Friday, January 06, 2006

The week before Christmas found me a very reluctant visitor to Kansas City, Missouri, and one night after dinner, I decided to seek out some kind of experience of the city's jazz history. A helpful bartender directed me to the 18th and Vine district, which proved to contain about three very sanitized looking jazz clubs, a jazz museum, and a beautiful art deco theater built in the early 1900s named the Gem. The Gem is shaped like an astronomical observatory festooned in neon, with a flying buttress of a marquee jutting off the facade, the three lighted-sign letters of its name piled one atop the other in a vertical stack. But architectural eye candy aside, the whole area was dead as a doornail on a Wednesday night at 10 pm, a perfect example of the kind of purgatory that is the blasted landscape of the business traveler.

I started heading back to the hotel and noticed that the neighborhood to the west of 18th and Vine looked like an artists' outpost, empty lots filled with large metal sculptures, loft apartments, custom bicycle shops decorated with giant Alexander Calder-like mobiles made of old rims and forks, and a gallery advertising "finger-painted pet portraits." What initially caught my eye was a used car lot containing a couple of Karmann Ghias, an early 50s Cadillac, an old Plymouth, a Nash fastback from the 40s, and sundry other hulks priced to sell with only faded paint and not a lot of rust visible in the bugkiller glare of the sodium lights. The car lot sign advertised a companion shop with 1950s furniture and pop culture memorabilia, and I had to stop for a moment to run my fingers over the body contours of the Cadillac and work up a good mental picture of the rockabilly chick with severe bangs and full sleeves who probably worked at the store. Somewhere down the street a door banged open, and there was a blare of rock and roll for a moment. I decided to follow my ears, and found a pizza and beer joint called Grinders.

Inside Grinders, a bunch of snotty kids were cranking out T. Rex and Beatles covers - a three piece with a lead singer/bassist dressed to the nines in glammy striped trousers and retro t-shirt and more hair than you could shake a stick at. And I do mean stick -- here's the tale. During the set, I watch ensconced at the bar as some character visually reminiscent of Steven Spielberg saunters in. The regulars seem to know him, and he's equipped with jeans, a sensible winter coat, tweed cap, full dark beard and wire-rimmed glasses. He is brandishing a sort of....well, swagger stick, a narrow wooden rod, about 18 inches long and positioned on the inside of the forearm to great dramatic effect, like he's ready to review the troops. The swagger stick is placed on the bar with exaggerated ceremony as he sits down. Before long, a guy who I sense works at Grinders, a skinny character with some minor facial hair and a leather skullcap, sort of a bike gang lieutenant type, has come over to talk to the man with the stick. I can't overhear every word (to my dismay), but he seems to be presenting the man with the stick with a long-handled, wooden scrub brush with a highly polished finish. I glean that this is a found object, which he thinks will provide some utility or joy to or further accessorize the man with the stick(s). The man with the stick accepts the brush, and gives it an appraisal, turning it over and over, smacking the wooden back of the bristled head against an open palm and smiling. He voices his appreciation, and newly outfitted, leaps up to the mike to belt out a deeply disturbing 3rd stanza to a brief, scatological ditty that the band seems to throw out as they are running out of songs to play. It's a surreal ending to some pretty decent music and stage presence, but who can blame them for wanting to keep those two college girls dancing together?