03 August 2018

[Ellis Millsaps] - Paper Covers Rock: A Talking, Traveling Testimonial

The Cool Swap
*Ed. note: Ellis (Da) wrote this back in the day when he was managing our fledgling rock band at the time - The Cool Swap. Reading this well-written piece always transports me back in time & puts a smile on my face. Be on the lookout for several new pieces from Da here in the near future. As always, thanks for reading - MBM

I’m 53 years old, a feat I’ve achieved by not having died yet, which if you’d followed my lifestyle closely you’d know to be no small achievement. I’ve been a busboy, a waiter, a chef, a criminal defense attorney, a newspaper columnist, a writer of fiction, a husband, a parent, and now I’m embarking on the career for which all this has prepared me: the manager of a rock and roll band.

The band, The Cool S.W.A.P., are, like me, residents of Newton County. Two are friends of my kids who for years now have hung around my house playing my records, playing guitars, consuming my consumables, singing. Twenty year-old John T, it turns out, was born to sing rock and roll. T.J., also 20, has a driven work ethic that extends only to making music. The other two guys are a little older and have been professional musicians for a while. Scottie B, 28, is a drummer who doesn’t miss a lick, and Marshall McCart is a 30 year old UGA grad who works two day jobs. He’s also one of the best guitarists you’re ever likely to see up close. 

I missed their first live show, caught their second in June on the patio of a Covington restaurant and was unprepared for how good they are. A carload of beautiful bohemian dancing girls materialized from somewhere, made me dance with them until I couldn’t stand it no more, and just as abruptly went on their way. Since then I’ve been the manager of The Cool S.W.A.P., an avocation that so far has cost me several hundred dollars in cash, gasoline, alcohol and sleep deprivation.

The rock venues of Covington are not the biggest or most prolific, which led us to quickly decide we want to make it in Athens because, as the Drive By Truckers have Carl Perkins say of Nashville, it’s “where you go to see if what is said is so.” So on a Monday in early August, T.J., John T and I, armed with a home-printed promo package and a demo of seven songs recorded in Marshall’s basement, set out for Athens via Madison, where we hope to book some shows.

Things are not exactly hopping on a Monday afternoon with school not in session in the Classic City, but we manage to locate Eyal Reisen and book two shows at DT’s Down Under and leave a couple of demos at places where we might even get paid. I’ve made calls to these places the week before, and I’m surprised that people remember my name and apologize for not having returned my calls, but I suspect this is partly due to my membership in W.A.M.G.A.T., one of the most privileged minority groups in the world: White Anglo-Saxon Males Graying at the Temples. Fast food restaurant managers spot me in the back of the line and say, “May I take your order sir?”

We head back on a curricular route by Lake Oconee because a waitress in Madison has told us we should leave a demo at a place named Zac’s which books live bands. My mouth tastes bad from smoking a lot of cigarettes, which seems to be a prerequisite for playing rock and roll.

“T.J.,” I inquire, “You got any chewing gum, mints, candy or something?”

“Look in the glove compartment.”

“Nothing’s in here but traffic tickets and whatever’s in this box.”


“Are they flavored?”


Wednesday, August 10, 2005

I call Murphy Wolford at Tasty World and he’s not only listened to our demo, he likes it and wants to put us on stage, Tuesday August 30th at 10:30, the first of three bands. Better news, we’ll get paid, one third of the door after the house takes $110.00 operating expenses. Can we play a 40 minute set of original material? Murphy wants to know. “Yes,” I assure him, because we are Brer Rabbit and our music is the brier patch.
That evening, T.J., John T., my son Jack -- an Emory student and sometime contributor to the band -- and I take two acoustic guitars and head off to open mic night at The Celtic Tavern in Conyers, where T.J. says we can win money. We get to do three songs. The first is a creation of Jack’s called “Natural Light,” which celebrates the pleasures of relieving oneself off the front porch. The second is a composition of mine, a sing-along called “When Queers Can Get Married,” a Randy Newmanesque satire about a homophobic young man who is uncomfortable with the idea of homosexual unions.

Conyers is about as red state as you can get. We open to a packed house who have come to hear the amateur efforts of their friends and relatives, and midway through the first verse of “Queers” we have cleared the room. People shout angrily on their way out. The place looks like Pompeii after Versavius erupts. Drinks are left unfinished and cigarettes burning in ashtrays. The old and infirm are abandoned in a mad scramble to protect the young. Incredibly, we still win enough money to cover our bar tab, which under the circumstances we felt obliged to run up as high as we could.

Thursday August 11, 2005

One of the reasons the S.W.A.P. is so good is that they practice hard three nights a week. I try to make at least one, offering production advice and feedback. They usually follow my advice because rock and roll has been the soundtrack to my life, which roughly coincides with the history of the genre.

Sometimes my feedback is simply awestruck praise. At the end of a particularly tight rendition of our “Sight Out of Mind,” I tell them the The Strokes only wish they had a song that good, but I pull no punches when the sound doesn’t suit me. “Too much guitar solo there. Save it for when we’re playing all day in a baseball stadium.” Marshall’s verse on “The Weight” sounds like he’s trying to do it the way Richard Manuel would. Now that he’s dead. The new song they’re working on sounds like a Pure Prairie League B-side.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

Tonight we’re playing our first Athens gig, taking the stage at midnight at DT’s Down Under. Somewhere along the way I pick up a Flagpole and read the first part of Ben Gerrard’s informative article on “Cracking The Scene” as a new band in Athens. The Cool S.W.A.P.’s excellent management, it seems, is already doing everything right.

It’s a good time to be playing, because it’s the night before the first day of fall semester. Walking down Clayton Street in one of my Colonel Parker costumes -- seersucker or linen, always the Panama hat -- it’s immediately apparent to me that I’m the only person on the street who is not a kid. They are spilling out of barroom doors, trash talking, showing lots of skin, vomiting in sewer grates.

They look at me guardedly, as if I might be The Man. I smile and nod, feeling like a character in a Velvet Underground song.

Them: “Hey white boy. What are you doing downtown? You chasing our woman around?”

Me: “Oh no suh, not me. That’s the last thing on my mind. I’m just waiting for my man.”

Although their bitches do look fine.

DT’s is like the basement of a frat house, a frat house that has severely gone to seed: a bar on one end, a band on the other, and not much in he middle but a little patch of concrete floor infused with decades of spilled beer. We’re right at home here; it’s a lot like Marshall’s basement.

Most of the best and brightest of our Covington friends, including my eighteen year-old daughter, are students here. They’re out in force and they bring people with them, fifty or so, half of them ridiculously good looking females.

“Yo! Da! Wassup?” they yell as I enter. They call me “Da.” Perhaps we can discuss why that is some other time.The set opens, at my suggestion, with “Seven Nation Army,” a song they always nail. When you hear those opening bass notes, I say, it’s like “Satisfaction.” You say to yourself, “Oh, this place. I’ve been here before. I love this place.”

And that’s the way it is. The band hits the ground running and never looks back, cranking out one full-tilt rocker after another, luring the crowd into a screaming, jumping frenzy. Scottie B is happy as he can be. Marshall mostly shies away behind a post, kicking guitar ass like Clapton unbound.

The young guys though, have never had this much stage presence. They’re doing synchronized jumps; John T gets down on the floor. It’s all these sunny young tits, I know, that has wrought this transformation. Aside from the aforementioned “Miracle of the Dancing Bohemians,” we don’t get this in Covington.

I sit at the bar thinking that the staff at DT’s is amazed at how good my band is. People start wandering in from the street. An attractive young woman of graduate school age walks up to me and says, “What are you doing here?”

I explain that I’m a friend of the band. She tells me I look like someone she’d really like to talk to.
It’s too loud for talk, but she yells that she just walked in because this band sounds so good. “Who are they?”

“The Cool S.W.A.P.,” I shout, just as the Rastafarian with whom she came pulls her out, and before I have the wits to give her a business card and tell her, if she says she’s calling about the band, my secretary will let her talk to me for free.

MB, John T, TJ & Scotty B (l - r)

Back on stage, a couple of our more zealous Covington fans have removed their shirts and are helping John T play the congas. At this show, at this stage of our career, this is kind of cute. Later we will employ Hell’s Angels who will break their fingers should they attempt such a stunt.

Tuesday, August 23, 2005

DT’s has been calling my office today wanting us to play the next night and just about any other time we want. As a matter of fact, we can pretty much be the house band as long as we’re willing to play for free.
I meet with the band at practice to discuss this and a couple of other things. One of the other things is that I’ve had the kind of brainstorm they’d be paying me for if we were getting paid. I’ve called Flagpole and talked to Mr. Gerrand’s editor, Chris Hassiotis, and told him I’d read Mr. Gerrand’s article with interest because I’m managing a band which is right now doing what the article suggested. What if Mr. Gerrand were to cover our upcoming shows and report on the progress of a “baby band” actively trying to “crack the scene?”

Mr. Hassiotis seems interested, or maybe he’s just being nice, but he’s actually heard of us and will pass this information along to Mr. Gerrard, who is currently out of town, and have him get in touch with me. Later it occurs to me that I failed to ascertain how long Mr. Gerrand would be out of town.

The other thing I want to do is demo a song T.J. and I wrote the night before, which I sing with T.J. on guitar. It fails to get Marshall’s endorsement, a prerequisite to anything this band does and with good reason. If, like Tom Hanks in That Thing You Do, you were saying who was what in The Cool S.W.A.P., (the funny one, the brains) Marshall would be “the talent.”

We call DT’s and tell them we’ll do the two free shows to which we agreed and if they need a fill-in tomorrow we’ll do it if as a favor, but they’ll have to give us a little cash to cover gas and cigarettes. We end up rescheduling our Thursday show for Friday, September 2, the night before the Boise State game.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Yesterday I struck a jury in a drug case and the judge told me my trial will begin Wednesday at 9:00am. There’s no way around this. If it were any other show I’d stay home and go to bed, but the Tasty World show is the biggest we’ve ever played.

So I’m here, regretting that I’ll only get five hours sleep, regretting more that I won’t get to hear the bands after us.

Thanks to the cover change probably, our crowd is a little smaller than Thursday, but we’re still more than covering the house’s overhead with our fans alone. Also, they’re more subdued. This isn’t a place, I think, where people take off their shirts.

The set opens with “A.M. Hindsight,” a song with more hooks than Wilt Chamberlain, and I know everything will be alright. They have a sound man here who knows what he’s doing, and I can hear things I haven’t heard before, a few of which I want to change.

The highlight of the night is “Talking, Traveling Blues,” a pedestrian name for one of the crunkest songs you’ll ever hear. By the end of the show a group of girls sitting behind me who’ve come to hear the next band are yelling, “Oh, yeah! Cool S.W.A.P!”
In the morning my five hours of sleep has kept me sharp. I’m thinking about my closing where I wrap myself in the flag and make fun of the State’s witnesses, when an unexpected piece of evidence causes my client to bail and plead guilty.

By 1pm. I’m home having a couple of drinks and a cigar. At 3:00 I take a nap, get up at five and burn a pizza, then repeat the process and sleep eleven hours.

In the morning I learn that while I was out the price of gasoline has gone up fifty cents a gallon and the City of New Orleans now looks like an apocalyptic scene in a science fiction movie. I should be concerned about these things, I know, but what I’m really concerned abut is what Murphy thought about our show.

Friday, September 2, 2005

Walking in from the courthouse parking deck, the east side of Athens for some reason smells bad tonight.
The smell subsides as I make my way down Clayton, and I notice that while there are as many kids in town as the night before school started, they are considerably less raucous, and I soon see why: a healthy percentage of the coeds on the sidewalks are window shopping with their mothers, some even with they mama’s mamas, no doubt here for tomorrow’s game.

Ten o’clock at DT’s, not much is happening. There are about a dozen spectators, and the house sound system is providing a major glitch in that no sound is coming out the lead singer’s mike. The band asks me to work on this problem which is something like getting Mr. Magoo to handle reading the road map, then I engage the guy working the door who makes no more headway than did Magoo.

After ten minutes or so of shoulder shrugging, Damion -- a good Samaritan I’d earlier met outside, and a keyboard player with an accomplished band of his own, Greg and the Gruntones, who’ll be on at midnight -- addresses the problem and fixes it in no time. People have been drifting in and by 10:30 when T.J. hits the jangly intro to “American Girl,” our usual cadre of fans is here along with others I haven’t seen before.
Early on I make the remarkable discovery that one can purchase a healthy pour of Kettle One Dutch vodka for the nominal price of four dollars and fifty cents at this fine establishment, a phenomenon that later in the evening will lead to some minor property damage, but I’m not driving, and for now I feel like Jesus’ son as the band rips off a blistering Zeppelin medley that has jaws dropping.

In addition to the Kettle One, I’m feeling good because Murphy wants us back a Tasty World on September 26, we’re recording and E.P. of new material at an actual recording studio on August 18th, and although Flagpole hasn’t called me back, I’ve decided to write the article myself because, after all, it’s the sort of thing I do.

Like every show that we’ve played, this one is better than the last. I meet my daughter’s roommate, a clever girl who has brought her own contingent to swell the progress and already knows “Talking Traveling Blues” is her favorite song. When our show ends I mill around waiting for the Gruntones, but I only get to hear one song when T.J. says we have to leave because the guy on whose couches we are to sleep is about to get in a fight on the sidewalk.

And so we rock on, boats against the current -- O.K., you’ve heard that one. How about, “I’d like to thank you on behalf of the group and myself, and I hope …”

  Ellis Millsaps

Ellis is a recovering Attorney but has worn many hats over the years: father, bus boy, stand-up comedian, novelist, wiffle ball player, rock'n'roll band manager, and at one time wrote a popular and funny column for The Covington News. A Fannin Co. mountain boy originally, Mr. Millsaps now stays at the mill village of Porterdale by way of 20 years in Mansfield. Usually funny and at times irreverent and subversive, he leans left in his political philosophy but can always be counted on for a pretty darn good write-up. The Chronicles are proud to have him involved...