Musical War Stories: Dance, Franny, Dance, or the only time I’ll ever stump Deke Dickerson

Deke can do the work of four men onstage.

Deke can do the work of four men onstage.

(C) 2013, Fran Fried

Deke Dickerson is not only one of the true godlike figures of modern guitar — started in a surf band, graduated to rockabilly and vintage country and just about anything good and decent in between — and he has an encyclopedic knowledge of music. And one of the best senses of memory and recall I’ve ever seen.

I’m talking titanium trap here — not quite as absolute total-recall as Marilu Henner, but pretteee damn close. I mean, I’m blessed/cursed with a stellar memory, but he makes me seem as if I’m senile — which, my friends will tell you, is pretty huge. His talent for recall might be even better than his guitar playing, and that’s world-class.

I’m living proof of that. At some points of my life, he has simply floored me. But there was one night — and there will, indeed, be only one — where I was able to stump him. Just barely.

*****

In case you’ve been stuck on “classic” “rawwwwk” or other mainstream corporate bullshit the last quarter century, you’ve missed one hell of a guitarist.

The Untamed Youth, Deke second from left.

The Untamed Youth, Deke second from left.

I first met Deke in the winter of 1989. I was still a sportswriter at the evil and heinous Waterbury Republican-American at the time, but was also freelancing album reviews for them, as well as a weekly club column. (A year later, I would give up covering the Hartford Whalers for a full-time entertainment writer position. At least until I was harassed and union-busted out of the place two years after that.)

I dug his first band — his teenage surf band back in Columbia, Mo., The Untamed Youth — from their debut album from the previous year on Norton Records, Some Kinda Fun. And they were coming to Connecticut for the first time. I saw and met them in New Haven, where they played at, of all places, a reggae club — a long-gone venue called Third World International Cafe on Whalley Avenue. And the night after that, I took the 50-minute drive down to just across the New York state line to see them at The Beat, an old-man’s bar on a side street off Route 1 in Port Chester that had been converted to a music club. I do remember that they were hauling themselves around at the time in a 1969 Olds Ninety Eight hearse, dark blue with black vinyl top.

Anyway, fast-forward 10 years. September 1999. I was on vacation for two weeks in New Orleans, and stayed with Pam Coyle and Shaun Washburn, two dear friends from the New Haven alt-music days who moved to NOLa, where Pam joined the Times-Picayune staff and worked her way to assistant city editor (and was part of a team that won two Pulitzers — the latter for the late, great daily’s beyond-description coverage of Katrina). Shaun played drums in bands and did sound as well.

How Deke remembered me (minus a few pounds).

How Deke remembered me (minus a few pounds).

One weeknight, Shaun and I went out to the Quarter; the name of the club, I forget. But Deke was playing there that night, and we both wanted to see him. By this time, he had long since moved to L.A. and was touring with his new band, The Ecco-Fonics. I had ditched Waterbury, in the midst-of the union-busting seven years prior, to become the entertainment editor and music writer at the New Haven Register. And I worked my ass off there, and I needed that vacation. Just needed to be away. And I also harbored the hope that one day I would end up in New Orleans full time.

The club was in a converted theater, with the bar in the former snack bar, and terraces on several levels heading down toward the stage. And after the opening act, Deke was setting up. And as I was walking down the right aisle, he was walking past me, wheeling an amp case.

And he stopped and said, in his congenial drawl, “Hey, Fran! How ya doin’?”

Okay, my jaw dropped. He, as a well-traveled musician, has met countless thousands of people over the last quarter-century. I take it as a good sign if a musician remembers me. But he would have no reason to remember me after all this time — or would he?

“Holy shit!” I said to him. “How do you remember me? I mean, we only met once, and that was 10 years ago!”

“Of course I remember you,” he said. “New Haven was the least amount of money we ever made with The Untamed Youth. We walked out of there with 20 bucks.”

Not that it was my fault that they got paid so little, of course, but I got to see how his sense of recall worked. So I walked out of there at the end of the night both entertained and astounded in a way I rarely have been.

Fast-forward five years — summer of 2004, my first summer in Fresno. My girlfriend at the time, Dawling, was visiting for the summer from Long Island, and Deke was playing this one weeknight (a Tuesday, I believe) at Club Fred, in the Tower District. And as he set up for what would be a sparse audience, he looked out and said, “Hey, Fran, how’ve you been?”

So we caught up. Again, I was kind of astounded he would remember me. After all, I had now seen him three times in 15 years, in three different parts of the country. I mean, I have a disconnect where, for all my memory and recall, I might not remember someone if I see him/her in a different place, in a different context. But then again, I had long accepted that this man had one of the best memories in the universe. And I saw him a couple more times in the next four years, before my wild little gender trip.

*****

August 16, 2009. Saturday.

Thanks to my layoff from The Fresno Bee that March, I had just been forced to move two weeks before from my cool little rental house in the Tower District into a room in a house just off Huntington Boulevard just southeast of downtown, in Fresno’s original hoity-toity neighborhood. It would shortly afterward become a nightmare — the place I call the Happy House, as I learned gradually just how much of a judgmental, hypocritical, angry wino and total douchebag the owner was. But in that first month or so, things were still cool there.

And that night, I was going out to see Deke play at what was once Club Fred, now called Audie’s Olympic.

It was a rockabilly night — after all, the Rockabilly Queen of the San Joaquin, Becky Caraveo, booked the show, and her group, Cattie Ness & the Revenge, would open — and if I learned anything as I was emerging into womanhood at a relatively advanced age in Central California, it was that rockabilly shows were like prom nights for grownups.

The rockabilly culture in California is a colorful confluence of rock’n’roll and fashion; of traditional music with a punk edge, with healthy doses of both car culture and Mexican culture.  The guys have their pompadours meticulously in place, and the rolls of the cuffs on their jeans and the sleeves of their plaid shirts just right. And the gals? Well, I learned early on in my transition just how much a truism Van Morrison was singing: All the girls walk by, dressed up for each other. Hair primped and sometimes swept up, accented by roses; their best vintage, or at least vintage-style, dresses just so; their heels high.

And since this was to be my first rockabilly show as Frannie 2.0, I wasn’t gonna miss the train.

How Deke saw me at Audie's, August 2009.

How Deke saw me at Audie’s, August 2009.

I had bought a new dress for cheap off eBay back in the spring, just waiting for the right occasion — cotton, the tiniest of shoulders, cream with burgundy floral print and trim. I had also bought, in an online BOGO sale on Famous Footwear, two pairs of styling pumps. The bonus pair was in black patent. But the pair I really wanted — and got — was candy apple red metalflake patent. I had seen a girl wear them out one night at the Starline Grill and asked her where she got them. They were just the coolest. And, again, I was waiting for the right occasion.

And it was now the right occasion.

And it occurred to me — an afterthought, as I was getting ready that evening: I wonder if Deke would recognize me. If anyone would souse me out without having seen me en femme before, it would be him. This will be a test, I thought. This could be fun.

Anyway, I wiggled into a red bra, worked the dress over my head, put on my fake hair, applied glitter over my fuchsia eye pigment, slipped into the candy apple metalflake pumps and walked out of the room. The significant other of the house, the House Mom, got a gander of me and said, “You look great. You need to get a picture.”

My sentiments exactly. So I grabbed my camera, and we had an impromptu photo shoot there in the living room. I felt like a debutante, or at least something resembling a rockabilly princess. It was as femme as I’ve ever looked (and that was months before I started with the hormones, too).

And then off I went to the Tower.

*****

I got there around 9ish. (Unlike Connecticut, in California, if they say a show starts at 9, it starts at 9.) In time to catch Becky and crew.

I found my friend Gary Rice at the bar. I’d known Gary for five years at that point. He was once a part of the Austin music scene and managed The LeRoi Brothers back in the ’80s. That was before he went back to school, got his master’s and then his doctorate. He’s a journalism professor at Fresno State — a good one and exacting one; if you can get an A in his class, you’re doing a hell of a job — and I helped out with some of his summer high school journalism workshops and springtime open houses. And he was one of the handful of people in Fresno with whom I could talk rock’n’roll the way I had with my friends in Connecticut and New York.

He called me early in he afternoon to tell me he was back in town and see if I was going to the show. “Yeah,” I responded, “but you need to know something ahead of time …” since the one thing I was careful about throughout the transition was making sure I didn’t trick-or-treat my friends with the new look. (Although Deke, of course, would be one of the very few.) He said that was fine. Besides, it gave us something to talk about in addition to shop, since I was a laid-off newspaper editor and he was training kids for a line of work that was beginning to implode.

Anyway, the band had just started, and I scanned the room. Gary was at the bar. I didn’t say anything at first; I just stood next to him, and when he turned to his right, I was standing there, smiling.

He was stunned. “Boy, you look great!” he said with a huge smile and a hug. He bought me a drink and we caught up — on the transition, on the unemployment, on his travels over the summer.

And as we watched Cattie and company, a tall guy in a Western-style suit — made even taller by the cowboy hat he was wearing — walked by. And he stopped and looked at me. He stared hard at me for a second.

“How’re you doin’?” said Mr. Dickerson.

But it wasn’t a “Hey, Fran! How’re you doin’?” version of “How’re you doin?” It was more of the “How’re you doin’, pretty lady?” variety.

“Hi,” I said, not giving anything up. “How are you?”

Yes! I believe that, indeed, was the sound of Deke not figuring me out. My own personal edition of “Stump the Band.”

I knew I’d never be able to fool him again — if anything, I’d be more memorable than ever — so I was reveling in the moment, out loud with Gary and silently to myself. Damn, that was a huge smile I was wearing, now that I think of it …

*****

Deke played two sets that night. On this visit, his second guitarist was Crazy Joe Tritschler. And both had merch tables at the opposite end of the room from the bar.

And in between sets, I walked over to the tables — ostensibly to check out the records and CDs, but really to seek out Deke. I waited in line as the two of them talked to the fans ahead of me. I made small talk with Joe, as Deke, to his left, was deep in conversation with another customer.

“I’ve known Deke since ’89, with The Untamed Youth,” I told Joe, “and you know? This is the first time in all the time I’ve known him that he didn’t recognize me.”

And then his head snapped around. And his eyes grew wide.

HOW ya DOin!”

“Trick or treat!” I grinned. Big smiles and a hug.

“You know, I thought you looked familiar, but I wasn’t sure.”

I guess the voice sounded familiar. (Damn! I may pass well in the everyday world, but the voice is still the weakest part of my game.) Or maybe the 1989 reference was what brought him to attention. I didn’t ask. We didn’t talk for long, as they had to get back on stage. But yep — regardless of whether he had guessed who I was or not, he was great with me. And that’s all that really matters.

*****

The night had even better in store.

Fabi, Cattie Ness’ talented slap-bass mama who also happens to be a styling stunner, lives way down in Orange County, a four-hour drive from Fresno. And when she plays up in the ‘No, a bunch of her girlfriends usually come along as well, then get a room and drive back the next day. And such was the case this particular Saturday night. She introduced me to them: Erika, Alyssa, Jeannette and Megan. And Kris, who was then seeing the drummer, was there as well.

Fabi had seen me as Frannie 2.0 for the first time when they played at Becky’s often-annual birthday show at Audie’s back in May, and she was one of the many girlfriends to take me unconditionally under her wing. Total acceptance — told me how great I looked, got me out on the dance floor. That was huge. And I was getting some dancing time in with the girls during Deke’s show, alternately constantly fiddling with and fixing the straps on my dress as they kept sliding off my shoulders. Being one of the girls was definitely a cool thing. Even if I looked somewhat slutty at times.

The fun I was having would have been more than enough — except that Becky had a little talk with Mr. Dickerson that I didn’t know about until afterward.

You see, he usually tours with another multiinstrumental marvel named Chris Sprague, aka Sugarballs. Chris plays drums with Deke, but he also plays guitar. One of the highlights of their shows is when Deke takes the drums and Chris plays lead; the other is when the two play each others’ guitar necks. These days, Chris also does duty playing skins for Los Straitjackets, and he and Deke have also performed Bobby Fuller’s music of late with half of The Bobby Fuller Four — Bobby’s brother Randy on bass and Dwayne Quirico on drums. (And, as I write this, he’s on tour playing in Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys, and will be coming to New Haven a week from Saturday, May 11, at my venue of choice, Cafe Nine.)

And one of their staple songs is “Dance, Sugarballs, Dance.” It’s their own version of “Dance, Franny, Dance,” a 1964 single by Dallas’ Floyd Dakil Combo that got plenty of mileage in the ’80s garage era when it was included on a Pebbles collection.

Back in the boy days, as it played on my turntable or CD player or one of the multitudes of mixdiscs I churned through in my various cars, I would sing the opening lines — “Well, there’s a good-lookin’ girl down in Dallas way, now … dance, Franny, dance … She’s the life of the party, if you know what I mean, now … Dance, Franny, dance … ” and it hit me that this song was about me. I could very well have been the Franny in the song. Except this Franny was a girl.

And now I really was. Time to let loose.

This particular evening, Chris wasn’t there; hence, Crazy Joe’s presence. But Deke announced the song. With a little twist.

“We usually play this song as ‘Dance, Sugarballs, Dance,'” he said. “But tonight, I want to dedicate this one to an old friend who’s living out here now. This one’s for you, Fran!”

“Dance, Franny, Dance.” For me. Turns out Becky had asked him to play it. And I felt like the prom queen.

And Alyssa and I — and, eventually, Jeannette and Fabi as well — twisted away to Deke doing Dakil. Tweaky left knee and aching feet be damned — this was my moment. I didn’t feel any pain. I felt joy — exhilaration, really. One of those moments when the only people in that crowded room were Deke and his band and me and my girlfriends. I felt like savoring every second of a once-in-a-lifetime moment.

I’ve been fortunate — blessed — to be honored by my favorite groups with acknowledgment and more from the stage. I’ve sung with The Fleshtones and The Reducers, and the last time I saw Black 47 before moving to California, Larry Kirwan brought me on stage to sing “I Fought the Law” with him. I might not have sung with Deke, but this was just as special. In a way, maybe more — it was a debut moment for me, a huge step in the coming-out process. His own way of acknowledging me and my new path and letting me know how cool he was with it.

How’m I doin’, indeed.

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2 Responses to “Musical War Stories: Dance, Franny, Dance, or the only time I’ll ever stump Deke Dickerson”

  1. Deke Dickerson Says:

    Franny! Great piece. Thanks for writing it, and yes, “Dance, Franny, Dance” has a whole new meaning now. See you soon in Fresno!

    • franoramaworld Says:

      Deke! Hey you! I’m glad you enjoyed it. I enjoyed living it. BTW: I moved back home to Connecticut over the summer. When are you kids heading back this way? (Chris is playing with Big Sandy in New Haven May 11 at Cafe Nine — which is a huge step up from Third World International Cafe …)

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