The Bluenotes backstage at The City Limits | Provided photo
By Joe Livernois
Dan Miller, the music promoter and former Pacific Grove city councilman, got a phone call from an agent in Los Angeles back in 1987. The agent represented a little rhythm-and-blues outfit called the Bluenotes that needed a gig in Salinas. And they needed it to happen in two weeks, on Nov. 6, 1987.
Miller ran a nightclub in Salinas called City Limits so he was always looking for a decent live act. But Nov. 6 was a Friday, and City Limits had a disco thing going on Friday nights. Disco DJs still drew good crowds in Salinas. Miller quickly weighed the pros and the cons, disco DJs vs. some live blues band he’d never heard of. Miller was pretty much ready to say no. There’d be nothing worse than alienating the disco crowd.
Well, the agent said, you should probably know that the Bluenotes is fronted by Neil Young.
“This knocked me out of my chair,” Miller told Voices of Monterey Bay, more than 30 years later.
It’s been tradition that Young comes down from his Santa Cruz County mountain home, before launching his big tours, to rehearse with preview shows in the smaller venues around Santa Cruz. Places like The Catalyst, Coconut Grove or the Civic Auditorium. The shows are always hush-hush, never promoted except by word of mouth, and they are pretty much staged as rehearsals. They were no-nonsense events, with Young focused entirely on getting his music and his stagecraft right. Depending on the tour and the album the tour was promoting, he would show up with Crazy Horse, or whatever. In this case, the “whatever” included his usual stable of musicians joined by trombones, saxophones and trumpets.
Also in this case, the usual venues were apparently booked and the agent was scrambling. The Bluenotes would be dragging an elaborate sound system to the show because the Young wanted the Bluenotes album to be a live thing. Performances from different venues would be distilled into a two-disc set.
So are you going to take Neil Young for the night or not? the agent asked.
Sure, Miller answered. He’d figure out a way to deal with the disco people. He’d been promoting shows and running the nightclub for a couple of years, and he knew the importance of being flexible. He’d booked X there. Lords of the New Church and Wang Chung had appeared at City Limits. Up until then, Miller’s favorite show was the time he brought Oingo Boingo to The Oz, a dinky nightclub on Abrego Street, in 1982. He’d seen Oingo Boingo at the US Festival near San Bernardino several months earlier, and booking them in Monterey became an obsession for him. It was a great experience, except that he remembered that Danny Elfman, Oingo Boingo’s singer and songwriter, seemed rather temperamental, storming into what served as the upstairs office Miller where hung out to complain that the show wasn’t an all-ages show, as expected.
Speaking of temperamental, now Neil Young was coming to his place. Miller recalls panicking when he was told last minute that Young insisted on having fruit backstage for the band and all Miller could find on such short notice was a single coconut. Miller was also forbidden from telling anyone that Neil Young would be there. He could mention the “Bluenotes,” sure, but not Neil Young. Violation of this contractual provision meant that Young would cancel. Period.
But somehow word leaked out; the folks at KMBY-FM radio let it slip the day of the show. And suddenly the parking lot in front of City Limits was jammed with people. Even then, Miller said, “850 tickets is a lot to sell in one afternoon.” Rumor had it that Young was in Salinas earlier in the day and heard that word had slipped out — and that he wasn’t happy.
The show went on as planned, but some of the customers were cranky that Young wasn’t delivering what they expected. Young and his band were working out the kinks of his live show with new music in front of an audience drinking warm beer and expecting to hear “Cinnamon Girl.” Also, Young was going through one of his phases. As he is always and notoriously pissed at the music industry, the Bluenotes thing and the single off the album — “This Song’s For You” — seemed like a giant middle-finger directed at what people in the industry and his fans expected from him. With the Bluenotes gig, the fact that he refused to play any of his old hits felt like defiance.
So Salinas probably turned out to be a great testing ground to prepare for a tour like that. I mean, this was Neil Young. Showing up in Salinas. When is that ever going to happen again? And he absolutely refused to sing “Southern Man?”
At any rate, at some point at the Salinas show some drunken yahoo jumped on stage and tried to engage Young, which is never a good idea. Others rushed to pull him off the stage and threw him out the front door before there could be any damage done. Miller said he had to chase the yahoo around the perimeter of City Limits to keep him from re-entering.
Between songs, other drunken yahoos hollered out the names of Young’s greatest hits. For a while, Young peevishly reminded the crowd that “this is not Neil Young, it’s the Bluenotes.” When the yahoos persisted, Young turned his back on the audience, deliberately placed his guitar in its stand and slowly returned to the microphone. He glared into the crowd and asked, “What do I look like? A f*cking jukebox?”
It was vintage Neil Young.
But at least Salinas wasn’t as bad as it got when the Bluenotes hit the road. Will Hermes, writing for Rolling Stone, remembered that when Young sang “I ain’t singin’ for Miller/I ain’t singin’ for Bud” at some venues, irate fans hurled beer cans at the stage. Added Hermes: “You really couldn’t blame them.”
When Young and the Bluenotes finished the first set in Salinas, they walked off the stage and promised to come back after intermission. And indeed they did return with a steely workmanlike posture to replicate the music they had already played during the first set, pretty much note for note. It was a preview, after all, a rehearsal in front of live bodies. The yahoos expecting to hear “Cinnamon Girl” went home disappointed.
Miller said someone took one quick photograph of the Bluenotes. It was backstage, and the band had gathered around the coconut. Miller still has the photograph hanging on a wall.
The album from that tour, “Bluenote Café,” did not include a cut from Salinas, Miller said.
The City Limits shut down a couple of months later. “I don’t think the disco people had ever forgiven me,” he said.
Letter: That was my brother!
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