We're not touring with them, though," Lewis had assured earlier--but it turns out that they'll in fact be the headliner, and that an actual bikini contest, featuring audience members, will be the opener. The latter is being organized by a spindly guy who's running around with a walkie-talkie in his hand and several broomsticks up his backside. His overall comportment suggests that those broomsticks are a permanent fixture.
9 p.m. Temporarily unable to get in the green room, a few band members linger outside near The Ejection Seat. Seems that the ES is rigged with microphones that loudly broadcast passengers' reactions during the ride. Though the phrase "woahfuckyeahholyshitohmyfuckjesuswoohooshit!" is not in itself humorous, it is downright riotous when amplified to 90 decibels and accompanied by the visual of two yahoos getting flung spaceward. As it happens, this is funny no matter how many times you witness it.
Ken the Crazy-Ass Merch Dude heads over to the Copenhagen booth and enters a contest in which you get a free T-shirt if you can do 10 pull-ups. So confident is Ken that he attempts them with a cigarette in his mouth (a time-honored crazy-ass maneuver if there ever was one), which makes him look slightly silly when he can do only eight. Unfazed, he wanders to a nearby table and chats up Vicca, a Russian Penthouse Pet on hand to sign autographs.
Drummer Mark Reznicek sits at a picnic table and judges the Padre mise-en-scene "creepy. I thought it'd be funny, but I just feel...creepy."
9:30 p.m. Over at the band's merch booth, an official of the Texas Bikini Team regales several Toadies with a story from that day's Jerry Springer Show. His conclusion: "I'm like, damn."
9:55 p.m. Toadies bassist Lisa Umbarger has muscled her way into the green room, where she sits in the company of Texas Bikini Team members Vivian and Sonya, two women wearing far more hair than clothing. The room is now littered with feather boas, cowboy hats, and hot pants. When Umbarger suggests that the aforementioned bikini contest organizer could use a "kick in the balls," Vivian looks over and asks whether "we have some unhappy Toadies in the house."
Sensing the decreasing possibility of a Polaroid moment between the two entertainers, Sonya tries to defuse the tension by saddling up next to Umbarger and assuring her that "I tried to learn the bass once." The confession causes a certain intrepid reporter to giggle like a schoolgirl. Unfazed, Sonya starts to ask Umbarger if she's nervous, but is interrupted by Ken the Crazy-Ass Merch Dude, who wants to wish all the bikini contestants "good luck."
10 p.m. Excerpt from Bikini Contest rules, as posted in Green Room: "If a contestant shows any covered parts by...manually jiggling...she will be automatically disqualified."
10:15 p.m. Bikini contest. The crowd alternates between cheers of "We want tits" and "Toad-ies, Toad-ies." The most popular contestants seem to be Jennifer, who the emcee says "likes those frat boys, especially Sigma Nus," and Maggie, whose ambition is "sex in space."
10:45 p.m. Maggie wins. That's one small step for...
Q: "Where, in the hierarchy of acts you've played with, does the Coors Light Texas Bikini contest reside?"
Vogeler: "Just above Bush."
11 p.m. Line around the building. Gonna guess that 6,000 is a low estimate for number of people in attendance. Almost all of them look to be younger than 24, fairly affluent, fairly concerned with their attire, and completely unaware that sun-block products exist.
11:01-11:04 p.m. "Toad-ies! Toad-ies!"
11:05 p.m. Show begins. Band in full effect. Loud. Rock.
Crowd dancing, singing, drinking.
Q: "You a Toadies fan?"
Short Girl with a large "X" on her hand: "Woo-hoo!"
Q: "Would you say their sound was fully formed when they put out Velvet, or did it not coalesce until Rubberneck?"
11:30 p.m. "Possum Kingdom." You have not had the chills until you have stood on a stage and seen a room packed with thousands of drunken buzzards throwing ice and hats and chairs and whatever they can get their hands on, hurling themselves toward you and each other, screaming every last lyric in unison, jumping up and down and tearing stuff up and just generally going bananas all because of some little guitar part coming from your direction. It stops being about chords or melodies or art or lyrics or whatever else intrepid reporters like to carry on about; it becomes pure adrenaline, one huge body teetering between rapture and chaos for four minutes and 30 seconds.
To witness such moments from the stage end is to understand the lure of rock, to understand why people spend their lives in basements trying to attain such a thing, to understand why the Rolling Stones can only be carried offstage in a hearse. It is awesome and a little bit scary.
Q: "What were your thoughts about playing a spring-break gig before you played?"
Todd Lewis: "I'd never been a part of 'spring break,' other than what I saw on TV. Which, it turns out, is exactly how it is. But I figured it'd be a cush gig, a chance to play in our home state. By the time we left the hotel for the show, I figured that these people didn't give a rat's ass about this music. I was resigned to doing my thing and having people not care."
Q: "And after?"
Lewis: "I dug it. When the show was on, it didn't feel like spring break. Except when you look off to the side and see these Bikini Girls dancing. It was surreal, playing in between tits. That was pretty silly. But it bought us a couple more weeks off."
12:45 a.m. Show over. Band now huddled in merch booth, signing autographs. Idea: spend next two hours grilling Aaron, the sound guy. Aaron has long black hair and wears cowboy boots, jeans, and a baseball cap. He has been Pantera's sound man for 10 years. You probably do not want to mess with him.
Before Aaron can be buttonholed, however, Ken the Crazy-Ass Merch Dude shows up with six plastic cups half-full of a non-specific pinkish substance. What with all the good cheer and camaraderie and whatnot, the intrepid reporter innocently decides to partake in said substance, which tastes like straight Everclear with a Jolly Rancher garnish. Turns out that this wasn't such a good idea, because when the intrepid reporter comes to, it's...
Sheraton, room 613, 3:49 a.m. Ken the Crazy-Ass Merch Dude sits on the bed with two Missouri co-eds, one of whose toenails he's painting black with a Sharpie. Two guys, origin unknown, are sitting on the couch, shirtless. Umbarger and Lewis are gone. Vogeler and Reznicek are drinking beer and occasionally throwing Budweiser bottles off the balcony, in the general direction of a nearby dumpster. Apparently their shooting percentage is sub-par, because someone in room 612 leans over the balcony and relates that security is presently searching his room for Budweiser bottles. The only trace of the last three hours, four minutes: some chicken scratch on the back of a bar napkin.
Apparently Ken the Crazy-Ass Merch Dude isn't quite as omniscient as was once believed. His beer resale plan has netted four dollars thus far. In a transparent attempt to save face, he wanders over and whispers conspiratorially: "What if I said I could get you laid?"
Faced with an uncommon bout of trepidation, the no-longer-intrepid reporter seizes the opportunity to exit. But first, one last question:
"What's the key?"
Ken: "Don't sweat the technique.